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D'varim/Deuteronomy 31:16-17 But this people will rise up and prostitute [themselves] after the gods that are foreign to the Land ... and it will forsake Me ... and I will forsake them and I will hide My face from them
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HaShem is telling Moshe what will happen after his death: the people will start worshipping the gods of the nations that are being expelled from the land, forsaking Him, so He will forsake them and hide His face from them. The choice of language in the text generates some comment. What does the root mean and how is it used here? Why is the root used twice in what appears to be a reflective way? And how would the root be heard by the original hearers of these verses? More importantly, what do they say to us today and what do these verse teach us about our relationship with G-d?
Let's start with the phrase - "the gods that are foreign to the land". In ancient times, gods were thought to be territorial; they had power only and exclusively in their own land. If you travelled to another land, then you needed to worship the god of that land, to seek his protection and favour, rather than the god of the land that you had left.Hirsch affirms, "They considered the gods honoured by the inhabitants of the land as belonging to the land, as such that nobody living in that land could neglect to honour if he wished to have protection and prosperity there." The phrase itself appears unclear; a literal translation might be "the gods of the foreignness of the land" and Targum Onkelos translates it as "the idols of the nations". Jeffrey Tigay suggests that it means, "the Canaanite gods that will be in Israel's midst after it enters the land, which Joshua will later refer to as 'the gods ... of the Amorites in whose land you are settled' (Joshua 24:15, JPS)". The Ramban, on the other hand, explains that "It is the Holy One Himself who is called the G-d of this land, so the Hebrew means the god[s] who is/are alien to the land", while Mizrachi1 adds, "This means the gods of the peoples who live there, and they are called foreign because it has already been decreed that they be expelled."
How did this happen? The verb - the Qal affix 3ms form of the root , with a vav-reversive to give a future tense - is very strong: "they will prostitute themselves". Davidson lists the meanings as "to commit whoredom, to play the harlot"; a modern dictionary adds, "to commit adultery, commit idolatry, prostitute oneself", with the noun "a prostitute" being . Targum Onkelos is shocked and changes the Hebrew to the Aramaic , "he will go astray". How could Israel do this? Tigay offers a clinical answer, "the Israelites did not literally cease worshipping the L-rd; they worshipped Him along with other gods as was common in polytheism", but it is Hirsch who points out the consequences: "This starts not by neglecting HaShem to whom offerings were still brought at the Sanctuary, but just adding a few offerings to the local gods of the land on the hills. But in truth, by so doing, he forsakes HaShem and finally breaks his connection with the Torah, to which he is bound by his covenant with G-d." What starts perhaps as just a little superstitious belt-and-braces behaviour breaks the exclusiveness of Israel's covenant with HaShem and leads to abandonment. Tigay adds that "worship of other gods is an act of betrayal as repugnant as adultery."
The verb - the Qal 3ms affix form of the root , "to leave, forsake or desert" (Davidson), with both a vav-reversive and a 1cs suffix pronoun, "he will forsake Me" - is mirrored by - the Qal 1cs affix form with a vav-reversive and a 3mp suffix pronoun, "I will forsake them". Punishment in kind; Israel forsakes HaShem, so HaShem forsakes Israel. Bleak indeed. Onkelos again tries to soften the language, translating "I will forsake them" as "I will drive them far away", as if that is somehow less final. Hirsch comments: "I just leave them to themselves. Israel's national collapse is the natural consequence of its weakness when left to itself. Israel's historical existence and prosperity is the work of the miraculous power of G-d."
