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(Deut 16:18 - 21:9)

D'varim/Deuteronomy 18:9   You shall not learn to do like the abominations of these nations.


View whole verse and interlinear translation ...

Here, as they are about to enter and Land, to take possession of the promise that The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem had given the patriarchs - "I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession" (B'resheet 17:8, ESV) - Moshe gives the people a strict warning about the way they are to interact with the spiritual world around them. He then lists (in the following two verses) eight ways in which the seven nations currently living in the Land attempt to access and control the future, to manipulate and appease the gods or forces that they imagine affect their world. The Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Ramban tells us that this command adds detail to a command that has already been given - "You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws" (Vayikra 18:3, NJPS) - only now "those practices are detailed and they are described as 'abhorrent' to HaShem." The most important thing to know about them, according to Gunther Plaut, is that "all of them constitute breaches in the trust relationship between Israel and G-d."

Let's explode a fallacy embraced by Jewish tradition. It is based on the two verbs in our text. The first, , is the negative particle followed by the Qal 2ms prefix form of the root , to learn - rendered here as "you shall not learn." The second, , is the Qal infinitive form of the root , to do, make or perform - giving us "to do". These two verbs are then followed by , the preposition 'like' and the noun 'abominations'. The early rabbis determined that while either verb by itself, "do not do" or "do not learn" would be a total prohibition against engaging in any way, practical or theoretical, with the Canaanite religions, taken together they provided not only permission but a requirement to learn about the pagan practices in order to instruct others how wrong they are. This starts from, "You might think that you are not permitted to learn and to instruct about them, or to understand them; therefore the verse says - to do - you may not learn (their ways) in order to do them, but you may learn them to instruct and to understand" ( What Is ...

Sifrei: An early composite midrash/commentary on B'Midbar and D'varim; probably composed around the time of the Mishna (200CE); known and referenced in the Talmud; the B'Midbar portion from the school of R. Simeon, the D'varim portion from that of R. Akiva
Sifrei, piska 170), steps on to Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi's more definite and shorter, "you shall not learn to do - but you do learn in order to understand and instruct", and finally reaches Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch: "to obtain a theoretical knowledge of them ... is not only permitted, but, in certain circumstances - e.g. for the members of the Sanhedrin for the purpose of their being able to give a correct judgement and verdict in cases which come before them - even essential."

What's wrong with that? While maintaining a strict prohibition against doing any of these things, it enables learning and study so that their arguments can be defeated and enables the judiciary to make a correct judgement as to whether any of these practices have been done or encouraged within Israel. Isn't that a prudent thing to do? Not according to the Torah. After warning the Israelites about being lured into following the ways of the nations after they have been wiped out before them, Moshe explicitly says, "Do not inquire about their gods, saying, 'How did those nations worship their gods?'" (D'varim 12:30, NJPS), echoed by the prophets: "Thus says the L-RD: 'Learn not the way of the nations'" (Jeremiah 10:2, ESV). In purely pragmatic terms, it is both unnecessary and impractical. We might observe that the Bank of England and the US Federal Reserve train their counterfeit detection staff in the same way. Instead of learning what the various counterfeits look like - which would take for ever, as forgers are always changing and improving their art - they spend hours studying real, genuine, original, bank notes - front side, back side, upside down, inside out - then when a forgery is seen, it is instantly and obviously wrong. So it should be with Torah, the word of G-d. We should be so well versed in what G-d has really said, that a false religion (of any kind, old or new) instantly stands out as being false!

Now let's come back to Gunther Plaut's comment above: "all of them constitute breaches in the trust relationship between Israel and G-d." What is he trying to tell us? Simply that there is one and only one legitimate way of knowing what is going on - and that is communication with HaShem. We need to fill in some of the back story now to see what is happening. The starting point is that knowing about the future is important if a society is to be viable. Agrarian societies, like ancient Israel were highly dependent on the weather; knowing when and if it will rain dramatically affects planting decisions and crop outcomes. At this juncture, the level of uncertainty is very high, as the Israelites are going to enter and take possession of a new land about whose weather patterns and growing conditions they know next to nothing. How tempting would it be to get some on-the-ground inside knowledge of how things work from the current residents? Better still, finding out how they predict and control the weather and the fertility of their - now to be our - fields offers a huge potential drop in uncertainty. If they did whatever and it worked, then we can do that too!

