Bear Fruit in Keeping with Repentance

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance...Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Matthew 3:8-10

But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God.
Deuteronomy 20:16-18

When Israel made war with the nations that lived in the Promised Land, God commanded them to give no quarter. If those people fled before the army of Israel arrived, there was no need to pursue, but if they remained to fight, then every man, woman, child, and beast was to be killed.

That sounds extraordinarily harsh, but we must remember two things about God’s relationship to mankind:

First, God owns every one of us. He designed us, he created us, and he judges us. He is entirely within his rights to destroy us or rescue us by any means he chooses. Remember that you are the Ranger, not the Ford Motor Company. What right does a created thing have to demand anything from its creator?

Second, God knows our hearts better than we do. He knows what we have done and what we desire to do. The people of Canaan had engaged in such abominable religious practices that not even the most innocent babies among them had escaped guilt. Personally, I can’t even imagine what that looks like, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to either, but God said it many times, so we can be assured that it is true.

But what about Rahab? She was one of those people that were to be devoted to complete destruction, but she was spared and even became an ancestor of Messiah Yeshua. How can we reconcile these two seemingly incompatible facts?

Immediately after the passage quoted above, Moses related God’s instructions concerning trees that might surround a city which Israel has besieged. Although it looks like an afterthought tacked onto the rules of war, there’s a reason it’s placed where it is.

When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.
Deuteronomy 20:19-20

Okay, but what does that have to do with Rahab? As the passage says, “Are the trees human, that you should besiege them?”

No, they aren’t. In fact, trees can’t in themselves be righteous or sinful, clean or unclean. This is one reason the rabbis give for why sukkot should be built of branches, and not hides.

On the other hand, Scripture often uses trees as a metaphor for people. The righteous are upright trees. Powerful men are cedars or oaks. Weak men are small trees or shrubs living in their shadows. Israel is an olive tree. Gentile believers are wild olive branches grafted into the tree of Israel.

Consider especially the parables Yeshua told about trees.

Speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, Yeshua said,

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance…Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew 3:8-10

Speaking of false prophets, he said,

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Matthew 7:15-20

When he encountered a fig tree that bore no fruit, he cursed it, and it died:

And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
Mattthew 21:19

There are other examples, and in every one of them, the point Yeshua was trying to make was never about trees or edible fruit, but about people. Those who produce no good fruit for the kingdom were never part of the kingdom in the first place and will be cursed, cut down, and burned. Those that produce good fruit will be spared and tended so that they will bear yet more fruit.

This is the truth of Rahab that is hinted at in Deuteronomy 20:16-20: Even among the pagan Canaanites there can be found a few good trees baring good fruit. Rahab was just such a tree. When she saw the Hebrews coming, she recognized the power that was with them, the great Deliverer of Israel who destroyed all their enemies before them. She declared herself for Adonai and Israel and against Canaan, and she immediately began to bear good fruit by protecting the two spies who hid on her rooftop.

If, in the course of marching across Canaan and driving out the Hittites, Perizites, et al, the Israelites should encounter a rare good tree, baring good fruit, in a forest of the spiritually dead, God said they *must* spare that tree and make it one of their own.

Rahab and the good trees of the besieged cities of the Promised Land are you and me, the believing gentiles, who hear the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven encroaching on the Kingdom of Death, and who repent, declaring our allegiance to the King of Israel.

If we repent of our sins, submit to the One who conquered death, and commit to obeying his law, we are the good trees who are spared and the wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated tree of Israel. No longer gentiles at all, but joint heirs with Yeshua, as Paul said, with one God, one King, one Nation, and one Law.

So You Shall Purge the Evil from Your Midst

Torah says we are to purge the evil from our midst. The words of Jesus and Paul tell us how to do that.

You cannot get a complete picture of God’s prescribed justice system by reading any single passage of the Torah. Rules for how to handle a particular sort of crime are in one place. Rules for handling a kind of investigation are in another. Guidelines for reporting and investigating allegations of idolatry are in yet another place.

I think this is by design. God doesn’t want a person to read only this or that part and dismiss the rest as not applicable to him. Although not every regulation is specifically addressed to every person, no person can effectively carry out what does apply to him without understanding what applies to everyone else. Remember that God told Ezekiel to measure and describe the Temple and to teach it to the people in order to make them ashamed. There are universal truths in every statement within Torah, and every person can learn something important even from those rules that are clearly not intended for him to follow in any literal sense.

