Fox Byte 5775 #44: D’varim (Words)
One wonders whether Lewis Carroll required chemical substances to help him create the absurd worlds of his literature. Readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and audiences of the screen and stage adaptations thereof often conclude that the author – whose real name was Charles Dodgson – must have been on opium or some other sort of mind-altering substance fashionable in Victorian England. If we are to believe the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and other authoritative sources, there is no truth in such allegations. How, then, could a rational man come up with such outrageous fiction, creating characters and situations that defy logic and even sanity? Most likely Carroll would have explained in the same way C.S. Lewis explained how he could create the diabolical correspondence of the demon Screwtape a generation later:
Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.” (C.S. Lewis, 1961. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: MacMillan.)
What Professor Lewis tells us is that all humans have the capacity to imagine evil, and to act upon it once it is imagined. Evil is abnormal; the opposite of good and right and true. If our hearts are inclined toward evil, they are also inclined toward everything else that is contrary to good and right and true – things which are unsuitable, wrong, and illogical. That is why Carroll can depict an absurd criminal trial with such success. The King and Queen of Hearts sit as judges to determine the guilt or innocence of the Knave, who stands accused of having stolen the Queen’s tarts. As judge, the King has trouble getting beyond his instructions to the jury to consider the verdict before any evidence has been given. As witnesses, the Mad Hatter and the Knave say nothing of substance, and throughout the trial no one seems to care that the stolen tarts are there in the courtroom, presumably having been returned by the thief. The trial ends with a mockery of due process of law as the Queen says, “Sentence first—verdict afterwards”, and then pronounces summary judgment on Alice: “Off with her head!”
The sad thing about this trial is that it is not far removed from reality. For much, perhaps most, of history unjust judges have made people’s lives miserable and shorter than they should be. This is true even for judges among the people of God, which is why in promising to restore His nation of Israel, YHVH delivers this glowing promise:
“Then I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning; after that you will be called the city of righteousness, a faithful city.” Zion will be redeemed with justice and her repentant ones with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:26-27 NASB)
It is interesting that Isaiah 1:1-27 is the Haftorah for D’varim (Words, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), the first Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy. The book opens by setting the stage: our ancestors of Israel are on the east side of the Jordan River near the north end of the Dead Sea. It is the eleventh month of the 40th year since the people left Egypt. In less than two months, Moses will be dead and Joshua will be leading the people over the Jordan to begin the conquest of the Promised Land. Moses uses the occasion to present his farewell speech to the nation, and as with any person’s last words, they must be considered the things he believed to be most important. Let us, therefore, pay attention.
In these first three chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses revisits the adventures of Israel since their arrival at Mount Sinai in the first year of the Exodus. After two years of preparation and organization, YHVH directs the people to move out to the Promised Land, only to meet an impassable obstacle eleven days later. At Kadesh-Barnea, the people refuse to go into the Land after 10 of the 12 spies sent to scout the territory come back with bad reports, saying the inhabitants are too big and too powerful for Israel to conquer. It is at that point that this eleven-day journey becomes 38 more years of wandering. Moses summarizes all of it, concluding with the stunning victories over the Amorite kings Sihon and Og in the territories of Bashan and Gilead. With that land secure and in the hands of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh, the people are now poised to resume the conquest of Canaan aborted one generation earlier.
