The Hebrews spent forty years in the wilderness getting to know God and their place in relationship to him. Sometimes they did things his way and things went well. Sometimes they tried it their own way and it went poorly, but eventually they made it through, which means that, on the whole, they must have done more right than wrong along the way.
They fought the Amalekites. They fought Kings Og & Sihon. They won great victories and vanquished wicked peoples who were much stronger than they, at least from the world’s perspective. Finally arriving at the Jordan River, they paused to take stock. It was the moment they had been waiting for the day they walked out of Egypt. Everything had been building to this moment.
After summarizing their long trek, Moses pointed to the two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, and said to them “These two mountains represent the two paths you can take once you’ve crossed over. Things are going to go well for you over there if you obey God’s commandments, or they’re going to go very poorly if you don’t. The choice is yours.”
I can almost hear what they were thinking.
“Hold on. Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute. I thought all the hard stuff was on this side of the Jordan. Isn’t it supposed to be easier on the other side?”
Anyone who has lived very long should understand that’s not how life works. There are easy moments and hard ones, but there is no “easy” stage of life. There is no point at which we can say, “I’ve arrived. I can stop trying now.” But don’t we always seem to slip back into that same assumption that it’s going to get easier once we get past this next challenge? Okay, maybe the next one. The one after that?
The Promised Land was just on the other side of the Jordan, but the Promised Land was never intended to be a place of eternal harps and cotton candy clouds. God intends for the Promised Land to be hard work.
For you are to cross over the Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving you. And when you possess it and live in it, you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the rules that I am setting before you today. (Deuteronomy 11:31-32)
The Jordan didn’t mark the boundary between difficult and easy. It was more like the boundary between practice and execution, between rehearsal and performance. The Promised Land was where the real fighting was to take place and the biggest fight that the Hebrews would face wouldn’t be against the Canaanites. It would be against themselves and their own inclination to forget God’s commandments.
Once their enemies were mostly defeated, Israel lost their focus and drifted into complacency and idolatry. They took possession of the land, but they forgot the most important part of living in it: keeping God’s Law. To obey is to choose Mount Gerizim and life as God intends it to be, while to ignore God’s Law is ultimately to choose Mount Ebal and death.
We cross Jordan Rivers all the time in our lives. The cycle of leaving Egypt, wandering in the Wilderness, fighting giants, and crossing into the Promised Land happens over and over for everyone. When you graduate from school, get married, have children, get that promotion…these are all Jordan Crossings. At every stage of life we face the same challenges: a struggle to achieve freedom, a period of wandering and discovery, hard battles, breakthroughs and victories, and then slowly we drift back into the chains of drudgery, of spent energy and forgotten dreams.
It’s going to happen. You will forget your purpose. You will get stuck in a rut. You will backslide. Don’t beat yourself up about it too much. Thank God that he is a long suffering and forgiving God and that he sent Yeshua to take away the curse of eternal death that disobedience merits!
Having crossed the Jordan, don’t give up. Take possession of the Promised Land that God has given you, whatever it is in your life right now. Maybe it’s a great career, a ministry, or a profound new friendship. But whatever it is, don’t stop at taking possession. Don’t ever think that possession is the end goal.
And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. Are they not beyond the Jordan…? (Deuteronomy 11:29-30a)
Crossing the Jordan is just the beginning. The greatest opportunities for blessing and curses aren’t behind, but still ahead of you. Keep moving, and be careful to follow God’s instructions as you do. Choose to live in your Promised Land. Make it bloom and produce one hundred fold, because God isn’t giving it to you solely for your enjoyment. He is giving it to you so that you can do something with it to glorify him, to lift up his son, Yeshua, and to edify his Kingdom.
Over there, across the Jordan, putting your Promised Land to work is where God intends for you to be. It’s the place where you will be the most effective for the Kingdom. But only if you are faithful and keep your eyes on him.
