Light from the Sidra


Deuteronomy 32:1-52.Haftarah:Hosea 14:2(1)-10(9);Micah 7:18-20;Joel 2:15-27

Shanah Tovah!

During the American Civil War, Julia Ward Howe set the words of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ to the tune of the popular song ‘John Brown’s Body’. The stirring tune combined with the biblically-charged lyrics inspired the northern armies in their fight against slavery. After the war, the song never lost its appeal. More than a hundred years later it was being sung at Civil Rights rallies in America’s Deep South. Martin Luther King Jr’s last public address ended with the first line of the song: ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord’, and Winston Churchill had the ‘Battle Hymn’ played at his funeral.

Songs are a powerful way of spreading ideas and helping us to retain those ideas. We remember songs more easily than newspaper articles, erudite articles or eloquent speeches.

In Deuteronomy 32, at the instruction of God (Dt 31:14-30), Moses teaches Israel a song – composed by Yahweh himself – in which the future rebellion and restoration of Israel is foretold. The song follows the same structure as the book of Deuternomy itself; it is set out as a covenant document. Let’s try to unpack it.

It was customary in biblical times, when kings entered into covenants, to call on their gods to bear witness to the treaty. In verses 1-3, God calls on ‘heaven and earth’, which would be around long after that first generation had passed away, to be witnesses to the covenant.

Verses 4 to 6, constitute the Preamble to the covenant song. Although Israel will prove unfaithful to their God and his covenant, Yahweh will remain rock-solid in his commitment and faithfulness to his people: ‘The Rock!—His deeds are perfect, yea, all His ways are just; a faithful God, never false, true and upright is He’ (v4 Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text ©1985).

Verses 7 to 14 are the Historical Prologue. God was looking after Israel even before Abraham was born, as far back as the division of nations in Genesis 10 and 11: ‘Remember the days of old … when the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel’s numbers’ (vv7, 8 ibid).

Verses 15 to 18 reveal Israel’s rebellion against the stipulations of the Covenant: ‘Yeshurun grew fat and kicked … he forsook the God that made him, and treated-like-a-fool the Rock of his deliverance’ (v 15, The Five Books of Moses, A New Translation with Introductions, Commentaries and Notes, Everett Fox).

Verses 19 to 25 are the curses on the Covenant breakers. With privilege comes responsibility. Yahweh’s relationship to Israel was that of a Husband to a wife and also that of a Father to children. His first commandment to Israel was that they should have no god beside him. He was Israel’s Maker, Israel’s Redeemer, Israel’s Father and Israel’s Husband. The gods of Egypt and the gods of the nations were ‘no-gods’ and to worship them was an act of adultery but on Israel’s wedding night her Husband found her in bed with another god, a golden calf. Under the terms of the Torah, an adulterous wife was to be put to death. It is worth noting that under the law of the Torah, capital punishments were carried out only if at least two witnesses could testify that they had seen a crime take place. Heaven and earth will be the witnesses to Israel’s adultery, so she will have no excuse.

In verses 26 to 43, God reveals that the punishment he will inflict on his unfaithful will serve a redemptive purpose. Their sufferings at the hands of the gods they longed for will drive them back to their Rock, who will ultimately vindicate them and avenge their blood. And the nations themselves will rejoice when Yahweh makes atonement for his people. And ironically, the nations will play a part in bringing back Israel to their God: ‘They made-me-jealous with a no-god, vexed me with their nothingnesses; so I will make-them-jealous with a no-people, with a nation of fools will I vex them! (v21, The Five Books of Moses, A New Translation with Introductions, Commentaries and Notes).

The Haftarah portions look forward to the time of redemption when God will cast Israel’s sins into the depths of the sea and when he will heal their  land.

Here is a lesson for the Jewish people during the Days of Awe, as they prepare themselves for Yom Kippur. Contributing to charity, doing good to others and seeking to put things with those we have wronged during the previous year is commendable but it is a capital mistake to imagine those things can make us worthy of forgiveness.

The mother of a deserter in the French army pleaded with Napoleon to have mercy on her son. When Napoleon relied that the young man did not deserve mercy, she responded that if her son deserved mercy, it would not be mercy.

And therein lies the rub. So long as the Jewish people (or anyone else for that matter) imagine that their good works will merit atonement on Yom Kippur, they place atonement beyond their reach. God says he will provide atonement for his people (v 43).

I am one of those ‘no-people’ who shouts for joy that God has atoned for the sins of his people because I also have benefitted from that atonement. My sins are forgiven through the Messiah. I have come into Yahweh’s New Covenant; he has cast my sins into the depths of the sea, never to be remembered against me. The tragedy is that although I and many other gentiles have found the forgiveness promised to the Jewish people, those to whom the forgiveness was promised, are trying to find it the wrong way. 

If you are Jewish and wish you could rest in the knowledge that your sins have been cast into the depths of the sea like Pharaoh’s army, then listen to Moses: ‘Stand still and see the salvation of Yahweh!’

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