The Importance of Promises

Parashah BeHuqotay (“In My statutes”) ~ Leviticus 26:3–27:34

The weekly Torah portion (Hebrew: פָּרָשַׁת הַשָּׁבוּעַ Parashat ha-Shavua, popularly just parasha) is a section of the Torah read publicly and aloud in weekly Jewish prayer services, usually in full during the Shabbat (Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath). Each week, the ECI Young Adults are providing us with a commentary on the week’s parasha.

How easy it is to say, “I promise”!  When I play the game of hide-and-seek, I might “promise” not to look when people are running away to hide. When a friend leaves to go to another country, I might “promise” to pray for them every day. When I am called to speak as a witness in a court case, I might “promise” to tell the whole truth and nothing except the truth. 

Oaths

Oaths: little words of big consequence

When I stand in the front of church to marry my fiancé, I will likely promise to be faithful to her only, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health, until death separates us”. They are only little words, but they can be very important depending on who we say them to, and when we say them.

This portion of the Torah tells us how very important are the promises we make to God, as individuals or as a nation. If we break them we must pay the cost, but if we keep them we will receive great rewards.

Even so, these last two chapters of Leviticus were originally probably not meant to be closely related to each other.  In fact, it might have been better if the Jewish scholars had divided the books of Leviticus and Numbers between these two chapters, because they are facing in different directions.  Chapter 26 promises blessings or curses on Israel based on how they respond to the Law of Moses. This was the official way that ancient people used to finish their covenant treaties; the new covenant between God and Israel which started in Exodus 20 ends here in Leviticus 26.  Chapter 27 then gives a price list for buying back things which were consecrated to God, and this is actually a useful preparation for the following chapters of Numbers 1–8.

Chapter 26

In the late second millennium bc, around the time of Moses, official treaties between a ruling empire and its vassal kingdoms almost always ended with curses followed by blessings. Later, in the first millennium bc during the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, official treaties no longer included a section for blessings at all. The covenant treaty made between God and Israel in Exodus 20 – Leviticus 26, and also its second edition forty years later in the book of Deuteronomy, both have blessings before curses. This is more similar to ancient collections of laws given by a ruler to his own people, as in the Laws of Hammurabi from the early second millennium bc.  By listing blessings before curses in chapter 26, God is making it clear to Israel that He has not conquered them; instead, He is a loving ruler wanting to bless them with laws that are for their benefit.

The blessings of obedience in 26:3-13 are not just for normal life to continue, having enough to live in peace.  God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt in order to give them dignity as a free and independent people (v13). They were His own nation, so He wanted to be extravagant in the gifts He gave them. Five Israelites would defeat an enemy force twenty times larger, and one hundred Israelites would chase away an army one hundred times bigger (v8). The land would be so fruitful that the harvest of one crop would continue until the next crop is ready (v5), and one year’s harvest would be too much to eat it all during that year (v10).  The most important blessing, though, reminds us of the Garden of Eden – God would choose to make His home among His people (v11), and He would even walk among them (v12).

The land was cursed and made desolate

The land was cursed and made desolate

However, the nation of Israel had made a promise to God that they would obey His commands and accept His authority over them. If they chose to break their promise, there would be serious consequences. There are regular warnings that if they ignored His gentle discipline, the punishments would keep getting worse, even seven times worse (vv18, 21, 24, 28). The first signs of God’s judgement would involve sudden terror and fear for no reason, wasting diseases of body and soul, harsh government, defeat by enemies, and harvests being stolen by others (vv16-17). Continued disobedience would bring drought and failure of agriculture (vv19-20), wild beasts killing children and animals (v22), and then enemy armies invading and laying siege to cities, where plague and lack of food will defeat the defenders (vv25-26).  Finally, the most horrific curses would be brought on those who are still hostile to God. They would be forced to eat their own children, their corpses would be piled up along with the things they worshipped, and they would be scattered in exile among the nations, leaving behind desolate places of worship and empty cities, a land even their enemies would be appalled at (vv29-33).  Even in exile among the nations, those who survived would rot away because of their sins and their ancestors’ sins, unable to resist their enemies, and fleeing and falling even when none are pursuing them (vv36-39).

It is a terrible picture of the destruction of a whole people group, and we cannot help but be reminded of the tragic history of the Jewish people during their exiles from 720bc as far as ad1948, most awfully in the events of the Shoah. But what this passage does make clear is that God never wanted this suffering to happen. In fact, even the exile itself will be accomplishing His purposes. On the one hand, the physical land of Israel would need to recover from being mistreated and over-worked by the nation, having a proper rest while they were in exile (vv34-35, 43). Also, the people themselves would accept their guilt and punishment (v43), and this would prepare them to confess their sins and unfaithfulness and hostility towards God (v40).

God promises that He will never break His covenant with Israel and destroy them completely while they are in exile, because He is the Lord their God (v44). It is His own nature to be faithful to His promises, to the patriarchs and to the ancestors of Israel who came out of Egypt (vv42, 45).  By listing the patriarchs in reverse order – Jacob, Isaac, Abraham (v42) – He is implying that He will turn history around and turn the hearts of the disobedient back to the faithfulness of their fathers (see Malachi 4:6; Luke 1:17). The reference to Israel’s “uncircumcised heart” being humbled (v41) points to the promise God made in Deuteronomy 30:6, that God will bring the Jewish people back to their land and then circumcise their hearts (by His Spirit) to be able to love Him with all their heart and soul, that they might be able to live in the land permanently. What a wonderful thing, that even when we break our promises, God will be faithful to His promises!

