Tag Archives: Law

Matthew 7: 13-29 Choosing the Way of Christ

Fra Angelico, Fresco in the Cloister of Mark in Florenz (1437-1445)

Matthew 7:13-29

Parallel Luke 13: 23-24, Luke 6: 43-46, 13: 25-27, Luke 6: 47-49, Mark 1: 21-22

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell — and great was its fall!”

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount brings together several contrasting choices between wise and foolish choices, encouraging the hearer to follow the right way, recognize true prophets, and to enact right actions. This would be familiar to hearers familiar with the pattern of wise and foolish choices that Proverbs, Psalms, and the prophets often use as a rhetorical framework to encourage a wise course of action. These short but vivid images attempt to capture the weight of the decision to live out these words that Jesus articulates. The road to obedience may be challenging, there may be others who proclaim an easier less costly way but what Jesus has been presenting is a way that leads towards life and away from destruction. The Jesus we meet in Matthew’s gospel is merciful and yet does expect his followers to be obedient. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is inviting his followers to be a part of a community that embodies these teachings. The people of Israel were called into a life of obedience to the Law and there were blessings if they remained obedient and consequences for being unfaithful. Jesus reinterprets the Law to this new community and this is the way of living in the covenant of the kingdom of heaven. The path does involve wisdom, holding mercy and obedience together, discerning between Jesus’ authority and those of other teachers, and the commitment to hearing these words and acting on them.

The translation of the Greek hodos as road, while proper obscures that throughout most of the New Testament this word is translated as way. A frequent theme of Mark’s gospel of Jesus being ‘on the way’ and in Acts we learn that Jesus’ earliest followers were referred to as belonging to ‘the Way.’ (Acts 9: 2) Just as critical for Matthew would be the numerous linkages with how ‘the way’ is used to call the  people of God to be attentive to God’s way in the law, wisdom literature and the prophets. In Deuteronomy, for example, we see the basic pattern of blessing for obedience to the commandments and curses for turning from the way commanded:

the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today;  and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known. Deuteronomy 11: 27-28 (see also Deuteronomy 9: 12, 16)

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.” Deuteronomy 31:29

The linking of obedience to the metaphor of a way or a road occurs in several places in Psalms and Proverbs and throughout the prophets, a couple of examples include

for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. Psalm 1:6

Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Isaiah 59: 7-8

And to this people you shall say: Thus says the LORD: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of deathJeremiah 21: 8 

False prophets are a concern throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and within the early church as well. Again, this echoes Deuteronomy with how to determine if a prophet is an authentic process.

If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it. Deuteronomy 18: 22

Like the community of Israel after Moses, Matthew’s community is having to learn how to live without the immediate presence of Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus now is setting up the community to continue once he is no longer present to speak with them. Just as the disciples have been called to a whole or complete life, so those who speak on behalf of Jesus or God will have good fruits that reflect that life.

Mere confession of Jesus as Lord is insufficient for Matthew, this confession must be linked with obedience to the law as Christ articulates it and the practices of righteousness and mercy. Hearing and even speaking words ultimately do not prove an adequate foundation for the life and community Jesus wants to build. The words which are heard must ultimately be acted upon for a life that will resist the storms that come. The Sermon on the Mount is designed to create a community which is modeled by Christ and faithful to the vision of the kingdom of heaven. It is a community that is visible by its distinct practices of mercy, reconciliation, and righteousness and it exists for the sake of the world.

Jesus takes up the mantle of Moses, and unlike the scribes whose authority is derivative and who cannot go beyond what was given to Moses, Jesus will take what was said in the law and with his own authority reframe, extend and reshape what the law states. Jesus speaks in the language of the law, and yet one greater than Moses is here speaking to the crowds. Jesus speaks in the language of wisdom, and yet one greater than Solomon is sharing the wisdom of the kingdom of heaven. The crowds are astounded because either Jesus has transgressed the boundaries of what is accepted by the interpreters of the law or he has the authority to speak a new way of relating to God and the community into being. Jesus has invited the hearers of his words to become doers who wisely choose that way of life instead of the way of destruction. Even though I’ve moved away from framing this in terms of moralistic perfection, obedience is still a part of the complete life that the disciples are called into as a part of the community. Matthew’s gospel is concerned about establishing a community where the disciples can live this life of peace and reconciliation, of righteousness and mercy, of obedience and trust and any interpretation of Matthew should be judged by its fruits: by how it helps communities of disciples build their lives by acting on these words of Jesus.

Matthew 5: 13-20 A Visible Vocation Connected to Scripture

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877)

Matthew 5: 13-20

Parallel Mark 9:49-50 and 4:21, Luke 14: 35-35, 8: 16, 11:33 and 16: 16-17

Highlighted words will have comment on translation below

 13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Both Mark and Luke have individual sayings from this portion of the Sermon on the Mount scattered throughout their gospels, but Matthew places them in a crucial place immediately after the opening of the Sermon to help frame the identity the community is to adopt and to connect it with the scripture. As mentioned earlier, Jesus probably used these sayings multiple times, but Matthew has given us a tightly woven net composed of these saying to capture men and women who are being called into the community of disciples. They have been called to choose the wisdom of the Sermon, to embrace the blessedness or happiness of the kingdom of heaven and now they are called to their vocation and connected with the gift and vocation of Israel.

