Tag Archives: Wilderness

Matthew 14: 13-21 Bread in the Wilderness

Mosaic at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee

Matthew 14: 13-21

Parallels: Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10b-17; John 6: 1-15

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The rejection in Nazareth and the death of John the Baptist puts both Jesus and the crowds in motion and they both arrive in the wilderness. Jesus and his disciples get into a boat and come to an uninhabited place along the sea, and the crowds abandon the towns to follow him on foot. Matthew shortened version of this story (if Mark’s narration is the original) continues to invite the followers of Jesus to reflect upon his identity by echoing other portions of both Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ life and scriptures. The feeding of the five thousand men, plus women and children, is unique among the miracle stories of Jesus because it is the only one included in all four gospel accounts.

The wilderness was where John the Baptist began his story, where Jesus was baptized and where Jesus was tempted. People once came into the wilderness to see John the Baptist instead of Herod (see comments on 11: 7-15), but now the come seeking Jesus. Jesus has compassion on this large crowd and begins to heal those who are sick. Matthew drops Mark’s allusion to Ezekiel 34 where the crowd is like sheep without a shepherd, but the contrast with the compassion Jesus shows towards the crowd and the fear Herod Antipas shows highlights the contrast in relations between these ‘kings of Israel.’ Matthew also drops the teaching of the crowds, but since Jesus teaching the crowds in parables comprises the previous chapter this is not necessary to Matthew’s narration. Now in the absence of John the Baptist and instead of Herod Antipas, the large crowd journeys over land to meet Jesus in this wilderness place.

The defining story of the Hebrew people is the Exodus and central to the people’s journey through the wilderness is the provision of bread by God on that journey. In this wilderness the people are now fed by Jesus, he becomes the one who makes an excessive amount of bread in the wilderness. Like the woman who folded the yeast into three measures of flour (13: 33) he prepares a feast to this great crowd. This story also resonates with the final meal that Jesus will share with his disciples where again he will bless and break bread to be distributed (26:26-30). Matthew, following Mark’s structure, will have Jesus do two feedings of large crowds in the wilderness. (15: 32-39) In both feeding stories the disciples of Jesus in addition to distributing the bread are also invited to wonder about the one who can provide an abundant feast where all are satisfied in a wilderness place. Like God providing for the people in the Exodus or promising a great feast on the mountain of the Lord (Isaiah 25: 6-9) we are invited to consider who Jesus is in relation to God. He is more than a prophet like John the Baptist and more than a king like Herod even if those in his homeland cannot recognize it.

Exodus 16: A Crisis of Trust

James Tissot, The Gathering of Manna (between 1896 and 1902)

Exodus 16: 1-36

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8 And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him — what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”

 9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. 11 The LORD spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'”

 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?”1 For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat. 16 This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.'” 17 The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19 And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” 20 But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21 Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

 22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers apiece. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.'” 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.”

 27 On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28 The LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? 29 See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.

 31 The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 32 Moses said, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.'” 33 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the LORD, to be kept throughout your generations.” 34 As the LORD commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the covenant,1 for safekeeping. 35 The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. 36 An omer is a tenth of an ephah.

The title ‘a crisis of trust’ which I gave to this section reflects on two different directions. On one hand, there is a crisis of trust in the people of Israel for the LORD their God. They quickly revert to their default position of accepting their identity as slaves who had food and water as preferable to their current identity as a free people of God whose food supply is in question at the beginning of this chapter. As they enter the appropriately named (even though the name is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew letters) wilderness of Sin the people have a crisis of trust in the LORD their God and Moses and Aaron the representatives of God. On the other hand, the crisis creates the question of trustworthiness. Crises bring about questions of faith, questions of identity and ultimately can lead the person undergoing the trial to question God’s involvement in their life and in the crisis.

People who are dealing with hunger, and more generally with poverty, often make poor choices. Yet, it is far too easy to blame those who are poor or hungry for the bad choices that they make when a person is sitting in comfort and not having to make choices under the same conditions of scarcity as those struggling. Recent studies have found that people suffering with poverty can have their IQ decline as much as 13 points, comparable to the effects of chronic drinking or sleep deprivation on decision making. The experience of scarcity can lead us to make poor decisions, to revert to unhealthy behaviors and not to trust those who may be able to aid.

