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D'varim/Deuteronomy 1:42 You shall not go up and you shall not fight for I am not in your midst; then you will not be struck down before your enemies.
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The translation offered above is fairly literal, following the structure of the Hebrew text. A more paraphrased translation brings out the sharpness of the words: "Don't go up and don't fight, because I am not with you; if you do, your enemies will defeat you!" Robert Alter translates the last phrase as, "lest you be routed by your enemies."1 Moshe is recounting - to the current generation of Israelites -HaShem's words nearly forty years earlier to the Exodus generation after they had believed the bad report of the ten spies and refused to go up to start taking possession of the Promised Land. On hearing HaShem's pronouncement that the entire generation would die in the wilderness, they changed their minds and decided to go up after all. It was on the following morning that they informed Moshe of their new-found willingness and received these words from HaShem. Or did they?
Looking back to the original event as recorded in parashat Sh'lakh L'cha, we find Moshe saying, "Do not go up, lest you be routed by your enemies, for the LORD is not in your midst" (B'Midbar 14:42, NJPS). Bar the extra bit in our text about fighting and the slightly different phrase order, this looks very similar in translation. It is only when taking a close look at the Hebrew that we see a small but significant difference. Whereas our text starts , the earlier version starts . Our text - attributing the words to HaShem - uses the negative particle , whereas Moshe's original words use the negative particle .Rashi offers the enigmatic comment, "'do not go up' - it will not be an ascent for you, but a descent." Explaining this, Avigdor Bonchek writes: "Rashi has compared this verse with the original and noticed the change from there to here. is always a command; can be a command or a statement, allowing Rashi to see this as a prediction: you will not succeed."2 It is as if Moshe, now reporting HaShem's actual words, took the statement "you will not go up, it will be a disaster" and turned it into a command "don't go up" that the people promptly ignored.
Why would the people ignore Moshe? Had they suddenly decided that he is irrelevant? Jeffrey Tigay thinks not; he proposes that they have a more serious problem: "From their preparations to attack the land it was clear that the people believed that G-d was as inconstant as they and would not enforce His decree if they would reverse themselves." The people didn't think that HaShem was being serious. Perhaps this was just a fit of pique; who in their right mind would waste forty years in the desert? If they changed their minds and said they would go up, of course HaShem would work with that. It was what He wanted all along, right? Tigay again: "Israel's faith in their ability to overcome militarily superior enemies was based on the belief that G-d was present in their midst and fighting for them (see, for example, "'By this,' Joshua continued, "you shall know that a living G-d is among you, and that He will dispossess for you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the Ark of the Covenant of the Sovereign of all the earth is advancing before you into the Jordan." (Joshua 3:10-11, NJPS))." Significantly, the original narrative tells us that even though the people marched out, "neither the L-RD's Ark of the Covenant nor Moshe stirred from the camp" (B'Midbar 14:44, NJPS).
So what had got into the people? Walter Brueggemann says that "Israel's new willingness to fight is an act of disbelief fully commensurate with its earlier refusal to fight. Both refusal and willingness, without YHVH, are hopeless acts of self-destruction. To fight without YHVH is an act of disbelief. The outcome is predictable."3 Christopher Wright remembers that Israel hadn't heard such dreadful words since the episode of the Calf when HaShem said, "I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people, lest I destroy you on the way" (Shemot 33:3, NJPS) and the people went into state of shock and mourning. "On that occasion, Moshe had realised only too clearly the implications of such an absence of G-d in their midst and told G-d that he would prefer to stay put in the wilderness rather than move forward without the presence of G-d (vv. 15-16). Here, however, the people show no such awareness of the reality of their situation. The result demonstrated beyond all doubt that the only criterion of their success or failure lay in whether or not Yahweh was with them."4
Later in Israel's history, the narrative tells us about Israel going out to battle against the Philistines - and being roundly defeated. The Israelite leaders conclude that they lost the battle because HaShem wasn't in their midst, so they decide, "Let's bring the ark for the covenant of ADONAI from Shiloh to us, so that he will come among us and save us from our enemies" (1 Samuel 4:3, CJB). The ark comes up to the camp, accompanied by Hofni and Pinchas, the two sons of Eli the priest, but although the Israelite army cheers wildly - scaring the Philistines to pieces - and their morale is greatly increased, the Philistines fought like crazy, "Isra'el was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. It was a terrible slaughter - 30,000 of Isra'el's foot soldiers fell" (v. 10, CJB). Eli's sons were both killed and the ark was captured by the Philistines. Why? What was happening? This was because Eli's two sons had despised the L-rd's offerings and slept with the women serving at the Tabernacle, thus abusing their positions as priests and defiling the sancturary, and Eli had not stopped them. The L-rd had told Eli said, "your two sons Hofni and Pinchas ... will both die on the same day. I will raise up for myself a faithful cohen who will do what I want and what I intend" (2:34-35, CJB). The priesthood and the tabernacle worship had become corrupt and the presence of G-d was not among the people.
