It is striking and somewhat unusual that the purpose of the law, the actual original point of circumcision and the election of Israel are all areas that are often argued with and slandered by those who claim to support the way of Jesus Christ but who look askance at some of the supposedly barbaric ways of God expressed in the Torah. It is likewise striking that many of those throughout history who have considered themselves to be the defenders of the legitimacy of God’s laws have likewise failed to recognize their point from one of the most pointed biblical references to God’s laws and their overall purpose, tucked into a passage in Deuteronomy that is often (sensibly) labeled as “the essence of the law.” Let us therefore examine this passage and its implications in the questions of what God requires of us, which has been consistent throughout human history, and its implications on our own behavior.
Deuteronomy 10:12-21 reads: “And now, Israel, what does the Eternal your God require of you, but to fear the Eternal your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Eternal and His statutes which I command you today for your good? Indeed heaven and the highest heavens belong to the Eternal your God, also the earth with all that is in it. The Eternal delighted only in your fathers, to love them; and He chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as it is this day. Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. For the Eternal your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Eternal your God; you shall serve Him and to Him you shall hold fast, and take oaths in His name. He is your praise, and He is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things which your eyes have seen.”
What God demands for us is certainly not easy for us to manage (indeed, we can only do it with His help), but neither is it in the least barbaric or complicated either. Indeed, anticipating many of the difficulties that people bring up as to why it is not important for people to heed the specifics of what God asks of us in the pages of scripture, this particular passages provides a great deal of insight into the rationale of why God behaves the way that He does with mankind, as well as why He asks to do what he does. Even the seemingly bizarre question of why circumcision was required as a seal of the Abrahamic covenants is clearly brought out here. Likewise, this passage of the law is eloquent in tying together commandment keeping along with social justice and a deep concern for those who are vulnerable outsiders in society, showing God to be a supporter and defender of the underdog, which at least partly explains his might and power against the oppressive tyranny of Egypt in bringing out the nation of Israel and those sojourners who traveled with them from the cruel and oppressive system of slavery that they endured.
It is a difficult matter for some people in general, and for just about everyone at least occasionally, to understand how God’s laws are for our own good. The restrictions and prohibitions of God in particular may strike many people as entirely unnecessary and redundant, but we may better understand such matters when reflect on the fact that God is our heavenly Father and we are but rather foolish and overly curious children not prone to respect boundaries or understand the dangers we put ourselves in. (I speak here not only as an armchair theorist but as someone whose curiosity and intrepidity tends to bring myself into far more danger than is wise.) While human fathers (and mothers) may at times greatly err in the restrictions they place on the behavior of their children, most often this is done with good motives and intentions to protect those who are vulnerable and naive from those who are deemed (however unjustly) to be dangerous and threatening to their children’s well-being. If we can see how imperfect and deeply flawed human parents seek to defend their children and their well-being through restrictions and prohibitions, we might better credit the motives and intentions of God, who acts with perfect knowledge as well as an understanding of the frailty and weaknesses of the human mind and heart far better than any of us. Whether the restrictions of God’s laws are done so that we do not damage our minds, bodies, hearts, and spirits through corrupt behavior or putting ourselves in harm’s way, or whether they are designed to protect our hearts or our health, God’s laws were written and commanded for our good, not because God is some kind of cosmic spoilsport who doesn’t want to allow us any freedom or any fun. Rather, he wishes to protect us from those behaviors and from those sins that can lead us into despair and destruction.
Even circumcision, which seems to us to be a barbaric relic of the past, and which was twisted by the Jews of Jesus’ day as a sign of superiority to the Gentiles rather than a sign of humility, has a clear purpose described in this particular passage. Just as male circumcision increased physical sensitivity for a young man (it should be noted here that female circumcision, so called, is not only not ever advocated in the scriptures, but it serves no moral benefit, decreasing the sensitivity of a young woman, rather than serving any morally praiseworthy end), believers were to be circumcised in the heart and remaining sensitive to the promptings of a well-informed conscience. Rather than a matter for pride and arrogance, circumcision of the body was meant to symbolize the increased modesty and humility of a believer and sensitivity to God’s ways. Unfortunately, the stiff-necked and proud descendants of the people of Israel were far too quick to view this sign as a sign of pride and arrogance and to entirely forget the need for humility and graciousness to others in light of God’s great favor to them. Sadly, this attitude is not too far off from many of those who consider themselves to be Christians as well.
