The Layperson’s Bible: The Follower’s Reward

The God of the Old Testament was no slumbering slouch, hanging lazily about heaven without deigning to dip a hand into human affairs. This was a Lord who, hand in hand with his favorites among the Jews, performed miracles, bringing them fortune when they obeyed him, and disaster when they failed. Indeed, this system of reward and punishment for faithfulness to the Lord exists as a lingering undercurrent running throughout the Old Testament, as God proves time and again the generosity of his bounty and the power of his wrath in response to the behavior of his chosen people. In fact, He leaves little room for doubt over how the Israelites will be rewarded if they adhere to his will:

“And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth:
And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2)

More specifically, no male, female, or cattle among the people will be barren (Deuteronomy 7:14), they will suffer no sickness (Deuteronomy 7:15), and they will consume the peoples delivered unto them (Deuteronomy 7:16). Furthermore, they shall enjoy an international kind of superpower status:

“Thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over thee.” (Deuteronomy 15:6)

In addition, the Lord promises that the people will be blessed in both the city and field, in the fruits of their bodies, their land, their cattle, kine, and sheep, their baskets and stores, when they are coming in and also when they are going out; that they will be given rain and their enemies will be smitten before them. (Deuteronomy 28:3-13)

“Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

However, as always, there’s a flip side:

“But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee.” (Deuteronomy 28:15)

“The Lord shall set upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me. (Deuteronomy 28:20)

Failing to adhere to the Lord’s will or to worship Him sufficiently brings down a rain of curses that will make the Israelites envy the plagues the Egyptians endured. Disobedience means you will be cursed in the city and field, in the fruits of your body, land, cattle, kine and sheep, basket and store, and when coming in or when going out. (Deuteronomy 28:16-19) You will receive no rain, be smitten by your enemies, and your carcass shall be meat unto fowl and beasts. On top of which the Lord promises to smite everyone with the botch of Egypt, with emerods, scab, and itch, “whereof thou canst not be healed.” (Deuteronomy 28:27)

But wait, it gets worse. You will also be smitten with madness, blindness, and astonishment of heart. Another man will lay with your betrothed, you won’t get to live in the house you built, or gather grapes from vineyard you planted. Your ox will be slain and your ass taken away, and your sheep will be given to your enemies. You’ll be smitten in the knees and legs, and perhaps even from head to foot, with a sore botch that cannot be healed. Locusts will eat your crops, worms will eat your grapes, and your olive trees shall cast off their fruit. The Lord will bring you to a foreign nation to worship gods of wood and stone, strangers will rise above you, and your enemy from afar will come to destroy you. Your children, however, will fare worst of all, being given over to one’s enemies, taken into captivity, or even eaten in the sieges of enemy nations. (Deuteronomy 28:28-57)

And finally, the Lord will send pestilence, consumption, fever, inflammation, extreme burning, swords, blasting, and mildew (mildew?!), “And they shall pursue thee until thou perish.” Deuteronomy (28:21-22)

“And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude, because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 28:62)

Seems to me that the punishments far outweigh the blessings, don’t they? But of course, fear of punishment is a vital disciplinary tool. Any kid understands that getting grounded for the weekend for not doing his homework has a much greater effect on his current happiness than maybe, sometime in the distant future, being rewarded for studying hard with a sound financial future.

And at the last God does remind us that it is up to us to choose the life we lead:

“I have set before you life and earth, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

But even the Old Testament God isn’t a total hard-ass, promising that if you genuinely repent of the sins which brought down his wrath, that He will have compassion and put things back the way they were. (Deuteronomy 30:1-10) Sin and repentance; it frankly foreshadows the New Testament in a way that the judgments of the Old Testament generally do not. Because by the time of the New Testament, of course, it must have been apparent to the Jews that the quality of their condition was not really dependent upon whether they obeyed the Lord or not, just as it is today. How many righteous men are respected and rewarded and how many criminals caught and punished? How many innocents are plagued with disease and death and drought? In modern society it is unbelievably and rather unfortunately obvious that people, whether good or bad, don’t generally get what they deserve; they get what they get. And perhaps this is why the New Testament focuses so much more on the treasures awaiting in heaven than on those which might be enjoyed here on earth. It must have been comforting to the poor and lame and suffering of the ancient world to believe that one day their time, too, would come, as long as they were good, as long as they believed and behaved. As comforting as it is to believe that the wicked who walk among us today in style will one day be cast into a lake of everlasting fire.

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