Parashat Devarim: From the Wilderness to the Promised Land

Saturday 22 July 2023

Upholding Moses' Vision of Unity

"See, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that Hashem swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them."

Deuteronomy 1:8


The Hebrew title for the book of Deuteronomy is Devarim (lit. words) and is taken from the first verse of the book which begins with, “These are the words (devarim) that Moses spoke…” The weekly Torah portion bears the same title and covers Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22.

Deuteronomy reads like one continuous dialogue and constitutes Moses’ parting words to the nation in the final weeks of his life. The Sages of Israel referred to the book as Moses’ “Mishna Torah” (repetition/explanation of the Torah) because, in truth, the book is Moses’ final appeal to the nation, in his own words, to keep the laws and values that God had already instructed them throughout the wilderness experience (Exodus-Numbers).

Moses’ address contains rebuke, dire warnings against potential pitfalls, and the promise that no matter how far the Jewish nation may drift from God’s direction, the door to repentance and reconciliation is always open (Deuteronomy 30:1-6). Thus, the instructions repeated by Moses in Deuteronomy are communicated verbally from his perspective: “Moses began explaining this Torah, saying…” (Deuteronomy 1:5-6) – and represent Moses’ vision of what it would take for the people to remain strong and courageous, and faithful as they prepared to inhabit the Promised Land.


As Moses delivered his “words” to the nation, he did so with the understanding that he himself would not join his people in their conquest. He knew that life in the Promised Land would be completely different from the life they had known in the Wilderness, where God’s constant presence and daily miracles that accompanied them had become the norm. They would no longer enjoy the daily provision of manna that they received for 40 years but would have to plant and sow by the sweat of their brow and depend on God’s provision of rain to produce their food. Their new life would require strength and self-discipline to avoid the snares and temptations of their pagan neighbors and false prophets. Furthermore, they would need to establish courts and a government, forge social relationships, and develop the means to provide for and protect the poor, widow, foreigner, and orphan.

In verse 8, Moses levels with the people and explains that the challenge of securing the Land was a foregone conclusion. God would fight the battles on Israel’s behalf. The only thing that was left for the embryonic nation to do is to move forward in faith and embrace the free gift of inheritance that God had prepared for them:

רְאֵ֛ה נָתַ֥תִּי לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ בֹּ֚אוּ וּרְשׁ֣וּ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ

אֲשֶׁ֣ר נִשְׁבַּ֣ע יְ֠הֹוָ֠ה לַאֲבֹ֨תֵיכֶ֜ם לְאַבְרָהָ֨ם לְיִצְחָ֤ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹב֙
לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֔ם וּלְזַרְעָ֖ם אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

"See, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that Hashem swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them." – Deuteronomy 1:8

According to Moses, the inheritance of the Promised Land was a gift established on the grounds of God’s grace and favor for the merit of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As Moses would explain later in his discourse: “It is not because of your righteousness and rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but… to fulfill the oath that Hashem made to your fathers… (Deuteronomy 9:5).”

The notion that God’s favor is procured on behalf of a single worthy individual is a major theme throughout the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), and serves as a basis for understanding the role of Messiah as a guarantor in the New Testament (Hebrews 7:2). The book of Genesis as a baseline is replete with examples of individuals who lived righteous lives by faith, and God extended their merits to justify a multitude. For example, Noah was considered righteous in his generation for having done everything God commanded (Genesis 6:9, 22) and for his sake, the human race was spared. Abraham was considered righteous for his faith (Genesis 15:6); and so too – Isaac and Jacob – and because of God’s love for them (Romans 11:28), countless generations of Jews and non-Jews from every nation are, and have been blessed (Genesis 12:3, 22:18).

“As far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs.” – Romans 11:28

By the beginning of the First Century CE, the notion that God would prosper the nation on behalf of a righteous agent was well-established in Judaism. With this general purview in mind, Moses reminds the nation that there is nothing they could have done or could do to deserve the gift that God placed before them in keeping with the words: “natati lifneihem – I am giving it before you (v. 8).In other words, just reach out and grab it, it is a free gift!


