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D'varim/Deuteronomy 32:12 The L-rd alone led him; there was no strange god with him.
We are now in the song that Moshe is instructed to teach Israel, "from beginning to end" (D'varim 31:30, CJB), and told the people, "Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching" (32:46, NJPS). Although some commentators suggest that the second 'him' refers toHaShem, the plain reading of the text is to take them both as pointing to Ya'akov (named in verse 9) and hence to the Children of Israel - as his descendants - as a singular collective. The commentators start by focusing on two points: the significance of 'alone' and the meaning of the verb "he led them".
Ibn Ezra cites the verse, "On a sign from the L-RD they made camp and on a sign from the L-RD they broke camp; they observed the L-RD's mandate at the L-RD's bidding through Moshe" (B'Midbar 9:23, NJPS) and points out that "there was no-one associated with Him in this." There is no mention whatever of any third party involved in or helping with this process of making and breaking camp; the L-rd, on His own, by Himself, determined both the itinerary and and the timing of all the journeys that the Israelites made throughout the desert years. He alone led them. We get a similar picture in the words of Job when he speaks to Zohar the Naamathite "He makes nations great, and He destroys them; He enlarges nations, and leads them away" (Job 12:23, ESV). No other agent is involved; this is HaShem alone. This is why, Jeffrey Tigay argues, "the poem ... emphasises the reason that Israel's [later] worship of other gods is so grievous: no deity but the L-rd helped Israel. For Israel to turn to other gods is groundless as well as ungrateful" and then offers a comparison with a text from the prophets: "Only I the L-RD have been your G-d ever since the land of Egypt; you have never known a true G-d but Me, You have never had a helper other than Me. I looked after you in the desert, in a thirsty land" (Hosea 13:4-5, NJPS).
The third word in the verse, , is the Hif'il 3ms prefix form of the root , "lead, conduct, guide", with 3ms object pronoun suffix: "He led him". From Moshe's words, the verb must be translated in the past tense, HaShem has been leading Israel through the desert for the past forty years. But the prefix verb form is usually translated with the future tense - how do we resolve this? Biblical Hebrew verbs do not really have a tense; the different forms speak about the completeness of the verb action. Affix form refers to action that is complete so, although occasionally used for future events, stand-alone affix verbs are nearly always translated using some variant of English past tense. Conversely, prefix form refers to action that is incomplete, so stand-alone prefix verbs are most often rendered using some form of the future tense. In this case, the incompleteness is actually the most important part of the verb's meaning: HaShem has led Israel over forty years in the wilderness, is about to lead them in to the Land and will continue to lead His people. He is making a promise of past, present and future; His act of leading Israel will always be taking place, in every age, until (as Rav Sha'ul saw) "all Israel is saved" (Romans 11:26)).Targum Onkelos honours the prefix verb and renders it in the future: "The L-rd alone will in the future make them dwell in the world that He will renew in the future, and the worship of idols shall not exist before Him."
The same verb is used - this time in affix form - is used in Moshe's song at the reed sea, when he says, "In Your love You lead the people You redeemed; in Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode" (Shemot 15:13, NJPS). Taking the verb 'lead' to imply some kind of rule or authority, the early sages suggest that HaShem's promise of ongoing leadership means that "none of the princes of the nations will have the right to rule over you" (Sifrei Piska 315). TheBaal HaTurim reports a marginal note in the Masoretic Text, that this particular form of the verb appears exactly twice in the Tanakh: here and "A man's gift eases his way and leads him to the great" (Proverbs 18:16, NJPS). "This indicates," he explains, "that when a person gives charity, He [G-d] alone will lead him."
