The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that YHVH swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that YHVH your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of YHVH. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, YHVH your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of YHVH your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. Deuteronomy 8:1-6
Israel spent forty seemingly pointless years in the wilderness wandering from one mountain or oasis to another. Forty years of uncertainty, of not knowing where they were going to live, where they were going. No houses, no fields, no real homes. Just tents, long hikes, lots of dirt, and manna….every day, manna.
But there was a point, because God always has a point.
Israel’s unfaithfulness in believing the bad report of the ten spies was the immediate trigger that launched their long journey through the wilderness, but those forty years were essential to developing their national character. It was always part of God’s plan.
God had at least three objectives in taking Israel on the scenic route to the Promised Land.
Self Discovery. Repeated tests, both failed and passed, demonstrated to Israel exactly who they were and how they were completely inadequate to their task without God.
Honeymoon. Forty years in barren landscape with God himself there in the middle of the camp was a perfect opportunity to explore Israel’s relationship with her God.
Education. From the first Passover in Egypt to the respecting of the borders of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, Israel learned what it means to love God and keep his commandments.
We all go through wilderness experiences, periods of testing and uncertainty, as individuals, as families, and even as nations. The key to surviving and ultimately to becoming who God wants us to be is in trusting his plan. Whatever comes, whatever goes, YHVH is in charge. Follow his instructions. Keep his commandments. He will bring you through it.
The wilderness is always unpleasant–it wouldn’t serve its function if it weren’t–but if we love God and trust him with our whole beings, we will be stronger and more mature when we cross the Jordan on the other side.
In Deuteronomy 8:7-9 God lists twelve things that the Hebrews would find when they finally arrived in the Promised Land.
For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.
(Deuteronomy 8:7-9 ESV)
Why does he pick out these things in particular? What about the pastures or the fish in the Kinnereth? Honestly, I can’t tell you why God didn’t specify other things, and I can only guess at what He meant by the things He did list. One thing I can say for certain is that His selections were not random. God does nothing without a good reason. In fact, He usually has more reasons for everything He does than we could possibly comprehend. One clue that they are not intended to be understand merely as a random sampling of the Promised Land’s good qualities is their chiastic arrangement:
A. Brooks of water/Fountains and springs out of the valleys and hills. (Water that comes from the ground.)
………B. Wheat/Barley (Raw ingredients for making other food.)
………………C. Vines (Fruit from which another product is extracted.)
………………………D. Fig trees/Pomegranates (Fruit trees whose produce is usually eaten raw.)
………………C. Oil olive (Fruit from which another product is extracted.)
………B. Honey/Bread (Processed foods, one the product of the labor of bees, the other the labor of men.)
A. Iron from stones/Bronze dug from the hills. (Metals that come from the ground.)
It could be argued that chiastic structures such as this are simply poetic devices. While it is true that they can be found in the literature, both religious and non-religious, of many cultures, we believe that the Bible was inspired by God, and it seems unlikely that God would employ such devices without purpose. Let’s examine each of these items to see if there is further meaning that can be drawn out.
1. Brooks of Water
The Hebrew word translated as “brooks” is nahal (נחלי) and refers to the seasonal creeks that are commonly called wadi today. Like the arroyos of the American Southwest, these brooks are dry for much of the year, only filling up after a good rain, and only flowing steadily during the rainy season in winter.
In Genesis, Jacob wrestled all night with God at a ford of the brook Jabbok. (Genesis 32:23-32)
Throughout the Torah, histories, and prophets, brooks are used to mark the borders of various lands. (E.g. Numbers 34:5, Deuteronomy 3:16, etc.)
Brooks are also another sort of border, but a border to be crossed. They mark a transition from one phase to another. (E.g. Genesis 32:23, Deuteronomy 2:13 & 2:24)
Job referred to his friends as brooks, meaning that they are an unreliable source of support, providing water only in the rainy season, and having nothing useful to offer when life is harshest. (Job 6:15)
Brooks are places of hidden water that must be uncovered. Frequently, if you dig at the lowest point of a dry creek bed, you can find water. Large trees can thrive next to a seasonal creek either because they are able to withstand long droughts or because their roots can reach the water that is below the surface. (E.g. Genesis 26:19, Job 40:22, etc.)
Elijah was fed by the ravens at the brook Cherith. (1 Kings 17:3-7)
If I had to take some meaning from these things, I would say that brooks of water are symbolic of seasonal refreshment or relief after a long struggle in preparation for the next long struggle. Life in the Promised Land was never intended to be a life of ease, but one of predictable rewards after honest, hard work.
