Tag Archives: Old Testament

The Book of Psalms

Love is Not a Victory March by Marie -Esther@deviantart.com

BOOK I  (Psalms 1-41)

Psalm 1: Poetry and Law
Psalm 2: The Lord’s Messiah
Psalm 3: Hope in the Heart of Brokenness
Psalm 4: Finding a Space in the Blessing
Psalm 5: The God Who Hears and Protects
Psalm 6: How Long, O Lord
Psalm 7: The God Who Judges
Psalm 8: The Soul Searcher’s Psalm
Psalm 9: Praising the God of Justice and Might
Psalm 10: Calling on God to be God
Psalm 11: Confident Faith in the Midst of Trouble
Psalm 12: Save Us From Ourselves
Psalm 13: The Cry from the God Forsaken Place
Psalm 14: The Wisdom of Holding to the Covenant
Psalm 15: Entering the Sacred Presence of God
Psalm 16: Remaining Faithful in a Pluralistic Setting
Psalm 17: An Embodied Prayer
Psalm 18: Royal Thanks at the End of the Journey
Psalm 19: Creation, the Law and a Faithful Life
Psalm 20: In the Day of Trouble
Psalm 21: A Blessing for the King
Psalm 22: A Desperate Cry to God
Psalm 23: The LORD as Shepherd, Host and Destination
Psalm 24: The Coming of the LORD
Psalm 25: The Struggle of Faith from Aleph to Tav
Psalm 26: Liturgy of the Falsely Accused
Psalm 27: Faith in an Age of Anxiety
Psalm 28: Can You Hear Me LORD?
Psalm 29: The Thundering Voice of God
Psalm 30: The Life of Praise
Psalm 31: Faith, Questions and the Life of Faith
Psalm 32: A Psalm of Restoration
Psalm 33: The Earth is Full of the Steadfast Love of God
Psalm 34: The Experienced Faithfulness of God
Psalm 35: Lord, Fight for Me in the Struggle
Psalm 36: The Way of God and the Way of the Wicked
Psalm 37: A Song of a Wise Life
Psalm 38: A Cry for Forgiveness and Healing
Psalm 39: There Are No Words
Psalm 40: Experienced Faithfulness and the Hope of Deliverance
Psalm 41: The One Who Cares for the Poor

BOOK II (Psalms 42-72)

Psalm 42 Thirsting for God in an Arid Time
Psalm 43 Calling for God’s Love among a Loveless People
Psalm 44 Demanding a Fulfillment of God’s Covenant Promises
Psalm 45 A Love Song among the Psalms
Psalm 46 A Mighty Fortress
Psalm 47 God Assumes Kingship Over Creation
Psalm 48 God and Zion
Psalm 49 Wealth, Wisdom and Death
Psalm 50 Recalled to the Covenantal Life
Psalm 51 Seeking the Possibility of Redemption

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.

Exodus 1: Setting the Stage

Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE

Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE

 Exodus 1: 1-7 Setting the Stage

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. 7 But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

The book of Genesis, the preceding book in the Bible, spends the bulk of the book with God working through a specific family, the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to be God’s covenant partners and to be a blessing to all the nations. As Exodus begins we are joined to the ending of the book of Genesis where the sons of Jacob (Israel) have come down to Egypt and settled in the land of Goshen. Joseph was already in Egypt after being sold into slavery and rising to being second in command of all Egypt and Jacob and his remaining sons come to Egypt seeking relief from a severe famine throughout the land. Throughout the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph God has continued to provide for them in unexpected ways. Yet, now we have left the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the original sons of Israel behind as that generation passes away.

One of the struggles of many of the stories of Genesis was the struggle against barrenness. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel all struggle with infertility and these families of the promise struggle with the command in the first creation narrative to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1. 28). At the end of Genesis and here at the beginning of Exodus there has been a slow increase from the original two of Sarah and Abraham to now a household of seventy born to Jacob. Yet now the increase becomes exceedingly fruitful, they begin to become numerous and this combined with a historical amnesia in the land of Egypt sets the stage for the initial crisis of Exodus and the transition from the people’s lives in Egypt to their journey to the promised land.

