by Doug Ward

Christians and Jews share a reverence for the Word of God and a conviction that the Bible is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and guidance. This conviction is expressed, for example, in Pirke Avot, a compilation of early rabbinic wisdom. Speaking of the Torah, the fifth chapter of Pirke Avot instructs, "Turn it, and turn it over again, for everything is in it, and contemplate it, and wax grey and old over it, and stir not from it, for thou canst have no better rule than this."


One especially rich section of scripture is Deuteronomy 32, a song written by Moses to help the children of Israel remember who they are and what the Lord has done for them. Much of Israel's history is encapsulated in this single chapter.


The song begins by contrasting the faithfulness of God with Israel's tendency to stray from the covenant (vv. 1-6). It rehearses how God had chosen Israel, nurtured his people in the wilderness, and would shower them with blessings in the Promised Land (vv. 7-14). It then predicts that the nation would tend, in the midst of prosperity, to forget its Creator and fall into idolatry (vv. 14-18).


To correct his people, God would allow them to suffer the ravages of warfare, hunger, and disease through attacks by foreign powers (vv. 19-25). But when those foreign powers, in their arrogance, decide that their own strength is the source of their victories, God would judge them as well and restore Israel's fortunes (vv. 26-38). In this way he would reveal himself as the one true God, ruler over all the earth (vv. 39-43).


Deuteronomy 32 in the Prophets

Deuteronomy 32 is foundational for the prophetic books of the Bible. The prophets unpack the latter chapters of Deuteronomy, and chapter 32 in particular, for their generations. Following the song of Moses, they expose Israel's sins and predict that the nation will go into captivity if it does not repent. They also give assurance of God's faithfulness to his people and describe Israel's ultimate restoration.


Consider, for example, the book of Hosea. Hosea served in the eighth century B.C., during the final years of the northern kingdom of Israel. He was given the task of announcing that the northern tribes would soon be conquered by the mighty Assyrian Empire.


God directed Hosea to act out the message of Deut 32 in his own life. He was to marry Gomer, a woman who would later commit adultery (Hosea 1:1-2). Their marriage would represent the covenant relationship between God and his people, with Hosea playing the role of God and Gomer the role of Israel. As Gomer was unfaithful to Hosea, Israel had strayed from their Deliverer and Sustainer (Hosea 2:4). The names of Gomer's children carried the message that God would temporarily "hide his face" from the northern tribes, as described in Deut 32:19-20. But God later had Hosea take Gomer back, symbolizing the fact that he ultimately would return to Israel in mercy (Hosea 3).


With beautiful poetic language, Hosea repeats the basic pattern of Deut 32 throughout the rest of his prophecy. For instance, Hosea 11:1-4 expresses God's tender love for Israel, reminiscent of Deut 32:10-12. Then Israel's punishment by the sword is predicted in Hosea 11:6, as in Deut 32:25. Hosea 11 goes on to describe Israel's return to the land and God's forgiveness of his people, similar to Deut 32:36.


The Deut 32 message also is laid out carefully in other prophetic books. Each part of the message of the song of Moses is discussed in detail, including one aspect not covered by Hosea: the eventual punishment of Israel's conquerors for their arrogance (Deut 32:26-35).


The prophet Isaiah explains that the Assyrians, after defeating the northern tribes of Israel and other nations, become filled with pride. "By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding," Assyria boasts (Isa 10:12). But as the song of Deut 32 states, "they are a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them" (v. 28). Isaiah announces that Assyria would fall "in one day" (Isa 10:17), again agreeing with Deut 32, which says that "their doom comes swiftly" (v. 35). Assyria's dramatic fall, also predicted by the prophet Nahum, would come a century later.


The prophet Jeremiah makes a similar announcement about the haughty Babylonian Empire, which took the southern kingdom of Judah into captivity (see Jer 50-51). "The proud one shall stumble and fall, with none to raise him up," Jer 50:32 declares.  Babylon’s fall followed in 539 B.C.


Paul's New Insight

Later Deut 32 provided special guidance to the apostle Paul. Paul struggled to understand why his message met with mixed reactions from his fellow Jews while being embraced by many non-Israelites. In puzzling over this question, he may have "turned over" and contemplated the Torah as described in Pirke Avot. At any rate, he found an explanation in Deut 32:21: "They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation."


In Romans 11 Paul asserts that in his time, Gentile Christians--rather than Assyrians or Babylonians--play the role of the "foolish nation" in Deut 32:21. Their acceptance by God has the effect of making Israelites "jealous" and eventually drawing Israel to Jesus (Rom 11:11-14; 25-27). With this understanding, Paul envisions his own role this way: "Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them" (Romans 11:13-14). Paul concludes that "a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved... " (vv. 25-26).


Paul's application of Deut 32 illustrates something that Jesus described in one of his parables. In Matt 13:52, Jesus says that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." Paul saw something new in Deut 32 that helped him understand God's plan more fully.


In our study of the Bible today, we also strive to be like the wise scribe in Jesus' parable, the one "trained for the kingdom of heaven." We seek ancient wisdom, and we also look for guidance, through the Spirit of God, in applying that wisdom. And so let us continue to turn, turn over again, and contemplate the Word of God. Great riches await us!


Issue 29


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 17 Aug 2015, 23:48.