Monday, April 30, 2007

They Shall Not Enter My Rest (Deuteronomy 31-34)

Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses in the land of Moab – so close, and yet so far away from the Promised Land:
Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated.…And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
I mentioned before that Deuteronomy is a rather anticlimactic ending for the Torah. All this excitement, all this struggle, all this build up, but we never get to the actual conquest of Canaan. Moses doesn’t get to enter the land.

That task is given to Joshua, with this word of encouragement:
Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.
I see Joshua mounting his horse and riding off to battle with a shout, with Moses standing on the far shore with a sad look in his eye. He knows it won’t last. The people will not keep the law, and they will not stay in the land. God knows this as well, and so he gives Moses a strange order:
Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring).
It’s a song of God’s great rescue of Israel, of Israel’s rebellion against him, God’s abandonment of Israel to his fate, Israel’s ruin without God, and God’s decision to once again restore him. In effect, it is the song of the entire Old Testament. It’s a sad song, though the ending is hopeful.

Moses blesses the twelve tribes in a blessing reminiscent of Jacob’s back at the end of Genesis. And that’s it. He dies without ever setting a foot in Canaan.

But God’s choice, while harsh, does seem to be the right one. If Moses had entered the land, this would have implied that the promise was really fulfilled. As it is, we know the story is only beginning. It will be a long time in the Bible until we see Moses again. Only then will we know that the decisive hour has finally arrived.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Curse of the Law (Deuteronomy 27-30)

The law concludes with a final exhortation to actually do the thing. The people are standing on the far side of the Jordan, and Moses tells them that when they enter the land that they will need to build an altar on top of Mt. Ebal. From there, they will call down curses on themselves, for those who do not keep the law.

I must confess, I do not often have the impulse to call down a curse on myself – though it isn’t an entirely foreign concept. It is a way of saying “I am so sincere in my commitment that I’ll gladly agree to horrible things happening to me if I break it.” It’s the language of covenant and law – and this element remains in our laws today. From rent agreements, to mortgage contracts, to international treaties, covenants invoke both blessings and curses.

But wow, some of these curses are absolutely chilling.
But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.
Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field.
Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock.
Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.
All the good things of life, all the day to day happiness and pleasures that come from work, from plans and ambitions, from family, from food, from health, from friendship – all these gifts that are the pursuit of humanity, God wants to give them in abundance. But their disobedience will land them with curses in every aspect of life.

It doesn’t stop here. No, they will suffer defeat and shame before their enemies, and be brought to pitiful ruin. Listen to this shocking description:
And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. …The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns.
What a picture of complete degradation. The most precious and tender thing in life – the birth of a newborn child – is simply an occasion for bestial craving and utter selfishness. Try as I might, I could not picture a more loathsome state for a human being to be in. Those who have not loved their neighbors as their selves, will see the last vestige of self-love completely disappear.

The curse then ends with this picture:
In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.
How many times have the Israelites said, “we’d rather be slaves back in Egypt than this.” Well, in the end, they will be made so hideous, so completely pathetic, that the Egyptians sent to buy slaves will take one look at them and move on.

But Moses goes on to appeal to them that all this need not be. You can avoid this horrible curse, and instead enjoy the blessing of the law:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.
Here, as in the garden, man is given a choice between life and death. This time he is armed with the knowledge of good and evil. Will he finally do well?

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Oh How I Love Your Law (Deuteronomy 20-26)

Theocracy is quite a buzzword these days. It seems you can hardly have a discussion about the place of religion in informing public life without someone pointing out how terrible it would be if the fundamentalist Christian right had their druthers and could directly institute the Mosaic law. And, just as there is a small club of folks in Greece wanting to reinstate worship of Zeus and Apollo, there are certainly a tiny sliver of Christians who want to do just that.

This is not a political blog, and I certainly don’t want to scare away my more left-leaning readers. I do not think we should be pushing for the institution of the Mosaic law today – some of it would be horrible in our context, some of it is just primitive and antiquated, some of it is specifically fulfilled in Christ, some of it he specifically repeals (divorce for any reason?).

But, having said all this, I have a confession to make: I really love some of these laws.

Let me start with one of my favorites:
When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.
Here’s a verse for all us tree-huggers! And isn’t it true? So many of us have seen developers come in to a piece of lovely country and destroy everything – not giving a care to the living things that have lived there for generations. It breaks my heart to see a hundred year oak felled for a new strip mall, especially when, with a little love and effort, we might simply build around it. Hear oh stiff-necked Americans: The Lord your God says to spare the trees. It’s the law.

And don’t forget about the birdies:
If you come across a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself.
Again – a small token kindness to one of God’s creatures. What does it matter? There are plenty of birds out there, and trees will grow back? But part of our role as human beings is to care for creation, not oppress it. We may cut down trees if we really need to, and help ourselves to some eggs if we let the mother bird go. But our greedy desires need to be tempered with reverence for the God of creation. It’s the law.
You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.
Here’s one to bring out whenever someone points out that the Southerners used the Bible to support slavery. Despite allowing slavery in some cases, in the very next breath the law undermines the very notion, for it is written for a people of slaves set free. No need for the underground railroad here.
When you go out to war against your enemies… the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.’
There’s not much to say here – other than a sigh of satisfaction at the sheer human decency of it. There always seemed to be something quite wrong with the soldier getting married and suddenly being shipped out the next day. It is important to make sacrifices to serve your country, but the law reminds us that the State is not God – and some short-lived blessings are too precious to take away from people.

