The Bible in a Year. 10 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

10 March. Deuteronomy chapters 32-24

There are two ‘songs’ or poems here, attributed to Moses (although since Moses is referred to in the third person in one of them, we may question the authorship!)


The second is easier to deal with since it is a song of blessing. As we saw earlier with Isaac and Jacob blessing their sons at the end of their lives, it is natural for old people to want to see their descendants prosper, to feel that their life has not been in vain if the next generations are doing well for themselves. But for Moses it is more than this, as his life’s calling was to bring the whole Israelite people, all twelve tribes, to this point of being about to cross the Jordan and claim the Promised Land.  Everything depended on them  being obedient to the teaching he had received and passed on.


That is why the first song reads as it does, lurching backwards and forwards between a vision of God as loving parent, and of the same God as vengeful and jealous.  For Moses understood the relationship that God had already showed, and would continue to show, to his people.  If they honoured and worshipped him, all would be well and they would prosper. There was no reason not to do so. But whether through human nature, or the influence of other cultures, or the Devil’s temptation – take it as you will – they would constantly turn away from this loving God, who would then both be angry with them (as any parent is angry with a rebellious child) and protective of them in taking vengeance on those who have led them astray.


So as Moses climbs the mountain, at the incredible age of 120, to glimpse the promised land before he dies, he has the bittersweet experience of knowing that God would always love and be with his people, but that the people would not always love their God.


And so ends the first part of the Bible.  The Law, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses.  The foundation for all that follows, the scriptures that Jews, Christians and Muslims all acknowledge.  Blessed be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As it was in the beginning, as now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.


The Bible in a Year – 9 March

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9 March. Deuteronomy chapters 30-31

As Moses completes his summary of the law, he once again presents it as a choice for the people: to obey means blessing, prosperity and life; to disobey (especially in ‘turning to other gods’) means curses, poverty and death.  He does his best to present it, to use a contemporary term, as a “no brainer”, or to put it another way, “what’s not to like about serving God?”  To choose to believe in God and take the commandments seriously is to follow a path that will result in a happier life not only for oneself but for the whole community, because the more people who do, the less hatred, crime and injustice there will be.


But it is a choice.  And Moses is all too aware, as is God himself, that in practice the people will, most of the time, choose to ignore God, and follow their own desires.  The scene is set for the next thousand years in which the ‘chosen people’ will rebel and return, again and again.  When Moses prophesies (30:4-5) of exile and return, he may have been given a vision of the exile to Babylon several hundred years in the future, or maybe even the greater diaspora in which the Jewish people would have no home in the promised land for nearly 1900 years.


How would he have felt about that?  To be told at the end of forty years of hard work leading the people to this point when they could claim a permanent inheritance, that soon after his death they would forget all he had taught them and go their own way. But always God gives a longer view, a hope that beyond rebellion is the call to return, beyond sin is the promise of forgiveness, beyond betrayal there is the possibility of restoration.  That applies as much to individuals as to the whole nation.  If I turn way from God, I know he will still accept me back, whether it’s the next day or much later in life.  Praise God for his constant love!

The Bible in a Year – 8 March

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8 March. Deuteronomy chapters 28-29

The difference between obeying and breaking the covenant between God and his people is set out in the starkest possible terms.  Keep it, and they could expect peace and prosperity.  Break it, and they could expect not only poverty and drought but also defeat in war, diseases and plagues of all kind, and starvation to be point of men eating their babies and women the afterbirth.   Images no doubt intended to frighten the mass of the people into obedience.


Is this an image of religion that people still have today?  That we believe if you don’t keep every rule in the Bible you will be punished for it in this life as well as the next?  If so, it is completely wrong. Even in the Old Testament there is much about God’s mercy and patience.  And ever since Jesus came to proclaim God’s gift of undeserved grace, the burden of keeping the law has been lifted, and we are free to “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74,75).  There will be much more to write about this later in the year when we get there, but for now the message is “do not be afraid” (sometimes said to be the most common phrase in the whole Bible).

The Bible in a Year – 7 March

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7 March. Deuteronomy chapters 24-27

Another collection of laws regulating personal behaviour.  One theme that runs through these, and many such teaching passages in the Bible, is that of the importance of fairness in general and fairness to minority groups and vulnerable people in particular.  Hence the provisions of not keeping a pledged cloak overnight (so that poor or homeless people would not have to sleep in the cold, 24:12); leaving any unharvested olives, grain and grapes for the poor to collect (24:19-21); and not cheating when it comes to weighing out goods (25:13-15).


