Saturday, May 24, 2014

Old Testament Lesson 19: The Reign of the Judges

After Joshua's death and for about 350 years (until Saul), Israel was ruled by "judges". These "judges" were military leaders and champions who though often identified as spiritually capable were more often fighters than preachers or prophets.
We do not know all of the many judges that existed among all the different tribes during those 350 years but 13 are identified clearly in the bible:
Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, Samuel, Shagmar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan and Abdon.

Remember also, during the reign of the judges, Israel was still not a unified kingdom but 12 separate tribes loosely connected by their religious covenant with God. I say loosely because over and over again they forgot their covenants.

The Next Generation
Judges 2:7,10-12,17 "And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord..."(v.11)
Why or how do you suppose the children of Israel forgot their God so easily within just one generation? What can we do to strengthen the next generation/our children?

Neil A Maxwell once said,
"To the rising generation of youth and young adults in the Church, I say that scriptural memories, spiritual memories, can be lost in a generation... In one generation! When the scriptures are either not available or are not searched and believed, then two things happen—a loss of belief in God and a loss of belief in the resurrection...Those vital things always go first, and they can go within a generation unless we truly are feasting upon the scriptures. Feasting on the scriptures, combined with the gift of the Holy Ghost, will “show unto you all things what ye should do” (2 Ne. 32:5)." (“The Pathway of Discipleship,” Ensign, Sept. 1998, 10–11)
When parents fail to teach their children the gospel, fail to read the scriptures together, fail to pray together, children are not given enough information to make a good choice. Think about the amount of time in the day your children are being taught by others - school teachers, tv, video games, magazines, advertisements. Now compare that to the amount of time you get to teach them the gospel. Can you see how important family prayer, family home evening, scripture study, seminary and church is? Cross reference this with the example of Frederick G. Williams, another latter-day parent in Doctrine and Covenants 93:39-43

Judges 2:14-16 What can we learn from this cycle?
You will note this pattern throughout this lesson and the scriptures. The children of Israel forget their God. He refuses to fight their battles until they remember him. They are left to be spoiled by worldly armies and influences. When they are hurting bad enough, they remember their God and call on Him and then He raises up deliverers to save them. This cycle can be seen throughout history and throughout scripture.

Deborah, the prophetess and Jael, the wife of Heber
Judges 4:1 "and the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord"
v.2-3 20 years of Canaanite oppression as a result

Judges 4:4-5 Deborah was a "prophetess". What does this mean? Did she lead the church of God?
“The gift of prophecy is a special spiritual endowment that is available to every worthy member of the Church. Every member of the Church—acting in submission to the laws and system which the Lord has ordained—is expected to have the gift of prophecy. It is by this gift that a testimony of the truth comes.’ (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958, p. 542)
Elder George Q. Cannon wrote:
‘The spirit of the Church of God is that manifested by Moses. … The genius of the kingdom with which we are associated is to disseminate knowledge through all the ranks of the people, and to make every man a prophet and every woman a prophetess, that they may understand the plans and purposes of God. For this purpose the gospel has been sent to us, and the humblest may obtain its spirit and testimony’ (in Journal of Discourses, 12:46).
 President Joseph Fielding Smith has said:
‘Our sisters are entitled just as much to the inspiration for their needs of the Holy Spirit as are the men. They are entitled to the gift of prophecy concerning matters that would be essential for them to know as it is for the men.’ (Take heed to Yourselves, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971, p. 259)
 Judges 4:8 What seems pretty obvious is that this was a time where there lacked any notable priesthood leadership. Even Barak, another judge, seems unwilling to follow the Lord's instructions without Deborah's encouragement and presence. This is not to say there were not righteous men or righteous leaders but in a patriarchal society and a patriarchal priesthood, Deborah stood out for her obedience and righteousness, her leadership and her ability to foresee (v.9). She had the Spirit with her and that spirit, coupled with her faith and strength, made her a noteworthy leader.

As prophesied by Deborah, Sisera (the captain of the Canaanite armies) armies are overwhelmed but ultimately a woman called Jael kills him.  
v.14, 22 What do you think is the Lord's point in using these two righteous women to defeat the Canaanites?  It seems clear that Barak needs motivation and guidance and help in fulfilling what was originally his calling (v.6). But notice the humility of these two gospel sisters:
"I will deliver him into thine hand" v.6
"Up, for this is the day in which the Lord has delivered Sisera into thine hand" v.14
"Come and I will show thee the man whom thou seekest" v.22

What a great lesson in supporting your priesthood leadership. Even when that leadership was somewhat lacking, these gospel sisters supported, motivated and sustained Barak. Why would they do that when he seemed somewhat lacking in certain areas? Because they recognized that in building and establishing Zion "the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour" v.9. Instead they knew and understood that it was God who delivered their victories. v.23

Mighty and Humble: Gideon
Judges 6:1 "And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord" Once more we see that the chosen people had chosen the wrong path.
7 years of Midianite oppression as a result.
"Every year for seven years a powerful confederation of nomadic tribes from southeastern Palestine had overrun the land of Israel. This was done each year at harvesttime, not by armies arrayed for battle, but with people ‘as grasshoppers for multitude.’ They invaded, pitching their tents and grazing their animals as they wandered through the land. So devastating were these migrations that they stripped the land of everything that could sustain life (see Judg. 6:1–5). The Midianites were like unwelcome distant relatives who came each year and stayed too long, eating the Israelites out of house and home." (Manfred H. Sch├╝tze, “The Sword of the Lord and of Gideon,” Ensign, Apr 2002, 46)
It is in this setting of Midianite migrations and oppression that the Lord once more hears the cries of his wayward people and sets to delivering them again. And once more their deliverer is not what they might have expected, as Gideon himself says,
Judges 6:15 "Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? My family is poor in Manasseh and I am the least in my father's house."

