The Pursuits of Righteousness and Blessing

And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.
Deuteronomy 28:1-7

Deuteronomy 28 is infamous among students of the Torah for its short list of blessings for obedience to God’s commands and very long list of curses for disobedience–you have to skip ahead to Isaiah 60 to get a fuller picture of the blessings.

A chiasm in Deuteronomy 28:2-7 that highlights the blessings of obedience to God's Law.This chiasm in verses 2-7 caught my eye as I was reading this chapter last week:

  • V2 – You will be overtaken by blessing.
    • V3 – You will be blessed wherever you are.
      • V4-5 – Your labors will be blessed in the fields (agriculture) and cities (manufacturing).
    • V6 – You will be blessed wherever you are going.
  • V7 – Your enemies will be overtaken by curses.

If we are careful to keep all of God’s commandments, then blessing will overtake us, while curses overtake our enemies. We will be blessed whether we work in the fields or in the cities, whether we are going out into the world, or coming home to Israel. Whatever our professions might be, our labors will be rewarded.

I want to tell you three things about this chiasm and about the whole chapter in general.

First, I want to address the apparent imbalance in the amount of text given to blessings and obedience.

The curses aren’t given in more excruciating detail than the blessings because God is all lightning and brimstone with no patience for human foibles. To the contrary, God is extraordinarily longsuffering and generous in his forgiveness. He takes no pleasure in the suffering and death of the wicked, but longs to bless them through their repentance. No, there are other reasons for the lack of detail in the blessings.

True blessing is harder to perceive than curses. Defeat, poverty, disease, and barrenness…those things are easy to see and understand. But blessing is more and more subtle than victory, riches, health, and fruitfulness. Blessing comes also as love, contentment, honor, and purpose. This is one possible reason why the blessings for obedience aren’t enumerated: because they aren’t so easy to name and might look different to each recipient. Every child understands the threat of punishment, but most children will never understand the true value of their parents’ blessings until they are parents themselves.

Second, notice how this chiasm begins and ends: with pursuit and capture.

In the opening, we are overtaken by blessings in our pursuit of righteousness. In the closing, our enemies are overtaken by curses (defeat) in their pursuit of cursing us. This is related to the disparity of text dedicated to blessing and cursing.

Blessings are good things, by definition, and there is nothing at all wrong with wanting to be blessed in every way possible. Good health, profit, wisdom, children… These are all things that we should desire, but they must be kept in proper perspective. Balance can never be achieved by pursuing blessing, only by pursuing righteousness.

The light of God’s Word and Love desires to shine through us into the world, but it can’t do that if we are only focused on ourselves. The ultimate goal of every righteous man must be to become an effective conduit of God’s Light into his community and even the whole world. By every mitzvah–every good deed–that we perform, we show God’s love to one another as well as to him, because as Yeshua pointed out, to love God and to love one’s neighbor are together the cornerstone of the whole Law.

On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 22:40

Through pursuing greater righteousness (not for salvation, but out of love and gratitude toward our Creator and Messiah), we will be overtaken by the blessings of God, while those who pursue rewards for themselves and curses for their enemies will be overtaken by curses themselves.

Third, see where the blessings will come and how: in the city and in the field, in the fruits of agriculture and in the fruits of manufacturing, whether you are coming or going. 

The point is that it doesn’t matter what you do for a living nor where you do it. It doesn’t matter if you are a farmer, builder, teacher, or accountant, whether your work is done on the road or at your kitchen table. What matters is who you are (Israel, both native and grafted in) and how you execute your labors (according to all of God’s commands).

It’s good to get your hands in the dirt, but no one is more righteous for being a farmer rather than a pastry chef. It’s also good to desire and to work for good things, so long as they never supplant God as our ultimate focus. By blessing God and our brothers and sisters, we bless ourselves.

Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.
Matthew 6:33

Blessings come in many guises, but they come to all people who love God and keep his commandments before all else.

On Becoming Great

Deuteronomy 26:19 And to make thee high above all nations which he hath made, in praise, and in name, and in honour; and that thou mayest be an holy people unto the LORD thy God, as he hath spoken.

Yeshua said that anyone who failed to keep Torah and taught others to do likewise would be called the lowest in the Kingdom of Heaven. I have actually seen people argue that, because he also said that the last will be first and the first will be last, then this means that those who teach that the Law has been abolished will in reality be the greatest in Heaven.

