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D'varim/Deuteronomy 32:15 Jeshurun became fat and kicked. You became fat, you were gross, you were covered with fat. And he abandoned G-d his maker
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This text comes as the pivotal verse in the song that Moshe teaches to the Israelites at the end of his long final address on the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan river opposite Jericho. After several verses describing how HaShem has looked after the people - bringing them through the wilderness and giving them the heights of the earth in which to dwell - Moshe now explains how things go wrong. The name 'Jeshurun' is used only four times in the Tanakh; three times here in Moshe's closing words and once by the prophet Isaiah (44:2) - all to refer to the people Israel. Philologists suggest that both the names 'Israel' and 'Jeshurun' are drawn from the same root , meaning "to be right, upright, undivided, straight,"1 so this use may be a reference to Israel - both as a nation and as individuals - as the people who do the right thing, who are honest and upright, who keep their word and who observe the words of Torah faithfully.
Our text looks forward to a time when Israel has entered and is settled in the Land, has started to enjoy the benefits of "a land flowing with milk and honey" (D'varim 6:3), when they have inherited "great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant" (vv. 10-11, Buble(NJPS)) and have indeed eaten their fill. Perhaps a little too well! The first word of the text, - the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to be or become fat (Davidson), from which we also get the noun , most often meaning oil, but also richness, fatness and fertility - tells us what has happened. The people have been too well oiled; no longer the lean and healthy men of the desert years, they have put on weight and become petulant and stroppy. They kick out and protest against any restraint.
The second part of the verse - like the first part, just three Hebrew words - consists of three almost identical verbs. is the Qal 2ms affix form of the same root as the first word in the verse, ; is the Qal 2ms affix form of the root , to be thick or gross; is the Qal 2ms affix form of the root , to be covered with fat.Rashi tells us that the last verb is like a person who is fat on the inside, and his flanks lie in folds on the outside. The Artscroll translation used the word 'corpulent'! Targum Onkelos changes the three verbs to "prospered, grew strong and acquired possessions", so connecting the warning to practical things that apply in every age. The early sages say that "when the people had an abundance of food, drink and ease of life, they rebelled" and point to the verse: "When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant" (D'varim 31:20, NJPS).
The third part of the verse - another three Hebrew words, tells us what happened as result of being satiated with the goodness of the Land. , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , "to leave, forsake or abandon", with a vav-conversive to give past tense consecutive narrative, is very clear: Israel turned away from G-d, their maker. Feeling that they had no need - after all, there they were surrounded by plenty of everything that made for a good life - ofHaShem and His Torah, they abandoned Him and His commandments. Even though He was their maker - not only had He created them and given them life, He had made them what they now were - they abandoned the awkwardness of having to be accountable to someone else and voted for autonomy and their own choices. Rabbi Hirsch comments that, "That is the history of Israel. It did not use the abundance and surplus with which it was blessed to increased spiritual and moral achievements, not to the fuller carrying out of its mission ... It did not understand how to remain master of its riches and good fortune, did not know how to use them for purposes of mitzvot, it allowed itself to be overcome by riches and good fortune and its better, spiritual moral self to be ruined by it."
Quoting from Isaiah - "Their land is full of silver and gold, there is no limit to their treasures; their land is full of horses, there is no limit to their chariots. And their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have wrought" (Isaiah 2:7-8, NJPS) - the early rabbis suggest that our text refers to "the three generations preceding the days of Messiah" (Sifrei, Piska 318). Both Isaiah andSifrei seem remarkably prescient about the days in which we live, given the number of centuries between them and now. What would Isaiah have made of our motorways and roads full of cars and the modern obsession with money and possessions! Surely we are living on the edge of the days of Messiah as the events of the last hundred and twenty years2 have shown. The Sforno too uses Isaiah's harsh words about his contemporaries to criticise the ancients: "Priest and prophet are muddled by liquor; they are confused by wine, they are dazed by liquor; they are muddled in their visions, they stumble in judgment" (Isaiah 28:7, NJPS). "The congregation of Torah adherents and men who are scholars and philosophers," he says, "have turned to material pleasures and 'grown thick' [by which he means 'incapable'] of understanding subtle truths." If we secularise these words to talk about politicians, technocrats and other so-called experts today, we can all to easily see contemporary leaders and experts - be that economics, law, medicine, climate or industry - who are completely out of their depth and offer conflicting and confusing judgements that are then used as the basis for faulty, impractical and sometimes immoral legislation.
