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D'varim/Deuteronomy 27:8 And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this Torah to explain well.
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Here we have some of Moshe's final instructions - given with the priests and the elders - to the Children of Israel on the plains of Moab. When you have crossed the Jordan, he tells them, raise up huge stones, plaster (or whitewash) them and then write all these words of the Torah on them. Christopher Wright reports that "setting up large stones with writing was a common ANE practice for preserving significant public documents. To coat them with plaster (a kind of whitewash) and then write on them was an Egyptian practice, as distinct from the Mesopotamian preference for carved lettering."1
Our text starts with the normal 'writing' word - , the Qal affix 2ms form of the root . "to write, describe, write down", here with a vav-reversive to indicate a future action - "you shall write". Confirming Wright's point, this is writing, not engraving, which would probably have used the verb (Pi'el), "to engrave" or (Qal), "to scratch". The Israelites are to write on the plastered surface all the words of this Torah. Exactly how much text "this Torah" encompasses has been discussed for millennia, but is not our subject for today.
At the end of the verse are two more verbs. The last word is , class="c136">, the Hif'il infinitive absolute of the root , to be or do well, here used as an adverb: well, right. The NJPS and the NASB offer 'distinctly' while other versions offer "very clearly" or "very plainly". The other word, , is the Pi'el infinitive of the root , "to engrave, expound or explain". This is one of only three times that the verb is used in the Tanakh; the others are "On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moshe undertook to expound this Teaching" ('D'varim 1:5, NJPS) and "Write the prophecy down, inscribe it clearly on tablets so that it can be read easily" (Habakkuk 2:2, NJPS).Targum Onkelos changes the two word phrase to the Aramaic , properly distinguished. All three uses convey more than a mechanical means of recording words; they talk of clarity and precision, they speak of explaining and expounding, making sure that those listening not only hear but understands.
Rabbinic exegetes deduce from here both the necessity and the mandate for Bible translations. TheMishnah simply reports that the action of writing the Torah clearly meant writing it in the languages of all the nations: "And they brought stones and built an altar and plastered it with plaster. And they wrote on it all the words of the Torah in seventy languages, as it is written, 'very plainly'" (m. Sotah 7:5). The Tosefta goes further and suggests that the nations cooperated with this effort "Rabbi Judah said: This teaches that the Omnipresent moved every nation and kingdom to send their scribes and they translated what was written on the stones into seventy languages. Rabbi Simeon says: They laid it out and plastered it with plaster, and they wrote on it all the words of the Torah in seventy languages" (t. Sotah 8:6-7). Supporting this conclusion, the Baal HaTurim helpfully points out that "the gematria of the phrase 'this Torah to explain well' is equivalent to , "also in seventy languages". Rabbi Hirsch explains that "accordingly ... Israel from the very beginning was to understand its mission for the spiritual and moral salvation of the whole of mankind whose future happiness was equally to be brought about by this entrance if the Divine Torah in their midst."
But why was it necessary to write the Torah on huge plastered stones? TheRashbam claims that "by the time they took this oath at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, they had the entire Teaching written down before them and they swore that they would fulfill it." Writing out the Torah in public was an important part of validating the oath: this is what we have sworn to uphold. This public witness or point of reference is an essential demonstration that the Torah is a part of national and personal Israelite life, as Wright affirms: "The law is assumed to be available to all, intelligible to all and observable by all. It is not the esoteric preserve of a special privileged caste."2 Walter Brueggemann goes a step further, suggesting that the this was done "in order to make covenant a visible, public phenomenon in Israel."3
This matter of public witness, the visible phenomenon, is also a present need for us as followers of Yeshua. The original stones, so carefully plastered and written by Joshua the Israelites after they had crossed the Jordan, have long ago been lost. We cannot touch or inspect them as our point of reference. Where can we find our anchor? HaShem has already made provision for us as the prophet Isaiah said, "Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: 'Whoever believes will not be in haste.'" (Isaiah 28:16, ESV). Who or what is this stone? None other thanHaShem Himself: "But the L-RD of hosts, Him you shall honour as holy. Let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. And He will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken" (8:13-15, ESV). But the stone will be an offence to many; they will trip or stumble over it and fall, they will not be able or prepared to accept that this is a move of G-d. Rather than the physical stones, carried from the bed of the Jordan, God will put Himself on the line; He will be the touchstone, the point of reference and the public witness.
Those who are responsible for building in each generation will nevertheless reject the stone that G-d has offered and laid. It is too big or too small; it is the wrong shape or texture - it doesn't match the other stones that the builders accept. Nevertheless, it is the key stone needed for building the house that G-d desires and, in His providence, it will not only survive but become the foundation of the temple that G-d is building. Whether the capstone of a gateway - "the gate of the L-RD; the righteous shall enter through it" (Psalm 118:20, ESV) or the cornerstone of the building - "the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone" (v. 22, ESV) - His stone will prevail and be shown to everyone as exactly the stone they needed. In Messiah Yeshua, who is Himself "a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious" (1 Peter 2:4, ESV), we are now living stones, "living stones ... being built up as a spiritual house" (v. 5, ESV), a house for the worship and praise of the Most High G-d, "built on the foundation of the emissaries and the prophets, with the cornerstone being Yeshua the Messiah Himself ... a dwelling place for G-d by the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:20,22, CJB).
But we are not finished yet! How are we to be that public testimony - are we all to be plastered and have the Torah written over us in seventy languages? Rav Sha'ul has the answer: "You make it clear that you are a letter from the Messiah placed in our care, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living G-d, not on stone tablets but on human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:3, CJB). We carry the Torah written inside us by the Holy Spirit. And our witness is not primarily now by words, in one or several of the many languages spoken around the globe. Instead, we are seen as who we are by our behaviour - what we do. Yeshua told the disciples, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34, ESV). In many ways, this is not a new commandment at all; loving each other was mandated by the Torah - "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18, NASB) - and endorsed by Yeshua Himself as the second most important commandment: "The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:39, NASB). What was new was the degree; instead of loving one's neighbour as oneself, we are to love as Yeshua has loved us. This is a much more significant call and challenge, but is how we are to be known: "By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35, ESV).
We are the writing inscribed upon each other, as the Spirit knits us together; the individual letters are acts of kindness, sacrificial minutes, times of listening, moments of generosity and provision. Your want triggers our gift; my needs calls forth your provision. We rejoice, mourn and laugh together in the vicissitudes of life, showing "a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other" (Colossians 3:12-13, NASB). This is the Torah of Messiah, writ large for all to see!
1. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 275.
2. - ibid.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 251.
Further Study: Proverbs 3:1-4; Romans 15:4-6; Colossians 3:12-17
Application: How can you play your part in the visible, public phenomenon of covenant life in Messiah? Whether by open action, covert support or joyful celebration, seek to share "the riches of the glory of this mystery ... Messiah in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). It will be very plain for all to see.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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