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D'varim/Deuteronomy 31:18 And I, I will surely hide My face on that day, on account of all the evil that he has done;
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Our text starts with a double emphasis: firstly the use of , the stand-alone 1cs personal subject pronoun; secondly the use of the double verb form. As biblical Hebrew is an inflected language, the subject pronoun for most verbs is already present in the verb form itself; the use of an additional subject pronoun always serves to add emphasis. In this case - as hinted at in our translation above, it conveys the idea of "I, myself" or "none other than I". The verb means to hide or conceal; David Clines adds that when used with the noun 'face', it conveys the idea of withdrawing one's favour or not paying attention.1 The first verb, , is the Hif'il infinitive absolute; is the Hif'il 1cs prefix form. When an infinitive absolute is followed by another form of the same verb, it is usually translated using the words surely, certainly or diligently. Here, 'surely' is bad enough; the thought ofHaShem 'diligently' hiding His face is a truly frightening prospect.
We have to be careful not to confuse two different things that might be going on in the perception of the people at this point. In the previous verse, the people draw the conclusion that the trouble they are experiencing is because "our God is not in our midst" (D'varim 31:17, NJPS); that is, that G-d has actually gone away: that He is longer part of or concerned about His people so He has abandoned them. This, however, as theSforno points out, is not true: "In reality, wherever they may be, the Shekhinah is to be found there, as our Sages said, 'Wherever Israel was exiled, the Shekhinah was with them' (b. Megillah 29a). Rather," he sees HaShem saying, "I shall hide My face (and refrain) from saving them." Rabbi Hirsch agrees: "G-d is in their midst and never ceases His special relationship with Israel. But just because He is in the midst, no sin escapes His punishing attention." This is the essence of the prophet's message to Israel, "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth -- that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2, NJPS). It is precisely because Israel is HaShem's special people that His presence is continually among them, rebuking and chastising them when they step out of line. "The purpose of the L-rd to provide blessing for all the nations of the earth is thwarted when the agent of that blessing follows a way other than the one set by G-d."2
Rashi, the Bekhor Shor and Chizkuni do not regard this hiding of the face as a punishment, but rather as an act of love, as if G-d closes His eyes so as not to see the misfortune of His people. Working from the idea that the Hebrew for 'face', , is plural (literally 'faces'), the Ramban speaks of HaShem having a redemptive countenance and a merciful countenance. Pointing to the verse "Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them" (Vayikra 26:44, NJPS), unlike Ibn Ezra who puts these words in HaShem's mouth, "If they call Me, I will not answer", the Ramban argues that what is being withheld in our text is HaShem's redemptive countenance. The promise of His merciful countenance can always be relied upon as HaShem continues, "I will remember in their favour the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God" (v. 45, NJPS). While He may not act to redeem His people right away, He will always have mercy on them when they repent and cry out to Him.
Hirsch is at pains to point out the reciprocal nature of HaShem's words: "the people have forsaken G-d and that is why they are forsaken by G-d." He has a point: the people will have brought this apparent isolation from HaShem upon their own heads. But he goes too far when he adds, "G-d is only Israel's G-d as long as Israel is G-d's people", since that implies that Israel has the ability to frustrate G-d's plan, purpose and calling for Israel, which we know to be untrue. Rav Sha'ul tells us that "As regards the gospel, they are enemies of G-d for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers" (Romans 11:28, ESV). No matter how much they kick against the gospel - and it is that very kicking that, in line with G-d's foreknown and declared plan, resulted in the gospel being taken to the nations - Israel still remains G-d's chosen and elect people. Why? "That's obvious," Sha'ul responds, "the gifts and the calling of G-d are irrevocable" (v. 29, ESV).
Why then does HaShem threaten in our text to hide His face from His people? Jeffrey Tigay explains, "G-d means to say, 'It is because of all the evil they have done that I will hide my countenance,' thus He is justified." This is covenant: if A then B; if not A then not B. HaShem has clearly laid out the need for Israel to be obedient if they want to remain in His blessing. If they do not obey Him, then He will discipline them - that is what the covenant not only says but requires - but He will never break or abrogate the covenant. Even the signs of discipline are reminders to Israel of their obligations and, at the same time, assurance that the covenant is still there and that G-d is still keeping it for them even if they are not. Although not necessarily immediately received in that way, the Psalmist tells us that this is a blessing: "Happy is the man whom You discipline, O L-RD, the man You instruct in Your teaching" (Psalm 94:12, NJPS). The writer to the Hebrews is very clear about this: "For the L-rd disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. G-d is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" (Hebrews 12:6-7, ESV).
Discipline among G-d's people appears in many forms - most of which are expressed in the Torah, lest there be any surprise for modern followers of Yeshua - from the mild, to get our attention right at the beginning, to the distinctly unpleasant, if we persist in not listening. Patrick Miller explains that "because the presence of G-d is tied to the reality and help of G-d, trouble and disaster are perceived as reflections of G-d's hiddenness."3 Put another way, when bad stuff happens, people notice that G-d seems to be hidden from them. When they cry out and nothing gets any better, they realise that G-d is not listening to them. When they sing and play their worship music very loudly, offering "a sacrifice of praise to G-d" (Hebrews 13:15a, ESV) and still nothing happens, they begin to understand that there is a blockage between them and G-d, that "your heavens have become like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength is spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit" (Vayikra 26:19-20, paraphrase) because of sin and disobedience.
Obedience, even if it starts slowly and in small ways, is essential to our relationship with G-d. No amount of jubilant praise and worship can substitute for it. Samuel had to explain this to king Saul: "Does the L-RD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the L-RD's command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22, NJPS). Why is that so? Samuel finished: "For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry" (v. 23, ESV). Disobedience - here called rebellion and presumption - is as serious as idolatry. In other words, "the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name" (Hebrews 13:15b, ESV) actually has to acknowledge His name and we do that by obeying Him. If we don't obey Him, if we don't take the time and trouble to do the things He has told us to do, if we don't even know what those things are - given due allowance for the different callings of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Messiah - then we are not acknowledging His name and the fruit of our lips is not acceptable to Him.
Some people will say that is very "Old Testament" and protest that they are "not under law but grace" as if that somehow gives them a free pass; they are somehow exempt from the obligations of covenant or are never given any commands. What do the Apostolic Writers say? Matthew records Yeshua saying that, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21, ESV). Doing - that is, carrying out or performing - the will of G-d appears to be essential for being a part of the kingdom of heaven, both now in this age and in the one to come. Luke presents this as a question - "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46, ESV) - while Rav Sha'ul explains that "it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before G-d, but the doers of the law who will be justified" (Romans 2:13, ESV). In John, Yeshua spoke about obedience in the context of the Last Supper - "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:10, ESV) and then modelled that for us: "being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8, ESV).
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 305.
2. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 224.
3. - Ibid.
Further Study: Isaiah 8:16-20; Luke 12:42-48; 1 Peter 1:3-7
Application: Have you been crying out to G-d recently and wondering why He has been responding? Perhaps it might be time to conduct an inventory of the commandments that you have been given and assessing how obedient you are in those areas. Fixing that might just re-open communications with heaven and that has to be a good thing!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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