Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sifre Deuteronomy 26: Moses and David

 Moses and David

Sifre Deuteronomy 26 comments on Deuteronomy 3:23, the story in Scripture in which Moses asks God to allow him to cross the river Jordan and enter the land of Israel. The commentary focuses on the passage, “And I besought the Lord at that time, saying…,” among others, and independently addresses fragments of that passage. It discusses two leaders of Israel, Moses and David, and how they answered God for their sins. The text shows the difference between Moses’ and David’s methods of asking for forgiveness, and re-interprets the consequences of those methods as evidence that God will forgive a person who recognizes that they have sinned, recognizes what they are guilty of, and recognizes that they should be punished.

The first commentary on the scriptural passage focuses on the choice of the word used to describe the action Moses performed to God. This translation of Scripture uses “saying.” The commentary makes clear that here, “saying” is not simply an address from one person to another to be taken at face value and understood as one that does not stand in contrast to any other verb that could be used in its place. Rather, “saying” is one of several types of prayer and the word has been chosen over other verbs because of their connotations, which are to be understood based on context.

In Deuteronomy 3:23, “saying” is used in conjunction with “besought.” The commentary says that what Moses has said is explained by Proverb 18:23, which says, “The poor useth entreaties, but the rich answer impudently.” This can be interpreted as the author of the commentary saying that, since Moses uses the word “besought,” he is using entreaties, or that, because he uses the word “saying,” he is answering impudently. To agree with either would be to characterize Moses as either poor or rich, respectively.

After this, the commentary moves to the discussion of Moses’ request that God record his transgression. Moses says to God, “…let any transgression that I have committed be recorded against me, so that people will not say, ‘Moses seems to have falsified the Torah,’ or ‘said something he had not been commanded to say.’” Moses wants the sin of which he is guilty to be known, so that when the people know he has been punished and not allowed to enter the land of Israel, they will know the reason for his punishment and not assume he was punished for any other reason.

The sin of which Moses is guilty is having disobeyed God’s command that he speak to a rock so that water will issue forth from it. Moses instead struck the rock, which once before, on an occasion when God commanded Moses to do so, caused water to come.

Following this, a parable is told of a woman who gathered and ate unripe figs against the decree of the king, and was punished by being paraded in disgrace around the arena. The woman asked the king that her offense be publicly proclaimed so that the people will not think she is guilty of some other crime such as adultery or witchcraft.

According to Scripture, God told Moses that he recorded that the reason for Moses’ punishment was that he rebelled against God’s commandment that he speak to the rock.

The next parable tells of a king whose son was injured when they were traveling, and each time the king passed the scene of the accident after that, he would say that that was the place where his son was injured. The commentary draws a connection between this parable and what happened to Moses by saying, “Thus also God mentions three times the waters of contention…, as much to say, ‘This is where I doomed Miriam, …Aaron, [and]…Moses.’”

Following this parable, the commentary moves from Moses to David. The sin of which David is guilty is having caused the death of Uriah the Hittite and having married his wife Bathsheba. David said to God, “Let not this transgression committed by me be recorded against me.” This stands in contrast to Moses’ request to God that the transgression that he committed be recorded against him.

God denies David’s request by telling him, “It is not fitting for you that people should say, ‘God forgave him because He favors him.’” To not record David’s transgression would be to forgive him without David having asked for forgiveness. This is what sets Moses and David apart. Moses’ request that his transgression be recorded against him serves two purposes: it makes the truth known to the people, and it acts as an acknowledgement that Moses has sinned. Once Moses has acknowledged that he has rebelled against God, he is eligible for forgiveness. But because David has asked God not to acknowledge his sin, he will not be forgiven. Although David seeks the same ends as Moses, he sought forgiveness from God in the wrong way.

Next, a parable is told of a man who borrowed a large amount of wheat from the king. The people saw that it was such a large amount that it would be difficult for the man to repay the king, so they thought the king gave the wheat to the man as a gift. But when the man could not repay the king, the king sold the man’s family into slavery, so the people knew the wheat was not a gift and that the king held the man accountable.

