This week we begin the final book of Torah, Devarim, the words of Moshe as he spoke them to the Israelites before he died and they went into the land. Devarim is different than the rest of Torah in the kind of literature it is. The other books of Torah are either narrative material, stories told by an unnamed third person who we know as Moshe, and legal material, communicated by G-d to Moshe, which he then wrote down. Devarim, is neither. It is a collection of speeches given by Moshe, an epitaph for a man whose tomb is unknown, final words given to a nation about to experience the fulfillment of G-d’s desires for them.
Our first parasha is a speech recounting some of the journeys of Israel. It is, however, a very selective list. The exodus, Mt. Sinai, the Mishkan being set up; none of these are even mentioned. Only a few things are mentioned, the command to leave Sinai, the journey to Canaan, the debacle of the spies, the fact they wandered in the desert and the command to leave the wilderness for Canaan along with some of their relations with the nations surrounding Canaan. Moshe picked these events for a specific reason to convey a message. What is it?
There are parallel statements found in v. 1:6-7 and 2:2-3. The first is the command for the Israelites to leave Sinai to go to the promised land and the second is for the new generation to leave the mountain to go to the promised land. The consequence of the first was the sin of the spies, they refused the land and ended up wandering in the desert for forty years. G-d gave them the command to take the land and they refused. A new generation was now on their way to attempt the same feat. Moshe is speaking to them a clear warning not to repeat the mistakes of their fathers who died in the desert.
In order to encourage them, he recounts some of their military victories. He is saying to them, “Look how you handled these nations and the deliverance G-d has wrought for you, Canaan will be no more difficult”. Moshe wanted to give them a warning but also to encourage them to go into the land, that is was possible, that the first attempt was foiled not because G-d was unable to accomplish it but because the people disobeyed. If they learned from their fathers and obeyed the command of G-d, they would posses the land.
We too should learn these lessons (I Cor 10:1-13). We know that obedience to Torah is what funnels blessings and power into our lives, coupled with our union with the Messiah in the New Covenant. And we know that G-d is a G-d of grace, that just as He did not give up on the nation of Israel but disciplined them as son and then put them in a position to bless them as He had promised, so we are disciplined when we fail, not to disqualify us from blessing but to allow G-d to move us back into a position from which He can fulfill His desires for us, for goodness and for Shalom. We may, as Israel did, make foolish mistakes, but the only true fool is the one who learns nothing from them. As the saying goes, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. We need to remember Israel's history and our own and learn from the mistakes and build on the victories. Our road to maturity and effectiveness as the people of G-d will go much quicker if we do.
Devarim is generally understood to be Moshe’s ‘farewell speech’ to the people of Israel before they entered the land under Joshua. He begins this speech by recounting a little history, the majority of which is a rehash of the story about the spies. Why does he begin with this? If you remember the final Parashot of Bamidbar, the tribes of Reuven and Gad made the request to stay on the other side of the Jordan and not go into the land. Moshe at that time reacted swiftly and harshly with the charge that they could influence their brethren to repeat the sin of the spies and they would wander the desert for forty more years, or worse. He is reminding them at this point that they had better remember what happened last time they stood in this place so they don’t repeat their father’s sin.
There are some important lessons to be learned in this recounting and the contrast between Calev, who was not even a descendant of Avraham and was wholeheartedly faithful, and the other spies and the people who were influenced by their report. One of the very important ones is that sin has consequences. These people had a command to go and possess the land and they refused. G-d had men in place to encourage them, to convince them not to sin, not to rebel. They did not listen so judgement was pronounced and then they repented. The judgement was too hard for them and they decided it was better to do what G-d said. But it was too late. Often Christians will say that all you need to do is say you’re sorry and G-d forgives and life can go on as it had. That is not the picture the scriptures give of repentance. Repentance involves much more that just saying your ‘sorry’. But our concern here is that sin has consequences and they may be very long lasting and all the ‘I’m sorry’s’ in the world won’t change it. If one decides to have an affair and contracts AIDS, all the repentance in the world won’t change it. If a leader falls due to serious sin, that leader needs to step down for a long time after repentance. We tend to minimize the consequences and the time for ‘rehab’ but those consequences are there because G-d put them there and we all need to respect them for the good of us all.