Deuteronomy 17 describes three apparently disconnected aspects of justice:

  1. How to handle an allegation of idolatry. (Verses 2-7)
  2. How to handle a case that is too difficult for the local court. (Verses 8-13)
  3. How to ensure a king remains humble and accountable to God. (Verses 18-20)

I say “apparently” because they are connected by more than the overall theme of justice. For example, the sequence illustrates the roles and responsibilities of various members of the nation as their relative authority increases. The picture begins with individuals, moves to the community, then to the nation, and finally to the king.

One person may or may not be committing idolatry and some other person discovers it. If a person suspects his neighbor of idolatry, but he has no real evidence, he can’t snoop. He has to mind his own business. Nobody is allowed to go looking for people who might be worshiping idols without some basis.

However, if some evidence comes to light or if an accusation is made, then the community must get involved. There is no option. There must be a thorough investigation and a trial conducted by the authorities of the town or the city where the crime is alleged to have taken place. The accused is presumed innocent unless sufficient evidence is found and at least two truthful, qualified witnesses testify against him.

If the accused is found guilty by his neighbors, those same people are to take him to the town gates where he will be stoned to death. The witnesses must be the first to throw their stones.

So you shall purge the evil from your [community] midst. Deuteronomy 17:7b

The accused–and the entire community–is entitled to a public trial before a jury of his peers and in which he must be allowed to face his accusers and defend himself… That sounds awfully familiar.

If the case is too difficult for the local judges to decide, they are to take it to a high court in Jerusalem consisting of a panel of priests and whoever is judge over the nation at the time. (This would be someone like Joshua, Gideon, or Samson.) Whatever that court tells them to do, they must do. There are no appeals, no second opinions, and anyone who refuses to carry out the instructions of the high court must himself be put to death.

So you shall purge the evil from [the nation of] Israel. Deuteronomy 17:12b

This entire process requires that every member of the community is living in subjection to the community. There’s nothing wrong with an amount of “rugged individualism”, but a truly biblical lifestyle can only exist within the context of a community with a recognized authority structure. It doesn’t have to be very rigid or formal, but it has to exist and has to be able to respond when evil is found among the people.

And some evils are too large for a single community to handle.

Although Israel had no king at the time this law was given, it recognized that they might at some point and set out some rules for how a king is to behave: He is not to abuse his position to gain wealth, power, or prestige for himself. He is not to rely on military power, political alliances, or economic strength for security, but on God. He is not to oppress the people.

Finally, the king must become a lifelong Torah scholar beginning on the day he ascends to the throne. He is required to make a copy of the Torah for himself and to read it and meditate it on it every day of his life.

That his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. Deuteronomy 17:20

In the first two sections, the focus of the text is on purging evil from Israel, but when we look at the king, the lens is reversed. It no longer focuses on removing what is wrong, but on building what is right.

Certainly the king would have a role in punishing wrongdoers and purging evil from the people, but his primary role isn’t as a law enforcement officer or even as a military commander. Before all else, the king must be a teacher of God’s ways, an exemplar of humble & consistent righteousness.

We can see these same principles all through the New Testament as well.

We are told not to be gossipers and fault-seekers, but rather to extend grace to one another. We are to yield to one another whenever possible, to act in good order for the benefit of the community as a whole. When there is some wrong, we aren’t to take matters into our own hands, but to first find out if there has been any actual wrong done, and if so to give opportunity for repentance.

A note here: The rules in Deuteronomy 17 require a complete system. No individual, church, or synagogue may carry out these instructions. They are given in the context of a community and a nation that honors God’s Law. Only the community is authorized to investigate, try, and condemn the accused. Only a national court of priests and the judge is authorized to try the most difficult cases. We cannot execute idolaters or anyone else strictly according to God’s commands in modern America because that execution itself would be in violation of God’s commands.

If someone in our congregations is found to be an idolater, an adulterer, or guilty of any other serious sin, we should be certain of the facts first, and if the guilty refuses to repent, then we are to expel that person from our midst, but until our whole people accept God’s Law, that must be the end of it. Once they are outside of our congregation, they are no longer our responsibility, but God’s. (1 Corinthians 5:13)

We don’t have communities, judges, and national leaders who respect God’s Law. We don’t even have many churches or synagogues who do.

