Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law. Rembrandt, 1659, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (Wikipedia).
July 14, 2019
This Sunday, we return to the book of Deuteronomy. We read from it several times last fall and let us take a moment to review. It is literally translated “second law,” but might be better called the second reading of the law. The law did not change, but the tablets on which they were written were destroyed when Moses smashed them after he discovered the Hebrews worshipping the golden calf. It is the 5th book of the Bible and concludes the Pentateuch/Torah. It is composed of a series of addresses by Moses to the Hebrews as they prepare to invade Canaan. As we have seen so many times before, the writings of the Pentateuch had a long history of creation. Rabbinic Judaism held that Moses lived from 1391 to 1271 BC. Therefore, his original exhortation would have been in the late 1200s BC. This is obviously a guess and we are not quite certain to what kind of group he was speaking, nor exactly of what the law consisted.
We are on firmer ground during the reign of King Josiah who reigned between 640 and 609 BC. Two developments marked his times. In 627 the Assyrian king, who effectively controlled Judean kingdom, died and there was a succession battle. Josiah saw this as a moment to seek independence. Around the same time, he started to renovate the temple and discovered a copy of the law. This we may assume is the central part of the book of Deuteronomy (12:4–7). This discovery provoked a religious revival and part of this revival was editing this primitive version of Deuteronomy and adapting it for his day.
Therefore, as they sought to free themselves not only from military connection with Assyria, but also its mental and spiritual dominion, Josiah’s editors included new material on refusing to follow foreign gods. This meant destroying temples and places of worship to other gods in the countryside, worshipping only in Jerusalem (12 4–7), and not listening to any other god or supposed source of wisdom (6:14) They did not, however, fail to learn from the great prophets of the 8th century the importance of social justice.
Josiah was killed in 609 BC and a series of events led to the destruction of the temple and the exile of the leadership of Judea to Babylon by 587. Although it seemed the end of the people, one of the great miracles of history occurred and Persian leader Cyrus offered the people an opportunity to return to Jerusalem as his colonial administrators. The final editor of Deuteronomy was one of those who accepted this invitation and we see that many passages of it reflect these concerns.
The editor or editors looked back on a long history of great successes and colossal failures. They must ask what did the people learn? They sum it up briefly:
Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and be no longer stiff-necked.
This is not to say that they wished to abandon circumcision. It was a very visible sign of their identity and commitment. Yet they recognized after all this time, it was almost blasphemous, if not balanced by a change of heart, which actively seeks justice. This was developing among the prophets as well:
Egypt and Judah, Edom and the Ammonites, Moab and the desert dwellers who shave their temples. For all these nations, like the whole house of Israel, are uncircumcised in heart.
In the section immediately before what we read this Sunday, Moses says:
Though you may have been driven to the farthest corner of the world, even from there will the LORD, your God, gather you; even from there will he bring you back.
The LORD, your God, will then bring you into the land which your fathers once occupied, that you too may occupy it, and he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers.
(Deuteronomy 30: 4–5)
The editors are now back in the promised land although they were in literal exile. They are there because they heard the word of God and obeyed it. He then promises:
The LORD, your God, will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, that you may love the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, and so may live
This life is right in front of them. It is found in the lived experience of their community expressed in the Law:
For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you.
It is not up in the sky, that you should say, “Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?”
Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?”
No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.
Our section ends here but the next line is the most powerful:
Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom
Note that line is “life and prosperity” and “death and doom.” Life is more than just physical existence. It is the prosperity that flows from being connected to God:
You will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy
True prosperity requires close relationships with others and justice towards all as much as stuff.
Death is not only the end of earthly existence but the doom that follows from it:
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen, but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy.
These were people who thought in the concrete. The sense of the resurrection from the dead and eternal life were developing at the time. I find it refreshing. What does our obedience to God do for anyone here and now? The final editors were heirs to prophets as well as lawyers and they knew the perils of injustice. Couldn’t we use a bit of this ourselves? Have we embraced the life God offers to us firmly enough that we shall live? Let us aim for prosperity in the fullest possible sense, for the greatest number of people, in the widest possible area.