Deuteronomy 29: Covenant Renewal - Signs of a More Equal Society
Mid-August is the time in England when those who have studied for high school exams in the previous months typically receive their national results, which affect their futures. First up are the 18-year-olds, who have plans for going to university or entering the world of work, and then there are 16-year-olds. who are making plans for their next stage of education. This year things have been especially difficult for these teenagers, as the lockdown has prevented them from being able to actually sit the exams they had been working toward and results have been given on the basis of predicted grades.
My own experience of receiving exam results is mixed. In one set I did very well, but in the next round I really didn’t achieve what I was expecting. I was distressed because I thought that it would seriously affect my future plans. In the end, I was able to take up the university place for which I was hoping, but it left my confidence knocked and made me wonder about my future. Looking back, I know that at that age I could never have imagined the path my life has taken, nor would I have ever thought that I would be writing a series of Bible studies for people who attend a church in a different country!
The British 18-year-olds receiving their grades this summer are stepping out into the next stage of their journey. For some, it will mean leaving home and attending university; for others, it means starting work. Yet even if they will still be living at home, life will be different. They will no longer be at high school with their friends. They are adults and entering a world that is different from the safety of the school environment, a world that is in many ways unknown and unpredictable–more so than ever. This year has been so different from what we all thought it would be. As we look forward, it is still not clear what the next few months or even years will be like for us. Life is looking different for everyone. None of us can ever really know what the future will bring, but the experience of this virus has brought uncertainty on a global level.
Read Deuteronomy 29:2-15
Those 18-year-olds who face stepping out of the family home and moving to start a new life at University–at a time of great uncertainty–are much like the Israelites as they stood on the edge of the Promised Land, wondering what their future would bring. In Deuteronomy 29, Moses gathered the Israelite community together to recommit themselves to God in response to all the teachings they had received. The large middle section of Deuteronomy is a series of teachings and instructions on how to live life in the Promised Land, of which we’ve glimpsed some over the past few weeks. Yet, even at the end, the very way in which the covenant was renewed between the people and God gives us further insight about a new way of being the community of God.
There is a marked difference between the way that Deuteronomy portrays this covenant renewal ceremony and parallel versions of the event elsewhere in the Pentateuch. In other passages, the description is of Moses and the leaders of the community gathering together to make decisions, come to agreement, hear the directions that God has passed on to Moses and make commitments on behalf of the wider community. What is remarkable in Deuteronomy is that it’s not just the leaders, but rather the whole community called together to make this covenant renewal between the people and God. This is not just leaders, men or elders, but everyone, including women, children and foreigners. The word here translated as ‘children’ is one that describes the very young in particular–rather than simply children–as if to make the point that this really does include everyone. And what about the foreigners? This is the high point of the people of God reaffirming their commitment to their God. This should be the one place where you would rightly expect exclusivity: this is not for outsiders; this is only for those of the covenant community surely? Yet even here we see that those non-Israelites, who had made a commitment to live among the people of God and had been accepted as such, can do so as part of the wider Israelite community. All are called and able to come before God–all equal, no hierarchy, young and old, male and female, Israelite and non-Israelite–and commit themselves to live according to God’s laws as they begin their adventure in a new land, to live in a new way and to trust that God is calling them to follow him.
It is also fascinating that future generations are included here as well. Verses 14 and 15 look forward to those future generations, the ones who would actually be in the Promised Land and be regularly renewing their commitment to God, and draws them into the message. It’s a radical invitation to stand on the edge of the unknown, alongside our brothers and sisters in the faith–those who are older and those who are young, those who have believed for years and those who are just starting out on their journey of discipleship. Then gather together to say we will seek to live our lives for God: we will order our relationships, our community and our worship in such a way that it reflects God’s passion for all in society, especially the weak and the vulnerable. We will step out into the unknown, into all that God is calling us, knowing that there is much that we don’t know, knowing that there will be hardships, challenges and sufferings, alongside blessings and unexpected joys, and commit ourselves afresh to God’s leading and calling on our lives.
Questions for Reflection
- What causes you the most anxiety about the uncertainty of the future? How does stopping to remember and reaffirm that we are part of a covenant relationship with God help ease that burden?
- When things begin to get back to the way they used to be, what are some of the ways we might want society to be different to enable participation in decision-making by more people?
- Can you remember a situation when you were included in conversations or decision-making, either as a young person or a junior person in a work situation? Was there someone in particular who was great at encouraging or supporting you? Why not spend some time giving thanks for them?
- Are there people in your life that you can commit to encourage and enable to participate more in decision-making? How might you begin to do that?
- What might you be able to do in your place of work, where you volunteer, in your family or at home to make sure that all are included and welcomed, especially those who are often marginalized?
- Is God asking you to step out in faith in some way in your life? What might a first step of trust look like for you? Who else might he be calling to be alongside you at this moment, and who might be a surprising ‘travelling companion’ on this journey?
A Prayer for this Week
This prayer is the Methodist church covenant prayer that is typically used at the beginning of each year.
I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
The Methodist Covenant Prayer
(Methodist Worship Book, Methodist Publishing House, UK, p.288-289)
The Rev. Dr. Jenny Corcoran
Chaplain to the Bishops of Canterbury