Salt in the modern world is a seasoning, salt in the ancient world was a preservative and that is a critical distinction. Salt is not what keeps the world tasting better, followers of Christ were not called to be the spice of life for the world. Instead salt in a world before refrigeration was that which preserves the earth. They are not called to become salt, they already are. The throughout this section is plural so ‘all of you’ are the salt of the earth and the light to the world. Even though salt is primarily for preservation it does have a distinctive taste, it does make itself tasted with the rest of the meal that is to be consumed. The disciples and hearers are not given a choice of whether they will accept the vocation of being salt, but they can choose the foolish path of not living as salt. The word translated ‘lost its taste’ is the Greek world moraino which literally means to become foolish. This is the verbal form of the word we get the English moron from. As I mentioned in the previous discussion of the Beatitudes an underappreciated linkage of the Sermon on the Mount is to wisdom literature with its choices between the wise and foolish, righteous or wicked and here salt of the earth and foolish salt. There is a vocation in the kingdom of heaven for the sake of the world for the hearers of Jesus’ words who live according to them, but for those who take the path of becoming foolish there is no longer a use for them, they are not called to be salt for their own sake but for the sake of the earth. They, like Israel before them, were given their vocation to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth and if they choose to live in a way that is not distinctive from the earth that they serve then they are no longer good for anything.

Light is another frequent image in scripture for the vocation of the people of God. For example:

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42: 6-7 emphasis mine)

he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6, emphasis mine)

We have already had Jesus identified as a great light (Matthew 4: 16 quoting Isaiah 9:2) and here the vocation of light is granted to those gathered around Jesus and hearing these words. In combination with the image of light is the image of the city on a hill which is meant to be visible. This also taps into Isaiah’s imagery of Jerusalem being a place where the nations are drawn to:

In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. May people will come and say, “Come, let us go to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2-3)

But now the mountain is not the temple mount in Jerusalem but the mountain of the Sermon on the Mount near Capernaum. The transition back to the choice of wisdom literature between wise and foolish is presented. The people do not have the choice to be light, but one can make the foolish choice to put a light under a bushel basket instead of on a light stand. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would remind his students, “The followers are the visible community of faith: their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship.” (DBWE 4:113) The community of disciples is to be light in the midst of the darkness, they are the light of the world and the city on the hill, they are visible to the world around them and their good works give glory to the God they serve.

One of the struggles that many Christians, myself included, wrestle with is the visible nature of their faith in a secular world. For people in the United States, faith has mainly been consigned to the private or spiritual realm, but it was never intended to be so. I know this is one of the things I struggle with as a private person and even as a pastor. As a pastor people do tend to watch my actions and words much closer than the average person of faith and I’m OK with that, but a salty, city on the hill, light of the world faith is much more visible than what I or my congregation often live. That type of faith will meet resistance and even persecution, and I’ve met that type of resistance in congregations I’ve served and from those in the community who disagreed with the hermeneutic of mercy that shapes my understanding of how we are to live our calling. I do struggle with the vanilla nature of the church as it actually exists, and while I’m not willing to embrace the model of some churches which pull away from society it is a challenge to continue to be salt and light in the midst of the world without being shuttered or made foolish. The Sermon on the Mount does not grant us a complete ethical system which can help us answer every question but it does, like all good wisdom literature and attempts to interpret scripture, point us toward the path of wisdom and help us begin to imagine what a life informed by the kingdom of heaven might look like.

The vocation of the hearers of the Sermon on the Mount relates to the vocation of the people of Israel. In being connected with the vocation of Israel the hearers are also connected with the scriptures of Israel. For Matthew it is critical for the reader to see the connection between Jesus and the scriptures, that is one of the reasons he continually alludes and quotes the scriptures to help us understand who Jesus is and what the vocation he calls us into looks like in the world. As we prepare to hear Jesus show us how to hear the scripture, we are not called to forget what came before but instead to hear and learn from it, to preserve and honor it, and to live lives that show forth a righteousness that is different from the scribes and Pharisees. Again we are framed with the question of wisdom literature in terms of the ones who breaks the commandments and teaches others (by words or actions) to do the same is the least while the one who keeps the commandments and teaches other to keep them is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This keeping of scripture will be a visible witness which brings glory to God but may also bring persecution to the one living this public faith.

Before we move into hearing Jesus interpreting scripture a brief pause to frame the way Jesus will read scripture. This is often heard as legalistic or pointing towards a type of moralistic perfection and the interpretation below will run counter to this path. A helpful question when approaching either the law in the Hebrew Scriptures or Jesus’ interpretation of it in the Sermon on the Mount is: What type of community/society are they trying to create/imagine? That doesn’t mean that what lies ahead is easy to live into, I struggle with it, but it does give us a different horizon to hear the law within. The law is about a society where my neighbor’s best life is possible. One of the key differences between the scribes and the Pharisees as they are represented in Matthew’s gospel and Jesus is mercy being a central part to understanding what righteousness is about. As we now enter Jesus’ interpretation of the law and prophets which are connected to our vocation may we apply that merciful and, dare I say, gracious hermeneutic to our neighbors and to ourselves.

Book of Deuteronomy

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

These are my reflections on the book of Deuteronomy from February 2015 to April 2016. As a process of cleaning up my index and making posts more accessible.