Chapter 27 marks the end of a long section of detailed law, with Moses ordering the laws to be inscribed in plaster on standing stones in the promised land – this is reminiscent of the rules written on the wall in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the arrogant pigs who represented unscrupulous political leaders secretly changed the sacred wording by night, with few of the animals noticing.  Whenever laws are established with the intention of being universally and fairly applied, there will  always be those who seek to find a way round them, re-write them to their own advantage, or persuade others that the laws were wrong or inapplicable in the first place. We need to be on our guard and pray for wisdom to discern the difference between applying God’s laws to our own very different society, and ignoring those that should still apply.



The Bible in a Year – 6 March

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6 March. Deuteronomy chapters 21-23

What an odd collection of laws!  Some of those given here are purely practical, like not weaving wool with linen (22:11) – the warp and weft would shrink differently – or not yoking an ox with a donkey (a comical idea – the ox would carry on ploughing while the donkey sat down on the spot, as they do). Others are just good hygiene practice (digging latrines outside the camp, 23:12). But then we get ‘laws’ concerning marriage and sexual relations that seem shocking to us, such as it being OK to rape an unbetrothed virgin and then marry her in return for paying her father a dowry (22:28) – where is her opinion in that? Where are the human rights?  And don’t ask me to read Deuteronomy 23:1 aloud in church!



So I won’t attempt to comment on those passages. Instead I will look at a law that has Lenten resonances for Christians: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” (21:22-23). This reminds us that Jesus was executed as a criminal, the cross being treated under Jewish law in the same way as a living tree, and therefore his disciples, with the help of Joseph of Arimathea who provided the grave space, laid him to rest the same day, in haste and without time to prepare the body for burial.  The next day after Jesus’ death was a Sabbath anyway, when all ‘work’ was prohibited.  But if they had waited until the next working day to give him a ‘proper’ burial, would they have returned to the tomb and found it empty? Sometimes, following the rules, even if they seem restrictive, can actually lead to blessings.  Perhaps that’s one reason why many people set themselves a particular discipline in Lent, whether in abstinence or additional good works or times of prayer.

The Bible in a Year – 5 March

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5 March. Deuteronomy chapters 17-20

There are laws in these passages governing the structures of civil society that would be needed as the nomadic tribes became settled communities: kings, a legal system and private property.  Each of them makes provisions for fairness that even today are not honoured everywhere.  Rulers still often amass vast armies (represented here by Egyptian horses, the arms trade of the time), or large amounts of personal wealth, or trophy wives; justice is tainted by corruption, vigilante mobs or the evidence of false witnesses; and boundaries are not merely disputed but transgressed, as in Ukraine and Palestine to name but two.


Along with these laws for a fair society are the repeated warnings not to turn to the practices of pagan peoples, whether in idolatry, divination (seeking spiritual guidance through occult practices) or child sacrifice. For it is in worshipping false gods that we become desensitised to the calling of the true God to a life of peace; in divination that we overlook the connection between personal fulfilment and the needs of others; and in child abuse – the worst crime of all in current thinking – that we lose all sense of human worth.


It’s easy to condemn the Old Testament for being barbaric in the way that God told his chosen people to inflict violence on their ‘enemies’, but we also need to recognise that in the more positive commandments there is much practical wisdom that needs to be re-stated for our own society if we are to live as God intended.



The Bible in a Year – 4 March

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4 March. Deuteronomy chapters 14-16.

We move now into specific regulations, most of which are a repeat of what was given at Sinai or during the desert wanderings.  For it is one thing to have a load of instructions given to you, another to remember them, especially without practice (and many of these instructions, such as sacrificing at the central shrine or appointing circuit judges, would not make sense or start to be practised, until battles had been won and towns settled).  If the tribes arrayed before Moses by the Jordan can be compared with students, this is the revision crammer before the exam.


The exam would take the form of a very extended practical experiment – in theory, says Moses, if you can keep all these laws precisely, and avoid all the distractions of other faiths and cultures, then you will have a peaceful and harmonious society.  But it would take a real effort for the people to follow these laws.  It does not come naturally to any of us to forgive our debtors (15:1-3), to follow strict dietary rules (14:3-21), to keep money from sale of our possessions “secure in hand” (14:25) in order to travel to a central shrine and purchase  replacements for sacrificial offering, to share our food with people of other cultures (14:29), or as a slave about to be freed to offer oneself voluntarily and out of love as a permanent employee of the master’s household (15:16-17).


It’s no wonder that some of these laws were probably never kept in practice, and that many times in the coming centuries God’s people would have to be reminded of them.  Which is why people of all faiths gather regularly together to hear their sacred scriptures read aloud to them, or to study them in groups. The Bible is the ‘word of God’ – although exactly what we mean by that may differ – but we need to constantly be reminded of its counter-cultural truths.


