Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
At the end of the second blog post, I wrote that I would begin in this third to look more directly at Moses to see what the expectation of the Prophet-like-Moses might mean. To get there, I am going to return to Stephen’s discourse in Act 7. In the last post the focus was on verse 37. I encourage those of you still reading to consider the whole discourse but especially the central portion related to Moses in verses 17 – 44. One thing to note here is that Moses gets a lion’s share of this discourse on Israel’s spiritual history. This is appropriate to the setting. Those present were Jews, and ones with the luxury of studying the Scriptures. And they gave primacy to the Law (the Pentateuch). Many of them would have known the letter of these Scriptures as well or better than Stephen himself. But Stephen knew where he was going with this and the climax of his reference to the Law falls in verse 51. “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers. You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (NIV)
If I was handier with a study Bible or a concordance, I would have seen before that Acts 7:51 had antecedents in the Pentateuch. I had wondered if Stephen had invented the phrase “uncircumcised hearts” so that his hearers had little idea what he was saying. But a few weeks before I started this blog I “stumbled” on to the Pentateuch references myself, first in Leviticus 25:41 and then in Deuteronomy 10:16. I encourage folks to read both passages, but I am going to focus on the Leviticus passage because I believe it is what Stephen and his hearers had in mind when he made his accusation. I quote from the Jerusalem Bible which I was reading when these passages jumped off the pages at me. “I in my turn will set myself against them and take them to the land of their enemies. Then their uncircumcised heart will be humbled, then will they atone for their sins.” The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) renders verse 41, “When I in turn have removed them to the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself and they shall atone for their iniquity.” The editors of the Tanakh note that some translations of the Hebrew use “uncircumcised” instead of “obdurate’, but then make an interesting note that the word literally means “blocked”.
The context in Leviticus begins with a list of blessings for listening to the voice of God and keeping the commandments. It continues with a much longer list of consequences for not doing so. I am certain now that those who heard Stephen knew exactly what he meant and the citation. The consequences for disobedience were slavery and exile. They “blocked” their ears and stoned him.
At this point I am going to tell a story. In my life I have been given the privilege to meet many extraordinary people. One in particular has brought me smiles again as I prepared for this writing. I was going to college in Idaho in the early 1980s. It was a difficult time for me when many of my ideals and notions were shattered. I have written about this “wilderness experience” elsewhere so I won’t go into it here. I was taking a class in business statistics and was about to flunk because I could not see what the instructor was presenting nor follow the text book. I was just about to conclude that the “leading” to go back to school had been a mistake when an “angel” appeared. A woman saw that I was struggling and offered to help me. It was more than an offer, she jumped right in. She gave me copies of her lecture notes and worked with me to catch up in the class work. I was greatly relieved but also confused. Why would she offer out of the blue to help? As we got acquainted I could not quite take in what she was telling me about herself. She was Jewish and she and her husband were active military officers. She in turn learned that I was a strident Quaker, sure that I knew the right things to believe. I might have turned away just for the military connection but I was lonely and felt desperate for help in this situation. None of what I “preached” seemed to faze her, but I gradually realized that I was in the presence of someone who knew how to walk in love. She seemed to have a dearth of theology, though she was certain that her choice to follow her mother’s Judaism instead of her father’s Catholicism was right. I became a part of her circle for a time. This meant some visits to the Synagogue and meeting her friends who were active there. Some of them made me shudder with their bitterness and their talk of giving money to the Jewish Defense League for weapons. But I saw that they were attracted to her for reasons similar to mine. She had something we did not. It was more than an attractive personality. She possessed a lack of pretense and fear. She lived in a humility that allowed her to walk moment by moment in mercy. Looking back, I believe that she listened inwardly to the voice of God and was obedient. And so she walked in a power that changed things.
I tell this story because I have come to realize that this woman was not in the exile of bitterness and fear where I and her other friends were trapped and dying. She may not have articulated it but she had a humble, a “circumcised” heart.
Now back to Moses. I have begun to see a strong connection between the Leviticus passage and another in Numbers 12. There is a description of Moses in verse 3, “Now Moses was the most humble of men, the humblest man on earth.” (Jerusalem). I encourage folks to read the context here, especially chapters 11 and 12. It is not an easy passage and I had found this particular verse hard to take. Like most Americans, my picture of Moses had been Charlton Heston. But in the last few weeks I have begun to believe the real picture is different than the movie. The Moses who avenged the Hebrew by killing the Egyptian may have been like the Moses Heston portrayed but the Moses described in Numbers 11 and 12 is someone the cinema makers did not understand or believe. Similarly, Stephen calls out his accusers and their forebears for failing to believe and understand. I now believe the humble Moses described in this passage in Numbers experienced the “circumcised heart” he urged on Israel in Duet. 10. Moses was atoned from pretense and fear and he interceded for the people repeatedly even when God offered to dump them and start over with his descendents.
The Numbers 12 passage is difficult but it is the key to what the Scriptures teach about Moses and what a Prophet-like-Moses would require. The context is Aaron and Miriam complaining about Moses, partly for taking a foreign wife. In verses 6-8, God explains to them, “If any man among you is a prophet I make myself know to him in a vision, I speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses: he is at home in my house; I speak with him face to face, plainly and not in riddles. He sees the form of Yahweh.” The Prophet-like-Moses is not just any prophet.
That may not be enough for some of you but I am going to go on to another goal of this study, i.e. to lift up other passages from the New Testament that point to the Prophet-like-Moses. Before I can get to the question of whether Paul believed Jesus was the Prophet-like-Moses, it is helpful to look at the Gospel accounts of Jesus. Did the Jesus portrayed in those accounts believe He was the Prophet-like Moses? My answer is yes.
I point to the passage in Mathew 11 as my first piece of evidence. Verses 28 through 30, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (NIV) I point out that the audience portrayed here were Jews who knew the Scriptures, particularly the Pentateuch. The account begins with a visit from some of John the Baptist’s disciples. John inquires if Jesus is the one they were waiting for or not. In response, Jesus essentially quotes Isaiah 61 and demonstrates that it is fulfilled. But Jesus then goes on by talking to the crowd about John and himself. He sums up the opinion of many of them in verses 19, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’” So like Moses, Jesus seems to hang about with the wrong kind of people. And in case there is any doubt, Jesus goes on to claim he is “humble of heart”. His audience would have been as familiar with the Numbers 12 passage as they were with that in Duet 18. He says, “Learn from me.” “Hear me!” Here is how I read Mathew 11: Jesus begins by claiming the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 and ends by claiming the fulfillment of the prophecy in Deut 18. He is not just any prophet.
In the next posts, I will look at other passages in the Gospel accounts, beginning with those lifted up by real scholars.
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