Deuteronomy 1: Retelling The Story For A New Time
Deuteronomy 2: The Warrior God
Deuteronomy 3: Visions Of A Future Land
Deuteronomy 4: A Story Formed People And An Imageless God
Deuteronomy 5: The Ten Commandments Revisited
Deuteronomy 6: The Center Of The Faith
Deuteronomy 7: A People Set Apart
Deuteronomy 8: The Dangers Of Abundance
Deuteronomy 9: The Promise Of God And A Stubborn People
Deuteronomy 10: The Covenant Renewed
Deuteronomy 11: Blessings And Curses
Deuteronomy 12: Expounding On The Law
Deuteronomy 13: The Challenge Of Exclusivity
Deuteronomy 14: Boundary Markers And Celebrations
Deuteronomy 15: A Life Of Covenant Generosity
Deuteronomy 16: Celebrations, Remembrance And Justice
Deuteronomy 17: A Society Structured Around One Lord
Deuteronomy 18: Priests, Prophets And Forbidden Magic
Deuteronomy 19: Justice, Refuge And Grace
Deuteronomy 20: The Conduct Of War
Deuteronomy 21: Death, Rebellious Children, Captured Women And Inheritance
Deuteronomy 22: Miscellaneous Laws
Deuteronomy 23: Boundaries, Purity, Interest, Vows And Limits
Deuteronomy 24: Divorce, Purity And Justice
Deuteronomy 25: Punishment, Justice And The Enemy
Deuteronomy 26: Bringing The Story Into Liturgy
Deuteronomy 27: Preserving The Law
Deuteronomy 28: Blessings And Curses
Deuteronomy 29: A Final Address
Deuteronomy 30: Hope Beyond The Curse
Deuteronomy 31: Preparing For Life After Moses
Deuteronomy 32: The Last Song Of Moses
Deuteronomy 33: A Final Poetic Blessing
Deuteronomy 34: The Death Of Moses
Reflections From A Year Spent With Deuteronomy

Exodus 31: The Artisans, The Sabbath and the Tablets

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Exodus 31:1-11 The Divinely Gifted Artisans

The LORD spoke to Moses: 2 See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: 3 and I have filled him with divine spirit,1 with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze,5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. 6 Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skillful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you: 7 the tent of meeting, and the ark of the covenant,1 and the mercy seat2 that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, 8 the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, 9 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand, 10 and the finely worked vestments, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the holy place. They shall do just as I have commanded you.

The appointment of Bezalel and Oholiab along with the rest of the divinely inspired artisans presents an opportunity to expand the role of the called people of God beyond prophets and priests. Bezalel coming out of the tribe of Judah and Oholiab coming out of the tribe of Dan expands the group of people upon which the divine spirit rests. The work of constructing a tabernacle or a church is the work of the people, not just the work of the priests and pastors. There is within the calling of these artisans a recognition that the accomplishment of the divine vision involves the various gifts of the priest, the prophet, the artisan and the worker. Each person has a part to play in the unfolding of God’s purpose for God’s people.

Martin Luther expanded upon this in his belief that every Christian had a vocation or multiple vocations, areas where their skills were used to serve God. Each person, whether a mother, a farmer, a shoemaker, a pastor, or a prince all had a role to play and gifts to serve God’s kingdom. St. Paul could refer to many gifts coming from the one Spirit of God (both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12) and that all the gifts of the community of faith where for the work of God in the church. God has spread the gifts among God’s people and not solely in the hands of the ordained ministers of the church. One of the peculiarities of the next chapter is that when Aaron the priest becomes the artisan everything comes out wrong.

I’ve mentioned a couple times in this section that my congregation is going through a building expansion as I write this and I’ve gotten to see firsthand the skilled work of the artisans who are working on the building. I have some skill with my hands, but it is not my primary gift. Yet, the crew who is working in concrete, steel, sheetrock and paint (not to mention plumbing, electrical wires and the like) have gifts and skills I do not. I could learn those skills given time, but that is not my vocation or my position. I am able to delight in the work that God is able to do through these artisans and at the same time celebrate the work that God has equipped me to do.

Exodus 31: 12-17 The Seriousness of Sabbath

12 The LORD said to Moses: 13 You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”

I had the opportunity over the weekend to travel with my wife to see some of the areas she grew up, and one of the gifts of the weekend was sitting on a deck in some cooler weather than we are currently experiencing in Texas and just to look out over the terrain and be. My wife and I both work jobs that can consume a lot of our life and time and it was good to have some time to just be together and to rest. This is what sabbath is about. It is about resting and it is a deadly serious proposition for the people. The sabbath gets its own commandment in Exodus 20, is mentioned again Exodus 23: 12-13 and then again is brought up here. Even prior to the construction of the tabernacle after the incident of the golden calf the sabbath will again be highlighted at the beginning of Exodus 35. The sabbath for the covenant people is highlighted as a matter of life and death.

In my time and context we have a difficult time with sabbath. I fought for years having a smartphone, and while I enjoy its capability it also ensures that I am continually connected to the demands of work. In the United States we live in a society of acquisition where we place a monetary value on things and while the logo ‘In God we trust’ may be placed on our bills and coins I sometimes wonder if the bills and coins are the god we truly trust. As Rabbi Sacks can wisely state, “When money rules, we remember the price of things and forget the value of things.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 260)

Sabbath is a day where there is no buying or selling, where work is prohibited and people are forced to rest and sit. In our frenetic society this may be the most difficult commandment to live into. In a society where the blue laws that forced businesses to be closed on Sundays it may have been easier since there were few options on Sundays. Yet, that is not our time and there is no easy going back to a past that may or may not have existed like we imagine. For now, the wisdom of sabbath may be learning that it is a matter of life and death in our culture to stop and reflect on the value of things we have rather than the price of the things we can accumulate.

Within the Hebrew Scriptures there is a call to learn patience that moves against our own sense of immediate need. The people in the wilderness would call upon Moses every time there didn’t seem to be enough food or water immediately and threaten to return to Egypt. While Moses is up on the mountain the people will come to Aaron and ask him to craft their gods for them. The LORD expects the people to stop and wait at times and lingers with them in the wilderness while the details are handed on. The sabbath also expect the people to learn the value of waiting, or resting and of valuing the things that have been provided rather than straining towards the things they can acquire.

