Joshua 20:1-9 – Asylum

A painting of Hebron, one of the cities of refuge, 1839.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Now tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed Moses. Anyone who kills another person accidentally and unintentionally can run to one of these cities; they will be places of refuge from relatives seeking revenge for the person who was killed.

“Upon reaching one of these cities, the one who caused the death will appear before the elders at the city gate and present his case. They must allow him to enter the city and give him a place to live among them. If the relatives of the victim come to avenge the killing, the leaders must not release the slayer to them, for he killed the other person unintentionally and without previous hostility. But the slayer must stay in that city and be tried by the local assembly, which will render a judgment. And he must continue to live in that city until the death of the high priest who was in office at the time of the accident. After that, he is free to return to his own home in the town from which he fled.”

The following cities were designated as cities of refuge: Kedesh of Galilee, in the hill country of Naphtali; Shechem, in the hill country of Ephraim; and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), in the hill country of Judah. On the east side of the Jordan River, across from Jericho, the following cities were designated: Bezer, in the wilderness plain of the tribe of Reuben; Ramoth in Gilead, in the territory of the tribe of Gad; and Golan in Bashan, in the land of the tribe of Manasseh. These cities were set apart for all the Israelites as well as the foreigners living among them. Anyone who accidentally killed another person could take refuge in one of these cities. In this way, they could escape being killed in revenge prior to standing trial before the local assembly. (NLT)

God is concerned for justice. The Lord made sure that as soon as the Israelites got into the Promised Land that the divine rule of law would be established concerning cities of refuge. God did not take the stance of saying, “Well, these guys need to get settled in after all this military campaigning. I don’t want to overwhelm them with having to deal with this issue.” No, the Lord considered it imperative to have the cities set up. It was important enough to not put off or wait for Joshua to get around to it, even though it was on his to-do list.

The six cities of refuge in Israel.

God made it clear to Moses what was to happen in the case of involuntary manslaughter:

When the Lord your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, then set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess. Determine the distances involved and divide into three parts the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that a person who kills someone may flee for refuge to one of these cities.

This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. Therefore, I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities. (Deuteronomy 19:1-7, NIV)

A city of refuge is a place of safety where someone who murdered another unintentionally could seek asylum. Safeguarding life is a premium value for God. If one person is accidentally killed, the last thing the Lord wanted was even more innocent blood to be shed out of vengeance.

Law and grace are meant to exist together for the benefit of the entire nation.

Six cities are named, three on the west side of the Jordan River and three on the east side. No place in the land of Israel was more than one day’s journey from at least one of these cities, so God graciously provided ample opportunity for preserving the life of the one who killed without malicious forethought or intent.

Although sanctuary was given, there was a full investigation of the killing to ensure the innocence of the killer. If the killer was found to be guilty, then appropriate legal action was taken. If not, the person was only protected while within the bounds of the refuge city.

Therefore, it is important to approach God’s law and God’s grace not as an either/or but as a both/and. We are to show grace while obeying the law, and we are to maintain just laws when extending grace.

The crime should fit the punishment, and actions, even unintended ones, have consequences.

We need to continually work to uphold both law and grace together without forfeiting one for the other. Simplistic answers along with cut-and-dried approaches will not do when holding them together. Instead, issues of human life and death are to be given due diligence with examining the situation in all its complexity.

There is to be public respect for the sanctity of human life.

Showing such respect will come through both law and grace. By establishing cities of refuge, God was squelching generational feuds that go on and on and on. Justice will be done, yet it will be done with grace and not by family vendettas and blood feuds, like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.

God’s people are to live differently, with gracious respect for all life at the forefront of civil law.

Lord God, thank you for creating human life in your image and likeness, for the inherent worth you place on human existence. Help us to uphold the sanctity of life in our communities. Give us the strength to stand up to those forces that seek to destroy the lives of those most vulnerable. Today I commit myself never to be silent, never to be passive, never to be forgetful of respecting life. I commit myself to protecting and defending the sacredness of life according to your will, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Love the Lord Your God

Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV) 

One of the teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:28-30, NIV) 

I love my three daughters. I think God made them beautiful to compensate for all the ornery things they did as kids so I would not go crazy. Once the oldest was at the top of the stairs with the youngest (who was two years old at the time). She put her in a laundry basket and pushed her down with the middle kid at the bottom to catch her.   

I love my wife with all my heart and soul. Yet, she always thought it would be a good idea to have an open-door policy for the girls to come into our bed at night whenever they needed us. I have been puked on, peed on, kicked on and pushed out of bed. Sometimes it was like living with a bunch of drunks. Raising this girl version of “Malcom in the Middle” was often stressful. However, I gladly dealt with it all because I love my girls with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.  

