March 17, 2017

DEVARIM 18: Levites and Prophets


All the tribes of Israel received land as their inheritance. These lands not only served as a place to live in, but also as a source of sustenance whenever they worked on it. However, one of the tribes did not receive land as their inheritance…
(Deut. 18:1-2) The Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the LORD’s food offerings as their inheritance. (2) They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them.

The special role that the Levites would fulfill had already been mentioned in chapter 10…
(Deut. 10:8-9) At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD to stand before the LORD to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. (9) Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The LORD is his inheritance, as the LORD your God said to him.

If they had no land to provide for themselves, what would the Levites live off of? The Lord gave them a special provision: they would get the tithe and the first fruits of the production of the other tribes of Israel, aside from the food that came from the sacrifices and the animal and grain offerings.
(Deut. 18:3-5) And this shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those offering a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder and the two cheeks and the stomach. (4) The firstfruits of your grain, of your wine and of your oil, and the first fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. (5) For the LORD your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, him and his sons for all time.

Also in the book of Numbers it speaks about this special portion for the Levites…
(Num. 18:20-21) And the LORD said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel. (21) To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting

Paul referred to the portion of the ministers of God in the Temple, and explained that their service was equivalent to the believing ministers of his time.
(1 Corinthians 9:13-14) Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? (14) In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

Most of the Levites didn’t live in Jerusalem, but in the 48 Levitical cities which were all over the land of Israel (Num. 35:7-8). These were inhabited cities with common lands surrounding them for their food harvests. In those cities, the Levites served the local people as judges and teachers of the Law (Heb. Torah); but their main job was to serve God in the Temple of Jerusalem.
(Deut. 18:6-7) And if a Levite comes from any of your towns out of all Israel, where he lives—and he may come when he desires—to the place that the LORD will choose, (7) and ministers in the name of the LORD his God, like all his fellow Levites who stand to minister there before the LORD

Although the Levites didn’t receive any land inheritance, they kept the best portion: to serve the Lord. The service of the Levites in the Temple was split among 24 groups, and each one would serve for two weeks per year (1 Chronicles 24:4-18). In Jerusalem they would get a place to stay and food when they arrived to serve God (Deut. 18:8).

When the Israelites would enter the Promised Land, they would not find a deserted land, but an inhabited land. Over and over again, the Torah warns them to clean the land of all idolatry and of all the abominations of the people who lived there before them.
(Deut. 18:9-12) When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. (10) There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer (11) or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, (12) for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.

The definitions of these abominations are the following:

  • Burning his son or daughter: this practice was associated with the worship of the pagan god Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of a son or daughter.
  • Divination: is looking to know the future through magic or other mediums that have nothing to do with science or reason.
  • Fortune telling or Interpreting Omens: predicts evil or misfortunes.
  • Sorcery: a divination that is not based on science or reason, but on magic.
  • Charms: magical and evil powers that are used to dominate the will of a person or to control the course of the events.
  • Necromancy (or magic): an occult science that pretends to produce surprising effects with the help of secret forces of nature.
a.    White magic”: the use of natural mediums that seem supernatural
b.   Black magic”: making extraordinary things with the help of a demon
  • Inquiring of the dead: divination of the future though invoking the spirit of the dead.

The Canaanite nations used to practice those abominations, but the Torah clearly warns Israel not to imitate these evil traditions.
(Deut. 18:14) for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this.

In contrast with the pagan traditions of the other nations, the Bible says that Israel is called to be “perfect”…
(Deut. 18:13, CEB) Instead, you must be perfect before the LORD your God.

What does it mean to “be perfect”?
It obviously does not mean to “have no defects”, because no human being is perfect. Instead, it means to have integrity and to be straight. The word that is translated as “perfect” in Hebrew is: Tamiym, which can also be translated as: complete (or whole), straight, truthful, and sincere.

 A person of integrity is one that acts with righteousness. He makes an effort at all times to do things as God commands; and in case he makes a mistake, he rectifies his mistake. This is someone who would be considered “perfect” or with integrity in the Biblical concept (Heb. Tamiym).

The call to “be perfect”, or blameless, goes back to Abraham…
(Genesis 17:1) You shall be blameless before the LORD your God

In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus also calls us to be perfect…
(Matthew 5:48) You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Being perfect is related to imitating God.
(Luke 6:40) A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.