Exodus 1: 8-14 Historical Amnesia and the Politics of Fear and Oppression

 8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The initial reception in Egypt for the family of Israel was positive and as the book of Deuteronomy can remind the people: “You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.” (Deuteronomy 23: 7) Yet, as time passes a sense of historical amnesia sets in. A new king, an unnamed king, arises in the land of Egypt. He may rule the superpower of the day but within this book that will become the ‘West’s meta-narrative of hope’ (Sacks, 2010, p. 1) his name remains unspoken and forgotten. He will not be linked to any of the massive construction projects of one of the Egyptian dynasties or to the culture of the land. This nameless ruler will be only remembered for the way in which the ruler of the most powerful empire of that age feared a subset of those in his land.

Until this point the Israelites were a family, they may have grown larger, but here it is the unnamed ruler who for the first time designates them as a unique people. Somehow the Israelites are distinct, they are unlike the people of the rest of the nation and that distinction gives rise to a politics of oppression. Ultimately, as Rabbi Sacks can remind us, “Pharaoh is driven by political motives, not hate.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 4) Throughout the book of Exodus the people of Egypt will be presented as one option, even a shrewd option for a type of society that can capitalize on the fear and distinction of a people to transform them from neighbors into forced laborers. Fear provides the opportunity to not only discriminate against a people but to build a civilization on their broken backs. The people of Israel will be challenged to learn a different way of organizing their lives rather than the manner of the Pharaohs of Egypt or the kings of the nations that surround them. Yet, the politics of fear and oppression continue to be used in our time to set one group of people against another and to transform neighbors into the ones to be feared.

The initial strategy to remove the threat of the Israelites through oppression fails because the more they were oppressed the more they multiplied. While the policy may have the desired effect in the near term by allowing the Egyptians to have a forced labor pool to build the monuments and houses of the empire it continues to create a fear and a dependence upon the very people they wish to eliminate. The oppression and violence has not yet reached its peak and yet it has already begun to change the oppressor. To maintain this separation between Egyptian and Israelite they become ruthless. Fear and oppression has changed them. Their placing of the projects of the empire above the needs of their neighbor changes their culture. Hospitality is replaced with brutality and yet the Israelites endure and continue to multiply even under the heavy burden of the empire’s imposed service.

Exodus 1: 15-22 The Disobedience of Women

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

This is the first of six stories in the book of Exodus of outstanding moral courage and they are all about women, two (Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah) are not Israelites and here with Shiphrah and Puah they may not be Israelites as well. (Sacks, 2010, p. 9) We don’t know whether these two women are simply midwives that are working with the Hebrew women or whether they are themselves Hebrews but they are named while the king of Egypt remains anonymous. They become examples of how women, who would not have a place within the power structures of men, are able to subvert the command of the king.

The king of Egypt asks these women to commit a crime against humanity. Perhaps the Hebrews are no longer valued as humans any longer by Pharaoh and they become a subhuman beast of burden where the master can decide upon their life and death. Yet, for these women it is not only a crime against humanity but also a crime against the LORD of the Hebrew women who keeps granting them the fertility to bring forth children. The Pharaoh has overstepped the line with these two servants and they work in their own way to find a way to allow life to occur when death has been ordered. Shiphrah and Puah have a calling, whether through morality or through faith, to not carry out this order to kill infants. When they are summoned they respond with a lie and it is a lie which also taunts the strength of the Egyptians. Hebrew women are able to deliver without a midwife present, they are much more robust than the more fragile Egyptian women who need to wait upon the ministering of the midwives. This is one of those times where God seems to delight in the craftiness of the servant. The midwives, who may have been in their role because they have no families of their own, are seen and they too are granted fertility and families. They also now have a place with the Hebrews and they become the first to resist the murderous impulses of the empire. Pharaoh, deciding that these women will not do his work for him now extends the murderous command to all his people. Now the murder of Israelites infant boys becomes the work of the nation and doubtless there will be those who are willing to embrace the politics of fear and division and be a part of the ordered purge. Yet, it is from within the oppression of the empire that something new will happen, that the people who were slaves to Pharaoh will be claimed as the first-born children by the God who is not bound to any place or nation but is instead the creator of the heaven and the earth.

