Moses, it seemed, had been part of the Israelites’ lives for ever. But he was about to leave them. The book of Deuteronomy is, in fact, his farewell, in the form of three speeches given over a period of about a month. The people were camped on the east bank of the River Jordan, opposite Jericho, and were at last about to enter the Promised Land—without their beloved leader.

Huge changes were just around the corner. This generation had been born and raised in the desert. Unlike their parents they hadn’t personally experienced Egypt and the exodus. The desert was all they knew. But now they faced a completely new situation, and many questions buzzed around their heads. What would it be like having a fixed address instead of being on the move all the time? What would it be like living in a house instead of a tent?[1] How would they cope with planting and harvesting crops? How would they handle having to travel to ‘the place the LORD your God will choose’ in order to worship there?[2] How would they manage without Moses?

For us in the twenty-first century, constant change is here to stay. Back in 1970, the secular prophet Alvin Toffler made a sound prediction:

‘In three short decades between now and the 21st century, millions of ordinary psychologically normal people will face an abrupt collision with the future. Many citizens of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations will find it increasingly painful to keep up with the incessant demand for change that characterises our time. For them, the future will have arrived too soon.’[3]

Until about 150 years ago, life continued virtually unchanged for our predecessors from one generation to the next. Now all that has gone for good, and the pace of change is increasing exponentially. Some of the changes so far have been negative, others positive. On the down side, families tended to stay in one area and were there to support each other; now they are often scattered across the globe. Local community spirit used to be strong; now neighbours are strangers to one another. People used to respect authority-figures like teachers and policemen; now they don’t. A job for life was the norm; now it’s short-term contracts and insecurity.

Looking on the bright side, diseases like scarlet fever used to kill people; now they are virtually eradicated. Travel was time-consuming and arduous—six weeks for British missionaries to reach their station is central Africa; now it’s quick and easy—there in less than twenty-four hours. Food used to be preserved by pickling and placing on a ‘cold slab’ at the cellar-head; now we have fridges and freezers. People used to die in prolonged cold weather; now we have central heating.

Coping with change, good or bad, isn’t easy. And it gets harder as we get older. But people of faith like Joshua and Caleb—the only remnants of the older generation standing with the younger folk on Jordan’s banks—prove that change can be tackled with gusto even by the elderly. So what changes would the Israelites face?

For a start, God would ask them to do more for themselves. They would need to do some rapid growing-up. In the desert God had provided their food in the form of daily manna; now they would have to plant vineyards and sow, tend and harvest crops.[4] In the desert God had supernaturally kept their clothing and footwear from wearing out;[5] now these would wear out, and the people would need to work to make new ones. In the desert there had been no poor among them, because God’s provision had been equal to all; now society would exist on a normal economic basis, with the emergence of rich and poor, and the need to care for the latter.[6]

Change for you, too, may mean doing more for yourself. New Christians, I’ve noticed, often get from God whatever they need with a simple prayer: release from depression, financial help, a sense of his close presence. ‘Please, Lord…’ they say, and it’s there. As time passes, however, it doesn’t continue to work so easily. ‘Ah yes,’ people conclude. ‘That’s because they have lost the simplicity of their early faith.’ Maybe. But I suspect it’s more to do with God’s wish to prod us into growing up. ‘It’s time to stretch your trust in me,’ he is saying. ‘Time to hold fast to me even when you are feeling low, or money is tight, or I don’t seem as close as I did.’

Another change in store for the Israelites as they entered the land was that they would face new temptations. For the first time, for instance, they would be surrounded by worshippers of other gods, and they would be curious about those gods. They could be tempted to abandon Jehovah.[7] Today, in the same way, you can be ensnared by pluralism, the notion that all religions are valid routes to God and that you can take your pick. But Christianity is unashamedly exclusive.[8]

The Israelites would also be tempted to be governed more by sentiment than by God’s command. The pagan inhabitants of Canaan were riddled with gross sin, including rampant homosexuality, and God had been clear: ‘You must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.’[9] Not an easy command to obey when some of them seemed to be, really, quite nice people.

The greatest temptation of all, perhaps, would be to let new-found prosperity lead them into backsliding from their commitment to God: ‘When you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’[10] This is a temptation for us all. God certainly wants you to prosper, but never at the expense of holding fast to him. The words of Joseph to the Egyptian butler generations earlier remain poignant as God’s words to you: ‘When all goes well with you, remember me.’[11]

Yet another change for the Israelites would be coming under new leadership. Moses, who had led them so long, would die outside the Promised Land and a new leader, Joshua, would take them in.[12] New leadership is always unsettling. Even Joshua, of course, wouldn’t last for ever. Further down the line they would have kings to rule them, meaning even more radical adjustments.[13] It is no different today in local churches. Apostles grow old and die. Local leaders retire, with young and relatively inexperienced ones taking their place. New styles of leadership are inevitable—and often difficult to accept.

