Bible Study: Week of October 26, 2014

September 25th, 2014

Old Testament: Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Today's Old Testament lection brings to a conclusion the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the life of Moses, the greatest of Israel’s prophets. Given only a glimpse of the land he would not be allowed to enter, Moses is silent throughout the passage and throughout this final encounter with God. His presence, however, was powerful even in death. As Joshua took up the role of leader and the people prepared to enter Canaan, the memory of Moses would continue with them.

You Shall Not Cross Over

Why was this great and faithful leader refused entrance to the land of promise? The answer lies in Meribah. The name of the place itself (meaning “find fault”) was given by Moses to one of the springs of Kadesh as a witness to the people’s lack of faith (Numbers 20:1-13). It was at Meribah that God had brought forth water from a rock in answer to the Israelites’ unending complaints against Moses. Forgetting that God had delivered them from slavery, the people again and again taunted their leader: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place?” (20:5).

It was precisely at Meribah that Moses’ own faith was judged by God. God instructed Moses to strike the rock with his staff in the presence of the people; he did so, and water appeared in abundance. But God was somehow displeased with Moses’ response. Interpreting his actions as a lack of faith (or proper acknowledgment of divine action), YHWH declared that neither Moses nor Aaron would be permitted to bring the people into the Promised Land: “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12; see also Deuteronomy 32:48-52).

But I Have Let You See It

Verse 4 of today’s passage reminds Moses that he would not be allowed to enter the land, but God’s judgment was once again tempered with grace. In their final mountaintop meeting, YHWH “showed him the whole land” (Deuteronomy 34:1), then described for Moses the location each tribe would inhabit. And Moses died in peace (34:5), with no hint of bitterness or resentment at not being able to complete the journey.

The passage ends with Joshua assuming leadership after the thirty-day mourning period. Moses, however, was not to be forgotten. Joshua was “full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him” (34:9). Moses’ life is heralded in the concluding verses. He was “unequaled;” Moses knew God “face to face” (34:10-11). In his humanness, Moses fell short of God’s command. He is remembered, however, as a model of faithful service— as one loved deeply by God, whose justice was always executed with compassion and mercy.

Think About It: “God was somehow displeased with Moses’ response.” What was it Moses did that displeased God? Compare the accounts in Numbers 20:2-13 and Exodus 17:1-7, noting discrepancies. Moses prayed, asserted his authority, followed God’s instructions, quelled a near-riot, brought forth water, and provided drink. What was wrong with this? Could it be that he was actually punished for the sins of the people rather than his own (in that respect, a forerunner of Christ)?

“But you shall not cross over there” (34:4). In contrast to the Israelites, Moses seemed to accept the consequences of his “sin” without turning away from God. Do we respond to the consequences of our failings with renewed faith and commitment, or by placing the blame on God?

Psalter: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Today’s psalm is connected to the passage from Deuteronomy by virtue of its source, “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God,” as well as by its acknowledgment of the transitory nature of human life and the human desire to be remembered. Throughout the psalm, the limits of human existence are set against the infinity of God’s realm. The psalm’s two sections exemplify two distinct grammatical moods: the indicative (verses 1-6), which reflects on the finitude of human life, and the optative (verses 13-17), which petitions God in a series of commands.

The first section illustrates the contrast between the human and the divine. The Lord (in this case addressed as universal Sovereign, not in the personal YHWH) has been the “dwelling place,” the true home of humankind through all generations. Beyond God’s historic relationship to Israel, God’s realm encompasses the whole of human existence. The reality of human death is dramatically stated, “Turn back, you mortals” (Psalm 90:3), . . . turn back “to dust.”

The optative mood uses this same phrase in a daring command to God, “Turn, O LORD!” (90:13). The psalmist is not, however, entreating God to extend the scope of human life, but to exercise power in specific ways in the life of the community: “satisfy us,” “make us glad,” “let your work be manifest to your servants” (90:13-16). Trusting in God as humanity’s eternal home, the psalmist may in confidence call upon God for the compassion and joy that transcend the limitations of earthly life.

Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

A striking difference between Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians and his later Epistles is the absence of the characteristic assertion of his authenticity as an apostle. In his evangelistic efforts among the Gentile believers of Thessalonica, however, he emphasized the personal relationship he and his colleagues had developed with the new Christians—a relationship that, in essence, defines what it means to be an apostle of Jesus Christ.

We Were Gentle Among You

The intimacy of that relationship is highlighted again in this chapter. “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). The impact of their faith and commitment had had a profound effect on Paul and his companions, encouraging them to share themselves along with the gospel, “because you have become very dear to us” (2:8). The warmth and sincerity of their reception among the new believers is contrasted with their mistreatment in Philippi (2:2), where Paul was imprisoned in flagrant violation of his Roman citizenship (see Acts 16:19-40).

The Nature of Apostleship

The remainder of today’s lection reveals Paul’s understanding of the nature of apostleship by stressing its most important aspects, aspects he had exemplified in the Thessalonians’ midst. “We had courage” (2:2), “our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery” (2:3), “we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts” (2:4). Courage and integrity are hallmarks of apostleship, as is the apostle’s vulnerability before the congregation. Some scholars suggest that a more accurate translation of verse 7 would be “we were infants among you,” stressing his complete vulnerability to rejection and persecution. These attributes were not achievements of the apostles, but were bestowed for their ministry by God.

In pointing out these attributes of apostleship Paul also addresses the accusations of his detractors, who had charged him with heresy and immorality (including gross misrepresentation of the “kiss of peace”). By asserting “God is our witness” (2:5), Paul dismisses those who accuse him of serving his own interests.

