Posts Tagged ‘Deuteronomy’

We forget.

It’s insane how easily and often we forget. Literally.

Something in Adam’s legacy smears our grip with amnesiac vaseline. We think we’ll hold on to this little drama of YHWH’s provision, this answered prayer, this jaw-dropping intervention. We cannot imagine that the rest of our life will not be colored by this miracle, shaped by this insight. We know we’ll remember.

Then we don’t.

And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6:10–12 ESV)

Remembering YHWH’s provision requires rehearsal, persistent discipline, daily workouts at the crack of dawn. Moses exhorts the Israelites who shuffle just outside the frontier of their promised land that forgetting on a full belly will come naturally.

Take care, he warns them, otherwise you’ll forget.

Biblical faith does not frown on the constant practice that remembering requires if it is to flourish among us. Call it ritual, call it liturgy, call it recitation, call it memorization. Without it, no earnestly spontaneous faith will do.

You’ll forget. Guaranteed.

Draw your line in the sand. Stake your claim. Write it down and then sign it with your own determined hand. Carve it with a knife on your doorposts. Tape it to your fridge.

Do something to make sure you remember.

Otherwise, you’ll be fat, warm, and dry on a cold, rainy night. Then you’ll forget.


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Conventional expectations—at least the basic ones that we assume to be home truth—fail badly when it comes to God’s way with his people. Neither democracy nor equality are given much space in the biblical narrative, though ironically neither would exist as political principle were it not for the ethical underpinning that Scripture provides them.

At least in the short view of things, life in YHWH’s presence remains distinctly unfair.

This is no more true than when it comes to the uncommon burden of the leader.

But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. Furthermore, the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he swore that I should not cross the Jordan, and that I should not enter the good land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. For I must die in this land; I must not go over the Jordan. But you shall go over and take possession of that good land. (Deuteronomy 4:20–22 ESV)

Moses has interceded with YHWH on behalf of his recalcitrant people. He has pled for their lives before their angry God. He has cried, ‘Kill me and let them live!’.

He has suffered because of them. He has suffered on behalf of them. The life of this erstwhile Egyptian prince turned Israel’s rescuer and lawgiver has not produced for him much joy. His has been an insufferable lot.

Now, Moses explains to Israel from the heights of Moab’s plains overlooking the Jericho Valley and the promised land on the other side, you guys will get what’s been promised to you. I’ll die on this side of the water.

The ironies run deep.

The Lord was angry with me because of you. Yet I must die in this land, my feet unmoistened by Jordan’s lapping waters. But you shall go over and take possession of that good land.

There is a manifest unfairness in this dealing, viewed through the lens of conventional expectations. There is an uncommon humility in Moses’ capacity to accept his unjust fate.

We do not lead for what is in it. We lead, truth be told, because we must.

So long as our people cross over, we lie peacefully in our forgotten grave across the water.

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When the book of Deuteronomy places the terrified Hebrew slaves before Mount Horeb, they are doubly afraid.

The nascent people of Israel fear not only the traditionally lethal prospect of seeing YHWH. They also express mortal fear of hearing him. The people’s terror of sensory contact with YHWH leads to their counter-proposal that Moses serve as mediator between the Liberator of Sinai and the only half-grateful beneficiaries of his salvation. (more…)

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It is not difficult to imagine the scandal caused by the Hebrew Bible’s rehearsal of Moses’ burial. Vocalized as it is in the traditional text, the verb is active and has a single subject: and he buried (him) …. Indeed, the Hebrew particle that stands behind the English word him virtually assures that this reading is the intended one. It is hard in context to imagine another subject than YHWH.

There is little alternative: we should read … and (YHWH) buried him ….

Yet a witness as old as the Septuagint feels the scandal of this divine interment. So does a translation as recent as the NRSV. The former should be translated … and they buried him ... The latter reads … and he was buried …

YHWH, it appears, is not easily envisaged scraping out a crevice in the hard ground, then gently laying his friend Moses’ body into it, covering him tenderly against the ravaging hyena and the grave-robber. (more…)

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The Bible regularly privileges hearing over seeing.

From time to time the priority of audition over vision is hammered home from complementary angles. On the one hand, Israel is commanded to listen. On the other, she is forbidden to craft a visual representation of her speaking Lord.

Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the LORD your God. Therefore obey the LORD your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today.’ The same day Moses charged the people as follows: ‘When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. Then the Levites shall declare in a loud voice to all the Israelites:

Cursed be anyone who makes an idol or casts an image, anything abhorrent to the LORD, the work of an artisan, and sets it up in secret.” All the people shall respond, saying, “Amen!”’

Context makes clear that the forbidden idol here is not merely a hidden—that is to say, extra-official—image, but any image shaped to present YHWH to human eyes.

The logic of this persistent privileging of the ear over the eye as the organ of choice for a new nation is not too difficult to discern. Israel’s ongoing proximity to her redeeming Lord demands a mental, an intellectual grappling with his person and his presence. Clearly, both ear and eye are organs of sense, so the affirmation of the value of hearing YHWH and the prohibition of seeing him does not reduce to a mere preference for the abstract over the sensual. The distinction is not so much one of kind as of degree. (more…)

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The Mosaic blueprint for an emerging nation does not wallow in sentimental egalitarianism. Nor is it precisely a meritocracy. Critical offices that the nation will require are allocated by a mixture of inheritance and charism. Yet whatever route brings a priest or prophet to his task, the burden of responsibility does not rest lightly.

