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D'varim/Deuteronomy 26:15 Look out from the dwelling of Your holiness, from the heavens, and bless Your people, Israel and the soil that You gave to us
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At the conclusion of the Tithe Confession - which was to be said throughout the Land, wherever the triennial tithe was separated and given to "the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements" (D'varim 26:12, NJPS) - each farmer would then pray forHaShem's blessing for the coming year. It is striking to note that through the Tithe Confession, the farmer speaks in the first person singular, as 'I': "I have cleared out ... I have given ... I have not eaten ... I have obeyed" (vv. 13-14, NJPS). Yet in the prayer, which follows in the next verse, the farmer seeks a blessing for the people Israel and for the Land, speaking only in the first person plural: 'our' and 'us'. As Jeffrey Tigay notes, "The farmer is not to ask for his own prosperity but for that of the entire nation. This is typical of the prescribed prayers in Judaism: the individual does not pray on his own behalf but on behalf of the entire Jewish people or the whole human race."
The ancient rabbis saw this as a very pragmatic prayer, inviting HaShem to take notice that everything had been done and calling on Him to reciprocate: "We have done that which You have decreed for us; You do, therefore, unto us what You have promised us: look down and bless Your people ..." (Sifrei, Piska 303). Rashi takes it a bit further, appending a reminder of what HaShem is to do: "We have done what You told us to do; You do what is incumbent upon You to do, for You have said, 'If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit' (Vayikra 26:3-4, NJPS)". Very quid pro quo! The Sforno cites a different verse - "'And bless ...' in the manner that You swore to our ancestors when You said, 'I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the land ... to a land flowing with milk and honey' (Shemot 3:17, NJPS)" - while Ibn Ezra is a little more specific: "As I have taken care to bring out a tithe from the grain I took care of for that purpose, let our G-d too take care of our Land. (That is why blessing is also requested for 'the soil')."
The traditional Jewish interpretation is encouraged because both the two primary verbs - , "look down" and , "and bless" - are in the imperative form. It is as if the Torah seems to have the farmer telling HaShem what to do. In fact, much prayer in the Bible is written and said in that way. Consider the prayer that Yeshua taught the disciples: both the verbs "Give us this day ..." (Matthew 6:11) and "Forgive our debts" (v. 12) are in imperative form. Consequently, many set and extempore prayers in both Judaism and Christianity use this method of addressing the Divine, from John Wimber's informal "Come, Holy Spirit!" to John Greenleaf Whittier's "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, forgive our foolish ways ..."
TheBaal HaTurim, working from a note in the margin of the Masoretic Text, reports that the word - "and bless" - appears just three times in the Tanakh: (i) here, "and bless Your people, Israel"; (ii) "and bless Your heritage" (Psalm 28:9); and (iii) "and bless the household of Your servant" (2 Samuel 7:29). This reflects, the Tur explains, "what the Sifrei has said: 'And bless Your people Israel, with sons and daughters' because that is the meaning of, 'and bless the household of Your servant.' It continues, 'And the soil that You gave us, with dew and rain' because that is the meaning of, 'and bless Your heritage.'" Tigay limits the blessing to "bountiful crops and prosperity", but this is surely too small. In the ninth stanza of the Amidah, "Blessings of the Years", we ask HaShem for blessing each day: "Bless this year for us, L-rd our G-d, and all its kinds of produce for good. Grant blessing on the face of the earth, and from Your goodness satisfy us, blessing our year as the best of years. Blessed are You, L-rd. who blesses the years" (Sacks, ADP, 85). Between December 5th and Pesach, we change "Grant blessing" to "Grant dew and rain as a blessing" to reflect the time of the Spring rains in Israel.
