The Manner of Beer-sheba

By John David Clark, Sr. - February, 1994

The remains of ancient Beer-sheba lie on a rise at the fork of two wet-weather river beds, or "wadis", in southern Canaan. In the rainy seasons, water runs westward along the course of these two beds until they merge just westward of the city. From there, the river runs through the territory of what was ancient Philistia, until it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. But it is an uncertain water source, dependent entirely upon rain which normally comes only at certain times of the year - and almost never in the hot summers when it would be most welcomed. There are plenty of documented cases of the rains failing to appear in their appointed season - and famine plaguing the inhabitants of this arid, desert region. When we visited, the rainy season had long since gone, and I stood in the rutted, stony bed of the wadi south of the ancient city. I and my companions walked westward over the deep ruts of this dry bed until, to the west of Beer-sheba, it met with the other one from the north side of the city. There the two merged, forming a wide, withered finger pointing across the pale, scrub-brush desert toward the sea. Though parched, the rock in the bed seemed not to mind the fierce heat and to be serenely, patiently waiting for its watery traffic to begin again.

About 4,000 years ago, when the rains of the "rainy season" failed to appear, Abraham experienced one of the "grievous" famines in Canaan's land (Gen.12:10), and the godly wanderer learned the critical importance of having a well. When he returned from Egypt, where he went to escape Canaan's drought, he began to dig wells in places where he camped. The most famous of these wells was here, at BEER-SHEBA. After one of his wells was violently seized by some unfriendly Philistines, in whose land he dwelled (Gen:21:25), he made a covenant with Abimelech, King of Philistia, and the well here at BEER-SHEBA became legally his (Gen.21:27-32). The Hebrew word, "BEER-SHEBA" means "well of the oath".

During his long stay here, faithful Abraham not only dug the well, but he also planted a grove of trees for shade from the relentless desert sun, and he erected an altar for the worship of Jehovah, the God who had called him out of Ur of the Chaldees and away from his kindred into a land about which Abraham knew nothing. "And he went out, not knowing whither he went." Much later, many of his own descendants would use faithful Abraham's actions at BEER-SHEBA to justify a rebellion against God. And they would recruit others to their error with the phrase, "The manner of Beer-sheba lives!" That is our story here.

The time: a full millennium after Abraham lived and died. The patriarchs Isaac and Jacob slept in the burial cave with Abraham, and their descendants had spent 400 years in Egypt, finally rescued by Moses, who also finished his course and went away. Joshua then led the Israelites across the Jordan River into the land of promise, and now rested in his inheritance within its borders. The era of judges came and went, giving us the stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthae, and the great prophet Samuel, with his two bribe-taking sons - who, by the way, held their unjust court in BEER-SHEBA. Afterward, Israel demanded a king, that they "may be like all the nations". They were tired of being different. So, Saul was anointed as Israel's first king, followed by young David, who was moved by the Holy Spirit to choose Jerusalem as the one place for all Israel to come and worship the Lord. After that, wise Solomon ascended to the throne, but "when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods." As a result of Solomon's wickedness, there was civil war in Israel, north against south, and the nation was never reunited. This is where the plot thickens, and this is where BEER-SHEBA and Abraham's actions there, a thousand years before, play a significant role.

The southern part of the divided nation of Israel called itself "the Kingdom of Judah". Those who lived there continued to be ruled by the house of David and to worship in Jerusalem. But those in the north chose a new king, Jeroboam, and he unwisely invented a new religion for the new country. So abhorrent was this new religion to God that it is given its own special designation. Throughout the rest of Israel's history it is referred to as "the sin of Jeroboam, wherewith he made Israel to sin".

Jeroboam's inspiration for inventing this religion was fear. He wanted to prevent the ten tribes under his jurisdiction from traveling south to Jerusalem to worship, as Moses's Law and David's revelation commanded to be done. Jeroboam feared that if they continued making pilgrimages to Jerusalem, their hearts would eventually be turned back to the house of David and he and his sons would lose their kingdom. The effect of this new religion would be the complete destruction of the ten-tribe nation of Israel.

The tenets of this new religion were simple: (1) A new priesthood to replace the Levites whom the Law of Moses designated as the Lord's servants. (2) A house of worship like the temple in Jerusalem, for the worship not only of Jehovah but for a host of other gods (Like Christianity, Jeroboam's religion had something for everyone). (3) A feast day in the eighth month like the holy feast which the Law designated to be held in the seventh month. (4) The construction of two golden calves, one to be erected in the northernmost area of Israel, in Dan and the other in the southernmost area, in Bethel. The latter was erected very near the border with Judah, and was obviously intended to discourage the weary pilgrim from pushing on to the holy city Jerusalem.

Jeroboam lied to the people by telling them that he was doing all of this for their good, to spare them the unreasonable requirement of making long journeys to Jerusalem to worship God. "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem", he said to the gullible masses with the air of an humble benefactor (1Kgs.12:28). Then presenting to their wondering gazes the magnificently carved golden calves, he added, "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Israel." His ruse succeeded. The people trusted Jeroboam and hailed him as a deliverer from the antiquated ways of the Law of Moses, as a deliverer from Moses himself, and from David. Despite the enormous efforts of God through numerous prophets sent to the north, God had tragically lost his "wife" to another god, and it broke the heart of the Almighty, as a multitude of passages from the prophets reveal. Hosea cried, "How can I give you up, Israel? How can I abandon you? Could I ever destroy you as I did Admah, or treat you as I did Zeboiim [two cities destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah]? My heart will not let me do it! My love for you is too strong" (11:8).

