Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Matthew 22.34-46
by Deanna Thompson
For more from Deanna as well as links to her books and writing about theology, suffering and cancer, click here.
I am delighted and honored to be invited to preach at Colonial Church this morning. I grew up a pastor’s kid, and when my father had a Sunday off from our church (which wasn’t very often), we’d always end up at another church in the Twin Cities—and I remember at least one Sunday at Colonial in the late 70s or early 80s. So this return visit is long overdue.
In preaching (and in many other areas as well), I follow my father’s lead. I appreciate that he begins his sermons with the prayer of Psalm 19, and now I will do the same. Will you pray with me?
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Several years ago I was invited to write a commentary on the biblical book of Deuteronomy. I’m a professor of religion who focuses on Christianity, so this might not sound like a strange request. If I’d been a theologian in the 16th or 17th or 18th century, writing commentaries on scripture would have been integral to my role as a theologian. But over the past 150 or so years, academic specialization has increased, and biblical scholars now write on the Bible while theologians tend to write more on major teachings of the faith—like who God is or how Jesus saves—than writing commentaries on specific books of the Bible—especially less well known books like Deuteronomy.
But recently several publishing houses have invited theologians to get back to doing what it is we used to do: write commentary on Scripture. And I was invited to join the fun.
It’s a stellar group of theologians I was invited to join: folks from Harvard and Duke and Yale, folks who are creative and important thinkers in the field. I have to admit, though, that even as I was honored to be asked, the book that was chosen for me gave me pause: Deuteronomy? Really? How about Romans, or maybe a Gospel? But we didn’t get to choose our favorite biblical book, and my option was Deuteronomy or–Deuteronomy.
I sat with the decision for a few months. Writing a 100,000 word commentary on a book of the Bible was not at all within my comfort zone of being a theologian who focuses on Martin Luther and feminism.
But I respected the series’ goals and its collection of theologians. I was encouraged by the editors. I felt nudged by the Spirit to accept an offer to dive into a biblical book that I didn’t grow up reading and frankly knew almost nothing about. I accepted the invitation and dove in.
Writing a commentary on Deuteronomy has challenged and broadened my views in many ways. But writing this commentary has also confirmed what I have long thought to be the case after teaching theology in the academy and the church for over twenty years: that the majority of Christians are Marcionites.
Those of you who know your church history know I’m talking about Marcion, a second century Christian bishop who claimed that the God of the Old Testament was different from (and inferior to) the loving, merciful God made known in Jesus Christ. Armed with this conviction, Marcion called for the separation of Christianity and its scriptures from all things Jewish. He insisted that Christian scripture be limited to the gospel of Luke and a few letters of Paul. Marcion believed that the lawgiver God of the Old Testament is utterly separate from the New Testament God of love.
Newsflash from the second century: the ancient church ruled against Marcion and his belief in separate gods and separate scriptures for Christians and Jews. Marcion was deemed a heretic, and the church insisted that the Old Testament is also the church’s book, and that the God of the Ten Commandments is the same God incarnated in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Despite the church’s official rejection of Marcion, the history of Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is littered with Marcion-like treatments of the Old Testament God and the biblical books of the law. From ancient Christian readings of the Old Testament that make realities of ancient Jewish life into allegories of Christian life and beliefs, to the contemporary Lectionary cycle that bypasses almost all Old Testament passages on the law, it’s not surprising that Marcion’s views are still very much in vogue.
Enter Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, the quintessential Old Testament book of the law. As if the book’s focus on law were not reason enough for Christians to sidestep the text, Deuteronomy also teems with references to a warrior-like God. What, then, are we to do with such a book, where many of the laws are seen as irrelevant to our contemporary situation and many of its images of God make us squirm? It’s tempting to simply agree with Marcion that this book should be left to our Jewish neighbors while we head for the greener pastures of the New Testament.
But I stand in the heritage of Martin Luther, who insisted that the law and the gospel are not stand ins for the Old and New Testament. For Luther, the law is that which judges while the gospel is that which saves, and gospel is present in the OT just as the law is present in the New—the Word is a living Word and it addresses us differently depending on where we stand.
The gospel reading for today also demonstrates that Jesus was a Torah-abiding Jew—notice he doesn’t brush aside Jewish scholars and their preoccupation with the law. Instead he joins right in, citing the greatest commandment, from Deueteronomy 6—which Jews call the shema: Hear, O Israel, that the Lord your God is One, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. This is the very first prayer that Jews learn. Obviously Jesus held it near and dear to his heart as well. He joins this command to love God with the command to love your neighbor as yourself from Leviticus 19. These commands, Jesus insists, are basic to our life as people of God.
