Tag Archives: Moses

Exodus 3: The Calling of Moses and the Name of God

Burn by JustinChristenbery from deviantart.com

Burn by JustinChristenbery from deviantart.com

Exodus 3:1-12- Moses, the Mountain, the Burning Bush and the Voice of God

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

 7 Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

Chapters three and four are the calling of Moses into his large task of being the leader, law bringer, prophet and teachers of the people of Israel. The call of Moses on the mountain with the burning bush, the angel of the LORD, the voice of God and Moses’ reluctance to take up the call is a very rich text densely condensed into the narrative we have handed on to us. Moses’ transition from tending the flock of his father-in-law to tending the people of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the task of confronting the king of Egypt is a daunting one.

Moses’ father-in-law is here called Jethro instead of Reuel. There are multiple interpretations of why the name changes in this part of the story. One is that Jethro is a title, perhaps an honorary title given to a priest of Midian, while Reuel is the name of his father-in-law. Another theory comes from the source theory that was particularly popular in scholarly interpretations of the Pentateuch in the previous generation of scholars. Much as scholars in this vein would discern different source material behind the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy based on the way that the texts referred to God and their theology (the classic J-E-P-D, or Jehovah {or YHWH}, Elohist {primarily using the term Elohim to refer to God}, Priestly and Deuteronomist divisions that some may have learned in a bible class came out of this theoretical approach). According to this theory we see a seam where the compiler of the book of Exodus uses a different source to tell this part of the story. Regardless, in the narrative of Exodus we have Reuel and Jethro are referring to the same person, the father-in-law of Moses and the one out of whose household the LORD will call the leader to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.

Mountains in ancient literature are the typical places where a theophany (appearances of a divine being) occur, perhaps because of their proximity to the skies (the heavens) and perhaps because of their inaccessibility. Mount Horeb, Mount Sinai, the temple mount, the Mount of the Transfiguration or the mountain where the Sermon on the Mount and even Golgotha in its own way become places where the presence of the divine somehow encounters the people who are on the mountain when God appears. These mountaintop experiences of the immanent presence of the divine are both clarifying and terrifying. They often represent critical points within the communication of God with God’s people and so here, like in the giving of the law, God will set apart the people of Israel for a special purpose within the world and Moses for a special purpose with the people.

Many people of all ages are familiar with the story of the burning bush, where God speaks to Moses out of the fire but the story is more complex than that. Much as in the book of Genesis (example Genesis 22: 15) the angel of the LORD is the one who appears and speaks, and yet God’s voice is heard through this mediating messenger. The burning bush, which is not consumed by the fire, catches Moses’ attention. This magical moment is designed to lure Moses into this experience of the God’s words and call. The LORD is portrayed as watching for the moment when Moses is lured into this experience and encounters the fire and the angel of the LORD. Even though later in Exodus Moses will speak to God ‘face to face’ here the presence of God is mediated. Somehow the angel of the LORD is a messenger and yet an extension of the voice of God and here, even though mediated, the presence of God draws closer and makes this piece of mountainous property a holy place where God is present in a more immediate way. Much as the angel of the LORD will be the mediator of God’s presence to Moses, now Moses is being prepared to be the mediator of God’s presence to the people of both Israel and Egypt.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight” Proverbs 9:10 can state, and here Moses’ initial reaction to this intensified presence of the LORD is to hide his face and to fear.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a fascinating discussion of ‘of what was Moses afraid?’ (Sacks, 2010, pp. 35-40) where he pulls on Rabbinic wisdom to draw several parallels in Moses’ life: Moses here hides his face and later the Israelites will see Moses’ face radiant after he talks with God and be afraid to approach him; he is afraid to look upon God here and later in Exodus he will see the form of God. And yet, why is the fear of the LORD the beginning of wisdom, or why is Moses afraid. Rabbi Sacks argument that to see the face of God is also to see ultimate justice of history and to understand why sometimes humans must suffer would be a wisdom whose price was too high. Whether these thoughts in any way parallel Moses’ thoughts we will never know but there is a perspective that we, no matter how broad minded we try to be, cannot see. Certainly, leaders at times must make choices that will cause pain for a portion of their followers to forward some greater good, or parents at times deny their children momentary pleasures for their health, security or well-being. Yet, we as people, while we can say with Martin Luther King, Jr. that ‘the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ we still are, like Moses, called to become angry and upset about oppression and the injustice of this world. Moses is probably chosen because he could see the injustices, like those committed towards the Hebrew people or the daughters of Jethro in the previous chapter and felt compelled to act upon those injustices.

God has heard and seen the misery of the people and now God is going to act upon that observation. Moses will be the instrument that the LORD uses to bring the people from slavery to the promised land. God’s actions in the world often are mediated through the people God calls, indeed Israel as a people’s calling is to mediate God’s presence and blessing to the world. Being an instrument of God is both an incredible but also a fearful calling, perhaps this is one of the central reason why so often one of the first things said is ‘Do not be afraid’ but that is not said here. Instead the promise of God’s presence with Moses is to be the reassurance that he will need to boldly go before Pharaoh.

The land that the Israelites are to go to is here referred to for the first time as a land of milk and honey. As Carol Myers, can remind us this refers to, “The products of animal husbandry (represented by “milk”) and viticulture (represented by “honey,” or grape syrup) represent the productivity of a land that, in fact, has a difficult topography and chronic water shortages.” (Myers, 2005, p. 54) Honey in the bible is rarely bee honey, there are expectations like Judges 14 in the story of Samson, and mainly this fruit syrup. The land of milk and honey is only a productive land on the condition of the LORD of Israel granting fertility and rains at the appropriate time. It is not, like the American heartland, a comparatively easy place to grow crops and herds. The people’s prosperity, like their entire life will always be dependent upon the generative gift of the LORD their God.

Moses’ response to the call is one of self-doubt. It is easy to forget in the boldness that Moses will need to later embody before the people, before Pharaoh and before God that his initial response is one of self-doubt. Perhaps for most of us this is the natural response. We are unable to see within ourselves the very characteristics that God based God’s calling upon. The things that we may see as challenges, perhaps in Moses’ case his inability to see the injustices occurring without acting, may be the very characteristics that God sees as necessary for the calling we have. Moses will bargain with God here and in chapter four about Moses’ perceived insufficiencies and needs for reassurance and even when it may not be the way the LORD would prefer God accommodates Moses. Moses the man is critical to God’s work of liberation and even though he cannot see who he will become God sees within him the potential and the characteristics that God needs for him to be the instrument chosen for this task.

Hebrew Letters for the Name of God

Hebrew Letters for the Name of God

Exodus 3: 13-22 The Name of God

13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 16 Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ 18 They will listen to your voice; and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; let us now go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, so that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ 19 I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go. 21 I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed; 22 each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor’s house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians.”

There is both power and necessity in a name. There is necessity in a name in being able to differentiate creatures, people, things and even God. Just as in Genesis 2: 19-20 where God brings Adam each of the different creatures to name, so there is a need to have a way to distinguish the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the gods of Egypt or Canaan. One of the things that people throughout the narrative of Genesis did was give names for the God they encountered (for example Hagar will name God ‘El-Roi’, Melchizedek will call God ‘El-Elyon’).  Here God is asked for what God’s name is and God’s response ‘I AM WHO I AM’ and its later four Hebrew Letter YHWH will be the one name that of God that is spoken rarely if ever among the Jewish people.

The divine name is behind the later commandment in Exodus 20:7 “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his holy name.” Many Jewish people will not even write the word God, substituting G_d. Even in the translation of the Bible the name is not casually written. Only here is the name translated “I AM” and throughout the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) the four-letter name of God is translated LORD. A person reading in Hebrew would pronounce ‘Adonai’ the Hebrew word for Lord rather than Yahweh which is scholarship’s best guess at the proper pronunciation of the divine name.