Transitioning Into Exodus

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

When I started the biblical reflections portion of this blog almost four years ago, I didn’t realize how much I would learn and how much it would shape my ministry. Many Christians don’t know how to approach the Hebrew Scriptures that many call the Old Testament, and as much as I love the gospels and the letters of Paul I am learning how to hear those writings much more fully as I become more and more familiar with the Psalms, Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Esther and Haggai. I am understanding more what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he said,

I notice more and more how much I am thinking and perceiving things in line with the Old Testament; thus in recent months I have been reading much more the Old than the New Testament. Only when one knows the name of God may not be uttered may one sometimes speak the name of Jesus Christ. Only when one loves life and the earth so much that with it everything seems lost and at its end may one believe in the resurrection of the dead and a new world. Only when one accepts the law of God as binding for oneself may one perhaps sometimes speak of grace. And only when the wrath and vengeance of God against God’s enemies are allowed to stand can something of forgiveness and love of enemies touch our hearts. Whoever wishes to be and perceive too quickly and too directly in New Testament ways is to my mind no Christian. We have already, discussed this a few times, and every day confirms for me that it is right. One can and must not speak the ultimate word prior to the penultimate. We are living in the penultimate and believe the ultimate. (DBW 8: 213)

As I have wrestled with some difficult pieces of the Bible it has caused me to think about ethics, faith, our current world and so much more. For me this is the more challenging way but it has also been incredibly rewarding. Finishing Psalms 21-30 as a transition between books now I stand ready to begin another large piece. Next will be the book of Exodus, the second of the Pentateuch that I have approached. It is a book that I am more familiar with than I was with Jeremiah or Deuteronomy when I began and it is more of a narrative than any of the books I have done previously. I have two trustworthy companions for the journey. Since this is one of the central books of the Torah and the defining drama of the Jewish people I am delighted to have Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’, Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible as he reads through Exodus: The Book of Redemption as one of my primary dialogue partners. I will also be taking along Carol Meyers commentary on Exodus from the New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series. I have other resources that I have read in the past or that are on my shelf that may also be a part of this journey. With the forty chapters of Exodus the hope is to make the journey in approximately forty weeks, but as journeys go there are often unforeseen stops along the way. I am looking forward to this next exploration as I reenter the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt into the wilderness, from slavery into becoming the people of God and seeing how their journey and faith continue to shape and inform my own.

Ecclesiastes 5-The Gift of Mortality Before God and in the World

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

 Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 Silence Not Sacrifice

1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. 2 Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

 3 For dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.

 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake; why should God be angry at your words, and destroy the work of your hands?

 7 With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God.

Perhaps it is my skeptical nature but I’ve always been wary of those who knew too clearly what God wanted from them and others. I think that sometimes the quest for certainty fills that uneasy quiet space of waiting for God to speak. In our own time there has become more common for people to claim they are spiritual but not religious, where that organized religion for various reasons may not speak to them. There are times where Christianity has tried to model itself after the ancient mystery religions where you did certain acts to try to appease a god or goddess to act on your behalf, but the LORD the God of Israel’s ways are not our ways. As Amy Plantiga Pauw can say memorably, “God does not exist to satisfy human aims and desires. God is not a mascot for our favorite causes.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 166) There are many times when people have used their religious piety as a way of bringing glory to themselves or securing their own sense of place within the chosen people. Qohelet encourages us to enter into that space of silence and waiting to draw near and listen to God.

It is possible that the narrative of 1 Samuel 15, where King Saul uses sacrifice as a way to cover up his disobedience to God’s command in the defeat of the Amalekites, informs this portion of Ecclesiastes. Saul is commanded to utterly destroy the people and the animals but when the battle is won in addition to sparing King Agag’s life the people also spared the best of the sheep, cattle, and other valuables. Capturing the spoils of war was a normal practice but here the Amalekites are dedicated as herem where they are consigned to destruction. (For much more about the understanding of war, herem, as well as an ethical reflection on how to address texts like 1 Samuel 15 see my post on Deuteronomy 20). When the next day King Saul is confronted by Samuel he claims that these best animals are to be a sacrifice to God. Samuel informs King Saul that he has earned the LORD’s disfavor and states:

“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” 1 Samuel 15: 22f

Guarding one’s actions before God also involves the words that we say and the promises that we make. The misuse of the name of God was a serious offense for the people of Israel, enough so that it became enshrined within the ten commandments. When speaking about vows in verse four, Ecclesiastes begins with a direct parallel of Deuteronomy 23: 21. Making promises before God is a serious measure, in discussing Deuteronomy 23 I mentioned Jephthah’s rash oath and since I have just been discussing King Saul there is his rash oath in 1 Samuel 14: 24 which puts his son Jonathan’s life in danger. Ellen Davis shares, “To vow something before the priest (NRSV: “messenger”) that one has not considered carefully or, even worse, has no intention of fulfilling is to mock God” (Davis, 2000, p. 165)