The Bible in a Year – 3 March

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3 March. Deuteronomy chapters 11-13

I get the impression that Moses, as he gave the series of long speeches that make up most of Deuteronomy, was getting more and more worked up.  He frequently repeats sections of the speech, and lays it on with more and more verbal force.  I imagine his preaching style as more like that of an African pentecostal pastor, or Southern Baptist minister, than an English vicar.   But there is a real concern behind it of the people he is addressing because he knows he will not go with them.


To change the metaphor, he is in the position of a father whose son or daughter is about to emigrate, maybe going abroad to study or work. Until quite recently with the advent of cheap flights, such a move would mean they would not see each other for maybe several years, if at all.    The parent is naturally anxious to pass on his worldy wisdom to his offspring.  Unfortunately, a young man hearing his father laying down the law like this is likely to say “yes Dad” outwardly while inwardly thinking “no, I’m going to have a good time and do as I like”.  We only see the wisdom in our parents’ strictures when we have got several more years experience of life under our belt.  And maybe that is how the young generation of Israelites, who had not experienced the Exodus for themselves, saw Moses – old Dad telling young people how to live. A natural tension, as old as human life, but always poignant when they know they will not meet again.


In all this, Moses has three particular concerns for his young charges as they make their own way in life.  They can be summed up as – “live virtuously, follow our religion not anyone else’s”, and (this is the one you might not expect) “make a distinction between eating meat as food, and a ritual slaughter for sacrifice”.  The first of these is a universal principle, the second a natural human tendency (whatever religion you follow, you want your children to share it), and young people leaving home have to decide how much of their parent’s ethical values and religions heritage they will take on board.  The third is another of those cultural principles that does not translate easily to modern British society, where meat is only seen as food (or to be shunned altogether if you are vegetarian).  But perhaps a wider principle is that on the one hand we all need to eat, to make enough money to live, to provide for our families, but there should be a place in our lives for sacrifice in its widest sense, whether of time spent volunteering, money given to church and charity, or setting aside a space in our lives for worship.


OK, I don’t have children myself. But if I did (and many of my contemporaries have offspring at university or beyond now) I would say to them, “live for others as well as yourself; find a form of religion that suits you but does not cut you off from your family; and find a balance between work, play and worship”.

The Bible in a Year – 2 March

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2 March. Deuteronomy chapters 8-10

Again (see yesterday’s reading ) we see the origins of the discipline of Lent, both in the reminder that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3, as quoted by Jesus to the Devil) and also in Moses’ reminder that the twice spent forty days and nights fasting and praying, first to reach a level of enlightenment in which he could know God ‘face to face’ and receive the commandments, and again in prayer for God’s people in their disobedience.  Jesus likewise spent 40 days and nights fasting in the desert as he wrestled with temptation before starting his ministry of teaching and healing.


It is a biblical pattern that God calls, people hear, but before they can fully and effectively do God’s work they must receive what the Church calls ‘ministerial and spiritual formation’ – reaching a deeper understanding of God, his teaching through the Bible, and one’s relationships with other people.  Most of us though, take a lifetime of training and experience to achieve this, if at all, rather than the ”crash course” that Moses, Jesus and also St Paul took.




The Bible in a Year – 1 March (Ash Wednesday)

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1 March. Deuteronomy chapters 5-7

It may be no coincidence that the Bible reading plan I am following includes Deuteronomy 5 today, for it is a reprise (in slightly different words) of the Ten Commandments. Today is Ash Wednesday when Christians particularly focus on confessing sins in order that we may make a new start with God and make new resolutions to be more holy, whether that is by giving up something that takes us away from God, or doing more of something that brings us closer to him such as prayer, volunteering in the community or charitable giving.


Note what Moses says to the people – “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today” (5:3). These commandments are for all people at all time, universal rules for living in harmony with our creator and the creation. Whereas the more detailed rules and regulations already given through the books of Leviticus and Numbers were, as Moses says in chapter 6, for this specific nation at the time they were settling that particular country, so not all of them will be applicable to us today.


Chapter 7 stresses again the importance of keeping the commandments. Why?  “God maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays in their own person those who reject him.” (7:9-10)  The results of sin can be seen in someone’s own life very quickly, but the fruits of good works may not be evident until future generations.  That’s a lesson within families as intended – a bad parent creates a dysfunctional family easily, but good parenting only really shows itself as one generation succeeds another.  But it’s also true when it comes to something like tackling climate change (something that many Christian charities now ask us to think about in Lent as well) – cutting my energy use now will not make much difference to me in my lifetime, but it’s a small contribution to preventing changes that will massively impact billions of people in the future.