I love the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures for one simple reason: I love a good story. And over half of the Hebrew Scriptures is story or narrative. A lot of times we just look at the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures as straight history–this is what happened. We tend to view them with Dragnet eyes: “Just the facts, ma’am.” It’s one more history lesson to be put beside the Revolutionary War and the Civil Rights Movement. But that’s not why Israel remembered these stories as Scripture. The reason these stories have been kept and passed down through the generations for three millennia is not just to keep track of family or national history.
These stories were kept and passed down for two reasons: the first is to show what being in a relationship with God looked like in the everyday world. The second is to show what walking away from God into sin looked like in the everyday world. These stories have been remembered and passed on to visually show what living the 10 commandments looks like in the ordinary, everyday, messy world we call life. Stories are also easier to remember than a bunch of rules and regulations–so by putting the Torah into story form to show how it worked in everyday life, the Israelites made it easier for their children and succeeding generations to remember the right way to walk with God. Let me illustrate: how many of you know the laws which govern being a kinsman-redeemer in Leviticus? Anyone know those off the top of your head? Yeah, me either. In fact, I would need a concordance to find where the kinsman-redeemer regulations are in Leviticus. But how many of you know the story of Ruth? How many of you could tell the story off the top of your head? What was Boaz in the story of Ruth?
The story of Ruth is the first one I want to look at. We’re going to be looking at several biblical stories today that illustrate what we’ve been learning on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). We’ve been studying what is known as the antitheses–where Jesus said “You have heard it was said, but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21-48). These are the three I want to cover:
You have heard it was said to those of ancient times (notice Jesus does not say it was said in Scripture) “You shall not murder.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment. You have heard it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
The two sayings of Jesus the book of Ruth illustrates are do not look on a woman in lust and love your enemy. Ruth has traveled to Bethlehem with Naomi because their husbands are dead, and Naomi wanted to return to her homeland of Israel. Ruth would not leave her and followed her. In order to feed them Ruth starts gleaning wheat in the fields that was left behind by the harvesters. She doesn’t know she’s in a field of a man who is a relative of Naomi. Boaz sees the new woman in the fields and wants to know who she is. He is told that she is the Moabite who returned with Naomi and is now gleaning wheat for them. She’s a hard worker–in Ruth 2:7 the servant tells Boaz, “She has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.” Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite. Boaz was not obligated to let her glean his fields: he was only obligated to the children of Israel. Technically Ruth was part of the enemy–part of the nations that had harassed Israel and would for sometime. But Boaz treats her with dignity and respect: he tells her to only glean in his fields, and he orders his men not take advantage of her because she is a foreigner. His compassion surprises Ruth who says, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” But Boaz has heard Ruth’s story: how she left everything to follow Naomi and taker care of her. He looks past her nationality to the woman she really is. Not only does Boaz, not take advantage her of because she’s a foreigner, he makes sure no one in his employment does either. Boaz could have looked on this foreign woman with lust and did pretty much what he wanted to with her. But he didn’t. He did everything in his power to provide for both her and Naomi: he fed her at his table and gave her extra wheat to take home to Naomi.
When Ruth made it know that she and Naomi wanted him to act as a kinsman-redeemer by marrying Ruth and taking both her and Naomi into his house, he didn’t balk at marrying a woman who was technically his enemy. In fact, he took care of the matter the next day. There was a closer relative than Boaz, but that relative did not want to jeopardize his inheritance. Boaz married Ruth and fulfilled his obligations as a kinsman-redeemer to a foreign woman whose nation had been and would continue to be Israel’s enemy many times over. In this story we see that Boaz did not take lustful advantage of Ruth but treated her with dignity and respect, and he married her although she was from enemy territory.
The next story I want to look at is wholly about loving your enemy. It’s found in 2 Kings 6:8-23. Elisha is one of Israel’s finest and most powerful prophets. In this story he keeps telling the king of Israel where the king of Aram is going to set up camp and attack, so Israel can win. This hacks off the king of Aram who decides he’s going to get this prophet, so his plans stop being thwarted. He sends soldiers to find Elisha and seize him, so that Elisha would be a prophet for him instead of against him. The soldiers hunt Elisha down and surround the city he is in. Elisha’s servant sees the army and freaks out while Elisha prays for his eyes to be opened to see God’s army encircling them as well. Elisha then prays for the soldiers to be struck blind which happens. Then Elisha leads the soldiers of Aram to Samaria, Israel’s capital city. The king of Samaria wants to kill the enemy. But Elisha retorts in v. 22, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” That’s what happens–the enemy who had come to kidnap Elisha and carry him off to Aram is fed and then let go to return to Aram. I love the last part of verse 23: for some strange reason “the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” Aram was no longer Israel’s enemy.