The fly in that ointment, however, is that HaShem has made it very clear that He controls the weather: "I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil -- I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle -- and thus you shall eat your fill" (D'varim 11:14-15, NJPS). HaShem and no-one else; He alone is the Master of wind and rain; and Moshe adds the warning, "Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them" (v. 18, NJPS). This is echoed by the prophets: "Can any of the false gods of the nations give rain? Can the skies of themselves give showers? Only You can, O L-RD our G-d! So we hope in You, for only You made all these things" (Jeremiah 14:22, NJPS). Consulting other gods or bowing down to them, seeking other ways of knowledge or control - not that they really work or do anything - is a breach of the covenant relationship that Israel has with G-d. The Torah is very explicit and the people have only just heard Moshe telling them, "Follow none but the L-RD your G-d, and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders; worship none but Him, and hold fast to Him" (D'varim 13:5, NJPS), forcefully repeating, "Do not follow other gods, any gods of the peoples about you" (6:14, NJPS).

Walter Brueggemann explains that "the control of the future is a highly contested matter, for whoever can control the future will have great power in the present."1 Although Moshe lists eight different ways in which the Canaanite nations attempt to divine and control the future, the degree of overlap and uncertainty about exactly what they mean demonstrates that HaShem doesn't really care about the differences and Moshe probably doesn't know. What matters is that any and all strategies, devices or mechanisms for learning about or controlling the future other than HaShem Himself are illegitimate and not permissible to Israel. Brueggemann suggests that these practices and the assumptions behind them challenge G-d's absolute authority in three ways. Firstly, the idea that G-d could be manipulated to affect control violates G-d's sovereignty and freedom; secondly, the idea that the future is fixed and can be determined in advance denies G-d's ability to operate in accordance with His covenant; and thirdly, the practices deny any ethical consideration - whoever offers the right sacrifice gets the prize, regardless of their ethical or moral standing. Divination also denies human responsibility because it removes human choice and freedom as they are nullified in the face of a predetermined future.

Today's world is all about minimising risk by predicting the future: be that short, medium or long-term. Public weather forecasts are available for today (a bit of a guess), the next seven days (a fairly wild guess) and up to a month (worse than a wet finger in the air). The meteorologists even try to tell us whether the coming winter will be hard or not. This all to help farmers with the timings of planting and harvesting and local government to make sure they have enough salt and grit for the roads on hand! The huge amounts of money that change hands every day through share and currency dealings are all protected by futures options designed to make money whichever way the market goes. Trading on the markets when you actually have real information, which others do not, about whether the market or a particular share will rise or fall is labelled "insider dealing" and considered illegal in most countries. Brueggemann's comment that "whoever can control the future will have great power in the present" is both desired and feared by all: desired by the personal and corporate greed that motivates the whole capitalist economy/market idea and feared lest it be someone else who gets to exercise it!

Even the church deals in control. From those who insist that prosperity and health are our rights as believers and that any lack of either is a sign of sin in a believer's life, to those who shut down the Holy Spirit and claim that He stopped working in the sub-apostolic age, we attempt to simplify our lives by removing G-d's freedom to act as He will or our acceptance of what He might do. It is just too scary and uncertain; outside our control! We formulate prayers to always cite the name of Jesus - after all, that is what He told us to do to get what we wanted - and then protect ourselves by adding, "if it be Your will". This is realistically no different from purchasing futures options on a share deal. Just like the various forms of divination - which we berate the world for using - we try to deny G-d and our own responsibility at the same time.

Instead, we need to grasp the nettle of allowing G-d to be G-d, to repent of our lack of faith and trust in His goodness and faithfulness, and to embrace the winds of change that He is bringing into our lives in these days. Those winds blow out the cobwebs, clear the dusty corners and - like a weather-vane rotating to follow the wind direction - turn us to face Him and draw out the old, stale fustiness that accumulates in our souls. Change is coming, make no mistake about that. Yeshua said, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8, ESV). We now have to choose whether we follow the wind and go with the newness and freshness the Spirit brings, or resist the wind and cling to the old bricks and mortar - trying to control it and shape it our desires - risking the inevitable structural damage as it increases to storm force! Above all, we must abandon and repent of illegitimate ways of knowing the future or trying to manipulate G-d to do what we want or think He should.

1. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 192-193.

Further Study: Ecclesiastes 11:5-6; Jeremiah 25:6; Ezekiel 37:9-10; Isaiah 43:19-21

Application: The winds of change are getting up, gusting and changing direction to shake out the dust and bring G-d's newness into your life. Are you working with or against the wind? Are you letting G-d blow through you and do His work, or are you resisting the wind, shutting doors and windows to keep Him out?

Comment - 16:15 09Aug21 Joshua VanTine: Brilliant and challenging Drash. The times are changing indeed.

Comment - 14:21 29Aug21 Brian and Anne Nelson: Yes, our Almighty God; He alone is Sovereign, and knows the exact steps you and I should take. We, and our household choose this day to follow Him, and Him alone. We exalt You, O Holy One of Yisrael !!! Jeremiah 29 : 10 - 14

Buy your own copy of the Drash Book for Deuteronomy/D'varim now at Amazon US or Amazon UK.

© Jonathan Allen, 2021



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