Light from the Sidra


Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:23

Thanks to the insights provided by archaeological discoveries, we now know that book of Deuteronomy fits into the framework of ancient Middle Eastern covenant documents. In the world of the Bible, kings and nations entered into treaties in which the parties offered sacrifices to their gods and took oaths binding themselves to keep the conditions laid down in the covenant document.

Meredith G. Kline first drew attention to this in 1962, in his groundbreaking Treaty of the Great King, in which he showed the covenant structure of Deuteronomy. At Sinai God took Israel as his bride, which meant he had entered into covenant with the nation. When the Torah was presented to Israel on two stone tablets it was not because, as traditionally believed, the laws relating to God were inscribed on one tablet and those relating to man were engraved on the second. In ancient times there were always two copies of a covenant document; one for each party. So with the law of God one copy was kept “before the LORD” in the ark of the covenant and the other tablet was to remind God’s bride of her permanent covenant obligations.

According to Kline, the first five verses of Deuteronomy serve as the Preamble; they introduce Moses as the mediator of the covenant. The rest of chapter 1 to the end of chapter 4 comprises the historical Prologue, the covenant history of Israel on their journey from Egypt to Canaan. Chapters 5 to 26 consist of stipulations, instructing the nation about life under the covenant of their great king, and the following three chapters describe the blessings for covenant keeping and the curses if Israel was not faithful to the treaty. The final four chapters deal with the continuity of the covenant.

It is very interesting that the Haftarah for the Sidra is Isaiah chapter 1, which graphically portrays the disasters that had befallen Jerusalem as a result of breaking the Sinai covenant. The curses of Deuteronomy had come on the nation. The Fast of Tisha B’Av, which is observed this week, commemorates the destruction of both temples and rabbinic tradition ascribes the cause of the destruction of the second temple to “hatred without cause”. The Talmudic story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza relates how Kamtza, an extremely wealthy Jerusalemite, laid on a banquet for the city dignitaries. By mistake he included his mortal enemy Bar Kamtza on the guest list but refused to let him into the party when he turned up. Mortified that he was to be humiliated before all Jerusalem, Bar Kamtza begged to be allowed to stay, offering to pay the astronomical cost of the entire feast. When his enemy still refused to allow him into the banquet Bar Kamtza wrought a terrible revenge. He informed the Romans that the Jews were planning to revolt against them. As proof of his allegation he said the priests would no longer offer the daily sacrifice for the well-being of Caesar. The next day Bar Kamtza blemished the sacrificial lamb to render it unfit for sacrifice and when the Romans saw that no offering was made for the Emperor they took it as evidence of the truth of Bar Kamtza’s story. And so, because of hatred between brothers, Jerusalem was destroyed. That is the Talmudic version of events.

Jesus also used a story about a banquet to forewarn the city of Jerusalem of the impending destruction of the temple:

The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, ‘See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding’.” But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city (Matthew 22:2-7).

In this parable, the king wants everyone to attend the banquet but his invitation is treated with contempt. The consequence is that if Israel refuses the royal invitation, as covenant breakers they will be severely punished. For disregarding the call to the Messianic banquet, Israel has wandered far from home, without temple, priest or sacrifice for almost 2,000 years. But the King’s invitation to the marriage of his Son is still open for all who will respond. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was a great national tragedy, but why continue to weep when the door into the banqueting hall of Messiah stands wide open.

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