Archive for the ‘ Pentateuch’ Category

Putting up tents

Tuesday January 30, 2007

From the cartoons you see of people camping it looks like putting up a tent can be a bit of a mission. I wonder whether the hardest part is intentionally first, so that anyone who won’t be able to survive outdoors for a week is detered at the first hurdle and makes it home safely before nightfall. Camping psychology, though, isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to think about a tent which took a lot more effort to set up properly, the tabernacle which a large chunk of Exodus (roughly ch25-40) is all about. The instructions for this tent don’t come with diagrams and often seem completely dull and irrelevant. How can I benefit from them? (I should say, as is often the case, most of this is pinched from other people and I’m hugely grateful to them for showing it to me.)

Firstly, I guess it’s important to remember throughout what is the purpose of this tent. I don’t think it’s explained until after it’s been built (though I’m happy to be corrected on that) but any Jew reading the account would know what it was for. As the climax of the first half of Leviticus is God’s law in chapter 20, the climax of the second half is God dwelling amoung his people. 40:34 says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” God himself lived in the middle of the Israelite camp, and this tent was being built for him.

I think this gives the meaning to the meticulous detail of the design. God is coming to live in this tent, so it has to be right! What’s more, God has to decide what’s right. While God gifted craftsmen (31:1-11) to do the work he didn’t let them sort the interior design. He specified what he wanted exactly and expected them to do it. God is so different and so perfect that the Israelite’s attempts to create something wouldn’t have been good enough. The only way the tabernacle would work is if they followed God’s design. So while reading that the altar was five cubits by five cubits by three cubits and made of acacia wood (27:1) may not be directly applicable, as I read it and the other details I can praise the character of my God who is so holy that only perfection can be a dwelling for him.

What really confused me, though, was that after the design is given (ch25-30) it is all repeated! 35:4-39 record every detail of the construction of the tabernacle – and it’s all the same! Why not, I wondered, just say “and they made the tabernacle according to God’s original design”? What can I gain by reading it all again. The attention to following every detail of God’s instruction is commendable and should be emulated, but I think that’s making the Old Testament about me rather than about God. Can I learn about God from this repeat of the details?

Well, let’s step back from the lists for a moment and look at what happens in between. It’s big! Even as Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving God’s law and the design of the tabernacle in which God will live amoung the people the people are giving up on God. Exodus 32 tells the story of the golden calf – Aaron made a calf for the people and they made it their God. This was a trashing of the very first commandment that God gave to Moses – “You shall have no other gods before me” (20:3). God wants to destroy them and make Moses into a great nation (32:10) which would have been perfectly inline with his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and surely would have been just. Moses asks God to relent, and he does. In 33:1-3 God says he will keep all the people alive and extends to them the promise of the promised land. However, he says that he won’t go with them but will send an angel to lead them. This is grace to a people who don’t deserve it.

But there is more! Moses intercedes again and God graciously agrees to go with the Israelites into the land. I just can’t think of words that sum up how gracious that is. God would have been perfectly just to destroy them for their great unfaithfulness, but is going with them into Israel. He gives Moses the law again and reminds him of the key points of the covenant and it is at this point that Moses gives the detailed account of the construction of the tabernacle.

Okay, that interlude was anything but brief but I think it sets up what’s amazing about the second tabernacle description. It is exactly the same! Before that may have seemed dull, but in light of the idolatary of Israel doesn’t it show complete forgiveness and a fresh start? Not only is God going to stay with his people but he’s going to do it exactly according to the previous plan! Down to the last material and dimension of the tent. So while reading again that the altar was five cubits by five cubits by three cubits and made of acacia wood (38:1) may not be directly applicable, as I read it and the other details I can praise the character of my God who is so gracious he completely forgot the sin of his people.

The holiness of God and the grace of God from a list of instructions – who’da thunk it? Of course the other thing to remember (if you need more) is that all of this is just a picture of the Holy Spirit – God living inside Christians (not just in the camp) forever. That means we need to be perfectly cleaned by Jesus’ blood, and it also means that our sin and rebellion won’t change the plan. Praise God!

