Preparing for our Lenten Bible study at church, I’ve been reading Deuteronomy. It’s the book Jesus quotes three times when he’s tested in the wilderness, and it recounts the 40 years of Israel’s wandering, the thematic template for Jesus’ desert experience and our own Lenten season. In that sense, it’s a good place to start.
But it’s not, in my opinion, for casual reading. Understanding what the authors and editors are doing, and why, is important for understanding any text’s value as Scripture. But Deuteronomy presents objectionable, outrageous material early and often in its opening chapters, most notably the recounting of Israel’s conquest of Palestine and the slaughter of every Gentile man, woman, and child.
Christians believe that whatever the Bible is, God is most fully revealed in Jesus himself. We believe that this revelation is present and ongoing; that it’s not confined to the Jesus of Scripture, that we know Jesus as a living, moving, communing, abiding God. We must view all other means of knowledge about God and the life God shares with people through our first-hand experience with and in the presence of Christ here and now.
Not all self-described Christians will agree with everything about this hermeneutic. There are many reasons for that, and I’m not interested in parsing them now. For me, Scripture, if it is to be engaged, must be engaged through the lived experience of the presence of God in Christ personally and in community.
It’s hard for me to reconcile the slaughter of children with the Good Shepherd who says “suffer the little children to come to me.” I grew up singing Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. I follow the Christ who says it’s better that a person should wear a millstone around his neck and be cast into to sea than to cause a child to stumble.
The historical Jesus is, as we see in the Gospels’ desert narrative, clearly well-versed in Deuteronomy. He silences the accusation and mocking scorn of the devil by recalling the promises of God. When I preached on the passage from Matthew on the first Sunday of Lent, I made the point of saying that Christians of good will disagree on what and who the devil is, but that we’ve all been deviled by unfair accusations (Satan, from ha satan, means “the accuser”), by people or systems tearing us down for reasons that have little to do with us. Many of us also contend with the lies and accusations of our own biochemistry. Whatever the devil is, ontologically, the devil is certainly in the details of the arrows and barbs meant by broken people and unjust systems to bring us down, to have us believe we’re not who we know we are, that we’re not worthy of success or happiness or love or redemption. Countering the lies of our many accusers with the promises of God helps us do in the desert places of life what Jesus did in his own wilderness journey: recall and proclaim our true identity as people fashioned by Love in the image of God.
We’re meant to contend with all of these things, and I don’t believe we’re meant to gloss over the parts of Scripture (or of history) that we find rightly appalling through our eyes and Christ’s. So I pushed through the conquest narratives and came to the requirements that God’s people take care of widows and orphans, that they deal honestly with all people, that the rich be given no special treatment, that the rights of the poor be upheld, that the resident alien is welcomed, enfranchised, affirmed. Then come the woes for disloyalty, and I can’t help but think of the typical neoliberal political concoction that characterizes much of what passes for modern politics: aggressive, militaristic nation-building, nominally progressive domestic agendas, the promise of ruin to all who won’t fall in line.
But God’s not a neoliberal. The God I know in Jesus doesn’t build empires. The Jesus I pray to died as an enemy of Establishment Religion and of the Secular State. Where is he in Deuteronomy, a book clearly concerned with the consolidation of a centralized, theocratic nation-state?
Maybe it’s because I’m a Food Truck Pastor, but I think the answer is food. Specifically, manna, the bread from Heaven God gives the Israelites as a sign of his continuing provision.
Consider Deuteronomy 8:
1 Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. 2 Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna,which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 4 Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.
6 Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; 8 a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; 9 a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
And Matthew 4:
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Importantly, footnotes b, d, and e are all quotes from Deuteronomy. Jesus says we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus himself is called the Word of God (John 1) and the Bread of Life (John 6). We do not live simply by bread, but through Jesus, the full revelation of God, the true bread of heaven toward which manna points.
As Moses recounts the story of the Exodus in Deuteronomy’s narrative frame, he stresses the ways in which God appeared to the people of Israel on their wilderness journey: as a column of cloud leading Israel’s sojourn by day, a column of fire by night, as a bush brilliantly burning on Horeb but never consumed by its flame, as blinding light, thunder and glory echoing from Horeb over the plains. He recalls how the people begged not to see God with their own eyes, believing with ancient mores that no one could see God and live. In the passage above, he repeats twice in the space of of a few paragraphs that the gift of manna, meant to remind us that, as Jesus recounted, we do not live by bread alone, was an act of self-giving previously unknown to the people of Israel and to their ancestors with whom God first made covenant.
When I read that, I found something I could affirm. “No one has ever seen God,” Jesus says, “but if we love God and love one another, his love is made perfect in us.” Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that all who have seen him have seen the Father who sent him. This is a reiteration of John’s opening chapter: As the Word of God, Jesus is the full revelation of God, God with us, God living and breathing and walking, the bread of life who assures us of God’s provision, who bids us enter God’s peace, who gives himself freely in ways we seldom expect.