The Carrot and the Stick

By JFJ UK

I hate being wrong – but then again, I guess we all do. What adds to the pain is if we make the wrong decision against the advice of someone who we know, love and trust – someone we should have listened to, but didn’t.

…sometimes we make mistakes because we don’t recognize that others might know better

I remember, as a child, often rejecting the advice of my parents only to realise afterwards that they had been right after all. And now, as a father, I see how my young children often reject my advice in favour of their own wisdom. Such is human nature – sometimes we make mistakes because we don’t recognize that others might know better. I don’t always know better than my children but their mistakes often come from not having asked me or their mum, or not wanting to listen to our advice. Disobedience can lead to severe headaches!

In this week’s Torah reading, Bechukotai, we come to the end of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus and it ends on a really high note. God has given us His instructions on how to live in a way that pleases Him and is best for us and so now ends the book by talking to us about obedience. God, like most parents, takes the ‘carrot and stick’ approach – He’ll bless us if we obey, and discipline us if we don’t. The many punishments for disobedience are frightening – panic, disease, famine, invasion, exile, death, being handed over to our enemies etc. However, it is important to note that the punishments were to be consecutive, not simultaneous. God wanted to use each punishment to get our attention so that we might turn round and come back to Him, just like a parent punishes his children in order to restore them, not to vindictively crush them. If one punishment didn’t get our attention, He would choose something else that would. And He promised to bless us if we obeyed, so that we would have an incentive to listen and trust Him.

Despite the appeals and the warnings, we chose the stick instead of the carrot.

Despite the appeals and the warnings, we chose the stick instead of the carrot. We thought we knew better.

Reading through the list of consecutive punishments, it’s astounding to realise that all were fulfilled down to the last detail, culminating in our exile to Babylon. Throughout the Tanakh and even to the present day, we see that we have continually abandoned God in favour of pursuing other Gods – idols that aren’t really gods at all. Back then it was wood and stone, now it’s fear, work, approval…Whether then or now, we’ve continually chosen to reject God’s instruction and instead try and find satisfaction and comfort in other things. Instead, they leave us empty, broken and enslaved.

“If they confess their iniquity…then I will remember my covenant with Jacob…Isaac and…Abraham.”

And yet there is hope. Towards the end of the warnings concerning disobedience, God tells us, “If they confess their iniquity…then I will remember my covenant with Jacob…Isaac and…Abraham.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:40-42). No matter how far we’ve gone, no matter what we’ve done, He hasn’t forgotten us and He hasn’t abandoned us, just like a good father never lets go of his children, no matter what they do.

Sometimes we mistakenly fall into the trap of thinking that we need to earn God’s love, as if a child would have to earn the right of belonging to its father! For example, there’s an old Talmudic claim that God will redeem us, if every Jewish person in a generation were to keep just two sabbaths (Shabbat 118b) – in other words, He would redeem us if we were worthy of it, if we earnt it. But the God of the Tanakh showed His great mercy to us in sending the Messiah, our redemption, at a time when we were most unworthy of it – under Roman dominion because of our disobedience to Him. Yeshua the Messiah died for our disobedience and in order to free us from our idols when we, as a nation, were in a state of disobedience and enmity with God. What mercy! What grace! What a loving Father who longs for us to return to Him!

Not everyone grows up with a father, and many don’t grow up with good ones – perhaps you didn’t. In any case, the God of the Bible is a loving and good Father who longs for us to see that we were wrong, admit our mistakes and come back to Him, and He will use whatever method necessary for each person, the carrot or the stick, because He loves us so much. His promise in Vayikra/Leviticus still stands today: “If they confess their iniquity…then I will remember my covenant with Jacob…Isaac and…Abraham.” He’s been trying to get your attention too. Are you willing to listen to Him?

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The Carrot and the Stick