As the congregation of the Israelites, the first time they are given this title, moves from the oases of Elim into the wilderness of Sin they encounter the challenges of scarcity. The lack of food creates a crisis of faith. They imagine a return into slavery, to their oppression in Egypt where they remember having their fill of food. Memory in times of crisis can be particularly unreliable and lead to all kinds of poor decisions based on idealistic representations of the past. Here the congregation of Israel turns on its leaders, Moses and Aaron, and ultimately complains about the provision of the LORD on this stage of their journey. The easy position and an interpreter would be to blame the congregation of Israelites for their lack of faith after the LORD has through many signs led them out of Egypt, through the sea and into their journey, but here (in contrast to the parallel scene in Numbers 11) the LORD does not get angry but instead provides for their need in an abundant way.

The name of the wilderness of Sin gives an opportunity to reflect upon the way in which a vision of scarcity in contrast to God’s promise of provision can be an appropriate way to talk about sin. Sin, as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther and later Karl Barth could all refer to it is a state of homo incurvatus in se (the human turned inwards on oneself). A belief that there are a finite number of goods and that one must secure one’s own portion at the expense of the neighbors’ portions and that one’s own needs are more important than the neighbors’ needs leads to hoarding and the consolidation of wealth and power. This is the system that the people of Israel have left behind in Egypt, a pyramid scheme (pardon the pun) where the deprivation of the many allows for the abundance of the privileged few. Here in the provision of manna and the declaration of the sabbath the LORD begins to point to another way of imagining the world and our relationship with our neighbors.

In the Lord’s prayer the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” refers to the foundational idea in both Judaism and Christianity that God provides for us the things that we need each day. Faith allows a person to receive the food, drink, clothing, job, home, relationships and more as a gift from God to be thankful for and to trust that God will continue to provide. Even in difficult times it provides a way to trust that the LORD will provide enough to help the person of faith in their journey through the wilderness. Here in the wilderness of Sin with the provision of manna this theological concept is given a practical narrative. The journey in the wilderness will be a journey of learning to trust in the LORD’s provision for the congregation of the Israelites in a land that would not normally support them.

The people in the wilderness still operate out of a scarcity mindset, when the manna appears some go out and gather more, others little. Some try to save some of the daily bread for the next day only to find it rotten and infested with worms. Whether they gather much or a little they all end up with the roughly two quarts (omer) per person they needed. This time of testing is a time of learning to imagine the world through a different lens, through the lens of God’s provision. It will be natural to revert to the ways of Pharaoh, to the lessons of their time of enslavement and oppression. Perhaps if we want to use the language of an original Sin, it is the natural state of seeking out for one’s own interest and hoarding resources and providing for one’s own future rather than trusting in God’s provision. It is far too easy for the formerly oppressed to become the oppressor and to construct their own pyramid schemes.

Sabbath becomes a way of enacting this trust in the LORD’s provision as well. There is no theological reason given for the sabbath here (it will be linked to creation in Genesis 2 and in the ten commandments in Exodus 20 and to the experience of being slaves in Egypt and the LORD’s liberation in Deuteronomy 5) Perhaps obedience comes before understanding, sabbath as a practice begets sabbath as a theological concept. Practice gives rise to meaning, or in Prosper of Aquitaine’s phrase lex orandi, lex credenda (the rule of worship leads to the rule of faith). For former slaves the idea of a day of rest would have been foreign, yet now it was to become a part of their life and a weekly practice of trust in the provision of their LORD.

