Fear – Deuteronomy, Part 6

Achan son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah, stole some of the riches [of Jericho which had been devoted to yehôvâh].  The Lord (yehôvâh, יהוה) was furious (chârâh, ויחר; Septuagint: ἐθυμώθη, a form of θυμόω; ʼaph, אף; Septuagint: ὀργῇ, a form of ὀργή) with the Israelites.[1]  I’m still considering the third occurrence of yirʼâh (ויראתך) in the Bible, the word I’d hoped would distinguish the fear of the Lord from ordinary fear.  I’ve skipped ahead a bit to explore what life was like for Israel under law as the sharp tip of the sword of divine judgment.

I notice right away that Achan stole some of the riches (chêrem, החרם) but yehôvâh was furious with the Israelites (literally, “the sons of Israel”).  Achan’s was the “perfect” crime.  No one but yehôvâh knew what he had done.  For Joshua it was business as usual.  He sent men from Jericho to Ai[2] as spies.  They reported that Ai would be easy to take: Don’t tire out the whole army, for Ai is small, the spies said.  So about three thousand men went up, but they fled from the men of Ai.  The men of Ai killed about thirty-six of them[3]  The impact was immediate and devastating (Joshua 7:5b-9 NET):

The people’s courage melted away (mâsas, וימס) like water.

Joshua tore his clothes; he and the leaders of Israel lay face down on the ground before the ark of the Lord (yehôvâh, יהוה) until evening and threw dirt on their heads.  Joshua prayed, “O, Master (ʼădônây, אדני), Lord (yehôvâh, יהוה)!  Why did you bring these people across the Jordan to hand us over to the Amorites so they could destroy us?  If only we had been satisfied to live on the other side of the Jordan!  O Lord (ʼădônây, אדני), what can I say now that Israel has retreated before its enemies?  When the Canaanites and all who live in the land hear about this, they will turn against us and destroy the very memory of us from the earth.  What will you do to protect your great reputation?”

In the previous essay I wondered “if I should simply accept that yirʼâh, similar to the fruit of the Spirit, comes from God.”  At this particular moment Joshua didn’t believe—This very day I will begin to fill all the people of the earth with dread and to terrify (yirʼâh, ויראתך) them when they hear about you[4]—was a supernatural fear given by yehôvâh.  Clearly, he thought that fear originated from the uninterrupted triumph of Israel’s army: They annihilated with the sword everything that breathed…[5]  The Lord (yehôvâh, יהוה) responded to Joshua (Joshua 7: 10-12 NET):

Get up!  Why are you lying there face down?  Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenantal commandment!  They have taken some of the riches (chêrem, החרם); they have stolen them and deceitfully put them among their own possessions.  The Israelites are unable to stand before their enemies; they retreat because they have become subject to annihilation (chêrem, לחרם).  I will no longer be with you, unless you destroy what has contaminated (chêrem, החרם) you.

Here it didn’t matter whether Joshua’s command to the army was yehôvâh’s command or whether Joshua had understood Moses correctly, for yehôvâh took full responsibility for Joshua’s command[6]: Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenantal commandment!  The one caught with the riches (chêrem, בחרם) must be burned up along with all who belong to him, because he violated the Lord’s covenant and did such a disgraceful thing in Israel.[7]  I’ve written about what happened to Achan, his sons, daughters, ox, donkey, sheep, tent, and all that belonged to him[8] elsewhere.  Here I want to consider the alternative.

Achan’s confession reads: I saw among the goods we seized a nice robe from Babylon, two hundred silver pieces, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels.  I wanted them, so I took them.[9]  Achan was one of the soldiers who annihilated (châram, ויחרימו) with the sword everything that breathed in the city, including men and women, young and old, as well as cattle, sheep, and donkeys.[10]  He had hacked and slashed his way through every living thing in the city to purge out wickedness from the promised land, and then became that wickedness himself.  If we fault yehôvâh for dealing with Achan and all that was his in the way that he had dealt with others we would fault Him just the same for showing Achan mercy (James 2:8-13).

But that was then; this is now (Matthew 18:32-35 NET):

“Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you begged me!  Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’  And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed.  So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”

This is one of the places from which the fathers of the Catholic Church have derived the doctrine of purgatory.  “I have even heard elderly friends tell me how their Catholic schoolteachers would threaten unruly schoolboys with lurid descriptions of the fires of purgatory!” [11] Robert Stackpole wrote parenthetically.  I didn’t grow up Catholic so I never actually feared this particular passage.  We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin,[12] scared me as an adult returning from atheism.

It has a Logic 101 quality that spoke to me early on.[13]  So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart—seemed more like a clever turn of a phrase.  By the time it clicked with me it caused no fear, but granted me permission to forgive.  It helped me to locate and distinguish the Holy Spirit from that cacophony of voices, if you will (that variety of impulses, if you will not) inside me.  It gave me strength to stand against my religion and its many reasons for withholding forgiveness: “you will appear weak, they will gain an advantage, they will never learn, they don’t deserve forgiveness, only God can forgive sins,” etc.

If I examine my fear of the knowledge that everyone fathered by God does not sin, the first thing I notice is that it didn’t cause me to flee at that particular moment in my life.  I searched the Bible instead, “looking for loopholes” perhaps but seeking understanding.  The first understanding I received appealed to the philosophical bent of my mind and though it seems like a loophole to many, it helped me to locate and distinguish the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 7:13-20 NET):

Did that which is good, then [e.g., the law], become death to me?  Absolutely not!  But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.  For we know that the law is spiritual – but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin.  For I don’t understand what I am doing.  For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate.  But if I do what I don’t want, I agree (σύμφημι, a form of σύμφημι) that the law is good.  But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me.  For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.

