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This section is the beginning of Moses’ first speech in Deuteronomy. He is explaining how they moved out from Horeb / Sinai and came to the edge of the promised land. In today’s reading we have a parcel: the first and last three verses concern the land and the journey; the middle verses concern the multiplication of the people and how they are to be governed. We will deal with these two topics separately.
In verses 9-18, Moses remembers his feeling of incapacity to deal with this large number of people. They are like ‘stars in the sky’, in fulfillment of God’s original promise to Abraham (Gen 15:5), probably numbering around two or three million. Moses recognized that he could not bear all their burdens and decide all their disputes himself, and therefore instituted a system of leadership whereby each of the twelve tribes selected wise, understanding, well-known men to represent and judge for them (cf Exod 18). Moses commanded them to listen and to judge righteously between brothers, and also with the foreigners living among them. Literally, they were not to ‘regard face’, meaning they must be not be partial, and also they must get beneath the surface issues; they were also not to be ‘afraid of face’, meaning they should not decide according to fear of losing respect, nor be intimidated by others. We might summarize with Moses’ words, that ‘judgment is for God’ – implying that his righteousness must be upheld – not for the men. Moses conceded that some cases may be too ‘hard’ (severe, cruel, not ‘difficult’) for them, in which situation he would hear it.
Does it strike you as strange that Moses’ concept of leadership is judging disputes? Surely it is more than that, right?! But that is clearly what is meant here. I suppose every action of a leader may focus on righteousness, in the sense of making right decisions according to the context. I also appreciate Moses’ method of obtaining his leadership team; the people selected appropriate men from their own communities. Therefore, they could respect and obey the decisions that were given, because they knew and respected the decision-makers.
Verses 6-8 and 19-21 are about the land. Yahweh says they have spent a lot of time at Horeb. This is the name of the mountain used in Exodus 3, although in Exodus 18 the mountain is not named but is said to be in the wilderness of Sinai. They arrived there three months after leaving Egypt, and stayed there probably for almost one year (cf Nu 10:11-12). God tells them to continue their journey and then names locations south (Negev), east (seashore), north (Lebanon) and west (Euphrates), encompassing mountains, lowlands, sea and river. This land, God says, was promised to their fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. It is a huge amount of territory, far greater than what modern day Israel occupies now. They were told to enter and possess it, and Moses repeats the commandment in verse 21, encouraging the Israelites not to be afraid or dismayed.
Such words send a shiver down my spine today. How can it be alright to dispossess the inhabitants of a land? How can God command such a terrible act? The correct theological answer is that the other nations there were bad guys, and it was God’s right to turf the evil-doers out (Deut 9:5). But it still hurts my soul. Does it hurt my soul to think that human-traffickers, or men who sexually abuse children, go to prison? No, that seems like justice to me. That is the light in which we should view the conquest. (You might want to read the article here.) Does the promise still endure today? Does modern day Israel have a right to possess Syria or Palestine, because of this biblical text? I would say no, because the socio-political setting has changed since the command was given.
In fact, the theological setting has changed too. The promise of land and descendants has been fulfilled in Christ. Our ‘promised land’ lies beyond these shores, and its king already reigns in peace. Anyone who does not want to live under his rule will not enter there. It is this land to which we journey, by faith, as promised to us and our fathers by God. Any battle we face to secure it is fought with truth, gospel-shoes, righteousness, faith, prayer, and the word of God (cf Eph 6:10-19), not with physical weapons like the medieval crusaders used. May we be encouraged by Moses’ words not to fear or be dismayed along our journey or in our persevering efforts to enter God’s kingdom.
Prayer: God, there are a lot of things in the Bible which are hard to understand. Thank you for encouraging me through your word to continue trusting you.