“You must purge the evil from you” (Deut 24:7).
This is the constant refrain given in Deuteronomy. As Moses revisits the statutes set before Israel going into the promised land, he provides the above statement as grounding. However, it begs the question, “Why?” Why is it necessary for Israel to purge the evil in their camp?
Honestly, many of the practices Moses lays out when using this phrase appear overly harsh, even sadistic at times. For instance, “purging the evil” is given as the reason to stone a rebellious child or a woman who is discovered to not be a virgin when she gets married. In my mind, while these are both wrong, they are certainly not offenses worthy of death!
As students of this text, and hopefully slaves to its master and author, we must balance these passages of purging evil with the abundance of other passages that demonstrate the lovingkindness of God. In order to get a true picture of this God who created the heavens and the earth, we must take all of his word into consideration. He is the God who lovingly created. He is the God who graciously provides for his creation every moment of every day. He gives life and breath. And when mankind brought sin into the world, and the curse of evil spread across the face of the earth, God graciously made a way to redeem all he had created from our grand mistake. What we seek to destroy, God lovingly protects. God is truly a loving God.
Nevertheless, we must take these strong passages of justice against evil in Deuteronomy with as much weight as passages that point to God’s grace and forgiveness. Why is this severe treatment against sin necessary?
It appears, on a close read, that maybe the Israelites themselves would have seen some of these proclamations to purge evil as shocking. Perhaps, this is one reason for the constant repetition of the phrase about purging evil. Moses is setting out some severe consequences for sin, and reminds them over and over again why they are necessary.
Severe consequences for these actions reveal the severe nature of these actions.
God’s statutes, handed down and communicated through Moses, show the severity of evil. God was not playing around. In Exodus 19, the Bible records that crucial moment in world history when the people of Israel are gathered around the base of Mount Sinai. God had delivered Israel from their slavery in Egypt. He had saved them. Now, he had his people at the base of his mountain, and he tells them what it means to be his people. He gives them the law.
In Exodus, God told Israel the purpose for the law. It was pretty simple. God gave them the law so they will know how to act. The law did not help them earn God’s favor. After all, he had already saved them. However, they were a new nation, a new kingdom, and this came with new roles and responsibilities. God was going to dwell with them in a special way, unlike any of the other nations of the world. He was going to live in their camp, in the tabernacle. Yet, for God to live in their midst, they had to be holy, because he was holy. God is set apart from evil. He is the opposite of evil, and for him to live in the camp with Israel, they could have no evil in their camp. They had to be set apart from evil just like God was. Their kingdom was to be structured in a way that demonstrated God’s redemptive effect on creation.
The people of God had the responsibility of imaging God to the world.
Perhaps, when we come across these “harsh” passages in the Old Testament that speak of such severe punishment for sin, it reveals as much about us as it does God. Perhaps the problem is not that God thinks too much of sin, but that we think too little of it. Instead of our wicked hearts trying to determine the righteous judgement against sin, certainly we must realize the only sentence that is truly righteous is the one that comes from the perfect judge. After all, he sees perfectly, he understands completely, and he loves infinitely.
The problem is not with God; it is with us.
If we can only accept God’s view of sin, then we would begin to see the dire state of our hearts. We would stop excusing ourselves and our actions as “not that bad” and begin to realize that there is nothing we can do to earn favor with God. Instead, the severity of sin reveals to us our desperate need for a savior.
God’s severe punishment is actually his severe mercy.