Gideon does not feel he has what it takes or what people would expect of a deliverer. Surely their deliverer would be a man that is big and strong and well trained in fighting or politics? But what does the Lord see in him?
v.12 "...thou mighty man of valour"
v.14 "Go in this thy might"
What makes a man "mighty"?

And what else does the Lord do for His mighty and humble servants? He fights with them and for them:
v.12 "The Lord is with thee"
v.16 "Surely I will be with thee"
And then in v.23 the very reassuring "thou shalt not die." And He further declares to Gideon that this mass migration of Midianites will be defeated as if they were just a single man (v.16).

You can just imagine young Gideon wondering if this is this really happening? I dont think his test in v.17 is a sign of his lack of faith in the Lord but rather his lack of faith in himself. He just can't believe that he is the right man. It's almost one of those "Am I on candid camera?" moments. But this is not tv this is the real deal, the Lord has called him. This mighty man of valour had been called to deliver his people.

Judges 6:30-31 I love these verses. If we are to tie this in and compare to our initial reading in Judges 2, on the one hand we have parents and children that really slacked off and forgot about the Lord while on the other hand we have just been introduced to this wonderful young man called Gideon and if you want to know where he gets his strength and his valour from, just read these verses. This is a righteous parent. He could have done the politically correct thing and apologized for his son and tried to appease his neighbours but instead he backs his son to the hilt and asks them to answer very tough questions about how their god is not speaking for himself! It's powerful parenting, especially considering he had not to date been as bold, as his son had just been, in destroying the altar and groves of this false god.
Judges 7:2 I find this verse kind of sad but also kind of awesome. The Lord recognizes that the children of Israel will only boast if they go in to battle and win with all their numbers. So he just cuts their 32,000 down to 300 by keeping only those who had faith and who were alert and aware. Remember, the Midianites were like "grasshoppers for multitude" and just their camels numbered as "the sand by the seaside" (v.12). I find it interesting because when we see odds like that in life we panic and we think something is wrong. I wonder how easier we would make life if when we saw those kind of odds instead of stressing, we just calmly took the attitude that it is the Lord making sure we know His hand is protecting us, not ours!

And so with just 300 men, horns, pitchers, lamps and their voices Gideon and his people defeated an army of thousands. They may just as well have had only Gideon and a toy gun and they would still have won - because the Lord was on their side. Our numbers may be few in . We may not feel we have all the weaponry or skills or certificates to do what we have been asked to do or called to do in life but with a little bit of spiritual wisdom and with our own spiritual light we can raise our voices and sound that trumpet. The Lord is with us and with Him nothing is impossible.

It brings to mind verse 2 of the hymn # 243 in the LDS Hymnal, "Let us All Press On":
"We will not retreat, though our numbers may be few
When compared with the opposite host in view;
But an unseen pow'r will aid me and you
In the glorious cause of truth."
 James E. Faust added his thoughts on Gideon's example when he said,
"The Lord has a great work for each of us to do. You may wonder how this can be. You may feel that there is nothing special or superior about you or your ability. Perhaps you feel, or have been told, that you are stupid. Many of us have felt that and some of us have been told that. Gideon felt this when the Lord asked him to save Israel from the Midianites.
The Lord can do remarkable miracles with a person of ordinary ability who is humble, faithful, and diligent in serving the Lord and seeks to improve himself. This is because God is the ultimate source of power." (“Acting for Ourselves and Not Being Acted Upon,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 47)
Samson and Delilah: A study in strength and weakness
Judges 13:1 "And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord" When you review how often after deliverance the people return to evil it makes you wonder why the Lord continues to send deliverers! Certainly he is sometimes a little slower to hear their cries - as shown here. This time the people are subjugated to 40 years of Philistine oppression for their disobedience.

Notice the difference in the story arc. Whereas before we had people who were not typically regarded as deliverers Deborah (a woman) and Gideon (the least among his family), here we have the very epitomy of a typical deliverer. Samson is chosen from birth. Born from miraculous circumstances, of godly parents and brought up in the holy Nazarite covenant he looks the part and plays the part of deliverer. He can kill lions and catch foxes and burn crops and kill a 1000 Philistines with a jawbone. He's big and strong, what could go wrong?
Read Judges 14:1-2, 16-17, Judges 16:1Judges 16:4, 16-17
Samson is apparently asked to go undercover into the enemy camp, marry one of their women and presumably destroy the Philistines from within. But this is where we see Samson's weaknesses. He is able to infiltrate the camp and ultimately kill some Philistines but not before showing his susceptibility to the charms and wiles and seductions of women.
Still, with his mission seemingly accomplished Samson becomes a judge in Israel. Not a surprise everyone expected it from birth! But then he sees a harlot and goes in unto her. Long before he had his hair shaved off, Samson broke his covenant. We are told he saw the harlot and then goes in unto her. That would suggest this was not premeditated but that again he succumbed very easily to temptation. This weakness has become not just a chink in his spiritual armour but a gaping wound. By the time he is in a relationship with Delilah it is not he who is in control and plotting, but the enemy. With his weakness identified, and the tables fully turned, Samson is now the target and Delilah is the bait. Samson falls for it hook line and sinker. What is even more astonishing is that he must be aware of the danger she poses to him. 3 times Delilah asks for the secret to his strength and tries to take it away from him.
Why would Samson tell her? Surely he knew by the third time what she was trying to do? Maybe he did know but just thought that he was invincible. Maybe he thought he didn't need the token of his covenant (he had already broken his covenant before), maybe he had started believing that the source of his strength was himself.
It is a sad tale of lost potential, of lost life and lost virtue.
Samson represents us all. We have everything going for us - we have the gospel, we have our covenants, we have the Lord on our side. But we are in danger. Where Joseph of Egypt fled, Samson stayed and wanted more. Power from God is dependent upon virtue and obedience and purity. If we tiptoe in temptation or dally in sin we will lose that power.