Love God with all your heart. 

God has children across planet earth, and he loves them all. To love God with all our heart is to begin seeing God’s big expansive heart for people all around the world. God’s compassionate heart is close to the broken-hearted, near to those in need. In fact, God’s wrath is a response of love to make things right in this fallen world. As early as the book of Genesis, just a few chapters in, it says: 

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV) 

God is disturbed with violent and evil hearts. God is heartbroken about the dark places within the human heart. God is deeply concerned for suffering, injustice, oppression, and death. Every year fifteen-million children die of starvation. Human trafficking of women and girls has increased six-fold over the past five years resulting in forty-million victims of forced sex worldwide. We recently hit a grim milestone of one-million deaths across the world to COVID-19. Hundreds of millions are locked in grinding poverty, have no clean water to drink, and face a lifetime of illiteracy and poor wages. On and on it goes…. 

This is just a small glimpse of what God sees every day. And God knows each one of their names. For us, people need to move from being numbers to being names. God wants us to champion vital causes and aim our collective love toward people in need of Christ’s compassion and deliverance. 

Love is a deliberate decision to meet a need in another person. One who fails to see the needs of others will suffer a shrinking heart. But the one close to God’s heart and aware of another’s need will gain an expansive heart. God also sees the good and the beautiful: every obedient act done in secret, each prayer uttered in the privacy of our closet, and all the places of selfless love toward another.  

Love God with all your soul. 

We need a newfound sense of God’s wonder and beauty to reclaim the soul of Christianity. If loving God with all my heart means my heart breaks for the things that break God’s heart, then loving God with all my soul has my life flooded with God’s glory – awed by Divine majesty, mystery, and beauty. Loving God with all my soul is to perceive the glory and wonder of God all around me. It is to be profoundly grateful for everything – even and especially for the lessons learned from personal hardship and suffering.  

Without a divine perspective, we only see the world as we are and not as it is. The ways to cultivate a beautiful love for God with all my soul is to meditate on Scripture and creation. Literally take time to smell the roses. If we walk or drive the same route every day, be mindful to observe one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for it. Each time Holy Scripture is read, do it slowly and carefully, noticing one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for that perception. 

Love God with all your mind. 

True love has an insatiable desire to know more and more about the object of its affection. To love God with all our minds is a desire to learn and experientially know more about the Lord. It is to have a constant curiosity about God.  

We must love God with full faculties and not with half a brain. Left-brain dominant people rely on the logical, analytical, practical, and think chiefly in concrete ways. Right-brain dominant folks are artistic, intuitive, creative, imaginative, humorous, even sarcastic, often speaking poetically and with satire or metaphor. Loving God with all our minds means we will use all our brains, both the right and the left hemispheres. 

One obstacle to loving God with our brains is that the mind of sinful humanity is death (Romans 8:6). A sinful mind is a small brain; it is not interested in genuine critical thinking – only in stubbornly expressing opinions. Such individuals are merely using a ridiculously small part of their brains. God, however, wants to sanctify our whole brains, to transform us by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).   

We are to use our full cognitive capacities to love God – meaning we will value the left brain orientation of  embracing order and discipline, using all the tools of reason and logic, learning critical thinking skills, and pursuing the life of the mind. We will also value the right brain orientation of embracing mystery, paradox, and gray areas, enjoying the process of discovery, and probing the deepest issues of divinity and humanity – being comfortable with asking questions and not always having the answers. 

Love God with all your strength. 

God loves the smell of your sweat. You might stink to high heaven from hard work but for God it is a sweet aroma and sacred incense. Love is measured not only by words spoken but by calories burned. Using our hands and our effort is as valuable to God as using our brains.   

Feel free to go hard after God with all your strength – being mindful that we all have a finite amount of energy. Because of this, we need to ensure we do not inordinately waste our energy pursuing power and control. Pride, anger, and selfishness saps our strength. Guilt, shame, and regret follow it up by draining our spiritual stamina. So, we need to keep busy doing the right things. 

Loving God with all our strength requires respecting boundaries and implementing healthy rhythms of life. We might believe (wrongly) that the answer to most things is to work harder. Try doing that with your car when a red light comes on the dashboard and you will soon not have a car to drive.

Many persons are hellbent on working themselves into the ground. Feeling the pressure of responsibility, the fear of failure, the obsessive need for perfectionism, and the stress of dealing with difficult situations cause some folks to ignore their better judgment. Some individuals find the shame of failure too unbearable to let up on the gas pedal, and so keep going day after day worried that they might be letting someone down.    