This week’s Torah reading (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17, aka “Re’eh”) talks about how to get rich. Fantastic! The best part is that you get to pick between blessings and curses. Who wouldn’t choose blessings over curses?
Here’s how you make your choice known to God:
Worship God His way, not your way, and not in any pagan ways. Whether you are native-born Israelite or grafted in, no paganism allowed. Destroy every trace & burn all the bridges that lead back that way.
Be careful what you eat. Don’t eat blood. Don’t eat creepy crawlies. Don’t eat pigs and other forbidden animals. Don’t eat blood. And especially don’t eat blood as part of any religious rituals. Got that? No blood.
Don’t listen to false prophets.
Have 3 big parties every year, paid for by the tithes of what you’ve produced from your land in 2 out of 3 years.
In the third year, gather up all your tithes and share them with the landless, orphans, and widows of your own town. This is on the honor system, but don’t be stingy.
Forgive all debts to fellow believers/Hebrews (whether native-born Israelites or grafted in) at the end of every 7th year. Don’t be stingy. Lend to your poor neighbors at zero percent interest with the full expectation that they will pay you back no matter how much time is left. If they don’t pay you back on time, don’t hold it against them.
Release all Hebrew slaves–not that there’s a lot of explicit slavery in America these days, but the principle still counts–at the end of the 6th year in the 7 year cycle. Don’t be stingy here either. Since they weren’t able to work for themselves, send them out with a year’s worth of supplies. They can live off that until they get themselves back on their feet or they can use it to pay off debt before the end of the 7th year.
In whatever way God blesses you, be sure to bless others.
Rejoice! Especially during Sukkot in the Fall. Throw a party and invite everyone: native, grafted-in, orphans, widows, Levites, servants, family, and neighbors. And don’t be stingy!
You probably noticed a trend. Here’s the short version: Fear God and be generous.
Whatever you’ve heard on television or Facebook, this is a principle that every filthy rich person will tell you: give, give, and give some more. Wealth is never a zero-sum operation. There’s always more where it came from. Blessings flow from God like water through a pipe. What happens if a pipe is capped? The water stops flowing. You are a pipe. Let your wealth flow out to keep God’s wealth flowing in.
But wait! There’s more…
If I only wanted to make myself or you feel good, I’d stop there. But I’m not.
These blessings aren’t necessarily directed at individuals. They’re directed at the nation of Israel, the native-born and the grafted-in. (Not the State of Israel. That’s something else altogether.)
I’m not saying this won’t work for individuals. It clearly does! The principal of “Give-to-Get” is the very foundation of the wealth-building wisdom of Zig Ziglar and many other famous teachers of personal economics. (You can have as much as you want if you only help as many others as possible to get what they want first.) After all, you can’t have a wealthy nation without wealthy individuals.
This is just another layer of the selflessness required to be an effective conduit of God’s blessings. Do you want to be blessed? Then bless everyone around you with no expectation of getting anything back, either from them or God. I guarantee you will be blessed abundantly, but I can’t guarantee exactly what form that blessing will take. Even so, if you make wise financial decisions in addition to being generous with your resources, the chances are very good that your resources will continue to multiply.
If you want God’s continued blessings, keep the pipe straight (obey God’s Law) and don’t cap it off (be generous).
And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the LORD your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:7 ESV)
According to Maslow and common sense, a person needs some things more than others. Food and water are at the top of the list, and if you don’t have those, the rest won’t do you much good. A connection to God is more difficult to rank using only our senses and immediate survival, but it is even more important in the long run.
When we don’t eat, we get hungry. When we don’t have the right balance of nutrients in our diet, we experience cravings or illness, and we fulfill those needs by eating more food or more variety of foods. Our feelings of need are usually satisfied in the short term by just about anything we can stuff into our mouths that meets the minimum requirements. If our bodies need calories, then a candy bar will suffice. However, that’s not necessarily the best option available. Certainly, the sugar and fat will supply calories, but usually in the wrong proportions or in undesirable forms. An apple or handful of nuts would be a better choice because it satisfies the immediate craving while providing for longer-term nutrition needs and not doing any damage.