Gordon B Hinckley said,
"I lift a warning voice to all, shun sin. Transgression is incompatible with divine authority. Avoid pornography as you would avoid the plague. Avoid sexual sin of any degree…" (“Only upon Principles of Righteousness,” Ensign, Sept. 1992, 70)
Ultimately, Samson perished by the very power that once made him invincible. He was, at least on the surface and at the beginning, the perfect looking deliverer but more perfect were the hearts of Deborah and Gideon. As Saints we know that the Lord looks not on the outside but on the heart. Are our hearts pure? If so, the Lord has a mission for each and every one of us. It is a mission of great importance. It is your personal call to the greatest work of all. You do not need to be big and strong and good looking. You don't need certificates and honors of men. You just need to be willing, to have faith and to have a pure heart.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Old Testament Lesson 18: Be Strong and of a Good Courage

How do you fill big boots?
As you sit and reflect on the life of Moses, Deuteronomy 34:10 is a simple but fitting tribute:
"And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face." 
Moses delivered some 2 million people from slavery. He led them literally right through the Red Sea and away to safety from the advancing Egyptian armies. He helped his people survive in the wilderness for 40 years, introducing a governing structure, laws, and a vision for the future. When many of the children of Israel were failing and even Aaron and Miriam were questioning, Moses stood true and firm and maintained his personal relationship with God.
His boots were truly big boots to follow and fill!

And so after Moses comes Joshua, the son of Nun. Could you imagine the feeling of insufficiency Joshua must have felt. Even his heritage makes him sound like a nobody!
How hard would it be to follow after Moses?
How would you feel if you were asked to take over from Moses? Have you ever felt overwhelmed by responsibility?
The life of Joshua, teaches an important lesson to those of us who have ever stood in the shadows of giants or taken on a responsibility or challenge.
What do we learn first and foremost about Joshua in Deuteronomy 34:9? Notice the phrasing. This was not just worldly wisdom but he was "full of the spirit of wisdom." And why? Because "Moses had laid his hands upon him". Joshua was set apart and blessed with the spiritual gift of wisdom. Many of us, myself included, would struggle to stand shoulder to shoulder with a prophet such as Moses, yet when blessed and set apart to fulfill a calling, the Lord qualifies us all, and elevates us all, sufficient to His purposes. See how he makes this point to Joshua in Joshua 1:2-5:
" I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee".
Read the advice the Lord gives Joshua in Joshua 1:6-9. What particular instruction does the Lord give Joshua three times?
"Be strong and of a good courage".
Each time he issues that instruction, it is added upon and clarified a little.
He will need to be strong and of a good courage in battle (v6), in keeping the commandments (v7-8), and in keeping positive (v.9).
The instruction "be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed" brings to mind the science of positive thinking. Please follow these two links for some interesting studies on the power of positive thinking:
If Moses' mission was baptizing the people (via the Red Sea) and teaching them the commandments and repentance (in the wilderness), Joshua's role was to get the people to the temple (the promised land) and keep them worthy of it.

So in summary, to take on a position of responsibility (no matter who you are following)
  • pray for the spirit of wisdom
  • be strong and of a good courage
  • find a vision and purpose
and if it is a church calling all of the above AND
  • make sure you are set apart by one who holds authority.
Lessons of Jordan and Jericho (Joshua 3-4, 6)
v.1 seems to be an obscure verse, that is merely setting the scene for the story ahead but for some reason this verse hit me. How many times have the righteous risen early in the morning and been rewarded for it? I decided to do a little research on it and have left a few verses for you to read of other saints who arose early and were rewarded. I can't help but think that the Lord wishes us to use as much of the light of day as possible, rising early so as not to miss any opportunity and to show our willingness rather than delaying and tarrying. Genesis 22:3; Exodus 34:4; Judges 21:4; Mark 1:35; John 8:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1
The world is so full of darkness and confusion and noise. If you are a regular early-riser you will know that those early hours of the morning are peaceful, clear and enlightening.

