When modern disciples think of “the law,” or torah, we tend to think of complicated rules, regulations and arcane sentiments. Many would probably express sentiments like the torah is the essence of legalism and ritualism. What we modern disciples are likely not to think of is love, grace, joy, intimacy and prayer.
Love. Grace. Joy. Intimacy. Prayer. These powerful notions are, however, exactly what are found within the torah which is the Story of God’s love for the created world. The Story, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, is peppered with prayer and references to prayer. In Jesus’s day the Pentateuch seems to have been divided up, and read beginning to end, in a three year cycle. It was a narrative. The narrative ends with Deuteronomy, with Moses’s personal interpretation, and application, of the entire “law of Moses.” As Moses tells it, Yahweh expects Israel’s love to be directed exclusively toward him and expressed for neighbors. Moses also indicates that prayer is the joyous blessing and foundation of Israel’s life with God.
Israel was surrounded by an ocean of pagan gods. Gods from Egypt, the Hittite Empire, Ugarit, and Mesopotamia were established in Canaan long before Israel arrived. The tales of these gods are filled with epic battles, bloodshed, sex, and struggle for survival by both gods and humans.
But did the gods care? Years ago a clay tablet was unearthed from the remains of Ashurbanipal’s library which has since been called “Prayer to Every God.” The petitioner is in desperate agony. Some divine decree has been violated but the supplicant does not know what law nor whose anger she has violated. So every god is being passionately begged to hear and respond. As the psalmist put it about the pagan gods, “They have mouths but do not speak; eyes but do not see, They have ears but do not hear.” But “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Ps 115.2-6).
But Moses proclaims to Israel that she has been amazingly graced. Israel’s God especially loves the nobodies reflected in the Babylonian Prayer to Every God.
Yahweh is the God who hears.
Yahweh is the God who is intimate with the people.
Even the pagan nations will know. They will declare, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?” (Deut 4.6-8).
It was while they were helpless slaves, in an alien land, that Yahweh heard the cry of the Israelites (Ex 2.23-25). Moses drives home the point by warning Israel to never mistreat the poor.
“Take care, lest you entertain a wicked thought and say,
‘The seventh year , the year of forgiveness is near,’
and you view your neighbor with hostility and give nothing.
Your neighbor might cry to Yahweh against you.”
(Deut 15.9; cf. 24.1)
In Israel one need not be a prophet, priest, a king, nor rich, nor powerful to be heard. Yahweh especially hears the prayers of the powerless. Israel was a kingdom of nobodies. But she had a God who is near – intimacy – she had a God who hears.
Prayer & Grace
God is near. God hears. But does God care? Is Yahweh a technical god ensconced on a high and holy mountain dishing out automatic punishment – wrath – upon breaking of the law? Not technicalities of the law, but the very fabric of the law?
At the heart of Deuteronomy is a long narrative in the form of a speech by Moses. In this speech, Moses “points the way” (the most basic meaning of torah) of life with God. Moses has reminded Israel that it is by God’s hesed alone they are in a covenant of love (7.7-9,12). Moses has reminded Israel that she is not morally nor ritualistically more righteous than the Egyptians, Canaanites or anyone else. “Do not say to yourself, ‘It is because of my righteousness … you have been rebellious since the day you came out of Egypt” (9.4-7).
Moses drives home the bitter truth of Israel’s faithlessness, even at the moment of her salvation and marriage to Yahweh. He brings them to the “fall of Israel,” that is the Golden Calf. Here at the end of the Story of the Torah, Moses reemphasizes the catastrophic event at the beginning of the history of Israel (and narratively the beginning in Exodus 32-33). The Bible never lets Israel forget this event. The psalms put the tragedy this way,
“They made a calf at Horeb
and worshiped a cast image.
They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass.”
And then in one of the saddest lines in Scripture, Israel is led to confess,
“They forgot God, their Savior.” (Ps 106.19-21)
But the Psalm also remembers the majesty of God’s grace. Yahweh did not destroy Israel anymore than Adam had been destroyed. Instead, God heard the prayer of Moses (Ps 106.23).
In his narrative sermon, Moses brings these Israelites who were not personally present at Mt Sinai when their mothers and fathers forgot God, their Savior, back to the moment of what salvation looks like. Deuteronomy 9 is calamitous and hauntingly beautiful at the same time.
When there simply is no command we can precisely obey, when there is no sacrifice we can offer, when there is simply no hope … Yahweh’s hesed bursts all the brighter. Yahweh hears our prayers.
Moses’ Torah of Prayer
Moses is teaching. Moses is showing the way for Israel. Moses already knows that Israel will continue to fail God and miserably so (4.25-31), what shall Israel do. They shall “seek the LORD” in prayer, in worship and with their whole heart. Moses prays.