In the fantasy series Eragon to know the true name of something is to have power over that item and magic was worked by knowing something’s true name. This is an ancient idea that Christopher Paolini picked up knowingly or unknowingly in those stories. For example, in an exorcism if one can call upon the name of the demon being exorcised it is a sign of power (an example of this is in the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5: 1-20 and parallels). There is an entire tradition of Jewish mysticism based upon the names of God which have some resonance of magical power. Here the name of God is both necessary and powerful, in a certain sense God unveils a part of God’s identity in releasing this name. Yet, the name itself, “I AM,” has a certain veiling quality as well. Coming from the ‘to be’ verb of Hebrew it both reveals and refuses to reveal. The LORD says, “I exist” and perhaps I am behind all existence (which would fit with the Hebrew understanding of God as the creator of all things) and yet it is only four letters. Yet, those four letters would necessitate a commandment to prevent their misuse, the name of God is a powerful thing. This is also a dynamic that the Gospel of John uses in respect to Jesus’ numerous ‘I am’ sayings (I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the gate, I am the way, the truth and the light, etc.)

God calls Moses to go and assemble the elders and then foreshadows much of what is to come in the remainder of Exodus through Joshua. The land to which they are going is now named as the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hittites and Jebusites. The initial request is to go out for three days to sacrifice, a request that will be denied multiple times by Pharaoh. Also foreshadowed is the conflict between Pharaoh, and by extension the gods of Egypt, and the LORD. Finally, the Egyptians giving to the people of Israel as they begin their journey jewelry, wealth and clothing. God may see what is ahead for Moses and the people and yet Moses will still need to see some evidence from God how this may come about.

 

 

Exodus 2: Moses’ Story Begins

Alexey Tyranox, Moses Being Lowered into the Nile by His Mother (1839-1842)

Alexey Tyranox, Moses Being Lowered into the Nile by His Mother (1839-1842)

Exodus 2: 1-10 The Continued Resistance of Women

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

 5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

The resistance to the policies of the unnamed king of Egypt begins with Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, and continues with a mother, a daughter of the Hebrews and a daughter of the king’s own household. Even in the time of oppression the Israelites continue to marry and bear children, even though the lives of those children are now threatened by a command to all the people of Egypt. Yet, even in ancient Egypt we hear a memory of the subtle and artful resistance to the abhorrent policies of murder. This one child rescued from being thrown into the Nile will later lead the people out of slavery and into a new calling and identity.

A mother looks upon her newborn son and seeing that, in similar language to the creation narratives in Genesis, that he is good attempts to preserve this small piece of God’s creation she holds in her hands. For three months she manages to keep the child hidden but ultimately the wickedness of humanity forces her, like God sealing up Noah and his family in an ark (and the word for the basket here is the same used for the ark in Genesis), places him in the waters of the Nile-the same waters that Pharaoh demanded the Egyptians cast the Hebrew sons into, and hopes against hope for deliverance from those very waters. The mother moves away from the basket leaving a final hope in God’s unseen hands but his sister, perhaps Miriam but unnamed here, continues to watch.

Deliverance comes from the household of the man who ordered the death of the Hebrew children. This daughter of Pharaoh has nothing to gain by being involved in this story. She could’ve easily allowed the basket to remain undisturbed by human hands and still she sees, she acts, and she becomes the deliverance for this child and a medium God will use in the deliverance of the people. She is able to see in this child the human cost of her father’s oppression and she takes pity and acts. She realizes that this indeed must be one of the Hebrew’s children consigned to death and she hears his cries, much as God will later hear the Israelite’s cries. All throughout this beginning of Exodus it is women who prefigure the ways in which God will act.

The surprising nature of the story continues when the daughter of Moses’ mother speaks openly to the daughter of Pharaoh and together they conspire to save the child’s life. It is Moses’ sister who suggests a subtle resistance that allows the mother of Moses’ to be shielded from losing her son and to be compensated by Pharaoh’s household for resisting the deathly order of Pharaoh himself. Moses will grow to be a child of two worlds, both the world of the Hebrews still connected to his family of birth and connected to the household of Pharaoh where he receives not only protection and privilege but also his name. Yet, like Pharaoh’s daughter, his mother and his sister, he too will see the cost of the oppression around him as a young man and be compelled to act.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Finding of Moses (1904)

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Finding of Moses (1904)

 

Exodus 2: 11-15a: Reacting to the Oppression

 11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.

Moses has grown up as a person of two worlds. He has both his identity as a child brought into the household of Pharaoh as well as his identity as a Hebrew. Perhaps he was shielded during his upbringing from the friction between these two identities but upon seeing the oppression of his people he feels compelled, like God will at the end of chapter two, to act. Moses reacts violently, he feels his kinship with the Hebrew being beaten, and he commits murder. His action may not be a reasoned and calm reaction, most likely we would brand this type of action today a terrorist action, and yet he sees the oppression and feels compelled to act. Perhaps this is something that God sees in Moses, one who cannot stand aside while the powerful abuse the powerless. Moses believes that he is able to act without his action being seen and known, yet he soon finds he is now seen by both sets of peoples as a murder. His fellow Hebrew sees his quest for justice in a different manner, as yet another person who acts with violence to achieve his goals.

Moses’ resistance is more violent and less effective than the resistance of the women who came before him. Moses ultimately ends up fleeing to preserve his life and going from being a person of two people to a man without a people. Yet, he will continue to see and act when he sees those with power taking advantage of those without. Moses will be unable to be the liberator of the people from their oppression on his own, ultimately he, like God, needs to see and to choose how to act. For Moses his actions mean giving up the protection that Pharaoh’s daughter was able to provide for him and he identifies with a people who is not ready to accept him.

Ciro Ferri, Moses and the Daughters of Jethro (between 1660 and 1689)

Ciro Ferri, Moses and the Daughters of Jethro (between 1660 and 1689)

Exodus 2: 15b-22: An Alien Residing in a Foreign Land

But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. 16 The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. 18 When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” 21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. 22 She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

Moses may have fled Egypt but he has not left his sense of justice behind. In Midian, where he comes to rest after his flight, he feels compelled this time to act on behalf of the daughters of Midian who are being harassed by the shepherd in that region and being made to wait until their flocks are watered so they can water their own flock. Moses again acts and breaks what was apparently an ongoing struggle. When their father is surprised by their early return he realizes something must have changed. Moses again sees and chooses to act and this action opens up a new home for the wanderer.

Reuel, the priest of Midian, after inquiring of his daughters about their early arrival challenges them to welcome in this stranger. “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” Reuel in extending his hospitality to Moses welcomes the alien residing in his land. This hospitality eventually transforms into a new kinship when he gives his daughter, Zipporah, to become Moses’ wife and later bear Moses his son Gershom. Moses now becomes a man of a third people and family and makes his home in the land of Midian away from the empire of Egypt and away from the oppression of the Hebrew people. His choices have led him to a new home away from the homes he knew. He once again is extended the unexpected saving hospitality of another and his life begins again. It will take God’s call to get him to reluctantly return to Egypt and become the one God uses to liberate the Israelites, and yet in his son’s name there is perhaps the longing for home and the identification of displacement he feels being an Egyptian and an Israelite in the household of the priest of Midian.

Exodus 2: 23-25: The God of the Israelites

 23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.

Up to this point in Exodus we have seen a human drama where the Israelites and Egyptians have struggled to live within the fear of Pharaoh. But the God of the Israelites is a God who, like the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, Pharaoh’s daughter, and ultimately Moses, sees and acts. Unlike the gods of the Egyptians or the many gods of the nations than will surround the Israelites in the promised land the God of Israel has an eye for the oppressed. The pivot of Exodus is here where God hears their cry, God remembers the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God takes notice and God decides to act.

The death of the king of Egypt doesn’t change the position of the Israelite people. Individual policies may have changed and the order to kill infants may not have continued but the people are reduced to cries and groans. They may be numerous but they also feel powerless in their captivity. The God of the Israelites, who is ultimately the God of the whole earth, will challenge the gods of Egypt and their emissaries to bring out of the empire of the day a slave people who might learn to be the covenant people of God.