It is difficult for people to get any sort of understanding about the combination of the greatness and majesty of God (what theologians call His transcendence) and the intimate and tender and personal care and love that God has for believers (what theologians call His imminence). God made the heavens and the earth, and is the ruler and (ultimate) owner of all that is within them, and yet God shows a degree of lovingkindness for his children (and indeed even for mere creatures) that is difficult for us to fathom, much less imitate. This passage, as is proper, neither errs on the side of emphasizing (or denigrating) either God’s majesty or His graciousness, setting us an example for a balanced approach that we ought to properly appreciate and emulate. It is perhaps unsurprising that this account of God’s graciousness in choosing the patriarchs as the people to father His chosen people closely resembles the same sort of gracious behavior of God in choosing the brethren of the early church (see Acts 2 and Romans 9-11 as touching accounts of this aspect of choice, as well as Hebrews 11). Given that God has chosen to love people, it makes sense that such a God would require of those whom He adopts into His family to show the same love for Him and for others. However little we may understand how we are loveable in the sight of God, we may relate somewhat when we think of how tender and loveable we ought to find small children in their innocence and helplessness as well as small animals who are similarly cute. Obviously, the more tender and loving our own hearts, the more we may relate to the tenderness of God in loving us, despite the fact that we are often far from loveable ourselves.
Intriguingly, this discussion of the tenderness of God’s love for us springs right into an examination of God’s demand for social justice in light of His own defense of the widow and fatherless and sojourners, vulnerable groups of people who were often exploited in the ancient world and remain exploited today (think of the way in which refugees are sold into slavery in Thailand (and other countries), or kept in refugee camps where they may be kept separate from the host population of a nation and may be exploited as a ready source of unskilled labor). The ancient Israelites, we may remember, were themselves sojourners who had been exploited by the rapacious and cruel regime of Egypt, who forgot the care of Joseph for their own well-being and who saw the Israelites both as a potential threat to their rule as well as a ready source of cheap labor to be exploited for the glory of the Pharaohs. Not much has changed in the last 3500 years as far as the record of social justice goes in the world. We might compare this passage to 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and understand that God has often called those who were viewed by the outside world as small and weak and ignoble, and has raised them to glory and honor because of their decency of character and their kindness of heart. God has a soft spot in His heart for the underdogs, for those things which are (unjustly) despised, and He expects His children to copy Him in that regard and to develop the same sort of desire for justice and fair play within themselves.
Finally, and also intriguingly, this discussion of God’s justice and might then continues into a brief discussion of the faith that we are supposed to develop as a result of having seen the mighty hand of God intervene in our favor. Our faith is not to be a blind faith, but nevertheless, those moments of obvious and visible divine favor are meant to help us develop faith in God’s far less obvious and far more extensive indirect influence in our lives, as seeing how God can act in His life if He so chooses ought to help increase our confidence that God is working in our lives even when we cannot see it. Unfortunately, ancient Israel (as well as the Jews) never developed a consistent faith, never translating the powerful saving acts of God into meaningful faith on their own. The same has largely been true of Christianity, which has been easily and largely translated either into an emotional faith lacking action or obedience or a legalistic faith that lacks an appreciation of faith or justice. During the entirety of human history, genuine godly faith has been a somewhat small phenomenon, with larger societies occasionally responding to one or another aspect of it only to fail to develop faith and obedience over the whole standard.
What does God require of us, in the end? This passage bears a strong resemblance to Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Eternal require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” This is what God required in Deuteronomy as well, and what He still requires today. This demand is certainly not an easy one, and not possible for us to do without His help. Nevertheless, God is very willing to give us the help that is necessary for us to please Him if we have the will and the desire to do so. Unlike some fathers, He is not impossible to please and He desires to think the best of us and to help us become the best that we can, giving us all the instruction and tools and help that we need, if we will only ask. Let us therefore seek to follow His ways in justice and mercy, so that we may be examples of His ways and of His nature to a world that needs a great deal more of both justice and mercy, to say nothing of humility and love.