Ecclesiastes has been pondering the place of humanity with its mortality within the seemingly timeless nature of creation and the eternity of God. Humanity, with all its limits, is placed in the position of listening to the wisdom of the eternal one. Ecclesiastes has striven to pay attention in the present moment to the gifts that God provides. It may be a paradox but a part of wisdom is learning to be patient with the finite gift of time. Making space and silence to be in that place where our words and wisdom fade before the words and wisdom of God.

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, can take the words of Ecclesiastes a step further. Ecclesiastes stated it is better to not vow than vow and not fulfill it but Jesus says not to swear an oath at all. For Jesus all words were to be faithful to what is said, whether they are under oath or not, and as in Ecclesiastes our power to fulfill these vows is often limited by the reality that one ‘cannot make one hair on one’s head white or black.’ (Matthew 5: 33-37)

Ecclesiastes 5: 8-20

 8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But all things considered, this is an advantage for a land: a king for a plowed field.

 10 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.

 11 When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?

 12 Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.

 13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt,14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? 17 Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.

 18 This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. 19 Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil– this is the gift of God. 20 For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.

 

Gratitude and joy are the gifts from God in Ecclesiastes, not wealth or wisdom (even though it is better than foolishness). Our desire for wealth, power, possessions, land, position, and numerous other things we think will make us happy is insatiable. When riches and status become the central quest in life they leave the seeker unsatisfied. Governments may be corrupt, the system may be unfair, riches may be lost suddenly and all may be vanity yet joy can be found.

Ecclesiastes can recognize the problems and corruption that are a part of government and bureaucracy and still believe they ultimately benefit the land and the people. The oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right are real, and a person may not be in a position to change these things. Yet, the author is no revolutionary. Even with all of the government of his time’s flaws he still sees the king (and by extension the rest of the government) put in place to serve the land and the farmer. The people placed in positions of authority may be motivated by a quest for greed or power, yet in the balance there is justice in the midst of the injustice, protection of justice and right in the midst of the injustice and ultimately even a bad government is in service of its people. Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, not prophetic literature, so do not be surprised that it is invested in the maintaining of the way things are. Yet, there is wisdom in learning the balance of where one can invest in change and where one learns to live in an imperfect system.

Wisdom that is applied to the increasing of goods or the increasing of position and power is never satisfied. The human appetite for acquisition is insatiable. Riches can be hoarded and lost and never enjoyed. The future is never guaranteed, permanent security is never guaranteed, one’s position in society is never guaranteed. If one lives one’s life only for the future never enjoying the food and drink that one has, never giving thanks for the banquets one can be a part of or host, then one lives impoverished. If one spends one’s nights continually plagued by insecurity over one’s possessions or plotting how to increase one’s wealth or stature, one lives an impoverished life. If one never is given the gift of enjoying their labor and their time of leisure, one lives an impoverished life. The paradox of Ecclesiastes wisdom is that it is by embracing one’s limits-one’s mortality, one’s possessions, one’s position, and one’s companions that one is able to be thankful. Gratitude and joy is a gift of God in the midst of our brief days, our limited resources, our imperfect situations and governments and in our families and friends. Ecclesiastes is not, as I once thought, dismissive of life but actively seeks to embrace life as it is lived in the present.

Ecclesiastes 4- The Things That Steal Our Peace

Ecclesiastes 4

1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed– with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power– with no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; 3 but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

 4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.
 5 Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh.
 6 Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind.

 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

 13 Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice. 14 One can indeed come out of prison to reign, even though born poor in the kingdom. 15 I saw all the living who, moving about under the sun, follow that youth who replaced the king; 16 there was no end to all those people whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

The Hebrew word shalom is only used in Ecclesiastes in the previous chapter in the contrast between war and shalom (peace). Yet, beneath all of the vanity and chasing after the wind is perhaps the search for this concept of shalom, which is far more than an absence of conflict. Shalom has the sense of harmony, balance, living at peace with God’s will for one’s life and world. It is a greeting and a wish for one’s friends and neighbors and for one’s own life and yet then and now it seemed illusive. Qohelet turns his wisdom to the things that rob us of the joy and shalom of how life should be. In the brief verses of chapter four he addresses in a form that moves towards proverbs the issues of oppression, comparison and competition, overwork, isolation and institutional incompetency.