“O LORD God, do not destroy your people and your possession, whom you have redeemed through your greatness, whom you have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Disregard/pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin … otherwise the land from which you brought us will say, ‘Because the LORD was unable to bring them into the land he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to slaughter them in the desert.’ After all, they are your people and your possession, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 9.26-29).
This remarkable and daring prayer by Moses has three fundamental petitions.
“Do not destroy your people” (v.26)
“Remember your servants, the patriarchs” (v.27)
“Pay not attention/disregard wickedness and sin” (v.27)
That this generation of Israelites is alive to hear the gruesome tale of their parents sin, is proof that Yahweh heard Moses prayer. Moses has already used our verb translated as “destroy” in his interpretation of the law for Israel. “The LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget his covenant with your ancestors” (4.31).
But Moses’ prayer stresses “your people.” Israel is God’s people by God’s doing, they are not God’s people by Israel’s doing. Israel is Yahweh’s “possession” which every hearer of the Story of God’s love in the torah recognizes the echo of Exodus 19. “I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself … you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples” (19.4f).
This is a direct appeal to God grace, his infinite hesed. This relationship has never depended Israel’s doing but on Yahweh redeeming. In fact Yahweh expended extraordinary effort to acquire Israel as his possession since it was by his “mighty hand.” The basis of Moses prayer is the same basis that God rescued Israel in the first place. We are “guilty as sin” now but that was true of us at the beginning. Moses knows first hand that Israel has “been rebellious against the LORD as long as he has known you” (9.24, NRSV).
Moses’s second prayer move is “remember.” Remember the patriarchs becomes a standard refrain in Israelite prayer. Moses knows the patriarchs were hardly models of integrity and righteousness. The beginning of the torah (Genesis) graphically canonizes their moral and spiritual failures. Every Israelite is thus taught that “we” have never been God’s obedient children. Thus the call to remember the patriarchs is not to remember their failures but for God to remember his promises to them, even as they were schmucks. The patriarchs did not deserve God’s promises of grace but received them because God is the God of love (7.8,12). The petition is for Yahweh to remember and thus continue in mercy, though Israel only deserves destruction.
Moses’s first two petitions are fairly radical. But it is the third that borders on daring. Literally Moses asks Yahweh “not to turn to” Israel’s blatant, explicit and premeditated wickedness and sin. It is important to see Moses does not excuse nor minimize the crises of this event. This is the equivalent of a spouse – literally – committing adultery while on the honeymoon. God has every right to use the “nuclear option.” In fact most would say God was righteous if the option was exercised.
No excuse. No justification. No shrinking back from the catastrophe. Just the plea to “not turn to” that horrific and “in your face” travesty. Do not look at it. Do not pay attention to it. All that can be done is beg for mercy. And that is exactly what Moses does. “Do not look at the sin of this people.”
Yahweh granted grace. Israel is on the cusp of the promised land. The cloud has not abandoned Israel by day nor has the fire been extinguished by night. No wonder Moses asks rhetorically what nation “has a god so close as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon him!”
What does Moses teach regarding Israel’s relationship with God? Israel is called into a unique and exclusive “covenant of love” with Yahweh. The relationship does not depend, and never depended, upon technical precision with 613 commandments. We are called to love Yahweh. We are called to circumcise our heart. We are called to love our neighbor.
The problem is we do not love Yahweh, we do not circumcise our heart and we do not love our neighbor. Most of the time our actions are knowingly at variance with our calling.
There is no sacrifice in the law, none, for premediated deliberate sin. This by the way is also true in the New Testament. Sacrifice in the Bible is always for unintentional sin and for expressing thanksgiving and joy before the Lord. Israel does not and cannot offer a “sin offering” for the Golden Calf. David does not and cannot offer a “sin offering” for his rape of Bathsheba. What can be done?
But we are all Israel. We have all committed deliberate sin, every one of us. I have been wicked. I have been rebellious. I have been sinful. I, and I assume you, am just like our ancestors. What is to be done?
Moses taught us that the moment of the greatest deliberate sin was also the moment of the most stunning revelation of God’s grace … because we prayed and asked for forgiveness. And Yahweh forgave because Yahweh forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
The torah teaches us that our God is near. The torah teaches us that our God hears. The torah teaches us that our God is the God who forgives when his people call on his name whether we are a prophet, a priest, a king … or just a sinner in desperate need of grace.
Prayer, the torah proclaims, is the link to our Father, the key to love, joy, intimacy … and forgiveness.
“If you, O LORD, kept a record of sin,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.”
With Moses, I bow to the ground and worship (Ex 34.8).