Deuteronomy 34- The Death of Moses

Alexandre Cabanel, The Death of Moses (1850)

Alexandre Cabanel, The Death of Moses (1850)

Deuteronomy 34

1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan,2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea,3 the Negeb, and the Plain– that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees– as far as Zoar.4 The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”5 Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command.6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.

10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land,12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch end with Moses’ death on Mount Nebo. The five central books to the Jewish understanding of faith traditionally attributed to Moses now have come to an end. Moses’ death has been foreshadowed throughout Deuteronomy and has been attributed to both the disobedience of the people and to Moses and Aaron acting without giving proper praise to God the waters of Meribath-kadesh (see Deuteronomy 32: 48-52). Yet, foreshadowing the death of Moses (even though he is reported to be one hundred twenty years old-which is also a way of referring to people being of a good old age) when he can still see well, is still active and vigorous and not suffering from the illness and impairment of old age is still an unexpected death of one who is so alive. The transition from Moses the teacher and leader has been set in motion through the end of the book but Moses will remain a unique figure for the people of Israel.

Many people focus on the unfairness of Moses being unable to enter the promised land but perhaps there is the possibility of grace here in this moment. George Elliot in his poem “the Death of Moses” can speak of Moses’ death as:

A death was given called the Death of Grace
Which freed them, from the burden of the flesh
But left them rulers of the multitude
And loved companions of the lonely. This
Was God’s last gift to Moses, this the hour
When soul must part from self and be but soul. (Thompson, 2014, p. 195)

From a Christian perspective we, perhaps, too quickly make the jump to resurrection or to Moses being with the God of Israel in heaven, but for the ancient Jewish people resurrection was not a part of their understanding of the blessing and promise of God. Yet, after a life of struggle, of constantly being pulled between the needs of the people and their inability to remain faithful and the dangerous engagement of the LORD with those same people. After Moses again and again would place himself between God and the people and after the people would continually disappoint Moses. Perhaps the ending of a powerful but heavily laden life can truly be laying down one’s burdens to, in the words of an old Vince Gill song, go rest high upon the mountain. Or perhaps from another powerful example that Deanna Thompson lifted up was the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. from his speech to sanitation workers on April 3, 1968-the day before his assassination when King prophetically speaks:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now—because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would love to live a long life, but I’m not worried about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the LORD. (Thompson, 2014, p. 245)

Moses, the reluctant leader who in the desert tried to avoid the calling of God would indeed be the one who God would work through in ways that no one else would share. The people began to trust in Moses as a mediator of the presence of the almighty God, as one who would know unknown intimacy with the LORD by being able to speak to God face to face and not die. He would be remembered for wielding God’s power in incredible ways in the land of Egypt and in the journey through the wilderness. Yet, perhaps there is grace in a death that is away from the people in an unknown grave. If the grave was known it is possible, perhaps probable, that people would begin to venerate it in ways that worshipped Moses rather than God. There are certainly times in the book of Judges where people begin to worship the things of the Judge rather than the God who worked through the judge.

Throughout Deuteronomy we realize that the people of Israel’s life is contingent upon the God of Israel who has drawn close to them. Here in this final chapter where Moses dies at the command of the LORD we see the contingency of one drawn so close to God even more clearly. Moses’ position and power derive from his proximity to the LORD who called him at Mount Horeb. No one will know the intimacy of the relationship that Moses does and linked to that connection is also the reality that no one will perform the wonders of the LORD in the same way either. Moses becomes the mediator of the presence of the divine to the people, he becomes the vessel through which the LORD’s power for the preservation (and sometimes the punishment) of the people will pour.

Moses will continue to echo throughout the story of Israel and the church. Others will attempt to carry on the legacy that he began, but even Joshua’s power is here lifted up as derivative of Moses laying on of hands. The absence of the grave will lead to speculations about Moses. By the time of the emergence of the Christian church there was speculation about Moses assumption directly into heaven like Elijah or Enoch. In Mark 9, and parallels, Moses will be present with Elijah on the mount of the Transfiguration talking with Jesus and Jude 9 is either a reference to The Assumption of Moses a Jewish Pseudapigraphal document which we only have one existent 6th century copy of or another tradition of Moses’ assumption which may predate that. Regardless by the first century CE it was common to think of Moses having been assumed bodily into heaven and the absence of a grave becomes evidence to this. Yet for Deuteronomy, this text seems to know of either whispers of a possible gravesite or the search for one and seeks to assure the reader that no one knows of the site to this day.

So we come to the end of this part of the story and to the end of a remarkable life narrated in between the story of the LORD, the God of Israel and the people of Israel. Moses journey with the people has set the stage for the journey they will continue with Joshua.

Deuteronomy 33: A Final Poetic Blessing

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

1 This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death. 2 He said:
The LORD came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran.
With him were myriads of holy ones; at his right, a host of his own.
3 Indeed, O favorite among peoples, all his holy ones were in your charge;
they marched at your heels, accepted direction from you.
 4 Moses charged us with the law, as a possession for the assembly of Jacob.
 5 There arose a king in Jeshurun, when the leaders of the people assembled– the united tribes of Israel.

Now the final words that Moses speaks in Deuteronomy come out as a blessing. For the first time Moses is given the title the man of God, although he will be referred to as the man of God in retrospect as will other prophets. In contrast to the words of the previous song that are to witness against the people when they become unfaithful the blessing on eleven of the tribes (for reasons unknown Simeon is omitted) is much like a father blessing their children. In a sense Moses has been the parent for a generation of Israel that lived as wanderers with Moses as their primary leader and now like Jacob blessing his sons in Genesis 49.

The blessing begins once again with a lyrical retelling of the beginning of the encounter between Moses and God when Moses is called at Sinai. The poetry is not interested in retelling history but instead of reveling in the power of the God of Israel. In mysterious language that probably refers to The LORD as the greatest among the gods (rather than later monotheistic thought which talks about the LORD as the only God) the people are lifted up as the ones chosen by this God among all the nations. Using Jeshurun, a pet name for Israel, the confederation of tribes was brought together under one king (presumably referring to the LORD rather than a later Davidic king). Here the diversity of the tribes is celebrated within their unity and specific aspects are lifted up for blessing.

 6 May Reuben live, and not die out, even though his numbers are few.
 

The blessings are given beginning with the oldest but do not strictly follow any birth order, with Simeon omitted as stated above, but rather seem to be grouped by the mothers of the children. Reuben was the firstborn of Israel but fell from favor after he slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (and mother of Dan and Naphtali). Here in the narrative Reuben’s tribe is already few in numbers. Even though Reuben’s tribe is already in possession of their land they also form the border with the Moabites and will endure struggle in future generations. Here this short blessing only asks for his perseverance.

 7 And this he said of Judah: O LORD, give heed to Judah, and bring him to his people;
strengthen his hands for him, and be a help against his adversaries.

One of the more surprising blessings for its brevity goes to Judah. Judah will be the line that David and the Davidic kings come out of and will also become one of the largest and most powerful tribes. In contrast in Genesis 49 he receives a much longer blessing.  The blessing is simple: that the tribe of Judah would be heard, strengthened and helped in conflict.

8 And of Levi he said: Give to Levi your Thummim, and your Urim to your loyal one,
whom you tested at Massah, with whom you contended at the waters of Meribah;
9 who said of his father and mother, “I regard them not”;
he ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children.
For they observed your word, and kept your covenant.
10 They teach Jacob your ordinances, and Israel your law;
they place incense before you, and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O LORD, his substance, and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries, of those that hate him, so that they do not rise again.

If the blessings were simply birth order Levi would come prior to Judah, yet Levi receives a much larger and more developed blessing, which also reflects the emphasis of Deuteronomy on the role of the Levites. The Urim and Thummim are the stones to be placed in the breastplate of the high priest, first mentioned in Exodus 28: 31 which are to be used as a manner of casting lots and discerning God’s will.  The ignoring of kin probably refers to the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32, where the sons of Levi rally to Moses and kill the people who are running wild through the camp. This is the defining part of the tribe’s story where they are set apart to serve the LORD. As we have seen throughout Deuteronomy, with Moses no longer there to be the teacher of the law now that duty will fall to the Levites.

