Déjà vu all over again (Deuteronomy)

Many days into Spring, it was snowing yesterday: déjà vu all over again. Reading Deuteronomy left me feeling the same wayas though I had seen and heard it all before.

I did not expect to be interested in Deuteronomy. It surprised me to be fascinated by it. I’ve been reflecting on it and working through it for two weeks and I still feel as though I have only scratched the surface. I look for the answer to one question and find three more questions. I would linger longer, but I need to move on in order to stay on track for the lectionary project.

Deuteronomy – in brief 🙂
The story is simple enough. Deuteronomy opens with the Israelites camped just across the river from the Promised Land after 40 brutal years in the wilderness led by Moses who has in turn been led by God. Of the 601,000 people who left Egypt, only three remain alive: Moses, Caleb and Joshua. Moses will soon die.  Joshua and Caleb are the only persons who will survive both the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance to the Promised Land.

In giving Canaan to the Israelites, God is making good on the second promise made to Abraham. God had promised “descendants and land” and had provided “descendants.” By the end of Numbers, the tribe of the 70 who went into Egypt back in Jacob and Joseph’s day has grown to 601,000. But the promise of land has not been fulfilled. God says that Canaan will be it: Israel’s land as long as the people observe the covenant.

New covenant for a new lifestyle
God’s promises had remained constant, but what constituted the people’s “observance of the covenant” had not. That changed. In Genesis their “observance” or “obedience” was to practice circumcision and  follow various ad hoc directives. After the escape from Egypt, at the beginning of the wilderness journey at Mt. Sinai (Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers) it was the Ten Commandments, Sabbath-keeping, dietary rules and the proper construction of the sanctuary.

In Deuteronomy, (lit., “the second law”,) the people’s covenant duties change again. The “second law” was not a law for wandering and surviving in the wilderness. It was a law for a prosperous, settled existence. It presumed permanence (cities and houses on which you could put a mezuzah), and the stability of agriculture (from which one gives first fruit offerings and tithes.) Deuteronomy sets out rules about marriage, cities of refuge, the duty of care owed to neighbors, rules for dealing with unsolved murders, the establishment of a welfare and a judicial system, and the choice of one (unnamed) city among others as the center of liturgical activity and judicial authority. Entering the Promised Land was going to mean living a new kind of life, and Moses describes the demands of the covenant for that new lifestyle in which the danger will not be wilderness hardship: it will be complacency.

New danger
Structurally, Deuteronomy consists of three speeches which Moses makes as the people prepare to enter Canaan. He gives the new laws and then warns of the new danger – that in their complacency, people will be tempted to forget God. They will imagine that their comfort, wealth and military victories are due to their own effort and skill. “Do not forget how it was in the wilderness, Moses seems to say, “and remembering, obey.”

In the end, Moses privately doubts that his warning will be effective. He predicts that the people will not remember, they will not keep the covenant so that in Canaan, instead of enjoying blessings, the fulfillment of God’s promises, they will be cursed, coming to misery and trouble. Specifically, they will lose the promised land and become exiles. Moses’ only word of comfort is that when this happens, if the people return to God, God will relent and bring them home.

When did all this happen?
The actual events in the Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy saga (i.e., the escape from Egypt, the wilderness journey and the entrance to the Promised Land) are impossible to assign to an actual year, although attempts have been made. Scholars have tried to use the Bible to “count back” to an actual year and decided on 1450 BCE. Rabbinic Judaism, in the 2nd century CE said the escape from Egypt was in 1312 BCE. An American 20th century biblical archaeologist (Wm Albright) argued for 1250-1145 BCE. There is no good historical or archaeological evidence for any of those dates.

It is a little easier to date the story itself. It shows up in biblical literature (e.g. Hosea) in the 8th century BCE (c.760-725 BCE.) It is thought that Deuteronomy’s canonical form first emerged about 600 BCE (during King Josiah’s reign), and was reworked after 586 BCE during the Exile. [For a good explanation of Deuteronomy’s history, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Deuteronomy, “Composition, history and structure.”]

Deuteronomy déjà vu
As a Christian reading Deuteronomy, I had a recurring sense of déjà vu. Much of the time I spent reflecting on Deuteronomy was spent on looking at that ways Deuteronomy is used elsewhere and especially in the gospels. In the end, I felt I was getting a fresh reading of the gospels when I read them through the lens of Deuteronomy. (A couple of the charts I used to keep track of the connections are on the “Deut” page. They are based on the “Quotations of the Jewish Scriptures in the New Testament” which appears at the back of the 1993 Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV) at 2339 et seq.)
♦ Deuteronomy 5 has a version of the Ten Commandments. Déjà vu Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, of course. (“You have heard it said…. But I tell you…”)
♦ Deuteronomy recounts key episodes of Israel in the wilderness previously told in Numbers. Déjà vu Matthew and Luke’s account of Jesus in (wait for it)… the wilderness. All of the answers Jesus gives the Tempter are from the Israel-in-the-wilderness story. (Deut. 8:3 – One does not live by bread alone; Deut. 6:16 – Do not put God to the test; Deut. 4:10 – Worship God and serve God only.)
♦ At Deut. 10:12, Moses rhetorically asks: “What does the Lord require of you?” Déjà vu Micah 6:8, in which the answer, frankly, is a lot catchier. But déjà vu the gospels as well, in which the underlying question is “What must we do?”

What must we do?
This question matters. There are no less than four versions of the story in which “someone” (Mtt. 19:18), a man” (Mk. 10:19), “a lawyer” (Lk. 10:25) and “a certain ruler” (Lk. 18:20) asks “what must I do?”