I also came across an insight early on in my research for the commentary from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman that has guided my reading of Deuteronomy. From his many years of working with Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Old Testament, Brueggeman has discovered that it’s not easy for Christians reading the OT to honor what he calls the “unsettled quality” of the text. He sees Christians very often struggle with what he calls the “playful” and “open” sense of the OT, and that Christian discomfort with that playful, unsettled quality often leads to a distorted reading of the text.
As I began reading and rereading the 34 chapters of Deuteronomy, I found this unsettled quality to be one of the book’s most insistent characteristics. The God of Deuteronomy is, as radical Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan claimed, “a God who plays favorites—those favored by no one.” Throughout the book the people of Israel are not just called on to be hospitable to the strangers, widows, and orphans in their midst but to treat these people as integral members of the community.
But just as we settle in to the images of God as the One who lavishes care on those at the farthest edges of society, Deuteronomy interjects the deeply unsettling image of God as Divine Warrior, calling on Israel in chapter 7 to utterly destroy the various tribes who inhabit Canaan, and “show them no mercy.”
In response to this chapter, a section of Deuteronomy many have called a text of terror, we can turn to scholars who suggest that the metaphors of divine warrior are intended to be more evocative than descriptive of God’s character, that the metaphor of the divine warrior is just one among many used within Deuteronomy, that God is also imaged as a parent, an eagle, and a shepherd as well as a warrior.
These clarifications are important and helpful. But as I wrestle with these unsettled aspects of the text, I try to keep Brueggeman’s caution in mind, resisting the approach often taken by progressive theologians like myself: to ignore, discount, or bypass these terrifying texts. It IS important to contextualize these passages, recognizing that it was a vicious time and that the passages reflect vicious realities.
But if we are going to respect the open-ended, unsettled quality of the text, it seems we need to claim that the God of Deuteronomy—indeed the God of the Bible in its entirety—is irreducibly compassionate and wrathful, just and vengeful. If we take the book of Deuteronomy seriously, there’s no getting around the wrath of God.
But along with the acknowledgement that wrath is an aspect of God’s nature, there’s other things we can and should say. First, God’s wrath should not be seen as wholly problematic. As liberation theologians have taught us, a God without wrath does not plan to do much liberating. That God’s anger is kindled when harm is done to the least among us not only gives us hope that earthly injustices don’t have the last word but also hope that God’s compassionate nature will seek us out when we’re suffering.
Second, that the text reports God as saying “vengeance is mine” implies it is not ours. Even though there are many disquieting portraits of God throughout Deuteronomy, the text is unequivocal on this point: vengeance is not to be Israel’s. From Deuteronomy 25 spelling out a specific number of lashes—and no more—as appropriate punishment to fit the crime to Israel’s reported victories over other tribes, we glimpse calls for restraint in the middle of the harshness. No license is given to extravagant punishment, no validation of racial or ethnic superiority on Israel’s part. The text repeatedly insists that it’s not up to Israel to decide whom or when to fight—that decision is God’s.
There’s no easy resolution to the multiple portraits of the God of Deuteronomy. In the end, after all the curses and stories of God’s wrath being visited on Israel and others, Deuteronomy concludes with passages that indicate the scales are tipped, however slightly, to life, to mercy, to grace. This last book of the Torah ends with the heartrending story of the death of Moses, a man whose life and death carries deep resonance not only for people of the book but also in literary and historical imaginations across the globe. Even as the text calls Moses a prophet without peer, “whom the Lord knew face to face,” the story ends with the disturbing reality that this amazing leader of Israel does not make it into the promised land.
Let me say that again: Moses, one of the most important—and perhaps THE most faithful figure in the entire Old Testament—doesn’t get into the promised land.
The book of Deuteronomy provides several possible reasons for Moses’ death outside the land: We hear that God is angry with Moses over Israel’s disobedience; that Moses and Aaron prayed for water to flow from a rock without crediting the power of God.
But what about in the verses from chapter 34 we heard read this morning? What reason is given there?
Verse 5 says: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.”
Why did Moses die outside the land? No reason is given.
20th century writer Franz Kafka offers a possible way to make sense of this: “Moses is on track to Canaan all of his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life . . . . Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life.”