The reason being that we are all responsible for each other. Calev and Joshua were faithful but although they were not condemned to die in the desert as were all the other men over twenty, they still had to spend the next four decades of their life wandering in the wilderness waiting for the punishment to be played out. Daniel and his companions were not idolaters yet they were carried off to Babylon as slaves. The first century followers of Yahushua suffered at the hands of Rome during the rebellion and the destruction of Yerushalyim. The community of Israel is a whole ‘organism’, a whole ‘body’ as Sha’ul put it. When there are people in Israel who do not adhere to the covenant, when there are individuals who engage in sin, as did Achan, everyone in the community is affected. We are all responsible to each other, we are all chained together and when one falls, we are all drug down to some degree. We do pay for the sins of the community to some degree which is why we must take our job of encouraging all the people of Israel to righteousness very seriously.
Sin is a serious thing and we need to treat it as seriously as G-d does. We need to accept our consequences as we work to make sure we don’t fall and make those consequences necessary. The community of G-d should be a righteous community, a holy community of integrity and spiritual power. We should all follow the example of Calev who followed YHVH wholeheartedly and sought to keep his brethren on the straight and narrow as well. But if we think we can sin and repent without consequences we deceive ourselves and work towards our own destruction.
A new book of the Torah begins this week. This book is unlike the previous books of Torah in many ways. It has been called Moshe’s farewell address. It is the Torah in his own words with some additional commandments that will guide them in living in the land. They were about to enter a new situation. Up until this point the had relied on the obvious presence of G-d and the miracles to sustain them. They had been isolated from the rest of the world. Once in the land they would not have the pillar of cloud and fire to guide them, they would be sowing and harvesting for their food, they would be surrounded by idolatry and hostile enemies. They would not have a man like Moshe leading them. Moshe needed to prepare them.
Notice the opening of the book, these are the words that Moshe spoke. In our previous books we had the words that YHVH spoke to Moshe and now we have Moshe speaking about what he has heard and seen. This would be the prophetic model from this point on. And the first thing that he does is recount their history to this point. We may wonder why.
The ninth of Av falls right around the time we begin Devarim. This is the day the first and second temple were destroyed, the last resistance to Rome was crushed, the deadline to leave Spain when the inquisition started and traditionally the day the spies turned the people back from the land. Even World War One, which led to the humiliation of Germany and the rise of Hitler began on the ninth of Av.
There is an intimate connection between the events of the ninth of Av and Devarim. Moshe recounts the history of Israel up to this point for a reason, he wants them to remember. Remember what? The key word is ‘Eichah’ (How) found in 1:9 of our parasha and the opening of Lamentations, read on the ninth of Av. The same root with different vowel points is found in Gen 3:9 where G-d seeks out the man—where are you? The connection is that when tragedy falls, when bad things happen, G-d says “where are you...how did you let this happen?” Often it is we who shout it to G-d but most of the time the misfortune that befalls us is the result of our own making, our own sin and disobedience. Israel fells into idolatry and the result was the destruction of the temple. They refused to go into the land and they stayed in the desert. Adam and Eve ate the fruit and the fall resulted. Each time G-d’s heart was saddened and he asked, ‘how could you let this happen?’
The question is meant to illicit a specific response and that is repentance. We are to remember the covenant, remember our failures and then change so it does not happen again. Moshe was warning the people of Israel by cataloguing their journey, using the place names as gentle reminders of sin and failure to help them remember so they would not fall into the same traps again. Rav Sha’ul said that the lessons of Israel are ones we need to take to heart, we are to learn from their mistakes. We need to remember so we stay close to the covenant and the G-d who made it so he never has to shake his head at us and wonder ‘what happened’.