For both Moses and Jesus the answer is covenant observance or “the law” and both know that the listeners do not understand the paradoxical simplicity and difficulty of what God requires of them. Both want their people to “understand” – to have “eyes to see and ears to hear.” (Moses at Deut. 29:4, déjà vu Jesus at Mk 4:9, 4:23 & 8:18; Luke 8:8 & 14:35.) Both fear that the simple-but-difficult law will be forgotten when people become wealthy and comfortable. (Moses at Deut. 4:25, déjà vu Jesus, who concludes three of the four “What must I do?” stories by saying that it is hard but not impossible, for a rich person to enter the realm of God. )

Deuteronomy is written for a people who have lost security and prosperity. It says that we have only ourselves to blame because we have strayed from our original purposes and values. If we repent of our neglect and rededicate ourselves, God may restore our security and prosperity. Consequently, it is of utmost importance to name and understand those original purposes and values.

“The law” is Israel’s original purpose and value. Moses says that the law – that which is “required of us”– is easy to learn. Jesus says it is easy enough for a child to observe. (Mark 10:20). It is not “too hard or too far away” (Deut. 30:11.)  The difficulty is “knowing it” with understanding.
In Jesus’ lifetime, (and certainly decades later, after the destruction of the Temple) the religious community was threatened by the power and influence of the Roman empire. They knew that the key to their survival was faithful observance of the covenant – keeping the law with understanding. They knew they needed to understand, as Paul would say, not only the letter of the law, but its spirit. Every generation needs to understand “the law” for its own time and circumstances – on the eve crossing into the Promised Land in Deuteronomy,  in the face of Roman occupation as in Jesus’ lifetime, and in 21st America.

Jesus was part of his religious community. He was part of their conversation devoted to finding true understanding. His intent was not to abolish the law, but to uncover, for his peers and for us, its deepest meaning. I think the image of the Transfiguration gets it right: Jesus and Moses have the same message and mission. Déjà vu all over again.

Lectionary Notes

Sunday Deuteronomy Story
Pr. 17B – optional Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9 Moses tells the people to heed the statutes and ordinances he is about to give them. (In the verses omitted, Moses reminds the people that God has killed Israelites who followed other gods.)
Pr. 4B – optional Deut. 5:12-15 Observe the Sabbath
Pr. 26B – optional Deut. 6:1-9 The Sh’ma and “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might…”
Thanksgiving Day A Deut. 8:7-18 The Promised Land is wonderful. When you get there, remember God.
Pr. 4A – optional Deut. 11:18-28 Put these words in your heart, bind them on your hand, teach them to your children… I set before you blessing and curse.
Epiphany 4B Deut. 18:15-20 God will raise up for you a prophet like me. Heed that prophet. False prophets should die.
Lent 1C &Thanksgiving Day C Deut. 26:1-11 You shall make an offering of first fruits to the priest I the chosen city. When he takes your offering you shall say: “My father was a wandering Aramean…” NB: In this “creed” story, there is no mention of the wilderness years. ???
Pr. 10C – optional Deut. 30:9-14 This commandment is not too hard for you, or too far away. The word is very near.
Epiphany 6A – optionalPr. 18C – optional Deut. 15-20 I set before you today life and death. Choose life.
Pr. 25A – optional Deut. 34:1-12 The death of Moses. “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face…”

As appears from the chart, Deuteronomy is read 10 times in three years…. MAYBE. Of the 10 readings, one is a repeat (Lent 1C and Thanksgiving Day C) and eight are optional. Technically, of course, “Thanksgiving Day” is not a Sunday (although I used to substitute “Thanksgiving Day” for “Christ our King.”)

What is NOT in the lectionary?
♦ The Ten Commandments as they appear in Deuteronomy.
♦ None of the passages Jesus quotes when he is tested in the wilderness. (Is the presumption that everyone knows Jesus is quoting, or are we trying to suggest that Jesus came up with those answers on his own?)
♦ Deut. 10:12-22 – What does the Lord require of you?… Circumcise your heart… God’s justice is concerned for the widow and orphan. God loves the stranger. You should love the stranger, for you were once strangers yourselves.
♦ Deut. 16:18-20 – Justice only shall you pursue. Accept no bribe. Be impartial.
♦ Deut. 22:1-4 – Duty of care towards neighbors. An affirmative duty of care.
♦ Deut. 24:10-15, 17-20 – Economic justice: Do not withhold a laborer’s wages. Do not keep a necessity as security overnight. Leave gleanings for the poor.
♦ Deut. 29 :1-10 – “Diligently observe the words of this covenant, in order that you may succeed in everything that you do.”

Déjà vu John?
Unlike the synoptic gospels, the gospel of John does not quote Deuteronomy (unless you count Jn. 8:17.) Still, consider Deut. 17:7 which says that to prove a crime, at least two witnesses are required and in the event of a crime carrying the death penalty, those witnesses must be prepared to cast the first stone. Déjà vu the woman taken in adultery in John 8:4-10. Presumably there were two witnesses. The Law already makes it hard for anyone to “casually” accuse someone of adultery. If they would be an accusing witness, they must also be prepared to act as executioner by throwing the first stone. Jesus makes it tougher still: they must be without sin. More questions: Without what sin? The sin of adultery? Without any sin? Questions, questions, questions! These two passages (Deut. 17:7 and John 8:4-10) would make an interesting set of Sunday readings.

PS – Thanks for the suggestion that shorter is better, or at least easier to read. I was not very good at being “brief” this time. I’ve tried to include enough section headers so that one can skip bits that look too tedious.