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“Far from Home”

Date: July 28, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Deuteronomy 29:16 — 30:14

If you have even a nodding acquaintance with Irish and Scottish folk music, you know that emigration and exile are pretty prominent parts of the tradition. Both of those countries, under English control, ended up seeing many of their people leave, for a variety of reasons.

In Ireland, the Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s drove thousands of people to emigrate in order to avoid starvation. Before that there had been a rebellion in 1798, and many people involved in it had been sent to Britain’s penal colony in Australia. Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands wrote a song from the point of view of one of these exiles, while he was imprisoned at Long Kesh in Belfast.[1]

In Scotland, the Jacobite rebellions of the 1700s sent highlanders, mainly, across the ocean as their land was seized and their homes burned. Some Scots were resettled in the north of Ireland, aggravating historic tensions between Ulster and the rest of Ireland. Others came to North America, and settled in Canada—most especially Nova Scotia—or in the southern Appalachians.

Some of the most poignant Irish and Scottish songs arise from the experience of being forced away from home and into foreign lands, like the “Scottish Settler’s Lament,” which describes the narrator’s new home, Canada, as “a goodly land, but och, it is nae mine.”[2] No matter how long it’s been, some people never stop pining for home.

The event that, more than anything else, shaped God’s people from Israelites or Judahites to Jews, an ethnic and religious people whose identities were grounded in God, not in a particular territory, was the Babylonian Exile, which lasted somewhere between fifty and seventy years. That period of time informs our Scripture reading for today, as it does many other texts from the Hebrew Bible, like Psalm 137, which begins with “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”

All of Deuteronomy (except the last chapter or so, which tells of Moses’ death) is presented as “Moses’ Farewell Address” to the Israelites. He knows he will not live much longer, and the people will be crossing the Jordan and taking possession of the Promised Land, led by Moses’ lieutenant, Joshua son of Nun. So he reminds the people of the Law they had previously been given at Mount Sinai, the covenant God

made with them there, and also warns them of what the future will hold for them if they don’t keep the Law and the covenant.

The word “Deuteronomy” means “second law,” and there is at least some repetition, such as the reiteration of the Ten Commandments in chapter 5. It’s not a word-for-word repetition, though: while in Exodus 20 the explanation for the Sabbath commandment has to do with God creating the heavens and earth in six days and then resting on the seventh, Deuteronomy says the Sabbath is to be observed in remembrance of slavery, where the people never got a day off.

But in addition there is that distinctive Deuteronomistic point of view: If you diligently observe all of the commandments which the LORD your God has given you, then you will be blessed; but if you do not diligently observe all the commandments, you will be cursed. The longest description of the blessings and curses the people might face is found in chapter 28—and much more space is given to the curses than to the blessings.

Modern Biblical scholarship includes some specific ways of studying the Bible that might not have been done, or even possible, in the past. This is known in academic circles as “higher criticism.” But unlike popular usage of “criticism,” often meaning “fault-finding,” the higher criticism is actually deep study of the Scriptures, seeking understanding through examination of how they came to be as we have them, what the times and places from which they came were like, how the people who originally wrote them down lived and thought, and what they might have been trying to get across through the stories and commandments and poetry they wrote down.

One branch of higher criticism is called “textual criticism.” Textual criticism looks at the Bible as we have it, and looks at ancient copies of the texts—no originals have ever been found; the earliest manuscripts we have are copies of copies—to determine what the original might have said, and how a book of the Bible was put together in the form we have now. One reason textual criticism is possible is that earlier and earlier manuscripts have been discovered over the years—if you want to spend some time on a rabbit trail, look up the impact the Dead Sea Scrolls have had on Bible scholarship over the past several decades.

We find a few clues to how texts came to be in the Bible itself. For instance, in Jeremiah 36, we learn about Jeremiah dictating God’s words to his secretary, Baruch, who writes them down on a scroll. Then a government official named Jehudi reads the scroll to the king, but he doesn’t want to hear it; and as Jehudi reads each column, the king slices it off and throws it into the fire, until the entire scroll is burned. Then, almost immediately, God tells Jeremiah to get another scroll, and write down everything that was on the first scroll, plus some more stuff—here we see two steps in getting the Jeremiah book written.

In 2 Kings 22, the priest Hilkiah, who may have been Jeremiah’s father (see the very first verses of Jeremiah), finds “the book of the law” in the Temple and brings it to King Josiah, touching off a series of reforms that bring back observance of the Law

and the festivals in Judah. That “book of the law” is thought to be an early version of Deuteronomy, written down well before the exile. I’m not sure, personally, but I know scholars can tell us which parts of the book as we have it now were part of that early version found during the reign of Josiah. And there are parts of Deuteronomy, like chapter 28, beginning around verse 45, that read like vivid, eyewitness accounts of the siege and conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon, and the carrying of the people into exile—all of which happened years after Josiah was gone. We might be able to say the same thing about verses 22 through 29 of chapter 29, part of our reading for today. So we might surmise that these bits of Deuteronomy were added much later to the early version Hilkiah found while Josiah was king.

Now you might be asking, “What does all that have to do with the subject of covenant, which is our focus this summer?” Only this: the Deuteronomistic historians, the ones who put together the historical books beginning with Joshua and ending with 2 Kings (with the possible exception of the book of Ruth), had a particular understanding of how the people related to God within the covenant God had made with them. I mentioned it a moment ago: Obey God’s commandments, and you will be blessed; disobey and you will be cursed.

As this school of historical thought looked at the situation around them during the exile, they interpreted that catastrophic event as God’s judgment on the people, God’s curse on them for failing to obey all of God’s commandments. But even in the midst of this transactional—and I believe, overly simplistic—understanding of what it means to live in covenant with God, we learn something important: Yes, the Deuteronomist says that disobedience will lead to God’s curse on the people; but they leave room for a change in circumstance.

It is possible, even in the midst of the consequences of our sin, for us to turn back to God; and when we do, God is ready and waiting to welcome us back. That “turning back to God” is known, in theological terms, as repentance; and the Hebrew word for “repent” literally means “to turn.” We’re going in the wrong direction, and we’re suffering because of it; so we turn and go a different direction, a direction that leads to life, to reconciliation with God, to the restoration of the covenant, letting God again be our God, and recognizing that we are God’s people.

[1] “Back Home in Derry,” set by Christy Moore to the same traditional tune as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

[2] “The Scottish Settler’s Lament” is also known as “Settler’s Lament or “Scarborough Settler’s Lament.” The words were written in 1840 by Alexander (Sandy) Glendenning, set to the tune “Miss Admiral Gordon’s Strathspey” by William Marshall (which Robert Burns used for his lovely song O’ A’ the Airts”). See https://www.contemplator.com/scotland/settler.html.