Tamarisk tree near Revivim, Israel, Picture taken by Michael Baranovsky. Shared under creative commons 3.0

Finally, there will be many people who look for a natural explanation of the manna in the wilderness. For example, some people will claim the manna was the resin of the Tamarisk tree or a form of lichen based on the descriptions provided in Exodus and elsewhere. Even if manna is from one of these sources, and remember many of God’s signs throughout the book of Exodus use natural elements, it still doesn’t eliminate the LORD’s provision for the people. As a book of faith, the book of Exodus sees the LORD’s provision of quail and manna as a reflection of God’s provision for the people in the hostile wilderness. If the LORD uses natural phenomena to feed the people or whether the manna itself is an unknown and miraculous substance do not subtract from the provision of God for the people in their wilderness journey. Unfortunately, the omer of manna placed in a jar and kept as a remembrance has long been lost and we have only the story to remind us of the experience of the people in the wilderness. Yet, the story reminds us of the struggle we still face today to trust in God’s provision and to imagine a world where we are content with enough and instead of attempting to secure our own future we can imagine a world where we can ‘love our neighbor as ourselves.’

Exodus 13- Sacrifice, Liturgy and Journey to Form a Chosen People

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

Exodus 13:1-16: Setting Aside Firstborn and Time in Remembrance

The LORD said to Moses: 2 Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

 3 Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the LORD brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. 4 Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. 5 When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. 6 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. 8 You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year.

 11 “When the LORD has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD’s. 13 But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. 14 When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem1 on your forehead that by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

It is a common religious practice to set aside that which is one’s best in the service of the deity one serves as a sign of trust, and in many ancient fertility religions there was a sense that if one does certain things to appease the god then fertility in the fields or flocks or family would be granted. The sacrificial system in Israel brings animals and they are sacrificed to the LORD, but the family would (as described in Deuteronomy, see Deuteronomy 14, 15, and 26) take part in the eating of the sacrifice as a celebration. This practice of setting aside the first born of animals that can be eaten and redeeming animals which cannot both demonstrates trust in the LORD providing future fertility for the flocks and herds as well as providing opportunities to bring together the family and community to celebrate the abundance of the LORD’s provision. Sacrifice for ancient Israel becomes a way in which the presence of the LORD is mediated through the tabernacle/temple and the priest and the acts of worship to the people. The setting aside of the firstborn animals also adds to the annual storytelling centered around the Passover and reinforces that the people are a people redeemed from the land of Egypt.

The redemption of the firstborn male children also serves as a reminder of the narrative of the people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It is a reminder of the oppression of Pharaoh that sought to kill the male children of the Hebrew slaves (and to represent the oppressive form of government their society was not to represent). It serves as a reminder of the final sign where the LORD breaks the hold of Pharaoh on the people by the death of the firstborns of Egypt and as a reminder of the LORD’s power. Finally, it is a reminder of their own status as redeemed people. Their identity is not based upon their power or might but upon the choice and action of their God. This identity is reinforced through the cultic action of the priests at the tabernacle or temple in their future settled identity in the promised land.

Liturgy, which is what is being discussed here, becomes a visual narrative with signs that point back to the narrative of the Exodus. In a world where people would not be able to attend worship at the temple every Sabbath the festivals and sacrifices become opportunities for the families and communities to re-narrate their constitutive story and reinforce their identity as the chosen, and redeemed, people of the LORD. They become opportunities to reflect with thanksgiving upon the LORD’s provision through the fertility of their flocks and herds and to remember the way in which the LORD acted decisively against the might of the Egyptian empire.

Exodus 13: 17-22: The Long Road to Freedom

 17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.1 The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. 19 And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” 20 They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

Paul Hardy, The Pillar of Fire, from the Art Bible (1896)

As the people of Israel begin their long walk to freedom, they begin by taking the circuitous route. The people, fresh from their lives as slaves of the Egyptians, are not an army ready for conflict and are not settled into their new identity as the chosen people of the LORD. They may go out of Egypt physically prepared for battle, marching in formations or carrying what weapons they may have. Yet, mentally they are not prepared for conflict nor are they prepared for the burden of freedom. Ultimately, even the long road to the promised land will not be enough to calm the fear of the people of Israel or to remove from their mind the desire to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. All journeys must begin somewhere.