Meat pots

Wednesday January 24, 2007

I’ve just been in a Bible study on Exodus 15:22-17:7. In brief, the Israelites have just seen how great God is, and now they’re not trusting him to provide but are grumbling and wishing for the good old days (of slavery, babies being killed and crying out to God) in Egypt. There are two particularly helpful places to go to understand this passage. Psalm 95 is a warning not to repeat what the Israelites did in the desert and Hebrews 3-4 expounds on Psalm 95.

There are three blocks of grumbling: for water, then food, then water again. My first instinct was to feel sorry for the Israelites the first time – after all they’ve not had any water for three day, they hadn’t yet seen God miraculously provide water for them before, and it’s not obvious from the passage that God was upset with them. Indeed, coming to God through Moses was surely the right thing to do even if grumbling was the wrong way of going about it. As the story progresses, though, they get worse and worse (despite seeing more and more of God’s provision) and the third time (at “Massah and Meribah”, 7:7, cf Psalm 95:8) they reversed God’s testing of them (15:5) and put God himself to the test (17:2, Psalm 95:9). The Israelites didn’t do well, and the warning of Psalm 95 is “do not harden your hearts” as the Israelites did.

But exactly what heart-hardening were the Israelites guilty of? Hebrews 3:13 seems to exand, saying “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin”. We see this in work in Exodus – in 16:3 the Israelites deceive themselves saying how good things were back in Egypt (“we sat by the meat pots”). They were under the impression that if they were still in Egypt things would be better. They also made out that God wouldn’t provide what he had promised he would, in 7:3 they said Moses (and so God) had brought them out of Egypt to kill them.

It’s quite easy to think the Israelites were muppets – they so quickly forgot how bad things were in Egypt and how powerfully God had already provided for them. But we do the same all the time. So there were two challenges for us, to help us avoid hardening our own hearts. The first: what is our “meat pot”, the thing we think would be better if we weren’t a Christian. For me at the moment, I think it’s praise from other people. I’ve had a load of opportunities to lead things and I’m grateful for them and have loved doing them and having chances to serve. But I also want to be able to point out how amazingly spectacularly well I’ve done and have everyone think I’m, well, amazing and spectacular. My heart tells me that I deserve it, and that I would be far better off if I didn’t have to give glory to God. That is the deceitfulness of sin, and I want to be aware of it and guard against it.

The second part of the challenge is to work out what we God has promised, but I don’t trust him to provide. Thinking over the last few days, I reckon the answer is sanctification – especially with regards to prayer. I’ve been really trying to improve my praying recently but, though I’ve seen God improve me in amazing ways over the last year, I don’t really trust him to be able to make me better at praying. He can, and he’s promised he will so again that is sin’s deceitfulness. I don’t want any of it!

Hebrews says that I need to hold on to my original confidence to show that I share in Christ (3:14). I am glad of the reminder to search and destroy where I’m not trusting God so that I am not hardened by sin’s deceitfulness, and so I can “strive to enter that rest” (4:11).

Exodus 1

Friday October 20, 2006

Exodus begins with a reminder of the state at the end of Genesis. Jacob’s entire family had moved to Egypt where Joseph already was. Jacob and Joseph were dead by the time the narrative of Genesis closed, and now we read that Joseph’s entire generation (all of Jacob’s children) died. “But” (however bleak things seem, Exodus will never let us be morose for long) “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly” (v7). There is no explicit reference, but this is another pointer back to Genesis. In Genesis 12:1-3 God promised to make Abram a great nation, a blessing which was then repeated to his son Isaac and his son Jacob, so we would expect Jacob’s family to be growing. What’s more surprising is that God didn’t promise only blessing to the family but also trials. In Genesis 15:13-16 God told Abraham his offspring would be servants in a foreign land and “afflicted for four hundred years”. Surely those Israelites who remembered this word must have been encouraged by the fact that God’s plan wasn’t falling apart but was being worked out even by Pharaoh, and even more so that he had promised it would end. That is some of the history behind Exodus, now for the story.

The new king did not remember that Joseph had saved the land of Egypt and is now worried that his family are going to harm it since they are so numerous. Interestingly, the climax of his concern is that they would “escape from the land” – something he brought about by seeking to avoid it. It is because he made their lives unbearable that God rescued his people – though of course that is always how God had planned it.

