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D'varim/Deuteronomy 4:45-46 These [are] the testimonies, the statutes and the judgements that Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel when they came out of Egypt, on the bank of the Jordan ...
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Here the narrator, or Moshe writing in narrator mode, switches from first person singular - 'I' - to third person singular - Moshe, 'he' - in the text leading up to Moshe's recapitulation of the Ten Sayings originally given byHaShem directly to the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Shemot 20). On our last visit to this block of verses (see Va'etchanan 5773) we considered the previous verse - "This is the Torah that Moshe set before the Israelites" (D'varim 4:44) - and talked about the strong visual and oral contract between readers and listeners to affirm that the words being read really are the very same words that Moshe himself taught our people at HaShem's command. This week's text, as Rabbi Hirsch explains, tells us what that means: "these are the same testimonies, statutes and judgements for our moral and social behaviour which Moshe taught the whole nation verbally on the whole journey from Egypt into the wilderness, and finally again in the conquered Transjordan district in view of the Promised Land." From Egypt, at Sinai and through the wilderness to the Plains of Moab, Moshe has been patiently - and, yes, sometimes not quite so patiently - teaching the Israelites the rules that they must observe when they enter and take possession for themselves of the Land of Israel, the Promised Land that HaShem swore to the patriarchs that He would give to their descendants. Rashi agrees, telling us that "they are the very ones which he spoke to them when they went out of Egypt. He taught them again at the Plains on Moab which are on the side of the Jordan."
So far so good. This is an important point - that the Torah is made up of testimonies, statutes and judgements - but for this week, our key point comes from the last two words of the text, the first two words of the second verse (v. 46): "on the bank of the Jordan". Just in case we are unclear about which bank is being talked about, verse 47 repeats the phrase and qualifies it: "on the bank of the Jordan, the rising of the sun" - the east bank of the Jordan. This geographic locater tells us that it was on the east of the Jordan, that Moshe taught the second exodus generation the Torah outside the Land, before they entered it. Moshe did not cross the Jordan; indeed, he had been specifically forbidden to do so. The people had not crossed the Jordan, even though they were about to do so under Joshua's leadership. Everyone was still on the east of the river. This is perfectly consistent with the opening of the book of D'varim: "These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan" (1:1, NJPS) and "On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moshe undertook to expound this Teaching" (v. 5, NJPS).
Walter Brueggemann's suggestion that Israel is being addressed "at the boundary of decision making",1 points to a forthcoming sequence of events in which Israel will not only need to make decisions, but put those decisions into practice as they move ahead to enter and possess the Land. Brueggemann provides a list of three ways in which this second giving of the Torah immediately outside the Land bears upon the people:
Brueggemann sums up: "If these references are more than geographical, then they alert the listening community to the deeply grounded hopes and the ominous dangers that surround them as they face a coming time of decision." The people will soon have to make - in a way that they have seldom had the freedom to do in the past forty years - many decisions. Will they step into the waters and cross the Jordan? Will they obey Joshua (and HaShem) in walking round Jericho for seven days before attacking it? Will they faithfully devote all the spoil of the cities they attack to HaShem or will they keep some for themselves? These and many other decisions will result - when Joshua steps down as leader - in a remarkably similar (through rather shorter) farewell speech and a challenge to "revere the L-RD and serve Him with undivided loyalty; put away the gods that your forefathers served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt, and serve the L-RD" (Joshua 24:14, NJPS). There is even another covenant and book on instructions: "On that day at Shechem, Joshua made a covenant for the people and he made a fixed rule for them. Joshua recorded all this in a book of divine instruction" (vv. 25-26, NJPS). As Joshua dies, the people once again find themselves on the boundary of decision.
Each time G-d's people reach a major point of decision - what to do, which way to go, who to follow - it seems that the word of the L-rd comes to teach them. They are reminded who they are, whom they serve, their history as a people, what G-d has already done for them and what He is still promising to do. Moshe worked through the book of D'varim and then offered the people a choice: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life -- if you and your offspring would live -- by loving the L-RD your G-d, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him" (D'varim 30:19-20, NJPS). Joshua goes right back to the patriarchs and leads the people to choose: "Far be it from us to forsake the L-RD and serve other gods! ... We too will serve the L-RD, for He is our G-d" (Joshua 24:16,18, NJPS).
Later, during the time of the kings, after there have been many cycles of disobedience, chastening and repentance, which are yet to culminate in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles when the people are expelled from the Land, the prophets bring words of challenge to the people, calling them back to relationship with and obedience to HaShem. "And your ears shall hear a word from behind you saying, 'This is the way, walk in it,' if you would go to the right or to the left" (Isaiah 30:21). See how closely this matches the Torah: "You shall be careful therefore to do as the L-RD your G-d has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left" (D'varim 5:32, NBible(JPS)). The word of the L-rd goes before the decision. Another decision point is offered further along the path to exile: "Thus said the L-RD: Stand by the roads and consider, enquire about ancient paths: which is the road to happiness? Travel it, and find tranquillity for yourselves" (Jeremiah 6:16, NJPS). What will the people do? Will they turn back to the L-rd and serve Him, or will they continue with their own way and go into exile?
Yeshua offers the disciples the same choice: "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7:13-14, ESV). You are going to have to make choices, He tells them; they need to make the right choice. You have walked with Me, Yeshua reminds them, learning how to do this, but when I am gone "the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26, ESV). Notice that Matthew's text uses the word , an imperative form of a root verb meaning "to enter or go into". In Luke's version - "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able" (Luke 13:24, ESV) - the text has the phrase . While the second word is the same as Matthew, enter or go in, in infinitive form, the first word is an imperative meaning "struggle, fight, strive", that generates "Make every effort to enter" in the NIV and "Try your hardest to enter" in the NJB. Simply thinking about it, investigating or even seeking will not do; that is what everyone else will be doing and will not succeed. Determined, deliberate effort, hearing the word of the Spirit and then following it to the exclusion of all else is what will be required whenever a choice is presented.
When we stand on the threshold of a decision, we should expect that we have everything we need to make that decision, otherwise the whole thing would be pointless. Like the ancient Israelites, G-d will either speak to us, directly for this decision or will have already spoken to us before so that we know what to do. The only question is whether we are listening and taking notice.
1. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pages 63-64.
Further Study: Psalm 25:12; Jeremiah 18:15; James 1:5-8
Application: Do you take decisions in a deliberate way, make a guess or adopt the path of least resistance? Neuroscience tells us that while reasons plays a part in decision making, emotion has a larger role in the process than most people think. We need to be guided by the Spirit and the Word. Next time you need to take a decision, ask for divine input and then follow it.
Comment - 09:59 26Jul20 Janet Gray: Oh how we need reminding! Thank you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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