God didn’t say anything to Moses about candy bars because the ancient Israelites didn’t have access to them, but He wasn’t silent about diet. For example, He told us not to eat blood and He even told us why (because the life of an animal is in its blood) even if His explanation is incomprehensible to modern medicine. Contrary to some recent diet fads, He told us that bread is perfectly acceptable so long as it isn’t the only thing we eat. He also told us that some animals (pigs, bats, spiders, etc) shouldn’t be eaten and neither should certain parts of even the good animals. Bat meat things might supply the body’s basic nutritional needs–in fact, it might be excellent sources of some nutrients–but, just as a nutritionist might say that many edible substances aren’t food, so does God. Pigs and bats might be perfectly edible and provide perfectly usable nutrition, but there is something else about them that makes them non-food. God didn’t tell us exactly what makes them off limits; He just said that they are. He designed both them and us, and told us that we shouldn’t eat them whether we understand why or not.
Our need for spiritual connection with God is very similar to our need for food. Voltaire wasn’t so far off when he said that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” We have a deep need to worship and serve something greater than ourselves. Every human society throughout history has worshiped and theologized. Not even alcohol has been as widespread as religion. Unfortunately, just like when we eat a Snickers instead of an apple, we frequently follow our spiritual urges without any real understanding of what we need. We know instinctively that prayer, singing, dancing, and offerings are all good and necessary, but like children in a grocery store, we don’t know to take more of the green stuff and less of the pink and gooey. Like candy, there are religious practices that sooth our cravings, but don’t provide good spiritual nutrition. With that in mind, it’s not too surprising to find McDonalds “restaurants” in churches. There is a right way and a wrong way to relate to God, to worship and serve Him, and just as with food, He gave us some substantial direction in the Scriptures.
God linked food and religion, and Moses made that link clear. In Deuteronomy 11 & 12, Moses said, “You will not worship like the pagans do. You will destroy the places the pagans used for their worship, and you will wipe out the names of their gods. You will not offer sacrifices just anywhere you want, but only in that place that God chooses for His name. You will not eat blood, and you will only eat those animals that God has declared food. And, don’t forget, you will worship God in His way, not in your way, nor in the ways of the pagans.” God left a lot to our tastes and aesthetics, but He gave us some important ingredients to a healthy spiritual life that we ignore to our own detriment.
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“Behold, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26 ESV…sort of.)
We are all sufficiently able to understand God’s commands to keep them by simply hearing them. They aren’t complicated. They were intended to be understood and followed by poorly educated laborers and herders. As Moses said later,
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 ESV)
None-the-less, there is more to Torah and to the blessings and curses that it contains than is easily discernible in a strict, literal reading. There are treasures to be found if you look closely.
Every single parsha* tells of the Messiah and his role as the redeemer of all mankind, but Moses didn’t highlight those bits with a yellow marker. You have to look under the surface text. You have to see, to behold. Many passages contain layer upon layer of meaning bringing guidance and understanding to our relationships with each other and with the Creator. To discover those layers, you have to look closely and from different angles.
This is a command to pay attention to the blessings and curses, but beneath the plain text, it is also an invitation to search the Torah more deeply.
* Thousands of years ago, the Pentateuch (aka Torah) was divided up into portions called parshim (plural) or parsha (singular). Each week almost every Jewish and Messianic congregation around the world reads and studies the same parsha.
When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations before you, where you go to possess them, and you take their place and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you do not become snared by following them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not ask about their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods, that I too may do likewise? You shall not do so to the LORD your God. For every abomination to the LORD, which He hates, they have done to their gods; even their sons and their daughters they have burned in the fire to their gods. All the things I command you, be careful to do it. You shall not add to it, nor take away from it.
