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D'varim/Deuteronomy 32:47 For this is not a trivial matter for you; on the contrary, it is your life! (CJB)
TheBaal HaTurim notices that a masoretic note for the word shows that the word is only used (in this form) twice in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. The other occasion is , "and the pit was empty (B'resheet 37:24)". The Tur comments that just as an empty pit can never be filled to capacity with the earth removed from it, so too, regarding the Torah, a person can never fill themselves up with it; there will always be room, the Tur implies, for more. is an adjective translated 'empty' or 'vain' from the root , which is only used in the Scriptures in Hif'il and Hof'al, meaning to empty, to pour out or to draw or lead out (Davidson). Rashi adds, "It is not without good reason that you toil at it, for much reward depends on it, for it is your life."
Hirsch picks upon the unusual construction - often missed in translation - that is followed by "from you": "it is not a word empty of you, without you being in it". It is as if Hirsch is suggesting that we will find ourselves in the words of the Torah. Of course, it is true that we find the meaning of who we are as Jews in the Torah, but Hirsch seems to say that the Torah is incomplete without us: if no-one keeps or studies the Torah then it becomes empty and sterile, for G-d's purpose was that it should be studied and kept by His chosen people. Nechama Leibowitz brings out that a lesson that the Sages deduced from this word: "For it is no vain thing - and if it is vain, then it is your fault. Why? Because you do not labour in the Torah" (y. Pe'ah 1,1). She comments, "If we can find no significance in a particular detail, if it is 'a vain thing', then the fault is ours and, due to our lack of understanding, our failure to discover its meaning." Jeffrey Tigay notices that this concept is by no means unique in the ancient world; "Hammurabi uses the same term when praising his laws and achievements: 'My words are choice, my deeds have no equal; it is only to the fool that they are empty; to the wise they stand forth as an object of wonder.'1"
The poem that forms Moshe's swan-song is always read in the last week before the High Holy Days each year. Its overall theme is that although Moshe has faithfully taught the people the words of G-d and that in those words they have the way of life, they will fall away from G-d and His words after Moshe's time and so merit G-d's punishment and exile from the Land; this will be entirely the peoples' fault and not G-d's, who has always been faithful to them. At the conclusion, Moshe includes our text: pay attention, this concerns you because it is your life and the way to prolong your days in the Land. His words give us an opportunity to review the way we consider G-d's words and how we value them.
Yeshua spoke to the scribes and Pharisees and told them, "You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life" (John 5:39-40, NASB). What could He be talking about here? Didn't the scribes and Pharisees read about Messiah in the Scriptures? Certainly they did! Matthew tells us that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem to look for Yeshua soon after His birth, "And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, [Herod] began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet, "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a Ruler, who will shepherd My people Israel"' (Matthew 2:4-6, NASB). Herod's question was answered from the book of the prophet Micah. We know also from the Jewish writings and other clues in the gospel records that there was a lot of interest and study about the Messiah: who he would be, when he would come, what he would do, how we should recognise him. Although discouraged by the Rabbis, this conversation has continued right down to the present day but the Jewish leadership remains unwilling to accept the truth that they find in the Hebrew Bible. So much so that Isaiah's third "servant song", chapter 53, which we know used to be a part of the annual reading cycle until rabbinic times, has been removed from the standard readings in case it should be 'misunderstood' by the majority of the Jewish people.
A story in the book of Acts, fairly close to the time of Yeshua's crucifixion and resurrection shows how that interest was used by G-d. "As Philip ran up, he heard the Ethiopian reading from Yesha'yahu the prophet. 'Do you understand what you're reading?' he asked. 'How can I,' he said, 'unless someone explains it to me?' And he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. Now the portion of the Tanakh that he was reading was this: 'He was like a sheep led to be slaughtered; like a lamb silent before the shearer, he does not open his mouth. He was humiliated and denied justice. Who will tell about his descendants, since his life has been taken from the earth?' The eunuch said to Philip, 'Here's my question to you - is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?' Then Philip started to speak - beginning with that passage, he went on to tell him the Good News about Yeshua" (Acts 8:30-35, CJB).
The early believers held the Scriptures very closely, as the inspired and life-giving word of G-d: "people moved by the Ruach HaKodesh spoke a message from G-d" (2 Peter 1:21, CJB)". Although the apostolic writings do not mention it, we know from the rabbinic writings that even in Yeshua's time it was recognised that there were some "difficulties" in the Hebrew texts, a few verses that appeared to contradict each other or didn't seem totally consistent. These were carefully debated and explanations were sought that could account for the texts being that way; there was no question that the authors or copyists had made a mistake - these were the authoritative words of G-d.
In modern times, the value of the Scriptures has been greatly downgraded; Critical scholarship has "discovered" lots of supposed errors and faults; the Scriptures are widely held to be myth and legend, containing little or no historical truth. Minimalist scholars won't accept anything that they can't see and count with their own fingers, thus depriving much of the biblical text of any objective reality in their eyes. Spurred on by this "evidence" or using it as an excuse, modern man has done exactly the same as ancient man: pooh-poohed the Bible, dismissed it as having any value or authority over their lives and turned their backs on G-d. The natural consequence has been to deprive many of the opportunity of faith and have G-d and His kingdom become a target for scoffing and ridicule. Even the post-modern era, which in some ways makes the life and practice of a believer more easy since everyone has the right to hold their own views and opinion and no-one can say that any one faith position is better or worse than any other or none at all, actually continues to degrade the value and authority of the Bible as G-d's word, since that too is seen as relative and subjective. Much of the Jewish world too has bought into this liberal view of the Scriptures, denying the authority and authorship of the Bible and prizing instead individual and community autonomy.
We however, who hold fast to the old-fashioned idea that G-d's written word is both true and authoritative are marching to the beat of a different drum - that of the Kingdom of G-d. Rav Sha'ul tells us about the people and events in the Hebrew Scriptures that, "these things happened to them as prefigurative historical events, and they were written down as a warning to us who are living in theacharit hayamim" (1 Corinthians 10:11, CJB). We are in those last days now and we need to learn the lessons of all these pasts and hear the words of the Spirit to the Body of Messiah today: "Ignore My words at your peril, for this is your life!"
1. - The Laws of Hammurabi (J B Pritchard ed. The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton University Press 1969, 3rd ed. 0691035032, 163-180) xxvb, §§100-104
Further Study: Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16; Proverbs 3:13-18
Application: Do you take your Bible seriously, or have you allowed the world and scholarship to diminish its standing in your eyes? Now is the time to take a deep breath, ask G-d to personally guide you and get stuck in reading your Bible with the eyes of faith. It is our life!
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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