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D'varim/Deuteronomy 32:41 ... that I shall sharpen the glitter of my sword and My hand will hold justice; I will return vengeance to My enemies and to those who hate Me, I shall repay.
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The context of our text is an oath formula at the end of the previous verse, "For I will raise My hand to heaven and say: As I live forever ..." (D'varim 32:40), which essentially inverts what follows so that it reads: "As I live forever, if I do not sharpen" - that is to say, "I certainly will sharpen". Given his experience of life in mediaeval France and Germany,Rashi knows that swords are usually notched, dull and tarnished, so he paraphrases the first phrase to "I will sharpen the blade of My sword, so that it should have a shine." The sword will be so sharp that its faces and edges will shine. The construct , literally "the glitter or lightning of my sword", draws from the verb , to lighten or send forth lightning. Targum Onkelos renders the phrase as "My sword will be revealed as double the flashing of lightning from one end of heaven to the other." This is a terrible weapon, slicing and cutting through whatever it touches.
, I will sharpen, the Qal 1cs affix form of the geminate root , to sharpen, or to whet,1 is only used nine times in the Hebrew Bible. TheRashbam gives another example from the Psalms - "who sharpen their tongues like swords" (Psalm 64:4) - to talk about groups of evil men, while Ibn Ezra supplies the phrase "a sharpened arrow" (Proverbs 25:18) to describe a man who bears false witness against his neighbour.
In the second phrase of the verse - "My hand shall hold justice" - the verb , to seize, catch, hold (Davidson) is translated 'grasp' by many English translations, indicating the force with which justice, also translated 'judgement', is being held. Onkelos offers, "My hand will seize hold with judgement." Drazin and Wagner comment, "G-d is holding with strength." Rashi suggests that the phrase means, "by leaving aside the attribute of mercy towards My enemies who harmed you, for I was a little angry, but they went beyond My will in their persecution of Israel: 'I am very angry with those nations that are at ease; for I was only angry a little, but they overdid the punishment' (Zechariah 1.15, NJPS)." Ibn Ezra says that "the sword is the 'judgement' wreaked by a warrior", and Jeffrey Tigay adds that "in the light of the parallel term 'blade' (lit. sword), must mean a weapon of judgement." By matching 'sword' with 'judgement', this shows thatHaShem's vengeance will be absolutely just, appropriate, measure for measure and not - like their behaviour - in excess. The sword and judgement need to be held firmly together to stay in step - as if HaShem is holding one in each hand.
The last half of our text tells us why HaShem is holding a sword and justice in His hands: He is going to pay the nations back for the way they treated His people, Israel. Wait a minute, though; doesn't Tanakh tell us that HaShem Himself summoned the nations to punish Israel for their sins? How is it fair for Him to punish them for obeying Him? We have the answer in the comment above: not only did they exceed their commission by punishing Israel beyond their instructions, but they took pleasure in doing it. So the enemy's punishment will be merited; theSforno says, "the payment of measure for measure." The prophet is quite explicit when speaking against Edom: "As you did, so shall it be done to you; your conduct shall be requited" (Obadiah 15, NJPS). Ibn Ezra again: "I will 'return' vengeance to My foes. I will return what they did to Israel and thus repay them." Although enemies- in various guises and forms - are used by G-d as agents for punishing Israel, that enemy remains His foe. It seems that the Bible implicitly assumes that G-d uses evil nations to punish Israel and that they, in their turn, will ultimately be punished.
In the earliest rabbinic commentary to the book of D'varim, the rabbis pick up on the word , "those who hate Me", and say that "this refers to the heretics" (Sifrei Piska 331), citing David's words of confession to HaShem: "O L-RD, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe Your adversaries. I feel a perfect hatred toward them; I count them my enemies" (Psalm 139:21-22, NJPS). Anyone who hates You, David says, I will hate and reckon them as my enemies too. The only problem with that today is that as soon as anyone is our enemy, they are covered by Yeshua's words to the disciples: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44, ESV). This is a measure of our sonship as children of the Father who, Yeshua tells us in the next breath, "makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (v. 45, ESV). We are to love our enemies as Yeshua does, so that we prove to be His disciples: "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (v. 48, ESV).
We can see, then, that G-d's enemies will be judged - in perfect justice - for the way they pleased themselves in punishing Israel, exceeding their mandate and commission. G-d will return upon them their own punishment that they have meted out to G-d's people. We, on the other hand, are to love our enemies, praying for them as Yeshua said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28, ESV). Paul agrees, challenging the believers in Rome, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head" (Romans 12:20, ESV). The Apostolic Writers seem unanimous on the subject, as Peter too instructs, "Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing" (1 Peter 3:9, ESV). G-d will take care of any punishment, vengeance or retribution that is necessary.
Before leaving the subject, however, we need to consider who G-d's enemies are in these days. Just as in ancient times, it would seem clear that those who physically oppress, persecute or abuse His people are G-d's enemies. The current behaviour of certain world governments places them unambiguously among that number and we know that God has said, "Vengeance is Mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly" (D'varim 32:25, ESV). However, what is the position of those who spiritually oppress or abuse G-d's people - those who twist or distort Scripture, those who undermine or deny the word, those who mock or scoff at the saints attempting to destroy their faith, going beyond what G-d has determined? They too are G-d's enemies and will be subject to His judgement and vengeance just as certainly as befell the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. His sword is still sharp and exactly balanced with His justice.
In the meantime, we have the task each day of demonstrating Yeshua's love to all those who persecute us or demean Him. Even on the cross, Yeshua said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34, ESV). We are called to do the same: to forgive those who do us wrong and to pray for them. Uncomfortable? Often. Irrational? Sometimes - at least everyone else will think so. Irrelevant? Not according to the standards of the kingdom. Not only is it what Yeshua tells us to do, it is what brings us freedom and release. Paradoxically, it also brings the offer of freedom for those who are wronging us or Yeshua by showing them that there is another way for them too.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 473.
Further Study: Romans 12:17-21; 1 Corinthians 4:10-13
Application: How can you demonstrate the love of Yeshua more clearly each day to those around you? Even if others think us strange or soft, hating enemies is not an option for the followers of Yeshua. Instead, ask the Spirit how to show love creatively and meaningfully to someone that you don't know well or find a little difficult.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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