Loving God with our strength means we will observe the Sabbath. God rested; therefore, we rest. Sabbath observance avoids loading up a day of “rest” with all kinds of work. We are to use our time to restfully connect with God, take leisurely walks with family, enjoy good friends over a meal, and, of course, delight in a well-deserved nap. Wise and rightly ordered priorities come from well-rested people.  

Summary 

Love God from a large heart because God has a big heart. Love God with your soul through deep feelings because God created us as emotional creatures. Love God cerebrally with a curiosity to know humanity and divinity because God is infinitely interested in us. And love God through hard work done for the things God cares about, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.   

Deuteronomy 5:1-21 – Ten Basic Rules for Life

Invitation to the Decalogue by Romanian sculptor Liviu Mocan

Moses called out to all Israel, saying to them: “Israel! Listen to the regulations and the case laws that I’m recounting in your hearing right now. Learn them and carefully do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Horeb. The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors but with us—all of us who are here and alive right now. The Lord spoke with you face-to-face on the mountain from the very fire itself. At that time, I was standing between the Lord and you, declaring to you the Lord’s word, because you were terrified of the fire and didn’t go up on the mountain.”

The Lord said:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins—even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.

Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.

Honor your father and your mother, exactly as the Lord your God requires, so that your life will be long and so that things will go well for you on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Do not kill.

Do not commit adultery.

Do not steal.

Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.

Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. (CEB)

Whenever I take my wife’s pooch to our local spacious dog park, he knows he will need to stick to just a few of my basic rules. Although he doesn’t need the leash and is free to roam, he understands not to bark at people or approach them and other dogs without my permission. Those few simple rules are for both his well-being, and others.

We as people are free to live our lives as creatures in God’s image. The Lord has just a few basic rules for us to live by to honor both divinity and humanity, as well as to protect others and ourselves. Most folks know them as “The Ten Commandments.”

The Ten Commandments (The Decalogue or The Ten Words) were given to the ancient Israelites nearly 3,500 years ago. These words have stood the test of time and continue to be understood as a universal standard of morality and relational interactions.

There are hundreds of commands in Holy Scripture – approximately 613 in the Old Testament, and 437 in the New Testament – a whopping 1,050 total commands throughout the entirety of the Bible. So, what, then, makes these Ten so special?  Why do we stick to The Ten Words?

Moses and the Ten Commandments by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Macri (1913-1991)

The reason The Ten Commandments have endured and continue to be learned, spoken, and adhered is that they are foundational commands. Following the Ten Words in the Old Testament are a string of specific commands from God to Moses and then to the people (Exodus 21-23 and Deuteronomy 6-26). Those commands are all a fleshing-out of how to live the basic Decalogue in the Israelites’ context of entering and being in the Promised Land.

In short, every single command of Holy Scripture can be ethically and morally tied back to The Ten Commandments in some way. Whereas many Old Testament laws were given to the Israelites in their ancient Middle Eastern socio-economic culture, The Decalogue was designed to be universal and flexible for every culture and society everywhere, for any time, and every generation.

Therefore, we need to distinguish between The Law (capital “L”) and the law (little “l”). God’s fundamental and foundational ethical Law has always existed and continues to exist – and it is encapsulated in ten short and simple commands which everyone everywhere can obey, whether they are at their jobs, at home, church, or out having fun.

In fact, these ten basic commands are so important that Jesus restated them for us in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Christ got down to the heart of the commands and let everyone know what it truly means to hold, keep, and obey The Ten Words. For example, Jesus said concerning the seventh command:

“You have heard that it was said to our people long ago, ‘You must not murder anyone. Anyone who murders another will be judged.’ But I tell you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be judged. If you say bad things to a brother or sister, you will be judged by the council. And if you call someone a fool, you will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22, NCV).

It had become easy over the centuries for people to think everything was jim-dandy if they didn’t physically kill anyone. Yet, Jesus knew that well before any person is murdered by another that anger has been nursed through bitter grudges toward another. 

The Ten Words are the very heart of God’s desire for all humanity, and this is precisely why it is important to know and obey them in their full intent. They contain how to relate to God (Commands 1-4); and, how to relate to one another (Commands 5-10).  Jesus would later say, in response to what is the greatest command of all:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  All the law and the writings of the prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NCV)

Question and answer 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism, a Confession of Faith crafted by Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century, addresses a significant issue:

Question: Since no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God want them preached so pointedly? 
Answer: First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.

Second, so that we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.

When all is said and done, grace will have the last word. Yes, none of us will ever perfectly live-out and embody The Ten Words in their entirety all the time. Yet, the grace of God in Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves: deliver us from the realm of sin, death, and hell.