In this parable, the king and the man represent God and David, the wheat represents the bounty that God gave to David, and the selling of the man’s family into slavery represents David’s punishment. The parable serves as a reminder that everything that David has was given to him by God, and David is obligated to repay him with obedience. Even though it may appear to the people that God favors David, God will punish anyone who does not fulfill their obligation to Him in exchange for everything He has bestowed upon them.

In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan tells David about a rich man who had many sheep and cattle and a poor man who had only one ewe lamb. When a hungry traveler came to them, the rich man slaughtered the poor man’s ewe lamb instead of slaughtering one of his own many cattle in order to feed the traveler. David immediately cursed the rich man for having no pity on the poor man, saying that the rich man is worthy of death and that he should pay for that ewe four times over.

Nathan then tells David that he represents the rich man in the story. Nathan reminds David of all that God has given him, and that he has sinned against God by causing the death of Uriah and marrying his wife. David then said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord,” and Nathan said, “The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.” Thus, as soon as David recognizes that he has sinned against God, he is absolved of his sin.

The commentary says that, as in the story of the men and the lamb, “So also all the punishments which came upon David were made multiple, as it is said, ‘And he shall restore the lamb fourfold.’” This is the author of the commentary suggesting that when David responded to the story by saying that the rich man should be punished fourfold, he caused his punishment to be made multiple.

The next section of the commentary says that Moses’ and David’s “meritorious deeds could have sustained the whole world, yet they begged the Holy One… only for a favor.” Then it is asked, “If those whose meritorious deeds could have sustained the whole world requested from the Holy One… only a favor, how much more so should a person who is not even one thousand-thousand-thousandth… part the disciples of their disciples beseech the Holy One… only for a favor.”

To say this is to assert that Moses’ and David’s good deeds entitle them to something. But it is also to say that the thing that God could have done in exchange for Moses’ and David’s good deeds was to sustain the whole world, and that Moses and David, by asking God for favors, forfeit the sustenance of the whole world in favor of the satisfaction of their own desires.

The next section of the commentary lists ten terms for prayer and cites examples from Scripture in which the different words are used.

Next, a parable is told about the people of a city, who thought of asking their king to grant their city the status of a colony, and they asked him after he had defeated two of his enemies, because they knew the time was right to do so. When Moses saw Sihon and Og defeated by God, he thought it would be a good time to ask Him to enter the land of Israel. The purpose of this parable is to explain the use of the phrase “at that time,” from the original Deuteronomy passage, “And I besought the Lord at that time, saying….”

Then, the text addresses the use of the word “saying.” It states several times that “Scripture does not use the term ‘saying’ except for a special purpose.” Between these statements, the text cites other passages in Scripture in which the word is used, each time re-interpreting Moses’ request to God that he be let into the land of Israel. The interpretations include “Let me know whether I will fall into their hands or not,” “Let me know whether Thou wilt redeem them or not,” “Tell me whether Thou wilt heal her or not,” “Let me know whether Thou wilt appoint leaders for them or not,” and “Let me know whether I will enter the land or not.”

The commentary ends by showing the distinction between two names of the Lord, Adonay and Elohim. By examining contexts in which each name for God is used, the commentary concludes that the name Adonay is used to refer to God’s quality of mercy, while the name Elohim is used to refer to his quality of justice.

Sifre Deuteronomy 26 takes the passage in which Moses asks God to allow him to enter the land of Israel and juxtaposes Moses’ relationship with God and David’s relationship to God to teach a lesson about not taking God’s gifts for granted and about the proper way to seek forgiveness from God. It discusses the meaning of “besought” and “saying” and clarifies the meaning of “at that time” in the original passage, and it also shows that Moses’ and David’s request for favors, which at surface value would appear to benefit them, actually would do harm to the whole world.

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