 12 Of Benjamin he said: The beloved of the LORD rests in safety—
the High God surrounds him all day long—
the beloved rests between his shoulders.

Benjamin’s blessing while short reflects a closeness of the LORD with the title of beloved of the LORD. The parental image of the God of Israel allowing the youngest child to rest in safety between the LORD’s shoulders is a peaceful one.
 
13 And of Joseph he said: Blessed by the LORD be his land,
with the choice gifts of heaven above, and of the deep that lies beneath;
14 with the choice fruits of the sun, and the rich yield of the months;
15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains, and the abundance of the everlasting hills;
16 with the choice gifts of the earth and its fullness, and the favor of the one who dwells on Sinai.
 Let these come on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince among his brothers.
 17 A firstborn bull– majesty is his! His horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he gores the peoples, driving them to the ends of the earth;
such are the myriads of Ephraim, such the thousands of Manasseh.

Joseph also receives a longer and fuller blessing, like Levi. Although the tribes of Joseph are larger and are frequently referred to by the names of his sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. The blessing called upon the half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (or the tribe of Joseph) are for abundance and strength. The image of the bull that gores and the illustration of the size (myriads and thousands) probably reflect the size of the host that Manasseh and Ephraim would contribute to the upcoming battles due to the size of their people.

 18 And of Zebulun he said: Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out; and Issachar, in your tents.
 19 They call peoples to the mountain; there they offer the right sacrifices;
for they suck the affluence of the seas and the hidden treasures of the sand.

Zebulun and Issachar share a blessing. Their blessing is for wealth. They will share territory next to one another and here they share a common blessing in their going out and tents.

 20 And of Gad he said: Blessed be the enlargement of Gad! Gad lives like a lion;
he tears at arm and scalp.
21 He chose the best for himself, for there a commander’s allotment was reserved;
he came at the head of the people, he executed the justice of the LORD, and his ordinances for Israel.

A simile is used to compare Gad to a lion. Gad seems to be lifted up as a dangerous enemy and one who chooses the best spoils of war. As a leader he is also lifted up as an executor of the justice of the LORD and the LORD’s ordinances.

 22 And of Dan he said: Dan is a lion’s whelp that leaps forth from Bashan.

Here the metaphorical image of a lion’s cub extends to Dan. Dangerous and violent, but perhaps not as dangerous as Gad.

 23 And of Naphtali he said: O Naphtali, sated with favor, full of the blessing of the LORD, possess the west and the south.

Naphtali is blessed with the full blessing of the LORD. The blessing of the LORD is linked to the land they will possess which is consistent with the understanding of land in Deuteronomy.

 24 And of Asher he said: Most blessed of sons be Asher; may he be the favorite of his brothers, and may he dip his foot in oil.
 25 Your bars are iron and bronze; and as your days, so is your strength.

Finally, the blessing for Asher where his position as a favorite among the tribes is combined with a blessing upon his strength metaphorically referred to as iron and bronze.

 26 There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help,
majestic through the skies.
 27 He subdues the ancient gods, shatters the forces of old;
he drove out the enemy before you, and said, “Destroy!”
 28 So Israel lives in safety, untroubled is Jacob’s abode in a land of grain and wine,
where the heavens drop down dew.
 29 Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread on their backs.

The blessing concludes with a final bit of poetic reference to the strength of the LORD using the imagery of the divine warrior. Again this is poetic imagery that comes from a world where the LORD is the greatest among the pantheon of the gods of the nations and is able to conquer these other gods (and by extension their people). The LORD is sword and shield, a common image of the Psalms, and Israel will stand victorious over the other peoples because of the strength of their LORD.

Deuteronomy 32- The Last Song of Moses

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Deuteronomy 32: 1-14: The Faithful Rock Provides

1 Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
 2 May my teaching drop like the rain, my speech condense like the dew;
   like gentle rain on grass, like showers on new growth.
 3 For I will proclaim the name of the LORD;
    ascribe greatness to our God!
 4 The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just.
    A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he;
 5 yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him,
   a perverse and crooked generation.
 6 Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people?
   Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?
 7 Remember the days of old, consider the years long past;
    ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you.
 8 When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind,
    he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods;
 9 the LORD’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.
 10 He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste;
    he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.
 11 As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young;
    as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions,
 12 the LORD alone guided him; no foreign god was with him.
 13 He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce of the field;
    he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock;
 14 curds from the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs and rams;
    Bashan bulls and goats, together with the choicest wheat—
    you drank fine wine from the blood of grapes.

This poem of Moses could fit in the book of Jeremiah as easily as the book of Deuteronomy. It in poetic form foreshadows the sweep of the Deuteronomic history which runs from Joshua to 1 and 2 Kings. This is a difficult song to write out and let the words seep out of the pen onto the paper as you hear them. It is dark, and as we heard in Deuteronomy 31:19 the purpose of the song is to be another witness against the people of Israel when they turn to be unfaithful. When they trust in other gods and the LORD abandons them (or actively brings about) the consequences the people are to know and understand. If the song looks forward, peering into the darkness of the future, the poet speaks the darkness in the hope that the words (for those are the only weapons the poet and songsmith have) might alter the path of the future. While the author of Deuteronomy has a dim view of the potential for the people of Israel to remain faithful, it is still their hope. Their anxiety over the disaster they foresee is matched by the intensity of the words they use to try to wake up the people to change the course they seem to be marching upon.

The song begins in praise of the God of Israel and the faithfulness of that God. Throughout this song the Rock will become the metaphorical name for God and be a contrast between the unbending faithfulness of the LORD the God of Israel and the degenerate children of a perverse and crooked generation. Yet, even this generation is called back to their ancestors who still remember and the elders who still trust in the LORD. Just as throughout the book of Deuteronomy it is the responsibility of the previous generation to ensure the fidelity of the upcoming generations, to remind them over and over of the way in which their God has provided for them and the special relationship they have with their God.

One of the reasons that many scholars think this is an early poem (or at a minimum this first section) is that it is not strictly monotheistic. The LORD allots to the other nations other gods, and what make Israel unique is that the Most High God has chosen them and therefore they are to have no other gods before the LORD their God. In beautiful poetic language it expresses that the people are God’s beloved and the ways in which God has sheltered and provided for them. God is an eagle hovering over its nest or bearing its young into the air on its wings. The LORD has provided all the best things: crops of the field, milk and curds from the cows and goats, the best meat from the sheep and bulls and goats, fine wine and bread. Yet, the fear of Deuteronomy is that in the midst of abundance that the people will forget who provided for them. That is where the poem takes its dark turning. 

Deuteronomy 32: 15-25 The Fattened People Forgets

15 Jacob ate his fill; Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked. You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!
    He abandoned God who made him, and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
 16 They made him jealous with strange gods, with abhorrent things they provoked him.
 17 They sacrificed to demons, not God, to deities they had never known,
     to new ones recently arrived, whom your ancestors had not feared.
 18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.
 19 The LORD saw it, and was jealous he spurned his sons and daughters.
 20 He said: I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end will be;
    for they are a perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness.
 21 They made me jealous with what is no god, provoked me with their idols.
    So I will make them jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation.
 22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and burns to the depths of Sheol;
     it devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
 23 I will heap disasters upon them, spend my arrows against them:
 24 wasting hunger, burning consumption, bitter pestilence.
    The teeth of beasts I will send against them, with venom of things crawling in the dust.
 25 In the street the sword shall bereave, and in the chambers terror,
     for young man and woman alike, nursing child and old gray head.

