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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Second Law

Today and most of this week, we will read from Deuteronomy in our Morning Prayer readings. It is hard to know what to do with the Jewish Bible. The concept of "Old Testament" implies, for many, "Former Covenant." I have seen a pocket New Testament (sometimes with Psalms) which only reinforces the idea of 'former' things.

Paradoxically, there are many who would not see much value in the "Old" Testament who are also pretty adamant that it is the divinely inspired Word of God. This means it is inerrant. There is some difficulty, for me, in holding those two ideas in close proximity. One is tempted to ask questions, not to reject its authority or truth but to figure out what exactly it is we think and mean.

Some believe that "times" is the answer, in former times when God spoke this particular inerrant Word it was applicable, but it no longer is because we are in a new age (post-Jesus). Certainly, the Christ has filled up the Scriptures, but this approach does not seem to do complete justice to the question, "What then to do with these writings?"

I prefer, for now, to simply read them and ask, "What do I learn of our God here?" The texts are meant to convey an encounter. This is especially true of Deuteronomy. And if modern scholarship is correct, then that is arguably the purpose of the writing(s) in an intentional way.

The first question one might ask of the text is does the author appear to be the main character? In other words, the idea that Moses wrote Deuteronomy does not feel congruent. It sounds like there is a distance (first person vs third person). Now maybe Moses wrote this way on purpose, but we know Paul's first person, personal accounts (or the "we" sections of Acts) show that the Bible does not require such an approach.

In my schooling, the concept of authorship was explained as deeper and broader in ancient thought. Moses is "the authority" behind the stories and tradition, hence, he is the name associated with the Torah (first five books). Deuteronomy is thought to be a school which produced this particular book and much of the proceeding "historical" accounts (Samuel and Kings. I would hasten to add that these works are called "prophetic" writings in the Jewish canon of Scripture). The style and vocabulary is consistent throughout and different from Genesis or Leviticus. Some of that is even apparent in the English translations, though we tend to not pay attention to such things. It is helpful to know that Hebrew, like English developed over time. If we were to combine sections of the King James Version and then the Good News Bible, most of the time it would be apparent to us that there are two sources. What then, are we to think of Deuteronomy?

Deuteronomy is written as a series of sermons. The materials are ancient, but sometimes the laws are different from other books in the Torah. The setting is changed which means laws need to adjust to new circumstances (this is true today as well). Recall, the nomadic Hebrews become the Kingdom of Israel, and then the exiled Jews. Deuteronomy seems to be written for those exiled Jews, it is an explanation of who they are, their roots, and what they were/are/shall be called to do in response to God. Deuteronomy makes very explicit the covenant requirements and the consequences for infidelity. This makes sense as an explanation for the exiled Jews trying to make sense of their situation. In addition, as Cyrus allowed them to return, that return was a new "exodus" experience. So, the text looks back into the past, but it is written with an eye to the present and future.

Suddenly, the catechetical value of the book is clear. It provides a brief history of the Exodus, but early on we already see that editing takes place (not unlike the differences in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In 1:9ff Moses said that he was overwhelmed by the numbers of people so he decided to choose leaders for the tribes (compare to Jethro in Exodus 18). In Dtn 3 Moses blames God's anger (Moses can not go into the land) on the Israelites, not his faltering faith in striking the rock. We also see that Mount Sinai is now called Horeb. These little differences all reflect the different situation from which the book is written and composed. The "Ten Commandments" (or Ten Words) is is even found to have some differences in order and explanations. Once again, there are no earth shattering contradictions, but there are noticable differences which point to a different hand at work.

If the purpose of the book was to re-present the faith to the Jews, with some reshaping of the materials to fit a new time and place, then we have internal evidence, in the Jewish Bible, that revelation is an ongoing process. This means that the Christian Scriptures can be considered in continuation with the Jewish Bible, even if they make some shifts and changes as well.

Hundreds of years before Jesus, Jewish men and women were confronted with their story of faith. God's promises and warnings, fulfilled in the past, were now presented to them afresh. "What shall we do as we stand on the cusp of a new exodus?" those ancients asked. And the question is answered in what follows. Trust in God, do what He commands. If the understanding of all that entailed had grown and developed in the new setting (principles and their applications are notoriously tricky), so we know that our own day, with its radically different (yet fundamentally similar) set of circumstances, calls us to hear the Word anew. We just do not live 'back then', and much of the text, (whether one thinks it inerrant in the strongest sense or inspired in a more nuanced way) is foreign to us (who do not tend sheep or have slaves). What is not foreign is the God who encounters them and encounters us. So then, we must read, first of all, what is there and let our ears hear.

Deuteronomy, after all, uses the word shema (listen, hear, and obey) some eighty times. It is a book for listeners!

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