Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:1-9
Back to (Bible) School: The Law
This week we’re starting a new sermon series called Back to (Bible) School. Each week, we’ll be looking at different parts of the Bible, particularly the texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. I’ve been encouraging folks all summer long to sign up for our Disciple Fast Track Bible Study, a twelve week study that takes us deep into the writings of the New Testament. And it isn’t too late to sign up – we start this Wednesday evening, and I would love for you to be a part of it! It is never too late to learn more about the Bible. You never have “advanced” far enough that you couldn’t enjoy a Bible study, and you are never too new to the Bible and too inexperienced in reading the Bible that you should fear studying the scriptures is not for you. It is one of the best ways I can think of to explore and deepen your faith, studying the scriptures, and studying them together is a special blessing of a community of faith. So alongside our Bible study Wednesday nights, we’ll also be trying to learn more about the Bible during worship.
I’m particularly interested in not only encouraging you to read the Bible regularly, but also in helping you feel like you are understanding what you’re reading. We learn a lot of reading comprehension skills when we are in school. Having excellent reading skills is one of the things that will set students up for success in any number of other areas of learning and in any number of future life endeavors. In the midst of these Back-to-School days, I looked around online to remind myself of some of the ways elementary teachers talk to student about reading comprehension skills. How do you figure out what something you’re reading is all about? I found lots of great tools creative teachers use, like this poster, that encourages young readers to ask lots of questions: “What is happening in the story? What’s happening with the character? Is the character changing? What do I think will happen next? What is the problem? Was the problem solved? If so, how? What does this word [that I don’t know] probably mean [based on the words around it]?” (1) For adult readers, fluent readers, when we’re reading books and newspaper articles, magazines, even messages from our friends online, we employ these reading comprehension skills all the time and don’t even think about it. We automatically are asking ourselves these kinds of questions when we read. It eventually becomes second-nature for us. But in my experience, we do this weird thing when we start to read the Bible. We stop using all of the skills that we’ve built up over the course of our lives and approach the Bible in a completely different way.
I’m not sure why exactly that is. I think we get a bit hung up with the Bible. I think sometimes people are scared of understanding it incorrectly, and so we can get overwhelmed or confused, and it makes our minds a little muddled when we come to the text. Or, we’re so aware that we consider these words sacred and holy that we can’t believe we have any skills that could be useful when we’re reading the Bible. Whatever the case, I want to encourage you to put to use all of the skills you already have when you read the Bible. Ask those same questions teachers might ask young students to consider: What’s happening here? What’s happening to the people? How do people change? What’s the problem and how does it get resolved? How can I figure out what this means based on what comes before and after?
In this sermon series, we’re going to look in particular at some of the types of literature we find in the Bible, and we’ll think about how we read different types of literature. For example, if you go in a bookstore or library, you’ll see that books are group together by genre – cookbooks are all in one section, and biographies are all together. Reference books have a spot. Fiction is in one place, and non-fiction is in another. Newspapers and magazines – everything gets its own spot. We expect a certain type of content, a certain style of writing when we read a newspaper, and another type and style when we read the latest book in from a mystery writer. If we read a book of poetry, we wouldn’t go hunting for facts, probably. Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you! That’s not something that’s meant to be a fact, even if all the words are true. The purpose of a poem is different than the purpose of a textbook, and how we read each of those things, then, should be a bit different.
As our Fast Track looks at the New Testament, here we’ll look at the 4 main types of literature in the Hebrew Bible (although not only!): Law, History, Poetry, and Prophecy. Today, we’re starting with the law. If you’re ever read through all the details and specifics of modern day legal language, you might know that it can be tedious and incomprehensible to someone without legal training. Thankfully, the biblical books of the law are a bit different. The first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, are known as the Torah, the law books of the Bible. Through these five books we see origin stories, stories that lay out exactly who Israel is and who Israel is called to be as God’s people. And a large chunk of the law relates to the journey of the Israelites from living as slaves in Egypt to entering into the land that God promised them as their own people, God’s own people. These books are not the only sacred text of Judaism, but these five books are at the core of Jewish faith and identity still today. They’re called books of law because once Moses and the people leave Egypt, God, speaking through Moses, works to set up a covenant, a set of rules for living that will govern the Israelites in their new home.
If you were trying to set up a brand new nation, a brand new community of people living together, where you were writing your laws from scratch, what would it be important to include? I think there was some reality show a couple years back that tried to ask these questions, throwing together a group of people and asking them to create a mini-government of sorts. I’m not sure how it worked I suspect that it wasn’t as easy as folks thought it was going to be. I think that ideally, people don’t uphold the laws of a community only because they are laws. Hopefully, for example, most of us don’t drive 100 miles per hour not only because it is a law, but also because that would be dangerous, putting our lives and the lives of others at risk. But laws provide a framework that the community agrees to uphold at least because they are laws, ordering a community, if nothing else.
