What is Rebellion’s Target?

by Matthew Raley

As a parent, I find it easy to think that my boys are rebelling against my rules. They don’t like the limits I set, so they try to overturn them.

Until recently I have read the stories of Israel’s rebellions against the Lord from the same perspective. The people hated the law, so they disregarded it. My misconception could stem from the definition of rebellion: it is the overthrow of authority. So the target of rebellion would seem to be law.

Yet, when Moses writes his song of witness against Israel’s rebellions (Deuteronomy 31-32), the law of God is only a secondary focus.

Here is the song’s theme (32:4): “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” This teaching about the Lord’s name (32:1-3) should “drop as the rain” and “distill as the dew, like gentle rain upon the tender grass.” The knowledge of God’s faithfulness renews the nation’s life, keeping it tender and green.

The witness Moses writes is not first concerned with the nation’s sin, but with God’s faithfulness.

Moses sings of it both in the past and the future.

The Lord found Jacob “in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness.” There the Lord kept Jacob “as the apple of his eye,” leading him into the fruitful land (32:10-14).

The Lord’s faithfulness will not change in coming generations, even after Jacob rebels against him. As a contrast to helpless idols (32:36-43), the Lord will “vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.” God proclaims, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me.” Ultimately, he “cleanses,” or atones for, the land.

Here is what I learned from the song about rebellion’s target. Moses does not charge the people with rebelling against law, but against grace.

To be sure, Israel has broken God’s law, and no man can itemize the trespasses in greater detail than Moses. Yet Moses charges the people with rebellion against the Lord’s protection (32:11), guidance (32:12), and material gifts (32:13-14). He portrays the Lord as jealous, like a spurned lover (32:21). Israel’s rebellion is perverse, in other words, because the people cast aside God’s goodness.

This means that the four characteristics of rebellion all target God’s faithfulness. Idolatry says that the living God cannot be trusted because we cannot manipulate him. The principal lies rebels tell are slanders against God’s record of goodness. Rebels scoff at God’s gifts, especially his forgiveness. A rebel’s refusal to listen is driven by his bitter determination that God is against him.

Studying Moses’ song has clarified my focus as a dad.

Rules matter. But I am not to be focused on them primarily. I am to call on my boys to trust me, and I am to demonstrate trustworthiness.

For instance, I have been deliberate about keeping my promises to the boys. But I want to go further. I want to gain their implicit confidence. I do this by taking the initiative to help them with problems, not just waiting for them to ask for help. I also nurture this confidence by helping them express themselves when they’re having trouble, and by paying careful attention to their emotions. I want them to assume that I am for them, not against them.

Here’s what I’ve found in applying this focus. When my boys trust me, the rules usually aren’t an issue for them. They tend to comply readily.

In other words, this approach is a way to teach obedience toward God in faith. In Christ, God’s authority is expressed toward us through grace.

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