But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. You grumbled in your tents… When the LORD heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: “Not a man of this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your forefathers.” (Deuteronomy 1.26-27, 34-35)
Commenting on the July 4 post on Christian and civic responsibility, Philomena Ewing guided me to an article by Ron Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and the president of San Antonio’s Oblate School of Theology. His piece—also dated July 4, also on faith and politics—consists of “fragments” gleaned from talks by Dr. Walter Brueggemann, noted Old Testament scholar and United Church of Christ minister. As Fr. Rolheiser lays out his lecture notes, the double space between them feels less like formatting than pastoral suggestion: “Think about this.” Halfway down, I paused to digest three notes on Deuteronomy, a book I apparently don’t know as well as I should. Here are choice fragments:
The Book of Deuteronomy is one of the greatest social documents ever written... It directs faith always to the poor, towards “widows, orphans, and strangers.” [It] might be the most subversive document in the entire Old Testament… Deuteronomy keeps reminding us that we once all were slaves and that it is not good to have amnesia. We should not absolutize the present and imagine it has always been this way.
Are we reading different books? Though less tedious than Leviticus and Numbers, I find Deuteronomy ponderous. From this side of Calvary, the do-this-or-else messaging holds little appeal. Yet the article indicates Deuteronomy ranks high (or should) on Christians’ essential-reading list. The suggestion comes by way of Christ Himself:
In the temptations of Jesus in his dialogue with the devil, he quotes scripture three times and each time it is a passage from Deuteronomy.
I never realized that. Without pause of any kind, I opened Deuteronomy and it instantly began to speak new things—remarkably relevant things I’ve glossed over countless times.
Fearful, Reluctant, and Pessimistic
The book’s Christian title, Deuteronomy, is a misnomer based on a Greek word meaning “Second Law.” Reading it as law drains its life by playing up the or-else angle. The Hebrew Bible calls it Devarim, which translates as Things or Words. This makes sense, since the book is an anthology of five sermons Moses preaches near the end of his life. He and his people are in transition. They will soon part ways. Leadership will pass to a new generation. If it’s to succeed where Moses and his generation failed, there are vital things to remember. Thus, Deuteronomy serves many functions, as a leader’s guide, memoir, theological treatise, social policy manual, and valediction. Yet tone and content make plain its chief purpose: pressing one generation to learn from another’s mistakes. At this stage in Moses’s life, regret for his failures mutes the triumph of his exploits. He’s led Israel out of Egypt, but he’s not led them out of themselves. After 40 years, they’re still fearful, reluctant, and pessimistic.
Deuteronomy opens with Israel overlooking Canaan, yet strangely ambivalent about seizing it. Moses sends 12 men to spy out the land. They return with two findings—one good, one not so good. The land is all that God promised. (They even bring back fruit to whet Israel’s appetite to take it.) But when they also report stronger, taller people possess the territory, that’s all Israel hears, even though the spies are eagerly optimistic: “It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.” (Deuteronomy 1.25) Moses indicts Israel’s spineless reaction: “You were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.’” (v26-27) While God has habitually forgiven Israel’s grumbling and pessimism, this time He exacts a steep price. He swears, “Not a man of this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your forefathers.” (v35) And though Moses accredits this to God’s anger, one sees the providence in His decision. He’s severing one generation from another’s mistakes.
We Must Go Up
Much of the Old Testament adopts the theme of learning from mistakes. But Deuteronomy’s stress on a community’s previous failures adds wealth worth considering. We no longer enter Israel’s story identifying with it as a whole. We must choose sides. Will we justify the hesitance and fear of Moses’s generation, given its slave beginnings and decades of hardship? Or will we embrace the next generation’s optimism and courage? If we choose the latter (and it’s obviously the better choice), Deuteronomy challenges us to desert our tents of grumbling and pessimism. We must know God hasn’t brought us through our wildernesses to destroy us. He has promised us a land where we will grow and prosper. Yes, it’s populated with people and institutions taller and stronger than we. But we must go up. Yes, there are pulpits some say we aren’t tall enough to fill. But, still, we must go up. Yes, there are church doors some say we’re not strong enough to open. Still, we must go up. Yes, there are laws and prejudices and taboos some say we’ll never change. But we must go up.
We can’t wait for those who won’t shake chains and hardships of the past to mend their ways. Waiting enslaves us with their fear, reluctance, and pessimism. Meanwhile, we’re losing generations to their predecessors’ mistakes. Time quickly slips into the future. Sooner than we realize, the promises of God calcify into utopian ideals, not ordained realities. Getting close enough to see Canaan across the river and taste stolen bites of its sweetness gets us no closer to the good land the Lord our God is giving us. We have a choice: follow tradition—take to our tents of grumbling and gloom—or ignore tradition and go up, seizing God’s promises with great courage and optimism. We must go up.
As long as we dwell in tents of grumbling and pessimism, we’ll perpetuate the mistakes of past generations. Only by greeting present challenges with courage and optimism will future generations flourish.