Exodus 31: 18 The Tablets of the Covenant

18 When God1 finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant,2 tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

The infamous stone tablets are finally given to Moses as the scene transitions from Moses’ time with God on Mount Sinai to Aaron’s struggles with the people in the valley. Moses listens, the people demand. God departs the plan for the tabernacle where God can dwell among the people, Aaron crafts golden calves as poor substitution for an imageless God of Israel. God’s vision is one of order in contrast to the disorder Moses will find when he descends the mountain. The covenant will be broken and remade but it remains the word of God that is to be brought to God’s people.

Exodus 20- The Decalogue

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Exodus 20: 1-17 The Ten Words

 Then God spoke all these words:

 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before1 me.

 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation1 of those who love me and keep my commandments.

 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

 13 You shall not murder.1

 14 You shall not commit adultery.

 15 You shall not steal.

 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The Ten Commandment, or the Ten Words (Decalogue) occur both here and in Deuteronomy 5 in slightly different forms. I highlight the differences in my discussion on Deuteronomy and here I will focus more on the commandments themselves and the role they have played within both Judaism and Christianity. One of the issues that has been wrestled with across time is how to divide the list into ten with different solutions based upon one’s theology. Is verse two the first commandment of a prologue to the list of commandments (many Jewish traditions), is verse three through six all one commandment (Catholic, Lutheran traditions) or is there a break between verse three and four (Reformed traditions). Ultimately the division into ten probably serves as an easy way to remember these central precepts that all the rest of the law will unfold from and regardless of how they are divided it is ultimately the way they become internalized and lived which will become the primary goal for these words.

When historical critical methods were the favored tool scholars loved to debate whether the Ten Words evolve over time or whether they borrowed from other law codes of the ancient near east (most notably the Code of Hammurabi has been noted for some parallels between what will follow in the next chapters). Ultimately historical questions reaching thousands of years back into history become incredibly difficult to answer and what we have are the Decalogue as they have been handed down in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy as they are in their final form. For both Jews and Christians, they have served to both pass on the faith and to give some key principles to form their ethics and life from.

The initial statement at the beginning of these words take us back into the narrative of Exodus. The LORD makes a claim upon them, the LORD is their God and the LORD is known by what has occurred. The bringing out of the people from Egypt and God’s choice of them gives the LORD sole claim upon their allegiance and worship. The existence of other gods is not denied here, in the worldview of the time it is assumed and other nations served them (the prophets will later move towards a view we would recognize as monotheistic) but these other gods are not to be worshipped or followed by the people of Israel. The people have been redeemed out of Egypt and are in a covenantal relationship with the LORD their God.

The worship of the LORD is unusual in the ancient world. They are not to use images to represent the LORD their God, and this will be what is at stake in the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32. The LORD is not to be reduced to the likeness of anything in the creation. The expounding on this prohibition below in verse 23 reinforces this. There will be beauty in the space that will be constructed to worship, but nothing within that space and no other item is to contain God’s image. Perhaps there is a remembrance of the creation narrative where humanity in some manner bears the image of God, but ultimately even humanity it not to be cast in metal and lifted up as a representation of God. The LORD is an impassioned God and does not enter this covenant easily or lightly. God’s vulnerability is highlighted using the term ‘jealous’ and while we may be uncomfortable with the language of punishment we will see that the breaking of this relationship, as will be seen in Exodus 32 and in prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea, brings out an intensely emotional side of God. The LORD presented in the Hebrew Bible is never some unmoved mover or unattached stoic grandfatherly god, the LORD is a God who desires to draw near but who also is vulnerable to being wounded by the unfaithfulness of the people.

The name in the ancient world is a powerful thing. As I discussed in Exodus 3 there is both necessity in a name but especially in the ancient world there was power. The four-letter name of God, transliterated as YHWH (or Yahweh- Jehovah was an old mispronunciation of these letters) is not said by the Jewish people in their worship in respect for keeping the name holy will always say Adonai (and the vowels, which are added above and below the consonants reflect the vowels for Adonai while the consonants are YHWH), in English this is why you see LORD in all caps (frequently with ORD in a smaller font if possible). The name of God was not to be used as a magical incantation, like some other cultures would do when they called upon the names of their gods, but was to be honored and respected.

Sabbath here is linked to creation and the rhythm of the LORD’s work being a model for human life. This is one of the unique portions of the Ten Commandments, since Sabbath is primarily about rest-not worship. It also is essential in the construction of a different type of society than the Egyptian society they came out of. In Egypt they were slaves, forced to work without brake for as long as their taskmasters demanded, but here children, slaves and even animals are commanded to rest. Ultimately, they were not to place their own ability to produce at the center of their lives but they were to learn to rest and trust that the LORD would provide for them and they were to rest with the LORD on this day that has been blessed and consecrated.

The command to honor father and mother, as I mention in Deuteronomy 5, is probably less about young children being obedient to parents and more about older children continuing to respect, honor and care for their parents in their older age. There will always be the temptation to look upon those who are past their prime as a burden to society but here they are commanded to be honored.