Being perfect has to be the goal of the believers (2 Cor. 7:1), and it is a process that last a whole lifetime. Paul is an example of that…
(Philippians 3:12-15) Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (15) Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.

Every believer must aim at being perfect. Each one has to give the best of them, and the Lord will do the rest (Col. 1:28-29).

The opposite of looking to be perfect would be to be “double-minded”, and this is something James talks about:
(James 1:8) he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

A “double-minded” person is sometimes good, and other times acts wrongly without repenting. This person will usually judge others harshly, but is forgiving when looking at his own life. The double-mind is a matter of the heart that is reflected in the actions. That is why James says:
(James 4:8) Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

The Bible mentions the concept of integrity (“to be perfect”; Heb. Tamim) comparing it to the abominations that the other nations commit. God calls his people Israel to be different, set apart… to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 20:23-27).

In contrast with the magical arts, the Bible presents the image of the prophet…

Some might have the temptation of looking at the “prophet” as the Biblical version of the magician or the sorcerer, but nothing could be further from the truth. While magicians look to manipulate the present and the future at their own will, the biblical prophet leads us to submit to the will of God.

The Biblical prophet is simply a voice that God uses to reveal His will. Many can identify the prophet with the concept of “predicting the future”, but that is not the essence of his purpose. In reality, the prophet is someone who speaks what God wants to say to His people, whether it be about the future, the present, or even related to the past. Prophet in Hebrew is: Navi, which comes from the verb Navah which means: to speak by inspiration (or to prophesy).

Now let’s see what the Bible says in regard to the prophet in Devarim 18…
(Deut. 18:15-18) The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— (16) just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ (17) And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. (18) I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.

The prophet is an intermediary between God and His people. What he speaks is what God told him, and that is why we need to pay attention to what the prophet says.
(Deut. 18:19) And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.

The people must obey the prophet. But, does this apply to every prophet? While the prophet speaks in the name of God, we do have to listen to his words; but the Bible also warns us to be careful with the false prophets…

The Bible defines the “false prophet” as someone who speaks something that God has not told him. And the consequence to such a fault is very serious…
(Deut. 18:20) But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.

The punishment is severe because the danger is very serious, since it could mislead the people of God. However, it is difficult to distinguish between who is a false prophet and who is a real one. The Torah teaches us a way to determine that…
(Deut. 18:21-22) And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— (22) when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

The description of the prophet of God in this chapter has a hidden messianic message.
(Deut. 18:15) The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…

Giving testimony of Jesus as the Messiah, Peter pointed out that He is the prophet that had been promised in Devarim…
(Acts 3:22-23) Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. (23) And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’

Jesus Christ (in Hebrew, Yeshua HaMashiach) is the sent prophet, who speaks what God the Father has spoken, and to Him we must obey.

(John 12:49-50) For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. (50) And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.

More lessons on Deuteronomy: DEVARIM (Deut.)

March 3, 2017

DEVARIM 17: Sacrifices, Idols and Kings in Israel


Chapter 17 begins with an isolated verse which refers to the quality of the sacrifices that are offered to God in the Temple…
(Deut. 17:1) You shall not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the LORD your God.

This concept, regarding the consecration of the first born animals (Deut. 15:21), had already been mentioned. In Leviticus 22, it defines what is considered a defect in an animal destined to be sacrificed…
(Leviticus 22:20-22) You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you. (21) And when anyone offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. (22) Animals blind or disabled or mutilated or having a discharge or an itch or scabs you shall not offer to the LORD or give them to the LORD as a food offering on the altar.

If an Israelite is going to offer something to God, it has to be without flaw, because the Lord deserves the best.

The rest of this chapter (17) covers two main themes:
1. How to deal with idolatry in Israel
2. Expectations from a king in Israel

Idolatry is a very serious sin for the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is in the second commandment, right after recognizing Jehovah as God…
(Deut. 5:6-8) I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (7) You shall have no other gods before me. (8) You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

The temptation of idolatry doesn’t just happen among the pagan people, but it can also surface among the people of God, which is why the Torah deals with the subject and it forbids it.

The question that is answered in this chapter is: What must be done when an Israelite falls into idolatry?
(Deut. 17:2-5) If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant, (3) and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, (4) and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, (5) then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. 

