Lesson 17: “Beware Lest Thou Forget” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Deuteronomy 6; 8; 11; 32

Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath promised thee, in the land that floweth with milk and honey.
–Deuteronomy 6:3

I was very fortunate that during my one and only trip to the Holy Land last year, I had an amazing expert tour guide: Dr. Norma Franklin of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Norma patiently answered every question I had ever had about Israel, archeology, and the Bible. I learned more about all of these things that week that I had managed to gather during the previous 50 years of my life.

One of the questions I asked her was supposed to be sarcastic. When we reached a particularly inhospitable hilltop in the Jezreel Valley, I turned to her and said, “Is this where they keep all the milk and honey?” She looked at me quizzically and said, “you know that that was a joke, right?” I knew no such thing, so she patiently explained it with an interpretation that I had never seen before and have not been able to find since, but that fundamentally changed the way I saw the covenant of the Old Testament.

“Milk at this time rarely came from cows,” Norma explained. “So when the Bible talks about milk it means goats milk, which is a way of saying that a lot of the land is so rocky and hilly that it isn’t good for anything except goats. Honey is produced by bees, which, when they are not producing honey, are a sign of danger and desolation. So, saying “a land of milk and honey” is a way of taking some of the least hospitable things about the land and turning them into things that sound really good.”

It was one of those things that just made a whole lot of sense when I heard it. We have been misled, I think, by the term “floweth” in our Bible. Milk and honey don’t just flow for no particular reason. They are end products that have to be carefully cultivated and tended to. Just about anyplace can flow with milk and honey if it has dedicated goat tenders and beekeepers. The Lord wasn’t promising Israel a place where they could just sit back and relax while all of their needs appeared by magic with the morning dew. They actually had this for forty years of desert wandering.

What God promised Israel was some land with a lot of rocks and hills and not a lot of water. It would be situated in the midst of the most powerful empires of the ancient world and would constantly be under attack by one or the other of them. Their working conditions would be harsh, and their existence would be precarious. Milk and honey were not their inheritance from God, but the best that they could hope to wring out of the land that He had in store for them.

Oh, and He would be their God, and they would be His people.

The Book of Deuteronomy occurs at one of the Bible’s truly great dramatic moments. The Children of Israel have been wandering for 40 years, and a new generation has arisen that has never known slavery. Moses has delivered them right up to the threshold of the Promised Land–which, it turns out, has inhabitants who are going to have to be massacred. But before the slaughter begins, Moses has a few words for his people.

Let’s not hide from the fact that Deuteronomy contains some of the most disturbing passages in the entire Bible–passages where God, through Moses, orders the genocide of the Canaanite people. This used to bother me a lot, but I feel much better now that I have become convinced that the actual conquest of Canaan never happened. The archaeological record supports no such thing, and everything we know about the history of the times works against the standard conquest narrative.

I do not find it at all problematic to think that the events described in Deuteronomy and Joshua never actually occurred. Learning that God is not a genocidal maniac has been, on balance, good for my spiritual development. The Bible isn’t supposed to be history, but God is supposed to be good, so I was happy to lose my faith in the historical infallibility of the Bible and regain my faith in the goodness of God.

What I still find edifying about Deuteronomy is its description of the covenant relationship between human beings and God. The essential terms of the covenant remain in place today, though some allowances have to be made for the vast differences in history and culture.

We promise, sacrifice our time, or talent, and our treasure for the sake of something that does not exist yet, but which our sacrifices have the potential to call into existence. We promise not to get distracted with other things as we work to build something new. We promise to disparage wealth and other competing concerns and to be consumed by a vision of what is possible when we give up everything in our lives that is not the Kingdom of God.

God, in return, promises to let us spend our lives working hard with the rough and often disappointing raw materials that constitute our lot on earth. He promises us that, if we do, they will sometimes yield good things, and our efforts will be made holy. And we will be His people, and He will be our God.

 

Comments

  1. This was amazing. I learned so much in this short post. Glad to have it.

  2. Nice! So much of our interpretation of the Bible, esp. the Old Testament, is based on a modern viewpoint, rather than an ancient one.

