DEUTERONOMY 34, JOSHUA
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Scripture Reading: Deuteronomy 34, Joshua
Focusing Quote: “Never since has there emerged a prophet like Moses, whom God knew face to face” Deuteronomy 34:
As we close in on Election Day, I firmly believe that today we stand right on the edge of something big. It seems that—with all that is going on in the world right now, with our nation at war and our finances in disarray, and our natural environment taxed to its limits—we have encountered one of those moments of decision that can happen both to individuals and to an entire people. This is just the sort of situation we find in Deuteronomy 34 and the first few chapters of the book of Joshua.
In Chapter 34 Moses is brought up to the top of Mt. Nebo, where he dies after first surveying the land that will soon belong to the Israelites. God is there with him and makes a promise—once again—not to abandon the people. Meanwhile, the Israelites, themselves are on the banks of the Jordan, looking across and wondering what will become of them.
The death of Moses ends the book of Deuteronomy. It is also the closing passage of the Torah itself, described by some Jewish scholars as being “of greatest sanctity”. With the change of books (and, at the opening of Joshua, the first book in the Nevi’im or “historical” books, the change of collections) we see a clear symbolic break. One side of the literary gulf stretches back in time to the creation of the world and then proceeds through the patriarchs and ends with the story of a group of former slaves escaping from Egypt. On the other side we see the same group with the same god following their new leader across the Jordan River to begin a new sort of life.
Deuteronomy ends in a cliffhanger. Who was this Joshua? What was on the other side? Would they be able to change and adapt to their new surrounding and their new realities? Would the Israelites survive? Interestingly, the break in books, seems to have no real effect on the story, which picks up right where it left off. “After the death of Moses, God’s servant, God said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant: ‘My servant Moses is dead, prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to the Israelites’” (Joshua 1:1-2). The narrative continues after all. People survive. They go on with new leaders and new goals.
People also change. The Israelites, when they crossed over into the Promised Land, began to adapt to their surroundings. Over the ensuing generations, while they honored their past as refugees and wanderers in the wilderness, they began to settle down as well. Towns were occupied, others were built and, eventually, the Temple was, too. The culture and the religion were altered to fit the new reality.
Today, though most of us aren’t planning on literally moving anywhere soon, our society is also on the move. Things have changed a great deal for all of us over the past years or so. Many of us have felt a change in priorities and interests. More of us are hungry. Some have had their faith challenged. Now it is time to select a new leader to help us in this new phase of our corporate existence. Make no mistake about it, whoever wins the election will start to change things. It is part of the job! However, we have a job, too.
One big difference between the Israelites and us is how we select those who lead us. For them, it was a direct decision from God. For us, we vote. Though occasionally we hear the language of faith and religion as one candidate or another tries to claim God’s endorsement, we know that this isn’t how it works. As then-Senator George Mitchell famously said to Oliver North, “Although he's regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics.” Instead, we have the profound responsibility of discernment.
So that leaves us with the question of who, what, and how as we go to the polls. Who are we going to vote for? What ballot initiatives are we going to support or reject? How are we going to help our country after the election? I will be thinking about these things over the next few days. I know that you will be, too.
Prayer: Dear God, today we pray for ourselves, the nation, and the world. Help us to find the way through these difficult times together. Strengthen us for the work that needs to be done both at the centers of power and in the margins of our society. Make us loud when we need to be loud. Help us to speak softly, or not at all, when the need arises. Our country is in your hands and ours. Please help us keep up our end. Amen
“As I was with Moses, so shall I be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.”