Tag Archives: Written Law

Deuteronomy 31 Preparing for Life after Moses

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

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

Deuteronomy 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuteronomy 27-Preserving the Law

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Deuteronomy 27: 1-8 An Enduring Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuteronomy 27: 9-10 Hear One More Time

 9 Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the LORD your God. 10 Therefore obey the LORD your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today.

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

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

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

Deuteronomy 27: 11-26 A Liturgy of Curses

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

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

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