Monday, October 26, 2015

A second chance

Yesterday morning I began reading, cover to cover, the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, which is the last of the ‘five books of Moses.’ I read from my original Jerusalem Bible, the small, black leather-bound volume with the tattered edges that has accompanied me through most of my adult life. I wanted to reconnect with my spiritual roots, to go and meet the Lord where I first found Him, in the beloved Book, ‘Listen: we heard it was in Ephrathah, we found it at Fields-of-the-Forest! Let us go where He is waiting and worship at His footstool’ (Psalm 132:6-7).

Deuteronomy has always been my favorite of the Pentateuch, something about the way it flows, spoken almost as a tale by a living bard. Whoever wrote it speaks very much in the first person as Moses, so perhaps it was someone close to him, as John was close to Jesus. It’s a very candid book, telling us about the rebelliousness and infidelity of the Hebrews toward their saving God, YHVH—Yod Hé Vav Hé, in the Jerusalem Bible vocalized as Yahweh—in spite of all that He had done for them. Moses, too, is shown in all his human frailty as well, voicing his complaints as naggingly as a Jewish (or any loving) mother.

Did I mention I completed my reading? Almost to the end, stopping short only due to a visitor calling, and then picking up where I left off, amid the ‘Song of Moses,’ a piece of poetry near the end. Reading Deuteronomy brought many things to mind. Almost around every corner of the text I found images of past, present and even future events nestled between the lines. One thing I felt for sure, that this book as well as the entire scripture, is a log of the voyage of humankind, unfolding in us self-knowledge as the image of God on earth, showing where we come from, where we are, and where we are going.

Always the threefold radiance, always the ‘I am, I was, I am to come’ of the Divine utterance to John the Revelator, which starts with the ‘Let us make man in Our image,’ and never ceases to disclose itself to us till the very end, ‘Lo, I am with you always.’ The Ten Commandments that have never stopped troubling us with their demands, the God-seeing Moses rehearses to the next generation, those unborn at the time of their giving, ‘It was not with our fathers that Yahweh made this covenant, but with us, with us who are here, all living today… from the heart of the fire, Yahweh spoke to you face to face.’

It is not as though Moses discredits the generation that experienced the Exodus from Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and heard the very Voice of God speaking the Ten Words from Mount Sinai aflame and shrouded in thick smoke, but that generation slept—they were dead—and yet was alive in their children, teaching us that ‘we are who we were.’ In the sight of Yahweh our God, there are not many, but a single generation, to which He reveals Himself, age after age, always fresh, always new, so that it is just as true to say, ‘we are who we will be.’ The threefold radiance is, again, in humankind reflected.

In my reading I noticed that the Ten Commandments alone were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone, not once, but twice. When Moses saw the people worshiping the golden calf he threw the tablets down and broke them, in his own person sinning against God by his anger. Later, God wrote the same commandments on stone tablets again, showing that He gives us as well as the Hebrews a second chance. ‘Everyone falls the first time. If you never know failure, how can you know success?’ Yet the survivors of that fall, including Moses, were denied entry into the land of Promise, a harsh reality.

As it was, the Hebrews, after hearing the Voice of God and seeing His glory firing up Mount Sinai, were unable or unwilling to take that second chance. ‘You, then, go near and hear everything Yahweh our God will say and tell us all that Yahweh our God says to you; we will listen and observe it,’ they promised Moses, bartering their glory for shame, exchanging relationship (with) and love (of God) for religion and laws. A large part of Deuteronomy thenceforward is dedicated to the ‘laws of Moses,’ those not written by God’s finger, but conveyed by Moses, subjecting the eternal to humiliation as man-made laws.

For in the Ten Commandments alone do we see the Divine Law, fused with our nature as the human conscience, expressed in words, applicable to all, and without prescribed punishments; but in the laws of Moses, that which is eternal and universal is fitted, scaled down, to the level of those who cannot be trusted to hear and obey the Divine Law. Those, as holy apostle Paul writes, are given laws ‘to be our guardian until Christ comes’ (Galatians 3:24), who, being the first example of our ‘new humanity’ restoring, recreating us as Himself, takes that second chance offered to us ‘once and for all.’

Yes, He takes, not only took, that second chance offered to us ‘once and for all’ not only as expiation for our sins, our law-breaking, thus becoming our savior, but also as ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ through whom alone humankind comes to the Father. Here He stands, hidden in our midst not by being Divine, but by being human, and by our unwillingness to recognize Him as ourselves and as one another. We shake off the promise and power of the Incarnation while confessing it, and remain untransfigured, as we scurry off to worship mere images with awe, instead of doing what He does, and being what He is.

As I read this book of the ‘second law,’ of Deuteronomy, I came across this symptom of the human, not just the Hebrews’, condition, ‘Every man does what seems right to him,’ along with the prognosis, ‘for as yet you have not come to the resting place and the inheritance that Yahweh your God is giving you’ (12:8-9). The contrast here is between making up one’s own ‘laws’ and living by the Law of God, which is the only and irresistible Law in force in the Kingdom of God, where ‘everyone is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven’ (Hebrews 12:22), and which can only be entered into by following, by imitating, Jesus.

As the psalmist declares, ‘Happy is the man who… finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh, and murmurs His Law day and night’ (Psalm 1:1-2). This ‘Law of Yahweh’ is written in every book of the Bible, not just in the Pentateuch, the ‘five books of Moses,’ but ironically it is not the ‘laws of Moses,’ which we are told were given only ‘to be our guardian until Christ comes.’ Neither is it, especially neither is it, ‘what seems right’ to every man, because ‘all our righteousness is filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). No, but it is ‘the Word… the true light that enlightens all men’ (John 1:9), God who has appeared as man in Jesus Christ.

For this Law that I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, so that you need to wonder, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and bring it down to us, so that we may hear it and keep it?’ Nor is it beyond the seas, so that you need to wonder, ‘Who will cross the seas for us and bring it back to us, so that we may hear it and keep it?’ No, the Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.
Deuteronomy 30:11-14 Jerusalem Bible

It is the man who has appeared as God, the Divine Word of the Father, until whose coming ‘no one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known’ (John 1:18). It is the man whom Moses tells the unruly, ungovernable Hebrews, ‘Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself, from among yourselves, from your own brothers; to Him you must listen’ (Deuteronomy 18:15). The God-seeing Moses proves by all he does and says in the books called by his name that like John the Baptist, he too is only a forerunner, his laws only a restraining order.

Deuteronomy can be a book of laws and punishments, of blessings and curses, a source text for the perpetuation of humanity’s racial infancy, even of its tribal savagery. We can regard it as ‘the Law of God’ when it is convenient to our purposes and makes us look good to ourselves. Not only the Pharisees who would have stoned the woman caught in adultery want to live in worse bondage than hers, which Jesus unmasks by His writing in the sand. He who was and who is to come is with us now, this year, this month and day, this very moment, not waiting in occultation to burst in upon our world in the Day of Judgment.

Keeping this in mind, knowing (not just believing) that ‘God is with us,’ we can read the book of Deuteronomy, indeed, all the Biblical books of Old and New Testaments, in the light of the Gospel, in the company of Jesus, recognizing His presence on every page, verse by verse, as He reveals Himself to us, ripening us in His truth in every age, until we come to that place where ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18), and we, unlike the Hebrews, no longer needing Moses to stand up for us to God, with him, with Elijah, with Peter, James, and John, in the uncreated Light of Tabor, become as Christ, because we see Him as He is (cf. 1 John 3:2).

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