Oppression robs us of our humanity, both the oppressed and the oppressor. For the oppressed it means living in a sick society where their lives and work seem to matter less than those who operate in a more privileged state. For the oppressor it often means unconsciously adopting the views of a sick society that have allowed them to prosper only at the (often unseen) expense of others. Wisdom has opened the eyes of the privileged author of Ecclesiastes and it sickens him. The reality of oppression makes death better than life for him because it is not simply that an oppression can be stated and once brought into the open it dies under the light of day. Oppression involves a lifetime of learned and observed behaviors that require patience, prayer, struggle and dis-ease if the disease is ever to be healed. Oppression can be learned in families, in economic structures and in political systems and they in their own way are demonic. They so weave their ways into the thoughts and actions of ordinary people that they become a part of us. When the demons speak through us they reveal the uglier side of our lives and the inability to see one another as a gift, but instead we begin to see others as people who are to be oppressed or are our oppressor.

In the United States there has been a long struggle among people of color, women and people who because of race, sexuality, economic status, religion (or lack of religion), manner of dress, or numerous other reasons have felt their voices and lives did not matter. While I hope that the struggles of the last several years may eventually lead to a society that moves towards greater equality, for now there is no one to console the tears of the oppressed or the comfort those in power as they deal with the ways privilege has stolen a piece of their humanity as well. Perhaps there may come a day when those who have not been born yet don’t have to wonder if black lives, to use one of the red hot points of struggle in our time, matter less than other lives. There are places where our society is sick and its disease has infected all of us making our lives less human and less worth living. The oppression has possessed the soul of our society in the way it allows us to demonize others and to not see or hear them. The conflict that oppression creates robs our lives and our society of the shalom that wisdom seeks. Ecclesiastes does not offer the cure, only the diagnosis of the thing that steals our joy and peace, both the privileged and the excluded.

Envy is what Ecclesiastes names the second element that steals our joy and peace. This seems to encompass the ways we compare and contrast ourselves with one another. One the one hand toil and skill in work come from learning from and measuring oneself from the work of others. The author of Ecclesiastes can find joy in his labor, yet it can also become a source of anxiety. If our lives are continually measured by the gifts, talents and abilities of others then we will rarely, if ever, be satisfied. Our gifts and talents are not another’s gifts and talents. There is joy in learning to do what one is able with one’s gifts and abilities, for seeking what excellence might look like with one’s talents. Yet, envy of another’s gifts can steal the joy we find in our skills and work.

In a transition it appears that Ecclesiastes pulls from some preexisting form of proverbs about laziness and overwork. There are reasonably close parallels within the book of Proverbs:

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. Proverbs 24: 33-34

Do not wear yourself out to get rich, be wise enough to desist. Proverbs 23: 4

Which Amy Plantiga Pauw (Pauw, 2015, p. 162) points out as possible connections with Proverbs, but for the second I actually find Proverbs 17: 1 closer

Better a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife. Proverbs 17:1

Especially when one takes into account the following verse about the slave who deals wisely and the child who acts shamefully in the context of the end of chapter four.

Ecclesiastes looks at the contrast between overwork and strife on the one hand and laziness and poverty on the other. Neither pole holds the answer, the wisdom is to find the balance point in the middle. A person who only applies their wisdom and knowledge in the quest for goods, wealth, and the insatiable quest for more will have to face the injustice that others will use the goods and wealth they have acquired. Overwork leads to an inability to the enjoy the gift of joy that God grants to the worker in their toil. Idleness also leads to a different type of challenge when the person doesn’t have what they need to feel filled or fulfilled. In our society being busy is a mark of success and achievement, as if the work of business is the work of busy-ness. As Ellen Davis can highlight,

“We regard work as primary, while the rest of what we do is “time-off.” But it was the opposite in the ancient world. The Latin word for “business” is neg-otium, literally, “not leisure”; the time when one does not have to work is the norm by which other activities are measured.” (Davis, 2000, p. 191)

There is wisdom in the practice of Sabbath, the practice of resting from one’s labor and toil. There is wisdom in finding joy in one’s work and pleasure in one’s leisure and knowing the balance of both. The wisdom of not wearing oneself out to be rich, of knowing when to desist but also not folding one’s hands only to consume one’s own flesh.