Wow. Self-serving rationalization at its finest.

Yeshua did say that the last will be first and the first will be last, but one can clearly see his intended meaning from the context: He who surrenders earthly status in order to serve God will have great status in Heaven. (See Mark 9:33-37.)

Yeshua sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35

Do you want to be great in God’s eyes? To be called great in Heaven? Then be a servant here on earth. How does one serve on earth? By obeying God’s commandments. As Yeshua said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”

These are God’s commandments as expressed in the Torah and the Prophets:

Leviticus 19:17-19 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. (18) Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. (19) Ye shall keep my statutes…

Deuteronomy 6:5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

Matthew 22:35-40 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, (36) Master, which is the great commandment in the law? (37) Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. (38) This is the first and great commandment. (39) And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (40) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

God’s Timing and the Greater Exodus

God’s timing rarely aligns with ours. When God decides it’s time to move, it’s never what we think is the right time. Allow me to explain by way of an example.

God told Abraham that his descendants would live as foreigners for 400 years and that they would be mistreated and enslaved during that time. God promised to punish the nation that mistreated them and to rescue the people. (Genesis 15:16) Certainly the wise men of Israel living in Egypt prior to the Exodus knew of this promise and they probably put on prophecy conferences and published endless pamphlets claiming that “This is the year. Surely this is the year that God will rescue us!”

And the same thing the next year and the year after that. Some bright individual must have thought, “Well, God said ‘in the fourth generation.’ He didn’t mean the fourth from the promise, so maybe it’s the fourth from our enslavement. And how long is a generation, anyway? Forty years? One hundred years? Is it four hundred years from when we were first enslaved, when we entered Egypt, when Joseph was enslaved, when we were enslaved, when God made the promise to Abraham, or when Abraham first came to Egypt? Oy vey!”

Sound familiar? I’ve heard the same kinds of thing about the establishment of modern Israel and the Second Coming for as long as I can remember. Talk of blood moons and Russian tanks in Lebanon will get little more from me than a skeptically raised eyebrow.

We know from Exodus 12:41 that it was precisely 430 years from the day God gave Abraham the promise until the day the promise was fulfilled, but God told him it would be 400 years. If “400 years” was ever meant to be taken literally, then the clock didn’t start ticking until some unspecified date later, and God didn’t tell anyone when that day was. At least it’s not recorded in Scripture. Prophecy is always this way. If it’s from God, then you can count on it being true, but you can’t necessarily count on this or that day. God does this deliberately, I believe to keep us from thinking we can get away with anything we want so long as we straighten up before the deadline. He gives us signs to watch for, but not a specific date.

Stephen told us in Acts 7:17 that, when the time grew near for God to fulfill His promise, the people multiplied, and only then were they enslaved. The Hebrews lived free and prosperous lives in Egypt until after Joseph died. In fact, when God decided it was time to rescue them, they didn’t even need to be rescued. The fulfillment of God’s promise began when he made them to prosper beyond all expectations so that the Egyptians would become jealous and turn against them. By that time, they had probably decided they didn’t need God’s promise after all. Who would want to leave such a great setup? Sometimes God turns the world against us to remind us of who we are or so that we will be able to appreciate the greater things He has in store for us down the road.

When the time was right, the Hebrews multiplied. The Egyptians grew jealous and enslaved them. The Hebrews cried out to God. Then God destroyed the Egyptians and rescued Israel.

There was nothing any of them could do to stop or even slow the inexorable approach of God’s day of redemption. When God decides that He needs to teach the nations a lesson, He will make sure the lesson is delivered and learned. There are no snow days in this school. The Hebrews could not have failed to multiply, the Egyptians could not have set them free ahead of schedule, and they could not have kept them past the due date.

