In today’s synagogue service, Jews throughout the world will read the opening chapters of the book of Deuteronomy (1:1-3.22). Verses 1:41-44 recount the Jews’ response to the admonishment of Moses:
Then you [the Jews] answered and said to me [Moses], we have sinned against G-d; we will go up and fight, as the Lord our G-d commanded us. And when you donned your armour, you made light of going up into the hill country.
And G-d said to me: say to them. Neither go up, nor fight, lest you be struck down by your enemies; because I am not in your midst.
So I spoke to you; but you would not listen, rebelling against the commandment of G-d, presumptuously going up into the hill country.
And the Emorites, which dwelt in that hill country, came out against you, and chased you, as bees do, and destroyed you from Seir, as far as Chormah.
His Grace was sent this exposition yesterday (by a Jewish communicant [before the onset of the Sabbath]):
The early mediæval Rabbinic commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, universally known by the acronym “Rashi”, explains that just as bees die immediately after stinging, so did the Emorites die following their attacks on the Jews. Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik (1886-1959) asks the question: “Why does the Bible inform us (indirectly) what happened to the Emorites, when the principal purpose of the verses would seem to be to inform the Jews of the dire consequences of disobeying G-d’s word?” He answers that it is to tell us of the level of hatred the Emorites bore us, and that we should be under no illusions that the enemies of the Jews will never willingly decease from their attacks, irrespective of the consequences.
In similar vein, the verses in Psalm 118:10-12 read: “The nations surround me; in the name of G-d they will be struck down. They surround me, they also surround me. In the name of G-d they will be struck down. They surround me like bees. They will be consumed as a fire burns thorns. In the name of G-d they will be struck down.”
The commentators explain that initially the anti-Semites besiege us. If the initial siege looks as if it will be breached, they re-double their efforts by re-encircling the previous siege lines. If this too fails, they attack us with reckless disregard for their own safety. Our only protection is a recognition of the power of G-d; but with that, they can be destroyed as comprehensively as a fire destroys a dry thorn bush.
The symbolism of the thorn bush is perhaps that it appears impregnable, with devastatingly sharp thorns; it is unbelievably hardy with an ability to survive with minimal water (which itself represents Torah because of its life-giving properties as a channel between G-d and man). It also bears no useful fruit. However, when attacked through the appropriate medium, it consumes itself speedily and with ferocity, precisely because it contains so little water/Torah.
This is meaty stuff for the Christian, too. In Deuteronomy, Moses is not simply explaining the laws of God: he is earnestly enjoining them upon the consciences of his people, and urging them to pursue a holy life under the Covenant. Israel’s greatest peril is idolatry, which is to be resisted and suppressed with uncompromising severity. Faithfulness to the Covenant will be rewarded by material benefits; violation and disregard of the Covenant will be punished by material disaster and, ultimately, exile.
The overriding lesson which pervades the whole of the Old Testament is that a nation that turns its back on the Lord will be judged. And God will use the enemies of that nation to mete out that judgment. You might think this absurd, but the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing judgment is ongoing:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.
And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:
Of sin, because they believe not on me;
Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more;
Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged (Jn 16:7-11).
God, sin, righteousness and judgment are real and present: they determine the meaning of the life that we are given to live in this age. But this age repudiates God, mocks sin, scorns righteousness and laughs in the face of judgment. It is no wonder that the thorn bush is being consumed.