The foremost Jewish commentator, Rashi, comments on Deuteronomy 8:1 as follows:

The land which the Lord swore unto your fathers Why does Moses further mention their names: to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob? But it is to suggest the following: The merit of Abraham would itself suffice, that of Isaac would itself suffice, that of Jacob would itself suffice, that I should give the land to you (cf. Sifrei Devarim 8:1)

Once again, the commentary seeks to reinforce the understanding that there is nothing else that Israel could have done or anything they could do to have received the gift. The inheritance was a measure of God’s favor i.e., grace, and Israel received it not by their own merit, but by the individual merit and individual righteousness of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Yet, as wonderful as this gift is, it still presents a dilemma: If the people are receiving an inheritance as a gift thanks to God’s love for the fathers, then why do the people have to fight for the Land? In addressing this dilemma, the classic commentators further draw on the subtleties of the Hebrew grammar in v. 8 to explain the underlying reason for why Israel was delayed in entering the Land in the first place:

רְאֵ֛ה נָתַ֥תִּי לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

"See, I place the land before you." – Deuteronomy 1:8a

Verse 8 begins with an imperative addressed to the nation in the singular: “re’eh – see!” The immediate statement that follows is the object of the imperative: “I have given the land before you.” However, the way in which these lines are communicated in the Hebrew text produces an unbalanced statement: The imperative is addressed in the singular (re’eh, not the pl., re’u), while the statements that follow are addressed to the same audience in the plural (lifneichem, not the sing., lifneicha):

It is worth noting for non-Hebrew speakers that, unlike the English language, second-person imperatives and personal pronouns are distinguished between the singular and the plural in Hebrew. Furthermore, while the switch from a singular address to a plural address mid-sentence is not impossible, it is striking and beckons further question and investigation.

The classic Jewish commentaries make special note of this unique linguistic feature and deduce some relevant conclusions for the present day that are based on the circumstances of the Israelite nation that stood at the edge of the Wilderness. The 17th-century Talmudist, Chaim ibn Attar (also known as Or HaChaim), deduces the following conclusion:

Behold (sg.), I have set the land before you (pl.);” The Torah switches from the singular re’eh, to the plural lifneichem, “before you (pl)”, because when it comes to looking at the land they were all alike. However, each individual Jew was different from his brethren in character, mentality, etc. Similarly, the nature of taking possession of the land and what it meant to each Israelite differed, so the verse's balance is in the plural.

Or Ha’Chaim’s observation bares a universal truth that is applicable to our own times: As individuals, we each have the capacity to think and express ourselves in our own unique way. The modern State of Israel is undoubtedly diverse as the world itself. And the Messianic Jewish community resembles that diversity as a microcosm of the Jewish world. However, the greatness of any civilization comes when individual parts are assembled and working together towards a common goal.

For the rabbis, they interpreted Moses’ diverse manners of address as indicative of Israel’s corporeal unity. When it came to the Promised Land, every Jew agreed that it was important. But when it came to understanding their covenant responsibility and relationship to the Land of Israel, their perspectives differed among individuals.

This observation hearkens to the very reason that Israel did not enter the Land in the first place: From the onset of their exodus from Egypt, and when God told them to move on from Mount Horeb, they were not united in purpose and vision.

The importance of our own time cannot be understated. The Apostles of Yeshua had much to say about the importance of individual entities working together to comprise a single part, and the necessity of unity in vision to manifest God’s kingdom as an earthly reality:

"Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Messiah. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so, the body is not made up of one part but of many" - 1 Corinthians 12:12-14

Herein lies the necessity to fight for the Land in tandem with receiving it: The process of acquiring God’s inheritance was designed to spur the development of unity. Part of Israel’s journey through the Wilderness to the Promised Land was to unite the hearts of the people to accomplish God’s purposes through them:

"Remember the long way that your God, Hashem, has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, in order to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not"

Deuteronomy 8:2

When Israel’s vision was out of line, the Wilderness trek was extended and their glorious entry to Eretz Israel was delayed.

The same can be said of our present exile and the unity of the Jewish people and the Messianic body. What is it that prevents the ushering of God’s kingdom in our midst, or the effectiveness of the Messianic Jewish community in testifying the message of Yeshua? The answer is simple, by and large, we are not united in our vision and we don’t agree on what it means to be Jewish or to follow Yeshua. In the meantime, the process that we are walking out as individual parts and being assembled is designed for us to learn unity through trial and experience. By overcoming obstacles and learning from mistakes in humility, we grow into the “house that is being built together for God’s glory” (Ephesians 2:19-22) and hasten the manifested reality of God’s kingdom in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom!

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