This summary includes the elements of rebellion, judgment, and redemption, which in itself is enough to explain why the sages of Israel chose Isaiah 1 to accompany this Torah portion. Isaiah utters his prophetic words to the people of Judah who will see their kin in the kingdom of Israel carried into exile by the Assyrian Empire. The opening statements of Isaiah 1 address that calamity, and prophesy of a similar judgment to come on Judah and Jerusalem for the same reason. It is instructive to read the entire passage:
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem, which he saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth; for the Lord speaks, “Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have revolted against Me. An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand.” Alas, sinful nation, people weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away from Him. Where will you be stricken again, as you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it, only bruises, welts and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil. Your land is desolate, your cities are burned with fire, your fields—strangers are devouring them in your presence; it is desolation, as overthrown by strangers. The daughter of Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a watchman’s hut in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. Unless the Lord of hosts had left us a few survivors, we would be like Sodom, we would be like Gomorrah. Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; give ear to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah. “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; and I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool. If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken. How the faithful city has become a harlot, she who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your drink diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels and companions of thieves; everyone loves a bribe and chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, nor does the widow’s plea come before them. Therefore the Lord God of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, declares, “Ah, I will be relieved of My adversaries and avenge Myself on My foes. I will also turn My hand against you, and will smelt away your dross as with lye and will remove all your alloy. Then I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning; after that you will be called the city of righteousness, a faithful city.” Zion will be redeemed with justice and her repentant ones with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:1-27 NASB, emphasis added)
Those are harsh words. Who would want to be compared to Sodom and Gomorrah? Those cities received the ultimate judgment: complete destruction by the Lord Himself. And now we have Isaiah comparing the people of Judah and Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah – a comparison that says the people of the Living God are no better than the utterly depraved people whom that same Living God visited with complete destruction. Yet Isaiah is not the only one who compares Israel to those wicked cities. Yeshua, Peter, and Jude all had things to say about Sodom in conjunction with the Land and people of God (Matthew 10:14-15, 11:20-24; 2 Peter 2:4-11; Jude 6-7). Yet the most instructive for our purposes is Ezekiel, who in comparing Jerusalem to Sodom explains what Sodom did wrong:
“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “Sodom, your sister and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it. (Ezekiel 16:48-50 NASB)
Wait a minute. Where in that indictment does Ezekiel say anything about sexual immorality? Where is the word of judgment on homosexual lust? Is that not the reason for Sodom’s destruction according to the account of Sodom’s in Genesis 19?
Indeed those sins did have something to do with it, but the terrible truth is that they were merely symptoms of a much deeper sin sickness. The people of Sodom had turned inward, considering themselves superior to people from other cities, and even superior to God Himself. Rather than rejoice in the blessings God had showered on their civilization, they chose to regard those blessings as the result of their own greatness. Such arrogance led them to escalating extremes of self-celebration until, in time, no one deemed unacceptable by the standards the Sodomites established would be welcomed, or would even receive polite treatment. That, of course, included the poor and needy. If they were in need, then obviously they were inferior to the Sodomites. Rather than lifting them up, the people of that land chose to tread the poor down even further. It was a gross miscarriage of justice which had swelled to unimaginable proportions over the years. We have a glimpse of it from the book of Jasher, one of the books of the Apocrypha:
And when a poor man came to their land they would give him silver and gold, and cause a proclamation in the whole city not to give him a morsel of bread to eat, and if the stranger should remain there some days, and die from hunger, not having been able to obtain a morsel of bread, then at his death all the people of the city would come and take their silver and gold which they had given to him. And those that could recognize the silver or gold which they had given him took it back, and at his death they also stripped him of his garments, and they would fight about them, and he that prevailed over his neighbor took them. They would after that carry him and bury him under some of the shrubs in the deserts; so they did all the days to any one that came to them and died in their land. (Book of Jasher 19:8-10)
Jasher goes on to tell of the injustices Abraham’s servant Eliezer suffered when a judge made him liable for an injury he had incurred at the hands of a citizen of Sodom. Truly the Sodomites had not only removed themselves from God’s standard of righteousness, but they had established their own standards which they changed at a moment’s notice whenever it suited their purposes. That is what happens when a people calls evil good and good evil, removing the foundation of righteousness established by the Lord. In one last effort at bringing them back, YHVH permitted Abraham’s nephew Lot to settle there and provide an example of righteousness for the city. Sadly, his example went unheeded, leaving the Lord to say to Abraham:
