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D'varim/Deuteronomy 29:1 "You yourselves saw all that Adonai did before your eyes in the land of Egypt ..."
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The first word in the text - - is the 2nd person plural personal pronoun: "you" and is used with the verb - Qal affix 2mp from the root "to see", which already has its own pronoun ending - to emphasise what Moshe is saying. Addressing the people who were standing before him, Moshe makes it clear that they themselves saw whatHaShem had done. Hirsch explains, "apart from the whole tribe of Levi, and the women to whom the decree of dying in the wilderness did not apply, there were still amongst the rest of the male population all those between forty and sixty years of age who had themselves come out of Egypt." Moshe was well aware that among his audience there were a significant number of eye-witnesses who really had seen and heard exactly what had happened in Egypt and had seen the parting of the Sea and had been present at Sinai. Obviously, there was a younger generation who had been born during the wilderness years, who had to rely on the reports of others to know what happened in those years, but there were enough eye-witnesses that everyone could have access to a first-hand report and need not rely on second or third-hand stories.
Moshe uses the technique of personal experience frequently throughout this address to the Children of Israel on the plains of Moab. He starts by being inclusive: "The L-rd our G-d spoke to us at Horeb, saying: 'You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out ...' We set out from Horeb and travelled the great and terrible wilderness that you saw ..." (D'varim 1:6-7,19, JPS), then turns to exhortation: "But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you go not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes ..." (4:9, JPS), and make sure that the people know that "it was not your children, who neither experienced nor witnessed the lesson of the L-rd your G-d ... but that it was you who saw with your own eyes all the marvelous deeds that the L-rd performed" (11:2,7, JPS). Moshe understands the power of personal recollection and testimony; it is hard to directly call someone a liar when they recount their own memories and experience. One of the reasons why the "never again" cry that followed the Holocaust is starting to fade, that Holocaust denial is becoming not only possible but even politically acceptable in some quarters, and that anti-Semitism is once more on the rise is because there are very few survivors, those with a personal testimony of the camps and the brutalities that they experienced, still alive. As that generation passes, those who could say with perfect conviction, "I was there, I saw it with my own eyes", so the opposition and nay-sayers are able to contradict the truth, now having only the written and recorded witness - however well presented - which cannot take offence or respond when called into question.
The Hebrew Bible makes great play of remembering, using the patriarchs in particular as memory focii, remembering their faithfulness, their obedience, their relationship with G-d - as building blocks or foundation stones for the current generation. The Palestinian Targums1 record an old tradition that the Hebrew Scriptures are "the Book of Memories". Ronald Hendel comments that, "the memory of Abraham inhabits many such times, places and habits ... serves in varying measures to articulate Israelite identity, to motivate the rememberer to take appropriate actions, to give solace and to activate social, religious or political ideals ... Some obtain when G-d is the rememberer, others when humans are; the importance of remembering Abraham embraces both G-d and Israel"2. Isaiah for example, uses G-d's faithfulness to Abraham to provide comfort to his immediate audience: "Assuredly, thus said the L-RD to the House of Jacob, who redeemed Abraham: No more shall Jacob be shamed, no longer his face grow pale" (Isaiah 29:22, JPS); if G-d helped Abraham then, He will surely help you/us now. Later on, G-d Himself reminds Israel that Abraham is the exemplar of G-d's blessing: "Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many" (51:2, JPS). John the Baptiser spoke from the same tradition - "If you have really turned from your sins, produce fruit that will prove it! And don't start saying to yourselves, 'Avraham is our father'! For I tell you that G-d can raise up for Avraham sons from these stones!" (Luke 3:8, CJB) - as did Yeshua Himself - "And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?" (Luke 13:16, ESV) - connecting the present with the past and triggering the collective memories and images that make Israel the children of Abraham. Rav Sha'ul, himself trained in the rabbinic patterns, was no exception: "Even so Abraham believed G-d, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham" (Galatians 3:6-7, NASB). There was no doubt in any of their minds that Abraham was a real historical person, or that he had a significant and foundational relationship with G-d.
Richard Bauckham underlines the power of eye-witness testimony and the way in which it is used in the Gospels to record a first-hand account of the existence, actions and teachings of Yeshua: "The Gospel writers, in their different ways, present their Gospels as based on and incorporating the testimony of the eyewitnesses ... In one case, we have argued, an eye-witness has authored his own Gospel"3. N.T. Wright, commenting on Bauckham's work, noted, "not only that the Gospels do indeed contain eyewitness testimony but that their first readers would certainly have recognised them as such"4. If the claims of papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede are to be believed - that the Magdalen Papyrus fragments can be dated to around 60 CE, thus placing the original composition of Matthew's Gospel within 20 years of the crucifixion and resurrection5 - this would confirm Bauckham's textual work with archaeological evidence that the origins of the Gospels were composed within the lifetimes of the apostles and are first-hand personal eyewitness of the events they relate.
All that to provide a connection between our text above from the Torah and this affirmation of personal witness found in one of the New Covenant documents: "What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life -- and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us -- what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us" (John 1:1-3, NASB). The importance of this cannot be underestimated. John explains that the testimony, the accounts, the witness that the New Covenant documents offer is a first-hand, personal account. He says that he has personally seen, touched, heard, laughed and cried with, shared lunch with, walked around with the real person, Yeshua from Nazareth. John has personally witnessed the death by crucifixion of Yeshua and just as personally seen the risen, resurrected Yeshua and watched Thomas put his fingers into the nail holes in His hands. Edited and preserved by generations of scribes, yes, but still clearly recognisable in the earliest physical fragments - many now dating back to the first and second centuries - as being reliable and consistent historical documents. As Moshe said over a thousand years earlier, "You yourselves saw what Adonai did." The question now is: what will we do with the evidence before us and how will we respond?
1 - Targum Neofiti, Pseudo-Jonathan, at Shemot 12:42; a Geniza manuscript at Shemot 15:18
2 - Ronald Hendel, Remembering Abraham - Culture, Memory and History in the Hebrew Bible, Oxford University Press 2005, 0-19-517796-7, page 31
3 - Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Eerdmans 2006, 0-8028-3162-1, page 472
4 - N.T. Wright, back cover material to the above
5 - Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D'Ancona, Eyewitness to Jesus, Doubleday 1996, 0-385-48051-2
Further Study: Acts 4:20; John 19:38; 2 Peter 1:16
Application: Have you been tempted to doubt the physical reality of the events recorded in the Gospels, or perhaps to doubt the existence of Yeshua or His death and resurrection? It is easy to spiritualise the message of the Bible and so rob it of its power to save and change lives. Recognise the truth of the text today and let it change you!
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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