Finally, here are a group of laws that ought to make us Americans ashamed:
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.

If you go into your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor's standing grain.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.
Here, in such common-sense case law, we see the sanity that makes a fool of both individualistic libertarianism and collectivistic socialism. Your little plot of land is specially yours – God has given it to you as your own. It does not belong to the impersonal collective, but to you. And yet you have a legal obligation to be responsible, hospitable, and generous with what God has blessed you with. To withhold a few apples from those who pass by isn’t just unfriendly – it is criminal. To not leave a little in the field for the poor isn’t just greedy – it is illegal.

Our Declaration of Independence says that governments exist to secure individual rights, given to us by God. But, looking at the law of Moses, I think I see something deeper that we are missing. It’s not just about securing everybody’s rights, but about encouraging people to love their neighbors as themselves. Individual autonomy must never trump the responsibility to love, for love is the fulfillment of the law.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

You Are My Beloved Son (Deuteronomy 13-19)

Moses now turns and rehashes the requirements of the law. It’s similar to before, though I immediately notice two changes. First, there is more time spent on the reason behind the laws. Second, there is more thought given to issues likely to come up in the future – a city that God will establish as the place where they must worship, how kings must rule when they finally have one, and whether God will send another prophet like Moses.

But some things are resolutely consistent, like the warnings against idolatry. Here we run across a passage so severe, so shocking, so uncompromising, that even after everything we’ve seen still causes me to shudder:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you…if your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ … you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Here again we shout: what about love, tolerance, and respect for people’s honest opinions? We are right to do so. But perhaps it should give us pause that the paradigm of love, forgiveness, and compassion himself said,
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
The God of Israel, both then and now, insists on being first in the hearts of his people – not to lay an intolerable burden on them – but for their good. Loving the Lord with all your heart is the foundation of everything else, not least the great blessings he wants to bring on them and the world. He is the center of their story and their law.

The story is woven deep within. They are again reminded that, while there are myriads of foods they are allowed to eat, certain things are out of the question. Learning to resist the temptation of forbidden fruit was crucial in the very beginning, and is a constant reminder to them to resist the temptation of forbidden gods. Rather than follow their individual preferences, they are to enjoy the first fruits of their land in the presence of God as they celebrate his works.

The story of Exodus is the center of the law. Debts and slaves are to be released every seven years, as a way of living out in their lives the great release God gave to them as a people. Celebrating it directly is the center of their year, and the most grand of festivals. Even their kings, once they have one, must not see himself as high and lofty, but must recognize that he was once a slave with his brothers. And when they have their own land, it must be filled with justice for all – including foreigners living among them.

Their unique story is the basis of their unique vocation:
You are the sons of the Lord your God. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.
Here, I cannot help but see in the calling of Israel the face of the one that the Lord set apart as his very own, and sent into the world. He was the king who knew that he was the slave of all, who was obedient to the Father’s commands, and in whose mouth were the words of God – proclaiming freedom for all.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Heart to Heart With God (Deuteronomy 1-12)

Moses begins his great speech by reminding the Israelites where they’ve been. They’ve become a huge people, they’ve been forced to wander the wilderness for their disobedience, and they’ve crushed two kings that, under normal circumstances, should have been able to wipe the floor with them.

We often take for granted just how easy it was for the Lord to topple these nations, since the story is so famous. I recently had a more historically knowledgeable man, Stuart Koehl, reflect on just what the Israelites were up against back when Pharaoh had them trapped:
The Israelites fleeing from the Egyptians were not soldiers. Their weapons would have consisted mainly of home-made spears, farm implements like sickles, and a smattering of swords and knives. Their armor would have been non-existent. To hold off the Egyptian chariots, they would have had to come together in a tight mass (horses don't impale themselves on sharp things, nor do they charge apparently solid objects like a phalanx). Once they did so, they would be vulnerable to Egyptian arrows. Assume that the arrows are only marginally effective (a big assumption, given that the Hebrews had no armor, and thus were utterly exposed), Simply by swarming around the Israelite formation, the chariots would have pinned it in place, allowing the accompanying foot soldiers time to come up. At that point, the Israelites would have been facing well armed and armored infantry fighting in organized formations. It would have been butchery. However, the Israelites, seeing the infantry coming on, and with their cohesion already weakened by the archery barrage, probably would have broken long before contact, and then been ridden down by the chariots, whose riders would have switched from bows to spears at that point.
Instead, they rout professional armies and sack fortified cities. God has blessed them tremendously, giving them what they would never have had otherwise – a rich land of their own!

