Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers:
And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee.
Hmm… I’ve been writing these Bible bursts for over a year now and there have only been a handful of times when I disliked the verses randomly given to me. Not that I “dislike” the content of the Bible – but some passages leave me shaking my head. Like this one from Deuteronomy.
Is it the word of God that, if I listen to God’s judgments and keep them, keeping all of God’s commandments, then my family will be large and healthy and my possessions vast and increasing? It sounds like God is saying, “If you do what I tell you, then you will be worldly wealthy.” Sure, I could reinterpret this to mean that God will bless me with spiritual richness and abundance in Heaven – but I don’t think that’s how the people who kept this Scripture as sacred understood it. For them, plagues and hardships were punishments from God for being bad, while healthy crops, livestock and children were rewards for being good. And I know that there are people today who believe that this is true. But I don’t.
When I was a child, crippled in my wheelchair, I remember picking up from other people this thought: “If I am a good girl, then God will make me be able to walk – but I really have to believe that it’s true or God won’t cure me.” And I remember praying to God and believing and then pushing downward with my legs and upward with my torso, ready to be wowed by the miracle. But nothing new happened. The thing is, I don’t remember being devastated by the lack of miracle. (Perhaps “authentic” faith would have been devastated?) I do remember thinking something like, “Does this mean that I’m not good enough?” And then my little mind began to work. With a slight smirk and furrowed brow I tried to figure out the puzzle.
I knew that I felt my faith surging in me when I made the prayer and the attempt to rise. But I also knew, when I didn’t rise, that I doubted that this was how God worked. I would hear about miracle stories, like a contemporary one where a woman with MS, I think, was cured at Lourde’s, and I would think that maybe I had to go all the way to France for God to work a miracle – but this just didn’t make any sense. I do mean logical sense, in that, if God is God then God is all-powerful and doesn’t need me to buy a plane ticket in order for His cure to work. (But, then again, I knew that such a trip could be a sign of my faith, of my willingness to go the extra mile (literally) in order to receive God’s blessings.) Having to go the extra mile also didn’t make sense to me in a personal way, though, based on my faith. Because, and I think this is important, I didn’t believe that my disease was any kind of a curse or punishment. My legs are not dysfunctional because of something bad that I did or my parents did – so they’re not going to become functional because of something good that I do or my parents do. There is no curse to be undone.
I think, however, that this is not what the people of the Old Testament believed to be true. Like many ancient peoples, they believed that God’s wrath was just and, so, God rightly inflicted punishments upon wicked people – and, therefore, they believed that God’s wrath could be appeased and punishments reversed through right behavior. If one could follow the letter of the law – and with the spirit of the law, which is love – then one would be earning God’s esteem and receive happy rewards from God. The afterlife was not a given to all ancient people and, so, these rewards would be received here and now. Good people would get what good people want: healthy children, productive growing seasons, healthy livestock – comfort, plenty and ease. This is a system that we humans can understand, because this is what we would do. We reward good behavior and punish bad. It’s part of conditioning children (and society) so that it may be shaped into something desirable for the parents (and the majority of people in society). We expect God to act like us. And God, who wants to reveal Himself to all of humankind, speaks to us in a way that we can understand, at every developing level, as individuals and as societies – just as a parent communicates with a growing child. That’s why we have the promises in Deuteronomy.
As a Christian, I shouldn’t try to make the people of the Old Testament believe things that they didn’t believe. As a Christian, I should try to understand the Old Testament writings in the light of Christ. I heard somewhere that the Bible is a book of questions with the answers in the back. In other words, the Hebrew testament contains the questions of life and the Christian testament contains the answers – not in black white, unmistakable, concrete terms. It’s not a science book exploring material matters. Rather, where God once communicated to us in words at our level, the Hebrew testament, God now communicates to us in the Divine Word (his level) made flesh – not just the pages of the Christian testament, but Christ himself. Christ says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…”. And when you hear Christ’s message and you look upon Christ’s life, then you start to think of blessings in a new light.
Yes, Christ’s resurrection and ascension, as well as his promises, cause us to believe in the afterlife. So, it can just be an easy matter of changing the whole punishments and rewards thing to being meted out “in the life of the world to come” instead of in this earthly life. But… This still doesn’t do it for me. That’s like saying, “If you suffer enough (like Christ) and keep faith that you will be rewarded in Heaven, then you will be rewarded in Heaven – and don’t worry, all those bad people are going to get their punishment after they die.” This doesn’t seem like we really learned anything by God becoming Man, does it? God will save us from the injustice of earthly life when we die and are freed from the earthly bonds – no, unh-uh, not divine enough.
God created the earth, earthly bonds, earthly bodies – and looked upon them and saw that they were good. Now, I know that the free-willed choices of man to continually choose pride and turn away from God wrecks things. I believe that this “fall” has inherently darkened our intellects and weakened our wills – and I believe that we need saving. God made a deal with the ancient people of Israel and they broke their end of the bargain – an act that they agreed would warrant their deaths. God becomes a human being and takes on that broken act and its justified punishment of death – Christ atones for sin on the cross of redemption. And then Christ rises from the dead and ascends into Heaven in order to reestablish the covenant – indeed, to make a new covenant – with its fulfillment in the afterlife, which he opens up for us, instead of on temporal earth. And it could all end there. Nice and neat and orderly. But the danger – and there is a real danger – lies in focusing upon what needs to be done in order to be rewarded. If I am acting in a good way solely in order to get pleasure and riches in an unknown, but promised and very material sounding, other place, then I am totally self-centered. How is that different than being like Adam and Eve?
I am supposed to be like Christ – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8.) And if this obedience is done solely for reward – then it is not done with love. For we know that we can have the words of angels, but, if we have not love, then we sound like gongs. Love makes the difference – and true love is given with no thought of reward.
I should love the Lord, my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength BECAUSE He is the Lord, my God. That’s it. Pure and simple. There are no material rewards here for doing that. There might be some kind of reward hereafter for doing that – but this is not my focus. My focus is knowing that God loves me, sinner that I am, for no other reason than that God loves. I love God because God first loved me. If I love God (if I’m a good girl) then God will reward me simply with His love that He was already giving (I will be happy because I am loving and open to loving). Without this earth there is no me to love God. Heaven is the clear and eternal understanding of this love.
Times up and I’ve rambled away another hour – did I write anything of worth? I’m more confused than when I began. I really want to hear what other people make of these verses from Deuteronomy… I am a pilgrim on a journey, I am a student in God’s classroom, I don’t know anything on my own – help teach me, fellow pilgrims!