Stuff happens. We often fail to live-into the ways of God for our lives through The Decalogue. However, God, always the hound of heaven, will track us down and mercifully redeem us.

So, embrace The Ten Words. Know them, memorize them, and understand them. Post them on the wall of your office or in your house. Most of all, seek to practice them, obey them, and embody them so that you can enjoy all the freedom of God’s big world.

And you just gotta love it that Johnny Cash once sang about them…

Exodus 23:10-13 – The Primacy of Rest

“Sow your land for six years and gather in its crops, but in the seventh year leave it alone and give it a rest so that your poor may eat from it. What they leave, let the wildlife have. Do the same with your vineyards and olive groves.

“Work for six days and rest the seventh so your ox and donkey may rest, and your servant and migrant workers may have time to get their needed rest.

“Listen carefully to everything I tell you. Don’t pay attention to other gods—don’t so much as mention their names. (MSG)

One reason poverty exists and seems to continue unabated, is that it is inextricably tied to rest. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive. However, it is not. Where work is exalted to such a degree that rest creates feelings of guilt, there you will find an entire class of poor folk who labor tirelessly without making ends meet. Those with power and wealth who eschew and denigrate rest are typically the ones who take advantage of the less fortunate and stereotype them as lazy.

Scriptural rest is not a luxury. An honest biblical sabbath rest is a vital necessity. It is important enough that God lovingly encouraged it and divinely commanded a day of rest to happen for everyone each week and a year of rest every seven, including both creature and creation. There were to be no exceptions.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate what God was thinking when he ordained his people for intentional times of rest comes from my time in a prayer chapel.  One morning I set aside a four-hour block to “rest,” get away, and pray.  I will be honest that I marched into it with a personal agenda of what I wanted God to do.  I had my list of prayer items and my thoughts of how I believed God should work. I was ready for anything but rest. I came to wrestle. Silly me.

It did not take long into my forceful striving at God to see I was on a misguided adventure in missing the point. In my desire to see prayer requests answered, I lost sight of why I was there: To simply be in presence of God and enjoy Jesus – without all the laborious work, as if simple rest and enjoyment were not enough. 

In our daily work-a-day world we poke and prod, push, cajole, and finagle to move forward and get our way on all kinds of things. To separate ourselves from our typical routine takes something of a withdrawal, and it is downright hard. Maybe that’s why many individuals are so tired, cranky, and negative all the time – we find all kinds of reasons not to rest, and even when we do, we’re still trying to impose our will on God. Silly us.

We simply need Jesus – to know Christ, be with him, and experience the depths of our wondrous and gracious union with him. And that will be difficult, unless we obey the command given by God to rest.  To rest means to relinquish our plans and agendas, just for a time, and come into God’s presence and enjoy each other’s company.

Our compulsions for performance and perfection are culprits to rest. We want to do everything right. We long to pray right, talk right, be right and live right – instead of simply coming to Jesus like a little child. Perhaps we are so profoundly dissatisfied with so many things because we are discontent with Christ. Just maybe the best or right prayer to pray is that we all may be content together no matter the circumstances. Only then might we find that our burdens are light and our life easy.

Jesus modeled the life of rest for us. If there was anyone who did not need to pull away and rest it was Jesus, and yet he continually did so. If Jesus needed a sacred space and place to commune and enjoy the Father, then how much more do we need a solid sabbath rest and a place to do it? Jesus rested and prayed to connect with his heavenly Father. There was no multi-tasking, keeping abreast of social media, or juggling other responsibilities.  There was merely the pursuit of intimate rest.

If we fail to rest and avoid sabbath, then we are expressing our confidence that money, hard work, and individual talent are really all we need rather than God. Rest is only secondarily about refueling our depleted resources; it is primarily about connecting intimately with the divine and becoming aware of our true thoughts and feelings. 

Just as we need a special room and a certain bed for sleep, so we need a consistent place and time to enjoy God.  Proper spiritual hygiene, just like proper sleep and health hygiene, includes setting aside a place to daily rest, pray, and be with God.

Real spiritual and biblical rest only “works” when we realize we are imperfect – that we are helpless and need Jesus. Apart from the rise Christ, the blind cannot see, Lazarus remains dead, and I am lost in my sin. I cannot “do” life without Christ in me and with me.

Maybe this old world is not experiencing grace and peace because God’s people have not yet learned the necessity of rest. If we try and manufacture results instead of relying on the Lord for refreshment and renewal, the good things of life will be elusive. 

Enjoy Jesus today, my friends, tap into the Holy Spirit, and allow your rest to spur you to love and good deeds for the poor and underprivileged of this world.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill. Amen.