Light from the Sidra

Nitzavim/Vayelech ('Ones standing...'/'And he went out...')

Torah: Deuteronomy 26:9(10)-29:8(9). Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9

Foresight but no hindsight

Hindsight, they say, is a wonderful thing. We look back on our mistakes and say if only we had known then what we know now, we would have never bought the house that is falling round our ears, we would never have invested in the company that had just gone down the pan and we would never have voted for the government that is now in office. If only we had had the foresight…

Foresight would be even more wonderful. But what if we did know beforehand what was going to happen to us? Well in case of Israel, they were told what would befall them but they didn’t listen. And when the predicted consequences of their actions came to pass, they still didn’t learn until, finally, the people found themselves in exile.

With the benefit of history we see that Deuteronomy 31:14-29 is an accurate foretelling of Israel’s future. There passage is straightforward. There are no convoluted and nebulous four-line quatrains similar to those of Nostradamus. Israel will rebel against their God and Moses is to write a song for Israel to memorise as a warning. Yet, in spite of the warning the Jewish people will nevertheless rebel and break God’s covenant. But even so, in spite of Israel’s deliberate refusal to keep covenant, chapters 29 and 30 set forth words of comfort. Even when they are suffering the punishment for their disobedience, if Israel will turn back to their God, he will have mercy and restore them to their land.

In spite of the promised kindness and the dire warnings – worse still, when the threats have come to pass and the Jewish people have been scattered to the four winds – Israel would not hear.

And then comes the wonderful and glorious Haftarah, which promises a new and greater redemption to Israel in exile. In ‘Ki Tetze’ we saw that redemption involved three elements: if a man died childless, the family Redeemer would take the dead man’s wife and raise up children for his dead relative; restoring family property that had been lost and avenging family blood. In Isaiah 61-63, all three duties are carried out by Yahweh, Israel’s covenant-keeping God.

Yahweh marries desolate Zion: ‘Nevermore shall you be called “Forsaken,” nor shall your land be called “Desolate”; but you shall be called “I delight in her,” and your land “Espoused.” For the LORD takes delight in you, and your land shall be espoused.

As a youth espouses a maiden, your sons shall espouse you; and as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.’ (62:4,5 Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Jewish Publication Society, 1988)

He establishes Jerusalem once more: ‘See, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: announce to Fair Zion: your Deliverer is coming! See, his reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. And they shall be called “The Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD,” and you shall be called “Sought Out, a City not Forsaken.” (ibid, 61:11,12)

He avenges his people: ‘Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save”.’

Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress? ‘I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come. I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me. I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.’ (Isaiah 63:1-6, English Standard Version)

God did all this for Israel when he redeemed her from Egypt and he will redeem her from Babylon in the same way but to an even greater measure, in an even greater way and from an even greater enemy.

But why did Israel’s wise men omit the first nine verses of Isaiah 60? In last week’s Haftarah, we noted the future blessings of Zion that are also included in Isaiah 61:10 to 63:9. The first few verses of chapter 61 introduce the Servant of YHWH who will make those blessings a reality for Israel. And here is the mystery, God says he will redeem Israel but he will bring about Israel’s greatest and ultimate redemption as Messiah

Georg Friedrich Hegel (or was it George Bernard Shaw?) said the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. If the Jewish people don’t learn from their past, they are doomed to keep repeating it. And for none Jews, we need to learn that if God doesn’t spare his chosen people when they rebel against his Torah, he won’t spare us either. Such an inevitability calls for repentance and faith in God’s Redeemer, Jesus the Messiah.

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