Light from the Sidra


Deuteronomy 32

I cannot imagine it was very easy for Israel to sing some parts of the Song of Moses, a song which the LORD had given to him. Certainly it ends on a note of rejoicing, but there is plenty in it to cause sorrow and even anguish because, as the LORD himself describes it, it is “a witness for me against the children of Israel.” In it God declares how Israel will stray from his ways and suffer the consequences. However, it ends on a positive note: the hope of atonement for sin.

It is not insignificant that this Song is read during the Days of Awe, days in which the Torah calls God’s people Israel to focus on their sins and their need of His mercy. Moses begins the Song by praising God for His greatness, truth and justice. He reminds Israel of the LORD’s great goodness to them, but he soon has to focus on their unfaithfulness and idolatry. He calls them to reflect on the fact that their troubles could only be because “their Rock had given them over”, for He was well able to deliver them if He chose to do so. During this time of reflection such words have an unmistakable ring of truth and surely prompt the question “How long O LORD?” Things are the same today are they not? Troubles in Israel and the ever-present fear of anti-Semitism for Jews everywhere can only lead to the conclusion that the LORD is still angry with his people’s ways. Life may not be miserable all the time; it may be sweet, but circumstances can soon change. Is there any assurance that God will defend the Jewish people?

Well, there is hope. At the end of the Song, the LORD promises to punish his enemies, avenging the blood of his servants, and he promises to provide atonement for his people. Here are two key phrases which help us to know if God is for us or against us.

The ones God defends are called “servants”. This word is frequently used to define those in Israel who truly follow the LORD’s ways, and to distinguish them from the rebels. For example if you read the last six chapters of Isaiah, where the prophet looks forward to the days of Messiah, you will find that those who enjoy those days are called “servants”.

Are you a servant of God? When you look at your life at this time of self-examination and repentance can you honestly say all that you do is for God? As you study or work or relax, is your motivation to please the LORD? If you have watched any of those classic TV serials, like Pride and Prejudice, you will have seen smartly dressed servants standing and waiting for any and every command of their employer. They have no other purpose than to anticipate their master’s desire, to listen and to act. What a picture of a servant of God! Is it a picture of you? If not, then do not expect God, the God of Israel, to be for you.

The second key phrase is concerned with atonement. Significantly, it is in the very last sentence of the Song. The LORD obviously wanted it to be remembered. If you are a devout Jew then as you go to synagogue on Yom Kippur you hope your sins will be atoned for, especially through repentance. Although there are other actions that, in the teaching of the rabbis, atone for sins, repentance is the key.

Yet there is no mention of repentance in Deuteronomy 32:43. To be fair, there is no mention of anything that achieves atonement in Song of Moses. Yet there is an emphasis that is contrary to all the teaching of the Rabbis, and that is the simple fact that the LORD says here that it is he who provides atonement for his people. In other words, atonement depends on his gracious provision, not on any activity of the repentant one. The JPS translation has the slightly different expression “He ... doth make expiation”, which nevertheless has the same emphasis. It is the action of God that removes sin, not the actions of the sinner. The form of the verb kaphar here is the piel, which expresses the quality of making something happen or causing it to happen. God is the subject, and so it is he who makes atonement; he provides it. If someone freely provides you with a car for work it would be a lie to pretend you had bought it, or that somehow you had contributed to your possession of it. It was simply provided. It is the same with the expiation of sin.

The conclusion of all this is simple - anyone who thinks that actions such as repentance can achieve atonement for their sins is deceived and simply cannot expect God to be for them. In fact they are still in their sins and God is against them. How do you respond to that, I wonder? Is God for you or against you?

How does God provide atonement? What does he do to expiate sin? The lesson of the Law is plain; he provides a sacrifice for sin. He ordains that a substitute can bear the penalty of sin in our place. This is the teaching of all the laws of sacrifice in Leviticus. This was the heart of the ritual of Yom Kippur in temple times. The focus was not on the repentance of the people, important though that was; it was on the actions of the High Priest in the temple. In fact, the people were not even told to go to Jerusalem at that time; their presence was totally unnecessary. Only the priest and the sacrifices were needed.

Today there is no temple and so no atonement, it would seem. Can Israel ever know God to be for them? Yes, there is a way. And because a way had been provided by the LORD the old temple has been removed. The LORD sent his son, Messiah Yeshuah, into this fallen world to pay the price of sin, to give himself a sacrifice and to die for sinners. He then raised him from the dead as a declaration that he is his Son and that the sacrifice was accepted. Sin has not only been atoned for (covered) it has been removed altogether! These are facts of history. Yeshuah came, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead. He is God’s provision for the expiation of our sin.

As the sinner came to the temple and placed his hand on the animal to be killed in his place, thus transferring the guilt of his sins to the animal, so you must do that in faith toward Yeshuah. You must trust that he suffered in your place, ask the LORD God of Israel to forgive your sins, not just on one day, but now and forever. His promise is this, “Whoever believes in him (Yeshuah) shall not perish but have everlasting life” (Gospel of John 3:16)

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