Parashat Shoftim – Erev Shabbat 21 August 2020
Week of 16-22 August 2020
Torah portion: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Theme: How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the lord?
The theme for this commentary is a question posed in the parasha itself (Deut 18:21). It is a question of great importance in these days when our societies are so divided as to whose voices we should heed. As regards the question in the parasha, one suggestion is that we should wait and see if the prophet’s prediction comes true or not. There are several objections to this: the main one, to my mind, is that hedging our bets in this way would mean distrusting all prophets and prophecies, true as well as false, and would leave us not knowing whether or not to follow the prophet’s words.
Two Biblical scholars , one modern, one from the Reformation era, link the answer to the question to our relationship with the lord. This approach is based on the text itself: “You must be wholehearted [tamim] with the Lord your God.” (Deut 18:13] R.E. Clements wrote [p.272]: “Ultimately the test of true prophecy depended on its conformity to the facts of real life and history. Such a criterion, however, would be of only limited value, and needed to be set alongside a deep awareness of the way in which God had guided Israel in the past (cf. Jer 28:8-9). The fullest and truest test of prophecy was that it conformed to the spirit of understanding about God that Moses had revealed [as loving and forgiving, Exod 34:6 & 7].”
The 16th-century commentator John Calvin arranged his commentary on the Torah, titled “The Harmony of the Law”, by theme. He discussed this passage in the section on the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) He wrote that “In sum, Moses means nothing more than that the people would not be exposed to the danger of going astray, if they endeavored heartily [tamin] to obey God”.
In other words, our understanding of who God is and what God requires of us, should determine whose voice we obey. In today’s world, we are exposed to a wide range of voices. Which voices do we choose to heed? All too often it seems we choose those which reinforce our own prejudices. A recent ‘Frontline ‘documentary, The United States of Conspiracy, which aired on American public television, shows how readily people can believe the most far-fetched tales. One such tale concerns the shootings at Sandy Hook School, in Newton, Connecticut, in 2012. In all 20 children, aged six and seven, and 6 school staff, were killed, as was the shooter’s mother. According to conspiracy theorists, it was only a hoax, staged by advocates of gun control. ‘Expert’ has become a term of abuse, levelled at qualified professionals who tell us what we don’t want to hear: that climate change is real, for example, or that wearing masks prevents the spread of COVID-19.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. What if we try to be “whole-hearted with God” when we listen to the experts? Our planet is a gift from the Creator. Why do we continue to treat it so badly? 2. Our fellow human beings are God’s beloved children. Why would we not take a simple measure such as wearing masks in order to safeguard their health?
Bibliography: Clements, R.E., “Deuteronomy” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville TN: 2003); An English translation of Calvin’s Commentaries, originally written in Latin, is available at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/commentaries.i.html