December 3, 2020

The Wilderness of Life Under the Law

Moses and His People, Chagall

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
The Wilderness of Life Under the Law

• • •

Proposition One: The word “Torah” (often translated “law”) means “a father’s instruction” — it was given to teach God’s people about God’s ways and how to walk in God’s wisdom.

Proposition Two: The Torah (the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch) is not equivalent to “the Law,” in the sense of a book of legal requirements, but it is a book of narratives that includes passages from Israel’s law codes.

Proposition Three: The Torah is the story of (1) Israel’s life before the Law (the Patriarchs) and (2) Israel’s life under the Law (the Exodus generation), introduced by a “prehistory” (Gen. 1-11).

Proposition Four: The two key events in the story involve covenants God made with his people — through Abraham (Gen. 15) and Moses (Exodus 19ff).

Proposition Five: The Torah presents Abraham as the exemplar of faith, who is counted righteous because he trusts God and receives his promises.

Proposition Six: The Torah presents the generation of Moses as those who failed to trust God under the Law and are therefore kept from enjoying life in the Promised Land and warned about the exile that future generations under the Law will face.

Proposition Seven: The Torah presents these two great eras, two great characters, and two great covenants as two different approaches to life with God, with two drastically different results.

• • •

The Torah, then, sets forth two ways of living with God. One leads to wilderness. One leads to life in a land of blessing. What makes the difference?

Abraham and the Angels, Chagall

The difference was the Law. The covenant made at Mt. Sinai became an agreement characterized by laws, statutes, ordinances, and regulations. How the covenant turned into that is the subject of another study, but in summary Paul puts it like this: “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions…” (Gal. 3:19). Beginning at Mt. Sinai, the sinful people of Israel lived under the Law, which attempted to keep them within righteous bounds. And, according to the Torah, this would not end well.

Consider the following verses:

Deuteronomy 4:25-31
When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD your God so as to provoke Him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD drives you. There you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days you will return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice. For the LORD your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.

The NASB translation quoted above well expresses the inevitability of Israel’s failure under the Law. After living in the land for awhile, Israel will choose idolatry. This will lead to destruction and exile. However, God’s compassion will ultimately restore them. But note: it will be on the basis of God’s covenant and promises to Abraham, not on the basis of the Law.

• • •

Deuteronomy 29
(1-4) And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and all his land; the great trials which your eyes have seen, those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear….”

(22-29) Now the generation to come, your sons who rise up after you and the foreigner who comes from a distant land, when they see the plagues of the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it, will say, ‘All its land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows in it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in His anger and in His wrath.’ All the nations will say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?’ Then men will say, ‘Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they have not known and whom He had not allotted to them. Therefore, the anger of the LORD burned against that land, to bring upon it every curse which is written in this book; and the LORD uprooted them from their land in anger and in fury and in great wrath, and cast them into another land, as it is this day.’

Once again we read that Israel will forsake the Sinai covenant, their land will be laid waste, and they will go into exile. This text gives a clue as to why they will not be able to keep God’s Laws. Moses’ experience with the people has led him to conclude that “the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear….”

• • •

Moses Shows the Elders the Tablets of the Law, Chagall

Deuteronomy 31:24-29
It came about, when Moses finished writing the words of this law in a book until they were complete, that Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, “Take this book of the law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may remain there as a witness against you. For I know your rebellion and your stubbornness; behold, while I am still alive with you today, you have been rebellious against the LORD; how much more, then, after my death? Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to witness against them. For I know that after my death you will act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him to anger with the work of your hands.”

This passage portrays Moses writing down “the words of this Torah in a book.” (Was this an earlier edition of the Torah we read today?) What is significant is the purpose of this book. They were to keep it beside the ark of the covenant: “as a witness against” them, the text says. Note that well. One of the main purposes for the Torah is to serve as a witness against Israel. The story this book tells testifies that those under the Sinai covenant will not be able to keep the Law and “evil will befall them in the latter days” because of their “rebellion and stubbornness” under the Law.

To Summarize
The Torah is as direct as can be that Israel will fail under the Law. Before they even enter the Promised Land, their fate is sealed. The troubles Moses has had with them (i.e. the Golden Calf incident and the wilderness wanderings) are a clear indication of the course they will take and the tragic consequences that will result.  Because they do not have a “heart” to keep God’s laws, they will go astray, turn from God’s commandments, turn to other gods, and forsake the covenant agreement they made with Moses at Mt Sinai, saying, ““All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” (Exodus 24:7). As a result, Israel will be invaded by foreign nations who will destroy their land and their lives, take them captive, and resettle them far from their home.