Recently I was sitting with a family who was watching a loved one struggle with an unexpected illness which eventually led to their loved one’s death. As a part of their devotion one morning they read the verse eighteen which refers to God taking the people on the roundabout way and they found it speaking to their situation. They did not wish for their loved one to suffer but it took time for the family to come to the point to where they were willing to let go and they found the difficult period of waiting as a period of grace where they could come to terms with the grief they would soon experience and they made peace with the decision to follow their loved one’s stated wishes and to let him die rather than prolonging his life through intensive life support. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, discussing Maimonide’s interpretation of these verses, states, “God sometimes intervenes to change nature. We call these interventions miracles. But God never intervenes to change human nature.” Yet, in Sack’s words, “He (God) gave humanity the freedom to grow.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 99) Perhaps there are times where God grants an instantaneous change of heart but it is my experience that God often allows us to grow into that change of heart through the experiences and relationship that we live through in our lives. The LORD, the God of Israel, is a God of the journey, a God of the Exodus. The people will come to understand both who their God is and who, by extension, they are in relation to God through their experience both in their liberation but even more on their journey in the wilderness along the winding path from Egypt to Canaan and from slavery to their new identity as the people of the LORD, the God of Israel.

Deuteronomy 1: Retelling The Story For A New Time

Moses Speaks To His People at Moab, Charles Mosley, 1747

Moses Speaks To His People at Moab, Charles Mosley, 1747

Deuteronomy 1: 1-8 Retelling the Story

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan– in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. 2 (By the way of Mount Seir it takes eleven days to reach Kadesh-barnea from Horeb.) 3 In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the Israelites just as the LORD had commanded him to speak to them. 4 This was after he had defeated King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth and in Edrei. 5 Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law as follows:  

6 The LORD our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7 Resume your journey, and go into the hill country of the Amorites as well as into the neighboring regions– the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, and the seacoast– the land of the Canaanites and the Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. 8 See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them.”

I was sitting with some of my colleagues earlier this week when someone asked, “Why do you write on things that can be gloomy or less interesting, you spent over a year going through Jeremiah and now you are going to do Deuteronomy. You are about to get married, why not write on something like Song of Solomon.”  And my answer was simply I think there is wisdom in going back to these books that as Christians we don’t spend a lot of time in, that rarely appear, for example, in the Revised Common Lectionary, and that those who do spend time with them do it from a moralistic perspective and may be selectively choosing parts that fit their idea of what is important. I also think there is a need for understanding the God of covenant which is the background for the stories of the gospels and the New Testament as a whole. As a person who understands God primarily as a gracious and loving God I also need to be able to wrestle with the multiple pictures of God that are painted by the numerous authors of scripture. I think it is also important to walk with the God who is present in these stories because it is too easy for us as modern people to reduce God to ideas, God is love or God is the unmoved mover, or God is omnipotent, omnipresent, all knowing, etc. I think without continually going back to the narratives that we have we run the risk of falling quickly into H. Richard Niebuhr’s statements about American Christianity, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” (Niebuhr, 1988, p. 193) I could easily write on the gospels or Paul’s letters but I also spend time here because it is a part of scripture I don’t know well and I trust that although it may not be the easiest place to engage the story of God, it remains important.

Also for our Jewish ancestors Deuteronomy is at the very heart of their understanding of God, one of the five books of the Torah, and in many ways a distillation of the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. It is a book which contains the central Jewish command, the Shema, which we will see in chapter 6. Going into the book of Deuteronomy requires me to step into another perspective and another time, and perhaps I like the Psalmist can learn to meditate on this ‘second law’ and find delight. As Psalm 1 states “but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1.2) The word Deuteronomy comes from a mistranslation and the name literally means second law, and it is a second telling of the story and a highlighting of certain key portions of the law. The narrator of Deuteronomy places these words in the mouth of Moses as the people is almost ready to finally enter the promised land after their generation long sojourn in the wilderness. It is the end of Moses journey and the passing of the torch from Moses who led them out of Egypt to Joshua and the new generation who will move into the promise land.

Deuteronomy is not a neutral retelling of history, nor is any of scripture, but it is told in a way to make certain things clear. It is a book that talks about the faithful covenant God who has journeyed with the people from Egypt and will continue to journey with the people. It expounds and interprets history through the lens of God’s covenant faithfulness. Deuteronomy begins by telling the story of God and interpreting the people’s identity in light of that story. Deuteronomy narrates Israel’s identity at this crucial moment as they stand at the transition between sojourners and residents of the promised land, a generation ago they understood themselves as slaves in Egypt and that identity does not easily pass away, but now they are the chosen people called to live in a covenant with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It is an identity that they have failed to live into in the past and it is an identity that they will not easily shoulder in the future but for Deuteronomy their lives and future are at stake as they place the people there in the valley hearing Moses tell about their past so that they may live into their present identity.

