Preparing Israel to act as His agents

Have you ever been told that the “Old Testament” God was characterized by anger, jealousy, and pettiness? "Many Christians," admits Tremper Longman, III, professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, “will confess that they struggle with what looks like a primitive and barbaric ethic.” But isn't God unchanging? Why are so many people more comfortable with Jesus than with the God revealed in the Old Testament?

The books of Moses portray God judging His people frequently. He also operated through them to judge their enemies. At times, He even acted in judgment of the entire world. Here are a few examples:

  • After their sin, God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden, cursed them and the earth, and forbade them to return. (Genesis 3)
  • After the first murder, God banished and marked Cain as a warning to others. (Genesis 4)
  • Because of continual wickedness and corruption, God killed everyone alive on earth, except for eight people, in a worldwide flood (Genesis 6:9-9:17)
  • To thwart the world’s apparent works-oriented attempt to reach heaven, God confused languages at Babel. (Genesis 11:1-9)
  • For their unnatural and violent immorality, as well as their pride and lack of charity, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:17-19:29; Jude 7; Ezekiel 16:49-50)
  • To liberate His people from slavery and to purify them of idolatry, God ruined Egypt. (Exodus 3-15)
  • To assert His unrivaled glory and reveal His nature to Israel, God gave the Law at Sinai, then plagued the people who had already broken it. (Exodus 19-32)
  • To ensure that He would be continually regarded as holy by those responsible for approaching Him on behalf of His people, God directly killed the priests Nadab and Abihu. (Leviticus 10:1-11)
  • The remainder of the Pentateuch is full of detailed accounts of His judicial intervention, such as:
  • the execution of a blasphemer, (Leviticus 24:10-16)
  • raining fire upon complainers and a plague on those who ate the flock of quail, (Numbers 11:1-2; 31-35)
  • cursing Miriam with leprosy, (Numbers 12)
  • the death of the spies who brought the bad report and judgment that the fearful generation will not enter Canaan, (Numbers 13:1-14:38)
  • the execution of the Sabbath-breaker, (Numbers 15:32-36)
  • the earthquake which swallowed up Korah, Dathan and Abiram, the fire that consumed the 250, and the plague that killed 14,700, (Numbers 16)
  • Israel’s destruction of Hormah at God’s direction, (Numbers 21:1-3)
  • the fiery serpents sent to bite the complainers, (Numbers 21:4-9), and
  • Israel’s destruction of Bashan at God’s direction. (Numbers 21:31-35)

In Deuteronomy 4, God declares to the Israelites that:

  1. His Laws, His statutes, His rules are peerless and would be recognized by those who are discerning among the surrounding peoples. God’s laws, if followed, then, become a testimony to them about who the true and living God is.
  2. In addition, God’s presence and blessing on the Israelite people accompanying them as they obey Him would be a powerful witness to the truth about HIm. This is because He was, in effect, their King. (1 Samuel 8:7)
  3. With all the public argument about the 10 Commandments, it’s easy for people to fail to grasp that God’s Law is the basis for the morals, ethics and laws of most of our societies.
  4. We’re indebted to them in such incalculable ways that we fail to notice it like we fail to notice the air we breathe. We are the beneficiaries of generations of others who have benefited from God’s revelation of His own character in the form of His Laws, His statutes and His rules, as well as the blessings accompanying obeying them.

With the backdrop of the entire Old Testament, a case-study of the book of Exodus is a helpful lesson in why God acts as He does in judgment.