However, that will not be the end of the story.

• • •

Israel’s Hope through Abraham
Though the Sinai Covenant will prove incapable of securing Israel’s loyalty and obedience, that is only one part of the Torah’s message. Standing in contrast to the experience of Moses and the people under the Law is that of Abraham and the patriarchs, who lived before the Law.

Though flawed and sinful, Abraham is portrayed as the exemplar par excellence of faith. By God’s grace received through faith, apart from the Law, he received God’s promises and experienced God’s blessing. Two key texts will serve to show us the contrast between his story and that of the Sinai generation.

Abraham and Sarah, Chagall

Genesis 15:6
Then [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

A “righteous” person is one who is judged to be in the right before the standards of God’s Law. At Mt. Sinai, God gave his people ten foundational words and a host of statutes, ordinances, and regulations to order their life. Though the laws listed in the Torah are not an exhaustive catalog covering every single aspect of life, they represent the kinds of boundaries God set for the people who were to behave as his chosen nation. However, as we have seen, the Torah itself realistically admits the inability of people to live within such bounds. Israel would fail to love God with a whole heart. They would fall short in loving their neighbors as themselves. The Law would not, could not lead them to righteousness.

However, Abraham is counted “righteous” on an entirely different basis — simply by believing God. He heard God’s promises and trusted that God would do as he pledged. Through faith alone, apart from the works of the Law, God declared Abraham to be in the right, and marked him as one who had fulfilled God’s standards completely and perfectly.

• • •

Genesis 26:5
“…because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.”

This text is even more striking. Here God proclaims in no uncertain terms that he counts Abraham as a person who kept his entire law perfectly. The terms used in this verse are surprising, because they represent the kinds of legal requirements that were not given to God’s people until Mt. Sinai. Yet, hundreds of years before the Law covenant was put in place, Abraham is presented as a faithful keeper of that covenant.

Now we know that Abraham was imperfect, a sinner, one who struggled to do what was right. On various occasions his obedience was less than stellar and complete; he lied and deceived others, he tried to find shortcuts to fulfill God’s plans rather than waiting on him, and so on. Abraham was a remarkable man, but not superhuman. He sinned and fell short just like everyone. Nevertheless, God holds him up as a perfect Law-keeper.

The only solution to this seeming contradiction is to remember what God said in Genesis 15:6. Though Abraham fell short in actually keeping God’s commandments, as all of us do, he was still counted as a righteous man through faith. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. It was by God’s grace (as seen in the covenant of promise that God made unilaterally with him in Gen. 15), received by someone who simply trusted God that the verdict of righteousness was pronounced.

Therefore, when Moses tells Israel that they will one day be restored from their exile, it will be on the basis of this promise to Abraham, not on the basis of the Law. “For the LORD your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them” (Deut. 4:31). The hope of Israel lay not in the law covenant of Mt. Sinai, but in the patriarchal promises, given freely by grace and received by faith alone.

• • •

If we step back to see the big picture of the Torah, this is one of the lessons we learn.

  • The life of Israel before the Law, as represented in Abraham, is by grace through faith. The patriarchs were counted righteous, accepted by God, and marked out as his people because they believed him. Imperfect as they were in every way, God graciously walked with them and gave them his inviolable promises, and they in turn trusted him.
  • However, the life of Israel under the Law, with its ever-expanding collection of rules and regulations, was a life of continual failure and would prove to be devastating for them.

God’s promises are received by grace through faith. Living under the Law leads only to the wilderness and exile.

This is not just a message we read in the New Testament. It is the testimony of the Torah itself.


  1. The law can destroy. The law can crush. And the law can kill faith. And yet the law is what much of Christianity is based upon today. Think about it….accountability programs, 5 step formulas, programs by Focus on Everyone Else’s Family, even how thitihng will help you (Paaaaaaaaaaaaalez…..) A common every day approach using the law is “sin management”.

    When Christinaity becomes “sin management” its going to be game over…

    • Well said, Eagle.


      Nice job, Chaplain Mike.

    • One more Mike says

      Amen Eagle,

      Too much of modern Christianity/evangelicalism is taught as a system of laws, a guidebook/checklist on how to live & be “saved”, rather than as the way of life in Christ, which tells us to “GO INTO THE WORLD and preach the gospel”, not “grab a coffee and let us tell YOU how to live and be happy. In Jesus. And don’t forget your checkbook.”

      I think we’ve already crossed into “sin management” and it might be game over…….

