When General Lew Wallace published Ben Hur in 1880, he had no idea that his tale of a wrongfully condemned Jewish prince would have such an impact on modern audiences. It is a tale of redemption, being the product of Wallace’s own investigation into the validity of the Christian faith. The epic scale of the story lends itself to the big screen, but Hollywood’s first effort at bringing Wallace’s characters to life in 1925 fell short of the mark. It took another generation of filmmakers, capitalizing on improved technology and cinematic techniques, to do justice to the tale. The result was William Wyler’s 1959 production of Ben Hur, a film that surpassed the achievements of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, released just three years previously. Wyler and DeMille both worked with the same leading man: Charlton Heston, a handsome actor known for his portrayals of tough men of action. Heston’s depiction of Moses remains the standard for cinematic portrayals of Israel’s Lawgiver, but it was his role as Judah Ben Hur which won him an Oscar as Best Actor.
The story follows Judah in his quest for revenge after his family is unjustly accused and sentenced for allegedly attempting to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. His mother and sister are taken to prison, but Judah is condemned to a hellish existence rowing the galleys of Rome’s navy. After three years his ship receives a new commander, Consul Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins), who leads the fleet against pirates who have menaced the sea lanes. On inspecting the rowers, Arrius takes notice of Judah as a man full of hate, but able to control it, a trait the Consul finds useful. Upon concluding his inspection Arrius offers this advice:
Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.
Judah finds opportunity to do more than that. In battle his ship is rammed and sinks, but he is able to escape and save the life of Consul Arrius. Later they learn the Roman fleet has won the day and Arrius is a hero. He returns to Rome, bringing Judah with him in hope of repaying the debt of his life. Judah becomes a famous chariot racer, trusted with some of his master’s most prized possessions. In time, Arrius rewards Judah with the greatest gift he can bestow: adoption as his son and heir.
Eventually Judah returns home, finds his mother and sister, and avenges the wrong done to his house. Yet it is not until he encounters Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth that he finds true peace. Lew Wallace’s story is, after all, a tale of the Christ, and would be incomplete without the redemption the Messiah offers. The roots of the story, however, go back to the time of Moses, when he spoke these words to the people of Israel:
The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19 NASB)
This declaration is one of four that appear in Ki Tavo (When You Enter In, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:9). It is the only one YHVH utters; the other three are declarations the people make. One of those declarations took place long before, at the foot of Sinai, when the previous generation of Israelites agreed to do all the commands the Lord had spoken (Exodus 24:3-7). The fact that this declaration occurred four decades earlier seems to matter little to Moses. He considers it to have happened in the present tense, as he explains at the beginning of Deuteronomy:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today. (Deuteronomy 5:2-3 NASB)
This is peculiar. Surely many of those people standing on the edge of the Promised Land had not even been born when YHVH appeared to their parents at Sinai, yet Moses says they are party to the Covenant. How can this be?
The reason we humans have difficulty grasping this is because we are bound within the constraints of linear time. YHVH, Creator and Ruler of the universe, is not so constrained. He made time. He moves within it as surely as He moves within and among us. That is how a thousand years are to Him as a single day (Psalm 90:4; II Peter 3:8). That is also why all the godly people of ages past eagerly await the culmination of God’s plans in the latter days, knowing that the efforts of all generations reach completion only with the last generation (Hebrews 11:39-40). We are all bound together in time, with the acts of the fathers impacting the acts of the children, and the children’s deeds reflecting back on the fathers. Individual choices do matter, for the righteous and the wicked stand or fall on their own merits (Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 14:12-20, 18:20). Yet somehow these individual choices are linked through the ages, weaving the legacies and futures of entire nations and of the world itself. This is particularly important regarding the Nation of Israel, for the entire drama of history is wrapped up in the fate of God’s chosen people.