According to Patrick Miller, the presence of the prayer at the end of the Tithe Confession "reminds us that blessing is not a computerised signal built into the universe but is a gift out of the free will of G-d, to be sought in prayer and facilitated by the community's attention to the needs of all."1 There is no silent automaton detecting that the tithe hoppers are full, so triggering a certain level of rain and fertility in the fields; no behind-the-scenes vending machine that dishes out candy bars when the right coins are dropped in the slot. Christopher Wright makes the same point in a slightly different way: "The prayer for continued blessing rests on continued obedience. But it should not be seen as deserved by obedience. The blessing of G-d on the people is already written into the title deeds of the Land as given and even prior to that, was bound into the promise at the heart of the covenant of grace made with the fathers. The thrust of the verse is therefore not, "we have obeyed so you must bless us," but, "you have already blessed us in history and in the present, and we have responded in obedience, so graciously continue to bless."2
It is important that we see that expression of continuity in the prayer for blessing. Peter Craigie explains that, "The prayer requests G-d's continued blessing - continued, because the tithe is a sign that already the Israelites were experiencing the blessing of G-d. ... and the basis on which the prayer is offered is the promise of G-d to their forefathers."3 Ronald Clements says the prayer has "dignity and open-ended expectation" because it spans past, present and future: "The past could be remembered with gratitude ... the future could be striven for and secured by renewing obedience to G-d's commandments."4 Faith for the future can be grounded in the reality of G-d's past blessings - after all, this was the tithe made in the third and sixth years of the agricultural cycle - and the present blessing that they had a harvest to tithe that year. As they continued to be faithful to separate the tithes, each one in its appropriate year, they trusted G-d to provide the harvest to tithe in the next year.
The imperative 'bless', "the second, more forceful imperative" in the text, brings us back to a point we made earlier: the switch from the singular identity of the farmer to the plural identity of the nation and the land. Walter Brueggemann observes that, "The term 'bless' appeals to the creation tradition of the G-d who infuses the earth with abundance. It affirms that YHVH has willed the habitat of Israel to be fruitful. The petition asks that in special, particular ways this land of promise may enjoy the intense generosity that YHVH has decreed for all of creation."5 The land of Israel is then seen as a exemplar for G-d's desire to bless the whole of His creation as Moshe told the Israelites: "the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the L-RD your G-d cares for. The eyes of the L-RD your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year" (D'varim 11:11-12, ESV). G-d starts by blessing the land of Israel and making a covenant with the people of Israel, so that they should be a model for the other nations to see and emulate: we want to be blessed like that too, so we need to be part of the kingdom of G-d!
His own eyes tell the farmer what is going on. It is not just his soil, his fields, his crops that have been blessed; the land of Israel - all the fields, all the soil - has been blessed so that G-d's people may be blessed: the farmers themselves who have sown and reaped, the Levites who live in the midst of the people and teach them the difference between clean and unclean, the widows and the orphans, even the stranger who lives and works cheek by jowl with the native Israelites, shall be blessed with sufficient and more. This is the way the divine economy is supposed to work: "every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree" (Micah 4:4) and shall offer hospitality to his neighbour: "In that day, declares the L-RD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree" (Zechariah 3:10, ESV).
We too need to learn the lesson of the farmer. We need to transition from 'I' and 'me' - the individualistic singular of the western world - to the 'we' and 'us' of Yeshua's kingdom, drawn from "every nation, tribe, tongue and people" (Revelation 14:6). This is a double transition for some, from 'me' to the local 'us' to a global 'us', and a paradigm shift that we need to make in our thinking to encompass all that G-d wants to do in tikkun olam, fixing up the world. Our faith is based on the same premise: we see the way God has blessed us in the past, continues to bless us in the present - although less, because of our failure to share the blessing with those in need - and so can, will and desires to, bless all the nations of the world. Can you imagine a world free of famine and drought, a world without abuse and exploitation, a world where everyone has enough? Israel's ancient prophets could see it and wrote of it. Let's have the faith to believe it and work for it and see the fruit of G-d's blessing grown in our midst.
1. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 184.
2. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 272.
3. - P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), page 354.
4. - Ronald E. Clements, "Deuteronomy" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 1014.
5. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 248.
Further Study: Vayikra 26:3-6; Isaiah 55:1-5; Amos 9:13-15
Application: What can you do to broaden your vision from yourself and your local community to encompass those in the third world? How can you channel your blessing into the hands of those who have not so that the kingdom and the blessing can grow to cover all G-d's people?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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