The prophets described Jehovah as a faithful, frustrated husband, drained of all strength by useless efforts at reconciliation with a wife who left Him for the love of another. After centuries of effort, He mourned through Hosea, "Leave Ephraim alone. He is joined [married] to idols" (4:17). But God could no more leave His people alone than frustrated Jeremiah could fulfill his vow never to prophesy to his people again. They both loved the Israelites far too much to cease their efforts to reason with the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The justification for Israel's divorce from the Law of Moses (which despite her denials was a divorcement from Jehovah), took years to develop, but when it was developed, its evil cunning was impressive. By a clever twist of the facts, the professional religious leaders were able to devise a way to use Abraham's righteous example, especially his work at BEER-SHEBA, to justify their evil deeds. Their sermons at Bethel would have sounded like this: We are returning to our roots, the roots of genuine faith. We are worshipping God the way our fathers did. Abraham built altars to God in the high places of this country, and he was our example. Abraham built groves for shade and beauty at his places of worship, as we do. If righteous Abraham called on God in every place he camped in this blessed land of promise, why should we think that we can only worship Him in Jerusalem? God is everywhere, and is everywhere to be worshipped! God did not tell David that Jerusalem was the only acceptable place of sacrifice. David invented that doctrine to protect himself and his kinsmen. God did not tell Moses that there would be only one place to worship God when we had possessed this land. Moses invented that doctrine - and we want to speak in love but we must speak honestly - to keep a grip of control over God's people. Moses was wrong to destroy that spark of liberty at Mount Sinai by crushing the people's beautiful golden calf! Be free! Come worship Baal and Jehovah and Ashtaroth today on the high places of Israel, and praise your gods who loved you [here, they would begin to get all choked up] and who brought you out of bondage in Egypt! Now repeat after me: THE MANNER OF BEER-SHEBA LIVES!

By saying, "the manner of BEER-SHEBA lives" (Amos 8:14), the false prophets were saying, "the manner in which Abraham worshipped God lives". This, of course, denied the exclusivity of Jerusalem, which in turn denied that Moses and David were sent by God, because they taught Israel to worship God in a way which was unknown to Abraham! Of course, the false prophets would mock those who clung to Jerusalem and to the way of worship prescribed by the Law of Moses. "Are you greater than Abraham?", they would have said. "Are you greater than your fathers?" Thus, the pressure in Israel was ever more heavily applied upon the hearts of the people, and how very few ever saw through the craftiness of these men and were able to cling to the right ways of the Lord!

It was acceptable for Abraham to build altars in the high places of Canaan as he journeyed through the land God had promised him (e.g. Gen.12:7,8), but over half a millennium later, Moses taught Israel to tear down every worship center in every high place they found in Canaan. "And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire. And ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. Ye shall not do so unto the Lord your God. But in THE place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither shalt thou come.... Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest, but in THE place which the Lord shall choose...there shalt thou offer thy burnt offerings...." (Dt.12). To this, King David would proclaim to Israel which place God had chosen: Jerusalem.

At the time, it had been acceptable for Abraham to plant his groves by his altars, but now Moses commanded Israel, "Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the Lord thy God..." (Dt.16:21). There had really been a change in the manner of worship which God accepted, and if Abraham had been alive in David's time he, too, would have worshipped exclusively in Jerusalem. Abraham worshipped in the high places only because, at the time, it pleased God for him to do so. The false prophets of Israel failed to acknowledge the change that had occurred and, as a result, they lost their own souls and damned every soul who followed them. Despite what they taught, "the manner of Beer-sheba" was dead. God Himself had killed it.

A central truth of the gospel of Christ Jesus is that this change from the high places of Canaan to the symbolic temple worship in Jerusalem was not the last change in acceptable worship that God ever made. One day, at about noon, as Jesus paused for a rest by a well in Samaria. a Samaritan woman who (as with all the Samaritans) had been taught the doctrine of "the manner of Beer-sheba liveth", bluntly confronted Jesus with her doctrine. She said, "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Having noticed that Jesus was a Jew, she had already asked Jesus the question which the false prophets had long since taught Israel to ask any Jew who claimed that Jerusalem was the only acceptable place to worship God: Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us this well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle? (Jn.4). Jesus' response revealed the next, and final, change in the will of God concerning worship which his own sacrificial death would bring about: Woman, believe me. The hour is coming when ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father. Ye worship know not what. We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

This change, from the temple's symbols to real spiritual life, is denied every time that one of Christianity's symbolic ceremonies is carried out. Every time a symbolic communion service is observed, the false prophets are crying out yet again that a manner of worship which God has abandoned still lives; only this time the cry is not "Beer-sheba", but "the manner of Jerusalem [symbols] liveth!" And as with their predecessors, the mocking questions are asked. "Do you think you're any better than Jesus? He was baptized with water!" Such were the criticisms of Paul, when he tried to persuade the Gentile believers to trust Christ and not turn to the prophetic physical circumcision which God gave to the Israelites. "Who do you think you are, Paul? Wasn't Jesus circumcised?" Of course, Jesus was circumcised, baptized with water, and observed the holy days and ceremonies of the Law. But he did all that so that we would not have to do them! He was a Jew, "born under the Law". He not only died for us, he also lived for us. He was circumcised for us, was baptized in water for us, observed the Law's feast days for us. Now he is our passover, our High Priest, and our Baptizer. Jesus is Lord of all. Trusting Jesus means to trust him alone to prepare you to meet God in peace. Trusting Jesus means acknowledging that God has abandoned the use of religious symbols, and it means abandoning them ourselves. To worship God as He demands now, rather than as He told others in another covenant to worship Him is really what trusting Jesus means. How few there be that really trust Jesus.


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