This is why the initial declaration of the people who left Egypt in the Exodus is so important. It is still binding on all who are identified with the nation of Israel to this day. There is redemption in no other nation, for none other were included in a Covenant with the Living God. For that reason, when the Lord offers salvation through Messiah’s redemptive work in suffering the death penalty for our rebellion against Him, He promises that those who accept this offer become part of Israel and the seed (or descendants) of Abraham (Isaiah 56:4-8; Romans 11:11-29; Ephesians 2:11-17; Galatians 3:26-29). That is why Moses can say with confidence to that generation standing on the bank of the Jordan, four decades removed from Sinai:
You have today declared the Lord to be your God, and that you would walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and listen to His voice. (Deuteronomy 26:17 NASB)
Having established the fact that the people of Israel are Covenant partners with the Living God, Moses explains the two declarations they are to make (and, presumably, continue making) once they are settled in the Land. Every third year, when presenting the required tithe for the support of the Levites, strangers, widows, and orphans, the people are to declare that they have given the entire tithe, having kept nothing back (Deuteronomy 26:12-15). Before that, however, they are to make this declaration:
Then it shall be, when you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and live in it, that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground which you bring in from your land that the Lord your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, “I declare this day to the Lord my God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.” Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. You shall answer and say before the Lord your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Now behold, I have brought the first of the produce of the ground which You, O Lord have given me.” And you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God; and you and the Levite and the alien who is among you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:1-11 NASB, emphasis added)
This declaration also hearkens back to something that occurred many decades previously. Remember what happened at Sinai when the Lord called Moses to be the deliverer of the people. When Moses asked YHVH for confirmation that he was the right man for the job, he received a peculiar answer:
And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12 NASB)
Notice that this sign required action on the part of Moses and the people. If they believed in the Lord God, and if they trusted Him to fulfill His promises to the Patriarchs, then they would see the fulfillment of those promises when they worshipped Him at that very mountain. Their worship would be verification of their faith and magnification of His holy Name. So, too, the declarations of their descendants in bringing the firstfruits of the Land to the Lord’s priests would demonstrate their faith in Him and magnify His Name to future generations and to all the nations of the earth. The declarations, like the worship at Sinai, would be signs that the Lord is with His people, and that He has chosen them for His redemptive purposes.
But it does not end there. The declaration states the history of the people, beginning with their Patriarch, a rootless Aramean (or Syrian in some translations) whose descendants became condemned to slavery in a foreign land. It testifies to the power of the Living God in keeping them alive while in bondage and in making the way for them to escape. Then it glorifies the One Who brought them at last into the fruitful Land He had promised. This declaration charts quite a journey – from peril and poverty and oppression to security, wealth, and peace.
If we were to end the story there, then we would make the same mistake as that wealthy farmer in Yeshua’s parable whose fields produced such a bountiful crop that he decided to retire and live an easy life (Luke 12:16-21). God did not go to all the trouble of creating, redeeming, and maturing His people so that we could live comfortably for all eternity. That is why Yeshua ended His parable with this warning:
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:20-21 NASB)
How do we become rich toward God? By learning His ways and living our lives accordingly. That is the lesson of Torah. There are consequences to our life choices, amounting quite simply to blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience. This is not a question of earning salvation; that comes only through faith. As our ancestors were taught, the very fact that they worshipped YHVH at Sinai and that they were to make declarations of His faithfulness with their firstfruits in the Land demonstrated the results of God’s grace and their faith in His promises.
We may be certain that the promises of God are secure, but what is not so certain is our human ability to grasp and retain those promises. That, after all, was the problem with the previous iterations of YHVH’s holy Covenants with the Patriarchs and their descendants, and why He had to renew that Covenant with the Blood of His Messiah and seal it with His Holy Spirit. Under that New, or Renewed, Covenant we now have new hearts able to receive His Law and live by it (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-12; Ezekiel 36:26-27). Yet even this appears to be conditional, at least as far as the rewards of faithfulness to the Covenant’s terms. And thus we arrive at the hardest part of Ki Tavo: the Curses and the Blessings.
