Scripture: Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9
We’re skipping a lot of time and a lot of material between last week’s reading, the story of Moses’ birth and the women who made his life possible, plus the first part of his call story.
Moses was the person whom God chose to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. It took quite awhile to get to that: there were ten plagues sent on Egypt when Pharaoh wouldn’t let Israel go.
The final plague was the death of the firstborn—every Egyptian household lost a firstborn son; not even the Egyptians’ livestock spared. But the Israelites were commanded to smear blood on the doorposts of their houses, so that God’s angel would pass over them. And once that happened, Egypt was more than happy to see the back of Israel…except that, as they were leaving, Pharaoh realized he was letting his workforce walk out the door; so he sent his army after them. The army caught up to them on the shore of the Red Sea, but God made the waters pile up on either side of a dry path right through, then closed the water back up on Pharaoh’s army once Israel had crossed.
They camped for awhile at an oasis, and then God led them—with a pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day—out into the wilderness. Now, in Hebrew the same word means wilderness and desert; we’re not talking about a lush forest or even a tallgrass prairie. The wilderness that lay between Egypt and Canaan was a rocky, barren desert. There was very little vegetation and even less water.
Israel realized that’s what they were getting into , and they cried out. They begged Moses to lead them back to Egypt—yes, we were slaves, but we had food and water!
God told Moses, “Not to worry; tell them that in the evening they will have meat, and in the morning they will have bread.” And a bit later, Moses, at God’s command, made water flow out of a rock, so the people could drink.
Soon they came to Mount Sinai—or, as it’s sometimes called, Mount Horeb—where Moses went up the mountain and received the Law. Meanwhile, the people, waiting at the foot of the mountain, grew anxious because Moses was, in their opinion, “shamefully late” coming back down, and had Moses’ brother Aaron make them a golden calf, a god they could see, in place of the one who had engulfed the top of the mountain and—maybe—swallowed Moses whole.
But Moses, who had not been swallowed, and God saw what was going on and got mad. They had to talk one another out of destroying the people.
Israel camped at Sinai for quite some time; but before long God said they needed to move. They got to the very edge of the Promised Land, and sent scouts ahead to see what it was like. They came back with good news and bad news.
First the good news: The land was indeed very fertile, flowing with milk and honey, clusters of grapes so big it took two men to carry them. But the bad news was that there were apparently giants living there.
One of the scouts, named Caleb, said, “We will have no trouble moving in and taking over, because God is with us.” But others said it was hopeless.
Guess which ones Israel listened to.
They quaked in their boots and formed a Back-to-Egypt Committee. And God got mad. God said, “Back to the wilderness you go; nobody who is alive now will get to go into the Promised Land,” except Caleb, who trusted God. And they wandered in the desert for 40 years, waiting for the generation that had been slaves and then were set free by God to die.
When we take up the story today, the 40 years had passed, and a new generation of Israelites—who had only ever known the desert, and had never been slaves—were at the edge of Canaan. Moses wouldn’t be going there with them, so he gathered them and gave them some final instructions.
Those instructions make up the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy is a Greek word that means “second law,” and most of Moses’ farewell address in the book is a reiteration of the law that was given back in Exodus, starting with the Ten Commandments. There are, however, some differences.
Observant Jews, as the Sabbath begins, light two candles. These candles symbolize the two times the command to keep Sabbath is given, first in Exodus and then again in Deuteronomy. The first time, the command is to remember the Sabbath day; the second time, it’s to observe the Sabbath.
The reason for keeping Sabbath is different in the two versions of the commandment, too. I’m not sure we Christians are too aware of that. We may have been called on at some point in our lives to memorize the Ten Commandments; it’s almost a given that we memorized the Exodus 20 version rather than the Deuteronomy 5 one.
So what we know and understand is that God created the world and everything in it in six days, and then rested on the seventh, making it holy and then later telling all of us to do the same. But maybe we don’t know the Deuteronomy explanation as well.
That could have something to do with what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the Red Letter Christians, calls “slaveholder religion,” the twisted version of Christianity that came into existence to keep anybody from thinking too hard about whether or not keeping black people enslaved was right. I’ve just started reading his book on the subject, which is called Reconstructing the Gospel, so I don’t know for sure.
But it would make sense, because while Exodus tells us we are to keep Sabbath because God kept Sabbath, Deuteronomy says we do it for a very different reason: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”
Before that it says everyone is to rest on the sabbath—which Exodus also says—but explicitly adds, “…so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”
The interesting thing about this version of the commandment is that explanation, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” The people Moses is talking to in Deuteronomy 5 had never been slaves in the land of Egypt. They were the children of slaves, perhaps in some cases even the grandchildren of slaves, but they had never themselves been enslaved. How could they remember something that had never happened to them?
That question is at the heart of a great deal of Jewish faith and practice, and it’s at the heart of Christian faith and practice, too.
In a lecture years ago, probably recorded at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon, Fred Craddock told a story from a trip he made with a group to the Holy Land. They had an Israeli guide driving them around. At one point the guide asked, “Do you mind if we go this other way? I want to show you something.”
They agreed, so he drove off onto a little side road, and stopped. Then he said, “Do you see that ridge over there? They were expecting us to be on the road, so they waited to ambush us; but we knew they were there, so we came over the ridge and attacked them.”
Fred said he asked the man, “Was that the war of 1948, or 1967?”
The guide answered, “The Maccabean War.” (That’s a war that happened in the time between the Old and New Testaments, part of the events that gave rise to the Jewish holiday of Chanukah.) He spoke about that war, which happened centuries ago, as though he had been there.
When Jews celebrate Passover, they have an elaborate ritual, centered around a meal, retelling the story of being freed from slavery in Egypt. The story is told in the first person: “We were slaves…” That was thousands of years ago!
It would be sort of like me saying that my family was driven from our home in the Scottish Highlands after the Battle of Culloden. (Actually I haven’t managed to make the connection yet between my family tree and Scotland, so maybe I can’t say that credibly; but even people who converted to Judaism and thus are not descended from anybody who went through the Exodus say “we were slaves and God freed us.”)
That’s what Moses said to the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan: “Remember this thing you cannot literally remember, because it makes you who you are.”
Remember what God has done for you, and the covenant God has made with you.
Moses points out here that God doesn’t make the covenant with their ancestors, but with them. Of course God did make a covenant with their ancestors, but the point is that God makes the covenant with every generation of God’s people. So even though these people—even though we—don’t actually, literally, remember the first Passover, or the parting of the Red Sea, or the first morning the manna appeared, or the giving of the Ten Commandments, still we remember, and as we remember, God makes the covenant with us. The covenant is always the same—“I will be their God and they will be my people”—but it’s made anew with every generation as we remember what God has done for us.
It’s why the table in front of us here is inscribed with the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” To remember something is to take something that is in the past and make it part of our present reality and experience.
Of course we don’t literally remember the night when Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” Of course we don’t literally remember how, at the end of that Passover meal, he took a cup and told his disciples to drink from it, for it was his blood, by which the new covenant God was making with God’s people was sealed. But still we remember, just as the generation of Israelites standing on the edge of the Jordan remembered, even though it was their parents and grandparents who had actually been slaves in Egypt.
Still we remember, every Sunday, when we come to the Table, and especially this Sunday when we are aware of the whole body of Christ, all over the world and through all time, joining us at the table to remember, to bring the past into the present, to become part of the covenant anew.