I once heard Rolf Jacobson, who teaches Hebrew Bible at Luther Seminary, state that the Ten Commandments are not about my best life now, they are about ‘my neighbor’s best life now.’ Murder, and although I grew up with the King James ‘thou shalt not kill’ the word murder is probably a better word for what is intended, prevents my needs from becoming more important than my neighbor’s life. There are times where the Scriptures do talk about capital punishment or serving in warfare and these may be viewed within the scriptures as times where the greater community is protected by the act of the one being killed or killing others but these actions are not to be the rule of life in the community, they are the exception. Adultery, which in our current culture portrays as a crime where no one gets hurt, is taken with the utmost seriousness. The punishment for those who commit adultery will be death and this may seem in our time overly harsh. Yet, in ancient times there was, “a severe rupture of trust in family trust and structure as well as in patterns of inheritance.” (Myers, 2005, p. 176) After working with couples for years as a pastor and my own personal experiences there is wisdom to learn from the seriousness cultures took adultery. I am not advocating a return to stoning or harsh punishment, but I’ve seen too often the damage that what a person thought was a simple act of pleasure does to their health, finances, to family and to their children. Adultery is one of those acts that can shatter the trust of a family and have profound and long consequences. Similarly stealing can have life threatening consequences in a culture where people are living at a subsistence level and even in our time. In a society where neighbors relied upon one another, theft could fracture the fabric of that community. When one’s home or automobile has been broken into it feels like a violation of one’s safety and security. In some cases, the loss of security may be greater than the physical loss. In other cases, where greed or theft on a large scale has endangered a person’s retirement accounts or even the money that a person needs to pay for food or medical expenses the theft can literally steal life from another person.

For a just society one of the essential elements is truthful speech. Bearing false witness, whether in a legal setting or in casual gossip can cause heavy damage to an individual. In an age where we can see the how gossip, intentional falsehoods, and cyber-bullying in personal relationships in addition to the erosion of trust in our public institutions I do think there is a longing for truthful speech, but also there is a desire for the salacious rumor and it sometimes becomes difficult to tell the two apart. Perhaps Martin Luther’s wisdom of “interpreting my neighbor’s action in the best possible light” may be helpful here as we wrestle with finding true words in a suspicious and distrusting time.

Finally coveting, and the word for coveting is more than just the natural desire of seeing someone or something one finds attractive. Chamada, the Hebrew word behind coveting is, “an intense desire, generated by passion that is not easily controlled.” (Myers, 2005, p. 178 quoting TDOT) The word for house is more than the physical building, it is one’s household which would include the other items listed behind household: spouse, servants, livestock, etc. This type of intense and open desire would erode the trust between neighbors.

Attempting to write about the Decalogue is a challenge, partially because almost every major figure in Judaism and Christianity at some point writes in detail about the commandments. They are a source of catechetical instruction in the basics of the faith for both traditions. Here I have been in more of an exegetical mode attempting to understand and compare what the commandments meant to their original audience and compare that to our time. At other points, if I was trying to instruct someone on how the commandments would impact their faith I would probably highlight different points.

Exodus 20: 18-21 Moses the Mediator

 18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid1 and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

The approach of the LORD is a powerful thing and the people are overwhelmed. Although there will be times where Moses’ role as a leader is challenged the people do not want to stand in Moses’ place before God. They desire someone to mediate the divine presence. Moses will spend his life as a person caught between God and God’s people. Even when God’s intention is to graciously draw close it can be terrifying and frequently people want a predictable and not too close God. Ultimately the God of Israel is a God who is not controllable or tame, who is passionate. Moses is somehow safer, more understandable and therefore God’s presence continues to be mediated by the messenger.

Exodus 20: 22-26 How to Worship the LORD

 22 The LORD said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

The worship of the LORD is both incredibly simple and very challenging. It is simple in the reality that they don’t need images of silver or gold to represent their God. It is challenging because the people will show that they desire some physical representation of their God they can focus on and can manipulate. Idolatry will be more than just worshipping other gods, it will also be any attempt to make an image of the imageless God of Israel. It will be any attempt to limit the ways in which God can present Godself or to even metaphorically limit God’s image to being something in heaven or on earth or in the sea. It is simple that the LORD does not require elaborate tables or structures to offer sacrifices, simply an altar of earth or unhewn stones that is not set above everyone else. The worship of the LORD is to be done at a level where the priests do not ascend above the people to offer sacrifices but stand at their level. It will be a challenge not to emulate the practices of other nations that place the divine above and have their priests ascend to offer sacrifices. It is the paradox of transcendence in the mundane parts of life. God’s desire is to come down to the people’s level and to dwell, but the desire of the people tends to be to send a representative up to mediate the space between God and themselves.

Deuteronomy 30 – Hope Beyond the Curse

Water  original image from splashhttp://www.ripples.ca/

Water original image from splashhttp://www.ripples.ca/

 

Deuteronomy 30: 1-10 Returning to the LORD

1 When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. 5 The LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors.

 6 Moreover, the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. 7 The LORD your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you. 8 Then you shall again obey the LORD, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, 9 and the LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, 10 when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Deuteronomy 30 is one of those passages whose images will have a ripple effect in both the prophets, particularly Jeremiah, and later in the words of the apostle Paul. Whenever these words are spoken, they speak to the context of the Babylonian exile where the land, Judean king, and the temple which formed the central parts of the identity of the Jewish people prior to the exile are all lost. It is in the midst of this experience of desolation that the prophetic hope arises, but it is always a hope that is not easily won. It only comes after all the curses have been exhausted, or in the experience of the exile once the nation has been conquered multiple times and not only with the elite being carried off into exile but rather after continued rebellion and failed cheap solutions like those presented by false prophets like Hananiah in Jeremiah 28 which promised a quick and easy end to judgment. There is hope in the midst of what may seem like hopelessness. In exile there is the promise of return and the primary actor is the LORD.

