I don’t know that I’ve ever had more utter respect for God than I have at this moment, after going through 26 chapters of Leviticus. There’s this image I have of Him in my mind as a strong, hulking man with bulging muscles who has encountered a rip-roaring, flooded river, and on a tiny piece of land in the middle of this rushing river is a huddled group of soaking-wet, desperate people who have no way to get out of their predicament. And with no thought for Himself, this strong God, with sleeves rolled up, strides mightily into the midst of that roaring river, dodging the debris and deflecting the uprooted trees, with every fiber of every muscle straining against the current to reach and save those people.
After He has spent considerable time outlining His Ten Commandments to the Israelites (and then expounding upon them in greater detail, since they apparently didn’t understand that "do not commit adultery" means things like "don’t have sex with your granddaughter"), God finally comes around to the consequences of following or disregarding the rules. The obedience part is easy: If you do what I have asked you to do, things are going to go very well for you.
The disobedience part, by contrast, is like a speech. It has seven parts. (That’s significant, I think.) Paragraph by paragraph, God unfolds what will happen to His people if they ignore or reject what He has commanded. It reads like a battle plan, really. If you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands... then [terrible thing #1] will happen to you. And God goes on to describe what that thing is. And then comes the next sentence: "If after all this you will not listen to me..." (vs 18)
Interesting, huh? For me, this completely changes the tenor of the speech. This reveals that the intended result of the punishment is not some sort of retributive justice, but restoration. The point of Terrible Thing #1 is to get the people to wake up and think, Gee, maybe we should listen to that Guy after all. If (and only if) that failed to get through to them, God would move on to Terrible Thing #2. And after each of these Terrible Things is that same phrase, If after all this you will not listen to me...
God was trying to help the Israelites understand that pursuing sin has dire consequences. Perhaps some of these Terrible Things were "imposed" by God. Perhaps some of them were "intrinsic." I don’t think it matters very much. The point was to make it very hard for the Israelites to go down that road. God was laying out His battle plan to wage war against their sin, and He warned them that if they did not listen to Him, they would, by turns, experience:
- barren land
- wild, ravaging beasts
- spiritual emptiness
That little speech should have been enough to keep the Israelites from heading down that road, don’t you think? Or maybe not. How many people, when told of the dangers of eating certain foods or smoking cigarettes or consuming alcohol or abusing drugs, will happily continue on in their same patterns of destructive behavior? Maybe we’re no different from those Israelites after all.
But wait, I said this was a seven-fold battle plan, right? Here’s part seven: "They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord." (vs 43-45)
Just as I wrote about a couple of days ago, in this context, the word remember means to act in a way that honors a relationship. This whole six-fold battle plan against sin is God’s acting in a way that honors a relationship. By working to counteract the stubborn sin of the Israelites and trying to get them to come back to Him, He was honoring them. He was helping them, saving them, striding through raging waters to rescue them. Even if they followed after sin like drooling puppies and reached the point where they were taken into captivity, God promised that He wouldn’t abandon them. His ultimate purpose was not to force the Israelites to obey Him but to save them from the raging river of sin.