In this parasha Moshe recounts some of their journey, the places they’ve been, the wars they fought, the sins they committed. I so doing, he mentions three groups of people, the Moabites, the Ammonites and the descendants of Esav. Each of these had a possession within what we may refer to as the ‘extended’ boundaries of the ‘promised land’, the boundaries that go from the Nile to the Euphrates. The children of Esav are somewhat understandable, they too were descendants of Avraham. But the children of Lot were not. Yet Moshe records their history much as he recorded Israel’s. “...YHVH destroyed them (Zamzumin) before them (Ammonites)... just as he did for the the children of Esav...”(Deut 2:21-22) God was going to drive out the Canaanites the same way, yet this was not a unique action just for the children of Avraham, Yitzak and Ya’akov. YHVH was performing miraculous deliverance's against great odds (giants) for the children of Lot and Esav as well.
This small passage brings a truth to light that is purposefully overlooked or at least neglected, something Y’shua went to great pains to rectify. The truth is that God has positive relationships with people groups outside of the direct descendants of Jacob or even Avraham. He does miracles for them as our parasha suggests, he communicates with them as he did Melchizedek, Abimelech, Balaam and Naaman, he makes promises to them as he did Egypt and Assyria in prophesy (Isa 19) and blessings to Nebuchadnezzar and Darius and the Ninevites. We have often asked the question, why did YHVH choose Avraham? The bible gives no definitive answer. His life after being chosen is exemplary with a few hitches and there is much lauding of him that goes on in Biblical and extrabiblical sources but no reason he was chosen. Could it be because he was not the only one? Has God chosen others, like Abimelech for example, to be righteous leaders of peoples? Could it be that because all these other peoples passed from the scene without a written record like the Bible that we know only of God’s intimacy with the people of Israel and only incidentally of His work among other peoples? Have the descendants of Jacob learned to claim an exclusivity that was not found in the pages of Tenach?
Y’shua seemed to think so. He said that the people of Nineveh (who never converted to Judaism upon repentance) would condemn his generation. That Tyre and Sidon, even Sodom and Gomorrah would have been more righteous if given the opportunity than his generation. And he was talking to Pharisees, the pious ones, the predecessors of the Rabbis. He said there were many in Israel who had leprosy in Elisha’s day but he chose to heal Naaman. He may have cocentrated on the lost sheep of Israel but he did not let them forget that there were plenty of other people YHVH cared about in the world that did not have their heritage, a heratige which meant little if God could make descendants of Avraham out of the rocks! God is not concerned only with the descendants of Avraham, they are not the only ones who are going to be ‘saved’, they are not the only one’s God has intimate relationship with. We are all made in his image, we all possess a spark of His infinite nature. No one’s lineage can give one more or less of that image or that spark. God is not discriminatory, it only appears that way because we read the Bible with assumptions passed on to us by the Jews themselves, assumptions commandeered by Christians and accepted by all western style religions. Jews claim they are the only chosen people, Christians say the claim was passed on to them, they are the new Israel and the Muslims make the same claim. You and I are already made in His image, we have a connection to Him that already exists and just needs to be revealed. We don’t need to become something to be made in the image of God, we already are. We don’t have to join some group to find Him, the Kingdom is within us.
I have been involved with or researched most forms of ‘Messianic’ religion over the last decade and they all suffer from this problem. The Jewish people did not learn exclusivity until after the Babylonian captivity. Since that time they have developed the idea that they are the only chosen one’s of God and if one is not part of their group, however they define it (a big problem all by itself!), one cannot be saved or even know God. Y’shua’s community had this problem and they resolved that one did not have to become a Jew (as if some operation could change your parentage!) or practice pharisaic Judaism to be saved/know God. This lesson was quickly forgotten. Christians arose and claimed the mantle of ‘God’s chosen people’ and the lie that God only chooses one certain group out of all the people of the world was perpetuated, now by the Jews and the Christians. Most Messianics try to believe both, there being some advantage to being a descendant of Avraham but the Christians are the real chosen ones. Nazarenes believe that the Jews are the only chosen ones and therefore one has to be or become a Jew even in Messiah to be one of the chosen. Two House proponents believe they have a hidden lineage that connects them with Avraham and thus they put themselves in the ‘descendants of Avraham are the only chosen ones’ category. All this does is allow men to set themselves up as gatekeepers to heaven and set up their religious criteria for entrance. We do not need any gatekeeper but Messiah who said repent, the kingdom of God was at hand, in fact inside of us. I do not need a priest, pastor, rabbi or teacher to give me what I already have. The kingdom, the principles of the Torah, the revelation of God are all inside, covered over by the stony heart of pride, self and knowledge. Remove those things and the child of God will be revealed in each of us no matter who we are, where we are from or who our parents are.
