Those who take a deep enough whiff of Deuteronomy 18 may detect at least a hint of death clinging to it. In fact, we might even say that the scent of death both lingers within and bookends the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.
The lesson begins innocently enough, though (again!) right in the middle of what modern translators structure as a paragraph. Deuteronomy 18 begins with Moses’ promise to Israel: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers” (15).
However, this implies that Moses will at some point no longer be Israel’s prophet through whom the Lord graciously speaks. When, in fact, God’s Israelite sons and daughters cross the Jordan and into the land of promise, they will leave their prophet behind. God, after all, told Moses that he would not lead the Israelites “into the land [God] gave them” (Numbers 20:11).
It is perhaps deeply ironic that Moses must remind God’s people to listen to God (15). After all, the reason God’s prophet won’t join the stubborn Israelites he has led for so long in the land of promise is that he didn’t listen to the Lord. When God told him to Kadesh’s rock, Moses instead struck it twice with his staff.
Of course, Israel herself, at least at her best, recognizes that she not only needs to listen to the Lord, but also that she needs someone to speak for God to her. Already in Exodus 20, after all, we read that not only God’s Ten Words but also God’s actions at Sinai scared her to death. When she heard those words, thunder and trumpet, as well as saw the lightning and Sinai quake, our text’s Moses quotes the Israelites as saying, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die (italics added)” (16). (There’s that whiff of death again!).
The verses just preceding those the Lectionary selects, however, show that God too recognizes that Israel desperately needs someone to speak on God’s behalf to her. Israel’s new Canaanite neighbors, after all, depend on “sorcery” and “divination” to ascertain the divine will (14). God knows better than anyone how tempted Israel will be to adopt that practice of her new neighbors.
Yet Robert W. Jenson (The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts, p. 133) suggests that it’s very important that Moses doesn’t identify his successor in our text. It’s, after all, God’s way of promising that there will not just always be someone to speak on God’s behalf, but also that there will always be people for God to speak to.
Of course, Moses warns that some people will falsely claim to speak on God’s behalf to God’s children. He implies that some will claim God said something they’ve actually simply made up. Or, more ominously, that some people will speak on behalf of not the living God, but other gods. They, insists Moses, must be put to death (20). (There’s that whiff of death again!).
What’s more, however, the stakes of God’s children listening to God’s spokespeople are also very high. Twice (15, 19), in fact, God insists God’s people listen to God’s prophet. Listening to God is, in fact, a matter of life and death. Those who do not listen to God, God warns, God himself “will … call to account” (19).
Deuteronomy 18 is not the kind of passage that easily translates into a stand-alone text. Those who proclaim it may be wise to, for example, pair it with another Lectionary text such as the Markan account of Jesus’ prophetic authority.
Yet by the power of the Holy Spirit, Deuteronomy 18 remains a relevant text, though perhaps in a largely derivative way. After all, as David Bartlett notes (Christian Century, January 23, 1991, p. 74), its first Christian readers interpreted it in the light of what they knew about Jesus Christ.
The recognized that Jesus was the kind of prophet about whom Moses talked. He was, in fact, a kind of “Moses on steroids.” God put God’s words in Jesus’ mouth and expected people to listen to and obey him. When Jesus spoke, his words had power.
What’s more, in Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed Christians profess that God anoints all of God’s adopted sons and daughters to share in Moses and Jesus’ prophetic ministry. In that understanding, not just teachers and preachers, but also all of God’s people are Moses’ successors.
God calls all those whom God continues to raise up to both speak for God to God’s people and listen for God’s word that they should relay to God’s people. Israel’s prophets such as Moses, as well as her greatest prophet, Jesus Christ, have come and gone. But God doesn’t leave God’s people without prophets.
Deuteronomy 18 reminds us that that ministry is a matter of life and death. Those who refuse to listen to God’s word through prophets still subject themselves to God’s wrath. All who claim to be prophets but speak for anyone (or thing) but God continue as well to endanger themselves.
Those who proclaim Deuteronomy 18 may also want to seize the opportunity to explore with hearers how God’s people can know which prophets speak on behalf of the living God. Preachers and teachers may even want to stretch the prescribed Scripture reading to include verses 21 and 22. There, after all, Moses gives the Israelites criteria for identifying true prophets whom God raises up.
In her Dear Working Preacher, February 1, 2015 Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Luther Seminary professor Kathryn Schifferdecker writes about teaching while on sabbatical at the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She says her students there raised questions her American seminary students had never raised.
Among other things, they asked about prophets. For Schifferdecker’s students, after all, it was a real and urgent issue. Since many people in Ethiopian churches claim to be prophets, those around them needed to know if God had raised them up or not.
One wise, middle-aged pastor told Schifferdecker and her seminary class a story. He recounted how when he was young, a man who claimed to be a prophet told a young woman and him that God wanted them to marry each other. If they didn’t, the self-proclaimed prophet insisted, the young man and woman would die.
“We looked at each other,” the future pastor reported, “and we said, ‘No, we’re not going to get married’.” “We married other people,” he continued, “and both of us are still alive.” “The whole class laughed,” Schifferdecker reports.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 28, 2018
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Commentary