Two Distinguishing Marks of Ancient Israel
By many accounts, ancient Israel was just like all its near eastern neighbors. Their language had similar origins and their cultural practices looked, in many ways, identical. Yet by two distinguishing marks, ancient Israel was unlike any other people group. Moses explains in Deuteronomy 4:7-8 (ESV).
“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
The first and foremost distinction that Moses identifies about Israel is that the LORD dwelled among them. Other ancient near eastern people groups may have claimed their god(s) lived among them, but none could say their god(s) dwelled among them in the way that the LORD dwelled among Israel—in the pillar of fire and the cloud (Exodus 13:21-22; 40:34-38; Numbers 10:34); in the holy of holies over the mercy seat in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:21-22); available to them whenever they cried out to him (Isaiah 58:9). Indeed, ancient Israel had a one-of-a-kind relationship with the LORD because of the way he dwelled among them.
The second, but no less important, distinction Moses identifies about Israel is that they had the revelatory Word of the LORD—or as Moses says in verse 8, “statutes and rules so righteous as all this law” that God had delivered to Israel through Moses. These statutes and rules were integral to the unique relationship of the LORD with Israel. The Law of the LORD was not something created and imposed on Israel by its own leaders, nor was it transferred in from neighboring communities. Rather, it was given uniquely to Israel by the LORD through revelation. The Law was inseparable from God’s nearness; you could not have one without the other.
The Law of God That Blesses
The term “law” often gets a bad rap. This is because we tend to hear it in a limiting or behavior-controlling way. Although this is part of its function, the Law first needs to be recognized as a gift of God to us. This, in fact, is how Moses explains it in Deuteronomy 4:8. Notice he says that “this law” (Hebrew, torah) given by God to Israel provided for Israel a special status among its near eastern neighbors. No other nation was privileged to have access to the LORD or to his righteous laws like Israel. The Law of God given to Israel—built upon the Ten Commandments but also including other commandments and rules given in books such as Exodus and Leviticus—was a sought-after and cherished gift.
The Law was a gift because it laid out a way of life and prospering (shalom) for Israel. As Deuteronomy 6:24 states, the commandments of the LORD were given “for [Israel’s] good always.” God gave his Law to Israel “that [they] may live, and that it may go well with” them (Deuteronomy 5:33; cf. 6:3, 18; 8:1).
These life-giving, life-preserving qualities of the Law of God are what prompted the author of Psalm 119—that longest of psalms and one dedicated to meditation on the law of God—to exclaim over and over again: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97); “I hate the double-minded, but I love your law” (119:113); “I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law” (119:163); “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble” (119:165).
These verses affirm that the Law given by God through Moses was designed not as a burden to be borne but as the gift of a generous and loving God who wanted them to know his will and, thereby, experience his blessings, both as individuals and as a community.
The Law of God That Condemns
Yet the experience of Israel’s daily lives (not to mention ours!) with these “statutes and rules so righteous” was rarely free of conflict. God’s Law says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7), yet Israel constantly placed idols of power, security, self-righteousness, and comfort on the throne of their lives (e.g., Genesis 25:29-34; Joshua 7:10-26; 1 Samuel 15; Jonah 4).
God’s Law says, “You shall not murder” or “commit adultery” or “steal” or “covet,” yet the pages of Scripture put on display Israel’s ongoing refusal to adhere to these laws, thereby bringing consequences of conflict, pain, and death (e.g., Genesis 37:1-11; 2 Samuel 12:16-23; Ezekiel 34:1-10).
This pattern of constant and pernicious disobedience describes the relationship ancient Israel had with God’s good and perfect Law. And, if it describes their relationship with the Law, then it describes our relationship with the Law, too. This Law that we treasure as a gift and as a reflection of God’s character and his perfect will for us has become a means by which our sins are identified and we earn for ourselves eternal death and judgment.
Who Will Save Us from the Condemnation of the Law?
Looking back at Deuteronomy 4:7-8, we might be led to ask, “So, what benefit was there exactly for the unique ‘gifts’ given to Israel of God’s nearness and his Law?” It appears that both have brought not life but death—not a blessing but a curse!
Well, in a reversal of epic (or should I say biblical) proportions, the resolution to Israel’s problem (and ours)—a problem which appears to be introduced by God’s presence and his Law—is actually solved by the same.
Israel’s wickedness stood as a condemning witness against them. They were law-breakers. The nearness of God’s holy presence and Law made this clearly evident. Yet without the gift of God’s nearness and his Law, they would have no hope of salvation.
It was God’s nearness in the holy of holies that provided a place for Israel to turn to seek forgiveness (Exodus 29:45-46; 1 Kings 8:30). It was God’s word of ritual procedure which opened a way for Israel to gain access to atonement (Leviticus 16). It was God’s word of promise of a Suffering Substitute Savior (Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 52:13-53:12) which instilled hope of rescue from eternal judgment not just for Israel but for all the world. And it was Jesus—the incarnate Word of God who dwelled among us in the flesh (John 1:14) and who perfectly fulfilled the Law of God in our place (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22)—who has become for us the distinguishing marker of our lives.
The Law of God is good, both for ancient Israel and for us. The fact that we break the Law does not point to its weakness. The Law does what it was intended to do: it shows us our need for salvation and points us to Jesus, the only one who can save. We could use more gifts like this!
Dr. Brad Pribbenow, Ph.D. is Dean of Lutheran Brethren Seminary and Professor of Old Testament.