  1. What are some of the things that happened in Egypt ultimately leading to the Exodus of Israel from their slavery?
    1. God’s Judgment on the Egyptians
    2. Specifically the death of the firstborn
    3. Moses’ miracles
    4. Moses’ encounter with God
    5. The Enslavement of Israel
    6. The Egyptians “gendercide” of the male babies
      These story details help establish why the destruction of Egypt is a good model for God's future acts upon and through the people of Israel:
      1. We're more familiar with the story of the Egyptians as cruel slaveowners.
      2. Pharaoh in particular is a non-sympathetic ruler, with proud disdain for the suffering of his own people as well as that of the Israelites.
      3. It was God’s direct action, rather than His recruitment of human beings in violent acts against others.
  2. What was the specific reason for all those plagues? There’s textual evidence that God’s judgment on Egypt was measured, incremental and was judgment-in-kind. In addition, it was revelatory toward them. It was meant to show them that He is God and their various pagan deities were not. Here’s a partial list that’s been proposed to connect the judgments with the gods of Egypt:
    1. Plague 1: River to Blood: the Nile River was sacred to their god Osiris and key to the fertility of the land.
    2. Plague 2: Frogs from the Nile: Heqet was a frog-headed goddess, and for her sake, the Egyptians regarded frogs as sacred. They would not harm them.
    3. Plague 3: Lice from the earth: the Egyptian god of the Earth was named Geb. Lice were thought to be made of the dust of the earth.
    4. Plague 4: Swarms. We usually think of this plague as a plague of flies, but it’s actually an indeterminate “swarm” some have connected with the sacred scarab.
    5. Plague 5: Cattle. One of the most important deities of ancient Egypt, and possibly the inspiration for the golden calf itself, was the Apis bull.
    6. Plague 9: Darkness. The sun was known as Ra, the chief god worshiped by the Egyptians.
    7. Finally the death of the firstborn was both God’s assertion of His ownership of the firstborn of both man and beast (Exodus 13:2) and His judgment against the king they worshiped by killing his heir. This was also a fitting judgment for their gendercide against the male Hebrew babies.
  3. What's the difference between “thou shalt not kill” and “you shall not murder?” There's a lot of death in these judgments, but there's a huge difference between a murder and a justified execution. Several offenses in the Old Testament Law required capital punishment, including bearing false witness against a defendant in a capital trial.
  4. When it comes to carrying out the death penalty, obviously there was no button to push or lethal injection to administer. The way murderers were executed was by stoning. The witnesses had to be first, but it was the responsibility of the entire assembly to carry out the sentence.
  5. Obviously, Israel was enslaved and powerless against the Egyptians, so in the Exodus God personally executed His judgment. But even here, He had put Moses and Aaron in place as His agents in appealing to Pharaoh to let His people go. The Hebrew people had the responsibility of acting as God's agents in the legal process. There was a purpose to this—they learned to fear God (and fear sin), as Deuteronomy 19:13 and 19:19 say, in parallel passages about the murderer and the false witness.

This policy of connecting the responsibility to investigate charges, produce witnesses, hold witnesses accountable and carry out judgment to God’s own character and authority is the case God makes in Deuteronomy 4. They are to be careful to be precise with God’s words: not to add to them or diminish them in any way. (4:2) This concept of the people as God’s agents makes His directions in the actions against the Canaanites far more than savage conquest. They are to take a lesson from what their enemies did to them in enticing them to engage in idolatrous prostitution practices and how God judged those who did so, right along with the enemy combatants. (4:3; Numbers 25:1-9)

In short, as Israel’s Judge, King and Lawgiver, (Isaiah 33:22), God was training His people to avoid idolatry (Deuteronomy 4:1-40), regard Him as holy (Leviticus 10:3) and stay off the path that leads to death (Proverbs 14:12). He demonstrated HIs foreknowledge of their downfall in Deuteronomy 28, and warned them ahead of time. (See Isaiah 45:21-23) In making them the agents of His foreknown (Genesis 15) judgment on the inhabitants of Canaan, God was carrying out His righteous judgment, engaging them in that process, and warning them against falling into the same kind of judgment. There was nothing immoral, out-of-control or petty about it; and to assume there was is a serious over-estimation of our own moral sensibilities in the face of such complicated issues as just warfare, slavery, child-sacrifice and idolatry.