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Lesson 2: Forgiveness in the Hebrew Bible *

Introduction: Chances are you cannot read Hebrew. If so, you might be wondering whether a lesson with the title "Forgiveness in the Hebrew Bible" has any relevance to you. What is the Hebrew Bible anyway? Is it a Bible written in Hebrew? One of my dear friends is very active in his conservative Jewish synagogue. When I speak to him about the "Old Testament," he reminds me that, as far as he is concerned, it is the only testament. The "Hebrew Bible" is just a fancy way to say "Old Testament." Was God less forgiving in the Old Testament than in the New Testament? What picture of forgiveness does the Old Testament reveal? Let's dive into our study and find out!

  1. The Record

    1. Psalms 78:1-31 is an account of God's relationship with His people as they were on the journey from Egypt, where they had been slaves, to Canaan, where they would live in the land promised to them by God. Let's pick up the account by reading Psalms 78:34-35. Why would the people turn to God? (He would punish them. They would then remember the good things about God and return to Him.)

    2. Read Psalms 78:36-37. When the people turned back to God, was their repentance genuine? (If you look at verse 35 we see described what appears to be genuine conversion. However, verse 36 starts out "but then they would ...." It seems that what started as genuine conversion turns to insincere babble.)

      1. How do we know they were no longer sincere? (Their hearts were not in it and they did not obey God's law (the covenant).)

      2. Do you know people like that today? Are you one of them?

        1. Is drifting away a danger for us today?

    3. Read Psalms 78:38-39. What was God's reaction to the inconsistent behavior of His people? (He was merciful and forgave them.)

      1. Does God get angry with disobedience?

        1. Verse 38 tells us that God "restrained His anger." How do you square this with the statement in v.34 that "God slew them?" That sounds pretty angry, doesn't it? (The picture I get is that some died because they turned away from God, but God did not visit on the majority the predicted punishment for sin - which is death. Instead, the death of a few was a "wake-up call" to the rest.)

      1. Why does v. 39 say God forgive the disobedience of His people? (It reminds me of the common saying, "I'm only human.")

      2. What kind of picture of God's forgiveness do you see so far?

    1. The theme of Psalms 78 is that God showed His people miracle after miracle and they disdained or ignored what He had done for them. When we consider the forgiving character of God in relationship to us, are we guilty of forgetting the great things He has done for us in the past?

  1. Making It Personal

    1. Read Psalms 51:1-3. What is the context of this request for forgiveness? (The title tells us this is written after Nathan the prophet spoke to David about his affair with a married woman. You can read Nathan's rebuke to David in 2 Samuel 12.)

      1. What picture of God do we see in these verses?

    2. Read Psalms 51:3-4. If you know the story, David had an affair with a married woman who became pregnant with his child. David then put her husband in harm's way so that he was killed in battle. After that, the child died because of David's sin.

      1. How can David say "Against you [God], you only, have I sinned?"

      2. I can think of at least a couple of people who died because of David's sin. Don't they count? (If you track the rest of David's life, this series of events created problems, deaths and suffering for many years to come. On the face of it, David's statement seems absurd. However, all sin goes back to God. The parallel idea is that in a democracy the people decide the laws. Therefore, to break the law in a democracy is a crime against all the people. If you read the reports of criminal cases at the state level, the cases are entitled "State v. Joe Miscreant." Since God created the moral law, when we sin we sin against Him.)

      3. Notice that Psalms 51:4 says about God "You are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge." Why does God have a special right to speak against sin and to judge sin? (Because the sin is against Him.)

        1. Does that mean that the rest of us are barred from judging sin?

    3. If David is correct that we can only sin against God, what is the only source of forgiveness?

      1. What about those other people we have injured along the way?

      2. Read Matthew 5:23-24. What does this require of us?

        1. Is Jesus speaking about confession of sin?

        2. Why does Jesus use the word "brother?" Is this a matter only among fellow believers?

    1. Read Psalms 32:1-2. Why would David use the term "covered" when referring to sins? Why not say "gone?"

      1. Why does David refer to sin that is "not count[ed] against" us, rather than sin that is eliminated?

        1. Does this mean the sin is still there, but God just does not count it?

      2. Read Psalms 32:3. In the sin against the husband of the married woman David made pregnant, David hoped to cover up his sin. How does this coving up of sin compare to the covered up sin of verse 1? (It seems that David is making a comparison to the way we handle sin and the way God handles it. We try to cover up and ignore our sins. However, if we just took it to God and confessed our sin, He will "cover it up" by not counting it against us. This "covering" and "not counting" looks forward to the blood of Jesus covering our sins. His perfect life is accepted in place of our imperfect life. I think these terms are used by David to show that we will never be free of sin outside of Jesus.)

      3. What does this teach us about the forgiving nature of God?

  1. Inciting God

    1. Read Exodus 32:1-4. Put yourself in Moses' place. What would your reaction be towards your brother, Aaron?

      1. Put yourself in God's place, what would be your reaction to this?

      2. Have you ever been passed over for promotion, and someone who was clearly incompetent got the job instead? How did you feel?

        1. Now add to these facts the background that your company would not be in existence if not for your great work. Now how do you feel?

        2. Now add to these facts that someone who is not alive got the job instead of you. Now how do you feel?

    2. Read Exodus 32:9-10. Does this sound about right to you as a reasonable reaction? Does this offend your sense of justice?

      1. If people worship what used to be earrings instead of the living God, what future can God have with them?

      2. Is God's reaction unprecedented? (No, consider the story of Noah. See Genesis 6-7.)

    3. Read Exodus 32:11-14. Our lesson (Tuesday) starts out "Most people do not believe that Moses [changed God's mind]." This raises some serious theological questions for me. If God did not want us to consider this interplay between Moses and God, then why is it in the Bible?

      1. Let's go through this story again. Is God being fair and reasonable in His threat to destroy those who reject Him, those who refuse to trust Him and trust something they made with their hands instead? (Yes. Not only is this fair, but this is precisely what WILL happen to those who do not trust God but trust themselves instead.)

      2. If God's intentions are just, what lesson do you draw from Moses' pleading with God? (I love this picture. The great God in heaven is willing to listen to us. Instead of a picture of a harsh and unreasonable God, I see a God who is so generous, He is willing to listen to our pleas.)

      3. Consider Moses' argument to God. What are the elements of his argument? Explain his logic? (He is arguing God's past promises and His reputation.)

      4. Verse 14 says the Lord "relented" and did not bring the disaster He had threatened. Other versions say the Lord "repented." Does this mean God sinned in His anger? Did God initially make a wrong decision? (No. The Bible Knowledge Commentary tells us that the Hebrew word translated "relented" "suggests relief or comfort from a planned, undesirable course of action." In sum God "embarked on another course of action." Both courses of action for God were equally just. God showed His flexibility and His concern for His faithful servant when He took Moses' requests into account in making His final decision. I like that picture of God. It is the opposite of an arrogant, unforgiving God.)

    4. Friend, although a common perception is that the "God of the Old Testament" is harsh and unforgiving, we have seen that, although sin is a personal affront to God, He forgives our sins. More than that, the great God of heaven interacts with us in our daily actions. Would you like to invite the great God of heaven to become an active part of your life? If so, why not turn your life over to Him right now?

  2. Next week: Forgiveness and Repentance.
* Copr. 2003, Bruce N. Cameron, J.D. All scripture references are to the New International Version (NIV), copr. 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, unless otherwise noted. Quotations from the NIV are used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Suggested answers are found within parentheses. The lesson assumes the teacher uses a blackboard or some other visual aid.

© 2021 Bruce N. Cameron, J.D.
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