Déjà vu all over again

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.


Take a number? Maybe not.

One could easily decide from reading thecomplaint-department-grenade Book of Numbers that God does not deal well with complaints and that customer service may not be God’s calling. Responding to complaints about lack of food and water, a lack of leadership or the folly of fighting a losing battle, in the Book of Numbers, God gets angry and sends fire, plagues, leprosy, curses and poisonous serpents.

God’s personality is revealed to have some very unpleasant aspects in Numbers.

● God seems overly concerned with acquiring material goods. On the occasion of the dedication of the sanctuary altar, God receives

-12 silver plates

-12 silver basins

-12 gold dishes

-36 bulls

-72 rams

-72 male lambs

-12 male goats. (Num. 7:84-88.)

● God is high-maintenance. The Tent of Meeting requires the full-time attention of 8,580 people (the number of Levites per Nu. 4:48). (Num. 8:19) And then there are the priests, whose only job is to tend the sanctuary within.

● God doesn’t have much regard for women. Women suspected of infidelity are to be tried by ordeal, (Num. 5:19) and women can be parties to a contract (take an oath) only if there husband or father agrees. (Num. 30)

● God is a strict disciplinarian, imposing the death penalty for failure to keep the Sabbath. (Num. 15:35)

● God can be murderous. God kills…

• The 10 scouts who explored Canaan and gave a false bad report about the    desirability of the land, hoping it would dissuade the people from taking on a losing battle of conquest. (Num. 14)

• The 250 Levites who aspired to be priests and who thought the leadership should be more egalitarian. (Num. 16)

• The 14,700 Israelites who protested the killing of the rebel Levites (Num. 16),

• The 24,000 men who died in the plague of God’s anger over Israelite men consorting with Moabite women and their gods.

• The 603,550 men, plus Levites, women and children whom God enticed out of  Egypt with a promise of land, but who were never allowed to set foot on that land  for the offense of having believed someone else’s lie. (Numbers 14.) They had to remain in the wilderness until every last one of them died, even if it took 40 years,  which it did.

I cannot think of a way to make this God look friendly, godly or Jesus-like. The stories in Numbers challenge our image of God. They are a good reminder that we are not supposed to have or worship any images of God and certainly not the image that emerges from Numbers. Worship of a murderous God has tragically allowed us to imagine that some wars and some killings are holy.

There is also no way I cannot be offended by God’s disregard of property rights and nationhood. Why is it okay for the Israelites to invade, conquer and occupy other nations? On the other hand, maybe we are supposed to feel offended. Maybe the earliest editor  or author of Numbers felt the same ethical ambivalence about the fact that  in a zero-sum world, for the “have-nots” to become “haves”, the “haves” must lose something.

But fundamentally, Numbers is about complaints and rebellions – the protests which arise when we are pushed beyond the limits of our patience, our endurance and our courage. That is what happens in a wilderness: when we are pushed beyond the limits of our patience, our endurance and our courage. We’ve all been there.

The moral of the story is not “don’t complain.” We complain and rebel when our sense of justice is offended – when we believe we or someone we care about is not being treated fairly. A sense of justice is a good thing to have, and sometimes complaining and rebelling is the right thing to do.

Leaders, like Moses, often get caught in the middle – between the righteous complaint and the Boss. It is a meditation to watch Moses maintain his relationship with God, with the people and even with his brother and sister even though  each of those parties have conflicting agendas and needs. Leadership is not an easy thing.

Lectionary Notes

Pentecost A Numbers 11:24-30 God’s spirit on the 70 elders & Eldad & Medad. “Would that all God’s people were prophets.”
Lent 4B Numbers 21: 4-9 The people complain about no food; God’s sends poisonous serpents. The bronze serpent on the pole cures those who are bitten.
Proper 21B Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29 The story of the 70 elders, responding to Moses’ request for leadership help, omitting the parallel request made by the people for more meat.  God promises to send the people so much meat that it will come out of their nostrils. The 70 elders, similarly, were too much. Consequently, they are not heard from again.

Three readings – only two stories, and the story that is told twice (70 prophesying elders) is told without the parallel story which interprets it. With the parallel story (about the people getting more meat than anyone would want), the tag line (“Would that all God’s people were prophets.”) takes on a completely ironic and different meaning.

On to Deuteronomy.

Exodus – Makes me wanna howl


After reading the book of Exodus this week. I feel like howling.

