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D'varim/Deuteronomy 5:3 The L-rd did not cut this covenant with our fathers, but with us: we, these here today; all of us alive.
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The last seven words in this verse came tumbling out of Moshe's mouth in much the same way as Rav Sha'ul's impossibly long sentence at the beginning of his letter to the community in Ephesus (Ephesians 1:3-15). It was as if, having started, the words just kept coming. While our translation above tries to group the words into slightly longer phrases, Richard Elliott Friedman shows their exclamatory nature by giving them all singly: "us! We! These! Here! Today! All of us! Living!" Even if this does take a few liberties with the traditional trope markings, it shows the rapid and inclusive flow of Moshe's thoughts as the words flow out: such an immediate barrage of sound that would have made sure that everyone was awake and listening!
Yet, at the same time, Moshe's statement appears to be deeply contradictory. Moshe's audience knew perfectly well that their fathers - or parents, if you prefer - stood at Sinai only forty years ago and experienced the theophany of sight and sound that are described in the text of that time: "as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled .... Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the L-RD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moshe spoke, G-d answered him in thunder" (Shemot 19:16-19, NJPS). That's not the sort of experience you easily forget and although only those who were under twenty at the time are still alive to tell the story, everyone else had heard it from their parents, many times. They were all there when Moshe "took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, 'All that the L-RD has spoken we will faithfully do!' Moshe took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, 'This is the blood of the covenant that the L-RD now makes with you concerning all these commands'" (24;7-8, NJPS). "I beg your pardon," you can imagine all the people saying, "just exactly what was that if it was not making a covenant?"
The Jewish world has a number of ways of handling this apparent difficulty. Jeffrey Tigay, for example, writes: "'not with our fathers' - Avraham , Yitz'khak and Ya'akov. In Deuteronomy, 'our/your fathers' always refers to the patriarchs." By this reckoning, Moshe would be right;HaShem didn't make the Sinai covenant with the patriarchs. The same suggestion comes from Rabbi Hirsch who says that "a very large part of those still living - all those who were not over twenty years of age at the exodus from Egypt - had themselves experienced the revelation at Sinai, and the others had been born so shortly after the great event that what their parents had actually lived through and experienced was as sure and certain to them as if they themselves had been there. This means that is most likely to be taken in its wider sense, 'our forefathers.'"
Another approach is taken byIbn Ezra and Rashi. Rashi makes a one word comment to "not with our fathers": "Alone"; while Ibn Ezra reports, "not with them alone: also." This says that Moshe isn't denying the covenant ceremony at Sinai, but saying that the covenant wasn't made 'just' or 'solely' with that particular generation of people standing there at Sinai on that day. As Nechama Leibowitz explains, "the Torah was not given exclusively to one generation. The covenant was not struck with one generation. Moshe reaffirms this fact on the eve of his death." Here she points to the verses "I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, 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 29:13-14, NJPS) adding that "our Sages expounded in the Talmud: This includes only you who stood at Mount Sinai. Whence the generations to come? It is stated: 'And also with him that is not here ...' (b. Shevuot 39a)."
Building on theRalbag's statement that "every generation must think that the Torah was given directly to them", Friedman concludes that "Moshe mixes past, present and future. He speaks to the people in front of him as if they had all been at Sinai forty years earlier. Now he says it explicitly, powerfully, unmistakably, with seven different words: Each generation must see themselves as personally standing at Sinai, not just inheriting their parents' covenant, but as making the covenant themselves. It is a present, living commitment." This is important because each successive generation needs to own the covenant as theirs, rather than something they are stuck with. The covenant is a living relationship, made with and involving living people, those who are alive - those who choose to make it their own, to live within it and have it live within them. Abravanel agrees: "The Torah is not given to those who originally received it, but to those who are living in every generation." And, as the Sforno points out, succession is a critical component: "you who have made the covenant (with G-d) and are about to enter the Land, arrange your affairs in such manner that coming generations who were not present when this covenant was established will (still) fulfill that which you accepted upon yourselves."