After explaining the declarations, Moses instructs the people that when they have completed the conquest of Canaan, they must assemble at the two mountains on either side of the city of Shechem. Half of the nation are to stand before the Mount Gerizim, the Mount of Cursing, and explain what qualifies as an offense meriting a curse (Deuteronomy 27:15-26). Most of these twelve curse-causing offenses are no surprise. They include making an idol and setting it up in secret; dishonoring parents; moving a neighbor’s boundary mark; misleading a blind person; distorting justice for the alien, orphan, and widow; reprehensible sexual acts; striking a neighbor in secret; and taking a bribe to strike down an innocent person. Any of these offenses might disqualify a person from partaking in the Covenant with our Holy God, and the decent person would, of course, avoid them to the best of his or her ability. But then we arrive at the last item on the list:
“Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27:26 NASB)
We may be able to avoid the first eleven, but that last one will catch every one of us. We are to confirm the Law of God by doing it. Our actions speak louder than our words, with our obedience (or lack thereof) indicating the priorities in our heart. This is not a pick-and-choose proposition. The Law of God is not severable; it hangs together as a complete unit. That is why Yeshua’s brother, the Apostle James, asserts that one who stumbles in a single point of the Law is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:8-13). In this he was following the teaching of Yeshua Himself that the entire Law remains in effect, and that whoever breaks the least part of it will be considered least in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:17-19). This is why we need a Redeemer; all of us have stumbled in some way, and all have come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:21-26; II Peter 1:10-11; Jude 24-25). By accepting that redemption, we, like our Israelite ancestors, agree to live according to His requirements. In other words, we agree not to practice iniquity, or lawlessness. That is what happens when we reject His standards of righteousness, and that is what brings these frightful words of Yeshua:
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21-23 NASB)
Moses set this same warning before our ancestors, but they chose not to heed it. Perhaps they preferred to emphasize the blessings which the other half of the nation were to pronounce in front of Mount Gerizim, the Mount of Blessing (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). These are the nice things we all like to think about: promises of many children, abundance, victory over our enemies, and other things that make life pleasant. In some circles these are taught as the Blessings of Abraham. That is correct for these are the blessings that accrue to the descendants of Abraham, and by coming into the Covenant the followers of Messiah Yeshua become partakers of those blessings. What is often overlooked, however, is that these blessings are contingent upon our obedience. In other words, as members of this Covenant we not only acquire the benefits, but we are obligated to fulfill certain responsibilities. If we do not, then we suffer the consequences.
The sad thing is that God’s people today do no different than His people long, long ago. We seem to disregard the fact that He lists the blessings of obedience in only 14 verses, but then lists consequences for disobedience in the remaining 54 verses of the chapter (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). These are very unpleasant things, amounting not only to ill-health, poverty, defeat in war, and exile, but extreme consequences such as resorting to cannibalism due to the privations of our wretched existence. Have these things happened? Yes; the record of Scripture and the sordid tale of history inform us that these curses continue to pursue the people of God because of our disobedience.
Disobedience, of course, is not the only reason bad things happen to good people. Sometimes adversity is the result of enemy action – meaning Satan, the enemy of our souls. Sometimes the bad things happen because YHVH is testing and maturing us for greater roles in His Kingdom. Whatever the reason, our first resort is not to complain or cast blame, but to seek His Face and ask the cause of the problem. If there is sin in us as the result of disobedience, then we ask forgiveness, repent of the wrongdoing, and seek to live rightly as His Holy Spirit enables us. If the cause is enemy action, or God’s testing, then we respond as the Scripture teaches us, but always in faith that our King will accomplish His purposes. In each case our goal is to overcome, just as Yeshua Himself explained through the Apostle John in His letters to the assemblies (churches) of Asia Minor. Notice what happens when we do so:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7 NASB)
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:11 NASB)
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it. (Revelation 2:17 NASB)
Nevertheless what you have, hold fast until I come. He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 2:25-29 NASB)
He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:5-6 NASB)
Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:10-13 NASB)
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:19-22 NASB)
This is the goal of Torah, to point us toward this state of overcoming the world, the devil, and our own sin (Romans 10:1-4; Galatians 3:19-29). We cannot do it in our own strength, as our ancestors have so thoroughly taught us. We can only do it in the grace of our King, by the redemptive gift of His Messiah, and by the outpouring of His Holy Spirit to make His Word come alive in our hearts. When we have done so, then we will testify to His faithfulness, having moved from the status of condemned rebels to sons and daughters of the Living God.
And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:5-8 NASB, emphasis added)
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3 NASB)