Marvelling at their lack of self-awareness,Ibn Ezra comments that "it never occurred to the Israelites (as it should have done) to say to themselves, 'You have grown fat' and so forth." Israelite society was completely numbed to their own position. Jeffrey Tigay compares them to "an unruly, rebellious animal. Instead of being satisfied and docile from being fed, Israel rejected Him who fed it." Isaiah reports HaShem saying that, "An ox knows its owner, an ass its master's crib: Israel does not know, My people takes no thought" (1:3, NJPS). Walter Brueggemann summarises: "Israel's condition was one of satiation: fat, bloated, gorged. Israel was no longer needy and could not remember its dependence upon YHVH."3
We have recently heard the shofar being blown, a trumpet blast to bring everyone to their senses and a remembrance of G-d. The shofar reminds us that this is how Yeshua will come when He returns: "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet [shofar] of G-d" (1 Thessalonians 4:16, ESV). Have you ever been to a performance of Handel's Messiah and heard the bass singer start the aria "The trumpet shall sound ..." without it sending shivers down your spine? Many do; they go for the music, the fundraising, the social custom - and fail to hear the words that could change their lives. Our material culture has overfed and over-stimulated us so that we have turned away from G-d, deeming Him unwanted, unnecessary and even non-existent. We eat our avocados, flown half-way around the world from Peru where the public water supply is restricted and contaminated because of intensive avocado farming for export, cook our beef steaks, from cattle that are fed on too much corn/maize and other processed animal protein that they were never designed to eat, and wash them down with quantities of alcohol that would have made our grandmothers (let alone our ancestors) wince and give us heart disease and sclerosis of the liver. We have become fat, gross and corpulent; obesity is becoming endemic and we don't care. We just complain about the infringement of our rights by those who try to limit the excesses and dare to lecture us about human or animal rights.
As we hear the shofar cry, we need to wake up and realise that our world is rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket. Human greed and excess are bringing us to a place we have never been: beyond the point of sustainability - ecologically or morally! Creation is crying out under the strains of our consumption and wickedness. There is only one answer: repentance and a turning away from our ways of indulgence and sin. The world needs - and is going to get, sooner than it expects and whether it likes it or not - Yeshua and, through Him, a return to and alignment with the ways of G-d. The Scriptures tell us that "This Yeshua, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11, ESV. We know the exact point of His return - "On that day His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east" (Zechariah 14:4, ESV) and that "every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him" (Revelation 1:7, ESV). When He returns, "from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron" (19:15, ESV). Abuse and exploitation will be ended; waste and excess will cease and "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the L-RD as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14, ESV). The Psalmist warns the nations: "Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the L-RD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him" (Psalm 2:10-12, ESV).
Every day, G-d reaches out to call people to repentance and invites them to join His kingdom and become a part of the solution rather than the problem. Perhaps particularly during the High Holy Day season, as we consider that it might just be at this time that Yeshua does return. That is why the Bible says, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts" (Hebrews 3:15, ESV). Through the prophet G-d proclaimed, "In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you" (Isaiah 49:8, ESV) and then Rav Sha'ul explained that "now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2, ESV). Every day in this age is a day of salvation, but especially today, because today is the day when all the pieces join up and we can hear the apostle saying, "We implore you on behalf of Messiah, be reconciled to G-d" (2 Corinthians 5:20, ESV). Will you hear the Spirit speaking to you today? The choice is with you!
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 168.
2. - Assuming around forty years per generation, 3 x 40 = 120, which takes us back to 1900 CE.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 279.
Further Study: Isaiah 57:15-16; Psalm 9:7-10; Luke 4:18-21
Application: Have you drifted away from your relationship with G-d and "abandoned the love you had at first" (Revelation 2:4, ESV)? Or has it suddenly occurred to you that you don't really know Him as well as you thought you did? Perhaps you have just come out in a cold sweat because you don't know Him at all. In all cases, this verse applies to you: "a bruised reed He will not break, and a smouldering wick He will not quench" (Matthew 12:20, ESV). Make the call right now and get sorted out. Yeshua is waiting for you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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