Christian commentators see this in the same way. Christopher Wright says that, "Moshe's point is that this present generation - and therefore by implication all future generations - was just as much a partner in the covenant concluded at Sinai as those who actually stood at the foot of the mountain itself. The covenant was never a thing of the past, because Yahweh, as the living G-d, was the contemporary of every succeeding generation."1 This fits exactly with Yeshua's teaching about the resurrection: "as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by G-d: 'I am the G-d of Avraham, and the G-d of Yitz'khak, and the G-d of Ya'akov'? He is not G-d of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:31-32, ESV). Walter Brueggemann makes the important point that "the covenant is here and now, not there and then. The words pile up in verse 3 to establish contemporary pertinence: with us, we, these here, today, all of us, alive. This is the generation of covenant, situated in a distinctive identity, precluded from the optional worlds of idols, committed to this singular, all-demanding loyalty."2 We are the generation of covenant, right here and right now, living in Yeshua's words, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood" (Luke 22:20, ESV).
Perhaps the most telling comment, however, comes from Patrick Miller: "The time gap and the generation gap are dissolved in the claim that the covenant at Sinai, the primal revelation that created the enduring relationship between the people and the L-rd, was really made with the present generation. The covenant is not an event, a claim, a relationship of the past; it is of the present ... The actualisation of the covenant and its demands is for the present."3 Each generation in turn is the present generation and Yeshua's voice reaches out to each of us where we are, living in the present day of our world and time. Yeshua's crucifixion and resurrection, the bread and wine at the Last Supper, the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, are not simply historical events; they are not a past relationship, either for the generation when they originally happened or for some subsequent generation such as that of our parents. They have no claim over us because they happened two thousand years ago. They affect us, they call to us, they require our attention and involvement now because they are present right here and right now. Yeshua's call to "repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17) necessitates our response because it is true now, for us.
The kingdom of heaven of heaven certainly was at hand for Yeshua's original audience and, by G-d's grace, has been at hand for each successive generation until this moment; we pray that in G-d's faithfulness it will be at hand for some years yet to come until Yeshua returns - may it be soon and in our days! But we, now, in this generation, on this very day of this very week, must actualise the covenant for ourselves, our communities and those around us. We must live lives that are consistent with its demands and demonstrate the kingdom of G-d and the covenant by which we are made a part of it, in real time, in the here and now. We must arrange our affairs and - so far as it is possible - the affairs of our families and our communities so that the witness of the kingdom remains current and available for future generations, be that tomorrow, next week or in years to come.
G-d is king; He is reigning now; this is His world - whatever the naysayers, the church, the world, scientists or politicians may claim to the contrary. As the Psalmist tells us, "He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity" (Psalm 98:9, NASB). This is not an old wives' tale, a myth or a fable from long ago. It is the truth that the world desperately needs to hear and act upon now - if not before! G-d's challenge to Isaiah still remains on the table today: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" (Isaiah 6:8, NASB). How will you respond?
1. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 62.
2. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pages 65.
3. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 67.
Further Study: Psalm 96:10-13; Acts 2:38-39
Application: Is the covenant alive and active in your life, or have you tucked it up with a hot water bottle and put it to bed, safely out of sight and out of mind? Speak to the Master of the Covenant right now and ask for His Spirit to make His covenant a present and vital reality in your life today and see your world change!
Comment - 15:00 18Jul21 Joshua VanTine: Baruch HaShem! Thank you for the drash may any of my dry bones be stirred to life by the Ruach. Hallelujah, we serve the G-d of the living and His Moshiach Yeshua came to give us life to the fullest, this I want to receive. Does our Rabbi Yeshua give anything less than full? Should a disciple of the Rabbi from Nazareth not except Heaven's riches for their task here on earth? May like the prophet Isaiah we receive all that is prepared for us in Heaven on G-ds table and go and live!'
Comment - 15:22 18Jul21 Scott Moore: This is an excellent analysis. I only would add from Michael Wyschogrod (z"l) that the covenant initiated at Sinai incorporated the realization by HaShem that future generations might (would) not be faithful to the covenant. HaShem attached His name to a people and all the generations that would follow, regardless of their worthiness. It was for the sake of the Patriarchs and affirmed in Moshe. This may be different from the way Gentile Christians think of the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31), which is that it is only for those who have confessed Yeshua as Lord and Messiah. That confession is important, but the covenant confirmed in Yeshua's death and resurrection is also the promise of the restoration of Israel and of Jerusalem.
Comment - 21:17 30Jul21 Judith Chesney: Good to be reminded in this present climate that Israel my beloved is very much in the heart of God as He awaits their awakening cry, "Messiah has come." AMEN AND AMEN.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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