Part of being a leader you need to be able to convince people to follow you. The children of Israel needed to cross the river Jordan to get to their promised lands but it was flooding and overflowing. How did the Lord use this opportunity to endorse his new leader? Joshua 3:7-8; Joshua 3:14-17
I love the symbolism of this story. The worthy priesthood leadership as signified by their tribal affiliation and their chosen status have the ability to bear the ark and lead the way. But they still had to enter the flooded river, if only a little way, they still had to walk forward.  We too, no matter what the challenge, must walk forward into the waters edge. It is only when we do so bearing the priesthood righteously with God in our midst that we can see the power of the Lord. Consider the following story.
Elder Boyd K. Packer said:
“Shortly after I was called as a General Authority, I went to Elder Harold B. Lee for counsel. He listened very carefully to my problem and suggested that I see President David O. McKay. President McKay counseled me as to the direction I should go. I was very willing to be obedient but saw no way possible for me to do as he counseled me to do.
“I returned to Elder Lee and told him that I saw no way to move in the direction I was counseled to go. He said, ‘The trouble with you is you want to see the end from the beginning.’ I replied that I would like to see at least a step or two ahead. Then came the lesson of a lifetime: ‘You must learn to walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness; then the light will appear and show the way before you’” (“The Edge of the Light,” BYU Today, Mar. 1991, 22–23)
The miracle of the Jordan River reminds us of the parting of the Red Sea. Why did the Lord choose to replicate this miracle at this time? Joshua 4:14 Consider that those that crossed the Jordan had not crossed the Red Sea with Moses unless they were small children. They would have undoubtedly heard the stories but to now experience this same thing that their parents spoke of with reverence must have been a humbling, emotional and powerful experience.
I love the words of Joshua in Joshua 4:21-24. What personal memorials do you have in your life that remind you of God's power? Why are these important?

Having crossed the Jordan River, the children of Israel begin to conquer the cities and lands they have been promised. The first city we hear of is Jericho. This of course is a very famous city as far as biblical battles and stories go. Essentially the city was put under siege. The Israelites surrounded the city and were given these instructions by Joshua from the Lord:
For 6 days they were to walk around the city, once each day with their entire armies. Each time, seven priests would walk in front of the ark of the covenant as they circled the city, holding a ram's horn trumpet.
On the 7th day they were to walk around the city 7 times with their entire armies and the priests were to make a long blast with their trumpets.
When the people hear the long blast of the trumpets, they are to shout really loudly and then the Lord promises that the city walls would fall down.
Joshua 6:12,15 There he is rising early again!
Of course the siege of Jericho ended when the people shouted in faith. The walls "came tumbling down" and they utterly defeated the city.
Once more Joshua is faithful in following the instructions of the Lord and once more the younger generation of the children of Israel prove faithful in following the instructions passed to them by their new prophet and leader Joshua.

Joshua's parting words (Joshua 24)
Within a few years and certainly no more than 45 years of crossing the Jordan, the children of Israel had pretty much taken possession of the entire Land of Canaan. It was divided by lots among the tribes of Israel and it was left to the tribes to subjugate the land and remove the Canaanite people from it that were left in the conquered lands.
Joshua 23:1-4, 6-7, 11-13 Don't become polluted.
Joshua 24:14-15 Choose ye THIS day...why is it important to choose today to follow the Lord?
“Joshua reminds us of the importance of making decisions promptly: ‘Choose you this day whom ye will serve; … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15). Not tomorrow, not when we get ready, not when it is convenient—but ‘this day,’ straightway, choose whom you will serve." (Elder Marvin J. Ashton in Conference Report, Apr. 1983, 41)
Caleb (Joshua 14)
In the middle of Joshua's story we are reminded of his fellow spy, Caleb. Caleb was the other spy who went with Joshua into the promised land, under Moses' instruction. He returned with a favourable report and was blessed for his courage and honesty. When we meet Caleb again, he is now 85 years old. And he is now reminding Joshua of his faithfulness and the Lord's promise and is claiming his righteous inheritance in Joshua 14:11-12 I wonder how many of us will be able to confidently claim our inheritance in the promised land as did Caleb. What gave Caleb his confidence to make such a bold claim of the Lord? see v. 8,9,14. He "wholly followed" the Lord.
President Spencer W. Kimball stated his admiration for Caleb and suggested some lessons we can learn from him:
“From Caleb’s example we learn very important lessons. Just as Caleb had to struggle and remain true and faithful to gain his inheritance, so we must remember that, while the Lord has promised us a place in his kingdom, we must ever strive constantly and faithfully so as to be worthy to receive the reward.
“Caleb concluded his moving declaration with a request and a challenge with which my heart finds full sympathy. The Anakims, the giants, were still inhabiting the promised land, and they had to be overcome. Said Caleb, now at 85 years, ‘Give me this mountain’ (Joshua 14:12).
“This is my feeling for the work at this moment. There are great challenges ahead of us, giant opportunities to be met. I welcome that exciting prospect and feel to say to the Lord, humbly, ‘Give me this mountain,’ give me these challenges” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1979)
May we follow the example of Caleb and Joshua and always be ready to face the "giant" challenges and take on the responsibilities the Lord requires of us is my prayer.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Old Testament Lesson 17: Beware Lest thou Forget

Today we are in the Book of Deuteronomy. The children of Israel are preparing to move from here, the wilderness and their home for 40 years,

Sinai desert
 to here - the promised land, a land of milk and honey...

Israel by the Sea of Galilee
As part of their preparations, the Lord reminds the children of Israel of all they have learned.

