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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A comment from Ellis Hein
Thanks for post #3. Without providing details, I must say I have found it helpful.
After reading through it one evening, I was wakeful at about 3:00 a.m. Lying in bed, I watched a picture developing. I saw a large fish deep in a clear pool of water slowly swimming to the top. When the fish reached the surface, it turned into instructions to look for references about "ears that hear not" and "he who has ears, let him hear."
The connection is your statement that the meaning of uncircumcised is blocked; so a blocked heart or blocked ears. For instance see Isaiah 6:9-10 and Matt. 13:14-15. These two passages are similar except Jesus's rendering of the Isaiah passage leaves no doubt about who has provided the block. "You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are grown heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.
Though not in the recorded sequence, this takes me back to John the Baptist sending his disciples to ask Jesus if they should look for someone else. Jesus tells them to return to John with the information that the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf are unstopped, those who can't walk are given the use of their limbs, etc.
That has always meant physical miracles as far as I understood, but this is not what Jesus is referring to, nor is it what John would understand.
Psalms 115:3-8 and 135:15-18 says:
Idols have mouths but do not speak
eyes but don't see
ears but do not hear
noses but do not smell
hands but do not feel
feet but do not walk
they make no noise in their throats.
"Those who make idols are like them; so are all who trust in them."
The prophet like Moses was to displace dependence upon idolatry and the fruits of idolatry. The chief requirement of the people of God concerning this prophet was to hear him. Under the ministration of Moses, the people did not have eyes to see, ears to hear, or minds to understand. (Deut. 29:4). They were to guard against a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit wherein they bless themselves in their hearts saying, "I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart." (Deut. 29:18-20) This would bring the curse, "Cursed shall you be in the field, cursed shall you be in the city. Cursed shall be your basket and kneading trough. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock." (Deut. 28:16-18) "Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies...in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and want of all things. " (Deut. 28:47-48)
Thus Jeremiah complains (Jer. 5:20-25), "O foolish and senseless people who have eyes but see not and ears but hear not...This people has a stubborn and rebellious heart...They do not say in their hearts, 'Let us fear the Lord our God who gives rain in its season...the weeks appointed for harvest.' Your iniquities have turned these away, and your sins have kept good from you."
Under the ministration of the prophet like Moses, the eyes are opened and can see, the ears are unblocked and can hear, the heart is circumcised and can understand, the crippled limbs are restored. All the effects of idolatry are reversed.
Jesus often said to the Jews (as in Matt. 11:15, 13:9, 13:43 and elsewhere). He who has ears to hear, let him hear. His hearers would understand the portions alluded to and the reason for "having ears that couldn't hear." This was both accusation and invitation. Accusation that his hearers were like the blind, deaf, dumb, immobile idols they worshipped in their heart. (Maybe not a physical idol but not the living, speaking God of Abraham.) The invitation is to come that my ears be healed, be unblocked.
Under the ministration of Moses, the command was "Six days shall you labor; the seventh shall be a Sabbath to you." Under the ministration of the prophet like Moses we come to different command. "Today when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness when your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked and said, 'They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.' As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall never enter my rest.' Take care brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil unbelieving heart (a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit), leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day...that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." (That none of you come to have uncircumcised hearts. ) Heb. 3:7-13)
This is the rest granted by the prophet like Moses: Today when you hear my voice do not uncircumcised your hearts, do not block your ears. In this we can rest from all our own works and come to the restoration from the fall, to the work of God completed.
Now when the Jews were enraged by Stehpen's defense, they, with one accord, stopped their ears...
Thank you for this rich and valuable contribution. You have anticipated some of things I was coming to say and gone well ahead of what had come to me to address.
I will respond to some of this. I also believe that Jesus repeated use of the phrase "he who has ears, let him hear," is a more than just an exhortation to take in the specific teaching of the moment. I believe that he was calling to the minds and hearts of his audience to take note because of the exhortation in Deut. 18. This phrase gave additional weight to his teaching because it is really a rephrase of the command, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from aong your own people; him shall you heed." Each time Jesus repeated this phrase, he repeated his claim that he was the one to Heed. It was time to Hear! The one who was to come has come. It is time to Listen.
I also agree, Ellis, that Jesus's answer to John's disciples was basically a claim that the prophecy of Deut. 18 was being fulfilled before them. The specific reference is to Isaiah 61, but the way Jesus uses it moves beyond the outward manifestation of the miracles. When Jesus visits Nazareth, he reads this same passage in the Synagogue. After he sits down and they are waiting expectantly, he tells them, "Today, this is fulfilled in your Hearing!" They looked for outward signs and he told them he was the one to be heeded because he was the one raised up. It did not go down well.