As I’ve been listening to this song of Moses throughout this week I’ve also been reflecting upon the way other popular songs work to try to bring about change and yet may feel overwhelmed by the social forces that seem to be giving rise to the undesired reality. For example, when the punk band Green Day released their American Idiot CD they weren’t desiring the character of the American Idiot to be the reality, they were mocking the emerging culture controlled by a conservative media. Countless songs from numerous genres could be lifted up as attempting to be a voice calling upon the future to change and yet the poets may feel powerless as in the classic Simon and Garfunkel song, The Sound of Silence:

“Fools” said I, “you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

Here the words of the song are placed in Moses’ mouth and just as in the previous chapter the hope is that the words will turn the direction that the people are moving in even when the anxiety is that the words will echo in the wells of silence. The words may bear witness but the people are hearing without listening. Moses prophetically chimes against when the people will bow and pray to the gods of stone and iron and gold they will make. In their fatness and wealth, they will forget the source of their blessings and attribute it to themselves and other things. Later prophets, like Jeremiah, who will attempt to be an echo of the words of this song will be treated as traitors, as woe bringers and will be resisted throughout their life. In the poetry of the song and of the later prophets sometimes the LORD will passively hide God’s face and surrender people to their fate, at other times God will actively bring upon the people their destruction, famine, and illness. In exchanging their Rock for idols of stone they have turned away from their foundation and reason for being. The song desperately rages to try to call the people to return to the LORD their God, and yet it knows people are likely to craft images of other gods rather than accept the God whom they cannot make an image of.

 

Deuteronomy 32: 26-30 A Remnant but Not for Your Sake

 26 I thought to scatter them and blot out the memory of them from humankind;
 27 but I feared provocation by the enemy, for their adversaries might misunderstand and say,
     “Our hand is triumphant; it was not the LORD who did all this.”
 28 They are a nation void of sense; there is no understanding in them.
 29 If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern what the end would be.
 30 How could one have routed a thousand, and two put a myriad to flight,
     unless their Rock had sold them, the LORD had given them up?
 
As in the book of Jeremiah, much of the language here is of a wounded God, a God who is contemplating the betrayal of the people of God. Woven into this song is the appeal of Moses in Exodus 32: 11-14 where he appeals to God on behalf of the people after the incident with the golden calf.

11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Here the logic of Moses now becomes woven into the logic of God and the logic of the song. It is so other nations do not become puffed up in their own accomplishment that a remnant is allowed to remain. In a set of brokenhearted lyrics where the LORD no longer appears to love the people and yet feels obligated to save them yet again we find a reason for that remnant to remain.

Deuteronomy 32: 31-43 There is No Rock Like our Rock

 31 Indeed their rock is not like our Rock; our enemies are fools.
 32 Their vine comes from the vinestock of Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah;
      their grapes are grapes of poison, their clusters are bitter;
 33 their wine is the poison of serpents, the cruel venom of asps.
 34 Is not this laid up in store with me, sealed up in my treasuries?
 35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip;
     because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly.
 36 Indeed the LORD will vindicate his people, have compassion on his servants,
    when he sees that their power is gone, neither bond nor free remaining.
 37 Then he will say: Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge,
 38 who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their libations?
    Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!
 39 See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me.
     I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand.
 40 For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear: As I live forever,
 41 when I whet my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment;
     I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me.
 42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh—
     with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired enemy.
 43 Praise, O heavens, his people, worship him, all you gods!
    For he will avenge the blood of his children, and take vengeance on his adversaries;
    he will repay those who hate him, and cleanse the land for his people.

The song ends with a move towards hope, much like in Deuteronomy 30 where now the LORD will turn on behalf of the remnant of the people once they have undergone the judgment. In a poetic turning the vanquished people now mock their former conquerors in their weakness after the LORD’s vengeance. For the people of Israel, the LORD is the primary actor and the gods of the nations are unable to stand in the presence of the LORD. Much like Isaiah 44: 9-20 which mocks the idols of the nations or Jeremiah 50-51 which speaks of the destruction of Babylon, these words can speak for the hopeless people with the hope of the LORD’s actions on the idols and the nations. The poem closes with warrior imagery for God (flashing sword, arrows drunk with blood, etc.) where God’s vengeance is acted out in a bloody fashion. I have talked about the warrior imagery of God in other place, but here for the people of Israel it is a reminder that there is no Rock like their rock. Even in their apparent weakness their God is a mighty God.

 Deuteronomy 32: 44-52 Preparing for Moses Death

 44 Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua son of Nun. 45 When Moses had finished reciting all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them: “Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today; give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law. 47 This is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life; through it you may live long in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.” 48 On that very day the LORD addressed Moses as follows: 49 “Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, across from Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites for a possession; 50 you shall die there on the mountain that you ascend and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin; 51 because both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to maintain my holiness among the Israelites. 52 Although you may view the land from a distance, you shall not enter it– the land that I am giving to the Israelites.”

As the song ends we are reminded once again that we are approaching the end of Moses’ story. Here, in contrast to the earlier narrative of Deuteronomy where the LORD is angry with Moses because of the people (see Deuteronomy 1: 37, 3: 26, 4:21), now we are linked back to the narrative of Numbers 20: 10-12 as the reason for Moses’ upcoming death. The stage is set for the final chapter of Deuteronomy where Moses ascends the mountain never to return, yet Moses still has a final blessing to declare upon the people prior to the ending of his journey. One final benediction to come from the teacher, leader, mediator, judge and bringer of the law to sustain the people on their journey into the promised land.

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

Deuteronomy 29: A Final Address

Deuteronomy 29: 1-9 Restating the Covenant

James Tissot, Moses (1896-1902)

James Tissot, Moses (1896-1902)

1 These are the words of the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.

                2 Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 3 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. 4 But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear. 5 I have led you forty years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; 6 you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink– so that you may know that I am the LORD your God. 7 When you came to this place, King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan came out against us for battle, but we defeated them. 8 We took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. 9 Therefore diligently observe the words of this covenant, in order that you may succeed in everything that you do.

 

In a world of legal contracts where a signature is binding until such time as a legal contract that supersedes the previous contract is agreed upon it seems strange for us to see the need to go back within the same document multiple times to the same story and to restate the covenant. Yet, the way that Deuteronomy is shaped owes to its oral structure and possible origination. Just as in Deuteronomy 6 with its continual recitation of the central statement of faith when a person enters the house or leaves, when they rise up or when they lay down, so the re-iteration of the covenant multiple times serves to reinforce its binding nature upon the people. Chapter 29 begins what is often referred to as the third address of Moses and it begins by restating in a concise way the narrative laid out in Deuteronomy 1-3 as well as reminding them, as in Deuteronomy 8 of how the LORD provided for them on their journey to this point.

The covenant is always connected with the narrative. The people are the people of God because of the LORD’s action to bring them out of Egypt, through the wilderness and to the promised land. The Exodus becomes the central story of who they are as a people and their life flows out of the LORD’s provision for them. The great fear of Deuteronomy is that in the midst of abundance the people will become complacent. Yet, the people always lives in response to God’s action to free them from their captivity. Their life flows from the ways in which they embrace or turn away from the therefore of God’s action to give them freedom. As we have seen in the previous chapters the people have the ability to choose blessing or curse, and the fear is that they will choose by their actions the curse.

Within the prophetic imagination of Israel, the people will have to wrestle with their inability to remain faithful in the covenant. Is free will only a partial option, do they lack eyes that see, ears that hear and minds that understand? Will they become the embodiment of the people Isaiah is sent to in Isaiah 6:

Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Isaiah 6: 9-10

Yet as we will see in Deuteronomy 30, even with the inability of the people to remain faithful the LORD will, even though it is painful, remain in a relationship with them. There will be a place for those with eyes to see and ears to hear and a trust that eventually that the LORD will write the law on their hearts and they will all know the LORD (Jeremiah 31: 33)

Deuteronomy 29: 10-29 The Danger of Complacency

 10 You stand assembled today, all of you, before the LORD your God– the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, 11 your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water– 12 to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, sworn by an oath, which the LORD your God is making with you today; 13 in order that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 14 I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand here with us today before the LORD our God,

 15 but also with those who are not here with us today. 16 You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. 17 You have seen their detestable things, the filthy idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, that were among them. 18 It may be that there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is already turning away from the LORD our God to serve the gods of those nations. It may be that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth. 19 All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways” (thus bringing disaster on moist and dry alike)– 20 the LORD will be unwilling to pardon them, for the LORD’s anger and passion will smoke against them. All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the LORD will blot out their names from under heaven. 21 The LORD will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this book of the law. 22 The next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the LORD has afflicted it– 23 all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD destroyed in his fierce anger– 24 they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?” 25 They will conclude, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. 26 They turned and served other gods, worshiping them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them; 27 so the anger of the LORD was kindled against that land, bringing on it every curse written in this book. 28 The LORD uprooted them from their land in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is now the case.” 29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.