"Deuteronomy is a book about covenant-making. Its setting is the east side of the Jordan River as the second generation of the Israelites who came out of Egypt is about to enter the promised land. Years of experience in the wilderness had chastened them and trained them to keep their covenants. (See Deut. 1:1-5.) The book also coincides with the end of Moses' tenure as leader of Israel. Many of the people had been very young when all of Israel last covenanted to obey the Lord at Mt. Sinai. Frequently at such moments of transition to new leadership, the outgoing leader would bring all the people under covenant again to obey God. Such seems to be the case as Moses passed the mantle of leadership to Joshua.
"Thus, the whole book of Deuteronomy seems to have the structure of a covenant ceremony. Throughout history, especially among ancient peoples, such covenant-making and covenant renewal were regular and consistent. They included an introduction of the parties involved in making the covenant, a review of history up to the initiation of the covenant, individual commandments, a recounting of blessings and curses, a witness and oaths of acceptance, and a reading of the covenant." (Stephen D. Ricks, "Deuteronomy: A Covenant of Love," Ensign, Apr. 1990, 57)

The scriptures are full of exhortations to "remember". Why?
"Remembering important things is fundamental to both our temporal and spiritual well-being. Confusing what we should remember with what we can or ought to forget creates difficulties for us. Much trouble in life originates from forgetting what we should remember and remembering what we should forget." Dennis B. Neuenshwander "Remember, Remember" BYU Speeches, November 12, 2002
What kind of things should we remember and what kind of things should we forget?
What has the Lord given us to help us "remember"? Prophets, scriptures, parents, signs and symbols, tokens and covenants and the Holy Ghost.
What symbols and lives has he used as examples in our Old Testament study so far? Stars in the sky and in the firmament, sabbath day, animal sacrifice, rainbow, Abram becomes Abraham, circumcision, Lot's wife, "the God of Abraham and of Isaac", deliverance from Egypt and passover, pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, manna and quail, brass serpent. These are but a few of the examples where we have been given help remembering by the Lord. Central to today's sacrament prayers is the phrase "that we may always remember him". President Kimball once said,
“When you look in the dictionary for the most important word, do you know what it is? It could be ‘remember.’ Because all of [us] have made covenants…our greatest need is to remember. That is why everyone goes to sacrament meeting every Sabbath day—to take the sacrament and listen to the priests pray that [we] ‘may always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given [us].’ … ‘Remember’ is the word. Remember is the program” (Circles of Exaltation [address to religious educators, Brigham Young University, 28 June 1968]).
In Deuteronomy 1:1-2 we notice that much of where the children of Israel wandered over 40 years could have been easily crossed in 11 days.Why was it necessary for the children of Israel to wander in the wilderness for 40 years after leaving Egypt? They needed 40 years to forget the false traditions and to start remembering their one true God.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 Notice Christ's repetition of this in Mark 12:28-34. Just knowing the context of Christ's quote highlights for me the importance of what he was trying to teach the children of Israel earlier as they left their wilderness home. Also notice what I like to call the "airplane rule" in effect -  parents first and then children.
v.6 "and these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart"
and then v.7 "And thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children...". Just on Sundays? No... "...when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up."

Spencer W. Kimball, speaking of our obligation to teach our children said,
"If we follow the program of the Church for our homes, the prophets before have promised and we now promise that great blessings will come to all who prayerfully and conscientiously apply these practices in their home life. We remember the Prophet Moses' wise instructions, which, had Israel followed them, would have led them to a far different end than to where their rebellious actions took them: "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up." (Deut. 6:6-7.)
But sometimes we hear excuses such as these: "Time is too short," "We have other things to do on Monday nights," "We are too old to enjoy the lessons," "Our children are too young to understand," "Our children must get their school lessons," "We can't get them all together," "We don't like to tie ourselves down," "I'm all alone and don't need it," "There are special TV shows that night."
Why do we contend with the Almighty when he is so strong and we so weak, when he is omniscient and we can see such a little way? We remember the scripture:
Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright. (Ps. 20:7-8.)
God is our Father, and we are his children. He has given us instructions. We are to follow the path. Righteous home life and activities, inspired teaching of gospel truths in the home, wise parental guidance, father presiding, and father and mother in counsel together-that's the cure for the problems of our time, a remedy for ills in our families." ("Therefore I Was Taught," Ensign, Jan. 1982, 5)
v.8-9 Are we meant to do this? What is the true intent of these verses and the significance for latter-day saint families and homes? cf Mosiah 1:5 King Benjamin taught that we should have the commandments "always before our eyes". As we consider this instruction, ponder on what is before your eyes in your homes - what books, and art and media are on your shelves and on your walls and on your media devices? Do the things reminding you of your God outnumber the things that remind you of other gods of the world?

As the children of Israel prepared to move out of the wilderness into the land of promise, the land of "milk and honey", why was the Lord so concerned that they might forget Him?
Deuteronomy 6:10-12 

Have you sent a child to school on their first day? Have you sent a child away to university? Have you sent a child on a mission? Have you had a child get married? Think back to that day, those last few moments before they left - what thoughts filled your mind? Things you want them to remember, right?! It is the natural concern of a parent s they send a child off into the world - "don't forget this", and "don't forget that"! And what does the child say? "Yes, yes, I'll be fine. Quit worrying. You already told me that mum!" These scriptures in Deuteronomy feel the same way to me. It's the Lord saying "don't forget" and he says the same things a few times over in Deuteronomy just to help the children of Israel remember the most important things. Deuteronomy 8:1-20 is a beautiful example of this reminding.