 

Deuteronomy 1: 9-18

 9 At that time I said to you, “I am unable by myself to bear you. 10 The LORD your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May the LORD, the God of your ancestors, increase you a thousand times more and bless you, as he has promised you! 12 But how can I bear the heavy burden of your disputes all by myself? 13 Choose for each of your tribes individuals who are wise, discerning, and reputable to be your leaders.” 14 You answered me, “The plan you have proposed is a good one.” 15 So I took the leaders of your tribes, wise and reputable individuals, and installed them as leaders over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officials, throughout your tribes. 16 I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. 17 You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.” 18 So I charged you at that time with all the things that you should do.

 

Moses is characterized as the type of leader who takes everything on his shoulders and the people follow, but this type of leadership not only burns out the leader dealing with every issue that comes up but it also prevents the people from taking ownership for their own calling. Now in the ancient world where most people were not literate and relied on kings, priests, and judges to be not only the interpreters but the readers of the law it was crucial to have people entrusted to this. This may refer back to both Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 which refer to two separate events, but the character of Moses in the retelling is interesting. In Exodus 18 it is Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who sees Moses spending all his time adjudicating minor manners and says to him, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you and you cannot do it alone.”(Exodus 11.18) and so it is at his father-in-laws urging that Moses appoints judges. In Numbers 11 the people are complaining and Moses reaches his breaking point saying, “Why have you treated your servant so badly?…I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” (Numbers 11.11, 14) Now it is Moses who appeals to God from exhaustion, frustration and in desperation looking for assistance and God provides a portion of the spirit that is on Moses and give it to these seventy elders. In Deuteronomy Moses is the wise and trusted leader and Moses comes up with the idea and the people respond, “the plan you have proposed is a good one.”  The story perhaps begins with the appointing of judges because of the critical nature having good judges will play in the story as it goes forward. Living justly requires a set of good and competent judges and a strong and impartial legal system which cares for the poor and the rich, the citizen and the immigrant is critical to living out their identity as the people of God.

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

 

Deuteronomy 1: 19-33

 19 Then, just as the LORD our God had ordered us, we set out from Horeb and went through all that great and terrible wilderness that you saw, on the way to the hill country of the Amorites, until we reached Kadesh-barnea. 20 I said to you, “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the LORD our God is giving us. 21 See, the LORD your God has given the land to you; go up, take possession, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you; do not fear or be dismayed.”

 22 All of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we should go up and the cities we will come to.” 23 The plan seemed good to me, and I selected twelve of you, one from each tribe. 24 They set out and went up into the hill country, and when they reached the Valley of Eshcol they spied it out 25 and gathered some of the land’s produce, which they brought down to us. They brought back a report to us, and said, “It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.”

 26 But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; 27 you grumbled in your tents and said, “It is because the LORD hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. 28 Where are we headed? Our kindred have made our hearts melt by reporting, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! We actually saw there the offspring of the Anakim!'” 29 I said to you, “Have no dread or fear of them. 30 The LORD your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place. 32 But in spite of this, you have no trust in the LORD your God, 33 who goes before you on the way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night, and in the cloud by day, to show you the route you should take.”

 

There is no identity without knowing one’s story. The book of Deuteronomy narrates again the story of the people at the edge of the promised land a generation ago in order to construct a different identity in this new generation. They are the children of those who did not trust the LORD at this crucial moment in the story and they have the opportunity to act differently than their ancestors. They are the children of the people who God, “who carried you, just as one carries a child” but still had not learned to trust in the God who journeyed with them. Perhaps learning to trust in the LORD who we don’t always see is one of the hardest things to learn, and even though I think Luther is correct to interpret the first commandment, “We are to fear, love and trust God above all things” (Luther, 1994) It is more difficult to live that ideal out in the realities of life and conflict. Moses can see and interpret reality to the people, that the LORD has given them possession of the land and that it is a good and prosperous land but people will always see the giants and the walled cities.