Nevertheless, it is the verb - the Hif'il 1cs affix of the root , "to hide or conceal oneself", so here "I will conceal My face from them" - that attracts the most comment. Why would HaShem do that?Rashi's answer is short, "as if I do not see their distress". The Sforno gives a longer version: "After they will be (given over into) the hands of the nations who will deal with them in an ill fashion and afflict them, I will avert My merciful eye from them as though I do not see their troubles." Is G-d so distressed by the state that Israel get get itself into, that He turns away because He cannot bear to look? Even Gunther Plaut seems to agree: "Instead of showing compassion, the Eternal will hide when Israel sins; that is, G-d will be impervious to Israel's suffering and its cries for help." The magnitude of this isolation is brought out sharply by Richard Elliott Friedman: "These words here predict a time in which G-d will be hidden. It is more frightening than divine punishment: It is one thing for a parent to punish a child; it is far worse if the parent becomes hidden from the child, so the child does not know if the parent is present or not. The child feels vulnerable, unprotected. The child cries for the parent, but there is no answer. It is terrifying."
Doesn't this seem out of character for our merciful G-d? What parent would allow their child to suffer this emotional deprivation - abuse if deliberately repeated - if they could possibly do anything about it? It seems barbaric! Plaut offers an explanation: "G-d is 'hidden' as long as the world chooses to be alienated from the Divine - G-d is limited by human freedom. Humankind - to whom G-d gave the choice to act for good or for evil - shuts the divine light out, or lets it shine in." Having given mankind the freedom to choose, the consequences of that choice are that G-d's options too are reduced. If man shuts G-d out, refuses to have anything to do with Him, won't acknowledge Him or call on Him, spits - metaphorically speaking - in His eye, what is G-d to do? Plaut's response, based on his less-than-omnipotent view of G-d, is that G-d must look for the long game and hope that things come round in the end, that man will eventually come to his senses, repent and so allow G-d back in.
This is not the view of the prophets. Micah foretells that a time of hiding is coming, "Someday they shall cry out to the L-RD, but He will not answer them; at that time He will hide His face from them, in accordance with the wrongs they have done" (Micah 3:4, JPS) and the Psalmist recounts his experience: "When I was untroubled, I thought, 'I shall never be shaken,' for You, O L-RD, when You were pleased, made me firm as a mighty mountain. When You hid Your face, I was terrified" (Psalm 30:7-8, JPS). Isaiah remains firm: "So I will wait for the L-RD, who is hiding His face from the House of Jacob, and I will trust in Him" (Isaiah 8:17, JPS). G-d may be hiding His face now, but this will not last; the situation will return to normal, G-d will once again engage with His people. G-d knows His people and their weaknesses; He knows that although a time of punishment may be in order, He will have to re-engage because left to their own devices the people won't come round.
We should note also that when G-d hides His face, this introduces an immediate tension with the Aharonic benediction: "the L-RD make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you" (B'Midbar 6:25, ESV). How do we reconcile the absence of G-d's presence with His promise in the context of the daily burnt offerings: "I will meet with you, to speak to you there. There I will meet with the people of Israel" (Shemot 29:42-43, ESV)? Probably the best answer is that when the people have turned away from G-d, no-one shows up at the Sanctuary at the time of the daily offerings, if they are still being made; likewise, there is no-one for the priests to bless - Israel does not hear the priests' invocation of G-d's face over them.
Finally, as believers, we need to remember that G-d is and remains constant. If He turns His face away from the Israelites, then He will turn His face away from us if we give our love, focus and attention to idols instead of exclusively to Him. The idols of money, success, sport are just as foreign to our relationship with G-d as were the Canaanite gods in the Land; tools we may use, but when they become idols or obsessions, they turn G-d's presence away from us - they are just as repugnant to Him as adultery! We too need to repent and take whatever steps are necessary to show up in His presence to claim the promises Yeshua has given, rather than simply shouting about them from a distance.
1. - A super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, by Elijah Mizrachi of Constantinople, 1455-1526 CE, the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman empire.
Further Study: Judges 2:11-15; Proverbs 1:28-31; Isaiah 54:8-10
Do you have any idols in your life? Has you relationship with Yeshua cooled?
Whether a little green jade knick-knack on the mantlepiece, or an obsession
about football, they need to go. You know what you need to do: repent today
and get rid of that idol! Yeshua is waiting to hear from you today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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© Jonathan Allen, 2015
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.