Hey, say it again, Moses – the book of Deuteronomy

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The name Deuteronomy in Greek means second law: it catches something about the nature of the book. It is a retelling of the story of the previous three books, Exodus through to Numbers. It is, in that sense, a republication of the law – a second edition. It takes the stylised form of a very long farewell address by Moses at the end of his life, looking forward to what he will not see: the final entry of the people into the promised land.

It serves also as a pivot in the Bible, looking back to the other books of the law, and forward to the history which will follow, Joshua through to Second Kings. That history has clearly been edited by someone (or some people) who wanted to draw attention to some of the themes of Deuteronomy. Key to those themes is a presentation of two ways: a way of life and a way of death. The idea of constructing moral instruction around two ways is a common theme of the ancient world.

Two ways: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” Deut 30:15
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Working with Numbers

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Leviticus was wholly legal instruction, but with the book of Numbers, we again have substantial sections of story. These narratives tell more of the travels of the Israelite people, as they make their way through the wilderness to the promised land. The lectionary only uses three short excerpts from this story.

The first is a blessing, probably better known from its use in worship than directly from the biblical book. “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26) It provides the first reading for the 1st January, eight days after Christmas, when the gospel relates the circumcision and naming of Jesus.1 It helps relate the continuity of God’s promise of blessing between the two testaments, especially in the way Luke portrays the holy family’s torah-observant piety.

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Leviticus: lawyer’s paradise

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

From time to time I hear of people making new year resolutions to read through the whole of the Bible in a year. Very often, Leviticus is where such schemes get bogged down, and what seemed a good idea on 31st December seems like a very poor idea by the middle to end of January. It may not be surprising therefore that there is only one reading from Leviticus in the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle.

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Exodus: Plagues and prohibitions

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The second book of the bible launches into the story of Moses. It very quickly bridges the gap between the story as we left it at the end of Genesis, (with the favoured Israelites living in the nicest part of Egypt) and the point where the story of Moses begins (with the descendants of those Israelites all fully enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh).

We begin with Moses’ birth. The story of the midwives is a masterpiece of subversive humour as the slave-race outwits the master-race (a similar sly humour pervades the story of the plagues). From there the text skips through his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household, to the story of his first attempt to take action in favour of his birth nation. Attempting to defend a fellow-Israelite, he kills an Egyptian, then flees in fear for his life. In the desert he encounters God in a burning bush1 and receives the commission to lead Israel out of slavery from Egypt to a distant promised land.

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Genesis: let’s start at the very beginning

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The bible and Maria von Trapp share the same approach to learning: they start at the very beginning. Getting the do-re-mi of the scale right was essential to appreciating the sound of music; understanding the world as God’s good creation is the foundation for hearing the song of the universe.

The pillars of creation – a detail from M16, the Eagle Nebula © NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage
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When is a law not a law?

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The first broad genre a Christian reader encounters in a description of the bible’s contents is “law”. Whenever the scriptures are referred to in the pages of the New Testament by genre, it is nearly always “the Law and the Prophets.” (I discussed this language a bit here.) And many people are used to hearing references to the books of Moses, or the law of Moses, in relation to the first five books of the bible.

However, what the reader finds when starting these books is not laws, but stories. It takes 50 chapters of Genesis and 19 more chapters of Exodus before we get to the giving of the law. This alerts us to a certain problem with the language of “law”.

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A very public text

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

I want to look at the tradition of public reading through three different texts that show different aspects of it. Today’s text is a story comes from one of the lesser read books of the Old Testament, Nehemiah. It’s the only passage from Nehemiah that crops up in the Sunday lectionary for the main service. Parts of this story, from Nehemiah 8, crop up on the third Sunday of Epiphany (or the third Sunday in Ordinary Time) in Year C.

(If any of the words I’ve just used (lectionary, Epiphany, Ordinary Time or Year C) phase you, then you can find them all defined in the Glossary.)

Gustave Doré’s woodcut of the scene (1843: Public Domain) He imagines Ezra as a second Moses with stone tablets, rather than the scroll described in the story.

Here’s the text. (The reason for putting the word LORD in capitals is a long-standing convention inherited from Judaism. It signifies that the Hebrew text is not the word Lord, but the four-consonant name of God – YHWH.)

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