The prophets will spend a lot of ink talking about the return from exile. Isaiah 40-55, Jeremiah 30-33, Ezekiel 36-37 and several of the minor prophets all address this. The poetic and prophetic hope emerges out of this place of desolation and destruction. The promise is again the land and prosperity and this becomes a central image for the people. Their lives and stories are linked to the land, but their prosperity in the land is linked to their ability to live out of the covenant. We are linked back to Deuteronomy 6:5 by the echo of loving the LORD with all of their heart and soul. If the people return to the LORD, then the words of Isaiah echo the sentiment of this passage:

Do not fear, I am with you, I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43:5-7

The image of circumcision is now used metaphorically in relationship to the heart. Just as the physical act of circumcision became a mark of the covenant for the Jewish people, now the LORD circumcises the heart of the renewed people. In Deuteronomy 10: 16 the people are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts so that they would no longer be stubborn and would be receptive to the commandments of the LORD. Now in this period of renewal God is the primary actor and the one enabling the people to love the LORD with their heart and soul. In Jeremiah 4:4 this image re-appears in language similar to Deuteronomy 10, in the sense of a warning to turn towards the LORD prior to the experience of exile:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go out like fire, and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your doings. Jeremiah 4:4

But for the apostle Paul, who has to justify his ministry among the Gentiles before those who expect Gentiles to undergo physical circumcision, he is able to use these passages to reflect his ministry in a different light:

For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receive praise not from others but from God. Romans 2: 28f.

The condition of exile, much like the captivity in Egypt, creates the space where the covenant can begin again and God hears the cries of the oppressed people. Just as in the exodus from Egypt, in the return from exile the primary actor will be God. Yet, in this condition where God has acted on behalf of the people, the people still have the obligation to live in obedience to the commands and decrees and that begins with loving and turning to the LORD their God with all their heart and soul.

Deuteronomy 30: 11-20 Obedience is Possible

 11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

 15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

The people to this point in the story have not demonstrated that they have a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear as Deuteronomy states in Deuteronomy 29: 4, yet for Deuteronomy obedience is not only possible, it is easily within the people’s reach. The Jewish people were not to view the law as a heavy burden but rather as Psalm 1 can state that for the faithful the law of the LORD is their delight. To live in accordance with commandments, decrees and ordinances is to choose life and to fail to do so is to choose death for the people. The earth, who we have seen at previous points, bears some of the consequences of the disobedience of the people of God is called to witness against them. The people are urged once more to choose life, just as at the end of the book of Joshua they will be charged to choose to serve the LORD (Joshua 24).

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans demonstrates how for the followers of Jesus the focus of this obedience changes. In Romans 10: 5-8 now Christ takes the place of this word that is near you and on your hearts.

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); Romans 10: 5-8

Much as John’s Gospel can refer to Jesus as the Word of God (John 1) or Matthew’s Gospel can refer as Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5: 17) it shows how this concept becomes completely transformed in a Christian worldview. Even though Jesus will echo the greatest commandment being Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 which comes down to loving the LORD with all the heart. These texts become transformed with now Jesus occupying the place of the law, and the righteousness of faith takes the place of the righteousness of the law. It is not surprising that Paul was frequently in trouble with other Jewish people over a transformation that affects such a central thing as the law, and that is probably why he spends much of Romans (in addition to Galatians) trying to re-interpret the scriptures in light of his experience of the risen Christ.

Deuteronomy 26: Bringing Story into Liturgy

The Seven Species of the Land of Israel listed in Deuteronomy 8:8, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

The Seven Species of the Land of Israel listed in Deuteronomy 8:8, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

 Deuteronomy 26

1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

 12 When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, 13 then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: 14 I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God, doing just as you commanded me. 15 Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors– a land flowing with milk and honey.”

 16 This very day the LORD your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. 17 Today you have obtained the LORD’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. 18 Today the LORD has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; 19 for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.

The twenty sixth chapter of Deuteronomy closes a long section which runs from chapter five (although many people move it back to the scene being set in Deuteronomy 4:44) through the end of this chapter. Here in the narrative Moses concludes his exposition of the commandments, statutes and ordinances of the LORD for the people of Israel. In this conclusion resides both ritual and liturgy that will continue to form the identity of the people for their life in the promised land. The manner in which the people of Israel bring in their offerings is mentioned several times throughout this portion of Deuteronomy but the way in which the author chooses to end this section liturgically explaining the significance of these practices is important to note.

In American Christianity there are several branches of the faith that are uncomfortable with the idea of a confessional creed. In a society based on individualism where the focus is on the individual’s faith and what they believe at each point in their lives the idea of a communal confession of faith seems unnecessary. I appreciate the gifts of the confessional tradition that I come out of and the way it binds me both to the manner Christians have understood the faith historically as well as locating me within a community that shares and wrestles with common confessions. Creeds have been used throughout the ages as summaries of a wider faith used in both catechetical (teaching future generations) and liturgical (worship) settings. The bible is full of these confessions of faith in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament (for example Philippians 2: 5-11) and various confessions of faith have been used as a part of the liturgy of faithful people for generations as a way of summarizing the faith. Deuteronomy 6: 21-25 is one example of a ‘credo’ a basic statement of belief to be used as a method of catechesis within the home. While in Deuteronomy 6 the focus is on the actions within the household that the parents will use to pass on the faith to their children and grandchildren and beyond, here we see confessions of faith used liturgically as a part of the telling of the story of the people of Israel. The practice of bringing the tithe and first fruits in Deuteronomy 14: 22-29 and in Deuteronomy 18:4 is now brought into a setting of worship with words that reinforce several basic parts of the understanding of the covenantal relationship the people would be expected to maintain in the promised land. Deanna Thompson outlines succinctly the key themes of the text as:
“the call for Israel to acknowledge God’s persistent care; the reminder that the land God is giving them is sheer gift; and the insistence that fundamental to Israel’s right relationship to God is the practice of attending to the needs of the stranger, the widow and the orphan.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 188)

As the offering are brought to the tabernacle or temple the people recite a brief exposition of their history which outlines their beginnings as a wandering people in Genesis, the journey to Egypt in the time of Joseph where they received the food they needed in the midst of famine, and then a brief synopsis of the Exodus experience including their oppression and liberation and being brought into the promised land. This short liturgical statement begins with the tenuousness of their situation as a landless people and later as slaves contrasted with their new but contingent identity as the covenant people of the LORD the God of Israel. The narrated history is now combined with the practice of giving which is intended to continue to form the identity of the people in their life in the land.

