Proper 18 September 8, 2019 Deuteronomy 30:15-20 “Misrepresenting the Hebrew Bible”

Proper 18 September 8, 2019 Deuteronomy 30:15-20 “Misrepresenting the Hebrew Bible” August 10, 2019
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I have spent my entire scholarly, preacherly, and pastoral life in love with the Hebrew Bible. I was enraptured by these ancient books in seminary, thanks to a superb teacher of the Hebrew language and his great affection for the texts in which that language was presented. Nearly everything we have in classical Hebrew is to be found in the pages of what we Christians long named the Old Testament, save a few cave inscriptions and a jar handle or three. I devoured the language, the culture, the theology, the history, quite literally everything about that long ago time. Of course, if you have not already gleaned from my now nearly 300 blog posts, I am a thorough nerd; what fascinates me, fascinates me completely.

Because of this single-minded devotion to things Hebrew and biblical, I have often been termed a weird bird, or perhaps some other deviant from the usual Christian norm. I am a Christian to be sure, ordained now for 50 years in the United Methodist tradition, but I readily admit that the left side of the Bible has long been my calling card. When I have been asked to preach or teach in various congregations and ecclesiastical meetings, I almost without exception take my starting place in the Hebrew Bible. I just cannot help myself! I do read the other testament, but hardly with the same relish or enthusiasm. I was told early on in my serious study of the Hebrew Bible that if I was not already slightly askew when I began such study, I would become completely crazy, or at least somewhat twisted, as I delved deeper and deeper into the tradition. And so it has happened to me and to many of my colleagues in the study. No offense to my New Testament cohorts, but we Hebrew Bible types are funnier, more delightful, and more slanted to the world than you are, (perhaps with a few exceptions).

All that being said, there is one absurd yet constant claim about the Hebrew Bible literature we love that I have spent much of my time attempting to combat. That is the conviction by many Christians, and not just lay Christians either, that the Hebrew Bible is practically devoid of the concept of grace. I have been told more times than I can count that the “Old Testament presents a religion of law, while, thank God, the New Testament gives us at last a religion of grace.” This is poppycock, balderdash, and akin to blasphemy! Unfortunately, such foolishness is regularly rooted in the central book of Judaism, the book of Deuteronomy. This Christian designation of the book, literally “Second law,” is perhaps part of the problem. To be sure, this crucial book is filled with talk of and reflection on Torah, a word poorly and consistently translated as “law”. The word does not mean law! It means in its most basic sense “teaching” or “instruction”. If one is to understand emerging Judaism, a religious tradition that apparently begins in this book, composed perhaps in the 7th century BCE, effectively codified in the Babylonian exile of the next century, and finally coming to fuller fruition in the Babylonian Talmud of the early centuries CE, one must come to grips with Deuteronomy in its totality.

And there is the central problem of evaluating a large book like Deuteronomy. A series of out of context quotations from the text may lead to a complete misunderstanding of the movement of the material, of its essence as Torah reflection. The text for today, Deut.30:15-20, is a perfect example of this problem. A surface reading of 30:15-16 may imply that if you follow all of the laws of YHWH, then you will gain the divine blessing. “Look!” I have set before you today living and good, death and bad. Thus, I command you today to love YHWH your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to guard God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances. You will live and prosper, and YHWH your God will bless you in the land that you have entered to possess.” This appears on the surface to announce that following God’s law will inevitably lead to blessings like safety and comfort in the land of promise. Does Deuteronomy in fact promise such a tit for tat worldview? And if it does, why did such promised outcomes remain so illusive for Israel as it continued to live in a world of deep trouble and danger?

One of the obvious answers to that question may be found in many places in the tradition: the fact is that Israel refused and never did really “guard the commandments” of YHWH. And because they did not do as YHWH commanded, they found themselves in exile and consistently oppressed and rejected by their multiple enemies. Though YHWH made it clear what they needed to do, they just did not do it. Surely, that sort of reading of the traditions of Deuteronomy lead the apostle Paul to denounce those who imagined that following the law was the road to YHWH’s blessings. Not so, he shouted! Only God’s grace, first offered to Israel, and then offered to Christians through Jesus of Nazareth, could lead believers to God. This neat summation of the work of the two testaments has been fantastically influential as the centuries of Christianity have unfolded. I repeat what I said above; this characterization of the work of Judaism is quite wrong.

It is wrong because of the crucial words of Deuteronomy enshrined in Deut.5, that famous and very ancient list we know as the Ten Commandments. Ironically, that list has for many Christians merely added to the erroneous idea that following the law will lead to the blessings of God. However, that notion is false, because of the existence of the very first of those commandments. Here is Deut.5:6: “I am YHWH your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” We first note that this is not a commandment at all; it is merely a claim, a proclamation. Many Protestant lists of the Ten do not include this sentence at all, which to me is a fatal omission. This first statement is a clear and forceful claim that the work of YHWH always and inevitably precedes any and all attempts on the part of YHWH’s would-be followers actually to perform any of YHWH’s commands. In other words, the grace of YHWH precedes any work of YHWH’s believers, and without that grace we can do nothing by way of following God’s commands. And in further words, we should say that YHWH’s grace precedes YHWH’s law. In short, Paul learned his ideas of grace from his Judaism; he did not construct such a view on his own.

Let us give up forever the false notion that Judaism is a religion of law while Christianity is a religion of grace. Nothing could be more wrong or more dangerous. That absurd law-gospel dichotomy has led too many Christians to denigrate their Jewish brothers and sisters. It certainly led Martin Luther to a monstrous screed against the Jews, a terrible pamphlet that found its horrifying conclusion among the Nazis of the preceding century. Though there is not a direct line from Luther to Hitler, the ideas of the “errors” of the Jewish law over against the “purity” of a Christian grace, were played out in unspeakable acts against the heirs of Deuteronomy. Though I could offer a lengthy litany of places in the Hebrew Bible where the grace of God abounds, from Genesis to Hosea to Ruth, I leave it to you to rediscover these riches and to hold up the grace of the Hebrew Bible as a beacon light illuminating and aiding the New Testament’s presentation of God’s grace in Jesus in many and varied ways.

 

(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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