Some of you may know that eight years ago I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. It broke my back in two places and by the time I had a diagnosis the cancer had spread to over a dozen places in my bones. I was hospitalized immediately, and was forced to resign from my very full and wonderful life. As the severity of the diagnosis set in—five years out, 80% of those who have “my” kind of cancer are dead—it sent my husband, two young daughters, extended family and friends into crisis mode. My husband and I ushered in the new year of 2009 in the hospital, making plans for my funeral.
We haven’t really been able to locate a reason for my diagnosis of advanced stage cancer at 42. It’s even harder to explain how I’m in my ninth year living with this incurable disease. I could point to the incredible medical care I’ve received, to the thousands of people praying for me, to the network of support that made it possible to live through the worst of it. But you and I both know of others who’ve had all this and more and they’ve gotten worse from cancer or other awfulness and died. Over the past eight years I’ve become much more aware of how invested we are in trying to explain why things happen the way they do.
The writers of Deuteronomy were very invested in a story of retribution—they tell a story of the God of Israel who promises to lead Israel into the promised land, and all Israel needs to do is be obedient to God’s commands, and all will go well for them in the land. Most scholars believe the writers of Deuteronomy are writing at the time of Israel’s exile, meaning that Israel made it to Canaan but lost the promised land—and these writers are determined to help explain why the exile, why this suffering.
But what I find most intriguing in Deuteronomy is the places where the framework of retribution doesn’t hold. This story of Moses’ death outside the land is one of those places. Another dominant theme throughout Deuteronomy is that Moses is an amazing self-sacrificial leader of Israel. God even contemplates destroying Israel in its entirety because of the many sins of the Israelites, and God reconsiders only after Moses lies prostrate before God for forty days. Sure, Moses had one small slip up—he didn’t credit God for water coming out of a rock, but especially compared to Israel’s sins (and let’s not forget: the rest of Israel gets into the promised land), Moses’ sins are small potatoes. He doesn’t deserve to die before getting to the land.
One of my teachers at Yale Divinity School, NicholasWoltersdorff, lost one of his sons in a mountain climbing accident. In his grief, he wrote a most terrifyingly beautiful book called Lament for a Son. In it he says this about the Bible’s explanations for suffering:
“To the “why” of suffering we get no firm answer. Of course some suffering is easily seen to be the result of our sin: war, assault, poverty amidst plenty, the hurtful word. And maybe some is chastisement. But not all. The meaning of the remainder is not told us. It eludes us. Our net of meaning is too small. There’s more to suffering than our guilt.”
There’s more to suffering than our guilt.
In the final verses of Deuteronomy, there’s no sense of Moses’ guilt. In fact, these verses testify to what a great a prophet he was.
One of the Jewish commentaries on Deuteronomy I read said this: the most important Scripture for Jews—the Torah—ends with Israel outside the land. This means the Jewish faith, like the Christian faith, is an anticipatory faith. Jews await fulfillment of the promises of God, just as Christians await the fulfillment of God’s promises. We Christians believe that the promises of God in the OT are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, but we also know well that the words of the Lord’s prayer: your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven—still speak of what we hope for and anticipate in God’s future, a future where there’s no more dying, no more crying, only light, only love.
Throughout the final section of the book of Deuteronomy we see ongoing tension between the call to human obedience of God’s commands and the promise that God will give the gift of life as well as the gift of obedience. The gospel of Deuteronomy is that life—and obedience—are finally, ultimately, in God’s hands. This means that life is first and last a gift, that the land promised the people of God is a gift, that God stands with a little band of unknowns and their leader, and with the alien, the widow and the orphan, all of whom are beloved in the eyes of God.
Deuteronomy is a challenging, disturbing book. It’s a book of the law, judging us for our lack of commitment to God, critiquing our vision of society that allows some to have way too much while others go without. But it’s also a book of gospel, where our sins and our suffering do not have the final word, and where hope in God’s future is glimpsed, even if only from a mountain top on our dying day.
Deuteronomy preaches that obedience by the people of God can’t by itself bring about God’s promised future—nevertheless, the words and laws of Deuteronomy demonstrate that at the same time, it matters how we live. Jesus, in his insistence on the importance of the commands to love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves, confirms this truth. The people of God are called to faithfully follow the commands of God—and when we don’t, it can feel like a curse. In the end, we are summoned to choose life, to choose God, and to trust that even when our lives come to their conclusion outside the land, that God—just as we see in the story of Moses—is with us in death as in life.