We’ve looked at two stories that positively illustrate what Jesus was teaching on the Sermon on the Mount–they’ve showed what it looks like when we obey God in our everyday, ordinary lives. We’ve looked at two of the three sayings we want to cover: Don’t commit adultery by not lusting and love your enemy. Now we’re going to look at the third–It’s not enough not to murder, but don’t be angry. But this time the person doesn’t obey; he chooses to sin, and anger, which is not dealt with but indulged, leads to murder. This story is found in Genesis 4. Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is a farmer; Abel is a rancher. They both bring offerings to God: God accepts Abel’s and rejects Cain’s. Cain gets angry. God doesn’t let him sulk but says to him in verses 6-7, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” I want you to notice something–Cain hasn’t sinned yet. He’s angry, but God tells him to deal with his anger before he sins. Which he could have done: he could have offered the right sacrifice and got on with life, but he didn’t. He stayed angry at God for rejecting his sacrifice. The only problem was is he couldn’t get his hands on God. But he could get his hands on God’s favorite: Abel. He leads Abel out to field and murders him giving into his anger. When God confronts Cain with his sin, he tries to pass it off, but God doesn’t let him. We find his punishment in verse 12, “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” God marked Cain so no one could kill him in revenge, but he would be a fugitive for the rest of his life for not dealing with his anger when he had a chance to.
The last two stories I want to look at deal with all three sayings we’ve been looking at. One shows what happens when the commands aren’t obeyed: lust leads to adultery which leads to murder. The other shows a man who chose to walk with God and obey Him although he would have been justified in indulging in anger, revenge, and murder. I like how both of these stories show how the commands intertwine around one another–how breaking one leads to breaking another, or how obeying one gives you the foundation for obeying the rest. They also show how these commands work in our everyday life in the messy world of reality.
The first story we’ll look at is the negative one: the man who chose to disobey God because he was king and thought he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. This man was David, and he thought he could take another man’s wife and no one would be the wiser for it. The story is found in 2 Samuel 11–12. Instead of going with his men David stays in the palace. One night he gets up and goes for a walk on the palace roof where he sees a woman bathing. A note here–this was part of the culture. What was basically big barrels were kept on the roof to collect rainwater and then the people would bathe in them. Right then David should have turned around and walked away. But he didn’t and he noticed she was beautiful. Again he could have turned away and worked out his lust on one of his many wives or concubines, but he didn’t. Even after finding out she was the wife of one of his soldiers, whom he had sent out to war, he still commanded her to be brought to the palace. He committed adultery then sent her home thinking that would be the end of it. But Bathsheeba is pregnant. David calls her husband home in hopes he will sleep with her, and everyone will assume the baby is Uriah’s. But Uriah doesn’t cooperate: he will not sleep with his wife while his brothers are still fighting. So David gets him drunk and Uriah still doesn’t go home. David then sends him back to the frontline and has him murdered. And here is the greatest irony. Jesus said “You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you love your enemy.” Uriah wasn’t the enemy–he was the neighbor. He wasn’t just a soldier either. Uriah was one of David’s 30 mighty men–he was part of David’s inner circle. David took a friend’s wife then had him murdered to cover his own sin. If we choose to sin–one act of sin doesn’t stay one sin for long. It also affects everyone around us. One of the reasons this is one of my favorite biblical stories is it shows the corporate nature of sin: sin is never personal, and it’s never private. If we choose to sin, it will affect the lives of everyone around us. Look at the rest of 2 Samuel. Look at David’s children. A son rapes his daughter. Another son kills the rapist. That son then leads an insurrection against David tearing the country apart, and that son dies as well. I see this in my own family where my parent’s generation has quite a few alcoholics and my generation has drug addicts. Sin multiplies itself and it spreads. That’s why it has to be nipped in the bud while it’s temptation. That’s why it’s so important for us to walk away from temptation and do what God wants us to do. That’s why Jesus said it’s better to gouge out an eye or cut off a hand to keep from sinning. Once an act of sin is committed it will grow and multiply. David committed one act of sin he thought he could get away with, and look at what happened. The sad thing is all David had to do to avoid all of this was turn around and walk away.