2. Fountains and Springs from the valleys and hills
The Hebrew word translated as “springs” in the English Standard Version is tehom (ותהמת), which is frequently translated as “depths” or “the deep”. They are underground reservoirs (e.g. Genesis 7:11) and the deepest places of the seas (e.g. Exodus 15:8). These are mysterious places that men cannot visit, measure, or know, the domain of God alone. In connection with “fountains” (Hebrew ayin (עינת), which can also be translated as “eye”), this seems to describe natural springs. Short of a major engineering project, there is nothing you can do to create a spring. It comes out of a mysterious source below the ground or it does not.
I suspect this refers to one of two things:
Supernatural provision from God that flows regardless of the season. Sometimes God simply provides for us, whether we have worked for a reward or not. The sages say that wealth does not necessarily come to those who work hardest, but to those who are most ready for it.
The moving of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus (aka Yeshua) said in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
A good wheat harvest is the result of prolonged hard work. It is a source of wealth and, since it stores well, also of ongoing nourishment. In more spiritual terms, it is the result of sustained evangelistic efforts, of preaching, teaching, and living exemplary lives. It sprouts long after the barley and is harvested later still. (See Exodus 9:32.) Wheat is a picture of delayed rewards multiplied many times and of the righteous in the last days before the final harvest. (See Matthew 9:37-38 & 13:30.)
Barley sprouts and is harvested earlier than other grain crops. It was used as a standard to measure the value of land and other property. (See Leviticus 27:16.) Barley has always been considered an inferior crop, courser and of poorer taste and nutritional value. At times it was thought only good for animal fodder. Revelation puts the price of a measure of barley at one-third that of wheat. (See Revelation 6:6.)
Despite its humble status, Yeshua used barley loaves to feed the multitude in John 6:9. Barley sustains the people until the later grains are ripe, makes a more plentiful food for the poor, and has been used to brew mild alcoholic beverages since long before the Hebrews left Egypt. Barley is a picture of the simple, first adopters of faith. It is the Hebrew rabble that first left Egypt, David’s Mighty Men who were debtors and running from trouble, and the twelve disciples who were commoners and a tax collector.
The grape vine is associated with family, children, lineage, and inheritance. It is the source of growth in progeny and ideology. It is a picture of unbroken inheritance. Psalm 80:8 speaks of nations in terms of vines. Genesis 49:11 contains a prophecy of the Messiah coming from Judah’s line. On the surface, it tells of Judah’s rich inheritance in the land. On another level, it appears to says that the Messiah will come from Judah’s descendants, his vine. Princes in times of peace rode on donkeys, and Zechariah 9:9 says this is how the Messiah will appear. Judah binding the ass to his vine is an image of the future King of Judah entering Jerusalem on the colt. (See Matthew 21:1-11.)
But the vine is more than an image of physical descendants.
In Deuteronomy 32:32, Moses gave another dual prophecy simultaneously calling the Israelites and their enemies the heirs of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this prophecy, God predicts the apostasy of Israel and their defeat at the hands of their enemies.
For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of poison; their clusters are bitter;
(Deuteronomy 32:32 ESV)
On the one hand “they” in this verse refers to Israel who has adopted the ways of those perverse people and inherited much of their fate with it. But on the other, “they” refers to Israel’s enemies who are even more the spiritual descendants of Sodom and possibly even the physical descendants who have misunderstood their victory over Israel as evidence of their own strength rather than God’s discipline of the people He loves.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of a grape vine used to illustrate a spiritual or ideological inheritance is found in a lengthy teaching that Yeshua gave just before His death:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
(John 15:1-6 ESV)
6. Fig Trees
Fig trees are an image of prosperity, contentment, and security, the well-deserved product of honest business. They provide sweet fruit, income, and shade long after the work required to establish them has been completed. The man who dwells beneath his own fig tree has no wants or worries. (See 1 Kings 4:25, 2 Kings 18:31, etc.)
Vines, pomegranates, and figs go together in scripture for a total picture of peace and prosperity (See Numbers 13:23 and Numbers 20:5.), and appropriately so. All three are symbols of fertility and prosperity, but of these three, because of its large number of seeds, the pomegranate is more associated with fertility than the others. (Figs are also considered fertility symbols, but not as strongly as pomegranates.) Tradition places the number of seeds in the fruit at 613, which is also the traditional count of individual commands in the Torah. The implication is that keeping God’s commands makes one fruitful, both in body and in enterprise.
Like the fig tree, most of the labor is required long in advance of the extended reward.
8. Olive Oil
Olive oil brings to mind the anointing of priests, prophets, and kings, and is symbolic of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was used to fuel the Menorah in the Tabernacle, which is also a picture of the Spirit. Olive oil is a source of light, while the Spirit is a source of enlightenment. The oil was used in cooking, as a base for perfumes and incense, as skin care, and for countless other uses.
(Note: An alternate interpretation of “honey” is the date palm because of its syrupy juice.)
