(The final installment covers 21-25 of the ‘best’ things in Deuteronomy.)
21) NOT EVERY ABLE-BODIED MALE IS ALLOWED INTO BATTLE. (Chapter 20)
“When you go out to battle against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you….” (20:1) “Do not let your heart faint, do not be afraid, and do not tremble or be terrified because of them….” (20:3)
Fear is contagious.
One of the oddest aspects about Israel’s armies is that certain people were exempt from conscription.
–A man with a new house that has not been dedicated may stay home (20:5)
–A farmer with a new vineyard from which he has not eaten may stay home (20:6).
–A groom who has not finalized his marriage may stay home (20:7).
–And then, there is this one: “What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his home, lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart” (20:8). If you’re afraid, you may leave.
Later, Gideon was to send the fainthearted home (Judges 7:3). By that one loophole, his army was instantly reduced from 32,000 to a paltry 10,000. Even that was too many, the Lord said. God wanted to do something for which He alone would receive credit. Three hundred? That would be perfect.
Clearly, the Lord God does not form armies like anyone else in the world. Compare this with the New Testament’s constant commands for the disciples of Jesus Christ to be focused and fearless (see Matthew 10:16-42, for starters).
22) WHERE TO DIG YOUR LATRINE (23:12ff.)
“Also, you shall have a place outside your camp where you may go out; and you shall have an implement among your equipment, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and turn and cover your refuse. For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp…. Therefore, your camp shall be holy….”
You have to love the practicality of God’s Word.
Here and in Leviticus 15 and in a few other places, we see God’s attention to the sanitation needs of His people. Here’s why that is interesting….
God had promised Israel that “none of the diseases” which He put on the Egyptians would be on them (see Exodus 15:26 and Deuteronomy 7:15). And nothing breeds disease like poor sanitation. (In the Middle Ages, an era notorious for plagues, people emptied their chamber pots out the window or into the same streams from which they took drinking water. Shallow wells were dug for drinking water, in many cases too near the toilets which drained into them. So, the already-unhealthy people grew sicker and sicker.)
In 1963, S. I. McMillen, a missionary doctor, wrote “None of These Diseases” to show how the Lord’s teachings through Moses were to protect Israel from disease. Even today, he said, by obeying the teachings of the Jewish law, people would be far healthier.
That book went through many publications and is still in print today. McMillen devoted a chapter to the black plague of Europe which decimated such a huge part of the population in the Middle Ages. Every conceivable remedy was tried without success. Finally, someone thought to ask the Church. The priests turned to scripture and saw how God had commanded Israel that on touching a dead body, they were to burn their clothing and quarantine themselves. This, Dr. McMillen wrote, stopped the plague in its tracks.
McMillen wrote of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a European physician who was concerned over the high mortality rate in maternity hospitals. He tells how doctors would arrive in the mornings and perform autopsies on patients who died the previous day, then, without so much as washing their hands, move into the adjoining wards and do pelvic examinations on women patients. On nothing more than a hunch, Semmelweis put a basin of water in the autopsy room and required the physicians to wash their hands. Later, seeing the drop in the deaths, he installed basins of water at the foot of every bed and insisted that the physicians wash after each examination. Two things resulted. One, the death rate almost dropped off the scale, and two, the doctors were so infuriated by the infernal hand-washing that they got Semmelweis fired. Today, the University of Chicago Medical School has a life-sized statue of this brave doctor holding a young mother and baby. Dr. McMillen points out that God had covered all these things in Leviticus 15, literally thousands of years earlier. If people had only read the Word.
The teachings of God’s Law here in the middle of Deuteronomy and throughout Leviticus were, among other things, a sanitation code for Israel.
In Sinclair Lewis’ book “Elmer Gantry,” an apostate minister scoffs about “all the miracles Jesus did, which had such a temporary value.” He asks, “If He was really from Heaven, why didn’t he do something of lasting benefit to mankind like give us a sanitation code?”
That seemed such a logical question to Lewis. I imagine he converted large numbers of gullible readers to his brand of ignorant skepticism. God had already given mankind a sanitation code. If we are too ignorant or too lazy to read it and heed it, that’s our problem. (We wonder how much agnosticism is driven more by laziness than intellect.)
23) SOME MONUMENTS WOULD BE NICE. (27:1-8)
“You shall write very plainly on the stones all the words of this law” (27:8).