One thing I noticed about this is that there is a changed dynamic. In the previous section Moses made the suggestion about the judges and the people felt it was a good idea, but here the people make the suggestion of exploring the land and Moses felt the plan sounded good. Perhaps, without reading too much into this, this is one of the dangers that leaders face. Knowing when to listen to the people they lead and knowing when to stick with their own plan. The time of scouting out the land allows many of the doubts to return. The murmurs of the journey through the wilderness return. The people continue to misunderstand who the LORD is and the way they are to relate to this God who has led them or their journey. The people see the LORD’s absence while Moses sees the LORD’s presence and continually calls the people to trust in the LORD who has been present throughout the journey.

 

Deuteronomy 1: 34-45

 34 When the LORD heard your words, he was wrathful and swore: 35 “Not one of these– not one of this evil generation– shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors, 36 except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his descendants I will give the land on which he set foot, because of his complete fidelity to the LORD.” 37 Even with me the LORD was angry on your account, saying, “You also shall not enter there. 38 Joshua son of Nun, your assistant, shall enter there; encourage him, for he is the one who will secure Israel’s possession of it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you thought would become booty, your children, who today do not yet know right from wrong, they shall enter there; to them I will give it, and they shall take possession of it. 40 But as for you, journey back into the wilderness, in the direction of the Red Sea.”

 41 You answered me, “We have sinned against the LORD! We are ready to go up and fight, just as the LORD our God commanded us.” So all of you strapped on your battle gear, and thought it easy to go up into the hill country. 42 The LORD said to me, “Say to them, ‘Do not go up and do not fight, for I am not in the midst of you; otherwise you will be defeated by your enemies.'” 43 Although I told you, you would not listen. You rebelled against the command of the LORD and presumptuously went up into the hill country. 44 The Amorites who lived in that hill country then came out against you and chased you as bees do. They beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. 45 When you returned and wept before the LORD, the LORD would neither heed your voice nor pay you any attention.

 46 After you had stayed at Kadesh as many days as you did,

 

Can we learn from our past or are we somehow destined to repeat it? One of the things that the prophets of Israel will do over and over again is to take these central stories, like the story of the exodus and recast them to be heard again in their day. The will use the stories of the past to tell the people of their time the cost of their disobedience to their covenant with God. The God of the Bible does get angry, does show emotions, is become wounded by the disobedience of the chosen people. This time when Israel refuses to hear the word of the LORD leads to the LORD being unwilling to hear them. This is one of those times where the people missed their window of opportunity, and the LORD through Moses (even in the midst of God’s anger) tells Moses to warn the people not to go up, but the people strap on their equipment and proceed to walk into their own defeat.

This disobedience has consequences not only for the people but for Moses. The narrative places the blame for Moses’ inability to reach the promised land at the feet of the people. Their disobedience not only brings anger on themselves but on Moses, and even though Moses has stood in the gap between the people and God, now Moses finds himself caught between the people and the LORD.

One of things this makes me ponder is the God who refuses to hear. We often act as if God hears every prayer regardless of how we interact with the world God has made, and there may be some truth in this, but there is also truth in the view of the Deuteronomist where our actions and our lives matter to God. The LORD presented by Deuteronomy does care about the lives of the people who are supposed to represent God in the world. Yet there is a hope, it is not an immediate or cheap hope. God will not stay angry forever, there will be a time when God listens to the people again. It may be a generation later when the sons and daughters who grow up in the wilderness now are adults ready to enter the promise land but ultimately, for Deuteronomy, God will uphold God’s part of the covenant but not on a human timeline.

Perhaps in a later time, when all the books scholars like to label the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings) are brought together the people are looking back on their history trying to make sense of their world. They are trying to bring order to the chaos of living in the midst of the exile in Babylon. As they look back over their story they find meaning in who they are called to be and how they are called to live. Even without the land or the temple or a king they are still the people of the covenant and perhaps in this time of disobedience where a generation is lost in the wilderness they can find hope in their own lost generation in exile.