WORDS OF WELLNESS IN THE WILDERNESS

alternate textThe Book of Deuteronomy is also known as the Book if Devarim. Devarim is simply Hebrew for “words” and thus the 5th book of the Torah is called Devarim because it starts with the two words “Eileh ha-Devarim”, which means “These are the words…” The full verse reads: “These are the words which Mosheh spoke to all Yisrael beyond the Yarden in the wilderness, in the desert plain opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Chatserot, and Di-Zahav.” What is interesting and almost confusing about this verse is that, while it seems that the verse is trying to tell us the exact location where these words were spoken, no less than seven very different locations are mentioned.

From what we read later in the book we know that the place where Mosheh spoke these words, was east of the Yarden (Jordan) in the plains of Moab. So in Deut 1:1 only the words “beyond the Yarden” was more or less descriptive of the location where these words were spoken. Strictly speaking it was not in the wilderness any more – it was on the plains of Moab. So, the seven other places mentioned in verse 1, including “the wilderness”, seem to point to other places or other events during their wanderings over the previous 40 years. Many commentators have wondered about these seven places and have come up with a possible solution: These seven places were (almost like codes or clues) hinting at some of the times (and places) over the previous 40 years where the people of Israel had sinned or acted in disobedience against Yahweh. Isn’t that when we need the words of Yahweh more desperately than ever, throughout our lives – when we have sinned and walked in disobedience and find ourselves in a wilderness of confusion and uncertainty? Does it not make sense that, towards the end of a journey in which they have disappointed their heavenly Father so many times, He would approach his people one more time, reminding them ever so gently about the times they had grieved Him and then strengthen them with his words of encouragement, motivation and wisdom?

Let us take a brief look at the seven places or clues given in verse 1. (1) The wilderness. Here we do not have to look further than Exod 16:2-3 where we read these words: “And the children of Yisrael grumbled against Mosheh and Aharon in the wilderness and said to them, If only we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Mitsrayim” (2) The desert plain opposite Suph. is probably the plain of Shittim, near the Red Sea (“Yam Suph”). This would have reminded them of Num 25:1 “And Yisrael abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.” (3) Paran is the area from where the 12 spies were sent into the Promised Land and, upon their return, there was some more grumbling: Num 14:2 “If only we had died in the land of Mitsrayim!” (4) We do not know a place by the name of Tophel but the word means “foolish things” and it may refer to any (or all) of the foolish things that Yisrael have done during those 40 years and perhaps, more specifically, the time when Aharon and his sister Miriam spoke out against Mosheh – Num 12:11 “And Aharon said to Mosheh, Oh, my master! Please do not hold against us the sin in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned.” (5) There is also not a place called Lavan but the word means “white” or “lightly coloured” and it may refer to Yisrael’s disgust at the manna that Yahweh had provided for them – Num 21:5 “Why have you brought us up out of Mitsrayim to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our being loathes this light bread.” (6) Chatserot is the place where Koran and others rebelled against the authority of Mosheh and Aharon and were subsequently swallowed alive by the earth underneath them. (7) Di-Zahav is probably another “clue” that refers to a certain event of disobedience. The words “di-zahav” may be translated as “too much gold” and many commentators agree that this may be a reference to the golden calf episode, as it was later most fittingly described in Hoshea 2:8: “I gave her plenty of silver and gold, but she used it to make statues of Baal.”

The amazing thing is that Deut 1:1 does not take an accusing or a rebuking approach, when mentioning these 7 “stations of disobedience”. Not one of the transgressions is described in detail or even mentioned by name. This is definitely NOT an instance of raking up old stories (Afr: “Ou koeie uit die sloot grawe”) or opening up old wounds. It is no more than a gentle reminder, intended to make them realize how dearly they needed the healing and instructional words of the one and only Elohim. He is the One who committed Himself to remain faithful, even when they forgot their commitment towards Him. He is the only One who can help them to move forward into the Promised Land, leaving behind them the past of wrong choices, bad attitudes, evil thoughts, accusing words, and sinful deeds. He is the One who is able to inspire and equip them for the road ahead of them. How will He do that? He will do it through the medium of his words. The Words of Yahweh are clean Words, silver tried in a furnace of earth and refined seven times (Ps 12:6). The opening up of his words gives light and understanding to the simple (Ps 119:130). The words of Yahweh are words of truth and it this truth that will unite our hearts to fear the Name of Yahweh (Ps 86:11) and that will set us free (John 8:32).

Let us look, for a moment, at the role of Mosheh, when it comes to this stage, towards the end of the wilderness period and only about one month before his death. Previously, Mosheh, the leader of the people of Yisrael, acted and came across as a freedom-fighter, a miracle-worker, a mediator and a redeemer. But in this final stretch before his death his role has changed and the Book of Devarim is the final legacy that he left behind for coming generations. What is this legacy? It is a legacy of words. A legacy of teachings and instructions in which we come to know Mosheh as a teacher, “Mosheh Rabbeinu” – Mosheh, our Rabbi. Mosheh knew that very soon he would not be in the midst of his people any longer – he would no longer be able to do miracles, or plead for his people, or put up with their grievances – so, in the words of Jonathan Sacks, “he planted a vision in their minds, hope in their hearts, a discipline in their deeds and a strength in their souls that would never fade”.

This is where we can see what an amazing leader Mosheh had been. And even though we sometimes feel that we live in a world flooded with bad leaders and desperately on the look-out for good ones, the role of leaders still remain immensely important. We need leaders like Mosheh who know what they want to achieve. We need leaders who know the art of encouraging people with words. Leaders who can educate and inspire. Leaders who can stand on the side of their followers, having full confidence in them. Leaders who will never compromise on matters of principle. Leaders who are completely in touch with what is going on around them. Leaders who don’t see themselves as figures of authority in the first place but as teachers and motivators. Someone once said these true words: “When someone exercises power over us, he or she diminishes us, but when someone teaches us, he or she helps us grow.”

There are voices out there that are trying to cast a dark cloud of suspicion upon the Torah as a whole, and upon a book like Deuteronomy, in particular. They say it is filled with commandments and instructions and ancient words and phrases that are unrelated to our world today. They even say that we do not need to listen to Mosheh, once we have come to know Y’shua. This is quite strange, because it seems clear that Y’shua not only listened to Mosheh Himself, but used three different verses from the Book of Devarim to counter the Devil when He was tempted in a different wilderness that the one spoken of in Devarim. When He was tempted to make the stones become bread, He countered with Deut 8:3 “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh. When He was tempted to through Himself down from the roof of the temple, He countered with Deut 6:16 “ You shall not try Yahweh your Elohim” and when He was tempted to fall down and worship the Devil, he countered with Deut 6:13 “You shall worship Yahweh your Elohim, and Him alone you shall serve.”

Let us take heed of the words of the Almighty, not only in the Book of Words (Devarim), but his words and teachings in all the various parts of Scriptures, and let us follow the example of Y’shua, by using the very words of Yahweh, not only to counter the Devil, but also equip ourselves and others for every kind of wilderness in which we may find ourselves in this world.

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