Honey was the sweetest thing known to the ancient Israelites. The idiom “land of milk and honey” was frequently used to describe a near paradise. It was used as a gift, as a special treat, and those who over-indulged were thought decadent and corrupt. Honey has two distinct qualities: First, it is very sweet. Second, someone else does all the work to produce it. Honey, like all of the sweetest things in life, is best taken sparingly lest we lose our taste for anything less, and fall into the habit common to all libertines of constantly searching after the next high.
There is nothing wrong with honey and fine things; they are a gift from God. But they are a gift that is easily abused. Remember that most things worth having don’t come easy.
Since wheat, barley, and olive oil are already listed, it seems odd to add bread, but there is a difference. The raw ingredients have nearly indefinite shelf lives if they are protected from vermin, but no so bread. It goes moldy or stale very quickly. On the other hand, the raw ingredients aren’t easily eaten or digested on their own. They require a certain amount of processing. The end product was treated as the single most important part of any meal.
Bread was a fundamental element of hospitality. Abraham offered bread to his three divine visitors (Genesis 18:6), and Abigail presented David with two hundred loaves of bread as part of a peace offering to prevent the death of her husband (1 Samuel 25:18).
The Showbread Table in the Tabernacle held twelve loaves of bread, one for each of the tribes of Israel. It is a picture of the Messiah, who called himself the Bread of Life.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
(John 6:35 ESV)
His body, striped by the centurion’s whip and pierced by the crown of thorns and the nails of crucifixion, is illustrated to this day in the matzoh eaten at every traditional Jewish of Passover. Just as bread made with grain and oil was fundamental to the Hebrew physical diet, so is the Bread of Life fundamental to our spiritual life. There is no spiritual life without Yeshua.
The last two things prophesied to be found in the Promised Land are a little more enigmatic. All of the previous items were things that you put into your body: water and food. The following are metals that are transformed or taken out of something else, and I believe the sources of the ores might be as significant as the ores themselves. Forgive me if I seem to be indulging in so much speculation in these last items, because I am. My opinions here are not cast in iron or set in stone, and they are certainly not so well polished as a brass mirror. (Also, please forgive the bad puns. I can’t help myself.)
11. Iron from Stones
Stones have a very complex representation in Scripture. Spiritually calloused and rebellious people are said to have hearts of stone. Stones can represent individual people or groups of people. They are the foundations (as altars), media (as tablets), and witnesses of covenants. They are instruments of punishment, markers of wealth, ornaments, and most significantly, they are used to represent the Messiah.
Iron is very similar to stone, but where stone is hard, iron is unbreakable. Where stones can be symbols of wealth, iron signifies strength, power, and punishment. It is unyielding, impenetrable, and forged into weapons of war.
I imagine two possible meanings of “a land whose stones are iron”:
The Lord disciplines those He loves, and His harsh discipline transforms hearts of stone into hearts of iron.
Even the common people of Israel are iron to their enemies.
12. Bronze Dug from the Hills
(Note: The word for bronze is sometimes translated as copper or brass.)
Hills appear to be as symbolically versatile as stones. They are places of refuge from disaster and points of connection between Heaven and Earth. They are platforms for prophecy and divine pronouncement. Armies gather and fight in the hills. Finally, hills are symbols of strength and permanence.
Bronze, unlike iron, is used extensively in the Tabernacle and Temple, and is usually taken to symbolize judgment and the process of purification. (Think of the bronze laver, in which the priests were to wash before serving in the Tabernacle.) It also has military uses, in weaponry and armor. Bronze and iron were often paired in prophecy to represent a harsh and unforgiving land or a hard and unrepentant people.
I have only one good thought about the bronze:
Hills can be dangerous, wild places with any number of hiding places for shelter or ambush. Primarily, they are a place where people in fear of the wrath of God flee in search of futile protection. Bronze, however, is an image of God’s refinement of his people. Through God’s judgment and Law, His people are brought out of the hills into which they have fled, exposing their sin to that refining fire. God’s people have been scattered throughout the world, many forgetting even that they were ever chosen. But God knows them and where they have hidden themselves and been hidden. He has prophesied their repentance and has promised to bring them back again from all the places they were driven.
God knows you. He knows all your hidden sins, and you can’t hide from His law or His call.
America is not Israel, and we cannot automatically claim all of the promises made to the Hebrews simply because we worship the same God. But believers in Yeshua of whatever ancestry are none-the-less God’s people, grafted into the tree of Israel. We are not in the Land of Israel, but I strongly believe that God’s Laws are universal and founded on Natural Law. The promises God gave to Israel for obedience are in large part an expression of cause and effect. If any person keeps His law with a right heart, they are bound to benefit in many ways, although trying to keep God’s Law with evil intent or in a misguided attempt to earn your salvation will likely do you more personal harm than good.
Throughout history, nations that keep more of God’s Law benefit from it, while those nations that reject it suffer by their rejection. We can learn from the principles described in this passage. In keeping God’s Law–not for salvation because that’s impossible–we will undoubtedly become a stronger, healthier, wealthier nation.