I. Read 30:1-3.
II. Note the instruction is for the heads of the tribes but relates to all, that one must honor a vow made to God or an oath. Why is this delivered to the heads (the mattot), and why does this mitzvah/commandment come first?
(A. We get a sense by virtue of the name of the portion, mattot, that we’re delving into insights/directions that are crucial for the leaders to know and master. This may be especially important as Moses prepares the next group of leaders now that he knows his time as leader is limited.
Among the instructions he will give, perhaps nothing exceeds in significance the value of people honoring the vows and oaths they make.
B. How can a community fare well if this core principle is not adhered to? This is surely so for all its members, but perhaps none more so than the leaders themselves. If heads can make vows and oaths at will and not be required to fulfill them, whether due to political whim or change of heart or as a grab for power, etc., then the community will be rudderless, without clear direction, and likely not guided by the expectations of God (the One we saw in the second blessing of Balaam as sure and immovable).
There will be exceptions, say, for vows/oaths made under duress, or for forbidden purposes, or in another set of circumstances we’ll discuss in a moment. But, generally, the fabric of a community will be weak or strong based on the fidelity with which its leaders and members hold to vows/oaths they make. One reason these words are delivered to the leaders first may be that certain leaders will need to understand and be able to distinguish when vows/oaths must be enforced and how, and when they should not be.
C. And, finally, what are the components of vows? Words! It was through speech that the world was created. We’ve learned how words can give life and how words can destroy. We must be as careful with words as anything. They’re crucial and must be treated with utmost care and intention and commitment.)
II. Read 4-7.
And, yet, first thing out of the box, we read of a vow that can be revoked. Subsequent verses show how others can be annulled? How in the world can this be?
(Vows/oaths are central, and living by them is a must for all the reasons we discussed. But God wants us to be mindful of those infrequent circumstances when deeper core values, such as justice and righteousness and mercy, would be offended by the required holding of one to a vow/oath. Let’s put aside for now the difficult issues posed by this text about the vows/oaths of women in certain circumstances. Let’s at least recognize here that capacity (or incapacity) to make a vow due to age, etc. must be an essential matter in determining whether a vow or oath has been validly made.
III. After the battle with the Midianites that corresponds to the episode of apostasy at Peor that we discussed in the last two portions, we get to a very intriguing episode involving a discussion and negotiation between the Gadites and the Reubenites and Moses. Let’s get a sense of the story.
Read 32:1-7, 16-24.
What’s happened here? What do you admire about this deal? What concerns you?
(A. Moses rightly sees the comparison with the spies who split off and discouraged the community some 39 years earlier. Splitting apart from the people, failing to live out God’s covenant commitment, acting on one’s own self-interest - all of these things counter the direction with which God is directing Israel. So, Moses speaks up with deep concern!
The leaders of the two tribes respond constructively. They offer to fight for the whole community as shock troops (i.e., vanguard, front line), to assure victory in the land and its settlement before they come back to the Transjordan. Moses sees and appreciates this gesture, particularly the commitment that distinguishes it from the earlier episode.
Thus, a successful negotiation takes place in what at one level it’s a win-win situation, one in which there seems to be a sort of Divine acquiescence.
In fact, the way in which this issue is discussed and successfully negotiated and resolved suggests huge progress and growth from several earlier encounters. In the past, it was often fear or emotion or greed or weakness, etc., driving unilateral action that was typically destructive of both community and individual. Here there’s discussion, reference to both immediate and broader interests, work toward reconciliation and compromise, a recognition of the interests of each and all. This time it’s largely handled in a manner leading to peace and in the interest of heaven.)
B. But why do we have lingering thoughts that this is not wholly good? Note, for example, verse 16. Do you see something odd there?
(1. Moses does! Read verse 24. Would their talking about building the sheepfolds before building towns for the families perhaps suggest wrong-minded priorities, that their interest is more one of economics than the well being of the community? Further, does separating from the other tribes suggest a splintering inclination that is a sign of weakness for the whole, one that endangers both these two over time and the remaining tribes in the future? Some sages say yes, that these two, for instance, were most vulnerable in the exile that one day comes.
2. Read 20-23. What word use do you note in Moses’ comment here, and what does it suggest?
(Moses mentions the words, “the Lord” six times in these short verses. This can be read to suggest Moses’ concern that these folks may not be acting with God principally in mind, and that they should!