I expected to feel uplifted. Exodus, after all, gives us the great story of “salvation” or “liberation.”  God leads Moses who leads the people out of their enslavement, walking “dryshod” through the Red Sea.  The Passover story (whether the passage through the sea or the passing-over of the angel of death the night before) has been an inspiration and/or means of celebrating the experience of millions seeking freedom of one kind or another for centuries. It is the essential story in any Christian Easter Vigil. I expected to feel uplifted after reading Exodus. I did not. I felt like I wanted to howl because its portrayal of God is so problematic. Irredeemable really.


Let’s divide the book into five sections:

Chapters 1-4                The birth of Moses

Chapters 5-12              The Plagues

Chapters 13-15            The Escape from Egypt

Chapters 16-34            Covenant (commandments & ordinances)

Chapters 35-40            Obedience through building

The birth of Moses features the charming story of his rescue as a baby from the basket floating in the reeds (perhaps an allusion to the story of Noah’s Ark.) Moses emerges as a complicated personality: the child of privilege (Pharaoh’s adopted son) and non-privilege (a Hebrew by birth). As a young adult he chooses to align himself with his non-privileged identity and after killing an Egyptian, goes into exile. It is in exile – away from home – that he hears the call to leadership and experiences the revelation of God’s other name. (Up until now, God was known to the Hebrews as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Apparently, Moses doesn’t think that will worry Pharaoh much, and he wants to know what to say when Pharaoh asks WHO is trying to tell him what to do. God says, “Tell him ‘I am who am’ sent you.”)

The story of the plagues begins as soon as Moses returns to Egypt from his exile. You know the basic story. Pharaoh refuses to let the people go and God makes big trouble in Egypt. Ten plagues, each worse than the one before. In most of the plagues, the people of Egypt are the ones who suffer. Neither Pharaoh himself, nor Moses, not the Israelites suffer – just the people of Egypt. Collateral damage, I guess. It’s touching that God hears the cries of the Israelites in their suffering. Apparently the cries of ordinary Egyptians don’t mean as much – the beginning of that venerable theological tenet that God loves us more than God loves “them”, so “they” are expendable. AND the reason the plagues are visited upon Egypt in the first place, according to the story, is because God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart.”  This is not a pretty picture of God.

The Escape from Egypt – There is no indication that Pharaoh himself is killed in the Red Sea, but his army is. God couldn’t hold the sea back until the charioteers got their chariots unstuck from the mud?

Covenant (commands and ordinances) – During the first three months in the wilderness God tries to bring a little order to the group, issuing commandments and ordinances. If the people are obedient, they will find water, food, protection from enemies and diseases, and ultimately, delivery into the Promised Land. The Ten Commandments are found here, along with a number of less well-known “commandments.” I was interested to see that the first commandment was about how the Israelites were to treat slaves. Ex. 21:1. Apparently, God came not to abolish slavery, but to reform it. “Now that you are the slaveholders, be better slaveholders than yours were.” Cold comfort that.

The people don’t always obey well. You’ll remember the story about the Golden Calf. The portion of that story we hear in the lectionary omits the part about Moses instructing the Levites to kill all those who favored the Golden Calf – 3,000 friends, neighbors and brothers. Cold comfort that.

Obedience through building – God demands gifts of precious metals, stones, fabric, spices and etc for the construction and adornment of a tabernacle, altars, Tent of Meeting and etc. In this, the Israelites are able to obey completely. I could not help but think of the palaces that Sadam Hussein had built to honor his life and career, and the disdain with which we regarded that self-celebratory opulence. Again, not a pretty picture of God.

I saw two new things in this reading of Exodus: (1) Moses’ growth in his vocation as a leader, and (2) the significance of Sabbath-keeping.

Moses learns to share responsibility. In general, Moses is a much more interesting and agreeable personality than the God. He is passionate enough to avenge another. He is courageous enough to become an exile, and although he will work miracles, he also feels fear and self-doubt. He knows a lot about the trials of leadership: the complaining of those he is trying to help, the tendency for people to focus more on a leader’s failure than his or her successes, and the temptation to be over-responsible.

Moses grows as a leader, particularly in his ability to share and delegate responsibility. There are four key stories.

(1) When he is first called, (Ex. 4) he warns God that he is not eloquent. Although this objection makes God angry, God listens and enlists Aaron as a speaker. Leaders are well-served by enlisting people who have the skills and abilities that they do not.

(2)  In the battle with Amalek (Ex. 17:8-16), the Israelites prevail in battle only so long as Moses can hold his arms up. He needs help keeping his arms up. He does not “go it alone.”

(3) In the wilderness, he takes it upon himself to spend entire days acting as judge between persons in conflict. His father-in-law, Jethro watches this and tells him that he will wear himself out if he keeps it up, and that he should delegate responsibility. Other people can be appointed to settle legal disputes. Moses role is to teach God’s ordinances. (Ex.18:13-27). Moses learns to delegate.