Being led by the Spirit came much more slowly for me.  Mr Stackpole highlighted the problem: “the merits of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross are promised to those who repent in faith.  The real question is, What about those whose repentance was weak and half-hearted…”[14]  Purgatory wasn’t the answer in my religious circle, but the quality and quantity of heavenly rewards.  The “weak and half-hearted” would be “hippies” in the social hierarchy of heaven.  Colin Smith wrote: “I trust that you will want to join me in storing up treasures in heaven, knowing that our righteousness is a gift from God in Christ Jesus, and that we serve a generous God who promises great rewards (100x!) to those who trust him and serve him faithfully.”

I didn’t know that my righteousness is a gift from God and probably thought that would be cheating.  How could my position in the social hierarchy of heaven be a gift from God?  And the common Bible verses quoted seemed at first reading to confirm my understanding of justification by faith and sanctification by my works: If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss.  He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.[15]  Jesus taught, “But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’  So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God.”[16]  And Paul instructed Timothy, Command those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be haughty or to set their hope on riches, which are uncertain, but on God who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment.  Tell them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous givers, sharing with others.  In this way they will save up a treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the future and so lay hold of what is truly life.[17]

Thank God I am such an accomplished sinner.  Praise God that his Holy Spirit would not “help” me earn my social position in heaven by “my” good works as He kept me hungering and thirsting for his righteousness.  I no longer feel any obligation to referee between purgatory and heavenly rewards.  Both explanations were designed to encourage me to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness[18] here and now.  Neither was as effective on me as a hunger and thirst for righteousness,[19] which I assume has come from God.

The alternative—that a hunger and thirst for Jesus’ righteousness originates with me—doesn’t scan.  I’m not that kind of guy.  A desire to be right?  That’s me.  A desire to appear righteous to you?  Okay, that’s probably me, too.  But the hunger and thirst for righteousness which I now have did not originate with me.  So what do I know about yirʼâh?

Well, I’ll start with what I don’t know: I don’t know whether yirʼâh was a supernatural fear from God or the natural result of confronting an army that took no prisoners and captured no slaves.  I know that yirʼâh was effective to accomplish God’s purpose to eradicate the wicked people who inhabited the promised land: It mustered[20] their armies to march to their deaths.  I don’t think Israel had anything like the confidence in yehôvâh which would be required to slaughter a peaceful, welcoming people.  I’m thinking that yirʼâh may have become the one Hebrew word to describe the combination of yârêʼ and ʼâman: they feared (yârêʼ, וייראו) the Lord, and they believed (ʼâman, ויאמינו) in the Lord.[21]  And I have a compelling contrast between Rahab, an Amorite prostitute and innkeeper, who feared yehôvâh and Achan, an Israelite soldier and thief, who did not.

I don’t have the hard-edged definitive kind of knowledge I like but I have enough encouragement to continue studying.  Besides, the hard-edged definitive kind of knowledge I like is really only useful for judging you—which brings me to the most bitter irony: When I take the name of yehôvâh/Jesus in vain by judging you for sins I share I lower the bar (Ezekiel 16:52-63), so to speak, and make it easier, if not expedient, for Him to show you mercy (Romans 11:29-31).  When the Holy Spirit has his way with me and I live his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control[22] I condemn you who are not led by the Spirit of God.[23]  The only way I can live with this most bitter irony, and continue to hunger and thirst for his righteousness, is to pray daily:

“My persistent prayer for justice”[24] for all who call or have called or will call on our Father in heaven[25] “is for the mercy on which everything depends,[26] for it does not depend on human desire or exertion but on You who shows mercy, for You have consigned all to disobedience (ἀπείθειαν, a form of ἀπείθεια) so that You may show mercy to all.”[27]

If He can save an accomplished sinner such as I am, I see no reason or excuse why He can’t or shouldn’t save a sinner like you.

[1] Joshua 7:1b (NET)

[2] Joshua 7:2a (NET)

[3] Joshua 7:3b-5a (NET)

[4] Deuteronomy 2:25a (NET)

[5] Joshua 6:21a (NET)

[6] Joshua 6:16-19 (NET)

[7] Joshua 7:15 (NET)

[8] Joshua 7:24 (NET)

[9] Joshua 7:21a (NET)

[10] Joshua 6:21a (NET)

[11] What’s All This Talk of ‘Purgatorial Purification’? Part 2

[12] 1 John 5:18a (NET)

[13] It’s been a long time since I took Logic 101 so I checked again online that modus tollens is valid and found a reasonable exception.

[14] What’s All This Talk of ‘Purgatorial Purification’? Part 2

[15] 1 Corinthians 3:15 (NET)

[16] Luke 12:20, 21 (NET)

[17] 1 Timothy 6:17-19 (NET)

[18] Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

[19] Matthew 5:6 (NET)

[20] King Sihon was hardened for this purpose.

[21] Exodus 14:31 (NET)

[22] Galatians 5:22, 23 (NET)

[23] Romans 8:14 (NET)

[24] Luke 18:1-8 (NET)

[25] Matthew 6:9-14 (NET)

[26] Romans 9:14-16 (NET)

[27] Romans 11:28-36 (NET)