As you have just heard, this morning’s first reading is from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you a bit about that book.
As Christians, we cannot, must not ignore the Old Testament. It is part of our scriptural heritage. Large parts of the New Testament cannot really be understood without at least some knowledge of the Old Testament. And we must never forget that Jesus was a Jew. The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Torah, the books which comprise the main book of the Law and instruction for Jews both now and in past centuries, coming after Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Jesus knew the Torah. Luke tells us that when he was twelve years old, his parents took him to Jerusalem. The teachers in the Temple were amazed at his grasp of the Jewish law. So we do need to know something about it.
The first and most obvious thing to be said about the book of Deuteronomy is that it is not what, at its beginning, it says it is. Verse 1:1 states that “these are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan”.
After 40 years wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites at last arrive at the river Jordan and are about to cross over into the Promised Land. But Moses has long ago been told by YHWH that he will not come into that land. He will die first. So this book purports to be Moses’ final words to his people. But this is simply not possible. Leaving aside common-sense factors that Moses was then 120 years old, and that he was certainly more or less illiterate, there is a great deal of internal evidence within the book itself that it could not possibly have been composed at that early date.
So what is it and why is it included among the books of the Torah and the Old Testament?
Fast forward several centuries after Moses’ death. The Israelites have entered into and almost entirely lost the Promised Land. They have been overrun and conquered by outside powers. They have forgotten the covenant with YHWH which they have disobeyed. The only remaining Israelite state is that of Judah, which has suffered from a series of weak kings. But now in the fifth century a new king, Josiah, comes to the throne. He is determined to bring his people back to their allegiance to their God. He begins by cleansing and restoring the Temple, throwing out the Assyrian idols and clearing out the rubble. What surfaces from the rubble is a great scroll which in large measure is a restatement of the Jewish law contained in the first four books of the Torah. Although it contains significant variations, it is accepted as the fifth Holy Book of the Torah and in Greek is given the name Deuteronomy; “Deutero” in Greek means “second” and “nomos” means “Law”. During his reign, Josiah will do all he can to bring his people back to living according to that law, which has miraculously been brought back to light among them.
In that light, let us look again at this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy. This is a reflection, almost an exact repeat, of a passage in Exodus [20: 18-19]. The Israelites are afraid that if their God, YHWH, speaks direct to them, they will be destroyed by the fire of his greatness. So YHWH agrees that from henceforth he will speak to Israel only through his appointed prophets. The Israelites must heed what those prophets say as if it were YHWH himself speaking, or suffer the consequences. What Deuteronomy is saying here is that Israel’s weakness now is the result of their disobedience in the past. They must reform and obey the Law as set out in this scroll, which reinforces King Josiah’s wishes.
But by the agreement to communicate only through appointed prophets, the direct line of communication between YHWH and his people as individuals was severed. Jesus came to restore it. He set us free to pray “our Father”. I believe that God now can and will speak direct to us, though perhaps not sometimes as often and as clearly as we might wish. Perhaps we are not always as good at hearing as we should be?
In closing I would like to leave you with a great passage from Deuteronomy. Maybe Moses did not himself close with these words to the Israelites, but they have an eternal message for them and for us: “I call heaven and earth to witness today that I have set before you life and death… Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him, for that means life to you” [Deut 30:19-20] Therefore choose life.