Deuteronomy 31: 7-13, 19-23 [i]
Lauren J. McFeaters
April 30, 2023
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What do we know about Moses and Joshua? Although the references are relatively brief and scattered, the books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges give us the stories of Moses preparing Joshua to be his successor. Moses was taught by God. Now Moses is the teacher of Joshua and in that relationship, there are two primary responsibilities: that of Moses to teach and of Joshua to be teachable.
Throughout the Exodus and decades together in the desert, God has painstakingly trained Moses, that to be wise, you must make mistakes, and from those mistakes, you must fall down, and when you fall down, you must get up and try another day.
Moses has done the same for Joshua, and now Joshua must do the same for God’s people. It is God’s intention for us to recognize teachable moments: to be the teacher, the student, or both.
I hope all of us have memorable teachers in our lives; the most memorable being the ones who lead us toward those “Ah-ha,” breakthrough moments of discovery; perhaps in the classroom, perhaps not.
For me, one of those teachers was a professor at Emerson College in Boston, Ken Crannell who taught me, as an eager and chatty student, that most human relationships are formed in the moments between words; that human communication is 5% vocal and 95% non-vocal. He taught me to listen more than speak; to attend to the subtext rather than the spoken word. It’s a lesson I needed. A lesson I still need.
And there is Leong Seow, who upon my being able to read the Joseph narrative in Hebrew and feeling like I had climbed Everest, I said, “I did it. Job done. Whereupon Professor Seow said, “Not job done. Now you are ready to begin and to listen to the space between God’s Alef, Bet, and Gimel.” Mind blown.
Who are these teachers for you?
Yo-Yo Ma says Isaac Stern made him the musician he is by teaching him that music had little to do with actually playing the cello. He says, Isaac Stern taught me that it’s not the notes that matter; it’s what’s in between the notes, and what it takes to get from one note to another. Music is not made by hitting a key, by bowing a string, or by blowing over a reed: music is what’s made in between.
This is how God teaches and shapes us. It’s what’s between us: God and ourselves, ourselves and others. It’s what it takes to get from one note to another; one syllable to another, one heartbeat to another, by opening our eyes each day with a knowledge that it’s never going to be about the words we say, but about the actions we take between the words. It’s not what trips off the tongue or the strings; it’s living as those who in the silent beats of life, are never, ever forsaken, abandoned, orphaned.
Now, therefore, write this song,
and teach it and put it in their mouths,
in order that this song may be a witness for me.
Be strong and bold,
for I will be with you.
Do you think God’s song is about the notes? No.
Do you think God’s song is about the harmony? No.
Do you think God’s song is about a promise? Yes.
The Moses-Joshua relationship embodies this. Every Moses needs a Joshua. Every Joshua needs a Moses. Moses brought Joshua everywhere, exposed him to the deeper truths, taught him to listen between the notes; empowered his growth, supported him through difficulty; and most meaningful – introduced him to intimacy with God – the God “who goes before you; will be with you; will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong. Be bold. Be courageous.” It’s not a threat. It is a fortitude.
It is a fortitude. Fortitude: the strength that enables us to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage. It’s spunk and pluck, guts and grit, tenacity and doggedness, and it’s my favorite Yiddish word – hutzpah. It’s what Karl Barth says is a kind of holy courage – Courage, he said, is fear that has said its prayers. God’s Word does not make cowards out of us.
In her novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou tells the story of her childhood and of her growing up in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Arkansas.
Every few months or so, the Reverend Howard Thomas, Presiding Elder of the District, would come and stay at Maya’s home and oh how she detested, despised, the Reverend’s visits.
She says, I could not stand the man. He was unendingly condescending; ate the best parts of their chicken dinner; left little for anyone else, and his prayers before Sunday breakfast, droned on and on for so long that breakfast was ruined and the awaiting ham, eggs and biscuits were cold and nasty.
On one particular summer Sunday, however, the Reverend Thomas read from the Book of Deuteronomy. Maya Angelou says,
“I was stretched between loathing his voice
and wanting to listen.
Deuteronomy is my favorite book in the Bible.
The laws were so absolute, so clearly set down,
that I knew if a person truly wanted to live,
all she had to do was memorize Deuteronomy
and follow its teaching, word for word.”
“I also like the way the word rolls off the tongue,” [ii]
she says, “Deu-ter-on-o-my.
No one was going to ruin the book for me –
not even a preacher – the book, it turns out,
even in his droning and murmuring is a strength.
God’s Word is a fortitude.
And in God’s song of promises,
full of spunk and pluck, guts, and grit,
– full of hutzpah –
the notes do not simply trip off the tongue –
they make us bold, strong;
they make us Singers of God’s Song.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Deuteronomy 31:7-13, 19-23: Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. Moses commanded them: “Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns—so that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”
Now, therefore, write this song and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be a witness for me against the Israelites. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I promised on oath to their ancestors, and they have eaten their fill and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, despising me and breaking my covenant. And when many terrible troubles come upon them, this song will confront them as a witness, because it will not be lost from the mouths of their descendants. For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath.” That very day Moses wrote this song and taught it to the Israelites. Then the LORD commissioned Joshua son of Nun and said, “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you.”
[ii] Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969.