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. -Deuteronomy 26:8

As with everything else that happened to the patriarchs, the Exodus was a prophecy of an even Greater Exodus yet to come. Jeremiah and Isaiah (among others) write of this future Exodus as a time of great suffering followed by great revival and restoration. As a mixed multitude left Egypt and was absorbed into Israel (Exodus 12:38), so will a vast mixed multitude leave the world and be absorbed into Israel in the last days (Isaiah 60:4-9). As Egypt practically begged the Hebrews to leave and to take as much gold and silver as they could carry with them, so will the world send the throngs of returning Israelites, both natural and adopted, back to the Land along with whatever financial, material, and technical resources might be required to accommodate the massive numbers of new Israelites. (Isaiah 60:9-16) Just as Egypt suffered even more for refusing to let the Hebrews go, so will those nations who refuse to cooperate in the Greater Exodus suffer more than others. (Isaiah 60:12)

When will all this happen? I’m sure that nobody alive today knows. We have been told to watch for signs, but the signs are ambiguous. Wars and rumors of wars have been with us since long before Nimrod built his cities. Will it be one generation from the establishment of the modern state of Israel? How should we count a generation? How do we know that this Israel isn’t just another Maccabean revolt destined fade away or to be crushed by the next iteration of the Roman Empire? I don’t know the answer to these questions and I am suspect of anyone who claims they do.

Here is something I do know, however: Our God lives and His promises are sure. He never fails and even if He waits longer than we would prefer, He never forgets.

Here is another thing you can count on: God’s promises concerning the New Covenant and the Greater Exodus were made only to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. (Jeremiah 31:31-32) There is no “church” in that equation. God’s promises were not made to Rome or Babylon or Washington, D.C. If you want to be a party to the New Covenant, then you must become a Hebrew. (Notice that I did not say you must become a Jew!) You must cross over from Egypt to the Wilderness, from then from the Wilderness to the Promised Land.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means acknowledging your personal failure to live up to God’s standards and throwing yourself on His mercy. Ask His forgiveness and commit to keeping His commandments.

Obedience to God’s Law is not required to leave Egypt. Remember that the Law wasn’t given to Israel until three months after they had crossed the Red Sea and arrived at Sinai. But also remember that God still expected them to keep it. Nobody would be cut off from the nation for an occasional lapse, but total rejection of God’s commandments did bring either death or being “cut off from the people.” We don’t obey to be saved from sin (Egypt). We obey because we are grateful for God’s salvation and because we love Him.

I strongly recommend reading all of Jeremiah 31 and Isaiah 56 for some perspective on God’s covenant with Israel and what He requires of gentiles who wish to be made party to it. “Let no foreigner who is bound to Adonai say, ‘Adonai will surely exclude me from His people.’ …And foreigners who bind themselves to Adonai to minister to him, to love the name of Adonai, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—-these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.”

With freedom and citizenship comes responsibility. We are no longer slaves to sin (Egypt), but we have voluntarily made ourselves slaves to our Creator and Messiah Yeshua. If we serve Him faithfully, if we love Him, we will keep His commandments.

The first Exodus was merely a dress rehearsal for the Greater Exodus described in Isaiah 60.

Mount Ebal & the Curse of the Law

Mounts Gerizim and Ebal represent blessings and curses for obeying or disobeying God's Law.In Deuteronomy 27-28, God told Israel to build a monument on Mt. Ebal and carve on it the words of the Law. Then he told half of them to stand there and pronounce curses for disobedience. The other half were to stand on Mt. Gerizim and pronounce blessings for obedience.

An antinomian might say that the Law was written on Ebal because the Law brings a curse. Superficially that sounds good to someone who has avoided studying Torah, but it falls apart when one remembers that the curses are only for disobedience. The blessings that the other half of Israel pronounced from Gerizim are also included in the Law. It is true that the Law brings a curse, but the Law also brings a blessing. God’s Law was not present only on Mt. Ebal. It was there on both mountain tops, but where was it on Mt. Gerizim?

Here’s a hint: It wasn’t carved on stone.

God wrote his Law on stone at Sinai because the hearts of Israel were too hard to accept it, but that’s not where he wants it to remain. He has promised that in the New Covenant, his Law will be written on flesh. (See Jeremiah 31.) To those for whom the Law remains only on stone, whose hearts are too hard to receive it, it is most certainly a curse, but to those who internalize it, who invite God to write it on their hearts, who learn to love it, to them the Law is full of blessings. This is why God told Israel to write the Law on a stone monument on Mt. Ebal: hard hearts and the Law on stone on one hand and the Law written on hearts of flesh on the other.


Update 08/30/2010: In a podcast recorded last year, Grant Luton of Beth Tikkun Messianic Fellowship explained why the altar was built on Mt. Ebal. Yeshua did not come for the hale, but for the sick, for those still under the authority of the Law.