Have you ever had a thorn in your side? I can imagine that if you clear enough brush, you will eventually wind up with one. Or if you have done any distance running, you probably have had what I have heard called a “stitch” in your side – which feels like a thorn in the side.
The expression “a barb in your eye” sounds even more painful to me. One of the last things I would want to have happen is to get a fishhook in the eye.
And those are what God says it will be like if the Israelites don’t make sure every last inhabitant of the Promised Land is moved out or killed.
In this passage, the people have reached the Plains of Moab – the staging area for crossing the Jordan into their new homeland. We skipped over reading a summary of their journey from Egypt to this place – but it is worth reading. That is how they got here – but the point today is where they are to go from here, both geographically and spiritually.
God tells Moses to tell the people to “drive out all the inhabitants before you.” All of them. Every last one of them. And the next step is to destroy all traces of the Canaanites’ Baal worship.
They are to destroy all the carved wood and stone images and all the cast metal idols, and to demolish all the high places. The high places were earthen mounds – similar to the burial mounds that the Adena people built in Moundsville, but with a very different purpose.
The Canaanites believed that Baal, the fertility god, and his mistress, Ashtoreth, enjoyed watching ritualistic orgies. By building mounds, it gave their gods a better view – and that would bring better harvests and more children to the Canaanites. These high places were to be levelled.
God restates that the Israelites are to take possession of the land and settle it – because God is giving it to them. Here, God makes it clear that the land is His, and He will give it as He desires. As Job said after he lost almost everything, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” As the One who created the earth, it is God’s to give – and God gave it to the Israelites.
And God will even determine who gets what part of the land. There is fairness in how God does that – telling Moses that larger tribes get larger regions and small tribes get smaller ones – but which regions they get is God’s choice. But which region is to be determined by casting lots – the way the guards at Jesus’ crucifixion decide who would get his seamless robe.
To the ancient Israelites, this was not gambling. Our sovereign God would determine how the lots turned out.
But the land was also God’s to take away from the Israelites. In verse 55, God warns, “if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides.”
The word God uses here is “dispossess”: God wants the Israelites to take possession of the land, and to dispossess the Canaanites – to take possession of the land from them.
And God knows that the Israelites will not do this completely. The soldiers will take the attractive girls and women for wives, and strong, young Canaanites will be taken as slaves.
But doing so will allow a fifth column to emerge in fledgling Israel – Canaanites who will plot against their masters or husbands. This will also allow Baal worship to continue in the land – so one-by-one, the Israelites will embrace the pagan rituals and fall away from their faith in God.
God leaves them with an ominous promise in verse 56: “And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.”
That promise was fulfilled 822 years later when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and God’s people went into exile – and again in 70 AD when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem. God’s people were scattered all over the world, and they did not regain that land officially until 1948.
God’s message to His people is clear: get rid of anything that could tempt you to sin, or you will sin. Do not stick your head into the lion’s mouth. Trouble can find you easily enough – don’t go looking for it.
One of the core principles of Alcoholics Anonymous is “Dry people – dry places”. If you are in recovery, you don’t want to go to bars or to parties where lots of people are drinking – the temptation is too great. And while you may have friends who drink, hang out with the ones who cherish your sobriety enough not to drink around you.
Likewise – people who want to quit smoking are encouraged to get rid of everything that they associate with smoking. Cigarettes (obviously), but also lighters, ashtrays, and the cup they always drank their coffee from while smoking. Some people even need to move to a new home or get a new car to get away from the smoke smell. Whatever it takes to stay clean.
The Israelites were not willing to do whatever it took to stay away from idols. They made excuses. They tried to rationalize their actions. They actually thought, “A little bit of idolatry won’t hurt.”
But the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us in chapter 12, verse 1: “let us throw off … the sin that so easily entangles.” That is the nature of sin: it entangles us – like the brush we’re trying to clear that gets wrapped around us and puts a thorn in our side.
And in verse 2: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith …” Instead of putting ourselves into tempting situations, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. Laser-beam focus.
And in verse 3: “Consider Him … so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” In the face of temptation,
we think of how Jesus resisted all temptation – including the temptation to save His life by compromising.
When we think of Him, we gain strength and encouragement to resist sin.
We are at war with sin. We cannot flirt with it – because Satan wants to destroy us. Not that we can lose our salvation, but he wants to destroy our witness, to distract us from our mission to serve.
A little bit of temptation can hurt – so we must steer clear of it.