Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Torah & the Living Community: Bible Comment on Deuteronomy 4:44-6:3 with poem by Isabella R. Hess, At Sinai

Daily Readings
Psalm 78:1-39, Numbers 11, Deuteronomy 4:44-6:3, Matthew 10

Daily Text: Deuteronomy 4:44-6:3

Torah & The Living Community
Deuteronomy 4:44-6:3 is one of those meaty texts that call for Torah study and action. Continually, 4:44 is the call to worship in the synagogue—‘This is the Teaching (Torah) that Moses set before the Israelites.’ That call goes out with the Torah scroll elevated before the congregation. You might note the similarity followed by Christians with the Gospel reading. Here the Ten Words are spelled out as they were in Exodus 20. Essentially, they are the same with very few differences. For the Jews the commandments line up as follows:
1. I the LORD am your God.
2. You shall have no other gods before me.
3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God.
4. Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
5. Honor father and mother.
6. Prohibitions against murder,
7. Adultery,
8. Stealing
9. False witness and
10. Covetousness
There has been much fussing around with the content of the commandments, is number one here one of the words at all, should the prohibitions on other gods be divided, and should covetousness be one or two? Even the Jews are not always agreed, but in this comment they stand as shown. God demands utter loyalty from Israel. The covenant was made with them, even though it was their fathers and mothers who were originally at Sinai. Verse 3 names them and in 29:13, 14 future generations are included. This covenant is with a living community, one that at one point in time stood face to face with God, through Moses, vs. 5. This vision of God is like no other, and the Words express that. There is only one God and to him alone must Israel be true. His name is part of the divine essence and must not be manipulated for personal advantage. Remembering the Sabbath Day and its implications has to do with redemption in Deuteronomy, creation in Exodus. This day has itself worked a social revolution throughout the world where ‘rest’, shabbat, is seen as part of everyone’s right. Previously, leisure was the privilege of wealthy men. Slaves, poor men, women had no right to leisure—it was a class and gender privilege. No more, but beyond that it is a rest that implies connection with the LORD, it is not simply recreation [494:118-120]. Today’s Christians have very little understanding of this Word.

Honoring father and mother was addressed to adults, not children, per se, and can by implication include the natural order of authority: parents, leaders, rulers, God. As such it ties in very well with the first table, all five commandments. The last five commandments are also related in a single prohibition against manipulating others for your own benefit. These include murder (premeditated yet unauthorized killing), adultery (fidelity in marriage is a primary analogy for commandments one and two [494:124], stealing, including material and spiritual theft as well as kidnapping, bearing false witness, and coveting anything that is one’s neighbor’s.

Commandments they are, but enforceable they are not and so God recognizes in 5:29.. Even God cannot force human beings to obey him. He can require it; he cannot enforce it, and here lies the rub in all of human experience with the divine. No matter how important serving God is, man is free to focus on himself instead, the nature of all sin. In Deuteronomy 5:29 there is a passage that has become the bedrock passage for Jewish understanding of the doctrine of free will. There in the words of YHWH we find, “If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!” There the LORD acknowledges that he can command, but cannot compel. It might be noted that as free as humans are to respond or not respond, so the witness of Scripture is that God likewise is free to be who he will be. And we will not always understand God’s choices anymore than he does ours [185:1361].

At Sinai
Isabella R. Hess

Down from the mist-clad mountain Moses came,
His face aglow with some strange inward flame—
Down the long slope with winged feet he trod,
And vision clear, for he had talked with God!

Before the mount he saw his people stand,
As he had bidden. Slow he raised is hand—
A solemn stillness bound them as they saw,
Their restive hearts athrill with reverent awe.

Deep was his voice and tender. E’en the birds
Poised on their moveless wings to hear his words.
From out the misty cloud that wraps the hill,
There came the voice of God, so small and still.

And thus it said: “These words to Israel bring:
As I have borne them forth on eagle’s wing
From Egypt’s bonds, so will I guard them still
If they obey my voice, and do my will.

“Yea, Israel shall a priestly people be,
A most peculiar treasure unto Me;
If they do heed the Law that I do give.
My people, say! Will ye obey and live?”

With hands uplifted stood the leader there,
His face ablaze! And on the desert air
There rose a murmur swelling loud and true,
“All that the Lord doth bid us, will we do!”

So went he once again within the mist
That hid the somber mountain, grey, cloud-kissed;
And as they watched, the waiting people saw
Him come again, and in his arms, the Law!

Thus came the Word—and thus the right to hear
The message, that the world might know and share.
Yea, theirs the gift! But theirs the promise, too.
Whate’er the Lord hath spoken, that we’ll do.

Tho’ there at Sinai’s foot, in age long dead,
Our fathers hath the sacred covenant said,
Their blood is ours! And their promise true!
What’er the Lord hath bidden, shall we do!

Collect for the Day
Blessed is the Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who separates sacred from profane, light from darkness, the seventh day of rest from the six days of labor. Blessed is the Lord, who separates the sacred from the profane. [471:635]


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