(See also Deuteronomy 18:9-14.)
Regarding Christmas, there are good things and bad things, but the most important consideration for me is what pleases God. In Deuteronomy 12:29-32, God said not to learn how the former pagans used to worship their gods and then do the same for him. He told us how he is to be worshiped, and we are forbidden from adding to it or taking away from it.
Christmas is to holidays as English is to languages. They are cultural borgs, assimilating everything they touch. Some Christmas traditions are clearly biblical, while others are clearly pagan, and some are more difficult to pin down. Google the words “pagan” and “Christmas,” and you are sure to find plethora of sites declaring everything about Christmas to be purely pagan and evil. You will also find sites claiming that everything about Christmas is purely inspired by God with not a speck of yellow to mar the pristine snowy landscape. Who’s right?
I’m no expert on the subject, but, for whatever it’s worth, I’m going to give you my thoughts on it anyway.
From what I’ve read, December 25th was decided on as the birthdate of Yeshua relatively early on in Church history. Unfortunately, it was still decided at least a century after the fact, and it was decided by Greeks and Romans who wouldn’t necessarily understand all the nuances of the Jewish Gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, and John were all native Jews, and Luke was a proselyte at a fairly young age.
There are some people who seriously believe that Yeshua was actually born on December 25th, but they are a minority. Most believe he was actually born in either spring, around Passover, or fall, around Tabernacles. Competing modern traditions point to the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and the many other winter solstice celebrations to explain how December 25th earned the title.
One tradition says that most of the cultures encompassed by the Roman Empire had some kind of winter solstice celebration, which generally fell very close to December 25th. That tradition is undoubtedly correct on that point, but it goes further. It says that Roman Christians didn’t want to appear too Jewish, so instead of celebrating a new holiday at a different time of year, they melded the new ideas into their existing celebrations. In that way, they would be celebrating Christmas at the same time everyone else was celebrating Saturnalia, and they wouldn’t stand out as much from the crowd. This sounds like a reasonable explanation, but as far as I can tell, it is only speculation. The solstice celebrations were certainly real, but I haven’t seen any solid evidence that this was the motivation for selecting this date for Christmas.
A competing tradition says that the Roman Empire instituted the formal holiday of Saturnalia in order to compete with the growing popularity of the Christian holiday. I have at least heard of some documentary evidence that Saturnalia was not officially recognized by the Emperor until after Christians had already adopted the 25th for Christmas. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Saturnalia had not already been celebrated unofficially, so it doesn’t really prove it one way or another.
Another argument against December 25th is the fact of shepherds tending their flocks in the hills at night. I have heard it argued that no shepherd in Judea would have been tending flocks outdoors at night on December 25th. The shepherds supposedly drove their flocks into barns or warmer climes, I’m not sure which. I’ve never seen any historical documentation of either claim, and it sounds like something invented by people with no actual knowledge of sheep or shepherding. Israel is a small country, so where would they go? And it has relatively few trees, so what would these giant barns be made of?
The counter argument is that it rarely gets below freezing in that region even in December, and that shepherds routinely tend their flocks under those conditions. I have no way of knowing which is right. I know that it’s fairly easy to find pictures on the internet of sheep in snowy pastures. I also know that in modern times the temperature in Israel does occasionally fall below freezing in winter, but it averages something closer to forty degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe 2000 years ago it was ten degrees every night or maybe it was sixty.
There is also the faint possibility that December 25th was chosen because it is possible that Yeshua was conceived sometime near Hanukkah, which is celebrated beginning on Kislev 25 and is always within a few weeks of December 25th. Kislev, being a month on a foreign calendar, was changed to December and the day came to be celebrated as a birthdate instead of as a conception date. More speculation.
Absent proof of one hypothesis or the other, I’m not going to raise a stink about it. If everyone wants to celebrate Yeshua’s birth on December 25th, it seems silly, but it doesn’t hurt me in any way.