What does the Lord warn the children of Israel of in Deuteronomy 6 and Deuteronomy 8?
Brigham Young speaking of this said to the saints in the early latter-days,
The worst fear I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear … is that they cannot stand wealth. (James S. Brown, Life of a Pioneer, Salt Lake City: Geo. Q. Cannon and Sons Co., 1900, pp. 122–23)

Spencer W. Kimball once more speaking of remembering, said:
"I suppose there would never be an apostate, there would never be a crime, if people remembered, really remembered, the things they had covenanted at the water's edge or at the sacrament table and in the temple. I suppose that is the reason the Lord asked Adam to offer sacrifices, for no other reason than that he and his posterity would remember—remember the basic things that they had been taught. I guess we as humans are prone to forget. It is easy to forget. Our sorrows, our joys, our concerns, our great problems seem to wane to some extent as time goes on, and there are many lessons that we learn which have a tendency to slip from us. The Nephites forgot. They forgot the days when they felt good.
I remember a young Navaho boy returning from his mission who was supported largely by a seventies quorum in the Bonneville Stake. I happened to be present the day he made his report and as tears rolled down his face, he said, "Oh, if I could only remember always just how I feel now." (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], 113)
President Henry B. Eyring relates of a personal way he has managed to keep focus and remember to acknowldge God's hand in all things.

One of the most enjoyable ways the Lord has given us to remember is through music. There are many many songs that can remind us of our God, of his commandments and of our blessings. One that personally stands out for me, ever since I was a child, is the hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. For me this captures everything - my nothingness, my frailties but also my desire to be like and with God, how blessed I am and how much I owe Him. It stirs my heart and soul and urges me to be better. It is an anthem of praise to my God and a declaration of my love for and humility in his presence. The video below is not a clear rendition but nevertheless it is a beautifully arranged and emotionally sung version by the BYU Chorus.

May we ever remember Him, His commandments and His judgements, as well as His mercy and love.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Old Testament Lesson 16: I Cannot Go Beyond the Word of the Lord

This week's lesson is really all about perspective.

Others' perspective!

Our perspective!

Most of us go through life seeing things through the lens of just our own eyes. Some see things through the eyes of others affording them an opposite view. Our calling is to rise above our own view and see through the Lord's lens.

Historical Context to this week's lesson:
The children of Israel have been wondering in the wilderness for 40 years. The older generation have just about all passed away and a new younger generation is being readied to inherit the lands they were promised. As the Lord himself, tells them through Moses,
"ye have dwelt long enough in this mount: Turn you, and take your journey...behold I have set the land before you: go in and posses the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers..." Deut 1:6-8
I want to pause here for a moment. Have you ever felt like no matter what you do, your life is going in circles? Do you feel like you are just not getting anywhere? Sure you are surviving, you are existing but life is not progressing how you would like it to. Consider the Israelites. They were smart enough to know they were going in circles in the wilderness for 40 years. Is it any wonder they found themselves complaining about their lot in life and feeling their was no point to their existence other than being led into the wilderness to die. Here on the ground it is hard to see past the mountains. What is different about the Lord's perspective?
Why should we always seek the Lord's perspective?
How do we seek the Lord's perspective?
The children of Israel spent 40 years trying to force the Lord to see things their way. Can't He see we are hungry? Can't He see we are thirsty? Can't He see we can't go on like this? Can't He see we were better off in Egypt as slaves? Who knows how much shorter their journey in the wilderness may have been if they had elevated their sight and raised their perspective into alignment with the Lord's perspective, sooner.

Balak and Balaam (Numbers 22:1-21)
And so as they progress northwards towards their lands (promised to them over the many generations from Adam down to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob), they have encountered the Amorites and defeated them in battle and moved on as instructed by the Lord through the lands of Edom (descendants of Jacob's brother Edom) and Moab (descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew). Now the Moabites were ruled at that time by a king called Balak. And as he saw this vast people (around 1-2 million people) move towards his borders and through hi lands, and as he hears of the tales of the destruction of the Amorites, you can imagine Balak is worried about Moab being destroyed like the Amorites. In those days, the solution was either to fight and defend your lands or turn to your religious deities to protect you or both. Balak knew that neither his armies nor his gods were powerful enough to protect his people and his lands from this powerful nation. Instead Balak turned to Balaam. Why did he turn to Balaam?
Numbers 22:2-3, 5-6 
Numbers 24:17
Balaam seems to have gained a reputation as a man with divine authority and power. Undoubtedly from the texts he was "called of God" and as Numbers tells us, Balak knew that whomever Balaam blessed or cursed, so it was. We also know from Numbers 24 that Balaam was capable of true prophecy.
As a result, Balak feels his best chance is to turn to Balaam and ask him to curse Israel so that they cannot defeat the Moabites.
But verse 7 is a little worrying because Balak's messengers "departed with the rewards of divination in their hand". It would seem this priesthood authority had a reputation of being bought and Balak meant to buy it.
So what happens? v.12
"And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed."
If we are to compare our status in the latter days with those of the children of Israel, how does the Lord view us?

Balak is used to getting what he wants. What is his response to being rejected? v.16-17 How does Balak represent the world we live in today?
On the surface, Balaam's reply seems proper and appropriate for one called of God, but dig a little deeper and we start to see some worrying signs. Compare Balaam's answer in v.18 to a similar call from Joshua in Joshua 24:15
You see the real question is whether Balaam characteristically "will not" or just dutifully and a little reluctantly "cannot". Surely, when you "will not", there is no need to go back to the Lord to check to see if He might change His mind?
Balaam seems like he really really knows that he shouldn't but really really wants all the things Balak has offered him. He is torn between two masters. Balaam represents the natural man. Feeling and experiencing the things of God but tempted and lusting after the things of the world. And in this instance Balaam tries to tiptoe on the edges of his principles, acting the man of God, all the while flirting with money and prestige.

