D'varim/Deuteronomy 32:9 For the L-rd's portion is His people; Ya'akov the tract of His possession.
In the previous verse, Moshe has been talking the time whenHaShem allocated inheritances for the nations and set their geographical boundaries. Taken at face value, this verse simply completes that process by noting that HaShem's own portion - the part He kept for Himself - is His people Isra'el, the sons of Ya'akov; they are the tract of land that belong to Him. Strange as that idea might sound - after all, how can a people be a tract of land? - let's examine the text more carefully.
The word is a noun that comes from the root , to divide, distribute or apportion by lot; the noun is a part, a portion or a lot of land. The following word, , is the covenant name of G-d, spoken as 'HaShem'. The construct relationship between these two words conveys the meaning of possession or ownership so, "the portion of the L-rd". TheSforno comments that "G-d, the Blessed One, has no portion among humankind except for His people, because all the other nations are children of strange gods."
In the second half of the verse, the word is also a noun, this time from the root , to twist or bind; in this case, the noun can have several meanings: a rope or cord, a measuring line, or a district, tract (of land) or region - tract probably makes the most sense here.Targum Onkelos translates it as , 'lot' matching "The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places" (Psalm 16:6, NASB) and "Naphtali's lot will be cast on good ground" (B'resheet 49:21, Onkelos1) where Onkelos uses the same word. The last word in the verse, , is also a noun, with a third-masculine possessive pronoun, 'his'. It comes from the root , to obtain, acquire or inherit, so the noun can mean a possession, property or estate, an inheritance, or a portion or lot. Here, these two nouns are in construct, again implying ownership or belonging, so "the tract of the L-rd's possession [by inheritance]". Here the Sforno comments, "for Jacob and his sons are servants of G-d, the Exalted One, but among the nations of the world, even if there is to be found one who is righteous, it is not passed on to his children." There is no inheritance, Sforno says; even if one person is righteous, one generation does not lead to another.
Rashi takes a homiletical approach to this verse using the alternative meaning of "cord or rope" for and suggests that the second half could be translated, "Ya'akov the rope of His possession". He explains that Jacob is "the third of the patriarchs, who is tripled with three merits: the merit of Avraham, his grandfather, the merit of Yitz'khak his father, and his own merit. There you have three, like this rope, which is made of three strands. And it is Jacob and his sons who became His possession, not Ishmael son of Avraham or Esav son of Yitz'khak." There may be an allusion to "A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart" (Ecclesiastes 4:12, NASB) hovering in the back of Rashi's mind. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, claims that a rope or measuring line, perhaps even a surveyor's chain, is a certain sign of land measurement, so supports the translation as portion, tract or lot of land.
Our original question was: "How can a people be 'land'?" Perhaps because although G-d made them both, He is more concerned with people and their lives than with mountains and trees. People are the place that belongs to Him; they are where His presence is manifested and His kingdom actualised by the fulfilling of His commandments; they are the vineyard from whence He receives His yield, the field which He has planted and expects to reap. In both Isaiah's original parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7) and Yeshua's re-telling (Matthew 21:33-44) people are represented by a piece of real-estate: "For the vineyard of the L-RD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting" (Isaiah 5:7, ESV).
RabbiHirsch is concerned about why the other nations were all allocated physical land portions around the world, while Israel was firstly not given land and secondly are themselves described as land. He comments, "G-d did not allow the children of Israel to grow into a nation in the land destined for them to live in and develop and grow under the influence and conditions of that land. In contrast to all other nations, He let them become a nation without a land, and then to take possession of the land destined for them which had already been fully cultivated and built up by others. That which the soil of their land is to other nations, G-d is to Israel. They are to bring their spiritual, moral and social culture, as formed by G-d, with them into the land, so as to subject the land to the life of a people fixed by G-d, not the other way round." G-d does not want His people to be defined by their physical location, or to take on the characteristics of the land where they live. On the contrary, He wants His people to shape and influence the cities and cultures where He has placed them. The writer to the Hebrews explains, "By faith [Avraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is G-d" (Hebrews 11:9-10, ESV).
Israel became a nation before we were given the Land, but we fell prey to the evil practices of the nations that were in the Land before us and we chose to ignore G-d. Nevertheless, G-d preserved us as a nation in exile and returned us to the Land to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. A second time we fell away from Him under the influence of the nations and a second time we have been exiled. Under G-d's hand, though, after nearly two thousand years, we have remained a nation and have influenced every other nation to which we have been scattered. The current state of Israel too shows assimilative pressure from the nations so that alcohol, drugs, abortion and immoral relationships persist to plague the Land. Yet even in this condition, Israel continues to be an influence and blessing to the nations in literacy, medicine, solar power and water technology. In or out of the Land, in good standing or not, Israel remains a nation and distinct from all the other peoples, because G-d's hand and name remain on us. When G-d agreed to spare Israel after the Golden Calf, Moshe insisted that G-d's presence had to remain among the people: "For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?" (Shemot 33:16, NASB). The Jewish people are unique because of G-d!
In the same way that G-d chose His treasure possession: Israel, a nation from among the nations - so now He also chooses the Body of Messiah, believers in Yeshua, drawn from all the nations but made one in Messiah. We too are chosen and set apart that we might be seen and noticed by all the people around us. We are not to be subject to the influence of our neighbours and work colleagues, but are to influence them, sharing our testimonies of what G-d has done for us and wants to do for them. We are not to bow to the pressures of society, to conform to the standard expectations of cars, houses, money, holidays - not that any of these things are wrong in themselves - but, as Yeshua said, "store up for yourselves wealth in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and burglars do not break in or steal" (Matthew 6:20, CJB).
Just as G-d's hand and covenant remain upon the Jewish people, so believers in Messiah are inseparable from Him. Rav Sha'ul asked the community in Rome: "Who will separate us from the love of the Messiah? Trouble? Hardship? Persecution? Hunger? Poverty? Danger? War?" (Romans 8:35, CJB). These events are as prevalent and certain today as they were in the days when this letter was first written. We all need to hear the way Sha'ul answers his own question: "I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers, neither what exists nor what is coming, neither powers above nor powers below, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of G-d which comes to us through the Messiah Yeshua, our Lord" (vv. 38-39, CJB).
1. - Onkelos' translation is one possible interpretation of the Hebrew Bible's rather obscure metaphor: "Naphtali is a hind let loose".
Further Study: Psalm 80:8-19; John 16:33
Assured of G-d's love and His calling on our lives, let's make sure that we
live up to that calling and exert influence for the kingdom today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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© Jonathan Allen, 2012
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.