But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you… The Lord himself will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in everything you do, until at last you are completely destroyed for doing evil and abandoning me. [Deuteronomy 28:15,20 (NLT)]
In writing about the mezuzah last week, I learned that 4,649 laws govern every aspect of its writing. Each of the 713 letters must be perfectly shaped, written on handmade specially processed parchment made from a kosher animal, inscribed in black ink formulated from a specific recipe, with a unique quill pen, by a qualified scribe. Why so many rules to fulfill a requirement that was only a few words in Scripture?
The fourth commandment about the Sabbath is the longest one but pretty straightforward: make it a day of rest rather than work. Although Scripture referred to conducting business, field labor, treading in a winepress, loading animals, traveling and kindling fire as forbidden work, it never provided an all-inclusive list of prohibited activities. To further clarify the commandment, work was classified into thirty-nine categories of forbidden activity. To obey perfectly, however, more interpretation was needed. Since reaping (clearly field labor) was forbidden, what if someone climbed a tree and accidentally broke a branch or rode an animal and detached a stick to hit it? Since an accidental sin was still a sin and, technically, breaking a branch was reaping, those activities were prohibited, as well.
I’ve often given the Bible’s Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes grief over their pettiness regarding the law. After studying Deuteronomy 28, however, I’m beginning to understand how the system of laws governing the conduct of the Jewish people became so complex. After listing the blessings for obedience, Moses laid out the many curses for the Israelites’ disobedience to God and those curses are far more extensive than the blessings. They include everything from wasting diseases, plagues, captivity, inflammation, boils, military defeat and scorching heat to becoming food for scavenging birds, madness, swarms of insects, starvation, and cannibalism. It’s not a pretty picture Moses paints as he warns the people to obey all the words of the law. After reading those curses, it’s easy to see how fear of punishment led to legalism and why the minutiae of the law became more important than a relationship with the giver of the law. Fearful of punishment and striving for absolute obedience, the Jews wanted to cover every eventuality.
Although the law pointed out sin, what the people didn’t understand was that the law, no matter how intricately interpreted or followed, could not keep people from sin. We must never make the mistake of thinking we can reach a level of perfection good enough for God; the Israelites couldn’t and neither can we. In actuality, the law revealed that people are sinful and can never attain righteousness through obedience to it; no matter how carefully they try, they will always fall short. Righteousness is attained only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Several weeks ago, I received the following “wisdom” in my email: “Love God and do as you please.” A paraphrase of St. Augustine’s words, it is not carte blanche to sin. Rather, if we genuinely love God with all our being, we will want to do only what pleases Him. We don’t please him to avoid captivity or pestilence or to work our way into His good graces; we please Him out of love. We don’t do it on our strength, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. As for me, that seems a whole lot easier than having the Sabbath quandary of whether or not I can turn off the alarm clock, open an umbrella, or pick up the button that fell off my jacket.
Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. [St. Augustine]