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D'varim/Deuteronomy 31:17 And in that day My anger will burn against him and I will forsake them and I will hide My face from them
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In a recent discussion in another context about whether the phenomenon of G-d hiding His face was a current issue, more than a little discomfort was expressed by modern disciples of Yeshua that this might still apply today. Wouldn't that be a contradiction of Yeshua's promise to be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)? At the same time, most in the group agreed that they had experienced at least one period of divine silence when, to borrow a biblical phrase, "the heavens over your head shall be bronze" (D'varim 28:23, NJPS). If we are honest, there are moments - probably multiple moments - in each of our lives when heaven seems distant and unresponsive, when we pray and there is no answer and nothing happens. How should we behave in such circumstances and how can we understand what we perceive to be happening to us?
First of all, we must recognise that this is not a one-off incident or turn of phrase. Richard Elliott Friedman tells us that the exact wording "I will hide My face" comes twice in this passage (vv. 17-18) and then once again in the following chapter when, in the song He tells Moshe to teach to the people as a witness for the future in response to Israel's disobedience and idolatry,HaShem says, "I will hide my face from them" (32:20, NJPS). Away from the immediate context, "this expression occurs nearly thirty times more in Tanakh." When things are looking bleak during the time of the kings, Isaiah says, "I will wait for the L-RD, who is hiding His face from the House of Jacob, and I will trust in Him" (Isaiah 8:17, NJPS). Looking further ahead, Micah prophesies, "Someday they shall cry out to the L-RD, but He will not answer them; at that time He will hide His face from them, in accordance with the wrongs they have done" (Micah 3:4, NJPS) and the Psalmist painfully reports that "when You hid Your face, I was terrified" (Psalm 30:8, NJPS).
Rabbi Samson RaphaelHirsch paraphrases our text to, "I will just leave them to themselves and withdraw My special care of them." The Sforno points out that if HaShem forsakes His people, bad will inevitably go to worse: they will fall "into the hands of their enemies who will prevail over them." What will HaShem do then? "After they are given over the hand of the nations who will afflict them, I will avert My merciful eye as though I do not see their troubles", the Sforno adduces. Jeffrey Tigay, a modern commentator, goes further: "withdraw My favour and protection, abandon them and ignore their please for help," explaining that "G-d's 'face' is His attentive presence, as in the Priestly Benediction: 'The L-RD bless you and protect you! The L-RD deal kindly and graciously with you! The L-RD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!' (B'Midbar 6:24-26, NJPS). When G-d hides His face, Israel is exposed and unprotected." This is bad news indeed.
Lest we should think that HaShem is simply being petty or making a snap judgement out of pique, we need to have a closer look at the language used in the adjacent verses to see the level of thought and care that has been taken to explain exactly what is going on. In the previous verse, where HaShem tells Moshe exactly what Israel will do and why He will hide His face from them, we read that the people will go astray after the strange (foreign, alien) gods of the land - those worshiped by the Canaanites - and "they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them" ( D'varim 31:16). The verb 'forsake', , is exactly the one used in our text to describe HaShem's first action: "I will forsake them" (v. 17). This is very restrained; it is no more than a measure for measure response: what they have done to Me, I will do to them. Tigay describes this as "punishment in kind". So pointed is the message that, not wanting to leave the impression that G-d is abandoning Israel,Targum Onkelos softens the consequences of their sin by changing , I will abandon them, to , and I will drive them away.
We find the same word-play being used in the next verse when HaShem repeats His verdict: "On that day I will surely hide My face on account of all the evil they have done by turning to other gods" (v. 18). The word 'surely' hides a repeated use of the verb , first as an infinitive absolute, then as a prefix form, literally "to hide, I will hide", a Hebrew device that is usually translated using the words 'surely', 'diligently' or 'certainly'. This is not a hasty or ill-considered spat; it is a deliberate and carefully chosen judgement. Later in the verse, the verb , to turn - "the Israelites have turned to other gods" - is the root of the noun , "my face" used both here and in out text. Even the precise vocabulary and grammar of the words that HaShem gives Moshe to teach the people convey the level of His conscious intent.
