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D'varim/Deuteronomy 1:5 Moshe began, he expounded this Torah, saying ...
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This verse presents some unusual words and interesting grammatical challenges, and makes an unconventional beginning to a campaign speech. The verb is taken to be a Hif'il affix 3ms form from the root , itself unusual. Even-Shoshan's comprehensive Hebrew concordance lists the root appearing just nineteen times in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures and this particular form only three times. TheBaal HaTurim lists them; here, "it has pleased the L-RD to make you a people for himself" (1 Samuel 12:22, ESV) and "he was determined to go after filth" (Hosea 5:11, ESV). The Tur therefore uses the word 'desired' in this verse: "Moshe desired to explain this Torah", while the New JPS Tanakh chooses 'undertook': "Moshe undertook to expound this Torah". The early rabbinic commentators preferred 'began' as above. But therein lies the second problem; in Hebrew, as in English, verbs such as 'begin', 'start', 'choose' are nearly always followed by an infinitive: "to ...", while here the verb is a Pi'el affix 3ms form from the root and is the only time this particular form appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. This root can mean to engrave, to expound or to explain, but unless a little poetic license is taken to see Moshe engraving the Torah upon the hearts and minds of the people, 'expound' or 'explain' is probably the better choice. Finally, the third verb is the frequently used Qal infinitive of , to say, most often translated as if it were a participle, 'saying', which usually follows verbs such as 'speak', 'call', 'tell', 'answer' or 'respond'.
Given the more frequent alternatives of or for 'begin' and the ease of inserting a prefix to have an infinitive rather than affix verb for the function being started, what might this unusual construction be trying to say as Moshe's lengthy review of the Torah gets under way. What point is the Torah trying to make? Considering both the context in which Moshe is speaking and the nuances of the range of meanings available for these words might help us to understand.
Moshe is addressing the people of Israel - - as they stand on the eastern side of the Jordan river, opposite the city of Jericho, poised to enter the Promised Land, the inheritance that was promised to the fathers: Avraham, Yitz'khak and Ya'akov. Moshe, on other hand, will be taken by the L-rd shortly after this speech and will not be leading the people into the Land. He has forfeited his leadership position by a rather public act of disobedience when he struck a rock to bring forth water for the people rather than speaking to it as he had been told. Although Moshe is going to be allowed to see the Land from a high mountain across the river valley, HaShem is unmoveable: Moshe is not entering the Land. Moshe is therefore personally, poignantly and pointedly aware of the cost and consequences of disobedience. Can we therefore see, as he is clearing his throat ready to address the people whom he variously fought, cajoled, wept over, pleaded for and lambasted for the past forty years, a stronger drive to communicate than might have been indicated by conventional speech verbs? Thinking forward to the tone of Moshe's material, by the time we get to chapters 26-28, we can almost see the hammer and chisel in his hands as he tries to carve HaShem's words into the thick-headed skulls of the people before him. He doesn't just begin, he desires; he is fervent in his appeal, urgent in his address. He must make sure that the people understand just what is at stake.
Hirsch sees the importance of obedience very clearly. He comments, "obedience to G-d, which in peace forms our sole calling, is also in war by itself sufficient to overcome all forces which oppose us. With obedience to G-d we can accomplish everything, without it, nothing. Not as a powerful nation, master of the art of war, but as the People of G-d's Laws of Morality is Israel to enter its path in the history of nations." If Israel is disobedient and disregards the instructions of the Torah, then their witness among the nations as G-d's people, the people of the Torah, is irrevocably flawed. Hirsch sees obedience as the all conquering weapon that Israel has been given, in both the physical and spiritual realms. You can almost hear Rav Sha'ul's teaching about the armour of G-d: "Therefore take up the whole armour of G-d, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm" (Ephesians 6:13, ESV).
Like the Children of Israel, we today - whether Jew or Gentile - are called to absolute obedience in Messiah. Yeshua made it very clear that, "Unless a person remains united with Me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Such branches are gathered and thrown into the fire, where they are burned up" (John 15:6, CJB). This unity with Messiah is maintained in one way: "If you keep My commands, you will stay in My love - just as I have kept My Father's commands and stay in His love" (v. 10, CJB). And that's the third time that Yeshua has said it in less than ten minutes since supper: "If you love Me, you will keep My commands" (14:15, CJB), "Whoever has My commands and keeps them is the one who loves Me" (14:21, CJB). Was Yeshua just getting a little maudlin because the crucifixion was almost upon Him? No, the other New Testament writers confirm the point; Rav Sha'ul: "Being circumcised means nothing, and being uncircumcised means nothing; what does mean something is keeping God's commandments" (1 Corinthians 7:19, CJB) and John: "But if someone keeps doing what He says, then truly love for God has been brought to its goal in him. This is how we are sure that we are united with Him" (1 John 2:5, CJB).
In Messiah, we can do everything: "I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13, GWT). Without Messiah we can do nothing: "But you can't produce anything without Me" (John 15:5, GWT). Is this so difficult to understand? Do we need hammering and chiseling like the Israelites of old? Today, Yeshua is trying to communicate with us, He is trying to catch the ear of a church that in some parts has completely lost the plot and is way off, tripping through the daisies. Can you hear the urgings of the Spirit who is calling us back to the simple things of life in Messiah, back to obedience and worship, back to truth and honesty, back to righteousness and holiness. The Spirit has begun [is desirous, has undertaken] to explain [to expound, to engrave] this Torah, the Torah of Yeshua in our hearts. Can you hear Him?
Further Study: John 7:21-23; Romans 2:13; Hosea 8:1-7
Application: Have you drifted away from that simple obedience that you had when first you were a believer? Have you never really taken hold of what obedience as a believer means? Are you still in rebellion against G-d by refusing to acknowledge or accept Yeshua? If any of those applies to you, then hear the voice of the Spirit and seek G-d earnestly today; don't waste a moment until you have called on His name in truth!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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