 

After the previous chapter it may seem like overkill to return again to the possibility of disobedience, yet this is a pressing concern of Deuteronomy and this is also set up as a later address. As the people reaffirm the covenant there is both consequence, but there is also hope beyond consequence that is to come. In our world where we are hesitant to talk about God’s activity within our lives and within the movements of the world this may seem odd. In Deuteronomy’s world faithfully living out of their covenant identity is the meaning of life and peace and there is the trust that if they are faithful the LORD will provide. Yet, the danger is that they will become complacent or begin to place their trust in other things or gods. The LORD has invested in the people of Israel and for them to turn away rejecting God’s blessings grieves God. If you have read any of my writing on Jeremiah, you would see I approach the wrath in that book from the perspective of a wounded God crying out in pain at the loss of a relationship. Addressing this passage Deanna Thompson makes a similar point:

Amid the anger and fury, however, we also catch glimpses of an expression of rejected and wounded divine love similar to what we see in Hosea when it talks about Israel’s rejection of God. Israel’s disobedience leads to a portrait of God who is not just angry and wrathful but wounded as well. (Thompson, 2014, p. 207f.)

Time and time again Deuteronomy and the prophets of later times will try to speak to a people who do not hear on behalf of a wounded and grieved God.  The people cannot rest upon any special status, on kings or temples or walled cities or land. They are a people whose lives are bound into this covenantal relationship with a God who takes these bonds seriously. They have been given the law and the covenant, they are witnesses of the way the LORD has provided for them and now they live in the therefore. They may not know all the secrets of the universe, but their God has revealed enough for their life of faith as a people.

The other theme that re-emerges here is the way that the people and the land are linked. Much as in Genesis 3: 17-19 where the ground is cursed for the disobedience of Adam, here the land becomes a witness to the people’s unfaithfulness for generations to come. The soil becomes unable to support life and mirroring the lifelessness around Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet, the wrath articulated here in its fierceness seems to not be the first response of their God. The LORD will deal with the anger, woundedness, and rage but will continue to hope for a turn in the midst of the people. Moses is preparing to relinquish his position between the people and their LORD. It may seem like judgment takes a lot of the text of Deuteronomy or that wrath is the primary emotion, but as we will see in the coming chapter love always outlasts any wrath, and that even in desolation there is a way forward. As in Jeremiah there is a hard won hope that emerges out of the broken and exiled people, and here as well there is always the opportunity to return to the LORD their God who is gracious and merciful.

 

Deuteronomy 27-Preserving the Law

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Deuteronomy 27: 1-8 An Enduring Word

1 Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows: Keep the entire commandment that I am commanding you today. 2 On the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and cover them with plaster. 3 You shall write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over, to enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, promised you. 4 So when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall cover them with plaster.

 5 And you shall build an altar there to the LORD your God, an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool. 6 You must build the altar of the LORD your God of unhewn stones. Then offer up burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God, 7 make sacrifices of well-being, and eat them there, rejoicing before the LORD your God. 8 You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly.

Deuteronomy narrates a scene where Moses has dictated the law to the people in its completion prior to their entering into the promised land. We know that Moses is not going to cross over with the people and so in the remaining chapters we see the beginning of a massive transition in the leadership of the people. We live in a time where written texts are readily available and even if we don’t have a physical copy for many texts a digital copy is only a few keystrokes away. In the ancient world there are very few physical texts and a relatively small class who are able to read and create the written texts. Even something as central as the law was lost, intentionally or unintentionally, multiple times in the story of the people of Israel and Judah. For example, in the reign of King Josiah it is reported in 2 Kings 22: 8: “The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Shortly afterwards the written text is read before the king and the king continues the work of reform.

Moses has been the mediator of the law between the LORD and the people, but with Moses about to leave his role as leader, judge, mediator and teacher there needs to be a way for the people to refer to this critical law he is leaving behind. Oral texts may survive a couple of generations intact, but ultimately for the law to survive it must become a textual document. Much like the recording of the words of the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 36, where the prophet’s haunting and inconvenient words survive both the physical threat to the prophet as well as the burning by King Jehoiakim by being recorded again, now the critical exposition of the law in Deuteronomy 4-26 is to be put on plastered stones to be a visible witness to the people. This “furniture of the covenant” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 251) now is to be a manner in which future leaders can refer back to the law that Moses handed on. Moses now begins to step aside from being the teacher of the law to make space for the written law that future leaders and the people will be governed by.

Moses throughout his ministry has occupied a central role in the place between the people and God. Even with the elders and the tribal leaders and priest, ultimately he is the one who mediated the relationship between the people and their God, was the political leader, their chief judge and prophet, their lawgiver, and peacemaker. Yet, as Rabbi Kushner can state,

In the Jewish tradition, we speak of him as Moses Rabeinu—Moses, Our Teacher—not Moses, our Political Leader; not Moses, Who Freed the Slaves. Moses, Our Teacher. He dedicates himself to getting the people to embrace the ideas that they have to live by when he’s no longer around to remind them. (Thompson, 2014, p. 194)

Moses, throughout Deuteronomy has been working to equip the people to live in accordance with the commandments, statutes and ordinances outlined within the book. He has done this with catechetical practices within the home and with worship practices at the place where the LORD’s name will rest that reinforce their identity as the people of God. Here in the recording of the law and the building of an altar to celebrate and worship the LORD the narrative shows Moses preparing the people for a faithful practice of the covenant when he is no longer there to guide or intercede for them. And when the people fail to live out the covenant, then the stones themselves can testify very clearly against them.

Deuteronomy 27: 9-10 Hear One More Time

 9 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. 10 Therefore obey the LORD your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today.

Moses, along with the priest, charges the people one final time with their identity and calling. Echoing the tone of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 he makes a final appeal for the people to hear. In an aural world they are to be silent and listen so they may remember who they are. They are the people of the LORD their God and therefore they are to be obedient. Their calling comes with blessing and challenges, and in their faithfulness they will be a witness to the nations and a blessing to the world. In their failing they will become the embodiment of the curses that will come in the following chapter.

Herny Fenn, Ruins on the Summit of Mount Gerazim, On the Site of the Samaritan Temple (between 1881 and 1884)

Herny Fenn, Ruins on the Summit of Mount Gerazim, On the Site of the Samaritan Temple (between 1881 and 1884)

Deuteronomy 27: 11-26 A Liturgy of Curses

 11 The same day Moses charged the people as follows: 12 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. 13 And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14 Then the Levites shall declare in a loud voice to all the Israelites:
 15 “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!”
 16 “Cursed be anyone who dishonors father or mother.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 17 “Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 18 “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 19 “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 20 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has violated his father’s rights.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 21 “Cursed be anyone who lies with any animal.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 22 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 23 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 24 “Cursed be anyone who strikes down a neighbor in secret.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 25 “Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 26 “Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

 The chapter ends with a series of twelve individual curses that the community is to place on anyone who violates particular actions. This sets the scene as well for the blessings and curses in chapter 28 where six tribes are on Mount Ebal for curses and six tribes are on Mount Gerazim for blessings. The two mountains are on the opposite sides of a valley and for the Samaritans Mount Gerazim would become one of their holy sites. Within Deuteronomy Mount Gerazim becomes the mountain of blessing while Mount Ebal is the mountain of curse, yet for Deuteronomy the tablets of the law and the altar are to be built on Mount Ebal rather than Mount Gerazim.

