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Reading the Last Chapters of Deuteronomy 10/01/2009

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Reading the final chapters of Deuteronomy was very rewarding. It is one thing to read the scriptures when one is young and quite another when one has some self-knowledge and experience. In the latter case, a much deeper understanding can be won.

In chapter 27, the use of only unhewn stones for the altar of God can be related to justification by faith, in which we can do nothing for our own salvation: it has to proceed by God’s hand alone. We are the living stones, which God alone must shape and fashion to God’s purpose. We don’t reinvent ourselves the way politicians do who want to use their artificial public images for power purposes. We surrender in Luther’s completely passive way to God, who justifies our margins and creates us by God’s Word. Using computer and word-processing metaphors, makes me want to say, we are “word-perfect” divine expressions, but Luther has it right: we are sinners and saints at one and the same time.

In the Tao te Ching, in chapter 57 and elsewhere, the uncarved block is like this unhewn stone. The state and intelligence of God’s created nature is still far superior to ours, by which we disrupt nature from its harmonious course. In Taoism, wu wei or no action is much like the passive righteousness in Luther’s justification by faith. Doing no action in the force of tao, the way, is accessing God’s divine action amongst us. In chapter 48, the Tao Te Ching has the lines:

In the pursuit of the way one does less every day.

One does less and less until one does nothing at all,

And when one does nothing at all, there is nothing

left undone (108).[1]

And chapter 47:

Therefore the sage knows without having to stir,

Identifies without having to see,

accomplishes without having to act (107).[2]

The paradox involved is that faith, according to Luther, is “a mighty, active, restless, and busy thing, which immediately renews the person, gives a second birth, and leads the person into new ways and into new being. It is impossible for this same self not to do good works, continuously, [spontaneously] without interruption.”[3] Thus this human inaction is really God’s continuous creation doing the humanly impossible through those who have completely surrendered to God, like a leaf, blowing in the wind (the Wind of the Holy Spirit).

Our deacon in St. John’s used to always pray that her sons be made the head and not the tail and I was surprised that the expression was biblical. It comes up in Deuteronomy 28:13 and 44. It refers to the class of creditors, who are the head and the debtors, who are the tails: those who make money with their money as the heads and those who buy their money with debt, as the poor tails of our capitalist society.

Luther usually uses the word “the true corpse,” instead of “the true body” of Jesus Christ our Lord, when he deals with communion. In the curses over Israel, should they be disobedient, it says, “your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air and animal of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away” (Deut. 28:26). Jesus continually uses the expression, “For where the corpse is, the vultures will gather,” (see for example in Matthew 24:28). I believe that Jesus turns the corpses as food for the birds and animals around and goes spiritual with it. The idea is that Jesus carries the cross on which he will die, and he and his followers, in a sense, are already dead, and they are the food for all who are hungry, thirsty, or needy in any way. When someone dies, the family can claim the corpse, but the dead has no claim upon it anymore. It and everything the person possessed, are free for the concern and taking of others. Thus his body is food indeed and his blood is drink indeed. (I like the way Moses’ song has the words, “you drink fine wine from the blood of grapes” (Deut. 32:14).)

For those who refuse to obey the One true God, Moses describes their bottoming out in the curses of chapter 28 very graphically. I kept asking myself, “How low can you go?” while reading the passages of Deuteronomy 28:54-57. If you don’t diligently observe all the words of the law that are written in this book, you will be reduced to cannibalism and even worse, no matter how refined and gentle you may have become! I believe Jesus was totally immersed in Deuteronomy and he could have had these passages in mind when many of the disciples took offense at him. The Savior wanted to answer and overturn the scenarios of the cursed at even their worst, (if you’ll excuse the rhyme).

In chapter 29, verse 18, turning away to the gods of the nations means turning away from the reign of the Kingdom of God and the Messiah, God’s Christ, to be somewhat redundant from the Hebrew to the Greek: “the anointed one” is the meaning of “Messiah” and “Christ.” There is a real place and need for the nations, but in them our hearts have to belong to God and they have to submit to God. (See Psalm 2.)

I do not yet understand verse 29 of chapter 29. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.” I think that kind of a conception is part of Luther’s Theology of the Cross, but I cannot yet explain it.

The beautiful passages about “the word being very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to observe” (Deut 30:14, see 11-14) made me write this blog today. I studied early modern European history and the way the word (the writings and literature) contained the classic civilizations of Greece and Rome and could challenge the life of society in the Barbarian “Dark Ages” – until the European civilization could overtake them; in the same way, the Kingdom of God and the Christ are contained in the Word, until God’s will is done on earth as it already is in heaven. Every sermon should spell it out and bring some aspect of it to life. The Word will not return empty.

Finally, the way Moses and Aaron angered God by “breaking faith with him” (Deut. 32:51) could have something to do with the sacred lots, which may have contradicted the command of God. If Deuteronomy 33:8 has such high praise for the Levites, why does it mention the Thummim and Urim with their testing God at Massah and their contending with God at the waters of Meribah? Did the method of divining interfere with their living trust in God? Was it that they took credit for the water gushing out of the rock or that they said, “Let’s see if God can make water gush out of this rock” mistrusting God?

Going back to Exodus 17:1-7, it seems that all of Israel was putting God to the test and even Moses and Aaron became caught up in their disloyal and selfish doubt. Was God really in their midst and could God produce water out of the rock for them to drink with that old rod of Moses? This is the way, it seems to me, that Moses and Aaron broke faith with God in what transpired at Massah (meaning “test”) and the waters of Meribah (meaning “the quarrel”).


[1] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated and with an introduction by D.C. Lau, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1963), page 118.

[2] Ibid., page 108.

[3] Luthers Werke, Weimar Ausgabe, vol 10, part 3, page 285, lines 24-30. For Luther’s full quote see my website: Increasing our faith and Luther’s developing notion of faith. Or see Peter Krey’s, Sword of the Spirit, Sword of Iron, (Berkeley: GTU Dissertation, 2001), page 167, footnote 177.

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Written by peterkrey

October 2, 2009 at 12:03 am

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