(4) After the Golden Calf incident, God seems to be fed up. God decides to continue leading the people towards the Promised Land, but at a distance. “I cannot be among you. You make me too angry.” Moses puts his foot down and says all bets are off if that will be God’s stance, and God relents. (Ex. 33).  Sometimes, leaders need to argue with the boss.

Sabbath-keeping. We know that Sabbath-keeping is one of the commandments, but we probably don’t think of it as the most important commandment. After reading Exodus, I am not so sure.

It’s just a hunch, based on the following:

-Early in Exodus, Pharaoh calls the Israelites “lazy” even though they do the work they are assigned, and complain only when Pharaoh makes the work impossibly difficult by withholding straw for bricks. Is there a work-ethic issue here?

-Arguably one of the first commandments given in the wilderness is about Sabbath-keeping. When the people are hungry and God sends bread from heaven (Ex. 16) they are told that on the 6th day they should gather enough for two days, and not gather on the 7th day. (Of course, some do although they are not punished.) Even before the first appearance of “The Ten Commandments” (@ Ex.20) we read, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.” (Ex. 16:23)

-Groups of commandments or ordinances appear in various places in Exodus. Sabbath-keeping is mentioned almost every time, and certainly more often than any other commandment. By my count, it appears five times (Ex. 16:26, 20:8, 23:10, 31:14 and 35:2.) It’s an important commandment. Violation is punishable by death. (Ex. 35:2)  You would think murder was more important: it is the subject of a commandment only once.

Lectionary Notes

Here are the readings we hear from Exodus:

Year A

A new king arose who knew not Joseph Ex. 1:8-10 Pr. 16A
God’s new name @ burning bush Ex. 3:1-15 Pr. 17A
Passover commemoration instructions Ex. 12:1-14 Pr. 18A, Holy Thursday
Passage through the Red SeaPassage through the Red Sea with song Ex. 14:10-31 or Ex. 14:10-31& 15:1b-11, 20-21 Pr.19A
Passage through the Red Sea with song Ex. 14:10-31 & 15:20-21 Easter Vigil A
Bread provided in the wilderness Ex. 16:2-15 Pr.20A
Water provided in the wilderness Ex. 17:1-7 Pr.21A
Invitation to covenant Ex. 19:2-8 Pr. 6A
Ten Commandments Ex. 20:1-20 Pr.22A
Moses goes up the mountain for the tablets Ex. 24:12-18 Last Epiphany A
Golden Calf & Moses intercedes Ex. 32:1-14 Pr.23A
Moses asks to see God’s glory Ex. 33:12-23 Pr.24A

Year B

Passover commemoration instructions Ex. 12:1-14 Holy Thurs B
Passage through the Red Sea with song Ex. 14:10-31 & 15:20-21 Easter Vigil B
Bread provided in the wilderness Ex. 16:2-15 Pr.13B(?)
Ten Commandments Ex. 20:1-20 Lent 3B

Year C

Passover commemoration instructions Ex. 12:1-14 Holy Thurs C
Passage through the Red Sea with song Ex. 14:10-31 & 15:20-21 Easter Vigil C
Golden Calf & Moses intercedes Ex. 32:7-14 Pr.19C
Moses’ face shines after Mt. Sinai Ex. 34:29-35 Last Epiphany C

We only hear the story about the burning bush once in three years (in Year A.) In Year B, except for the Holy Week/Easter Vigil readings we have a reading of the Ten Commandments and the  story about Bread in the Wilderness. The latter offers lovely Eucharistic language, but let’s not cherry-pick Exodus for the readings that can be taken out of context and made to seem proto-Christian. Let’s add better stories.

For example, let’s add a series that tracks the life and growth of Moses:

-Exodus 2                    His birth and rescue in a time of genocide

-Exodus 4:1-17            Moses’ protest when God calls: I am not eloquent. Find another.

-Exodus 17:8-13          Moses leads the battle against Amalek, with help

-Exodus 18:13-27        Moses learns to delegate. Leave the judging to someone else.

-Exodus 33:12-23        Moses argues with God.

And then let’s hear some of the stories in which who God is leaves us wanting to howl. The plagues, for instance. The way in which God sets up the Egyptians for destruction, maybe.  Or better, the punishments God deals out to those God claims as a treasured people. (As they say, with a friend like that, who needs an enemy?) We need to hear the stories about God that make us want to howl. The God of Exodus IS problematic. We need to let ourselves hear the stories and maybe start an argument of our own with this God.