Deuteronomy 31 Preparing for Life after Moses

Moses Delivers a Charge to Joshua from th Philip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations

Moses Delivers a Charge to Joshua from th Philip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations

Deuteronomy 31

1 When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 2 he said to them: “I am now one hundred twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the LORD has told me, ‘You shall not cross over this Jordan.’ 3 The LORD your God himself will cross over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua also will cross over before you, as the LORD promised. 4 The LORD will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. 5 The LORD will give them over to you and you shall deal with them in full accord with the command that I have given to you. 6 Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

7 Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. 8 It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

9 Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 Moses commanded them: “Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people– men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns– so that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, 13 and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”

14 The LORD said to Moses, “Your time to die is near; call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him.” So Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting, 15 and the LORD appeared at the tent in a pillar of cloud; the pillar of cloud stood at the entrance to the tent.

16 The LORD said to Moses, “Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them. 17 My anger will be kindled against them in that day. I will forsake them and hide my face from them; they will become easy prey, and many terrible troubles will come upon them. In that day they will say, ‘Have not these troubles come upon us because our God is not in our midst?’ 18 On that day I will surely hide my face on account of all the evil they have done by turning to other gods. 19 Now therefore write this song, and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be a witness for me against the Israelites. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I promised on oath to their ancestors, and they have eaten their fill and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, despising me and breaking my covenant. 21 And when many terrible troubles come upon them, this song will confront them as a witness, because it will not be lost from the mouths of their descendants. For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath.” 22 That very day Moses wrote this song and taught it to the Israelites.

23 Then the LORD commissioned Joshua son of Nun and said, “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you.”

                24 When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, 26 “Take this book of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God; let it remain there as a witness against you. 27 For I know well how rebellious and stubborn you are. If you already have been so rebellious toward the LORD while I am still alive among you, how much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officials, so that I may recite these words in their hearing and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, turning aside from the way that I have commanded you. In time to come trouble will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”

 30 Then Moses recited the words of this song, to the very end, in the hearing of the whole assembly of Israel:

The final chapters of Deuteronomy use the transitions (chapter 31), song (chapter 32) and final blessing (chapter 33) to prepare for the death of Moses in chapter 34 and the transition to the narrative of Joshua. Moses carried enormous power and importance for the generations that left Egypt, wandered in the desert and now stand at the precipice of the promised land. Future leaders will lead differently than Moses did, they will not have the same relationship with the LORD the God of Israel. They will not be called to be the teacher of the law, the political leader, the final judge, and the faithful mouthpiece of God in their midst. Even with Moses’ stature, he would struggle to bring the people out of Egypt, through the wilderness and to this point. Frequently he would find himself between God and the people, pleading for the people who seemed to be unwilling or unable to live up to the ideals of the covenant. The anxiety of the book of Deuteronomy that the people will not remain faithful in the comfort of the promised land is heightened by the knowledge that Moses will not be there to ease their transition from a wandering people into a settled confederation of tribes that will make up the nation of Israel.

Moses’ role becomes divided into three parts in this chapter: as the leader (both politically and militarily), as the witness to the people, and as the teacher of the law. Now Moses will be replaced by a man, a song and a book. Joshua son of Nun first enters the story in Exodus 17 in the battle between the Israelites and Amalek. Joshua is the leader of the people of Israel in the battle in the valley while Moses, Aaron and Hur are on top of the hill with Aaron and Hur supporting Moses’ arms in the battle (for while Moses’ hand is held up the Israelites prevail). Shortly afterwards Joshua becomes Moses’ assistant and he is one of the two Israelite spies who advocate courage and invading the promised land the first time the people arrive. The choice of Joshua as the leader to succeed Moses is not a surprise, but Joshua has some large shoes to fill and a daunting task ahead of him. Joshua is commissioned twice, first by Moses with words that are not identical to, but foreshadow the central command in the book of Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD you God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) Then Joshua is commissioned a second time in the tent of the meeting by the LORD. Publically now the mantle of leadership is passed to Joshua for a new task in a new time.

The song, which will come in chapter 32, is to become a witness for the people when they are unfaithful. Deuteronomy does not have an optimistic view of the potential faithfulness of the people of Israel, and the people will not have written copies of the law in their homes, but the song is to become the reminder of who they are called to be. Music does have the power to become the bearer of memory in powerful ways and the Hebrew people, as well as early Christians, dedicate significant portions of their scriptures to songs. The book of Psalms may be the best known example, but there are songs throughout the narrative, the prophets and the other documents that form the scriptures. For example, both Moses and Miriam have songs recorded in Exodus 15, and these songs probably formed a part of the storytelling and worship of the ancient Hebrew people.

Finally, the law is physically written down and place with the priests and the elders. The reading of the law is to be read as a part of the ritual of the festival of booths every seven years as a way of continually reinforcing the law to the people. I have said several times throughout the book of Deuteronomy that this is primarily an aural document meant to be heard instead of read. Most of the people would not have been able to read or write and depended on the scribes and priests to read the law and other holy words to them. Deuteronomy is concerned with passing on the law from generation to generation and here is one more attempt to create the possibility for future generations to know the LORD their God.

Moses is preparing to utter his final two messages to the people, the last song of Moses and the final blessing. Joshua is now to be the leader that will carry the people from the edge of the promised land to become the occupants of that land. The songs they sing will now become witnesses that call them back to faithfulness and the law is entrusted to the Levites and the elders so that they may order the society in accordance with them. Moses will, for the Jewish people, occupy a place that no one else will. He has been the faithful teacher, visionary leader, righteous judge, and the one stood face to face with God. The best that leaders who follow Moses will be able to do is to be ‘strong and courageous’ and to hear and learn the law of the LORD their God.

Moses Delivers the Law to the Priests, Phillip Medhurst Collection of Biblical images

Moses Delivers the Law to the Priests, Phillip Medhurst Collection of Biblical images

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