This is it. After the years of waiting and wandering, the Israelites are poised to enter the promised land, the land God has provided.
Our reading this week starts in the middle of all the curses—all the consequences God vows will befall the Jews if they break their covenant with him. This was a surprise to me. I didn’t recall that there were specific curses outlined as part of the covenant relationship. I’m so much more comfortable with the word “consequence” than the word “curse.” I recalled that God vowed the Israelites would be conquered and taken into exile if they forsook him and worshipped other gods. But I wasn’t aware of the variety and specificity of the curses detailed for them. To be honest, I found it rather disturbing, and was a little rocked by “Just as the Lord has found great pleasure in causing you to prosper and multiply, the Lord will find pleasure in destroying you” (315).
The Bible bears testimony to the justice of God, to his longsuffering, and to his allowing and even using difficult circumstances to test, shape, shepherd, discipline, and fight for his people. He’s clearly a God of tough love and letting his children experience the consequence of their choices. But finding pleasure in destroying them? That does not sit easy with me. That’s a scary God that harkens back to fire and brimstone sermons that I frankly see as alienating people from knowing God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. But there it is in the Bible in black and white. What are we to do with it?
Reading through the curses, it made me wonder if anyone had second thoughts about entering into this agreement. But human nature being what it is, we tend to only look at the upside, don’t we? Picture it: a couple of million people, amassed on the border of the land their forefathers were promised. A land large enough and lush enough to provide for all of them. A land they’ve endured a forty-year detour to enter. How closely did they listen to the fine print? And how could they turn back now or decide to strike out on their own because the contract was too onerous? I have to keep in mind that they have seen God’s presence and provision day in and day out. They are in a sweet period of relationship with him—how easy it would be to downplay the punishment clause that would certainly never need to be invoked.
How smart was God to have the warning put to music and taught to them all in a song, “so that it may serve as a witness for me against them” (319). God knew that the people would break their covenant, and he planned ahead for that day: “and when great disasters come down on them, this song will stand as evidence against them” (319).
God certainly knows human nature. And not only does he have blessings in store for his people when they keep his covenant, and curses for when they don’t, he even has a contingency for when they come back to him: “If at that time you and your children return to the Lord your God, and if you obey with all your heart and all your soul all the commands I have given you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes. He will have mercy on you and gather you back from all the nations where he has scattered you” (317). There’s his mercy and grace.
I have to note that in the middle of all of this—the covenant details and prophecy about their exile and return—God slips a little detail of his mysterious plan into the song: “I will rouse their jealously through people who are not even a people; I will provoke their anger through the foolish Gentiles” (321). If I’m not mistaken, I think that’s a little foreshadowing of how God’s plan will go on to provide for the Gentiles when the Jews largely reject Jesus as their messiah, without his forsaking his original covenant with the Jews.
He’s definitely the God of the long game.