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D'varim/Deuteronomy 29:13 Not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath ...
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"... but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the L-RD our G-d and with those who are not with us here this day" (D'varim 29:14, NJPS). These words come from the covenant renewal ceremony that Moshe holds with the wilderness generation on the plains of Moab just before his death and their entry into the Land under the leadership of Joshua. Having gathered the whole people together - "your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer" (D'varim 29:9-10, NJPS) - Moshe then makes this rather strange statement, that must have made most of the people look round over their shoulders to see if there was anyone else watching and ask their neighbours who on earth he might have in view! And besides, how can you make a covenant with someone who isn't there?Abravanel shrewdly observes, "Of the many questions here, the greatest of them all is this: what gave 'those who are here' the power to obligate their children 'who are not here'?" Or, put another way, "Who gave the generation of the wilderness which stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai the power of obligating all those who would arise after them to accept the implications of their statement 'we shall do and hear!' (Shemot 24:7)?"
Either way, Jeffrey Tigay proposes, "the point of the text is that the mutual commitments made here by G-d and Israel are binding for all future generations. Other ANE1 treaties likewise stipulate that they are binding upon the parties' descendants." RabbiHirsch aligns the enduring nature of Israel - the physical descendants of Avraham, Yitz'khak and Ya'akov, plus those drawn to them - with the everlasting character or the Torah itself: "Just as unlimited as the people are to whom the obligation and the oath applies, so unlimited is the duration of the period to which the covenant of the Torah which is here made extends. It includes every single person belonging to Israel throughout the ages." Patrick Miller agrees, writing, "The covenant is made with every member of the community. To be a member of the community is to be drawn into covenant. The covenant is open-ended and includes those beyond this time and place. By this means. the covenant is open to the later generations who read and were addressed by these words."2
Notice the word choices of both Hirsch and Miller: Hirsch says, "it includes every single person belonging to Israel", without saying how what the criteria for belonging actually are, or whether each person wants to belong or not. Miller, on the other hand, says that "the covenant is open-ended and includes ... open to the later generations", implying that adoption of and walking in the covenant were optional but not unavoidable. This sounds as though there is a choice involved somewhere along the line. Perhaps if a Jew decides not to be Jewish and walks away from Torah, then they cease to be Jewish? Abravanel writes from the heart of the Spanish Inquisition to answer: "Many of our brethren have forsaken the religion of their forefathers as a result of persecution and wished to be like the nations of the world. Though they and their descendants would do all in their power to assimilate they would not succeed. They would still be called Jews against their own will and would be accused of Judaising in secret and be burnt at the stake for it." The narratives of the Holocaust are a powerful testimony of the same answer.
Moving back to the text, Stephen Sherwood proposes that the one who is not "with us here today" is the reader.3 The one who is now (or at intervals throughout history) reading the words of the covenant making ceremony has suddenly become involved in it. King Josiah heard the words of the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the L-rd, as it was read to him by Shaphan the secretary and, "when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes" (2 Kings 22:11, ESV). He realised that the people of Judah had not been keeping the Torah as they should, but are included in the covenant made between G-d and Israel. He set in hand a huge program of religious reform to purge Judah of idolatry and pagan worship. Josiah's experience is similar to that of Rav Sha'ul who told the communities in Rome that, "I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died" (Romans 7:9, ESV).
How do we process that today? Are we suddenly required to observe the Torah because we have read those words? Well, if you are Jewish, reading those words shows you that G-d has included you in His covenant with His people. Whether you knew it or not before, you do now and it is incumbent upon you to find out what that means in your relationship with Him and make very sure that you obey Him in everything He asks of you. If you are not Jewish, then reading those words shows you how important covenant is to G-d, that He should include others - such as you - in His covenant as Yeshua said, "I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:16, ESV). You too need to find out what listening to His voice - and in Hebrew the verb 'listen' often has a wider meaning that includes taking notice of and obeying - means for you and make very sure that you obey Him in everything He asks of you.
Christopher Wright shows us that the concept of covenant always endures and applies in every age and generation: "The perennial continuity of the covenant is recalled and doubly underlined by including those who are not here today. For every generation, the challenge of the covenant would always be 'today', just as for every generation of Christians the L-rd's coming is always 'soon'. The Christian Church, especially at the local level, has much to learn from this social and trans-generational inclusiveness of Israel."4 Wright points to the Psalmist speaking to his generation - "For He is our G-d, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of his Hand. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put Me to the test and put Me to the proof, though they had seen My work" (Psalm 95:7-9, ESV) - calling them not to be stubborn in resisting the L-rd, but to humble themselves and be obedient to His commandments. The writer to the Hebrews uses almost the same words to frame the question for the followers of Yeshua: "Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put Me to the test and saw My works for forty years" (Hebrews 3:7-9, ESV).
Unlike the Israelites on the plains of Moab who may have been perplexed by Moshe's reference to the other people who were included in the covenant, we know that each day we are surrounded by "so great a cloud of witnesses" (12:1, ESV), those who have gone before us and are part of G-d's covenant people throughout the ages. Like the young man for whom Elisha prayed, "O L-RD, please open his eyes that he may see" (2 Kings 6:17, ESV), the L-rd has opened our eyes "and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire" (ibid.). We share our faith with those around us so that they too may have their eyes opened and become a part of G-d's covenant - whether a wild or cultivated shoot - grafted in to the people of G-d.
1. - Ancient Near East.
2. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 209.
3. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 276.
4. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 287.
Further Study: Jeremiah 50:4-5; Acts 2:38-39; John 11:49-52
Application: As you look around you, ask yourself and the Holy Spirit, who needs to be included in G-d's people; who does He want to be a part of His covenant? Then ask for the words and the way to start making that a reality in this very day, that they too may see the mountains full of the horse and chariots of fire.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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