The liturgy in Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 focuses on re-telling the story of the people and the action of bringing the first fruit which is a result of God’s gracious provision for the people in the land. God has brought the people from being landless or oppressed to being in a land of milk and honey, therefore they are to bring in these gifts and celebrate and remember the provision of God. The focus on this first exhortation is on what God has done for Israel and now Israel is freed to enjoy the fruits of the land. In Deuteronomy 26: 12-15 the giving of the tithe Deuteronomy 14: 28-29 and a declaration that the individual has been faithful both in bringing the tithe (and not withholding a portion or using it in some other way) but also in the keeping of all of the commandments and asking the LORD to bless the peoples’ lives in the coming years.  Now the focus is on what Israel has done in response and their faithfulness to the covenant and understanding that because of their faithfulness the LORD will look down and allow them to prosper in the land. The section concludes with oaths that bind the people and the LORD the God of Israel together. The hope of this relationship is that “I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7: 23) As Brueggemann has helpfully outlined the italicized comments above and here now the people are to be utterly obedient to the LORD and the LORD will be utterly committed to Israel. (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 249f)

This relationship between the LORD and the people as given in this giving and receiving of vows is to be a committed one, and perhaps the natural comparison is to the marriage vows that a couple make when they are married. This relation of the covenant to marriage will form a metaphorical background for Jeremiah (see for example Jeremiah 3) and Hosea (Hosea 2). Much of the remainder of Deuteronomy will call attention to the seriousness of Israel’s commitment in this covenant and the cost of disobedience as well as the LORD’s continuing commitment. As a people holy to the LORD their commitment is a calling. They will need to return to this covenant and recommit themselves several times throughout their story and yet there is the commitment that when they stumble and fall and recommit themselves that God will hear. They have been reminded of who they were and where they came from, how God acted to bring them graciously into this land filled with promise, how they are to respond to God’s faithfulness and the critical nature of their obedience.

Deuteronomy 19: Justice, Refuge and Grace

"Bouguereau-The First Mourning-1888" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bouguereau-The_First_Mourning-1888.jpg#/media/File:Bouguereau-The_First_Mourning-1888.jpg

“Bouguereau-The First Mourning-1888” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bouguereau-The_First_Mourning-1888.jpg#/media/File:Bouguereau-The_First_Mourning-1888.jpg

Deuteronomy 19: 1-13: Cities of Refuge

1 When the LORD your God has cut off the nations whose land the LORD your God is giving you, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their towns and in their houses, 2 you shall set apart three cities in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess. 3 You shall calculate the distances and divide into three regions the land that the LORD your God gives you as a possession, so that any homicide can flee to one of them.

 4 Now this is the case of a homicide who might flee there and live, that is, someone who has killed another person unintentionally when the two had not been at enmity before: 5 Suppose someone goes into the forest with another to cut wood, and when one of them swings the ax to cut down a tree, the head slips from the handle and strikes the other person who then dies; the killer may flee to one of these cities and live. 6 But if the distance is too great, the avenger of blood in hot anger might pursue and overtake and put the killer to death, although a death sentence was not deserved, since the two had not been at enmity before. 7 Therefore I command you: You shall set apart three cities.

                8 If the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he swore to your ancestors– and he will give you all the land that he promised your ancestors to give you, 9 provided you diligently observe this entire commandment that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God and walking always in his ways– then you shall add three more cities to these three, 10 so that the blood of an innocent person may not be shed in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, thereby bringing bloodguilt upon you. 11 But if someone at enmity with another lies in wait and attacks and takes the life of that person, and flees into one of these cities, 12 then the elders of the killer’s city shall send to have the culprit taken from there and handed over to the avenger of blood to be put to death. 13 Show no pity; you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may go well with you.

                 With the roles that people will play within the community to ensure justice established in chapters 17 and 18 (judges, priests, king and prophets) now this section of Deuteronomy turns to expounding upon laws that continue to flesh out the ten commandments, particularly how the people of Israel are to relate to one another. There is less of a narrative and more of a didactic tone as the exposition of the law is intended to illustrate what the covenant life of the people is to look like and the manner in which they are interconnected with their God, the land and with one another. The author of Deuteronomy may not move systematically through the various commandments in articulating this exposition of the law, but is continually concerned to relate the adherence to the commandments to the people’s continuing life under the covenant with their LORD.

The setting up of cities of refuge assumes a situation very different from our modern legal system. In ancient honor bound agrarian societies if a member of the family was killed it was the family’s responsibility to enact justice. Deuteronomy assumes this type of system but also limits it with the provision of cities of refuge where a person who has killed another may flee to. Mentioned in Exodus 21: 13 and later designated in Joshua 20 they provide a place where the cycle of violence may be stopped providing the killing is accidental. If the killing is murder, the elders fill a judicial function in having the murderer turned over from the city of refuge to the family. The family remains the executor of judgment in this system.

Within this law setting aside both the cities of refuge and the method of justice to prevent a murder from remaining in sanctuary within these cities is an understanding of innocent blood which would contaminate the land and bring bloodguilt upon the people. Perhaps the understanding of this bloodguilt is similar to God’s response to Cain in Genesis 4:

And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now cursed you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. Genesis 4: 10-11

Innocent blood calls out to God who is ultimately the one who will have vengeance. There is an understanding that only blood can atone for blood and that the injury is not only against the individual but also the community and their holiness before God.