In a tribal assignment that has generated libraries of inky pages produced by scholars who reconstruct a history behind the text, the Levites inherit a great share of the new nation’s priestly responsibilities. Ironically, they inherit little else:

The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no allotment or inheritance within Israel. They may eat the sacrifices that are the LORD’S portion but they shall have no inheritance among the other members of the community; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them. This shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those offering a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder, the two jowls, and the stomach. The first fruits of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. For the LORD your God has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, him and his sons for all time.

On the surface, this might look like a cushy guaranteed salary. No matter the work ethic of an individual priest, he’ll eat well on the bounty of meat and vegetable over which less privileged Israelites will have sweat days of hard labor. Yet the prophetic literature alludes with some regularity to tithes that were not given and offerings not brought to the temple precincts for their proper, priestly management.

It would seem that the conceptual architecture of the new nation of Israel contemplates a kind of modified profit motive: the status of the Levitical pantry will to some degree hinge upon the spiritual state of the people. A nation that is casual or even resistant to YHWH’s commands will not bring sacrifices. Priest will grow thin, then gaunt, then perhaps rebellious, and even lethally inventive.

It might have been better to have one of those ordinary inheritances, with soil to turn over and grapes to savor. (more…)

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An economy and society motivated by unmitigated greed are unlikely to reflect YHWH’s intentions on earth.

There is no straight line from a statement like this to a concrete political philosophy. Among the variables figure prominently the mechanisms or means that are most promising as mitigators or orientors of greed. The self-interested vice is not soon to disappear. Any realistic set of political or economic notions must have a plan for managing it.

The Israelite legislation preserved in the book of Deuteronomy is persuaded that the proto-Israelites’ bitter experience of slavery in Egypt must exert a powerful influence upon the construction of a new life in the land that YHWH is about to place into the stewardship of the children of the fathers he has chosen. (more…)

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The book of Deuteronomy’s discourse on worship is so focussed on the requirement of offering cultic service exclusively in the place that YHWH will choose for his name to dwell that it is easy to overlook the joyful character of worship itself. Strict limitation, after all, does not usually evoke notions of gladness.

Yet enmeshed in the long, complex sentences about the sacrificial cult comes—recurrently—the observation that the people are to rejoice in its moment:

And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed youAnd you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you together with your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levites who reside in your towns (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you) … these you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God at the place that the LORD your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God in all your undertakings.

Cultic presentation and cultic feasting, in the view of this fifth book of Torah, are to be occasions for that lightness of heart that interrupts the wearying burden of ordinary cares as one seeks proximity to the Lord. Indeed, the precision with which Moses’ rhetoric in Deuteronomy guides the people away from the sexually charged cultic practices of ‘the nations’ and towards the centralized practice for which the book of Deuteronomy is rightly famous or notorious seems intended in part to safeguard the pristine purity of liturgical joy.

Not unexpectedly, the psalms take up this same topic of joyful proximity to YHWH, albeit somewhat divested of its cultic context. In the seventieth psalm, a poet so hard pressed that he is doomed unless YHWH quickens his pace and hurries to save him delivers himself of this literary dualism:

Let those be put to shame and confusion
who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who desire to hurt me.
Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!”
turn back because of their shame.

Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.

Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, “God is great!”

In a literature that so hardily acquaints itself with all that is dark, that does not avert its gaze from life’s deep and persistent sorrow, it is remarkable to discover that where YHWH is, there joy is to be found.

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Moses’ valedictory addresses to the ‘children of Israel’ comprise the book of Deuteronomy, the so-called second law or second presentation of Torah in the Pentateuch (the five scrolls). Deuteronomy has its lawgiver burdened to recapitulate the calling to which YHWH has summoned his otherwise unremarkable tribes. This survey of the events that have led the gathered people to the place from which they will cross over the Jordan to possess the ‘inheritance’ that YHWH has reserved for them underscores both God’s fidelity to emerging Israel and their own jaw-dropping stubbornness.

That YHWH has not given up on this ‘stiff-necked’ people—a recurring and enduring description of self-interested myopia—is due in no small part to the intercessory exertions of Moses himself. The man has had to fight a war on two fronts. On the one hand, he cajoles his recalcitrant kin into managing their worst instincts in order to continue to ‘walk after YHWH’. On the other, he pleads repeatedly with the frustrated deity not to wipe them out and to create an entirely new ‘mighty nation’ out of Moses’ own favored loins. (more…)

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If triumphalism means the unabashed loss of self-critical capacity because God is on our side, then triumphalism is always a bad idea.

Yet there are moments, in history as in the more domesticated circles of our own spirituality, when memory’s joyous recall of triumphant events is entirely a sweet thing. The historical prologue of Deuteronomy’s covenant renewal dynamic dabbles in such evocation of past victory. Though stained with the blood of defeated peoples, the canvas of this ‘fifth book of Moses’ is not white-washed with chest-pounding nationalism. There is enough proto-Israelite failure in these lines to render any eventual son or daughter of that nation to rue the somber strains of its origin songs. (more…)

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