Torah Portion for week 44: Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Standing in the land of Moab, after forty years of wanderings and countless trials, the children of Israel are finally within reach of the promised land. Moses has gathered together the second generation of Israelites – those who were born in the desert, along with Joshua and Caleb, the only survivors of the Exodus generation – one last time to hear the words of the Lord before entering Canaan. With four speeches and one prophetic song, Moses seeks to prepare the people to possess the land and diligently follow the ways of the Lord. Our parasha is the beginning of Moses’ first speech, where he recounts the story of how they got this far. At this point, the big question for Moses as leader and for us as readers is, “Will the next generation learn the lesson? Or will they just end up like their fathers, disobeying God and unable to enjoy his blessings?”
From his very first speech and throughout the book, we see that Moses is trying to motivate the new generation of Israelites to learn from the mistakes of their fathers and to follow God wholeheartedly, and he does this in some very interesting ways. One important example is how, in recounting past events, Moses speaks to them directly, as though they were present at Sinai and at other early wilderness experiences. For example, in Deuteronomy 1:6 he says, “The Lord our God said to us in Horeb, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.’” In verse 9 he says, “At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself.’” In verse 19 he says, “Then we set out from Horeb and went through all that great and terrifying wilderness.” So although they were not actually present at these events, by using direct speech, Moses includes them in the experience of their fathers, so that they would see themselves as the continuation of the story which began forty years ago with the Exodus, instead of as the beginning of a new tale altogether.
He also wants them to realize that they are seeing the fulfillment of ancient promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For example, in Deuteronomy 1:8 he mentions the promise of the land, and in verses 10-11 he speaks of this new generation as fulfilling the promise made to Abraham, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. He wants them to see their part in the story; he wants them to sense the responsibility and privilege they have in making sure this story ends well.
Too often we think of ourselves and our children as a new tale altogether; we forget that we are a part of an ancient story that began in a Garden east of Eden, and that we too have the privilege of contributing to how the story ends. After recounting all the great examples of faith in the history of Israel, Hebrews 11 ends by saying, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
In other words, all the great men and women of faith from the past began something that we are meant to finish. Some were given the promise of salvation, which began to unfold two thousand years ago, and which is still being fulfilled in our lives today through faith in Yeshua. Others were told that Israel will one day return to the land and eventually also to God, and we are seeing this promise unfolding in our day, as more and more Israelis are turning in faith to their Messiah. Perhaps other promises that were made a long time ago will find their fulfillment in our time, and ancient prophecies will come to pass before our very eyes.
But the question is, “Will we find our place in the ongoing story of God and work towards its happy end, or will we isolate ourselves from our past, and attempt to write a new tale altogether?” The book of Deuteronomy is an invitation for us to connect to our past and learn from it, and then to take our place in the present, as God’s story unfolds.