Issues of revenge and vengeance are huge threats to order within any society. There needs to be some manner that wrongs can be addressed. Yet, there also is a role for the legal system of a society to place a limit on the practice of revenge or vigilante justice. As much as Americans may love characters like Batman who are symbols of vigilante justice in a society where justice is perceived to be lacking. The reality of people creating their own systems of justice in a system where justice is not being carried out effectively (or rigorously enough) has led to many terrible acts throughout history. As will be outlined later in the chapter what is being sought is not vengeance but instead proportional justice. The lex talionis, (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc.) which probably was not enforced literally, provided a formula for justice that did not exceed the damage caused.

 

Deuteronomy 19:14 Honoring Boundaries

14 You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.

 

The gift of the land to the people of Israel was a part of their living out of the providence of their LORD. Within this society, where land is the primary means of producing food and ultimately wealth, the book of Deuteronomy has a very different understanding of land than our modern understanding derived from philosophers like John Locke or Adam Smith. For the people of Israel land was to remain with a family and was not viewed as private property that could be bartered or sold, it was to remain with the family for as long as the people remained faithful to God’s commandments. It was contingent on their relation to God, not to their ability to acquire more wealth.  Moving the boundary markers on a neighbor’s property is stealing from their neighbor in addition to failing to trust in the provision of God for their needs.

 

Deuteronomy 19: 15-21 Bearing False Witness

15 A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. 16 If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, 18 and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, 19 then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Central to the pursuit of justice is truthfulness. Truth is not only about not telling falsehoods, but also about the damage it does to the neighbor and by extension the community. Fear of punishment is a part of the understanding for obedience in Deuteronomy. People are to fear the consequences of their actions both from God and from the community. Deuteronomy’s justice is a harsh justice but it is a proportional one, and here the lex talionis is applied to the concept of bearing false witness or perjury against another. The punishment is in relation to the damage the false witness intended to do to the neighbor.

Within any community people will act out of self-interest and look for advantages over their neighbor. Yet, Israel was intended to embody something different. They were to look out for and to care for their neighbor. Within the laws of Deuteronomy safe guards are put in place, like the provision of needing multiple witnesses to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing and the important role of the judges and the priests in ensuring an impartial hearing. For Deuteronomy’s author the consequences are too high for justice to be corrupted. The bloodguilt would cry out against the community before God and the people would find themselves needing to atone for the wrongs done to the innocent.

Some Christians embrace this harsh judgment within Deuteronomy and would love to see a legal system that is as unforgiving and which embraces capital punishment for a number of crimes. They may also want to ensure that they can have the right to bear arms and have the ability to be enforcers of this system like the families in the ancient world would do in relation to a murder. Yet, Christians also have to wrestle with the way Jesus engages this text Matthew’s gospel for example:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist and evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  Matthew 5: 38-42

Jesus was certainly concerned about a community that could live in justice but his manner of speaking about the way this community was centered more upon forgiveness than on justice. Perhaps Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous quote that, “there is no future without forgiveness.” Which came out of his experiences in South Africa, represent the challenge of constructing a society where forgiveness can lead to justice. But whether we talk about Jesus (see immediately before the above quote in Matthew 5: 33-37), or Archbishop Tutu, or Deuteronomy one of the prerequisites for a society that has justice is truthfulness.

Psalm 1 Poetry and the Law

The Reading of Torah in Synagogue

The Reading of Torah in Synagogue

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
 6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
 

 Psalm one introduces what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the Prayerbook of the Bible” and Martin Luther once called the “little Bible”. Here in these one hundred and fifty little (and occasionally long) poems and songs we encounter the breadth of emotion and dedication put into poetic form. Many scholars believe that Psalm 1 was added as a forward to the entire collection of Psalms and gives a summary of what is to lie ahead and the structure of the Psalm itself encourages this thought. The Psalm begins with the first letter of the Hebrew Alphabet with the word translated ‘Happy’ (‘aŝrê) and ends with the last word beginning with the last letter forming an inclusio, a device frequently seen in wisdom literature and denotes a completion of a thought or idea.

So why write poetry about the law? Seems strange or foreign to us and why introduce the Psalms with a meditation on the law? For many people poetry and rules are antithetical, but to a Hebrew way of life the law is at the center for their view of a life in harmony with God’s will. The simple dichotomy between the righteous and the unrighteous, the wicked and the law delighters may seem odd. This was a Psalm I never really enjoyed until recently because it seemed to pretentious, to easy to place oneself in the position of the righteous and not in the place of the wicked, but as an introduction to the Psalter and as a way of looking at the law not as something to be dreaded but something to delight in has changed my mind. It is not a coincidence that the Psalter begins with a meditation of the delight of the law and that the longest Psalm (Psalm 119) is a meditation on the law. That in knowing how one is to live, what it means to be in harmony with God’s will for the people and the world is joy. For the Hebrew people the law of the LORD is life and to ignore the way of the LORD is to undercut one’s own life. In a world of easy expedients that may bring short term prosperity the people are called to a way of life that is in harmony with the creator’s desire for the world.

The word translated happy, probably is better translated ‘blessed’ (this Hebrew word would be translated into Greek Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) as markarios which is the first word of each of the beatitudes in Matthew 5) and in entering into the poetry and the struggle of the Psalmists (since there are multiple composers of the Psalms) it is also an entry into the meditation on how one is to live in the continual meditation on the law of the LORD. Poetry and wisdom, life and the law, the way of the righteous and the blessed may not be simple and it may be something that continues to be a dialogue between the LORD and the LORD’s people, but entering into the meditation of the law of the LORD may not be an invitation to prosperity but it is an invitation into a blessed life.