The first of Pharaoh’s three plans was to make the Israelites slaves who would work hard for Pharaoh and so their spirits and strength would drain. Conversely, the population “multiplied” and “spread abroad”, which meant that the Egyptians “were in dread of the people of Israel”. Looking back as we can, it is clear that God’s hand was involved in building up the nation of Israel so the Egyptians would have been wiser to fear God. Their response, instead, was to force the Israelites to work even harder.

Pharaoh’s second plan was even crueler. He summoned the Hebrew midwives and commanded them to kill any new-born Israelite sons. As with the previous plan, the response in the text is “but” – God would not let this plan succeed either and the midwives refused to follow orders. The result was blessing for the midwives (whose names have been recorded to this day) and that the Israelites “multiplied and grew very strong”. Ironically, Pharaoh’s plan to wipe out the men who he thought were the threat was thwarted by women – a theme that continues in chapter 2.

Whether the midwives were right to lie when they were called in front of Pharaoh (or even, if we want to try to slip out on a technicality, whether they did) causes debate. I’m not really going to get into it. Narrative is meant to be narrative and isn’t primarily to teach theology or ethics – though of course it does both. A couple of comments though: it was an extreme situation where the future of God’s salvation history hung in the balance, it was before the commandment not to lie had been given and they were commended not for what they said but their fear of God (v21). Certainly this can’t be used to argue that lying is a small thing.

Pharaoh’s third plan was equally vile – and one that all Egyptians could join in with. All young Israelite boys were to be thrown into the Nile – which was a semi-God to the Egyptians. And here the narrative switches to “a man from the house of Levi”. There is no decisive defeat of Pharaoh’s plan with God. The agony for the Israelites and suspense for the reader will continue until it is revealed whether the Nile-god could defeat Israel’s God.

Heavenly Father, I praise you that you can order the entire of history for your ends – the salvation of many many people. I praise you that you have complete authority over all natural and supernatural powers and will not be bested. Thank you for the promises you have made to us – to save us from this world into your perfect Israel. Please help me to take hope and to trust that everything, whether or not I can see how, is your plan for your world. Amen.

The Truth is in Exodus…

Tuesday October 10, 2006

Credit where credit is due, and in terms of my Bible understanding there’s a huge amount that I owe to a lot of people. Specifically to Exodus, I’m going to be writing these studies along with a series of studies of Exodus that I’m doing at the student group of my church The Bible Talks. I’m sure that a lot of what I come up with will be based on things that are discussed there. Over the summer, I also received a number of sermons on the early chapters of Exodus at Carey Baptist Church, and those ideas may pop up from here to there. Finally, I have the ‘Bible Speaks Today’ commentary on Exodus by JA Moyter – which I will refer to as BST from here on. Now that that’s dealt with, what’s going on in Exodus?

There are many ways of splitting the book into large sections for analysis, but one clear division comes right in the middle. The first 19 chapters are narrative, detailing God’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to Mount Sinai. In chapter 20, the well known Ten Commandments are given to the people. The remaining 20 chapters are devoted to further laws, and the details of how to build the Tabernacle – God’s temporary dwelling place which the Israelites were on their travels.

But what are we to make of it? Ancient history may be interesting, but at first glance it seems irrelevant to my life. The laws are dismissed by many as having neither interest nor relevance. Yet, if we are to believe Luke 24:27 that Jesus began with Moses when teaching the disciples about himself (and, indeed, the New Testament teaching that the Old Testament history and law all find their fulfilment in Jesus) then we must do more than scratch the surface. In honesty, though, it doesn’t take too much effort to see how God’s sovereign ordering of the history of Israel teaches Christians about the gospel. To illustrate, let me tell a story:

God saw that his people were in slavery, so raised up a prophet, a ruler and deliverer to save them. In a display of his power God defeated the authorities who wanted to keep his people in slavery and rescued them by the death of a lamb. He thwarted all of the attempts of those same authorities to recapture his people. He gave them instructions on how to live – which were always proceded by his saving grace, and failures to comply were always followed by his forgivness. He began to lead them through trials which were designed to test and refine them, and he went with them through it all – dwelling amongst them to strengthen and guide them.

Was that the story of Exodus, or the story of Christians today? It was both – at that general level the stories are exactly the same! God so inteligently authored the history of the Israelites so that it would picture the far greater salvation that was to come through Jesus – who is the far greater Moses. And that’s just the broad-brush picture of the book, so who wants to come inside and find what greater wealths are in the details?

