Sunday, January 30, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Deuteronomy

This fifth and final book of the Torah consists mainly of Moses' last instructions to the Israelites before they finally cross over the Jordan river to the land of Canaan. He extensively recaps their history and revisits all they things they've done wrong, but he also emphasizes that they are God's chosen people and even with all the mistakes in their past, it's their destiny to stay close to God.

Joshua gets several mentions in the book, partly because Moses is passing the torch of leadership on to Joshua. Moses talks about how Joshua and Caleb were the only scouts who weren't overcome by fear when they saw the giants living in Canaan. Moses also shows that the the Israelites shouldn't be afraid of the challenges ahead of them because they've already had a lot of military victories in recent decades. The Israelites are often depicted as literally doing nothing but walking and camping for 40 years, but they took part in several bigtime fights where God protected them and fought for them. The overall tone of this long speech is encouraging. Life has been bad, but it doesn't have to stay that way. 

Moses restates the Ten Commandments, some other important laws and even more history, but the repetition is necessary because he's trying to drive home the point that the Israelites must remember the past and learn from their mistakes. There's only one path to take if they want a prosperous future, but Moses clearly states that they have a choice in the matter: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life" (Deut. 30:19). It's not exactly a small-stakes choice.

Finally, Moses blesses each of the tribes of Israel, then climbs to the top of a mountain where God lets him see the land of Canaan before he dies. Israel mourns him for a full month, which is natural, considering how he led them through a whole era of their history. Moses was the real deal as far as godly leadership goes, and Deuteronomy closes out with this thought: "And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (34:10). In a certain sense, I think he's still missed.

Interesting laws: 1. The Israelite laws make some interesting provisions for manslaughter. Even if a person kills someone else by accident, the family of the deceased has the right to hunt down the offender and kill them in retaliation. The only reprieve for accidental slayers is fleeing to particular places called cities of refuge where they have immunity from their unintentional crimes. 2. In the new land, every seventh year is supposed to be a debt-forgiving year. All debts are cancelled out completely and all servants go free. 3. If a man dies and doesn't leave an heir, his brother is supposed to marry his widow and the first son they have will count as the son of the deceased brother. Inheritance is a very, very big deal in these times.

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