If an Israelite is committing idolatry, the witnesses must take him or her to the city gates, where the judges are seated. The judgment and condemnation of an idolater is not done in the streets nor do the people do it, but it is left in the hands of the judges. Given that the consequence is very serious, the judge must be very sure that the Israelite has committed such a sin.

To condemn someone in Israel to death, there had to be a testimony from two or more witnesses, who would confirm that the person had done such evil and deserves the death penalty.
(Deut. 17:6) On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.

The role of the two witnesses was not only to give a testimony, but that they would also participate in the condemnation…
(Deut. 17:7) The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Speaking on the subject of idolatry, let’s go back to the last verses of the previous chapter, which talk about the same thing…
(Deut. 16:21-22) You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the LORD your God that you shall make. (22) And you shall not set up a pillar, which the LORD your God hates.

Here it specifically mentions the idol of Asherah, which was represented with a stick or a tree, as a symbol of fertility. The trees dedicated to Asherah were planted by the pagan altars in the high places.

The Torah explicitly forbids that the Israelites imitate such evil Canaanite traditions.
(Leviticus 26:1) You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God.

The second main subject in this chapter is about the kings in Israel. This is a controversial subject in the beginning of Israel’s history since, in theory, God was king over Israel. He is the maximum authority and the one who decided on the legislation. However, God knew that the day would come when the people would ask for “a king like the other nations” (either because they wanted to have a visible leader, or because they wanted to be like the other nations).
(Deut. 17:14-15) When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ (15) you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.

God makes it clear that He is still the Supreme Sovereign, since even when there is a human king in Israel it will be the Lord who will choose him. It is not about a democracy (where the leader is chosen by the people), nor a monarchy (where the king decides on the laws); instead, it is about a constitutional monarchy, having the Torah as the legal framework and a king who submits to God.

Until now, the requirements for the king of Israel are:
a. A king chosen by God
b. He must be an Israelite; never a foreigner

The other requirements for a king in Israel are the following:
c. He will not increase his horses
d. He will not take many women for himself
e. He will not acquire riches in abundance
f. He will write a copy of the Torah, and read it every day

Let’s see these last requirements one by one…

c. He will not increase his horses
(Deut. 17:16) Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’

The horses were not just a symbol of military power. The armies that had a cavalry had a comparative advantage over those soldiers who fought on foot.
The king of Israel has to trust in God, and not in this military power.
(Psalms 20:7) Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.

Further ahead, we will see this principle again (Deut. 20:1).
(Deut. 20:1) When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.

d. He will not take many women for himself
e. He will not acquire riches in abundance
(Deut. 17:17) And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

This is the opposite of what Solomon did (1 Kings 10:26; 1 Kings 11:1-13).

f. He will write a copy of the Torah, and read it every day
(Deut. 17:18-20) And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. (19) And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, (20) that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

This requirement was one of the most important requirements because it placed the king under God, who is the real King of Israel. On the other hand, knowing the Law would also help him be a better leader.

More lessons on Deuteronomy: DEVARIM (Deut.)

February 24, 2017

DEVARIM 16: Feasts and Righteous Judge


This chapter begins talking about the feasts of the Lord. Some people call these “Jewish feasts” given that throughout history it has been the Jews who have kept them, but in reality, they are the Feasts of Jehovah, because He was the one who appointed them.
(Leviticus 23:2) Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, these are the appointed feasts of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts.

Not only has the Lord appointed these feasts, but He also designated specific times for them…
(Lev. 23:4) These are the appointed feasts of the LORD, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them.

Now let’s see what those feasts are, and which are their designated times…

There are seven Feasts of Jehovah, but there are really three times of convocation (the first three are joined by a single convocation, as well as the last three)…
(Deut. 16:16-17) Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. (17) Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you.

The three times of convocation and pilgrimage to Jerusalem (“the place where God chose”) were:
  1. Unleavened Bread (14-21 of Nisan)
  2. Weeks (in the month of Sivan, the 50th day of the counting of the Omer)
  3. Tabernacles (15-21 of Tishrei)

1st CONVOCATION: Unleavened Bread (14-21 of Nisan)
That week, three feasts are celebrated: Passover (Heb. Pesach, 14 of Nisan), Unleavened Bread (Heb. Chag HaMatzot, 15-21 of Nisan), and Firstfruits (Heb. Bikkurim, the Sunday of that week).The offering that is presented at that time is the first fruit of the barley.