And the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.” (Genesis 18:20-21 NASB)
All of which is very important, and indeed a lesson for us in this very hour, but what could it possibly have to do with our Israelite ancestors having to stretch an eleven-day journey into 38 years? The answer comes in the first words out of Moses’ mouth:
“The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and set your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites, and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, in the hill country and in the lowland and in the Negev and by the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. See, I have placed the land before you; go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to them and their descendants after them.’ I spoke to you at that time, saying, ‘I am not able to bear the burden of you alone. The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day like the stars of heaven in number. May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand-fold more than you are and bless you, just as He has promised you! How can I alone bear the load and burden of you and your strife? Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ You answered me and said, ‘The thing which you have said to do is good.’ So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you, leaders of thousands and of hundreds, of fifties and of tens, and officers for your tribes. Then I charged your judges at that time, saying, ‘Hear the cases between your fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him. You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God’s. The case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.” (Deuteronomy 1:6-18 NASB, emphasis added)
Moses is referring to the counsel he received from his father-in-law Jethro, as recorded in Exodus 18:17-27. Apparently the men chosen as judges over the people were qualified for the position. Since this happened soon after the nation’s arrival at Sinai, the newly appointed judges had well over a year to learn their duties as Moses taught them, and to gain practical experience. One would suppose that they would therefore have led the way in keeping YHVH’s righteous standards. Certainly they should be the first to believe the promises of the Lord and to understand the reasoning behind those promises. Not only had YHVH pledged Himself to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but He had specifically indicated that the gift of the land would be part of the judgment placed on the Amorite civilization (Genesis 15:12-16). Sodom and Gomorrah were part of that civilization; their destruction in the days of Abraham was a prophetic warning to the rest of the Amorite city-states, and God gave them four centuries of grace to repent. With the Exodus of God’s people, that time of grace had expired, and judgment was about to be unleashed – provided, of course, that God’s instruments of judgment cooperated.
And that was the problem. The people doubted the promises of God, apparently not understanding their role in His plans. Like the Sodomites, they were looking for a pleasant place where they could live in peace and plenty and indulge themselves. That was their motivation for getting to the Promised Land. Perhaps it had never occurred to them that their pleasant situation in the Promised Land would be for the purposes of showing forth YHVH’s glory, mercy, grace, justice, righteousness, and goodness to the entire world. Yet how could they consider such a thing when apparently their judges had become corrupt soon after taking office?
That, sadly, is the conclusion we must reach from the events that transpired eleven days after the people left Sinai. When the people decided to send spies into the Land, they told God that they had no regard for His leadership and guidance, preferring instead to see for themselves. When the spies returned with glowing reports of the richness of the land, they lusted after it, until the spies said that the Amorites and others living there were large and strong. No one thought to recall the words of the Lord that He was going to drive out the inhabitants, regardless of their size, numbers, and strength. No one, that is, except Caleb of Judah and Joshua of Ephraim. They truly were of a different spirit; they knew that God had a greater purpose for Israel than living happily ever after and growing fat. They wanted to see the poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the strangers among them cared for properly, and they knew that it could only happen if the people were settled in peace and living in righteousness. And yet they were alone in that opinion. Everyone else, having done the best they could to enrich themselves at God’s expense, decided that it would be better to turn around and find an easier country to conquer, or maybe even go back to Egypt.
How can we know this for sure? Perhaps we cannot, but we can draw conclusions from the Scripture record and from 6,000 years of human experience. The leaders of a society generally reflect the nature of the people within that society. This is particularly true of societies in which the members choose the leaders. Whether it is a club, a tribe, a business, or a nation, when the leadership comes from within, it reflects the character and priorities of the members. We can surmise, therefore, that the judges chosen by the tribes of Israel were qualified in many ways, but they were could not make the cognitive leap from depending on Pharaoh’s largesse to walking by the Spirit of the Living God. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam could model the righteousness and holiness of God in front of these leaders and the entire congregation of Israel, but they could not bring about a change of heart in that generation. Thus, when the ultimate test arrived, the people trusted their eyes and their corrupt hearts rather than the evidence of God’s faithfulness manifested daily in the form of the Cloud and the manna.
And a generation died in the wilderness.
And the wickedness of the Amorites, including child sacrifice and every imaginable atrocity, continued unabated.
And God’s redemption was put on hold.
All this because our fathers refused to see things God’s way. How, then, are we different? Let us pray for our judges to be restored as at first, when righteous Abraham believed God and walked in His ways (Genesis 26:4-5).