Every report I have heard says that Christmas trees were adopted from a Germanic solstice tradition. One such report said that some Germanic tribes would bring a tree inside their house as some sort of talisman against the symbolic death of the shortest day of the year. The living tree within their home helped preserve their own lives and ensured another prosperous year. I have no clue if that is correct. I haven’t been able to find any primary sources supporting it.
Also consider the prophecy of Jeremiah 10:2-5:
So says the LORD, Do not learn the way of the nations, and do not be terrified at the signs of the heavens; for the nations are terrified at them. For the customs of the people are vain; for one cuts a tree out of the forest with the axe, the work of the hands of the workman. They adorn it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers, so that it will not wobble. They are like a rounded post, and they cannot speak. They must surely be lifted, because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them; for they cannot do evil nor good, for it is not in them.
I doubt that Jeremiah was thinking of Christmas trees when he wrote these words from God, but the parallel is too striking to ignore. The pagans are terrified of the signs of the heavens, signs like the winter solstice, in response to which they cut a tree out of the forest, bring it back to their house, and decorate it. Perhaps Jeremiah had never heard of the German people or their Yuletide traditions. Perhaps he thought he was only writing about carved idols inlaid with gold and silver.
But then again, perhaps God had a wider perspective than Jeremiah.
It seems obvious that, despite many efforts to apply Christian meaning to the Christmas tree, it is not of biblical origin. It was almost certainly adopted from some pagan religious rite. However harmless it might seem, I can’t see any way that it does not violate God’s command to not adopt pagan religious practices. Justifying it by saying we are doing it in his honor adds insult to injury. Does it help the adulteress’ case to claim she was thinking of her husband at the time?
The Twelve Days of Christmas, Yule logs, Yule Tide, and Yule everything else is unquestionably pagan. I don’t think anyone seriously disputes that. There is nothing biblical about it, and claiming otherwise is pointless.
I suspect the tradition of candles placed in the windows was adopted from Hanukkah, in which an 8 or 9 candle menorah is lit and placed where it can be seen through the house’s windows. While this tradition is not included in the Scriptures of the canon, it is not done in honor of any pagan gods. It is done solely in honor of a miracle that God performed in fulfillment of prophecies in Daniel and in preparation for greater fulfillments to come. I say light ’em up.
One tradition says that gift giving was adopted from Saturnalia. Another says that it was instituted in honor of the gifts brought to Yeshua by the magi. Either one seems like speculation to me. I have never seen evidence either way and there’s nothing inherently pagan about giving gifts.
Witnesses from the first century report that the Celtic Druids employed mistletoe (not the same as holly) in religious fertility rites, perhaps even involving human sacrifice. Most pagan European cultures ascribed magical properties to mistletoe, and it was widely associated with fertility. Obviously the plant itself isn’t pagan, but the association with the Winter solstice definitely is.
Red and Green
Once again, I have never heard of documentation for claims of pagan origins for the colors red and green associated with Christmas. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how it might be derived from Scripture. It seems equally likely to me to have a distant pagan connection or to be a harmless tradition based on one of the most hopeful denizens of winter: evergreen hollies.
Lest anyone think I might be turning into the Grinch, I am not interested in making anyone else conform to my opinions on Christmas. There will be no Christmas trees or Yule logs in my house, but you need to make your own decisions about it. I am not going to complain about nativity scenes or Christmas trees on public property, and I am not going to tell you you’re going to hell for your cheese log. These are just some rambling thoughts relevant to the day. They might even be wrong. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind.
Have fun. Enjoy yourself. But consider giving your traditions a little more thought as to whether or not they please God. He is, after all, the reason for this and all other seasons. Is he not?
Add your thoughts if you want. I might disagree, but I’ll try not to call you any bad names. 😉
119 Ministries’ documentary, The Christmas Question, also discusses the origin of these and other Christmas traditions. Watch it free right here.