Light from the Sidra

Va'etchanan ('And I pleaded...')

Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11. Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

The Chosen People

There’s no doubt about it, Israel – the Jewish people – is unique. Jews are different to everyone else. Some see them as different in a sinister sense – as the people who secretly rule the world for their own ends, for example. For about five years the Jews have been officially the smartest people in the world but you wouldn’t say those things – negative or positive – makes them unique. You wouldn’t use ‘unique’ to describe the Dutch, for example, because they are officially the tallest people in the world.

What sets Israel apart (literally) is that they are holy: ‘For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, (it is) you that YHWH your God chose for him as a treasured people from among all peoples that are upon the face of the soil’ (Dt 7:6, Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes).

According to Deuteronomy 7, God did not choose the Jewish people because of any unique quality in them. He chose them because of the promises and covenant he had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were not the greatest nation but they were chosen to be great. They were not the most numerous nation but God had promised the patriarch Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand of the seashore. They were not the most holy people in a moral or ethical sense but they were called to be holy and righteous.

There was no way, either, that they were chosen because of the merits of their fathers, as some of the medieval rabbis taught. God loved Israel because he had sworn an oath to Israel’s Patriarchs.

But with privilege comes responsibility. Israel was chosen for a purpose. They were to show the other nations how to live. By living according to God’s commandments and statutes, Israel would be a light to the nations who were in darkness.

See, I am teaching you laws and regulations as YHWH my God has commanded me, to do thus, amid the land that you are entering to possess. You are to keep (them), you are to observe (them), for that will be wisdom-for-you and understanding-for-you in the eyes of the peoples who, when they hear all these laws, will say: Only a wise and understanding people is this great nation! For who (else) is (such) a great nation that has gods so near to it as YHWH our God in all our calling on him? And who (else) is (such) a great nation that has laws and regulations so equitable as all this Instruction [Torah] that I put before you today. (Dt 4:5-8).


True holiness is attractive. By observing the Torah, Israel would show the world how to live; how to live as God intended mankind to live; how to follow the Maker’s instructions. To refuse to live according to Torah or to fail to keep Yahweh’s commandments carried penalties.

The calling of Israel was a call to reflect the holy character of God to the nations that were ignorant of him. The ‘Ten Words’ of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, which we refer to as the Ten Commandments are not arbitrary stipulations; they reflect the beautiful, holy character of Yahweh, the Creator of the universe.

It might sound ludicrous to say that Yahweh doesn’t have any other gods but himself, but put yourself in the place of the Hebrews who came out of Egypt. In the house of bondage there were dozens of deities; some major, some minor. Yahweh recognises none of them. He is greater than them all, as the plagues of Egypt demonstrated. Indeed, Yahweh is the only God.

Yahweh does not take his name in vain; when he swears an oath, he swears by his own name because no name is greater than his own.

After He created the world he kept Shabbat and gave to man, created in his image, the blessing of a day of rest.

The God of Israel does not murder. Many years ago when I was an atheist, I asked a colleague why he didn’t believe in God. ‘Because he’s a murderer,’ he replied. I didn’t understand what he meant then and I don’t understand it now.

The prohibition against adultery is a command to be faithful and to keep covenant (because whatever else marriage is, it’s a covenant) and the God of Israel, in spite of his people’s unfaithfulness, to this day remains faithful to his covenant with Abraham.

God never steals from us or demands anything from us that doesn’t belong to him by right. He doesn’t bear false witness against us and he never covets anything belonging to us.

Imagine if Israel had lived up to God’s required standard. Imagine if we all lived according to the ‘Ten Words’! but instead of Israel influencing the nations, the nations influenced Israel. But God has not given up on his chosen people and although he punishes them, the Haftarah calls upon whoever hears to comfort Israel with the Messianic Good News that her iniquities have been paid for.

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