(Deut. 16:1) Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the LORD your God, for in the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you out of Egypt by night.

The month of Abib is also known as Nisan, but here it receives the name of “Abib” because of its connection with spring, since the word means: ear sprout. This is the first month of the year of the Biblical Calendar (which was established in Exodus 12:2), and this beginning of the spring season is marked by the sprout of the crops, the first of which is the barley.

In that first month (Abib / Nisan) the first feast of the Lord is celebrated: Passover…
(Deut. 16:2) And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the LORD your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that the LORD will choose, to make his name dwell there.

As we’ve previously mentioned, Jerusalem is “the place that Jehovah chose to place His Name there”. That was the only place where the Passover sacrifice could be offered.
(Deut. 16:5-7) You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, (6) but at the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, at the time you came out of Egypt. (7) And you shall cook it and eat it at the place that the LORD your God will choose. And in the morning you shall turn and go to your tents.

If they celebrated the Passover in any other place, then they could not eat lamb, since it could only be sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Passover is followed by the second Feast: Unleavened Bread…
(Deut. 16:3-4) You shall eat no leavened bread with it (Passover). Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. (4) No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days, nor shall any of the flesh that you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain all night until morning.

(Deut. 16:8) For six days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly to the LORD your God. You shall do no work on it.

The third feast is connected to the offering of the first fruits of the barley harvest. The chosen day for this feast is the Sunday of the week of Passover (Lev. 23:10-11). Starting on that moment, the “Counting of the Omer” began…
(Deut. 16:9) You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain.

The counting of these seven weeks is the connection with the next feast (Lev. 23:15-16)…

On the 50th day of the Counting of the Omer, which is on the beginning of the month of Sivan, the fourth feast is celebrated: Weeks (Heb. Shavuot), which is also known as “Pentecost”. In this occasion, the first fruit of the wheat harvest is offered.
(Deut. 16:10-11) Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the LORD your God blesses you. (11) And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there.

3rd CONVOCATION: Tabernacles
In the month of Tishrei (the seventh month in the Biblical Calendar), the last three feasts are celebrated: Trumpets (Heb. Rosh Hashanah, 1 Tishrei), Day of Atonement (Heb. Yom Kippur, 10 Tishrei), and Tabernacles (also known as “Booths”) (Heb. Sukkot, 15-21 Tishrei).

Here in chapter 16, only the last one is mentioned because in that week the Israelites would make a pilgrimage into Jerusalem…
(Deut. 16:13-15) You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. (14) You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. (15) For seven days you shall keep the feast to the LORD your God at the place that the LORD will choose, because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.

God summoned us to these feasts not just so that we would celebrate some historical Israeli event, but also because they are designed to give us revelation on God’s Redemption Plan through the Messiah. On one hand, there is the “shadow” of the feast (the history), but on the other hand there is also the “body or the substance” (the prophetic), which is the revelation of the Messiah and the steps that He will take when he will redeem all humanity (Col. 2:16-17).

The following graph makes a parallel comparison between the historical aspect and the messianic revelation of each feast:

Body or Substance
Messianic fulfillment
Sacrifice of the lamb in Egypt
Jesus, the Lamb of God, dies on the cross
Unleavened Bread
Going out of Egypt
Jesus is buried
Crossing the Red Sea
Jesus rose again
Weeks (Pentecost)
Revelation of God in Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah
The Holy Spirit descends over the disciples

Announcing the Second Coming of the Messiah
Day of Atonement
Forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf
All iniquity and judgments are erased
Presence of God in the Tabernacle
Millennial Kingdom  of the Messiah

The second main subject of Devarim 16 has to do with the Israeli judges.
(Deut. 16:18) You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

Judges (Heb. Shoftim) are indispensible for a society, since they know the law and help to settle conflicts among the citizens.

The position that is translated as “officer”, in Hebrew is Shoter, which literally means: scribe. The scribes were the ones in charge of writing the copies of the Torah, and therefore they knew the law very well. Shoter can also be translated as: superintendent or magistrate.

Both judges and scribes served the people by judging cases and solving conflicts. The Bible instructs them to “judge with righteous judgment”. What does this imply? The Torah explains it next…
(Deut. 16:19) You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous.

