NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: DEUTERONOMY 18: 15-20
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
"A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb
on the day of the assembly, when you said,
'Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.'
And the LORD said to me, 'This was well said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him.
Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.'"
This is our first treatment of Deuteronomy in the Café postings. If you have read this book or are aware of its placement in the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, you may have a picture of the text as Moses’ last will and testament, with the Chosen People standing at the brink of crossing the Jordan and finally entering the land of Canaan after a forty-year sojourn in the desert. Moses, you might recall from Numbers 20: 12, had been told by God that he himself would not enter the land with his people, and his death is described in Deuteronomy, much to the dismay of those who held and still hold that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch.
Given its content and placement, Deuteronomy appears to come from an early source in Israel’s history as a nation, but this is not the case. The term Deuteronomy comes down through several languages to today’s English “Second Law,” and indeed it does repeat segments of the Law from Exodus and other works of the Pentateuch, though with editing. The history of this ‘second law” is described by Father Boadt in Chapter 18 of Reading the Old Testament. He points us in the direction of the chronicle of the kingship of Israel, i.e., those who followed Saul, and specifically to 2 Kings around 600 B.C.
According to 1 & 2 Kings, the anointed leaders of Israel had ranged from the mediocre to the outright scandalous. Idolatry and neglect of law and observance were commonplace. [The Prophet Zephaniah chronicles the time well.] In 622 B.C. the reform minded King Josiah ordered a repair of the Temple, and in the process the high priest Hilkiah discovered a hidden book. Boadt, with other scholars, is uncertain if this text was lost or whether it was hidden from a previous king who might have destroyed it due to its high moral tone. The text certainly alarmed Josiah; as Boadt writes, “[Josiah] tore his clothes in distress because it threatened God’s wrath on any who did not obey its word.” [p. 301] Josiah consulted his prophetess who confirmed that Jerusalem would be destroyed for its idolatry; her prediction was correct, for the Babylonian Captivity would begin just three decades later.
Josiah had reason to believe from the text that its authority had come from God through Moses. However, scholars of the past two centuries have been able to identify editorial changes in the Deuteronomic text that indicate a much later authorship. Unlike the Law recorded in Exodus, the Deuteronomic text adds provision for urban life and trade, including the use of coinage. In addition, Deuteronomy addresses the ownership and care of slaves; the original law had been addressed to a people newly released from slavery in Egypt! The temper of this book presupposes that a lot of time had passed since the days of spartan desert living.
Nonetheless, Josiah and other pious Jews were jolted by the text to realization of how far the people had fallen from the purity of the Law as it had been observed immediately after Sinai. With that in mind, the appropriate placement of Sunday’s reading with Mark’s Gospel falls into place. Deuteronomy 18, part of Moses’ last will and testament as composed by the author, quotes Moses as receiving a confirmation from God that “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and I will put my words in his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.” Since there is good certainty that this text was written much later than the lifespan of Moses, the reader can rule out the identity of Joshua, for example, or some other immediate individual as the great prophet to come. The author has a bolder and long-range vision in mind in speaking of a prophet to come.
Does the author(s) of Deuteronomy have Jesus specifically in mind in Sunday’s reading? It is very unlikely that the writer intended the reference to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Old Testament prophesies are powerful and inspired, but rarely time-conditioned. It is safer to assume that the prophesy here applies more immediately to Israel during its kingship era, and it is noteworthy that the text is discovered during the reign of a reform-minded king. That said, the full sense of Scriptural revelation comes to fulfillment in the totality of the inspired work. The message of Scripture is a whole, not extraneous bits of data and predictions.
Given that the early Christian Church was made up of Jews, the Apostolic era did not conceptualize pre and post Jesus as we might think. Jesus himself said that he had not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment. Jesus, himself a Jew, would have formed his thought and deeds in the context to the full body of Jewish revelation. Certainly, the first writers of the Christian era would have drawn heavily from Deuteronomy and the other 71 revealed books in coming to understand Jesus.
Mark 1: 21-28, Sunday’s Gospel, lays out the many ways Jesus fulfills the hopes of Jewish prophesy and law. He taught and worshipped in the synagogue, he taught with authority, he expelled demons. If anything, Jesus is taking Moses’ forecast of Deuteronomy 18 farther than anyone would have hoped—but the language and deeds of Jesus would have been familiar to both Josiah’s listeners and centuries of those to follow.