“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 30:16)
This is the way the English Standard Version translates Deuteronomy 30:16, the verse of the day today in a Bible I use. I highlight the phrase that jumped out at me today, the one I have been contemplating since I read it this morning.
When I went looking for some deeper meaning, I found the other translations take it in a slightly different direction:
“For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws….” (NIV)
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments….” (NASB)
“I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments….” (NKJV)
Only one the English Standard Version instructs us to obey the commandments of God “by loving the Lord….”. Most of the time I believe we think about loving God by obeying His commands – not obeying God’s commands by loving Him. It’s a subtle difference, but it piqued my curiosity further.
I also discovered that the Hebrew word for love in this verse is “aheb”, which means (not surprisingly) “to love”. But it dawned me as I looked at the other verses in which that word is used that it seems to mean to love with affection. Abraham loved Isaac (Gen. 22:2); Isaac loved Rebekah (Gen. 24:67); Isaac loved Esau (Gen. 25:28)(more than Jacob); Rebekah loved Jacob(Gen. 25:28) (more than Esau); Isaac loved the “savory meat” that Esau provided (Gen. 27:4); and Jacob loved Rachel (more than Rachel’s sisters that his father-in-law insist he marry first) (Gen. 28:18).
Clearly, all of these uses of the word for love used in the commandment in Deuteronomy to love God imply a kind of personal affection, even to the exclusion of affection for other things (or people). Thus, we are commanded to have affection for God and to walk in His ways and keep His commandments: or, as the ESV translates, to obey God’s commands by loving Him (with affection).
The real light bulb moment today, though, wasn’t in the breaking down of this verse, but in its juxtaposition with my daily Bible reading, which is taking me currently through Numbers (after having left the detailed instructions about the Tent of Meeting in Leviticus). So many rules for the priestly duties of the Levites in connection with the Tent of Meeting and Ark of the Testimony and the altar where endless sacrifices were to be offered up have me wanting to get through these passages quickly!
And they have me asking, why? I know… they foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Lev. 9:22; Heb. 9:22) The writer of Hebrews tells us Christ has appeared, now, as the ultimate high priest, entering once for all into the holy places, securing for us eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11-13) All the sacrifices commanded by God in Leviticus, Numbers and so on were just copies of heavenly things: “For Christ has entered, not into the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God in our behalf.” (Heb. 9:24)
All the many sacrifices offered by the Levites at God’s commands as God’s chosen people wandered in the wilderness, carrying with them the Tent of Meeting and all of its accouterments, were just copies of the one sacrifice, “once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9:26)
As I read through these passages in the Old Testament, I find myself asking, “Why?” as if I were one of them, not knowing anything about the plans of God that were devised before the foundation of the world. What were they thinking as they did these things?
I realize that God was implementing His plans for the time to come, but what of them in their time?
The real importance of those things they did was not so much in the doing of them, as we might suppose (perhaps), but in drawing their attention and affections to God. What God wanted was for them to love Him, to have affection for Him. The rites were a means to that end, and they were a medium through which that end (loving God) could be expressed.
But people aren’t good at “getting it”. As I was praying today, I believe God drew my attention to the prophets. In Amos, in particular, we find God speaking these strange things through His prophet (Amos 5:21-22):
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.”
God is the one who carefully instructed them in intimate detail on the observance of those feasts, solemn assemblies and offerings (in quite a bit more detail than I care to read, if I am being honest). Through Amos, however, God says, “I hate them! I despise them! Why?!
I think the answer lies in our tendency to miss the deeper meaning and purpose of God.
We often “follow the rules” just to follow the rules, because we are supposed to, right? We follow the rules because we think doing that will make us acceptable and right with God. We follow the rules to be ethical and righteous, to have healthy self-esteem and to be honored and accepted by people.
Deuteronomy 30:16 suggests that the real purpose and meaning of following the rules is to develop affection and express affection for God by observing them. They should point us to God and be a vehicle for our expression for love, affection to God.
And when they don’t, frankly, we shouldn’t do them. It’s useless to be religious for the wrong reasons. I am of the opinion that it’s not all that beneficial to be religious for any reason. The more important things is to love God… with affection… to have true affection in my heart for God.
I don’t get that through following rituals in my experience, though I don’t want to discount anyone else’s experience on that point. It’s just that I find that real affection and love for God comes through honest, intimate efforts at interaction. If that is helped by religious ritual, then I wouldn’t discourage it. But for me, I have never really found it to be the avenue to connection with God as much as efforts at genuine, personal interaction.
The observances are just copies of the real thing. I desire the real thing – as much as I might be able to access and connect with God on a “real” level as a finite being who is often and constantly distracted by so many things that compete for my attention. Religious ritual, going to church, reading the Bible, etc. is often helpful in bringing my attention back to God, but it is no substitute for authentic connection in prayer, thought, meditation – and affection.