In theory, the judge must follow the law to a tee, and pass judgment according to what is right. Although this is ideal, in human reality, justice can be corrupted either through bribe, trick, or prejudice. To prevent this, the Torah determines that the judge must be impartial. This principle had already been mentioned in the first chapter of Devarim…
(Deut. 1:16-17) And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. (17) You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’

Those who were the most vulnerable to the unjust judgments were the neediest and those who had no power…
(Deut. 24:17) You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge

The judge has to pass judgment according to God’s order, and not by following his heart or his emotions.
(Deut. 16:20) Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

In the desert, only Moses was serving as a judge, but the demand was too much for him. Following his father-in-law’s suggestion, they appointed more judges from among the leaders of the people, who helped to settle conflicts among the people. And the hard cases were left for Moses to deal with (Exodus 18:13-23).

Further ahead we will see that, after Moses died, the most difficult cases were left to the priests (Deut. 17:9). In chapter 17, certain aspects of the judgments are mentioned so we will go over them in this lesson, since we are already on the topic…

The Priests of Jerusalem served as judges, helping to settle the differences that had not been solved in the legal courts.
(Deut. 17:8-9) If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. (9) And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision.

This court of priests in Jerusalem was considered the Supreme Court. The resolution that came out of that court was final, and the population had to submit to its decree.
(Deut. 17:10-11) Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the LORD will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. (11) According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left.

If someone rebelled against the resolution of that priestly court, it would be considered insubordination and he would have to face the maximum sentence.
(Deut. 17:12-13) The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (13) And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.

[We will study the last verses of this chapter in the next lesson, since they are more connected with the subjects of the next chapter…]

More lessons on Deuteronomy: DEVARIM (Deut.)

February 10, 2017

DEVARIM 15: Debts and the Firstborn Animal


In chapter 15 of Deuteronomy (Heb. Devarim) we see two main themes:
a. The forgiveness of debts in the seventh year (Heb. Shmita)
b. The consecration of the firstborn of the livestock

SHMITA: Rest for the Land
The word of God instructs that every seven years in Israel, there is to be rest for the Land; this in Hebrew is known as “Shmita”. The first time the Shmita commandment appears in the Bible is in Leviticus (chapter 25). We will read it because there it mentions some aspects that it does not mention in Devarim 15.

(Leviticus 25:1-5) The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, (2) “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (3) For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, (4) but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (5) You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.

If the Israelites could not cultivate the land, what would they live off of for that entire year? It explains it next…
(Leviticus 25:6-7) The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, (7) and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

On that seventh year, the Israelites could not work their fields, but they could eat of the fruit that was still left on the trees and on the fields (only to eat, but not to sell). The surplus of the fruits of the field would then fall on the ground, and that would help to fertilize and revitalize the lands.

SHMITA: Forgiveness of debts
Besides this cleansing of the Earth, God also planned for this seventh year a cleansing of the economy…
(Deut. 15:1-2) At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. (2) And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD’s release has been proclaimed.

Shmita literally means: remission. The definition of “remission” is: the forgiveness of a penalty or punishment that deprives a person from his liberty. In the biblical concept, it refers to the forgiveness of a debt that has deprived the debtor from economical freedom.

In that seventh year, all the debts were dropped down to zero. All the debts were forgiven in Israel; no one owed anything – with the exception of the foreigner.
(Deut. 15:3-5) Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. (4) But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— (5) if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.

If anyone had not been able to pay for a debt it was because he really was in a state of much need. This forgiveness of debt was a way of social aid for the most needy, as well as a way to clean up the national economy.

In biblical times, when someone asked for something on a loan, it was because on top of not having any money in cash, the person also had sold everything he had. Asking for something borrowed was the last option before offering himself as a slave. When someone took on a debt, it was under the agreement that if he could not pay it back, he would be committed to pay back his debt with labor, either by becoming a servant of the creditor or by sending out his children as slaves until the debt was covered. That is how someone could become a slave in Israel.

Today, loans are very common, and people not only take it out of necessity but also to satisfy desires and pleasures (like extra-financing for traveling and for entertainment). Although today being in debt may be popular, from the biblical perspective, it is considered undesirable.
(Proverbs 22:7) The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.

