The Bible is full of verses to inspire and challenge, but some leave me shaking my head. I can see the complete arc of humanity’s story spread over the course of Genesis to Revelation, but one of the subjects that always causes me to wrestle is those that revolve around “the fear of the Lord,” especially as the Israelites march into the Promised Land by force.
It’s basically a case of two assimilations: the first is the entrenched cultural one that rejects the LORD and chooses evil (among its many obvious problems: child sacrifice) and the second, that of the benevolence of God who has a chosen people but chooses to create safe space for those others have rejected, namely, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. So, let’s be clear: there’s a healthy awe to be had of a being with the ‘juice’ to generate solar systems, people, and all forms of life itself. But how does that relate to what we read in the Bible, specifically the Old Testament about the Israelites and the messages from God that they receive via Moses?
Deuteronomy is ripe with the ways those things jive, or don’t. We see the way that the Moses is providing a warning over and over not to “forget the LORD your God” – or at least to “remember” God (Deuteronomy 8 is full of this). Serious repercussions are laid out if they don’t (28:15-66)! Moses says that the people should remember they’re “stiff-necked” – that it’s not their own righteousness that is getting them credit here (9:8; 9:13), that even their leaders (Aaron) let them down with disobeying God (9:18-21). Nowhere in here does Moses say they should see their victories over their enemies as a result of their own doing.
But the goodness they do receive, the blessings of God, do demand something of them: “to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good” (10:12-13). While the list is all-inclusive, it’s not exactly elaborate. If we want to show a proper fear of the LORD, we still don’t necessarily know exactly what we’re doing.
So Moses will elaborate. He’ll point out that the LORD “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (10:18), encouraging the Israelites to love those who are foreigners among them as they were also foreigners.
Now, a few verses later, Moses instructs and predicts in regards to the annihilation of people and places that the Israelites will come upon in their invasion: “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains…Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, and burn their Asherah poles in the fir; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places” (12:2-3). He tells them to leave idol-worshipping towns in ruin forever (13:16-17). Moses tells the people to not get “ensnared” by curiosity over these gods (12:30).
The fear of the LORD burns against the impurity of the blending of religious seduction and God’s people more than anything else! In the midst of eradicating the religious fervor of the native peoples who have by association sinned against the LORD, God is also providing a place for hospitality among the Israelites just as long as they don’t get sucked into the culture of evil.
Moses has already told the people of Israel that they are not redeemable under the own right: “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors” (Deut. 7:7). But they have the olive branch or the reminder of the imago dei extended to them most directly in the Old Testament as long as they will follow God’s call.
While the external critique of the Old Testament wrestles with the perceived dichotomy between it and the New Testament, I’m growing more and more comfortable with the way they work together even when they seem disparate. Just as soon as Moses is done setting out the problems the people will reap when they fail to follow, he also points out all of the good that can happen when the Israelite society rejects the way of Egypt and its surrounding communities:
-the foreigners, followers, and widows will be cared for (14:29);
-debts will be cancelled every seven years (15:1-11);
-servants will work off their debt and become freemen (15:12-18);
-the justice system will fight corruption (16:18-20; 19:15-20);
-cities of refuge will be formed (19:1-7).
The violence of not living in fear of the LORD is obvious – and it shows how ultimately we will all fail it. We’ll be subjected to the “curse” (Deut. 28:45-48)… which just shows even more fully the power of the cross and the beauty of Easter morning.
No matter how you slice it, we are easily distracted – we do let ourselves become assimilated by the society around us. And still God looks at us with love, recognizing Jesus’ purity as ours. It’s almost too much to consider and wrestle with, but at the end of the day, we are reminded one more time: we’re saved by grace, not by works.