“Watch your step! Behave yourself! Remember the rules I told you!”
September’s lessons focused on God’s faithfulness to Israel. October’s theme includes human responses to God’s faithfulness. Our lessons for Oct. 6 and 13 communicate this in very different ways: by admonition (Deut. 4:1-14) and by story (1 Kings 17:7-16).
Deuteronomy 4 is set in the Trans-Jordan, just as the Israelites are about to enter the land promised them by Yahweh. Moses is speaking. God has told him that, after all Moses’s years of leading the slaves out of Egypt and through the desert, he cannot finish the job. He will die on the mountain, and Capt. Joshua will take up the mantle and lead the people into Canaan.
The text itself is relatively abstract, in contrast to the dramatic wilderness stories of Exodus and Numbers. Note all the imperative language: Do this; don’t do that! The people must obey all Yahweh’s “statutes,” “ordinances” and “commandments” in order to live successfully in the new land they will occupy.
Notice also the repeated words, “the Lord” or “the Lord your God” in this text. English translations of the Bible use “Lord” for “Yahweh,” God’s specific name in Hebrew. When the Hebrew uses “El” or “Elohim,” the broader term “God” is used. Although the name of Yahweh may sound repetitive here, the reason, I suspect, is to remind the people that, although there are other gods (Deut. 5:7), they must worship Yahweh alone.
This constant reminder is necessary because Israel’s Yahweh does not have a physical form, as do the gods of other nations. Moses stresses this in verses 10-14 when he describes the Israelites’ experience at Mount Horeb, when it blazed with fire. “You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.”
Moses is referring to the Ten Commandments, recorded first in Ex. 20:1-17 and repeated in Deuteronomy 5. Rather than worshiping a statue of a human or animal (like the golden calf in Exodus 32), Israel is given not only a different mode of worship but a system of ethics by which to hold the new community together. Only through obedience to these laws can Israel properly respond to Yahweh’s faithfulness to them.
Today there are lots of “golden calves” drawing us away from our worship of Yahweh and Yahweh’s ethical principles of not coveting, lying, stealing or doing violence (Deut. 5:17-21).
Besides making money, striving for fame or getting lots of “likes” on social media, what “golden calves” tempt you?
For all of Moses’s instructions about how the Israelites should behave in the Promised Land, the Books of Judges and Kings record many failures. With notable exceptions, most Israelite judges and the kings that succeeded them paid little attention to Yahweh’s statutes, ordinances and commandments. Without the rise of prophets speaking truth to power, Israel as a nation would not have survived.
Our story for Oct. 13 takes place in the 9th century BCE, about 600 years after Moses’ farewell speech. The Northern Kingdom of Israel is ruled by Ahab, a worshiper of Baal who, according to 1 Kings 16:30, did more evil than any previous monarch.
The outspoken prophet Elijah retaliates by predicting a three-year drought. At first, Yahweh hides Elijah from angry Ahab, but when his water source dries up, Elijah flees to Sidon, a country north of Israel.
In the town of Zarephath, he meets a widow and her son preparing to starve after their last meal. Although a foreigner, the woman trusts Elijah enough to instead prepare that last meal for him. In response, Yahweh provides enough oil and flour for her, her household and Elijah until the drought ends.
We know this story better than most from our Old Testament, since Jesus refers to it in his inaugural speech in Nazareth in Luke 4:24-26. Both contexts — and ours — raise provocative questions.
— In our quarterly, this lesson is titled, “Blessed for Faithfulness.” In 1 Kings 17:7-16, who is faithful and who is blessed?
— What is significant about Yahweh caring for Elijah outside of Israel and by means of a foreigner? How might it critique the “people of God” in many different contexts: During Ahab’s reign? In Jesus’ Nazareth? In today’s Israel? In America’s Christian churches? In our Mennonite church?
Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.