David decided to walk in his own ways, but Joseph decided to walk in God’s ways. Joseph’s story is told in Genesis 37–50. If anyone had reason to give into hate and vengeance it was Joseph. Thrown into a pit and sold into captivity by his own brothers, he had good reason to hate them. After he arrived in Egypt he was sold to Potiphar. Things went well in Potiphar’s house. In fact Potiphar places Joseph over his household, and things are looking up for him. Until Potiphar’s wife sees him. She likes what she sees, and she decides she wants Joseph and goes after him. Joseph refused. But she kept on the offensive, and one day devised a plan to get him into her bed. She sent all the servants away so it would be just the two of them. When he came into the house she grabbed him and urged him to lie with her again. Joseph scrambled out his garment and ran out of the house. Potiphar’s wife decided that was the last time that slave would slight her, so she concocted a story of Joseph attempting to rape her. And for being an honest man who would not betray his master and sin against his God, Joseph was rewarded by being thrown in prison.
While in prison Joseph once again found favor in the warden’s eyes. He interpreted dreams for the king’s baker and winetaster, which both came true. And when Pharoah had a dream that disturbed him the winetaster remembered Joseph. Joseph interpreted the dream, and gave the Pharoah a plan that would keep Egypt from starving to death. In the seven years of plenty, food must be stockpiled for the seven years of famine. Pharoah made Joseph the second-in-command over Egypt and in charge of distributing the food during the famine.
The famine was not only in Egypt it was also in Israel. So Jacob sent Joseph’s brothers to Egypt for food. Joseph puts his brothers through a couple of tests to see if they were the same men who had sold him into slavery, and he sees their regret for what they did. He reveals himself to them, and he tells them not to be distressed for God had sent him ahead to preserve the family during this time of famine. Joseph had absolute power over his brothers. He could have commanded them to be jailed or killed. But he didn’t. He forgave them. He forgave his enemy–his family. Then he took care of them. He sent the brothers back to Israel to get Jacob and their families, and he arranged for them have land in Goshen, he provided food for them, and they lived under his protection.
In Genesis 50 after Jacob’s death the brothers once again feared that Joseph might seek the vengeance that was rightfully his to seek for what they did. They went to him with a story of Jacob wanting Joseph to forgive his brothers for the wrong they had done. Joseph once again reassured his brothers that he would not seek revenge. In verse 19 he tells them “Do not be afraid? Am I in the place of God?” He left vengeance in God’s hands. Once again he reminded his brothers that what they had done to harm him God had used to save many lives–including their family. And he reaffirmed his intention of taking care of their families and providing for them.
Joseph–a man who had the right to be angry and take revenge but didn’t. He gave his anger to God and followed God’s ways, no matter how hard it was or how much it cost him. He forgave his enemies–his brothers. He also kept his life pure by not sleeping with Potiphar’s wife when he had the chance. He was tempted to anger, to murder, and to adultery, and in each case he obeyed his God and did what was right.
I wonder as Jesus was saying these things if the people were thinking of these stories. When Jesus said, “You have hard it was said of those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment” were they thinking, “Yeah remember Cain? He gave into his anger and became the first murderer”? When Jesus said, “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” were they thinking, “Too bad David didn’t heed that advice? That would have saved him a lot of heartbreak”? And when Jesus said “Love your enemy” did they think of Elisha and the Arameans or Joseph who forgave the worst kind of enemy of all: those who are close to us and betray us?
Jesus wasn’t telling the people anything they didn’t already know. He was just reminding them of their own stories and taking away all of the nonbiblical rules and regulations that had choked out the principles in these stories.
Just as Jesus reminded them of their story, he reminds us of our story. The story reminds us that God has always called his people to live differently than the world around them. Hate is replaced with love, lust with respect, and enemies with friends, spouses, and family.