Kangaroo carcasses, spread on the side of the dirt road, and next to each lifeless heap, deep scratch marks. Recently returned from his outback trip, a friend painted this sensory picture of deadly thirst. Had we been there, we might have seen majestic animals wildly digging up the red dirt, desperately trying to find water.
This year, country New South Wales has endured one of the worst droughts on record. Cattle have been hand fed by desperate and despairing farmers. Sheep have been put down by the RSPCA. In alarming rates, farmers have sadly taken their own lives.
In spite of all this, here in Sydney, I can still water my lawn, take a daily shower, wash my dishes, and drink as much clean water as I desire. In big cities, we don’t know how good we have it. Hike, work on the land, or survive a natural disaster, and you always think about the supply levels of the most precious liquid on earth.
The Israelites were meant to be the hammers of God’s judgment on the abhorrent and violent behaviours of the existing nations of the promised land (Gen. 15:13-16; Lev. 18:24,27; Deut. 18:10-12). The passage before us does not focus on retribution, let alone theodicy, but on the Lord’s prophylactic against ongoing corrupting influences on his treasured people.
There must be no skerrick in the land of its previous inhabitants, neither familial nor political alliances with them, and no evidence of their pagan culture, human sacrifices or shrine prostitution. Israel’s single-minded devotion mattered. The faith of unborn generations hung on their obedience.
While it might please some readers that the Israelites did not keep this command seriously, that belies something flaky in our Christian constitutions. We think the worst thing that can happen to someone is for them to die. But there are many worse things, including turning one’s backs on God. The rest of the history of Israel lives out the heart-wish of many modern readers as Israel’s limp devotion to the Lord expressed itself in leaping between two opinions, syncretistically following others gods and forsaking their very own fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:4-13).
Moses’ feet had stood firm before the Lord, un-sandled and safe, his wobbly legs kept upright as he approached the throne of Egypt, his stomach un-retched at the stench and repulsive sight of boils, hail-damage, and widespread slaughter. His back was strong in leading the people, lifting the staff over the Red Sea; and unlike the hordes of Hebrews, he didn’t turn his neck back to the oh-so-delicious onions of Goshen. He kept it towards Mount Sinai, the downpayment, and the promised land to come.
But early on the journey, it was Moses’ head that was almost completely undone, and that by the constant demands and needs of his people. Moses was in danger of ending his ministry with a whimper. And so am I. And so are all of us if we do not listen to the man who should be the ‘patron saint’ of all fathers-in-law, Jethro.
After bringing Moses’ wife and sons from stage left-behind, hearing all that had happened, ‘Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel’ (Ex. 18:9). But Jethro can’t believe what Moses is doing now, how he is ruling and adjudicating all their problems, ‘from morning till evening’ (Ex. 18:13). He wants to protect Moses from himself.
Back in the 90s, I recall a heightened interest in making sure that all church activities were corporate, and explicitly so. The Apostles’ Creed in some churches was modified from “I believe” to “we believe” and songs were judged poorly if they were not plural. That shibboleth only applied unevenly to new songs, since almost all of the safe favourite hymns were in the first person singular—Amazing Grace, I will sing the wondrous story, When I survey, Be thou my vision, Abide with me, And can it be?, How great thou art, It is well, Jesus paid it all. Even with these notable exceptions, “I, Me” and My” were out. “We, Us and Our” were ascendant. But over the last 20 years reality hit, and no one seems to care now. The Old Testament trajectory right from the beginning, and especially in the Psalms, conforms to this reality. The “I” is an essential part of corporate praise.
The battle-lines have been dug in the conflict about christians and alcohol, with entrenched positions generating pamphlets, sermons and even denominations. But those trenches are now largely empty. Most of the fighting has already taken place; and the fortifications are largely abandoned with only a small cadre of hold-outs remaining, fighting for abstinence. And while I am not one of those who argues practically for this position, I do see their wisdom. The cost of new generations moving on from this discussion, is that unexamined worldliness seems to be winning. In interest of deeper healing, let’s reopen the wound.
My contribution to this discussion will not be so much a word study on alcohol, but will be about the words “hero” and “valiant”, and its focus will be unashamedly on men, with secondary application for women. The Bible does not overlook women. Christian older women are taught “to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to much wine”. (Tit. 2:3) But men are lined up in the target sights in Isaiah 5. What is on view is an intoxicated masculinity. In its place we need one that is sober, strong and just.
If falling on your knees in prayer is so powerful, why endure that vomit-inducing totally-debilitating chemotherapy? If God promises to give you the words to speak, why would you spend so much midnight-oil reading the Bible and trying to understand its message? If you run a kids ministry, why not just pray that the children would be protected, and not worry about security and safety in your inner-city afternoon kids-club? If God will grow his kingdom, increase our godliness, or bring about our good in all things, then isn’t prayer enough?
On the other side of the argument, what is the point of prayer? Isn’t dripping sweat, resolute godly courage and wise skilled hands really what counts?
Contradictory voices orbit the Christian world-view and try to pull away from balanced Biblical revelation. “Let go and let God” competes with “God helps those who help themselves”. There is some truth in both; but also a lie.
Red-wine stains are removed by first sprinkling salt, wax by ironing with brown paper, and oil necessitates a surfactant detergent. For every domestic disaster, there is a unique cure.
The Old Testament Levitical system prescribes more than one remedy, implying that there were multiple problems, or that the problem affecting humanity has many dimensions.
In the most basic terms, there were two symbolic liquids splashed everywhere in ceremonial rituals. Blood was spilt and parts of the body washed with water. Both altar and basin stood before the entrance to the Holy Place, barriers and conduits, showing that the way to God was only through blood and water. But the visual aid was always limited, temporary and had to be repeated. How do we see this fulfilled in Christ?