Isolation can also be a source that can rob us of joy. Sharing our labor with another, being able to share in the triumphs and the travails is one of the joys of life. Isolation can take many forms in life, isolation in the home, at work, in our leisure time and in our public time. A life that is driven by competition and envy shatters our community with one another. We were built for lives of partnership in our various vocations to support, strengthen and renew one another. In a world of increasing connection through digital media we face the struggle of maintaining the physical and personal connections that once formed the communities of our ancestors. In an unfair and often unjust world we need our solidarity with one another so that together we might be a cord not easily broken by the injustices and oppression of the world.

Qohelet seems to have little faith in the institutional structures of his day to provide wise, fair and just governance and a place where a life of shalom comes naturally. We live in an age where people have also become wary of the institutional structures of government, religion, and economics. There are some who still wonder, like Jesus’ disciples, that if a rich young man cannot easily enter the kingdom of God, then who can be saved, for the wealthy and powerful were supposed to be the blessed and the wise. Too many times we have seen the wealthy act only out of self-interest, the powerful act foolishly, and those supposed to be righteous commit horrible acts. Wisdom still has its place, even without power or wealth or fame, to navigate the way of the world. In the midst of oppression to find those moments of peace and the solidarity of one another. From the blindness of being the oppressor to cherish those moments, as difficult as they may be, when one’s eyes are opened and we can perhaps see a different future. Wisdom finds the balance between idleness and overwork and can find satisfaction in one’s own abilities and accomplishments. Like all things of shalom, they are transient. The seasons continue to turn and times of conflict do arise. The quest for permanence, security, and a lasting name ultimately give way to mortality and the turning of the seasons. These evanescent moments may not last for long but they are the gift of God that gives meaning to the toil and the struggle.

Psalm 19- Creation, the Law and a Faithful Life

James Tissot, The Creation (between 1896 and 1902)

James Tissot, The Creation (between 1896 and 1902)

Psalm 19

 <To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
  In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
  and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them;
  and nothing is hid from its heat.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
  the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
  the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
  the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
  sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.
  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
   O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19 as a psalm of praise brings together the wonder and mysterious natural knowledge of God uttered in the unheard speech of creation and the revealed wisdom of the LORD in the gift of the Torah (the law). Like Psalm 8, the other psalm of praise we have encountered at this point in the book of Psalms, it reflects upon the majesty of creation from a sense of wonder and awe. It can look at the heavens above, the earth below and the seas in their vastness and be amazed at the creator God who has done all of these things. Here in the first verse the word for God is the generic El which can be either God, a god, or in plural gods, but it is not a name like will be used beginning in verse seven. Yet, the heavens and day and night and sun are all poetically personified in the psalm, speaking in words that are unheard and voices that human ears cannot perceive. Perhaps the psalmist, just straining, can barely hear the silent resonance of the Creator echoing through the creation. Perhaps they can perceive the God that stands behind the creation where others have taken the created parts of creation and deified them. In verses four and five, it is possible that the Psalmist makes use of an existing Akkadian/Summerian bilingual hymn that refers to the sun as a hero, warrior and bridegroom (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 208) yet instead of leaving the sun as a deity in its right (like the surrounding cultures) now the sun becomes a rejoicing servant reveling in the course that the creator God has set for it.  The first half of the Psalm revels with the song of creation in the artistry and majesty of the creator and the Psalmist lifts up in their own way an audible voice for the unheard creation’s song.

It may seem unusual to bring together creation and the law in a poem, and perhaps these originated in two different places, but bringing these two together makes sense of the broader understanding of how God works with the Hebrew people. Creation is a gift of God for all the world, but the law (the Torah) is the special revealed gift for God’s chosen people. The God referred to initially only with the generic El now receives the revealed name YHWH (frequently pronounced Yahweh, anytime you see LORD in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the proper name of God revealed to Moses is behind that, it is typically pronounced Adonai when read (translates to Lord) to not take the LORD’s name in vain). Together with Psalm 1 and the much longer Psalm 119, Psalm 19 praises the law of the LORD. The revealed will of God in the law becomes the nourishment, which revives the faithful, brings wisdom and purity and clarity and are a rich gift fit for a king. The ideal leader was to have the law always before them and to diligently observe and follow it all the days of their life. (see Deuteronomy 17: 18-20) If the king is the one lifting up this prayer the wonder of the cosmos is combined with the revealed wisdom of the Torah to keep them in obedience to God’s will for their life and God’s people.