Before Moshe begins his farewell speech to the nation, there is an innocuous little geographic statement that sets the tone for the rest of the speech. “...eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mt. Sier to Kadesh-Barnea.” (1:2) They were on the edge of the land, an eleven day journey from Horeb or Sinai, the mountain of God where they had met YHVH and received the first instructions of the Torah. Eleven days...it had taken them forty years to reach this point. He follows this with a litany of the failures of the previous generation. They complained, they disobeyed, they rejected the land, it was their fault he was not going into the land. Why was this necessary, why did Moshe need to repeat the failures of the previous generation?
As it is often said, you only go around once. We come into this life created in the image of the creator, and in that we are all the same. We have different physical and mental abilities and deficiencies, we are born into differing economic, social and religious situations. The generation that came out of Egypt had the worst of circumstances. Individually and corporately they were slaves, isolated from the rest of the world in ignorance and hopelessness. Yet within each man and woman is the desire for freedom, the innate understanding that such a situation is not just, that there is something better. Moshe had it as one born in Pharaoh’s household but so did Aaron and some of the elders and even younger men like Joshua. It was these who could see thier potential and were willing to follow Moshe to see that potential realized.
With the initial exodus, the people were jubilant. Their slavery was over. They were going to a great land and would become a great nation. But as soon as difficulties arose and they realized that this new situation was unlike what they had know and their old worldview was not going to work, instead of adjusting their living and thinking, they wanted to go back. Even though slavery was the antithesis of the freedom they were heading to, even though it suppressed their natural inclination and regimented their lives and thoughts in a way that kept them from ever becoming anything, it was familiar and comfortable. They preferred it. Moshe knew the hold it would have, I’m sure there were times he wished he could have returned as well. Moshe, however, had burnt his bridges when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. He burnt Israel’s bridges through the plagues, making them odious to the Egyptians and finally putting a geographic barrier, the Red Sea, in their path of return. They would be forced to adjust or perish. After a year of incessant rebellion culminating in the spy incident, they chose to perish. This new generation must not repeat their mistakes.
Every man and woman has the same option the Israelites did. No reasonably healthy person with basic mental capabilities could start off in a worse situation than the Israelites in Egypt. It may take time but each person has the ability to go on the journey to realize their potential as a being created in God’s image. We may seem to be far away from setting out or we may console ourselves with the idea that we can achieve our potential while we remain in Egypt (or Babylon). We can do theological gymnastics and reduce our expectations like the fundamentalist Christian who says that miracles and the like were only for a particular time. We live our lives in comfort and think that we have the best we can attain. Or even if we know that there is so much more and that we are only scratching the surface of spiritual potential, we do not know what we should do or, if we have an idea, we are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve it.
Y’shua said that it profits a man nothing if he gains the world and loses his soul; that no one who loves his life will save it, only the one that loses it; that no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is worthy of the kingdom; that anyone who loves his family more than him is not worthy. Our examples are the pearl merchant who sold all he had for the most perfect pearl and the merchant who found a treasure and sold all he had to acquire the field and the treasure. There are only two types of people in this world. Those who are stagnant and those who are moving. The stagnant ones may remain so because they’ve convinced themselves this is their best or because they fear the unknown or because they lack the discipline to succeed. Those that are moving are those who have left their physical and theological Babylon, have burned their bridges and are on the journey to Zion, physically and spiritually, two things that are really the same.