  3. Never thought of milk and honey that way. Fits nicely with Tevye’s comment from Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

  4. Kristin Brown says:

    Thank you Michael for your work. The emphasis on a covenant relationship with God is edifying. It brings peace to the soul, especially when our prophet today has the identical message; “Keep on the Covenant Path”. For those who make and keep covenants the Old Testament is a witness that “God is the same yesterday, today and forever”.

  5. I love this new perspective on milk and honey. And this resonates with me to the point that it made me a bit emotional to read it: “I was happy to lose my faith in the historical infallibility of the Bible and regain my faith in the goodness of God.”

  6. I was dying in my faith when I tried to reconcile the goodness of God with the conquest of Israel, among several other biblical preoblems. Thanks for reminding me of the fact that the conquest didn’t happen and probably also all the dreadful things in the five Books of Moses too. Genesis through Deuteronomy is fairly fictional as later writers try to retroactively make a great story for the kings and kingdom of Israel. See Peter Enns, the Bible tells me so, an easy explanation on the whole constitution of the Bible.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Agreed about the Conquest. In my view Israelites were themselves some stripe of Canaanites themselves and arose among them indigenously. (Enlightening post!)

  8. If we’re going to toss out the Biblical record, what did transpire between the Israelites living in Egypt and then settling in Canaan?

  9. Jacob H. says:

    jader3rd, I don’t think the comments section here is the right place to delve too much into the thick of things.. however, echoing Kevin Barney above, may it suffice to note that the Exodus, if it did happen, was not a huge migration and that most Israelites began as Canaanites. This perspective is not based on “tossing out” the biblical record, and neither does it assume that “Israelites living in Egypt and then settling in Canaan” along literalist biblical lines is a historical reality.. hopefully that helps?

  10. I find the phrase

    I do not find it at all problematic to think that the events described in Deuteronomy and Joshua never actually occurred.

    to be equivalent of tossing out those books. I’m not a Bible literalist. But before I go along with “never actually occurred” I’d like to know what might else have occurred.
    Let’s say that the Lord was fine with having the Canaanites around to keep the Israelites in check in the same manner that the Lamanites kept the Nephites in check. One big difference I see is that the Canaanites didn’t seem to be going to war with the Israelites, they kept tempting them away with religious practices that provided the men with friendship, and the Lord kept loosing worshipers. The retention rate seemed to be terrible. The Lamanites never seemed to have developed a regular religion. I wouldn’t think that the Lord would have a plan which was so effective at tempting away his chosen people, but maybe that was it. If that wasn’t the plan, isolating a core group, to develop a base for the religion, does sound like a plan.
    Is it possible that the reason why the Lord told the Israelites to grab the spoils of Egypt was so that they could engage in real estate transactions when they hit Canaan. And perhaps that didn’t make for good story telling, so the scribes made up stuff about wiping out the inhabitants.

  11. Argh, I screwed up the html tag.

  12. I’m test driving the idea that all ancient scripture evolved from Oral Tradition – stories that were told over and over and evolved with the teller and the audience. Stories can originate with God but still be stories. Also, within the framework of Oral Tradition is the idea that we contemporary folk are literalists because of our literate nature, and before literacy became widespread (or even a quality of the elite), the ideals of truth, error, fact, fiction, history, real and pretend all had slightly different connotations. We are looking for FACT, with a double capital F, whereas the stories of old were TRUTH, with variable details for dressing. The 1828 definitions of fabulous and myth and story and fable are telling in that regard.

    In that perspective, I’m so relieved to be able to let go of Bible literalism. I was literally choking on the violence and slavery and misogyny and poorly regulation emotions, gah, all of it. But as elements of storytelling, it all makes more sense. Well, not perfect sense, but more sense than utter flimflam.

    Thank you for the last 2 paragraphs. I can work with that for sure. Although I’m still not super happy about ” working hard with … rough and often disappointing raw materials,” but I’ll take it for now.