The Psalm ends with a petition to be kept in this way revealed by the LORD in the midst of all the temptations that life brings forward. There is a humility in realizing that even though the law may reveal the human may conceal from themselves the faults of their hands and hearts. Even with the wisdom of Solomon one may fail to see the divergence in one’s life from the way of the covenant which coheres with God’s law. The Psalmist petitions their LORD to clear them of hidden faults, to keep them away from the insolent and foolish and to allow them to be blameless. God is their rock and their redeemer, the word for redeemer is go’el the kinsman redeemer who is able to, and is expected to, purchase their enslaved kin from slavery. Here the LORD is the one who is able to set the Psalmist free to live the life they are called to live: a life that can revel in God’s creation and delight in God’s law.

Psalm 16- Remaining Faithful in a Pluralistic Setting

Giovanni Francesco Barberi (il Guercino), King David (1651)

Giovanni Francesco Barberi (il Guercino), King David (1651)

Psalm 16

<A Miktam of David.>
1 Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
3 As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.
4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.
5 The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.
6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.
7 I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.
8 I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.
11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy;
 in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
 
When I was growing up I assumed that the world of the Hebrew Scriptures (or the Old Testament) which was written to the people of Israel and Judah was a world that was as monolithic as I assumed things were growing up in my own childhood. Just because everyone I knew growing up was associated with a Christian church and I think the church was still, at least the Lutheran churches I grew up within, operating out of a Christendom concept where everyone at least had a church that they belonged to (even if they didn’t regularly or ever attend). I was wrong about the world that I grew up in and I was wrong about the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps being a pastor I have a heightened awareness to the other things that have placed their claims upon people’s lives and I do believe that the church is losing the privileged place it once held in society. There are so many competing voices that the church deals with (and perhaps the church has always dealt with) and I know I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can address the questions that are a part of our world while remaining faithful to the core ideas of my faith.

In Psalm 16 the Psalmist is attempting to remain faithful in the midst of an atmosphere that has several religious choices. The Psalm itself may be from a priest or from David (as its it is attributed to) but in their attempts at faithfulness they feel isolated. The holy ones of the land, presumably those who are remaining faithful, seem to be in conflict with those who are either turning away to other religious options or who are trying to blend together the worship of the LORD with gods like Baal and Asherah (treating the LORD as one among many). Perhaps the Psalmist is trying to distinguish between himself and the others who are willing to present offerings to other gods and take their names upon their lips. The Psalmist in their gut (in verse seven where it speaks in the NRSV translation of my heart instructs me this is literally my kidneys, the guts-where feelings come from in Hebrew thought) knows that what they are doing is right, but it may be unpopular. The more I spend time with the Hebrew Scriptures, the more I realize that there were few, if any, times where the people exclusively worshipped the LORD.

In our own day we too have to struggle with how to remain faithful in a pluralistic world, where many of the other messages may not be associated with another religion but instead may be reflective of the consumeristic society, the allegiance to states, various political ideologies or the continued pressures of a society where entertainment and sports occupy a huge amount of the public’s loyalty. None of these are bad things but they are penultimate (less that ultimate, secondary things). There are many things that may demand our tribute, our own blood offerings. Yet, I think the challenge in this and every age is to trust in the LORD, to know in one’s gut that one’s faith in the LORD is well placed, and even in the midst of other alternatives to let our heart be glad, our soul rejoice and our body secure in the portion that the LORD has allotted to us.

