Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Not because of your righteousness...

Deut 9:4  After the LORD your God has driven them (the Gentile nations in Palestine) out before you, do not say to yourself, "The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness." No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.  5  It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  6  Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.

My daily Bible reading plan is taking me through Old Testament readings from Deuteronomy these days.  As it is Lent, the season of preparation for Easter, traditionally a season of penitence, passages tend to focus on the need to repent and turn to God for his unmerited favor.

I was struck in the passage above with the repetition of the phrase “not because of your righteousness”.  The people of Israel about to enter the Promised Land of Canaan were tempted to see themselves as deserving of inheriting the land, because they were righteous in contrast to the unrighteousness of the Gentile nations.  God, however, didn’t see it that way.  In his eyes they were unrighteous, perhaps just as unrighteous as the Gentile nations they were dispossessing. 

It’s relatively easier for us to see the wickedness of the nations they were dispossessing.  The first custom associated with their pagan idolatry that comes to my mind is the practice of offering their children to the god Moloch.  They made a god of metal who was hollow inside and had hands out stretched as if to hold a burden.  Then they put in wood and fuel and started a raging hot fire inside the idol.  Once the temperature was hot enough to burn someone severely, they laid a newborn infant on the outstretched arms of the idol.

The Israelites could be rightly repulsed by this pagan practice of infanticide, especially in such a miserable, horrible way.  However, they were not guiltless of idolatry, which Moses reminds them of.  When he was on the mountain receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the tablets of the Covenant, they forced Aaron to take their golden earrings and bracelets and other objects of gold and melt them down and fashion a golden calf, an idol.  Then they feasted, danced, sang and “rose up to play” (literally my Hebrew dictionary says this term is used “of conjugal caresses”).  So, the Israelites may not have given their children to Moloch, but they did engage in just the same sort of immoral sexual behavior as did the nations they were to dispossess.

So the question arises:  Why was God going to drive out the Gentile nations, who were idolaters, to give it to an undeserving, idolatrous people, the Israelites?

The answer can be found in one word, which I think is my favorite word in Hebrew, chesed, covenant love or loving-kindness or tenderness.  God says to the Israelites:

“It is not because of your righteousness but…, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

God had made repeated promises to the Patriarchs of Israel, not because of their righteousness or accomplishments, but in order to show his great might by choosing them, a despised and small nation.  He made a covenant with them because of his chesed, his covenant love, and he would keep the promises he made to them, even if they were unrighteous.

Despite the fact that they repeatedly failed to live up to their side of the covenant God remained faithful to his side.  As Paul says, “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful. For, he cannot disown himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13)

God’s covenant wasn’t without conditions and consequences, but his covenant love, his chesed, never changes.  The Israelites eventually were dispossessed of the land too, but God’s love still attended them eventually - sending them a savior, the Messiah Jesus.

Eph. 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”

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