v.20-22 what are the two reasons God gets angry? This time it is disobedience. I know he gave permission in verse 20 but refer back to verse 12. Thou shalt not go with them is about as direct a commandment as they come. So how do we align the original commandment in verse 12 with the apparent change of heart in verse 20 and then his reaction in verse 22? 
It seems to me this is one of the times where the Lord is telling you what is best for you. His perspective sees all and he knows what is over that mountain and for your good he commands you not to go there. But we, with our low-lying mortal perspective who always think we see better, plead and plead for those things we really really want. And eventually if we are stubbornly refusing to listen to him and only want what we want, then at some point I think He just says, and I am of course paraphrasing, "listen I'm not going to strive with you or argue with you. I know whats best for you but if you have your eyes fixed on that, I can't stop you. Go for it. But be warned. I do not want you to go there."
Why does the Lord allow us to follow paths that He knows can lead toward danger?
When I asked my wife's father for permission to marry her we had never met. In fact this conversation was my very first conversation with her father. When I asked for his permission, he said something that I have never forgotten, "Well," he said, "what Marjolaine wants, Marjolaine usually gets." I took that as a "yes". He was probably very concerned not knowing who I was and never having met me, yet he still allowed her to make her own choice.
I wonder if the Lord regards us in a similar way, he loves us and will try to protect us from the dangers of the world, but if you want it bad enough, he is not going to stand in your way.
Why do you think the Lord was so upset with Balaam? cf Doctrine and Covenants 82:3
The Lord expects better choices of those whom he has called.

Balaam and the Ass (Numbers 22:22-35)
Not a picture of Balaam and his Ass
In today's world a talking donkey isn't such a big deal anymore I guess, but this was not a normal event in Balaam's world.
The whole point of this story though is to show how misaligned Balaam is with the Lord's view.
Consider this:
What characterisitic are asses and donkeys most generally associated with?
And yet was it Balaam or his ass that stubbornly persisted against the angel of the Lord and the Lord's will?
A creature as stubborn and dumb as an ass tries to avoid the angel, but he still sees it. Balaam does not even see the angel. This is astounding. This purported man of God, called of God is so spiritually misaligned, his donkey sees more spiritually than he does.
Notice also how the Lord attempts to stop the donkey going where there is danger. At first the donkey's path is as wide as the countryside but then as he stubbornly persists and veers away from the Lord and his angels, the Lord narrows the pathway with a walled vineyard giving the donkey less ability to veer away. As the donkey continues to try to veer away from the Lord, he is finally given no wiggle room. With no way to turn, the donkey must address that which is directly in front of him or back out willfully. Rather than outright rebellion the donkey chooses submission and falls to the ground in apparent recognition of that which is of God.
In comparison, see how Balaam tries to steer the donkey - with force ( "he smote the ass with a staff"). This is not the way of the Lord. He tries to persist without even seeing the Lord's will. It's right in front of him but he can't even see it.
Many of us need to be guided like the donkey, until we are in line with the Lord. That's ok. But when we are not aligned with the Lord and seeking, his will, like Balaam we will be unable to feel the Lord's guidance in our lives.
Notice verse 34 also. "if it displease thee..." ?????  Do you think Balaam gets it? I mean at this point, after the talking donkeys and the angel and the broken foot, is it that hard to figure out that the Lord would prefer you to go home rather than persistently following after your own vision of wealth and honour.

Sacrifice vs. Obedience - The Lord's Perspective (Numbers 23)
So Balaam meets Balak and says the right things - "I can only say what the Lord tells me to say"
v.1 Balaam instructs Balak to make the greatest and most perfect sacrifice there is. 7 altars is a symbol of perfect sacrifice. The ram and the ox were considered the highest type of sacrificial offering, being the most expensive. Essentially Balaam is saying if you plead hard enough and sacrifice enough the Lord may change His mind. Balaam may have done well to heed the words of a future prophet of Israel - Samuel cf 1 Samuel 15:22 Samuel's words are so reflective of Balaam that one wonders if he might have taken the text of that sermon to Saul from the life of Balaam.
What is the lesson that Samuel teaches that Balaam never learned? From the Lord's perspective all these offerings and sacrifices mean nothing without obedience and purity of heart.

v.11 this verse seems to imply there was a business relationship. The verb "took" implies ownership and suggests that Balaam had indeed sold his authority for use with Balak. Of course the power of the priesthood cannot be sold and it cannot or ought not to be maintained only upon the principles of righteousness.

v.19 Balaam continues to say the right thing
v.20-30 Balaam continues to try to find a way to please God and to please Balak. How will that work out for him? cf Matthew 6:24
Balaam at this time is focused on what he wants and what Balak wants - he has not aligned himself with what the Lord wants.

The Wilderness - The Lord's Perspective (Numbers 24)(Numbers 31)
I find this chapter both beautiful and hauntingly tragic. As we have studied him so far it has been hard to see why he was a prophet of God. His perspective has up until now been mostly his own, focused on the honors of man. This chapter we get a glimpse of what might have been, his potential.
v.1-2 Balaam finally aligns with what the Lord wants. He sees the Lord's perspective and we are told he "set his face toward the wilderness and...lifted up his eyes...and the Spirit of God came upon him"
What can we learn from this about aligning our own perspectives with the Lord? What significance does the wilderness have? The wilderness is symbolic of the world, our trials and hardships. Here for Balaam, his trial was this people of Israel that he wanted to curse for money's sake but knew that he couldn't. He tried to find every way he could to avoid the Lord's perspective but when he finally faced the issue and looked to heaven the Spirit of God came upon him and his eyes were opened.