Reflections From A Year Spent with Deuteronomy

Torah Scroll, Original image from http://www.nachat-austin.org/weekly-torah/

Torah Scroll, Original image from http://www.nachat-austin.org/weekly-torah/

Deuteronomy is the fourth book, and the second large book that I have worked my way through systematically from beginning to end. It took me a little more than a year (13 months and 1 week) from my first post on Deuteronomy 1 to the final entry on Deuteronomy 34. Deuteronomy is not a book that a lot of Christians spend a lot of time with but for our Jewish brothers and sisters it is one of their most important books. Most Christians don’t spend much time with Deuteronomy, well with the exception of Deuteronomy 6 which has become important to those who want to talk about faith formation in the home or Deuteronomy 5 which re-articulates the ten commandments. Many of the ordinances and commandments of Deuteronomy seemed alien to me and yet, I knew that there was a reason that people had gone back to this work for over 2,500 years. Using Walter Brueggemann’s and Deanna A. Thompson’s commentaries on Deuteronomy as my two primary reading companions I began not knowing how the project would turn out but at least motivated to see what wisdom I would glean from this ancient work. I was motivated by the knowledge that I had made it through Jeremiah, a larger and very challenging work, and that I would be able to eventually reach the point of reflecting back again.

I am a Lutheran pastor who has spent most of my time studying the Gospels and Paul’s letters and who comes from a tradition that is open to reading scripture with a critical eye. Deuteronomy has some sections that in the twenty first century we will not be adopting or advocating and so I have tried to bring the issues of the time into conversation with the events and policies and beliefs of our time. I have tried to use Deuteronomy as a helpful conversation partner-trying to understand how the author of Deuteronomy thought about God and society.

Deuteronomy wants to imagine a society ordered around God’s law and living out of the covenant relationship with the LORD the God of Israel. For the people of Israel and Judah their public life was a reflection of their faith and there was no concept of a separation between church and state. In a world where the people of Israel were surrounded by a plethora of religious alternatives the book of Deuteronomy tries to imagine a society centered around the laws and covenant and ordinances of the God of Israel and a manner both catechetically in the home and liturgically in the worship of the community that would pass on this faith from generation to generation. The great anxiety of the book of Deuteronomy is that in the midst of abundance the generations to come would forget the source of their abundance and become attracted by the practices and the gods of the people around them.

I am very aware of the postmodern, secular, pluralistic world in which we live and I have attempted to bring the questions of that worldview into conversation with the strictly ordered worldview of the Deuteronomist. What has emerged at its best is an opportunity to think ethically about what type of world I as a Lutheran Christian in 21st Century would imagine in dialogue with Deuteronomy imagining God’s will for their time. Because our hermeneutics and starting points are different there are times where we come to different answers and that is OK. Even when I may diverge from the way Deuteronomy understands God or the meaning of what God desires I still try to find the wisdom of the people who were wondering God’s story had entered their story through the Exodus and through their experiences.

As a modern scholar I have used a lot of different tools in working through Deuteronomy. The first is an ancient tool, I simply forced myself to listen to the text by slowing down and manually writing out the text as I commented on it. As mentioned above, I am a Lutheran pastor so I do come from a perspective where the cannon within the cannon (or the most important key to understanding scripture) is what conveys Christ and so I have listened to where Deuteronomy spoke in concert and contrast to the witness of Christ throughout the New Testament. I have brought my experiences and listened to the ways my time in the military, as a father, as a divorced person, and as a pastor have been brought into conversation and filled out the way I can hear these texts. I have been intentionally intertextual, allowing Deuteronomy to be in conversation with the rest of the Bible. But I come to this as a person who loves the Bible and the God it tries to bear witness to and as a pastor who wants to communicate this story to others who would have the patience to listen. I am not a PhD in the Hebrew Scriptures, just a willing student of Deuteronomy.

Wrestling with books like Deuteronomy is more challenging than the familiar gospels or even Paul’s letters but there is wisdom. It is hard to understand the way the early church leaders talked about Jesus without understanding the scriptures they were reading. There are portions of Deuteronomy that help make sense of who Jesus was and what he was striving for. For example, look at Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 and then think about what it meant for Jesus to have the title Messiah (anointed king) applied to him. Deuteronomy forms the basic frame that the prophets will work out of as they protest the injustices and idolatry of the nations of Israel and Judah. The thought of Deuteronomy will form one of the loudest voices in informing the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures as they evaluate their history and as they imagine their future.

If you have benefited from these reflections I am thankful. They have been beneficial for me to write. The process continues to allow me to grow in my faith and understanding. I hope that in them I have exercised wisdom. I have benefited from the wisdom of others who have passed on the faith and this tradition to me.

As an update on what is next I am returning to the book of Psalms and will work through Psalms 11-20 as I decide which book I will work through next. I have enjoyed this project but I also am ready to work with something new and there is always a sense of relief at the completion of a work like this (even if I am the only person who ever reads it).

 

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