The Psalmist comments on the need for G-d to be involved in everything we do: "Unless ADONAI builds the house, its builders work in vain. Unless ADONAI guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain" (Psalm 127:1, CJB). All activities, from the smallest to the greatest, need divine action and involvement. Without that, we are simply wasting our time; our effort will accomplish nothing. We need, the Psalmist records, to increase rather than decrease our dependence on Him: "In vain do you get up early and put off going to bed, working hard to earn a living; for He provides for His beloved, even when they sleep" (v. 2, CJB).
Reluctant though many are to hear it, it seems that there is a positive correlation between our obedience to G-d and the presence of G-d in our lives. Yeshua put it this way in His parable about the two men who built houses: "Everyone who comes to Me, hears My words and acts on them - I will show you what he is like: he is like someone building a house who dug deep and laid the foundation on bedrock. When a flood came, the torrent beat against that house but couldn't shake it, because it was constructed well. And whoever hears My words but doesn't act on them is like someone who built his house on the ground without any foundation. As soon as the river struck it, it collapsed and that house became a horrendous wreck!" (Luke 6:47-49, CJB). If we want to experience the presence of Yeshua in our lives, actually listening to Him and then doing what He says is absolutely foundational. As He says to the people: "Why do you call Me, 'Lord! Lord!' but not do what I say?" (v. 46, CJB). It makes no sense, but that is what many people do. Even though they claim to be followers of Yeshua, they put their autonomy above obedience, their rights above His sovereignty and their wants above His commands. Consequently, they have no presence of G-d in their lives, no signs or manifestations of His power in the things they do and no echo of His words in their speech. Their ark has been captured by the Philistines!
Revisiting our text, Ronald Clements makes a telling point that we need to hear today: "The L-rd's presence must remain in the midst of the people if they are to secure victory. Without this presence, no victory can be won and defeat becomes inevitable."5 We, as Yeshua's disciples, need to remember that. How often do we try and do things in our own strength that although they seem good or even biblical are not on G-d's agenda for us, or are not being done in G-d's timing? The result is sure: they will not and do not succeed. Instead, unlike Eli and his sons, we must clean our house and cultivate the presence of G-d so that we can hear Him clearly and act promptly to do what He tells us when He does - and He will!
1. - Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, (New York, Norton, 2004), page 885.
2. - Avigdor Bonchek, What's Bothering Rashi, Volume 5, Devarim (New York, Feldheim, 2002), page 35.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 33.
4. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 31.
5. - Ronald E. Clements, "Deuteronomy" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 873.
Further Study: Isaiah 55:3-5; Jeremiah 3:16-17; Matthew 17:5; 2 Timothy 3:1-5
Application: Have you cleaned your spiritual house recently so as to be ready to go up and fight when the Master calls? If we are to take and hold ground for the kingdom, we must know the presence of the Commander-in-Chief and be ready to act when and wherever He directs.
Comment - 01:22 11Jul21 KCB: Yes! And if Thy Presence goes not with us then carry us not up hence! I will admit that I do need to do some housecleaning!
Comment - 06:13 11Jul21 Nanci Miller: This drash particularly hit home for me. Yeshua seemed to constantly be checking in with His Father through prayer and dependency on the Holy Spirit. In order to only do what the Father was doing and to say only what He was saying, the Son had to be constantly watching and listening to His Father through prayer and inner attentiveness. If Yeshua needed to live that way on earth, how much more do we.
Comment - 14:23 11Ju21 Joshua VanTine: Appreciated the drash; it was a timely reminder and the opening pasuk from D'varim 1:42 clearly set the tone. Thinking upon Israel's rebellion to obey at first and then changing their tactic but not their hearts to go and conquer, how that is a oft repeated mistake. May we indeed allow the words of our Rabbi Yeshua to be the foundation we build upon. The phrase dull of hearing comes to mind and makes me conclude that lawlessness in the heart always leads to hearing loss as the Holy One's substance cannot reside within.
Comment - 10:04 19Jul21 Brian and Anne Nelson: Our Father in Heaven, Please continue to pour out Your Love, Grace, Mercy, Forgiveness, Your Gift of Repentance, for which we daily cry out ! It is only through the Righteousness of Messiah Yeshua Hamashiach of Nazareth, and King of The Jews that we can even respond to You. Please draw us Heavenly Father. We come. Keep me faithful dear Lord, pure, and clean that I may always be Your Vessel for Your Glory alone. In Your precious Name; Name above all Names
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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