Many of these are covered earlier in Deuteronomy and rather than spend much time on those I will link you back to the discussion at the appropriate place in Deuteronomy, but a few are new. Verse 15 which concerns idols and images is talked about earlier in Deuteronomy 4: 15-20, and Deuteronomy 5:8-10 and is depending on how you number either part of the first commandment or the second commandment. Verse 16 also harkens back to the ten commandments with the commandment on honoring father and mother in Deuteronomy 5: 16 and is also expanded in Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 with the punishment for children who are rebellious and bring dishonor to their father and mother. Verse 17 concerns the moving of boundary markers which is addressed in Deuteronomy 19: 14. Verse 18 is the first new item on misleading the blind, but it follows in the concern that people care for the vulnerable and the weak in the society. Leviticus 19: 14 also addresses this when it states, “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear the LORD your God.” Caring for the vulnerable is a central part of living out of the covenant and one of the places where the prophets are called upon to point out the way the people have not cared for the vulnerable.  The next curse continues about those who oppress the representative triumvirate of the vulnerable, the widows, the orphan and the alien. The tithe, addressed in Deuteronomy 14: 29 and Deuteronomy 26: 12-13, the inclusion of the vulnerable in the festivals like outlined in Deuteronomy 16: 11, 14 the practice of allowing the remnant of the harvest and vine to be gleaned by the vulnerable in Deuteronomy 24: 19-22 are all concrete practices to help care for the vulnerable in their community. Verse 20 about lying with the father’s wife is covered in Deuteronomy 22: 30. The next three curses about forbidden sexual relations are new to Deuteronomy but fit within the ordered world of Deuteronomy 22:13-26 for the author of Deuteronomy’s view of sexual relations. Sexual relations with any animal, with a sister or a mother-in-law are forbidden and Deuteronomy doesn’t feel the need to explain these any further. The command in verse 24 about striking a neighbor in secret is new and it addresses disputes outside the purview of the community. For Deuteronomy the community and the elders are key to ensuring that disputes are resolved equitably. The curse about taking a bribe to shed innocent blood is addressed in the judicial context of Deuteronomy 16:19. Finally the last curse is general in nature referring to the entirety of the law and the need for obedience. This final curse may round it out to bring the final number of these individual curses to the representative twelve. Obedience is both an individual and communal responsibility, where the community holds the individual accountable. By placing these curses in the mouths of the people as they enter the land their own words hold them accountable to living in obedience to this law and covenant.

 

Deuteronomy 10- The Covenant Renewed

Patrice Leon, (940)

Patrice Leon, (940)

Deuteronomy 10: 1-5 – A Renewed Covenant

1 At that time the LORD said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the former ones, and come up to me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood. 2 I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you smashed, and you shall put them in the ark.” 3 So I made an ark of acacia wood, cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. 4 Then he wrote on the tablets the same words as before, the ten commandments that the LORD had spoken to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the LORD gave them to me. 5 So I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tablets in the ark that I had made; and there they are, as the LORD commanded me.

 

This retelling of the second giving of the ten commandments, combines portions of Exodus 34 and Exodus 37 putting the focus on Moses. Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses is the paradigm for what the people of Israel are to be. Moses again goes up Mount Sinai/ Horeb to be in the presence of God after the people have transgressed the covenant and the original tablets have been shattered by Moses in his frustration. The second giving of the Ten Commandments after the incident with the golden calf is an opportunity at a new beginning. God has moved past the previous transgressions and grants the people a new chance to live into their identity. In a key difference in tellings, now it is Moses who creates the original ark to house the Ten Commandments rather than Bezalel and Oholiab, but this is consistent with Deuteronomy’s focus on the character and person of Moses as the paradigmatic person who embodies what the Hebrew people are called to be. The place of the Ark of the Covenant in the story of the Jewish people comes not from its skillful work or the gold or the images of the cherubim but rather from its association with the story of Moses and its place as a holder of the words of God that Moses brings to the people.

 

Deuteronomy 10: 6-9 – Side Note on the Journey and Setting Aside the Levites

 

 6 (The Israelites journeyed from Beeroth-bene-jaakan to Moserah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried; his son Eleazar succeeded him as priest. 7 From there they journeyed to Gudgodah, and from Gudgodah to Jotbathah, a land with flowing streams. 8 At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister to him, and to bless in his name, to this day. 9 Therefore Levi has no allotment or inheritance with his kindred; the LORD is his inheritance, as the LORD your God promised him.)

 

This is an interesting insertion into the story of the second time Moses is on the mountain with God, for it seems out of place. On the one hand the travel narrative jumps us well ahead in the story as told in Exodus and Numbers to the death of Aaron immediately prior to the second approach to the promised land and uses different names for the places in the movement, for example Moserah in Numbers is Mount Hor. Perhaps more importantly for the narrative is the removal of Aaron from the line of authority between Moses and the people. Moses becomes the link between the people and God as their leader and prophet and the Levites, and Aaron’s son Eleazar inherit the role of priests for the people. It sets the Levites up for their role once they enter the promised land but also explains their lack of an inherited land. The Levites going forward will be the ones to pass on the law that Moses receives in the narratives of Deuteronomy and Exodus, but their authority is as receivers of the law and their authority is derivative from the setting aside of God and dependent on the faithfulness of the other tribes in providing for them. The Levites become, in a sense, a permanent reminder of the people’s Exodus journey, becoming a representative people without a land dependent only upon the Lord as their inheritance.

 

Deuteronomy 10: 10-11- Back on the Mountain with God

 

            10 I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, as I had done the first time. And once again the LORD listened to me. The LORD was unwilling to destroy you. 11 The LORD said to me, “Get up, go on your journey at the head of the people, that they may go in and occupy the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.”

Continuing the theme from the beginning of this chapter we see a chance at a new beginning. The LORD’s anger has passed, the LORD’s promise of the land has not changed, the people’s disobedience has been consigned to the past with a new future opened up by forgiveness. Moses has intervened for the people and the LORD has listened but also the emphasis is on the LORD’s choce, “The LORD was unwilling to destroy you. Moses is reaffirmed as being the leader and is to go at the head of the people

Deuteronomy 10: 12-22 – The Choice of God

12 So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. 22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.

 

The people are in their position because of the choice of their God. Their response is one of obedience, respect, awe and love. They are called to commit themselves to God wholeheartedly. Working from the contrast between the smallness of the people and the vastness of God’s creation and domain they are reminded that God chose to love their ancestors and by extension them. As the previous chapters of Deuteronomy have made clear it is not their military might, their wealth, their self-righteousness or any other factor that have placed them into this covenantal relationship with their God. Rather, it is the divine choice to love this people. So the people are called to live out of this calling.

This God of Israel, the LORD, is also not primarily interested in the sacrifices or the wealth offered during the worship of God. God cannot be bribed by the produce of the land or the riches of the wealthiest kings. This is a God who may have dominion over the heavens and the heaven of heavens and the earth and all that is in it, but this is also a God who chooses to pay attention to the lost and the least of that same earth. The people are not to model themselves after an image of God who seeks the mighty and the powerful of the earth, but rather they are to model themselves on the imageless God who seeks out justice for the weakest of the community: the widow, the orphan and the stranger. The LORD who rescued them from their slavery expects them not to, in their entry into the land, to now become the oppressor and the slaveholder. As the LORD cared for them in their captivity and slavery in Egypt, the promise is that the LORD will also value the stranger, the captive, the slave and the weak in their midst.

Deuteronomy 3: Visions of a Future Land

James Tissot, Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar

James Tissot, Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar

Deuteronomy 3: 1-17 Preparing the Way for the Conflict across the River

When we headed up the road to Bashan, King Og of Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, for battle at Edrei. 2 The LORD said to me, “Do not fear him, for I have handed him over to you, along with his people and his land. Do to him as you did to King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.” 3 So the LORD our God also handed over to us King Og of Bashan and all his people. We struck him down until not a single survivor was left. 4 At that time we captured all his towns; there was no citadel that we did not take from them– sixty towns, the whole region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. 5 All these were fortress towns with high walls, double gates, and bars, besides a great many villages. 6 And we utterly destroyed them, as we had done to King Sihon of Heshbon, in each city utterly destroying men, women, and children. 7 But all the livestock and the plunder of the towns we kept as spoil for ourselves.

