Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
While making the notes for today’s article I had been reading the Bible cover to cover. I try to mix it up every time I read the Bible and it’d been a few years since I had just read everything straight through. While doing so, I rediscovered that the early parts of the Old Testament have a lot of boring stuff in them -and they’re all kinds of crammed together. Exodus has the building of the Tent of Meeting; Leviticus…well, I once heard a pastor refer to it as “the desert of Leviticus”; Number is pretty cool; Deuteronomy recaps everything (including the boring parts); and Joshua spends an annoyingly long time dividing up Canaan among the tribes. As I read through the list of now-meaningless city names, I prayed, “God, please give me something to take away from this.” And later that day, the Holy Spirit did just that.
Alright, first let’s lay some background. Although it was real for the Israelites, we can take their journey symbolically for our lives today. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” And in Romans15:4 he noted, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” So while we read the stories of the Old Testament, the Lord can teach us lessons for our own lives as well. One thing you may notice (at least I did) is that the Israelite’s journey from Egypt to Canaan is a model of salvation. The Promised Land is our salvation, or heaven. With this knowledge, the Lord’s decree upon the unbelieving Israelites is quite shocking. History records,
So tell them, “As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall – every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun” (Numbers 14:28-30).
God came down hard on the Israelites when they tried to avoid the Promised Land; and he decreed that only the two guys who actually had faith would make it there. It’s a pretty hardcore decree, but not one that should be surprising; for the Bible tells us, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). And the writer of Hebrews goes on to say of the patriarchs,
If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:15-16).
We should not find our satisfaction here on earth, but in the city that awaits those of the faith. In our model, Egypt is sin. Paul wrote to people,
When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! (Romans 6:20-21).
In his writing, Paul was purposefully invoking imagery of the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt, from their slavery. Sin entraps us and though pleasurable at some moments, ultimately will lead to death away from the Lord and his Holy Place for us. But, much like people today, many Israelites couldn’t wait for the Promised Land and desired to stay in Egypt, in bondage. We read from Israel’s journey,
In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16:2-3).
Never mind that the people were in total slavery in Egypt. Some people, though, would prefer the pleasures of slavery to the struggles of living by faith. However, the Lord warned the people through Moses,
The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again” (Deuteronomy 17:16).
Although tempting at times, we must not do our best not to think of our time before God; for time makes everything rosy and our difficulties in sin may be soon forgotten. We must do our best not return to our old ways. Finally, in our model, the desert represents life’s struggles that all people suffer. As noted above from the Hebrews passage, if people choose to live their lives in sin, the Lord will allow it. But believers are called to cross the desert and take their place in the Promised Land.
Alright, so let’s talk Promised Land. Once the Israelites got across the Jordan and conquered the locals, Joshua divided up the land. There are a few chapters of it, so I’ll just give you a taste of how it reads:
This is the inheritance of the tribe of Judah, clan by clan:
The southernmost towns of the tribe of Judah in the Negev toward the boundary of Edom were:
Kabzeel, Eder, Jagur, Kinah, Dimonah, Adadah, Kedesh, Hazor, Ithnan, Ziph, Telem, Bealoth, Hazor Hadattah, Kerioth Hezron (that is, Hazor), Amam, Shema, Moladah, Hazar Gaddah, Heshmon, Beth Pelet, Hazar Shual, Beersheba, Beziothiah, Baalah, Iim, Ezem, Eltolad, Kesil, Hormah, Ziklag, Madmannah, Sansannah, Lebaoth, Shilhim, Ain and Rimmon – a total of twenty-nine towns and their villages (Joshua 15:20-32).
To clarify, there’s like nine chapters of that; in which the land is being divided. But the reason why Joshua spends nine chapters dividing the land is that everyone has a place in the Promised Land. Here, Issachar’s is short so we’ll grab another example:
The fourth lot came out for Issachar, clan by clan. Their territory included:
Jezreel, Kesulloth, Shunem, Hapharaim, Shion, Anaharath, Rabbith, Kishion, Ebez, Remeth, En Gannim, En Haddah and Beth Pazzez. The boundary touched Tabor, Shahazumah and Beth Shemesh, and ended at the Jordan. There were sixteen towns and their villages.
These towns and their villages were the inheritance of the tribe of Issachar, clan by clan (Joshua 19:17-23).
The simple fact that every single tribe was given multiple towns and areas is a lesson to us; it’s God’s way of telling you that you already have a place marked out for you in heaven (if you’ve accepted Christ’s salvation). This was actually confirmed by Jesus, who taught his disciples,
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am (John 14:2-3).
And, much like the Promised Land, Heaven is way better than anything the desert of life can produce. Paul wrote of our future to come, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Life on earth is but a poor and blurry image of what is to come for believers. And look at the language he uses in 2 Corinthians 5:1, “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” When a follower of Jesus dies on earth they live in heaven. But the difference is like comparing a tent to a house. Think of like a small camping tent versus a good-sized house with heat and air conditioner; that’s at least how much better life in Heaven will be compared to our current struggles. And why shouldn’t it be? Even the people who rebelled against Moses and chose not to enter into the Promise Land gave this report: “They gave Moses this account: ‘We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit’” (Numbers 13:27). Truly a wondrous place awaits us.
And, just like the Israelites, all you have to do is to take the land the Lord has laid out for you. He told them, “I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way” (Exodus 23:28). And he commanded them,
See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land that the Lord swore he would give to your fathers – to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and to their descendants after them (Deuteronomy 1:8).
And he speaks to those of you who have not accepted Christ’s salvation from Joshua 18:1-3,
The whole assembly of the Israelites gathered as Shiloh and set up the Tent of Meeting there. The country was brought under their control, but there were still seven Israelite tribes who had not yet received their inheritance.
So Joshua said to the Israelites: “How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you?
Jesus, God in the flesh, did all of the heavy lifting for you. Through his death on a cross he paid your release from sin and death; all you need to do is to go in and claim your place in heaven by acknowledging him as your Lord. What are you waiting for (if you haven’t already done so)? Paul gives us the way to salvation,
…That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved (Romans 10:9-10).
To the Israelites who had crossed over from the desert to the Promised Land the Lord spoke,
So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.
Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord (Joshua 24:13-14).
The life of a believer is different than that of a nonbeliever. But that difference is so much better; because when your time on earth comes to an end, there’s a place waiting for you in heaven- where everything rocks.