“Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, or it will become a snare in your midst.”
Only six more chapters and the book of Exodus will be ended. And it is there, towards the end of getting the people transitioned from Egypt to Israel, that God makes this statement about not making any covenant with the people of the land.
Not making covenants; signing contracts; making agreements with the inhabitants of the land would be a good thing. The people living there were under judgment. God told Abraham that the wickedness of the people in the land wasn’t full yet — meaning those people groups had been given 400 years to change their wicked ways. Worse, those folks had 400 years to learn how to be wicked in inventive ways. Making agreements; contracts; covenants with creatively wicked people is a bad idea. He warns against having them as in-laws—since marriages were arranged back then, it makes a bit more sense to warn the parents, who would be arranging the marriage, against creatively wicked in-laws—but goes further and commands the Israelites to tear down the whole religious system they would find in the land. Get rid of their symbols, their idols, their altars — all of it. Don’t go to their parties, because they might invite you to do things that are against God’s Law at those parties.
In the New Testament, believers are told not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Lots of folks apply that pretty strictly to marriage and, to be fair, marriage is an intimate covenant. But Paul did not limit the statement in that way. His warning was that we should not be “unequally yoked together” with an unbeliever. And being “yoked together” can be for many purposes. We can be “yoked together” in business partnerships or in close friendships; in marriage or in planning events.
Having dated girls who were unbelievers, I can understand what God and Paul are on about. I entered some of those relationships a stronger believer than I exited them and I entered some of those relationships strong and vital in my walk while I exited weak and distant. One relationship stands out in this regard. The woman involved claimed to be a believer (in fairness, she may be, it’s not my place to judge that), but her morality was vastly different than my own. She thought certain forms of physical intimacy were perfectly fine outside of marriage while I began the relationship thinking those things were restricted for marriage. Over the course of time, I allowed myself to be convinced that some of those things I had held to be wrong were not wrong after all. I say I allowed myself because the truth is that I’ve yet to meet the heterosexual male who does not, in some corner of his sinful being, want to be convinced that the thing he called “wrong” is more of a gray area in at least some instances — particularly the enjoyable ones. I’m sure that guy is out there, I just haven’t met him and I’m pretty sure I’m not him. I’ve had friends who brought out the worst in me instead of spurring me on to Godliness. I’ve attended parties of unbelievers and found myself pulled toward the wrong-doing that went on. Sometimes I walked away. Sometimes I stayed.
And that, I think, is what God and Paul are on about. My fellow believers are not perfect, not by a long shot, but they are more likely to spur me on to Godliness than those who do not hold to Godliness. My fellow believers are more likely to walk with me in those times I turn from sinful activities than the unbeliever who wants to do that thing and has no qualms with doing it. This is not to say that I and other believers should withdraw from the world and cloister ourselves away in little holy communities. No one would ever see any Godliness proceeding from that. Rather, this is to say that my most intimate relationships; the people with whom I have the most to do should be fellow believers. And, for my part, I’m going to say “No.” to most party invitations. First, because I am socially awkward and don’t really care for parties. Second, because I know I am 50/50 on being led by the crowd in that situation. So it’s better for me to stay away. Others may have no such weakness. More power to them. Someone has to reach the party culture and it certainly isn’t me.
One step further with this. I am going to state, possibly wrongly, that the principle being given in this passage is that the believer give no quarter to the world within us. In simpler English: I, as a believer, cannot allow my flesh; my old man to make agreements with me. The old man would have me distant from God. The new man would have me wrapped in God so completely that my character became synonymous with God’s character. I cannot bargain with my old man. I cannot allow him leeway. I cannot be permissive with myself. If something is wrong for me then it is wrong for me. Others may be well-meaning in trying to give me liberty in that, but Christ set me free to live for Him, not to give license to my old man. An excellent example is alcohol. Many believers, myself included, are free to have a drink every now and again. Other believers are not thus freed because their old nature would bring them into bondage to that alcohol faster that blinking. If I’m spending time with a brother who needs to not have a drink (as it would be a concession to his old nature) then I need to be mindful of that and have the soft drink instead.
So… two principles from this passage.
- My most intimate relationships should be with fellow believers. I can have relationships with unbelievers, but these should not be as intimate.
- I cannot bargain with my old nature. He will double-cross and stab me in the back faster than I can think. And, while my fellow believers may mean well in trying to give me liberties they enjoy, my old nature is not the same as theirs. I need to understand their intent and to try not to do the same to others.