We might expect the prophets to follow up on this promise. According to theSforno, the phrase "HaShem alone" is supported by Jeremiah: "But you, have no fear, My servant Jacob -- declares the L-RD -- For I am with you. I will make an end of all the nations among which I have banished you, but I will not make an end of you! I will not leave you unpunished, but I will chastise you in measure" (Jeremiah 46:28, NJPS). Again, we see no other party involved in these actions; they are all carried out sovereignly by G-d, acting alone, in and by His own power. The Sforno adds that the phrase, "no strange god" is supported by Zephaniah - "For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the L-RD by name and serve Him with one accord" (Zephaniah 3:9, NJPS) and Isaiah: "For He who made you will espouse you -- His name is "L-RD of Hosts." The Holy One of Israel will redeem you -- He is called 'G-d of all the Earth'" (Isaiah 54:4, NJPS). Zephaniah points to the time we anticipate in the Aleinu prayer each day, when we proclaim that the time will come when all the nations will be ruled by HaShem and know Him universally by just the one name. Isaiah emphasises the privacy and exclusiveness of the relationship HaShem will have with His people - a marriage covenant - with no other third or unknown party involved. Rabbi Hirsch puts this this way: "G-d leads His people, separated from all others, up to the heights of its calling, and will not tolerate being connected with the powers which the other nations deify."
Our text forms the pivotal point between the time in the wilderness, covered by verses 10-11, and the yet-to-come time in the Land - verses 13-14 - before Israel starts to rebel against G-d. This verse "makes the point that is so central", Patrick Miller reports, "central to Deuteronomic theology, that Israel relies upon no other power except the L-rd."1 Without the power of G-d, Israel would never have got out of Egypt, would never have travelled safely through the wilderness, would never have been set "atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth" (D'varim 32:13). Isaiah references this in the passage that is often quoted in the Shabbat-eve liturgy on the virtues of Shabbat observance: "If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the L-RD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the L-RD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the L-RD has spoken" (Isaiah 58:13-14, ESV). Enjoyment of and continuing in G-d's blessings is contingent upon our obedience to and walking in G-d's ways. While this prescription for Shabbat observance may sound quite severe, notice how the word delight is used: if we call Shabbat a delight, then we will take delight in the L-rd. If we honour Shabbat and use it as it is intended, for both personal and corporate rest, then G-d promises us delight. The Master taught on Shabbat, attended synagogue, healed, cast out demons and walked through the fields. He explained that "Shabbat was made for man, not man for the Shabbat" (Mark 2:27): that it was was a day for us to laugh, dance and share, eat and drink, to relax and talk, to debate the Scriptures, to spend time with family and friends, enjoying the presence and gifts of G-d, rather than trying to serve Shabbat by rigorous observance of a set of often man-made rules. Shabbat is not to be a strange god in our lives!
It is instructive, as Peter Craigie suggests, to "compare the goodness of G-d at this point with the perversity of His people in 31:16 - 'This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them' (D'varim 31:16, NJPS) - where the Israelites are described as prone to resorting to 'the foreign gods of the land.'"2 Even though G-d knows that the people will turn away from Him, He nevertheless delivers on His promise to the people and to the patriarchs, to bring them into the Land and to give them an inheritance.
Rav Sha'ul writes about times of difficulty in the last days that might seem familiar now we have looked at the way that G-d has led and continues to lead His people in this and past ages. Yeshua was very clear that "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6, ESV) and He promised the Ruach, the Spirit of G-d, to teach us truth, remind us of what He said and to direct our feet is His path. Yeshua has led His people; He is the Good Shepherd and set the example by laying down His life for the sheep and then rising from the dead as the breadfruits of the resurrection. He stands alone and incomparable; He had no assistant and will not tolerate double-mindedness in His followers. Nevertheless, Sha'ul warns - in a flow of words - that "people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of G-d, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:2-5, ESV). These are strange gods: things, behaviours or attitudes that we could be drawn into following or worshipping. We must be all the more certain that we are following Yeshua alone in these days of trial and not being distracted or misled. Sha'ul is blunt: "Avoid such people" (v. 5). So was Yeshua: "If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire" (Matthew 18:8, ESV).
1. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 228.
2. - P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), page 357.
Further Study: Nehemiah 9:12-15; Isaiah 46:3-5; 1 Timothy 6:20-21
Application: Is it possible that you have drifted away from your first love and have become infatuated with something of the world? Now is the time to repent and come back to Yeshua alone and to have no strange gods.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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