Light from the Sidra

Ki Tavo ('When you enter...')

Torah: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 (9). Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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A few weeks ago I discovered Spotify, a website that allows you to listen to thousands of pieces of music free of charge. I was like a kid who’d been given the keys to a sweet shop and I began trawling through the site to find tracks I’ve not heard for decades. From time to time I’ve dipped into the site and came across a jaunty little optimistic piece by a band called Timbuk 3. Each verse featured the lyrics: ‘Things are going great, and they’re only getting better/I’m doing all right, getting good grades/The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.

In this week’s Torah reading, the future for Israel looks far from bright. Deuteronomy is structured like an ancient Middle Eastern suzerain treaty, the kind established between powerful nations and their weaker vassals. Suzerain treaties consisted of, amongst other things: a preamble; a historical prologue; a list of stipulations or laws; a list of blessings that would follow the keeping of the covenant and a list of curses that would result from breaking the treaty.

The first five verses of the book of Deuteronomy serve as a preamble; they introduce Moses as the mediator of the covenant. From 1:6 to the end of chapter 4 we detect a historical Prologue, the covenant history of Israel as they journeyed 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 of covenant keeping and the curses that would follow if Israel proved unfaithful to the treaty. The final four chapters of the book deal with the continuity of the covenant.

This week’s Parasha concludes the section which lays down the stipulations of God’s covenant and takes us through the promised blessings for compliance and curses for disobedience. Sadly, throughout most of her subsequent history, Israel was never obedient to God for long enough to experience the full benefits promised in Deuteronomy 28:1-14. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we see that the rest of Deuteronomy 28 reads like the history of the Jewish people for the next two-and-half millennia written in advance. And indeed it is. For the last 2,400 years, the miseries foretold in chapter 28 have been an intrinsic part of the Jewish experience.

Little wonder the rabbis chose Isaiah 60 as the Haftarah to balance out the Parasha. In Isaiah’s prophecy the future for Israel is bright in every sense of the word:

‘Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; the presence of the LORD has shone upon you … and nations shall walk by your light, kings, by your shining radiance… No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, not the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; for the LORD shall be your light everlasting’ (Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Jewish Publication Society, 1988)

This prophecy was given not because Israel was ‘doing all right’ and ‘getting good grades’. A glance at Isaiah 1 is evidence enough of that. Isaiah is addressing a people who were not doing alright. They were not getting good grades. Israel was in exile because they had broken God’s covenant at every level. The prophecy of Isaiah 40 reveals once again that God keeps covenant, even if the Jewish people don’t. Isaiah can promise a bright future to Israel because, according to 40:1,2, her term of hard service is over and her guilt is paid off because she has ‘received at the LORD’s hand double for all her sins’.

Under the terms and conditions of the covenant at Sinai, Israel went into exile. But God had entered into a covenant with Israel’s father Abram in Genesis 15 that was unconditional. Under that covenant, Abraham and his ‘seed’ had been promised a land in perpetuity.

Chapters 40-66 abound with promises of a new, everlasting covenant of peace that God will make with Israel, and the glorious bright future promised in Isaiah 60 is inextricably linked to the Messiah, the righteous suffering servant of chapter 53.

That is why the writers of the New Testament hold out to the Jewish people not only the promise of land but also of a glorious, pure New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven of which God and the Messiah are the light. In chapter 22 of the New Testament book of Revelation there is a vision that reveals in an even more graphic manner the glorious promise of Isaiah 60:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… Then came one of the seven angels … And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God… And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.

This is the glorious future of Israel, foreseen not only by Isaiah but also by all the Hebrew prophets; a future brought about not by Israel but by God’s righteous servant the Messiah.

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