The Truth is in Genesis…

Friday May 19, 2006

Links from Genesis:

Ken Ham asks whether understanding Genesis literally is important, and has a great beard!

Nathan Burley on being a tourist like Abraham (ch23)


Genesis is a book of beginnings. The beginning of the universe, the beginning of people, the beginning of sin, the beginning of suffering. It also shows the beginning of God’s revelation to us, as we learn of how he related to the beginnings of humanity and the beginnings of Israel his chosen people. Again and again God works his magnificent plan despite the disobedient and disgusting ways of his people and he is never foiled. Again and again he offers his people a fresh start, a new beginning. It’s also the beginning of the climax of history – as we see hints of the future revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ who will offer a complete new begininng to all.

Are you sitting comfortably? Let’s begin!

Genesis 26

Friday May 19, 2006

At the beginning of the chapter God tells Isaac that if he stays in this land, God will bless him. Then, in verse 12 it says that Isaac "sowed in that land and…the LORD blessed him" by making him very wealthy. Fair enough – that's just God doing what he said. But in between the two, wouldn't you expect to find Isaac trusting in God and not falling into the same sins that his father did? But that's not what we find – God comes through on his promise despite Isaac's lying. It's far too easy to hold Isaac up as the bad guy whenever he makes a mistake, but we see that in many ways he lived well – his dealing with the well situations, his grief over the improper marriages of his son and his good relations (after the Rebekah incident) with Abimelech. If he needed grace, so do I, and I never want to forget how out-of-this-world this is. This same grace is what I have. My life depends on it.

Heavenly Father, I thankyou for the good example of men like Isaac and the way that we can use them to model our own walk with you. But I thankyou so much more that the days that Isaac failed – and the days that I fail – don't stop you being faithful to your promises? Where would I be otherwise? Help me to live in the light of your awesome faithfulness and in your power follow the good example and put off the bad. Amen

Genesis 24:61-25:34

Wednesday May 17, 2006

God chooses that Jacob will be the dominant son before they are born. It's almost as if God's choice isn't based on a person's actions but on, well, his choice. (cf Romans 9.)

Don't despise the inheritance that you've been born into for some stew or any other worldly pleasure.

Dear God, I want to live in light of Heaven rather than just thinking about today. Make Christ real to me by your Spirit. Amen.

Genesis 24:1-60

Monday May 15, 2006

This arranged marriage is pretty weird to our culture, but Abraham had his priorities sorted. He knew that more important than Isaac being attracted to his future wife or 'clicking' with her was that she was of the same people, so they could work together in serving God. The Bible never says that we must marry those we find it easy to love, but we must marry those who are Christian. As an apprentice at my church (who is going out with an attractive young Christian woman) puts it, "Don't date dead people!"

A quick comment on prayer, Rebekah comes to the well before the servant has finished praying. It's not – as I can so often think – God saying 'Ah, that's a good idea, I might just try that.' Rather, Rebekah was already coming and the servant's prayer allowed him to see God's plans. In true prayer, our wills are conformed to God's so that we can serve him better in the rest of the day. Of course prayer does change what happens, but only when we pray according to God's will. If you want to guarantee that your prayer will be answered with a big, resounding 'YES!' try praying "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Heavenly Father, thankyou that you provided Isaac with a wife who was willing to leave her home. Help me to have the right focus in all my relationships, and to make it a priority to have solid Christian friendships with people who will encourage me to serve you faithfully. Help me to learn to pray the way you want, by searching the Scriptures to find what you want prayed for. Hallowed be your name. Amen.

Genesis 23

Sunday May 14, 2006

We see Abraham's character as a decent guy who desperately wants to avoid taking advantage of others. But there's much more that I completely missed. As soon as Sarah dies, Abraham says "I am a sojourner and foreigner among you". That's fair enough – they were living there first – but there's more to it than meets the eye. Turning to Hebrews 11 (that wonderful and inspired commentry on so much of Genesis!) the writer tells us that he lived "in the land of promise as a foreign land" (Hebrews 11:9) because he considered that he was a foreigner in the whole earth (v13). His wife's death had reminded him that this earth isn't his permanent home, but he's waiting for his true home. What a perfect reaction to a death – recognising that the deceased has entered a blessed rest, and being reminded that life is just being a tourist here on earth. Since I used the word tourist, I found this post helpful (and, in fact, the entire blog!)