David Lose writes that biologists would tell you that we’re designed to look out for our own wants and needs over all others, and that this is where the concept of the strongest and most self-interested surviving comes from. Theologians, he says, would tell you that this is what human sin is: self-interest, selfishness that puts our needs above the needs of others, but actually limits “human flourishing” and contradicts God’s desire for us to love one another. The law, then, at its most basic level, is something that God gives us to curb us from our tendency to put ourselves first. The law creates boundaries that enable us to flourish as a whole, that “create room in which we can live with each other.” Lose concludes, “That’s the law, in its first use, functioning as a gift from God to tell us – children and adults alike – “no” so that we can then say “yes” to a richer and more abundant life together.” (2)
For the Israelites, the Ten Commandments are a starting point of the new community that they’re building. A way that they will agree to live together, so that all people in the community have the chance to flourish. The Ten Commandments are perhaps the most famous section of the law of Moses. Many of us memorized the commandments when we were young, and we tend to memorize them in their simplest form. But as we listened to them again today, I hope you heard that they have more depth to them. They’re a bit more complicated than the simple words we might know. The first several deal particularly with our relationship with God. I am your God, the one who brought you out of slavery. Don’t forget it, and don’t have any other gods. Don’t make idols, or worship anything other than me in any form. Don’t make “wrongful use” of the name of the Lord. To me that goes far beyond simply not using God’s name while you’re cursing, although I also consider that a bad idea! How often do we use God’s name wrongly, to hurt instead of heal, for our purposes instead of God’s purposes? Five verses are spent focusing on the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Not only are we meant to rest, but we’re meant to let others rest too. The words in Deuteronomy ground our need for Sabbath not in God resting at creation, but in the fact that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. They should remember, always, what it was like to have to work without rest, and never make things so that they and others cannot seek rest going forward.
The rest deal more with our relationships with each other in community, and are simple, shorter, more direct. Honor your parents, because doing so will help build a long-lived community in a new land. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t say things that aren’t true about one another. And don’t covet things that belong to others – family, homes, property, livelihood. So, the commandments provide a framework for our relationship with God and one another.
Shortly after these commandments are given, we find a short passage that emphasizes the importance of knowing, deeply knowing these words, not as an “at least” minimum requirement, but as something that is at the heart of our relationship with God and others, something that guides our lives, our actions, a covenant for living together that leads to experience God’s blessings. The Promised Land that Israel is about to enter is described here, as elsewhere, as a land flowing with milk and honey, meant to signify a rich, sweet abundance.
We find next the words known as the Shema in Judaism. Shema means Hear, the first word of chapter 6 verse 4: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. God is God alone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Jesus will, in the gospels, affirm this as the greatest commandment, pairing it, as Deuteronomy does elsewhere, with love of neighbor. Keep these commandments in your heart, the law says. Recite them to your children. Talk about these words when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and gates.
As a way to honor these words, the Shema is still recited daily by many faithful Jews, morning and evening, at Shabbat services, at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day in Judaism, before bedtime, when one’s death is imminent. And indeed, these words have sometimes been kept on doorposts, and bound to hands and head.
These last verses of our text tell us that keeping these commandments is as important as knowing them, living with God’s word in such a way that it is a part of all that we do. How will we do that? Keep these commandments – not just because they’re God’s law, but because we have a deep desire to live in communion with God and one another? This week, I have a challenge for you. I want you to take a moment right now to write down the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-5. And I want you to carry those words with you all week, and try to follow the directions of the text we’ve shared today. Share these words with your children or folks in your household, and pray them in the morning and at night, and when you leave for work and when you come back home, and each time you come through the door. I challenge you to try it for a week. See what it does to your days to make these words the first and last words of your day, and the words that mark your comings and goings. This is how central God wants to be in our lives, how much God desires for us to be living with God at the heart of all we do. And that’s the heart of the law: it’s beyond just, “Well, I didn’t break any of the Ten Commandments today!” That’s the law reduced to its lowest meaning, but not the fullness of the gift God means it to be for us. This week, let’s see if we can experience the fullness of the gift of this covenant, these words that shape us as God’s people. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Amen.
(1) Life in Fifth Grade, as quoted in “21 Anchor Charts That Nail Reading Comprehension,” https://www.weareteachers.com/21-anchor-charts-that-teach-reading-comprehension/
(2) Lose, David. “Law, the First Use.” http://www.davidlose.net/2013/10/law-the-first-use/