As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned something important: my parents were right about a lot of stuff about which I thought they were wrong. Growing up, most kids push back against the instruction, wisdom, and counsel that parents give, and I was no different. Most kids also, however, come to realize with age and maturity that their parents’ view of things was actually pretty right on. But this realization usually comes as a result of learning hard lessons – going your own way and getting hurt, or in other words, learning from the school of hard knocks. A lot of times, though, had we listened to our parents, we could have avoided some of that heartache and saved ourselves some pain. At the same time, this growth can be good, and sometimes parents need to allow their children to hurt themselves by experiencing the natural consequences of their actions in order to learn. This is something like what we see with Israel in Joshua 8: learning from mistakes, and a realization that, had they done things God’s way, they could have saved themselves some heartache.
At the end of Joshua 8, after having finally conquered the city of Ai – albeit after a major defeat and setback – Israel renews the covenant between themselves and God. This was something that had been prearranged well before Israel entered the Promised Land, and even before Moses died. Moses gave instructions to Joshua to take the people to Mount Ebal after enter the Promised Land, erect a stone altar, sacrifice on it, and write the words of the law on the stones, and to recite the words of the law and the covenant to the people. All of these instructions Joshua and the people dutifully carried out to the letter. It must have been a time of confidence for the people, as well as a hope-filled look to the future with the aid and providence of a loving and all sufficient Provider, because the law and covenant they read and recited together detailed the care and provision God would have for his people if they obeyed him. Deuteronomy 28.1-14 lists a multitude of blessings for Israel if they obey him, such as:
And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth…. The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. (V. 1, 7)
And the blessings for obedience go on and on. So as Israel renewed the covenant on Mount Ebal, there was definitely reason to rejoice and hope. But at the same time, it was undoubtedly a time of grief, pain, and regret. Because in this same law and covenant, there were also listed the consequences of disregarding God’s instructions and doing what he said to do.
But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…. The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. (V. 15, 25)
Israel felt this consequence first hand, and the pain of Israel’s defeat at Ai was still fresh and raw. The truth of the words they recited together had most likely never been so plain and obvious as they were on Mount Ebal, with Israel having 36 less members of their community after the defeat at Ai. In a very real sense, they almost certainly felt like the child who had wished they had heeded the instruction of their parents, but instead went their own way and suffered the consequences.
All of these circumstances puts Israel in a somewhat paradoxical situation of experiencing deep pain and triumphant hope in the same moment: Was their current situation good? Yes. Was there outlook on the future good? Very much so. Were they reeling from the pain of the consequences of their actions? Oh yeah.
In many ways, I am so much like the Israelites as they stand on Mount Ebal, having remembered the promises of God: full of hope, but still stinging from the pain of my sin. I still feel the physical, earthly consequences of my sin (for example, when I lie I may lose the trust of someone close to me), but God promises future grace to me in and through Christ. Even though the pain of the consequences of my sin hurts, I know that I am not lost, nor have I been forsaken by God. And this is a good place to be. Because remembering God’s promises puts the pain of my sin in perspective and gives me hope for the future, and hope to do the right thing the next time. This is how Israel felt while on Mount Ebal, having renewed the covenant: the sting of the consequence of sin, and the soothing medicine of a grace-filled God who would guide them into the future.
The question of sin is not “if?” but “when?” And when we do fall short of the mark, there is grace for the future. Like Israel, it is our job to remember God’s promises even in pain, and to turn from that sin and get back to the work of obedience.