Chapter 27

Chapter 27 often seems offensive to people who read it in modern times. It begins with a ‘price list’, giving different values to different categories of people (vv3-7): working males (50 shekels) > working females (30) > immature males (20) > retired males (15) > immature or retired females (10) > infant males (5) > infant females (3). 

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Hannah vowed to give her firstborn son to serve in God’s temple if only she could have children

However, this makes more sense when we understand the context. In ancient Israel, people sometimes promised to give things to God if He helped them. For example, Jonah made vows to give sacrifices to God in the temple if he survived being swallowed by the fish (Jonah 2:4, 9). Hannah made a vow to give her firstborn son to serve in God’s temple if God enabled her to have children (1Samuel 1:11, 21-28).  But Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 warns people not to make vows to God too quickly, because He will expect you to pay Him what you have promised.  Leviticus chapter 27 basically explains how people can “buy back” what they have promised to give to God, if they change their minds about their vow.

Suppose a man promised to give one of his daughters to God (to serve in the temple) if his business deal was successful, if he chose instead to keep her with him, he would have to pay the equivalent in silver, adding twenty percent VAT onto the value of the labour she could have given to the temple.  If she was older than 20, this would cost him 36 shekels; if she was between 5 and 20 years old, this would cost him 12 shekels. However, if a person or animal was “put under the ban” as a sacrifice to God (vv28-29), there was no possibility of redemption.  Jephthah the judge found this out to his horror (Judges 11:30-40); he should have been more careful about the vows he made to God, because God does not treat our promises lightly.

Application

As individuals, it is probably Leviticus 27 that is most applicable to us today. This chapter was included where it is at the end of Leviticus so that we can understand the story of Numbers 3, and also the laws about the Nazirites in Numbers 6 (“wondrous vow” in Leviticus 27:2 points forward to Numbers 6:2).  Earlier, God had told Israel that every firstborn, both animals and men, automatically belongs to Him (Exodus 13:2; 22:29-30; Leviticus 27:26); He presumably wanted firstborn sons to serve as priests for the rest of their family, living a more sacred life before God.  But in Numbers 3, God decided to substitute every firstborn Israelite son for every male in the tribe of Levi, to serve on behalf of the nation as a tribe of priests. The excess number of Israelite firstborn sons was “bought back” with silver just as Leviticus 27 required, paid at the cheapest possible cost (3:47).

This idea, that the sacred function of priesthood could be substituted by another man and not just by money, is very important theologically. Three chapters later, in Numbers 6, God went one step further and made provision for any man or woman of any tribe (not just Levi) to set themselves apart to God as ‘Nazirites’, living at a priestly level of holiness for a period of time. The apostle Paul did this when he made a vow (Acts 18:18), and later paid for the sacrifices of four other Jewish men who had made similar vows (Acts 21:23-26).  Jesus also apparently did this between the Last Supper and His death on the cross, when He chose not to drink wine (Matthew 26:29; 27:34; see Numbers 6:1-4). Although he was from the tribe of Judah rather than Levi, He could offer Himself legally to God as “high priest of the good things to come” (Hebrews 9:11-14), and substitute himself to stand before God in holiness in place of His sinful people (Hebrews 7:26). We are unable to keep our promises to God by living as He requires, but we do not need to pay sacrifices or money; in Jesus we have a legal substitute who has offered Himself to serve God perfectly in our place.

As nations, on the other hand, it is Leviticus 26 that is most important for us. The nation of Israel at the time of Moses chose to enter into a relationship with God as a whole people group, based on a covenant treaty with clear requirements and promises.  When they kept breaking the terms of the covenant, God was true to His word and brought discipline upon them in increasing measure, until they were scattered among all nations. Yet because of His faithful character, God has brought his scattered Jewish people back into their land, and according to His greater promise He will also circumcise their hearts, to love Him fully and inherit for ever the land promised to their father Jacob.

The God of Israel is not only the God of Israel, however. He chooses the times and territories for every other nation on earth (Deuteronomy 32:8; Acts 17:26), and because He cares for other nations also, He will not overlook their sins (Amos 9:7-8).  He punishes nations for how they treat each other (Amos 2:1-3), and He has authority to judge between many peoples and give decisions for mighty distant nations (Micah 4:3). How much more important is it for nations to keep the official promises they make to protect or honour the Jewish people chosen by God, particularly in their national identity as the Jewish state of Israel.  God said to Abraham that “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who speaks badly about you I will curse” (Gen 12:3).

The God of Israel is a holy God, but it is always in His heart to bless rather than curse. May we as individuals and as nations keep our promises to God.  And as He has promised all nations through His Messiah Jesus, may He soon “make His dwelling among us” and “walk among us and be our God”.

The European Coalition for Israel is a unique grassroots movement, which is seeking to promote better relations between Europe and Israel through advocacy and education. More information: http://www.ec4i.org