Oh if only that was the end of the story! Alas it is not. See Numbers 31:7-8. Why was Balaam killed after what seemed like a lesson learned? 2 Peter 2:15-16, Jude 1:11, Revelations 2:14.

Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived around or just after the time of Christ wrote this extra record of the story of Balaam. Though not considered scripture, it may well explain what Balaam was thinking and why ultimately the Lord had him destroyed.
"But Balak being very angry that the Israelites were not cursed, sent away Balaam without thinking him worthy of any honor. Whereupon, when he [Balaam] was just upon his journey, in order to pass the Euphrates, he sent for Balak, and for the princes of the Midianites, and spake thus to them:-"O Balak, and you Midianites that are here present, (for I am obliged even without the will of God to gratify you,) it is true no entire destruction can seize upon the nation of the Hebrews, neither by war, nor by plague, nor by scarcity of the fruits of the earth, nor can any other unexpected accident be their entire ruin; for the providence of God is concerned to preserve them from such a misfortune; nor will it permit any such calamity to come upon them whereby they may all perish; but some small misfortunes, and those for a short time, whereby they may appear to be brought low, may still befall them; but after that they will flourish again, to the terror of those that brought those mischiefs upon them. So that if you have a mind to gain a victory over them for a short space of time, you will obtain it by following my directions:-Do you therefore set out the handsomest of such of your daughters as are most eminent for beauty, and proper to force and conquer the modesty of those that behold them, and these decked and trimmed to the highest degree able. Then do you send them to be near camp, and give them in charge, that the young men of the Hebrews desire their allow it them; and when they see they are enamored of them, let them take leaves; and if they entreat them to stay, let give their consent till they have persuaded leave off their obedience to their own laws, the worship of that God who established them to worship the gods of the Midianites and for by this means God will be angry at them. Accordingly, when Balaam had suggested counsel to them, he went his way.
So when the Midianites had sent their daughters, as Balaam had exhorted them, the Hebrew men were allured by their beauty, and came with them, and besought them not to grudge them the enjoyment of their beauty, nor to deny them their conversation. These daughters of Midianites received their words gladly, and consented to it, and staid with them; but when they brought them to be enamored of them, and their inclinations to them were grown to ripeness, they began to think of departing from them: then it was that these men became greatly disconsolate at the women's departure, and they were urgent with them not to leave them, but begged they would continue there, and become their wives; and they promised them they should be owned as mistresses all they had. This they said with an oath, and called God for the arbitrator of what they promised; and this with tears in their eyes, and all such marks of concern, as might shew how miserable they thought themselves without them, and so might move their compassion for them. So the women, as soon as they perceived they had made their slaves, and had caught them with their conservation began to speak thus to them:-
"O you illustrious young men! we have of our own at home, and great plenty of good things there, together with the natural, affectionate parents and friends; nor is it out of our want of any such things that we came to discourse with you; nor did we admit of your invitation with design to prostitute the beauty of our bodies for gain; but taking you for brave and worthy men, we agreed to your request, that we might treat you with such honors as hospitality required: and now seeing you say that you have a great affection for us, and are troubled when you think we are departing, we are not averse to your entreaties; and if we may receive such assurance of your good-will as we think can be alone sufficient, we will be glad to lead our lives with you as your wives; but we are afraid that you will in time be weary of our company, and will then abuse us, and send us back to our parents, after an ignominious manner." And they desired that they would excuse them in their guarding against that danger. But the young men professed they would give them any assurance they should desire; nor did they at all contradict what they requested, so great was the passion they had for them. "If then," said they, "this be your resolution, since you make use of such customs and conduct of life as are entirely different from all other men, insomuch that your kinds of food are peculiar to yourselves, and your kinds of drink not common to others, it will be absolutely necessary, if you would have us for your wives, that you do withal worship our gods. Nor can there be any other demonstration of the kindness which you say you already have, and promise to have hereafter to us, than this, that you worship the same gods that we do. For has any one reason to complain, that now you are come into this country, you should worship the proper gods of the same country? especially while our gods are common to all men, and yours such as belong to nobody else but yourselves." So they said they must either come into such methods of divine worship as all others came into, or else they must look out for another world, wherein they may live by themselves, according to their own laws.
Now the young men were induced by the fondness they had for these women to think they spake very well; so they gave themselves up to what they persuaded them, and transgressed their own laws, and supposing there were many gods, and resolving that they would sacrifice to them according to the laws of that country which ordained them, they both were delighted with their strange food, and went on to do every thing that the women would have them do, though in contradiction to their own laws; so far indeed that this transgression was already gone through the whole army of the young men, and they fell into a sedition that was much worse than the former, and into danger of the entire abolition of their own institutions; for when once the youth had tasted of these strange customs, they went with insatiable inclinations into them; and even where some of the principal men were illustrious on account of the virtues of their fathers, they also were corrupted together with the rest." (Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, 6:6-9, italics added)
When I consider the story of Balaam I cannot help but reflect on the counsel of Doctrine and Covenants 88: 62-68
The Lord wants us to draw near to him and to ask him for that which we need but when we ask for that which we dont need it can turn to us for our condemnation, just as it did with Balaam. If our eye be single to the glory of God, if we share his perspective, all will be understood. And how do we gain the Lord's perspective? v.68 we must sanctify ourselves, cleanse ourselves of all other desires, purify our hearts from the other temptations the world throws at us and then we will see Him, "in his own time in his own way and according to his own will".