According to Friedman, "the expression hester paniym, the hiding of the face, became a known idiom in the rabbinic literature, and in theological thinking to this day. The prediction at the end of the Torah comes true at the end of Tanakh. Humans are left not knowing if G-d exists or not. Thus the Tanakh tells us a story of a development from a world of direct communication with G-d to the world we have known ever since: in which the existence of G-d is a matter of faith, or doubt, or search." So much so that Drazin and Wagner report that "the concept of hester paniym, the hiding of [God's] face, has been used by some contemporary theologians to explain the Holocaust. Others maintain that God is always intimately involved in the fate of His people and hester paniym refers to His hiding the perception of His involvement."
How, we have to ask, is the idea of HaShem hiding His face compatible with Moshe's exhortation, "Do not stand in dread of them, for the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God" (D'varim 7:21, NJPS) and His repeated assurances to Moshe and Joshua: "Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the L-RD your G-d who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you" (31:6, NJPS) and "As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you" (Joshua 1:5, NJPS). One possible answer lies in the last few words of Drazin and Wagner above: it is perhaps not that G-d actually hides His face and abandons His people, but that He removes the perception of His face; He is still there really, He never actually takes His hand off the tiller, but He allows the people to think and feel that He has done so in order to discipline them and cause them to return to Him. This would mean that the promises of constant presence are never broken - after all, how could they be? - but that the people have a sharp lesson about their behaviour and need of G-d.
The traditional Jewish response to silence from heaven is to continue with the daily service, unabated, as if nothing has happened; the services, the readings, the prayers, the study. This is the service of G-d and is, above all, what Israel is called to do. No matter the circumstances and the surroundings, HaShem is pledged to keep Israel - for the sake of His name and the promises given to the fathers - and nothing else matters. Israel has certain prescribed responses to things going wrong - checking the mezuzahs, lighting shabbat candles and saying the blessings, reciting psalms - done oneself or encouraging others to take up the observance. Following Patrick Miller's comment - "The anger of G-d is righteous; it rises out of the failure of the people to be the kind of community purposed by the L-rd, a people whose centre is the L-rd and whose way is the L-rd's way"1 - if G-d's anger is sensed or felt, then the community must have failed in their keeping of the mitzvot and will now work hard to get back to what He expects His people to be.
What about the followers of Yeshua? Certainly there are times when we cause a breach in our relationship with the Father: we sin, deliberately or inadvertently; we grow cool towards Him; we speak wrongly; we fail to show His love to our neighbour. All these are, in a sense, mechanical; if we confess our sin and reconcile with our fellow, seeking His forgiveness, then "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, ESV). More difficult is when a fellowship or a community has fallen away from true obedience and discipleship, from following the leading of the Spirit; then worship becomes dry and laboured, prayers seem hollow and it seems as if heaven is no longer listening. More of the same seems futile; instead a radical repentance is needed to return to our first love, to humble ourselves and throw ourselves on His mercy for a fresh anointing, maintaining order, but changing anything and everything to seek His face.
But what about those times when, despite our prayers, our loyalty and consistency, our best efforts towards obedience and heartfelt worship, we - either as a congregation or an individual - hit that brass ceiling and it just won't go away? Then we need to recognise that such times do come and that it is part of our growth cycle to persevere and to hold on to the promises we have been given, in faith, and trusting in His faithfulness towards us. As we endure, faith will rise up and enable us to "be content with what [we] have, for He has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you. So we can confidently say, 'The L-rd is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'>" (Hebrews 13:5-6, ESV). In His due time, He will come to us; He will speak to us; He will relieve us. In the meantime, our faith muscles will have been stretched and strengthened ready for His next assignment.
1. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 224.
Further Study: 2 Chronicles 24:20; 2 Corinthians 4:8-18
Application: Do you feel as though the heavens above you are closed and locked, with nothing getting through, either way? Cry out louder to the L-rd and never give up until He comes to visit His salvation upon you.
Comment - 08:52 03Sep23 Joshua VanTine: Thank you for this drash on a topic that is so important to consider for every talmid of the Master. As we go through these seasons may we be able indeed to recognize the bronze sky and/or our heart's current rhythms that requires teshuvah.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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