Hearing Deuteronomy

Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-12, Deuteronomy 5:6-21

In our reading, we see that the people spent all morning hearing the Torah. The passage tells us that it was read from dawn until noon — a period of time that is roughly six hours. The passage also tells us that it was read with commentary so that the people might understand what was being read.

It is somewhat overwhelming to think about what they might have heard in this reading. Earlier I read what is called the Ten Commandments. I read it because for many people, it is the core of the Torah. Last week, I told you that my core of Torah is Genesis 1:27, where we learn that Humanity is created in God’s image. When Jesus was asked: “what is the greatest commandment?”, He answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind — and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Looking into what this morning must be like, I first checked to see how long it would take to read through the first five books of the Bible — to read from: “In the beginning God Created the heavens and the earth” until you reach the final words of Deuteronomy:

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12 NET)

When I checked, I saw that it would take 16 hours to read this entire section. Considering that not only was the Law of Moses read, but it was also explained so that the people could understand it, clearly only a subsection was read. I am still left to guess which subsection, and what would the people have taken away — but I do have a guess.

I think, most likely, Ezra’s reading is what we call Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy only takes a little under 3 hours to read, which would have given an equal amount of time for commentary and teaching. Genesis and Exodus are largely narrative, Leviticus is largely directed at the priests and Levites. Numbers gives the result of three censuses. Deuteronomy is the best book for telling the general population what it means to follow God’s law. If I were to plan this 6 hour event, I would use the narrative in Genesis and Exodus to explain the references in Deuteronomy, but Deuteronomy would be the passage that was read — the rest would be a resource.

Now that I made a guess about what might have been read — I can tell you what comes out when I listen to Deuteronomy: What I hear as a continuing refrain is the words — “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt,” or in other cases “Remember when you were strangers in Egypt.” I would like to read a number of these to you so you can hear some of what I heard.

I will start with Deuteronomy 5 — the Ten Commandments. One of the laws was: “Remember the Sabbath”, and it goes on to say that foreigners are to be given a Sabbath as well as everybody else, slaves are to be given the Sabbath as well as the free. The reason given, if you recall is: `Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” Rest is not a religious obligation, it is a physiological need — and the law demands that everybody be given this. Nobody is to be so helpless that they lose the right to rest.

Deuteronomy 10:17-22 reads:

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who is unbiased and takes no bribe, 18 who justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing. 19 So you must love the resident foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. 20 Revere the Lord your God, serve him, be loyal to him and take oaths only in his name. 21 He is the one you should praise; he is your God, the one who has done these great and awesome things for you that you have seen. 22 When your ancestors went down to Egypt, they numbered only seventy, but now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of the sky. (NET)

When the people of Israel first went to Egypt, they were economic refugees. Jacob, his children, grandchildren and their families were invited to settle in Goshen by the Pharaoh. Egypt treated Jacob and his family with every kindness, supplying them with food when they needed food and offering them ample and good land to graze their livestock. Deuteronomy reminds the people of Israel that they were once foreigners in a strange land, and their survival as a people was dependent upon the kindness of Egypt — and, when they needed it they received this kindness. In other parts of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are told never to hate the Egyptian, out of memory of this act of kindness.

In Deuteronomy 15, we learn that after a period of seven years, slaves are to be emancipated, and when they are emancipated they are to be supplied generously from the wealth of the master. The reason for this is that the people are to remember when they were slaves in Egypt. The descendants of Jacob eventually became slaves to the Egyptians, and this was a generational slavery, with no hope of escape. It took an act of God to release those enslaved by the Egyptians — so there is a call to remember this, and have compassion.

Deuteronomy 24 again reminds the people of Israel that they were once slaves in Egypt. They are commanded to remember this whenever a foreigner or widow seeks justice. They are also told to remember this if a widow ever needs a loan — “Do not take a widow’s garment as security for a loan” is the exact words of Deuteronomy 24:17. It goes on to command not carefully harvesting everything that is grown, but to leave something in the fields and vineyards for landless gleaners — saying that this is for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner — the reason being again: “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt.”

Remember when you were in Egypt is a reoccurring phrase in Deuteronomy. I only gave a few examples; but the point is that when I listen, I hear again and again, remember when you were in Egypt. Every Sabbath is a memory that we need rest, and slaves were not given rest,therefor we should behave differently. Every Passover is a memory that the people were once slaves, every feast of Booths is a memory that they wondered in the wilderness as a landless people for 40 years after they escaped slavery.

Remembering where we came from, and remembering what our ancestors faced is very important. Every festival is a memory, when a justification is given for a law, it is a memory. Deuteronomy is a system of law that calls for empathy. Remember when your ancestors faced famine, and risked being wiped out — remember, somebody showed mercy on them; be merciful in the same way. Remember when your ancestors were powerless, and somebody took advantage of them? Don’t take advantage of the powerless — treat them better than your ancestors were treated. In Deuteronomy, justice is about treating the poor, the landless, and the powerless with empathy. Deuteronomy is about remembering the history of Israel, and seeing what their ancestors overcame whenever we see somebody struggling in life.

When Ezra read the law, the law reminded the people of their common story, and it reminded them that the had a common experience that brings them to compassion. They were taught a sense of justice that is defined by compassion and mercy; and always remembering that we come from a long line of people who needed compassion — if they had not received it, perhaps we would not even have been born. We also come from a long line of people who have been oppressed — in honor of those ancestors, we should not oppress others. The lesson of the Torah is simple; it is the lesson we call the golden rule, that we do to others as we would have them do to us; and of course its corollary — that we not do to them what we would not want done to us.


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