I enjoy preaching the Old Testament. I’ve certainly preached more sermons (and taught more Sunday school lessons) on New Testament texts than on Old, but when I get a chance to get back into the Torah and the Prophets, they remind me that our Christian faith has strong and peculiar roots, stories and covenants that make sense of a strong Christian doctrine of revelation.
As I often tell Sunday school classes and as I often say in sermons, there are certain divine truths that Plato and Aristotle got to without ever meeting a Jew–by means of dialectical reasoning alone they figured out that there must be one god rather than many, that such a god must be good rather than bad, that one good god would be the source of the form and movement in the real world. So far so good. But what they never anticipated was that the one true God would sometimes (many times, actually) defy the expectations that mortals have of the gods, that the truth about God would come to the Greeks from an un-celebrated corner of the Persian Empire, that the mighty Romans and the wise Greeks might be the disciples of the Jews, of all people, that they would learn to worship truly by overhearing the ways that an unsung desert people hear from the one true God, the LORD of hosts, the God who would refuse a proper name (“I am what I am” is not exactly a clear title) and who would forbid a visible image.
When we late-born faithful overhear YHWH’s mandate to the Hebrews in Deuteronomy 30, we see the character of a god we could not imagine. YHWH promises blessings to the Hebrews, not in exchange for good behavior but because they are already YHWH’s people. Their very form of life is not the arbitrary imposition of a tyrant (like Pharaoh in their past or Nebuchadnezzar in their future) but a way of life which is itself good, one taught to them as a text, one to be read publicly, so that no king might invent divine decrees. Instead, what is handed down, revealed, at first will be with Israel as long as they remain YHWH’s people, and their changing way of life–for all ways of life change–will take its form in relationship neither with an invisible mathematical principle nor in accordance with the most dominant will but as the interpretation of a text. To love and obey and hold fast to YHWH means always to be readers and hearers and doers of what-YHWH-teaches, again something that the philosophers, with their notion of a god never bound to old texts, and the emperors, with their insistence that the gods be underwriters of domination, could have imagined.
Such a strange revelation even extends to the notion of curses: this God, whose name is not really a name and whose image is the very face of the worshiper (who is made in the image of the one true God), threatens curses not mainly based on national loyalty, much less as a sort of “natural consequence” of living in universally “unwise” manners, but against those who would refuse the good gift of the Torah, those who consider their own will to overwhelm the old scrolls and those who reckon their own wisdom as righteousness. On a mountain overlooking a promised land, YHWH reminds the Hebrews that the one true God will have a chosen people, that it’s from this land, nowhere else, that the world will learn what righteousness and justice and goodness and wisdom really mean.
It’s a strange story, but there is a certain logic to it, if we slow down to think about it: the land is there to be the source of God’s blessings for Israel, and the people Israel are there to bear what is good to the nations simply by showing them a different way to be a nation. But if that difference erodes, and the people on the land stop being Israel, then there’s no point in pretending, and the God who’s invested in blessing nations will simply find some other way to bless if the nation, as it happens in the land, ceases to differ. There’s a haunting but a fitting sense to it all, and as the Church, grafted into the tree that is Israel, contemplates what we’re about in the world, we do well to think long and hard about what it might mean for us to live as that blessing.