What we do have–and what we must have more of–are community leaders who follow the example of the king in Deuteronomy 17, who take God’s Law seriously, who study it and meditate on it daily. As long as our teachers, elders, preachers, pastors, and rabbis continue to reject the clear instruction of God, we can’t expect our community members to do any better.

As Paul wrote, don’t accuse people casually and don’t appoint them to leadership casually either. Our leaders must be men above reproach, men of honor in the eyes of both men and God, men who are not respecters of position or abusers of power. We need men who love God and love their own people as brothers, not subjects.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
1 Timothy 3:1-7

The Great, Invisible Sin of Our Time

God gave Israel a system for handling difficult criminal cases. They were to take the case before the priests and the national judge and, once a ruling had been made, it was to be obeyed with no questions asked.

The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:12)

God didn’t say, “If the judge’s character is unimpeachable and the priest’s theology is impeccable.” We know from the Biblical histories that the priests and judges weren’t always as pure as the driven snow. Gideon, Samson, Eli… They were a very mixed bag of nuts.

John Chrysostom was the archbishop of Constantinople at the beginning of the 5th century, about one hundred years after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. He is respected in many Christian circles as a great teacher and theologian. I haven’t read all of his writing, but I’ve read enough to know that he had some really good things to say.

He wrote some really rotten things too.

For example, he wrote extensively about what a “poor and miserable” people the Jews are, and not in the sense that they are broke and unhappy. He meant that they are evil, wicked people who deserve nothing but death and abuse at the hands of every good Christian.

No Jew adores God! Who says so? The Son of God says so. For he said: “If you were to know my Father, you would also know me. But you neither know me nor do you know my Father”. Could I produce a witness more trustworthy than the Son of God? -John Chrysostom, Against the Jews, “Homily 1”

In this work, he falsely stated that the synagogues were full of homosexuality and licentiousness, and were the houses of demons. He misquoted scriptures that contain indictments of a subset of Jewish leadership and even some that were directed at unbelieving and rebellious gentiles and he applied them to all Jews everywhere. He slandered all of the Apostles and the first Christians, since they were all Jews.

Chrysostom wasn’t the only venerated Christian teacher to spew such un-Christlike garbage. Martin Luther wrote this gem of libelous absurdity:

The sun never did shine on a more bloodthirsty and revengeful people as they, who imagine to be the people of God, and who desire to and think they must murder and crush the heathen. -Martin Luther, “The Jews and Their Lies”

I find it very difficult to believe that it is possible to love God and hate the Jews (as a people, not any specific sect or individuals) at the same time, and I will be very surprised to see either Chrysostom or Luther after the resurrection.

Fortunately for them, I don’t get to make those decisions.

I can’t see inside of anyone’s soul. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even think I have a very good view of my own. How could I hope to judge someone else? For all I know, John Chrysostom is one of God’s cherished favorites.

Speaking of a “man after God’s own heart”, what about King David? He was an adulterer, a murderer, and an idolater, yet clearly still a great man of God. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners, and despite their frequent efforts to suppress or abolish the abominable institution, they didn’t hold their professions of human equality and God-given rights quite highly enough to do all that was necessary to secure the same rights for all Americans. Nonetheless, I believe them to have been great men.

How can we reconcile the evident greatness of the prominent men and women of history with their equally obvious moral flaws?

It seems to me that the first thing to do is to look in the mirror.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got more than my share of flaws. I’m ashamed of some things I’ve done, and I suspect there are other things in my life that I ought to be ashamed of if only I knew about them.

Nobody is perfect. Everyone sins. Even you.Many of the glaring sins of our forebears weren’t so glaring to them. Every house in David’s day had its household gods, and his was no different. His wife, Michal, used one to trick Saul’s men into thinking David was ill and asleep in bed. Washington and Jefferson thought they were doing everything reasonably within their power to end slavery, although from the twenty-first century it appears that they could have done so much more if they had truly believed their own rhetoric. Martin Luther was only echoing the predominant view of Jews among his countrymen. He had been steeped in lies about the Jews his entire life. These men were all products of their time and cultures, just as we are.

That doesn’t excuse anything they did. Chattel slavery, antisemitism, and idolatry were still sins against God–right is right and wrong is wrong no matter the cultural context–but those things were ubiquitous elements of the time. It’s hard for a fish to see the water in which it swims.

