by Henry Neufeld
“You have been rebelling against the LORD from the day I came to know you.”
— Deuteronomy 9:24
Let me suggest that you read the passage from Deuteronomy 9:24-10:11 and get the picture that Moses presents after using these words. It’s not pretty, and one can imagine the chagrin, perhaps even annoyance (though probably well-concealed) of the audience in hearing this recitation of their faults.
In teaching the Bible to Christian groups, I have heard a common modern response to this. “Why were the Israelites so rebellious? They had every evidence of God imaginable!” The same attitude extends to the disciples. “Why couldn’t the disciples understand who Jesus was? Why couldn’t they get it through their heads that he had to suffer?” These are attitudes that I would suggest come from 20/20 hindsight and 100% blindness in the present. We generally aren’t wandering through the wilderness for years, headed to a country that’s just around the bend, but yet we never quite reach. We aren’t the disciples trying to make sense of a person who claims to be anointed by God, but doesn’t fit into any prepared categories. Face it, Christians did not come to what we would now call an “orthodox” understanding of Jesus for a couple of centuries after he died. We’ve never come to unity on the details.
I think what we really have a hard time with in both stories is the relentless way in which negative experiences are reported. Israelite history is never told by people wearing rose colored glasses. The early church seems not to have suppressed the negative information about its leaders either. If they are spiritual giants, they are giants with flaws. In our world, this doesn’t seem quite right. We put in our best effort to make the people seem better than they are, and when we fail in doing that, we wonder what was wrong with them.
David Payne, in his commentary on Deuteronomy for the Daily Study Bible series, asks if this recitation is actually fair. Why don’t we have a list of the proud moments? “. . . the fact is that nations typically remember only the high points; few national monuments commemorate defeats! So a review of this kind helps to fill the gaps in a people’s all-too-selective memory” (p. 69).
Can we look at some of those high points? The Israelites did, after all, leave Egypt, they wandered for a considerable period in the wilderness, and only complained about food and water a few times. I suspect we would complain much more. They gave generously to build the tabernacle, though we tend to remember the golden calf much more clearly. There is, in fact, quite a considerable list of good things. Isn’t it interesting that we tend to remember the negative things more? Our selective memories grab passages like this.
I could write an entire essay at this point on how people tend to read scriptures and hear sermons for all the things that other people need to learn. It seems quite rare that we hear a sermon for the things we ourselves need to learn.
David Payne asks this very relevant question as he continues: “One can only wonder what events in Church history this biblical writer would have selected as typical of Christian conduct-the blood of martyrs, say, or the cruel religious wars of the Reformation era?” One might add on the positive side, hospitals, schools and relief agencies, and on the negative the crusades, the inquisition, and missionaries who operate as an arm of imperialist oppression.
In our lives, which should we choose to remember? Is my life a series of successes or a series of failures? Which do I need to remember and when? What about the life of my church or my church community?
I’d suggest that we need to remember all of these things, sometimes together, and sometimes separately. We need to be able to examine our failures when we can make use of them to move forward. The time of review is not a time of guilt, but rather a time of resolve. Let’s not do that any more!
You can’t get that resolve if you ignore the errors of the past, and you can’t get it if you wallow in guilt because of it. In this essay and one other (God Doest It, But You Do It!) I have reflected on the speeches of Moses in Deuteronomy 1-11. Those chapters review Israel’s history and how that relates to their responsibilities to God. It’s followed by a number of chapters dealing with the law.
I think that if we, as Christians, would take some lessons from these passages about acknowledging our own weaknesses and failings and working to correct them, we could open our own way to fulfilling the life that God has for us.
What items in your experience would you include in such a review?