Friday, March 30, 2018

Looking at a broader context when studying Scripture

This post continues our focus on the importance of reading Scripture in its context.

I was recently reading a book by a popular Christian author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty).The writer cites Deuteronomy 1:1-8, which reads:

1 These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan—that is, in the Arabah—opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab. 2 (It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.)
3 In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had commanded him concerning them. 4 This was after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, and at Edrei had defeated Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth.
5 East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying:
6  The Lord our God said to us at Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7 Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. 8 See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.”

The writer says that Moses pointed out to the Israelites that what should have been an eleven-day journey had taken them forty years (v. 2), and goes on to say that in verse 6  Moses tells them they have stayed at this mountain long enough. The author then directs a question to the reader: Have you stayed long enough at the same mountain? Has it taken you forty years to make an eleven-day journey?

Three paragraphs later, the author says that God showed them the Israelites had remained in the desert because they had a “desert mentality”— certain types of wrong thoughts that had kept them in bondage.

A “desert mentality” wasn’t the reason the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert. It had nothing to do with an attitude of, “Well, I guess this dryness is just our lot in life. We’ll never get anywhere better.”

The real problem was that the generation that left Egypt in the book of Exodus had failed to trust God. In Numbers 13, twelve spies went to inspect the land of Canaan. Ten brought back a negative report, saying that Israel was not capable of overcoming the inhabitants and taking the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. Only two of the twelve (Joshua and Caleb) gave a positive evaluation, saying that Israel could take the land. The people chose to believe the negative report, doubting that God would give them victory. As punishment for their rebellion, God determined that none of the generation that left Egypt in the Exodus—save Joshua and Caleb—would enter the Promised Land. They would roam the desert as wandering shepherds for forty years (Numbers 14:33). Their children, however, would be allowed to enter and take possession of Canaan (Numbers 14:31).

Clearly, the crowd Moses is speaking to in the first chapter of Deuteronomy had not been stuck in the wilderness because of a “desert mentality” in their own minds, but because all the rebellious previous generation who had failed to believe God had to die off before the nation could enter the Promised Land.

In a similar manner, when one reads past the first few verses of the first chapter of Deuteronomy, one realizes that when God said at Horeb—Horeb being another name for Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law from God—“You have stayed at this mountain long enough,” that this was just the beginning of their journey.

  • In Deut. 1:9, Moses says, “At that time I said to you, ‘You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone.’ ” The words “at that time” indicate something further back in the past. Here Moses is referring back to the events of Exodus 18:17–26.
  • In Deuteronomy 1:19–46, Moses reminds the people how the spies had been sent out, but the people had rebelled (Numbers 13 discussed above).
  • Deuteronomy 2:1–3:20 gives an overview of the desert wanderings (which are also summarized in Numbers 33), including the Israelite conquest of territories east of the Jordan, where Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh settle, with the stipulation that their fighting men must accompany the other tribes to help them conquer and possess their inheritance west of the Jordan.
So by the time Deuteronomy 1 is taking place, and Moses is summarizing the last forty years for his listeners, the “desert wandering” has already stopped. The Israelites are now “east of the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1), not at Mount Sinai/Horeb. They had not been “at the same mountain” for forty years, as this popular author asserts. Deuteronomy 1:6 is not referring to where they are at this point in the story, but where they were a generation before. Yet the writer goes on to develop arguments about people being kept from entering into God’s plan for them because of a “desert mentality.”

But when we take these few verses the author uses, and look at them in their context within the overall storyline, we see that this text cannot be saying what the author claims. While the author’s general premise—that how we think affects our actions and therefore how our life goes—is not necessarily wrong, it can’t be supported using the Scripture passage chosen.

We must always be careful to let the text say what the text says, whether we are preaching a sermon, teaching a class, leading a family devotional, or doing personal Bible study.

Context. Context. Context.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15, NIV).

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