    • Aidan Clevinger says

      Ditto to all of the above and a hearty “amen”.

    • Tragically “sin management” is how the system will be. It’s going to lead off one of two directions.

      1. People are doing to become disillusioned and full of despair causing people to give up on faith, like I did.
      2. People are going to become master manipulators and the system is going to teach them how to manipulate, deceive, lie through their %^$ because that’s what it will take to survive in such a system.

      Many people will be unable to resolve the tension that the system produces.

      Now what I find interesting is how many leaders or pastors are actually above the system they impose on others. They often can’t live up to the same standards. Or they can get away with an acceptable and embraced sin such as pride, while beating down on the person who talks to their pastor about having one drink too many, or reading the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Sorry but with many parts of Christianity my BS detector really goes off….

  2. “For the LORD your God is a compassionate God…”

    Yes, he is. Thank God.

  3. My favorite interpretation of “the law”, especially the 10 Commandments, comes from Neale Donald Walsh. He proposes that the 10 Commandments represent how we would live if we actually placed God at the center of our lives. When God is the pivot around which we live our lives and when we know the love that God is…then we would naturally and effortlessly live in love which means, no killing, no stealing, no coveting, no adultery, etc. I believe the same can be said of the Beatitudes….when we know the love of God, we are naturally merciful, pure of heart, etc.

    • stickmanonymous says

      This seems to be a good explanation of the intent behind the provision of the Ten Commandments. However, the problem that always bugs me is that there never seems to be an explanation of how to reach that place where God does become the centre of my life.

      • “We are faithless…He is faithful.”

        He may not be the centre of our lives (very often)…but we are at the centre of His. That’s why He came to die on a cross for us.

      • petrushka1611 says

        I think this is where “being conformed to the image of His Son” comes in. And this is why we’re predestined to be conformed; we’d never get there on our own. (And, please don’t start arguing about Calvinism now. We all have Bibles that say the same thing there.)

  4. Very well done CM. I hope and pray that God will continue to give you the wisdom and strength to continue teaching in this sort of forum as you do. I also pray that God would give you strength and compassion to pastor the dying patients/people you are with. I know this is a privilege and heavy weight to bear.

  5. Excellent take on law and faith, Mike!
    I think the contrast between God’s dealings with Abraham and the nation of Israel really shows how God would prefer to relate to human beings — as a father to children, husband to wife, friend to friend. But as you and Paul point out, human disobedience and transgression made a less personal, legally-framed relationship necessary — at least, until Jesus came along and fulfilled the requirements of both faith and law and opened the door to grace.
    It’s strange that, even now, so many still prefer the Righteous Judge to the Loving Father — so long as His Honor’s rulings line up with their own positions and opinions.

  6. Very good article, Mike! Not enough people in the church grasp the importance of knowing the difference between these two covenants, the two ways of approaching God.

  7. Good post CM , i heartily agree with the comments. It seems like a lot of christians today are trying to create their own sharia law. Or perhaps just reading surah at-Tawba in secret.

  8. Another question I have. Do Moses and the exodus have to be taken as historical? i’ve been pondering that lately.

    • Moses is an actual character from history, the events of Exodus really occurred. They also illustrations of things that are to come. Just because Moses is symbolic in many ways of Jesus, doesn’t mean that he didn’t exist.

      Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, away from their slavery. Jesus breaks the bonds of sin that we (Christians) were slave to. Moses leads God’s people through the wilderness; this world is our present wilderness as we follow Jesus to the Promised land. Moses stood between the wrath of God and the people’s sin. Jesus hung on the cross, becoming sin and receiving the wrath of God. While Moses is clearly a type of Christ, he was not perfect. He flew off the handle from time to time, and despite everything he did right, his incomplete obedience kept him from entering Canaan personally. He was often discouraged, and when the Hebrews wined to him he turned and wined to God.

      Consider the brass (bronze) serpent on the pole. Looking to the serpent, up on the pole, after being bitten by a poisonous asp is very similar to looking to Christ on the cross after being bitten by sin. In either case the victim would die, but responding in faith (either to the brass serpent or the Christ) brings healing. The brass serpent was also a historical event. After the division of Israel one of the rare good kings, while breaking the altars of idol sacrifice and tearing down the high places, also took down the brass serpent made by Moses because it had become an object of idolatry as well.

      Wow, too much. My answer is yes, Moses and the exodus are story historic events that also symbolic of what God would do in the New Testament. Temple worship is a model of what Christ does, coming into the presence of God to make intercession on our behalf. God has ordained the events of history; he knew even back when things that must take place.