January 20, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: More from the Book of Deuteronomy

John F. FinkAs I wrote last week, the biblical readings in the Office of Readings both this week and next week are taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, a word that means “second law.” This Saturday, Chapter 16 tells the Jews how to observe their feasts of Passover, Weeks and Booths. These were the three times a year when “every male among you shall appear before the Lord, your God” (Dt 16:16).

Next week, readings are taken from chapters 18, 24, 26, 29, 30, 31, 32 and 34. Some chapters are skipped simply to get through the book in two weeks, but read them anyway if only to learn more about Jewish practices. I think you will find them quite interesting, perhaps especially the “crimes against marriage” in Chapter 22.

When the tribes of Israel were ready to enter Canaan, the tribe of Levi was not parceled out any land. It was the priestly tribe. The male Levites performed the priestly duties for the Jews. Therefore, the first part of Chapter 18 tells the Jews how they are to provide for the Levites, who were free to live anywhere in Israel as their hearts may desire (Dt 18:6).

The first four verses in Chapter 24 concern the Jews’ divorce laws, although these verses only forbid divorced couples from remarrying each other if they married someone else after the divorce. Divorce itself was taken for granted and tolerated as an existing custom. However, in the New Testament, when Pharisees pointed out to Jesus that Moses permitted divorce, he said, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wife, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8).

In Chapter 24, too, we read one of numerous commands in the Old Testament, “You shall not violate the rights of the alien. … For remember, you were once slaves in Egypt” (Dt 24:17-18).

Specifically, the Jews were admonished not to harvest everything from their fields, knock down olives from their trees a second time, or go over a vineyard a second time to get all the grapes. What remained was for the alien, the orphan and the widow. In the Book of Ruth, Ruth was an alien from Moab who gleaned the leftover harvest in the fields of Boaz.

In Chapter 26, the Jews are told that they are to give their tithes “to the Levite, the alien, the orphan and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your own community” (Dt 26:12). This was the way they were to provide for these people.

In Chapter 30, Moses exhorts the people to obey the Lord’s commandments and statutes. He says that the commands are not too remote or mysterious since they are “already in your mouths and in your hearts” (Dt 30:14).

In the New Testament, St. Paul quotes this entire passage (Rom 10:6-10) to show how easily we can come to faith in Christ.

The Book of Deuteronomy ends with Moses’ final words, his commissioning of Joshua to lead the Israelites, and his death on Mount Nebo. †

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