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D'varim/Deuteronomy 9:6 And you know that [it is] not on account of your righteousness [that] the L-rd your G-d is giving to you this good land to possess her
The Hebrew of the text is relatively straightforward. The first verb, , is the Qal affix 2mp form of the root to know or understand. The may a simple vav preceeding a stative verb1, translated in the present tense as above: "And you know". Alternatively, the vav may be a vav-reversive, which would then translate in the future tense - "And you shall/should know" (Artscroll) - or imperative: "Know" (ESV, NASB) or "Understand" (NIV). Drazin and Wagner suggest "Let it be clear to you". The second verb, , is a Qal participle ms from the root , to give. The third, , is the Qal infinitive of the root , to take, seize or possess, here with a 3fs suffix, so "to possess her" where 'her' refers to "this good Land".
The word is a fs noun, , with a prefix, 'in' or 'on' - here "because of" or "on account of" - and a 2mf possessive pronoun suffix: 'your'. The noun is most often translated 'justice' or 'righteousness' from the root verb meaning "to be just, righteous, in the right" (Davidson). Moshe is telling the Israelites that they are only too well aware thatHaShem cannot possibly be giving them the Land of Israel because of their own righteousness or good behaviour. The whole story that Moshe is in the middle of relating to them, of the forty years in the desert since leaving Egypt, is one of repeated grumbling, rebellion and other bad behaviour. Yes, the Land is good; yes, HaShem is giving it to them to possess as their inheritance; but no, not because they deserve it or have done anything to earn it. He is doing this, as Moshe will shortly say, because "The L-RD set His heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day" (D'varim 10:15, ESV).
Targum Onkelos changes for , an Aramaic noun which often means 'merit' from a root meaning "to be clear, righteous, worthy or not guilty" (Jastrow). in rabbinic Judaism is frequently spoken of as transferable; teaching that merit earned by one party - most often the patriarchs and matriarchs - may be drawn down and used by another party, typically later generations. This is described by Drazin and Wagner as proxy , by which once can vicariously tap into the reward owed to others for their righteous acts2. Although this is a rabbinic concept, Onkelos carefully uses the word with the equivalent 2ms possessive pronoun suffix, making it clear that Moshe is only referring in this text to any reward that the Israelites might have earned themselves. They hadn't.
HaShem sent the prophet Jonah to go and announce His judgement upon the city of Nineveh: "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me" (Jonah 1:2, JPS). Ignoring for the moment the question of Jonah's little excursion towards Tarshish and the fishy intervention HaShem used to get him back on the beach, Jonah's commission remained firm: "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you" (3:2, JPS). When he reached Nineveh, Jonah's message was brief and to the point: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (v. 4, JPS). And the result? The people repented. So much so, the text tells us, that "The people of Nineveh believed G-d. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth" (v. 5, JPS). Even the king wore sackcloth and sat in ashes; he sent out instructions that the whole city - man and beast - should fast and wear sackcloth: "Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that G-d may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish" (vv. 8-9, JPS). So the people earned lots of merit by their fasting, the sackcloth and the ashes so that G-d rewarded them by cancelling the judgement? What does the text say that G-d saw - was He impressed by the sackcloth and ashes? "G-d saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And G-d renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out" (v. 10, JPS). No, G-d saw that the people turned back from their evil ways. That was why He cancelled the judgement.
So why do we fast today? Why do churches call communal days of prayer and fasting? Are they trying to earn G-d's favour so that He will grant their requests? Yeshua mentions fasting in the gospels and there are two instances in the book of Acts, but Rav Sha'ul and the other letter-writers don't mention it at all. On the contrary, Rav Sha'ul does explicitly say, "Don't let anyone deny you the prize by insisting that you engage in self-mortification" (Colossians 2:18, CJB). There is one reference to married couples abstaining from marital relations - "Do not deprive each other, except for a limited time, by mutual agreement, and then only so as to have extra time for prayer; but afterwards, come together again" (1 Corinthians 7:5, CJB) - that gives us a clue about what is going on. Times of fasting (of food or relations) are not about earning merit or reward, but for prayer, for working on our own relationship with G-d free from the distractions of food - or perhaps, putting our need for G-d before our need for food, so that He and we both know that He comes first.
When Luke records, "And while they were ministering to the L-rd and fasting, the Holy Spirit said ..." (Acts 13:2, NASB), he is speaking of the church in Antioch, who were worshipping, praying and fasting before the L-rd and the Holy Spirit spoke to them. Later, during Sha'ul's journeys, "when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the L-rd in whom they had believed" (14:23, NASB). Sha'ul spends time fasting and praying before the L-rd, encouraging the new elders of the churches to learn this habit, and making sure that he has heard correctly from the L-rd about the men and the positions they were to fill.
How then should we treat fasting today? Not as a tool to manipulate G-d into doing what we want, certainly. He will not answer or respond to such attempts, except possibly to correct our understanding. We need to recognise that we do not earn favour or relationship with G-d: as believers in Messiah Yeshua He already loves us and has redeemed us. He has promised us everything that we need in Messiah: "Since He did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for the sake of all of us, then can we not expect that with Him He will freely give us all his gifts?" (Romans 8:32, NJB). Fasting is to be done in a 'private' way, while that may be in or by a community or church, it is not to be done for show or outward appearance: "when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:17-18, ESV). And fasting may be applied to many things: for some, a three-day abstinence of using the Internet or their mobile 'phone may be a much more significant sacrifice than forgoing food for a few meals; others might fast from make-up, alcohol or magazines - the point of the exercise is to put G-d demonstrably first in our lives, to proclaim that our spiritual lives are more important than our physical bodies or our stuff and to humble ourselves before Him.
G-d has called us into His kingdom, set us free and redeemed us in His Son Yeshua and "in the Messiah has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heaven" (Ephesians 1:3, CJB). He has done this because of His desire that "none should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). We have not and cannot earn this; before we came to Him, we were "dead in our trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1) and deserved only judgement. But He reached out to us and made a way - Yeshua, on the cross - for us to have relationship with Him and, like the ancient Israelites, to have an inheritance to possess: "treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal" (Matthew 6:20, NASB).
1. - A verb describing the state of the subject; often verbs describing emotion: love, hate, know, etc.
2. - This is frequently seen within Orthodox Judaism when someone is ill. Members of the family or community will recite psalms, take on extra commandments or give charity "in the merit" of the sick person.
Further Study: Acts 4:33-35; Ephesians 2:8-10; 2 Timothy 1:8-9
Application: Are you secure in your inheritance? Forget what the world says; take time to review the evidence and hear what G-d has said about it. Then you will know what and why you possess!
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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