Signpost for Sunday 26 October 2014: Deut 34:1-12; Ps 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thess 2:1-8; Matt 22:34-46
The reading from Deuteronomy presents the death and burial of Moses, and celebrates the life of this great leader of Israel. The material in this passage was composed at a later date to provide the context for the whole book of Deuteronomy. It connects the leadership of Moses to the leadership of Joshua. While it contradicts the traditional claim that the whole of the Pentateuch was composed by Moses, it shows that the claim is a symbolic rather than a literal one.
The first chapter of Joshua continues directly from today’s reading. Yet Deuteronomy is a book of the Law, and Joshua is seen as one of the “Former Prophets”. Such designations are, of course, later and rather arbitrary.
Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land, but he was allowed to see from afar what was in store for his people. This survey of the land from north to south, east to west, has a legal surveyor’s quality to it. Of course, it is wider than a human eye could see from a peak in Moab. It probably has something to do with later boundary disputes among the various tribes. They were never completely united!
In a symbolic way, a transfer of title is taking place. The land is being given to the Israelites, and Moses is assured of this. After that, with all his life forces and eyesight intact – that is, with energy and vision – Moses dies. Having seen the Promised Land, he is at peace and prepared to die. He is making way for the leader who will do what Moses is not allowed to do – take the people into that Promised Land.
(This promise of Palestine for Israel was something reinforced perhaps at the end of the Exile, by looking back to the time of Moses and Joshua. Does that mean that the promise is an eternal one? Does it bind the people of God to wiping out any others who usurp that place, as did the Crusaders, and as does Israel to a certain extent today?)
So now the people turn to Joshua and his leadership, obeying the commandments that God had given them through Moses. The transition, the change of government, was very smooth, not a common event in any nation’s history!
But, in the light of today’s other readings, it does tell us something about leadership as the tradition of Israel saw it. The leader – prophet or king, Moses, Joshua or David – was first of all chosen by God. In later terminology, he (or sometimes she) was set aside with an anointing; “messiah” simply means “anointed”.
And the leader chosen by God could be set aside by God if he did not measure up. Mostly, the measuring up had to do with acknowledging the centrality of God.
These readings are interesting in the shadow of the recent New Zealand General Election!