 8 So at that time we took from the two kings of the Amorites the land beyond the Jordan, from the Wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon 9 (the Sidonians call Hermon Sirion, while the Amorites call it Senir),10 all the towns of the tableland, the whole of Gilead, and all of Bashan, as far as Salecah and Edrei, towns of Og’s kingdom in Bashan. 11 (Now only King Og of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites. By the common cubit it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide.) 12 As for the land that we took possession of at that time, I gave to the Reubenites and Gadites the territory north of Aroer, that is on the edge of the Wadi Arnon, as well as half the hill country of Gilead with its towns, 13 and I gave to the half-tribe of Manasseh the rest of Gilead and all of Bashan, Og’s kingdom. (The whole region of Argob: all that portion of Bashan used to be called a land of Rephaim; 14 Jair the Manassite acquired the whole region of Argob as far as the border of the Geshurites and the Maacathites, and he named them– that is, Bashan– after himself, Havvoth-jair, as it is to this day.) 15 To Machir I gave Gilead. 16 And to the Reubenites and the Gadites I gave the territory from Gilead as far as the Wadi Arnon, with the middle of the wadi as a boundary, and up to the Jabbok, the wadi being boundary of the Ammonites; 17 the Arabah also, with the Jordan and its banks, from Chinnereth down to the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, with the lower slopes of Pisgah on the east.

At the end of the previous chapter I spent a lot of time talking about the command of the LORD to the people of Israel to wipe out the people and take possession of the land of King Sihon. In chapter three we see the completion of this theme with the people now taking possession of the land of King Og of Bashan and the occupation of the land of the Amorites and the elimination of the people and the threat of these two kings.  There are some differences in this and the previous narrative, where King Sihon was offered terms of peace which, by God’s hardening of the king’s heart, King Sihon and his people refuse the terms of peace which are never offered to King Og as he and his people draw up battle lines against these Israelite invaders. There is a tension in Deuteronomy between the way that the people of Moab and the descendent of Esau are treated and the manner in which the Amorites will be, between the people who are to be the neighbor and those who are to be the enemy. Within Deuteronomy things that may evoke question are given definitive answer, the Ammonites are not the enemy but the Amorites are and for the Deuteronomist what is important is the obedience of the people. It is obedience that is the life and death issue for the people of Deuteronomy to understand. It is obedience that will separate them from their ancestors who failed to enter the Promised Land and who died in their sojourn in the desert. They are called to hear and obey the LORD and those the LORD is speaking through.  If we put aside for a moment the trouble that this passage may cause modern followers of the LORD for its practice of genocide, at least within the text, and look at what is happening to the people who are being prepared to cross the Jordan, who after a lost generation are preparing to take possession of the Promised Land. The things that caused the previous generation to turn away, the well fortified cities and the presence of people bigger and stronger than themselves are now proving to be insignificant obstacles as they quickly overcome the ‘giant king’ Og and the fortresses with high walls and double gates. The doubts and fears of the past are being overcome through the demonstration of the power of the people in the present.  The close relationship between God’s action of handing over Og and his lands is paired with the reality that there are real armies and fights that the people engage in, ‘we struck him down, we did not leave a single survivor, and we captured all his towns.’  As the people in the story follow they are seeing the concrete ways in which the LORD is working through them in this fight. As they stand at the edge of the Promised Land experiencing the first spoils of the conflict to come, they will find that they have experienced the LORD’s power precisely in the midst of their own perceived lack of strength. They can see in their own triumph the triumph of the LORD. And that in their own obedience they can see the blessing as the previous generation bore the curse of disobedience.

Deuteronomy 3: 18-22 the First Portion of the Land

 18 At that time, I charged you as follows: “Although the LORD your God has given you this land to occupy, all your troops shall cross over armed as the vanguard of your Israelite kin. 19 Only your wives, your children, and your livestock– I know that you have much livestock– shall stay behind in the towns that I have given to you. 20 When the LORD gives rest to your kindred, as to you, and they too have occupied the land that the LORD your God is giving them beyond the Jordan, then each of you may return to the property that I have given to you.” 21 And I charged Joshua as well at that time, saying: “Your own eyes have seen everything that the LORD your God has done to these two kings; so the LORD will do to all the kingdoms into which you are about to cross. 22 Do not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who fights for you.”

This portion receives a longer telling in Numbers 32, where the tribes of Reuben, Dan and the half tribe of Manasseh receive their inheritance on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The story alludes to what is explicit in the narrative in Numbers, that the people of Reuben and Dan raised more cattle which require plains with larger amounts of feed than the sheep that many of the other tribes predominantly raise. It is true that different types of livestock require different types of property which is why Bandera, Texas where my family lives in the hill country is more frequently used for raising goats and sheep while the vast areas of plains in Texas typically are used for cattle. It is interesting that there is no reason given why the half tribe of Manasseh (the two half tribes of Joseph’s sons which were both large were known by the son of Joseph’s name rather than the other tribes bearing the names of Joseph’s eleven brothers) is also given possession on the east side of the Jordan, but the primary concern of this and it’s parallel in Numbers is that the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh now that they have their land will not feel compelled to fight on behalf of the other ten and a half tribes.  The agreement is set that the warriors of these two and a half tribes are to be the vanguard, the troops at the front of the fight once the people are ready to cross the Jordan under Joshua and carry on the fight to take possession of the Promised Land. The people are to see the way the LORD has acted in their own time as well as the stories they have from their parent’s generation to see the way the LORD has provided for them up to this point and will continue to provide for them as the go forward to take possession of the land.

Deuteronomy 3: 23-29 Glimpses of the Promised Land

 23 At that time, too, I entreated the LORD, saying: 24 “O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your might; what god in heaven or on earth can perform deeds and mighty acts like yours! 25 Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.” 26 But the LORD was angry with me on your account and would not heed me. The LORD said to me, “Enough from you! Never speak to me of this matter again! 27 Go up to the top of Pisgah and look around you to the west, to the north, to the south, and to the east. Look well, for you shall not cross over this Jordan. 28 But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, because it is he who shall cross over at the head of this people and who shall secure their possession of the land that you will see.” 29 So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-peor.

 

Moses, as the leader of the people, has often stood between the people and God. There have been times throughout the story where God was ready to turn God’s back on the people and Moses would call upon God to be the God who would fulfill God’s end of the covenant even in the midst of the people’s continuing unfaithfulness. Moses enjoys a close relationship with God and has borne the weight of leadership for the people throughout this journey but will not be there to cross the Jordan. Moses again appeals to God, knowing God’s verdict from earlier in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1.37) that Moses will not enter the land and yet as Moses has done before he calls upon God to change God’s mind. This time the LORD will not change course, Moses will not enter the land and Moses is commanded not to pray about this again but is, in concession, given a preview of the land. Climbing to the top of Pisgah, Moses is able to look out and see from a high point the lands that the people will enter. This is a part of the transition of leadership and power from Moses to Joshua. Moses is the one who has stood between the people and God, who led them out of slavery, through the wilderness and to the edge of the Promised Land but Moses is now linked with the disobedience of the previous generation. Even though Moses may not have been the one who was disobedient he is pulled down in the weight of the disobedience of the people of that generation.  Moses’ role now becomes to lift up the leadership of Joshua, to encourage and strengthen him for the conflict ahead and to pass on one final exhortation to the people so that they may know how to live as the people of God in a new day. Moses bears the cost of the disobedience of the previous generation and now he must charge the new generation to choose the blessings of obedience and not the curse of disobedience. Blessing and curses, life and death, prosperity and famine lie in the choices the people must make in his absence. Until now he has been their leader, their judge, their advocate and the one who could stand between them and the LORD. Now the people must take on these promises and the possibilities of new life for themselves.