Since we won't be hearing more of Sarah in Genesis (as far as I remember!) now seems like a sensible time to go back over her life and see what it's like. She was a woman who lived by faith in the awesome God who had made great promises to her. Where's my evidence for this in Genesis? I don't really have any. Truthfully, she doesn't come across too well in these chapters – she laughed when she was told she would bear a son and then denied it (Genesis 18), and she twice followed her husband into sin when he asked her to lie about being his wife (Genesis 12 & 20). But I'm not pulling it out of the sky. In fact, it's coming from…Hebrews! In the ESV (the English Standard Version of the Bible which I'm going to be using from now on) Hebrews 11:11 says, "By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised." I love my mum and dad dearly (which I don't say often enough – I love you guys!) and I thank God that they trust in the same Saviour I do, but I'm also excited that in terms of God's promises and salvation I'm descended from this God-fearing, faithful couple and can strive to live in their example.

Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had father Abraham.
I am one of them, you can be too
So let's all praise the Lord!

Amen, let's.

Heavenly Father, I praise you that you have made your offer of salvation open to everyone through Abraham and Sarah and their descedant Jesus Christ. Thankyou that at the last day you have promised that there will be such a great number who are rejoicing in you with this couple. Help me to live up to their example, remembering your faithfulness and letting it inspire my own and remembering that this life will never be my home. Let me long desperately for the full experience I will have of you in Heaven, and search for as much of you as I can have here. Amen.

Genesis 21:22-22:24

Saturday May 13, 2006

To be honest, I'm not sure what the point to me of 21:22-34 is – I'm not sure what I'm supposed to get from it. If anyone has any ideas…

Chapter 22, though, seems much easier to understand if not to apply. There were several points that struck me as I was reading it this morning.

Abraham says "Here am I" three times in this chapter. He was completely available and ready to listen.

Abraham obeys God instantly ("Early in the morning" – v3) and persistantly (he hadn't changed his mind even by the "third day" – v4). He wouldn't have been able to hold his resolve for that long. Surely he must have spent those days meditating on God's promise that Isaac would be the father of many children and on God's faithfulness. He had so much faith in God's promises that "he considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead" (Hebrews 11:19). How do expect to cope with tough times (or even good days!) without spending time meditating on God's word?

Abraham says that "God will provide for himself the lamb". He knew that God had provided Isaac when naturally he wouldn't have been born. He knew that Isaac belonged to God. But the fact that he acted on that in giving Isaac back to God is phenomenal.

God says that he will bless Abraham and give him many offspring "because you have obeyed my voice" (v18). Previously God promised unconditionally that Abraham would have many children. What if Abraham had said no? What would God have done? Of course, the point is that Abraham didn't say no! Here we see the beginning of a theme expanded on again and again in the Bible – God is sovereign and has mapped out all of time and it is good, but we are responsible and our actions have consequences. If you strain, you may hear a little hissing as my brain melts. Praise God that he has it under control!

The biggest thing that struck me, though, was the typology going on – the fact that this whole story is a picture of something that was to come. This is the first time that a ram was offered as a substitute for the death of a human which would be repeated in the Passover and properly in the crucifixion. Abraham and Isaac would never know that this event was a shadow of the only other time God would command the sacrifice of a human – another "only son" (v12, 16) of a Father who loved him dearly, another man who would have to carry up a mountain the wood on which he was to be killed (v6). That made me stop and wonder at the genius who scattered the little pictures of Christ's death throughout Israelite history. Then I stopped and wondered that God himself did what he did not require Abraham to do. God went the whole way and sacrificed his own Son, the God-man Christ. I can't get my head around it.

Heavenly Father, you are faithful to your promises and you are so wise. You only ever work for good, and you have the power that you only ever win. I confess that I have so often not made myself available to hear you and say "here am I" – I've been too busy in sin or laziness or self-indulgance. Thankyou for the cross that means I can fail and still be clean. Please help me to live the life of alertness and sacrifice that Abraham was willing to. Amen