The bad news is that you and I are fish too. In two hundred years, our descendants will be saying the same kinds of things about us. Every day, we need to be looking in the mirror and asking God to reveal our slavery, our idolatry, our antisemitism to us. What is the great, glaring sin to which we have been blinded by air travel, fully stocked grocery stores, and the World Wide Web.

Is it something so obvious as abortion or homosexuality? No, good people with a solid biblical foundation can easily see the evil in those things. The great invisible sin of our age is something that most people don’t even notice and about which only a few people feel a little uneasy.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

I can’t tell you what our great sin is because I don’t know. But I can tell you that destroying the public symbols of our history, the writings, the names, and the images of great men and women who were also guilty of some great, invisible sin of their own, really accomplishes only one thing. It lets us pretend that we are better than they were.

And maybe that’s our sin.

Authority and Change

Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers set

Deuteronomy 19:14
Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it.

Ecclesiastes 10:5-9
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler:
Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.
I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.
He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.
Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.

Proverbs 24:21 My son, fear thou the LORD and the king: and meddle not with them that are given to change.

Malachi 3:6 For I am the LORD, I change not…

Have you noticed that, every time you get a new CEO or vice president of whatever, he wants to turn everything on its head even before he really understands the culture of his new business home? Reorganize, restructure, reinvent. It seems to me that it’s just a lot of wasted time. He should see if he can get the job done with the current structure first, and then only change the things that really need to be changed. Otherwise, he might just reorg himself right out of a job.

The same thing goes for everything else in life. Some change is good: growth and improvement, course corrections, repentance, etc. But don’t go moving boundaries that don’t need to be moved. If God said to do things in such-and-such a way, then do them that way until God says otherwise. Don’t move life’s boundaries just because you don’t like them or don’t know their purpose.

Wise Choices Early in Life Make Happier, Stronger Families

A parallelism in Deuteronomy 20-21
A parallelism in Deuteronomy 20-21

The starts and stops of this parallelism mark it off pretty clearly, but some of the details might be difficult for some to see.

The second half (Deuteronomy 21:10-23) is a progression from what was probably a bad decision to its tragic consequences: A man captures a woman in a raid on a foreign city and decides to keep her. She’s not to keen on the idea and makes life unbearable for him. Their son learns from his mother and becomes a serious problem. At some point either the son has to be killed or he ends up killing someone else.

The first half (Deuteronomy 20:1-21:9) contains separate laws by itself, but the parallelism provides insight into what it’s like living in the crazy house with the captive war bride and her rebellious son. Besieging a foreign city (or being besieged by foreigners) probably isn’t very different from living with a woman you hate & who likely returns your antipathy. Besieging a city of idolaters within your own borders must be something like trying to correct a rebellious and stubborn son before finally giving him up as hopeless and deciding it/he must be excised like a cancer.

The really curious part to me is the reversal towards the end. Why does part one go from trees to an unsolved murder, while part two goes from a solved murder to trees? Perhaps because in the former case the subject acted wisely and preserved the fruit of the land (his children), while in the latter, through foolishness, he turned the rightful order of life on its head and converted his life-giving trees/sons into instruments of death.

Communitarian Justice

Deuteronomy 16:18 – Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment.

Anarchy and vigilantism are expressly prohibited by God’s Law. There must be judges and officers in the gates of every community. No criminal case can proceed legitimately without the involvement of the duly elected or appointed judiciary. How exactly these men or women are to be appointed is not specified, however the command is addressed to the community as a whole. Presumably a king or governor could appoint whomever he wills. If he does not, however, the community must still ensure the post is occupied.

There is at least one situation in which a course of action that appears on the surface to be vigilante is appropriate. This option should only be exercised in the most rare and extreme cases.

If the community refuses to appoint officers or cannot agree on which men to appoint, then individuals who already legitimately possess some other claim to authority must sometimes appoint themselves. This is essentially the right of the kinsman redeemer extended to the entire community. There is biblical precedence: Pinchas, who was already a priest, appointed himself an officer of the court when he killed Zimri and Cozbi. Judgment had already been passed and executed on the guilty, but their blood had barely cooled when Zimri blatantly committed the very same crimes. A trial was hardly necessary as all the judges were witnesses to the deed. To stop a plague that was sweeping the camp, Pinchas immediately carried out the sentence already given. Centuries later, Saul was neglecting his responsibilities in enforcing justice in his own lands and defending the border against the Philistines, so David, who had been anointed by Samuel as Saul’s successor, appointed himself judge.