In biblical culture, being in debt was basically out of need and not for pleasures.
The ideal thing is to be in the position of the lender, which is considered a blessing.
(Deut. 15:6) For the LORD your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.

Instead of asking for loans and giving securities (Prov. 22:26-27; Prov. 6:1-5), what the Bible teaches us to do is to save (Prov. 6:6-8). In God’s Kingdom, the debt should not be the norm but the exception; and if someone is willing to give, it is because there is a great need. The commandment of forgiving the debt every seven years helps to alleviate the economical struggles of the neediest, as well as cleaning up the economy on a national scale.

The law of the remittance of debts could lead some people to not want to give out loans, since every seven years these debts must be forgiven. That is why the Bible says the following:
(Deut. 15:7-11) If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, (8) but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. (9) Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. (10) You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. (11) For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’

Jesus said it in the Sermon of the Mount:
(Matthew 5:42) Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

The need could come to any person in any moment, and it is not always due to bad finance management. If we see a brother in need, we must lend him a hand to help him get up again. At the same time, he who receives the favor, must be thankful and repay those who helped him as soon as he can.

If these principles were applied in our families and in our communities, our national economies would be much healthier.

In some societies, instead of helping the poor, they take advantage of them. But God makes it very clear that He will defend their cause.
(Proverbs 14:31) Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.

(Proverbs 22:22-23) Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, (23) for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.

Along with forgiving the debts on the seventh year, those who fell into slavery or servitude because of debts were also given freedom. In Israel, slavery was not as encouraged as it was in other nations. If someone fell into slavery it was because they sold themselves due to their own needs. This used to happen when an Israelite asked for a loan, and part of the payment of the debt was paid with work as a slave, either done by himself or by his children.

But God established that in Israel these “slaves because of debt” would be freed every seven years.
(Deut. 15:12) If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.

When the indebted brother was let go, help was also provided to him…
(Deut. 15:13-14) And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. (14) You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.

This help to the freed debtor was so that he and his family could lift their heads up. If they had reached the point of slavery because of debt it was because they were left with absolutely nothing. Help would be provided so that they could move forward in that new stage.

This freedom from debt might sound unjust for the lender, but there are several details that brought comfort:
(Deut. 15:18) It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.

1.    The payment to a slave was less than that of a sojourner
2.    The Lord will bless those who obey this law

         And also the following:
3.    We have all been benefited by God’s remission; therefore, if God asks us to do this, we must do it as a way to show gratitude to Him.

(Deut. 15:15) You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.

The moment the slaves by debt were let free, it could happen that someone would rather stay living as a slave instead of having the risk that came along with freedom. If someone chose that option, he had to do it under the agreement that this was a permanent decision and not a temporary one.
(Deut. 15:16-17) But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, (17) then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same.

The Biblical concept of “forgiveness of debts” is linked to the principle of “forgiving the faults”. God himself has given us the example of remission when he forgave us our sins. This same principle is the one we must learn to apply to our neighbor. To illustrate this, Jesus narrated a parable that teaches us about the divine perspective of the forgiveness of debts…
(Matthew 18:23-35) Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. (24) When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. (25) And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. (26) So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ (27) And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. (28) But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ (29) So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ (30) He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. (31) When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. (32) Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. (33) And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (34) And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (35) So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.


The last part of chapter 15 talks about what must be done with every firstborn of the livestock…
(Deut. 15:19) All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the LORD your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock.

The way to consecrate the firstborn was to offer it in the temple, and then to eat it…
(Deut. 15:20) You shall eat it, you and your household, before the LORD your God year by year at the place that the LORD will choose.

As we’ve mentioned before, “the place where God chose” is Jerusalem. That is where the firstborn calf and lamb had to be taken to. This offering of the firstborn is linked to the principle of placing God before everything.

What would happen if that firstborn calf or lamb had any defects – since nothing with a fault could be offered in the Temple (Lev. 22:20; Deut. 17:1; Mal. 1:8)? In that case, the following had to be done:
(Deut. 15:21-22) But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the LORD your God. (22) You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer.

The firstborn with any defects would also be eaten, but it should not be taken to the Temple. That one would be eaten locally. Here it mentions again that the meat may be eaten – but without blood…
(Deut. 15:23) Only you shall not eat its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.

More lessons on Deuteronomy: DEVARIM (Deut.)