Also, in the land God’s law would need applying in new ways. The principles would remain the same, but changed circumstances would require new applications. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ for instance, would now require the Israelites to build a parapet round the flat roofs of their houses to prevent accidents,[14] and refrain from moving a neighbour’s boundary stones.[15] Church life today presents similar challenges. The principle of ‘Let us...not give up meeting together’,[16] for example, may need applying in new ways. The traditional Sunday meeting may have to come under review. The customary 6.30pm start to the evening service was originally governed by the milking times on local farms, but this is hardly a factor for most Christians today. But whatever time we choose, changed hours and practices in the workplace mean than we can no longer expect every church member to be at every meeting.

So change is here to stay. What, then, can you learn from the Israelites about how to cope with it?

For a start you can face up to past mistakes. In the first couple of chapters of Deuteronomy Moses reminds the people of their failures since leaving Egypt. Memory has a way of filtering out the negatives, but the reality was that the past had been far from rosy. Admitting the reality of the down-side of your past may well help you to tackle the challenges ahead.

At the same time, you must remember God’s past blessings. The God who has been your ‘help in ages past’ will be your ‘hope for years to come’. On the threshold of the Promised Land Moses reminded the Israelites of God’s goodness in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt and providing for them in the desert,[17] and this would encourage them to believe that the same mighty God would be with them in their changing circumstances.

In facing change you will also do well to hold on to the basics of your relationship with God, because they never change. For the Israelites, that meant reminding themselves of their covenant with Jehovah. Indeed, chapter 29 details their corporate renewing of that covenant in order to keep it central to their thinking and action. And chapter 16 urges upon them the faithful keeping of the Passover festival as a reminder of the roots of their current freedom. You can learn from both. While you don’t need to get saved all over again, you do well to keep reminding yourself that your salvation is the very foundation of your existence. And the Lord’s Supper—the New Testament equivalent of the Passover festival—keeps before you the fact that you have been redeemed by nothing less than the blood of our Lord Jesus, shed freely for you.

It may help, too, to recognise that God uses both the carrot and the stick to keep his people in line—the incentive backed up by the threat of sanctions. Or, in Old Testament language, ‘blessings and curses’. Moses spelt out both to the Israelites as they camped on Jordan’s banks. ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses,’ he said. ‘Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.’[18] When they eventually got into the land they were to proclaim the curses from Mount Ebal and the blessings from Mount Gerizim in a mammoth national event that would impress the reality of God’s ‘carrot and stick’ upon them in a hopefully unforgettable way.

God still operates this way, even in this day of grace. He has provided every possible incentive for you to love and obey him, but at the same time ‘the fear of the Lord’ remains a factor in your relationship with him. Like a child with a good parent, you will maintain a healthy respect for God’s awesome holiness, and sometimes that godly fear will keep you on the straight and narrow when the incentive fails to do so. Such a balanced approach will help you cope with the challenges of change that lie ahead.

I don’t need to be a prophet to assure you that change lies ahead for you. Don’t be afraid of it. You can more than survive it: you can prosper in it as you learn from Israel’s experience. That’s what Jesus himself did. He quoted from Deuteronomy more than from any other book in the Pentateuch, notably in his stand against Satan in the desert[19]—which was a huge time of change for him, as it marked the start of his public ministry.

Whatever changes the future may have in store for you, embrace them with Deuteronomy’s lessons under your belt and press on confidently into new territory in the purpose of God.

 

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

 

1. Deut 11:19

2. Deut 12:4-5, which hinted at an eventual fixed location for the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple.

DEUTERONOMY

Lessons For A Time Of Change

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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Deuteronomy

12. Deut 34:9

3. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1970.

4. Deut 22:9-10

5. Deut 29:5

6. Deut 15:11

7. Deut 12:29-30

8. See Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5

9. Deut 7:1-2

10. Deut 6:10-12

11. Genesis 40:14

13. Deut 17:14ff

14. Deut 22:8

15. Deut 19:14

16. Hebrews 10:25

17. Deut 4:33-35

18. See Deut 30:15-20

19. See Matthew 4:1-11

The gist of this article

Deuteronomy finds the Israelites on the threshold of the promised land, with massive changes imminent. Noting how they handled the challenge of those changes will help you do a better job of handling changes of your own.