So in the light of these great blessings that this great god has given them, Moses message is simple: obey his commandments so you will thrive and take the land. God wants nothing more than to make them the envy of the nations:
For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
They really do need to come to terms with how incredible all this is:
Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
God is the great god above all heaven, incorruptible and just, and yet he chose them of all people. All he asks is their loving faithfulness – taking his words and sealing them on their hearts, not letting the blessings of this fine land cause them to take him for granted, teaching their children so that generations to come will continue to obey and be blessed. Surely this is a no-brainer!

Above all, he warns them against idolatry – even idols used to worship the Lord. God has not shown them his form, and they damn well better not create one of their own after the image of their own evil hearts. The nations currently in Canaan are being dispossessed because their idolatry has reached the point where they even burn their children alive in sacrifice to their demon gods. Moses urges them to treat idolatry like cancer – not letting the slightest bit of it infect the people, isolating any idolatrous influence and destroying it.

And yet, God finally shows a soft side. He remembers how terrified the people were of him on the mountain, and how they trusted Moses to mediate for them:
Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!
Here at last is the voice of the father who brought his son out of Egypt. He wants nothing more than to shower his love on this people. He wants them to flourish, to enjoy the good things of rural and civilized life, to have long and happy lives, all that they could ever want.

But, like a good father, he knows that he can’t spoil them, and that they are bound to fall short of where they need to be. And here he makes a resounding promise that will echo through the rest of the story:
If you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger…the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you. And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice. For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.
The Lord seems to have settled into his decision to stick with them to the end. No more thoughts of destroying them and starting over from square one. He knows that their hearts are evil even from their youth, and this is the very reason why he must not curse the ground again because of them. Something does need to be done about these hearts though, and so the great physician prescribes his law.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Children of Men

I saw the movie Children of Men last night. It was a frustrating (and horribly violent) movie, in that the story (and certainly the ending) was less than satisfying. And yet I've come to the conclusion that the story was not the point. Rather, the movie exists to paint a picture - to create an image in our minds - that is absolutely stunning. I haven't seen such powerful imagery in a movie in a long time.

(there may be "spoilers" ahead - but since I didn't think the story was the point, I can't imagine this will "spoil" anything)

The premise of the movie is an inexplicable catastrophy caused universal infertility among human beings roughly around the present day, and tell the story roughly twenty years later. The effect was to take the problems that we have - the environmental issues, immigration crises, terrorism, war, the decline of civility and morality - and then add the infertility thing on top and watch those problems multiply 100x. The image of our world without children was one of utter horror and despair. It was lacking all hope and future, plunging into anarchy and chaos.

And then, place in the middle of it, a woman and a newborn child, with a man shepherding and desperately trying to protect them. The contrast between the violent power of the men and the utter helplessness of the child was stunning. And yet the overbearing force of the government and the treacherous cunning of the rebels both stopped in breathless awe at the sight of the child. The last scenes were of the baby and the mother quietly floating out onto the water to safety, as the planes began to bomb the war-torn town to oblivion. Their power was crushing, but ultimately impotent. Their time was at an end. This baby would outlast them.

The Biblical imagery was quite strong - I thought of Mary and Joseph desperately looking for a place to stay to have the baby, then fleeing for their lives from Herod's soldiers. Here again an all-powerful empire was in the business of crushing a determined resistance. Herod was politically threatened by the Child. The Jewish resistance wanted to use the child for their own national ambitions. But ultimately all their agendas would come to ruin. This child was brining life itself to a world enslaved by death, and at his name every knee would bow.

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Spirit of the Law

We’ve come now to Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the law. Ever since the story of Abraham we have been looking forward to the day when his descendants, formerly nomads and slaves, roar into the land like a hurricane and take it for their own. The people have been rescued from Egypt, given the commandments, and purified through long years in the desert. And here they are, swords sharpened, spears in hand, horses fresh, ready for battle and slaughter, victory and spoil. Bring on the climax and the grand finale!

Why then does the Torah end, not with the great conquest of Canaan, but with a speech by Moses? It would indeed tie the Torah up in a nice little bow, beginning (almost) with the promise to Abraham and ending with the fulfillment of that promise. But this would be misleading.

Moses, more than anyone, understands the heart of the people. He knows that the war he is forbidden to join will be ambiguous at best. The people will not be faithful, the victory will not be complete, he will not be there to mediate, and God’s wrath will not be placated. What we are about to see is not the glorious fulfillment of all the Lord’s promises, but only another chapter of a much longer story.

So Moses urges everyone to reflect on what has happened so far. They’ve seen wondrous and terrifying things God has done, but do they really understand the significance of them? They’ve read his laws, but do they really know why they must be obeyed? They’re looking forward to a beautiful country in which to raise their children, but do they grasp the vision that will sustain their descendants for the long haul?

The Torah ends with a second look at the past, and a picture of what will happen in the future. Like we have already seen, it’s a deeply mixed bag. There is faithful obedience and stubborn rebellion on the part of Israel, and great salvation and terrible wrath on the part of God. The future holds much of the same.

Deuteronomy is the vision that will guide them through the best and worst of what is to come.

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