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.