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

Once again, the Pharisees devised a trap for Jesus. He had just finished a similar encounter with the Sadducees concerning marriage in the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33). Citing the requirements of the law, the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, described a widow who had in turn married each of her husband’s six brothers. Jesus responded by quoting from Exodus, thereby silencing them.

The Pharisees then decided upon the ultimate question: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36). The lawyer, knowing that there were 613 separate commandments, was sure that this question would be Jesus’ downfall. His answer, however, again silenced his opposition, and also gave those willing to listen insight into the nature of his messiahship.

The Great Commandment

The Pharisees’ question, though designed to trick Jesus (the word test is a variation on the word tempt used in the encounter with Satan), exposed the very core of what it means to live as a person of faith. The question is as pertinent today as it was in the time of Jesus (and, for that matter, the time of Moses). This time Jesus did not turn the question back to his opponents; he responded instead by quoting the Shema (literally meaning “hear”) from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” In essence, this “greatest and first commandment” is a positive restatement of the first commandment. Devotion had to be total and complete. Love for God could not be halfhearted. The crowd would have known this verse by heart. Jesus’ answer eliminated any question or debate.

The second commandment was “like it.” Love for God led naturally to love for neighbor. Complete devotion to God could not be abstract. It had to be expressed concretely in relationships with others. The second remains, however, the second. Love for neighbor must be based in the love of God. Love for God is the touchstone of all of human experience. By linking these commandments together, Jesus takes the believer beyond a list of do’s and don’ts into a living relationship with the God who is at the heart of the law.

Whose Son?

Having answered the Pharisees’ question, Jesus posed one of his own: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (22:42). Their answer was more a reflection of their legalism than their faith: “The son of David.” The Pharisees could only understand the Messiah in terms of their tradition (and, thus, the law). “David” is the obvious, and correct, answer, but not the complete answer, although Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back before David to Abraham. Luke goes one better in establishing Jesus’ heritage beyond both David and Abraham to “son of Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38).

Using the tactics of his opponents, Jesus confronted the Pharisees with words they would have attributed to David himself: “The Lord said to my Lord . . . “ (22:44; Psalm 110:1). David knew that the coming Messiah was greater than any anointed king. Neither David nor the law could define the Messiah. The Messiah’s reign of love could not be contained by human attempts to overcome it, just as the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes could not contain Jesus through their trickery. They dared ask no more questions from that day onward.

Think About It: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). What does it mean to love God wholly? Could loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind help us to love others— and ourself—more completely?

Study Suggestions

A. Open With Devotion

Sing a hymn celebrating God’s eternal sovereignty, such as “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale.” Reflect together on God’s steadfast love.

B. Review Moses’ Life

Begin by reviewing the highlights of Moses’ story (from the previous weeks’ lessons and individual knowledge). List these on a sheet of paper. Then read Numbers 20:1-13 and the material above in order to set today’s passage in context of the events at Meribah. Discuss feelings about God’s judgment against Moses, and the “Think About It” questions related to this event. Read Deuteronomy 34:1-12 together.

With regard to Moses as a leader, ask: How would you characterize his leadership? Why is he viewed as the greatest of Israel’s prophets? What aspects of his leadership would you want to emulate? Which would not fit our time and situation well? Then discuss Moses’ relationship to God, in terms of these questions: How would you characterize this relationship? What can we learn from it to help develop our spiritual lives? Discuss the findings together. In what ways is Moses a model of faith for Christians? What is his legacy?

C. Characterize Apostleship

Read aloud 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 and review the commentary above. Using Paul’s description of his behavior among the Thessalonians, develop a job description for an apostle of Jesus. What are the expectations of an apostle? the characteristics? Then ask: How do the characteristics of the apostle compare to the characteristics of Moses developed in activity B? Were there only twelve apostles or are all Christians called to be apostles? Are the expectations and characteristics listed attainable for today’s Christians? Name examples from recent history who would qualify.

Reflect about the vulnerability of apostleship. What risks are inherent in the ministry of an apostle? Is it possible to share Christ without sharing and risking yourself? without truly caring for the person or community to whom you are witnessing?

D. The Greatest Commandment

Ask participants to write from memory the greatest commandment and the second. Compare answers. Ask when they first learned these teachings of Jesus. Suggest that these verses be committed to memory as an act of personal devotion. Read Matthew 22:34-46 together and study the commentary above. What makes this encounter different from the other times the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus? Why was this a turning point in Jesus’ ministry?

Form three groups and give each a large sheet of paper and markers. Ask one group to characterize loving God with heart, soul, and mind, the second to characterize loving neighbor, and the third to characterize loving self. Have groups suggest as many concrete expressions as possible, then choose one to depict in a drawing. After the groups have shared their work, ask: How do these characterizations compare to those of leader and apostle discussed earlier? Which is easiest: to love God, neighbor, or self? Which is most difficult? Why? How are the three related? Why must complete devotion to God come first? Do we actually put love for God above love for others (even our family)? What prevents us from living out the greatest and second commandments?

Return to the same three groups. Ask each to develop a list of the changes that might take place if they each wholeheartedly loved God, neighbor, and self. Have them be as specific as possible. What situations in the world, community, family, and self might be transformed?

E. Close in Prayer

Standing in a circle, read aloud the above list of changes one by one, with the group responding, “Empower us to make this change in our lives, O God,” after each. Close by reading Psalm 90:1-6 in unison as an affirmation of God’s steadfast love and sovereignty.

Adapted from Keeping Holy Time: Year A © 2001 Abingdon Press

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