The stones were to be set up on Mount Ebal and whitewashed, and “all the words of this law” were to be written on them. (The impermanence of this is interesting, but we have no word on it.)
There were two other monuments of stones worth mentioning here. When Israel crossed the Jordan under Joshua, they were to a) erect a pile of stones on the dry riverbed floor and b) take another 12 stones with them a day’s journey for a permanent memorial. The first, the stones in the river, would be invisible except during times of great drought when the water level dropped law. Then, God’s people would see the stones and remember what the Lord had done for them in the past and be inspired to trust Him for the future.
The second, the pile of stones a day’s journey, would be a visible, constant reminder of God’s faithful leadership. Joshua 4 tells how they were gathered and erected at Gilgal. But almost as an after-thought, Joshua 4:9 tells of the memorial stones in the middle of the river. That was a briliant touch.
We need our memorials. “This do in remembrance of me” can be found on tables in a zillion churches across the world. Our Lord instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper to keep before His people forever His sacrificial death and His supernatural resurrection.
Throughout our land, and I suppose every other land, there are memorials erected to honor brave citizens and soldiers of the past, all with the heading “Lest we forget” or something similar. Alas, that generation dies off and people do forget. Forgetting is what humans do best, to our detriment.
24) YOU’D RATHER BE THE HEAD AND NOT THE TAIL (28:13).
“And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath….”
Here’s a fascinating promise to God’s people. Upon the condition of their obedience to His teachings, not only would Israel be free from all diseases but they would be in the power position in their world. They would be the lender but not the borrower (28:12), the head but not the tail, and on top but not underneath.
Proverbs established that the borrower is a servant to the lender (22:7), a truth for all ages, as we can all bear witness. That book of wisdom repeatedly warns God’s people from co-signing loans (becoming “surety” for them), which if followed could have spared many a good man or woman a great deal of grief.
It’s great to be the head, and awful to be the tail. Apply this to modern culture. God wants His people to be the trend-setters and not, as is more often the case, the copy-cats who ape the customs and language of the world. In our churches we see people dressing like the world, speaking the unholy language of the world, and adopting the world’s standards as their own. Even worse, churches adopt the practices and methodologies of the pagan world.
“Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). A contemporary paraphrase makes that “do not let the world press you into its mold.”
God sends us forth to be trend-setters, not imitators. As leaders, not copy-cats. But so long as we take our orders from the world, this is always going to be backward.
25) JOSHUA, BE STRONG AND OF GOOD COURAGE. I SAID, BE STRONG AND OF GOOD COURAGE. YOU LISTENING, BOY? (31:7,7,8,23)
The silliness of this title is driven by the repetition of the command. Then, in the first chapter of Joshua, the same command to this new leader is issued another four times (1:6,7,9,18).
Clearly, Joshua was not a strong, courageous leader and needed to have a fire built under him. (Or within him.) When we consider that he has just spent the last forty years as understudy to Moses, who was the original “I can do it by myself” leader, it makes sense. In sports terminology, Joshua had sat on the bench for 40 years and now suddenly was being sent into the game.
Take Prince Charles of Britain. As the Prince of Wales, he is the heir-designate of the UK throne. However, as the years come and go, his mother, Elizabeth II, shows no sign of slowing down. Meanwhile, Charles sits in the wings, waiting for the call. Born in 1948, the prince is now 66 and a grandfather. And still, he waits. We can imagine if suddenly he was crowned king, his immediate thoughts would always be, “What would mother do?”
Strong and courageous is a great combination, and a requirement for those whom God will make “the head and not the tail.” The weak do not want to lead, to stand apart from the multitude, to set the pattern. The weak and cowardly want to take polls and find out what the followers want and feed that to them.
God give us pastors and parents and presidents who are strong and courageous.
The wonderful book of Deuteronomy covers another hundred great subjects not touched on here. Anyone deigning to teach it will have to pick and choose what to emphasize and what to dwell on lightly or skip altogether. In a sense, this is what makes it such fun to teach, if we may be allowed to use that word. It covers the gamut of the lives of God’s people. If a pastor wants to preach on stewardship or personal cleanliness or love for one’s neighbor, this is his book. As New Orleans sandwich shops say about their poor-boys, “This one is overstuffed.”