Yet, what was Moses to do? The two did commit to do as Moses requested. Did he follow the better of the alternatives? Don’t we face these choices in life? Life isn’t perfect; we act the best way we can, knowing there will be consequences either way. But we must choose and act, and Moses did so in sync with the constructive negotiation that took place.)
3. Read verse 33. Notice anything? Why does Moses commit the land that will go to Gad and Reuben also to half the tribe of Manasseh?
(He may have understood that the land was large enough to accommodate more. He also likely wanted to create a tie between the occupants of this land and Israel, so having half of one family in that land and half in Israel was a sensible way to do that. Further, Manasseh is associated with Torah and the faith, which was likely to be a good influence for tribes outside.)
IV. As we enter the portion of Mas’ei, we notice something very unusual. Let’s read a few verses, and I’ll ask you about it. Read 33:1-7.
What do you see? It goes on through verse 49. This is an account of all the stops on the way from Egypt to here. This is pretty dry stuff to the casual reader. Yet, what’s meaningful to us in it?
(Does it reflect different chapters, or even a longer trajectory, in our own lives?
A. Certainly, in the text, God wants us to remember the journey and its key milestones. God wants us to keep in mind and recall forever a variety of things, including the miracles and saving hand of God in our long journey from slavery to the land of promise. Further, we must recall where and why we strayed, how God rescued us, how we were strengthened. There were moments forward, backward, and sideways - moments where we almost didn’t make it, and many didn’t. We tend to forget the fear and anxiety and panic and loss that we’ve come through. We also tend to forget the miracles and the salvation. We can’t afford to forget any of this as we go forward.
B. Don’t we look back on mileposts in our lives and find great meaning to them?
A journey from narrowness to readiness for promise with all the stops in-between, with its mistakes as well as its growth. Maybe this is like growing up. Raising a child. Navigating a career or major events of life. The preparation phase before a new enterprise. A spiritual journey. Maybe something we look back on near the end of life.
Some keep scrapbooks. Some rely on memories. Recording and keeping for reference the specific narrative of our journeys is something that is really rather important for most of us. We want to remember where we’ve been; it is important in and of itself, but it also helps us prepare for the challenges ahead and to move forward.)
V. I want us to sample different readings from the last verses in this last portion of the book to see if we can see a pattern that makes up a sort of core instruction at the end. Read 34:1-2,13; 35:1-2, 6. Separately, let’s look at 16, 22-25, 30-34; 36:6.
A. Now, what in the world do all those topics have to do with each other? What rhyme or reason, what pattern, do you think is intended by these matters that are discussed in this sort of order at the end of the book?
(1. First, there’s an attention to the physical geography of the promised land, with the notion of order and a fair division. We live in physical space. There are dimensions and boundaries, and we are to be mindful of them, respectful of them, and live true to them.
2. Yet, we also go straight to the ethical and spiritual dimensions, for it is under the surface of the physical that the Torah wants to be sure we go ultimately.
We must divide up in a fair manner. We must respect what is ours and what is for others and the community’s. We must be clear on the rules and how we are governed.
We get a taste of some of the major issues within the ethical geography: that there be space dedicated for the Levites, those who facilitate our encounter with God; that there be a clear distinction between the treatment of the manslayer and the murderer; that we understand the process (and how demanding it is) for convicting and punishing a person accused of murder; and that the solution for the daughters as to inheritance be conditioned on their staying within their tribes.)
B. But we must go deeper now that we have these topics before us. Why are they here? What do they convey, separately and together? Why do we make such a huge distinction between the manslayer and the murderer? Why is there such a severe punishment for the murderer yet there are such clear and demanding rules that make it so terribly hard to convict the murderer?
(God abhors murder. Manslaughter is a distinctly different offense, and other forms of killing might actually be either justifiable or excusable. So, working at understanding what happens in each of these cases and insisting on the right consequences for each are essential.
As to murder, it is so severe it “pollutes the land” in God’s eyes and must not be tolerated. Yet, killing a person wrongfully accused of murder is really murder, too. So, we have rules limiting a person who might be an avenger of the killing (a real change in the ancient world) as well as strict procedures for deciding on a verdict in court.
This is a powerful illustration of the ethical (and judicial) process that is required of us in the land, and, since it’s so significant per se, it serves as a strong case study to introduce the people to the broad expectations of God as to ethical living in the land. In other words, there’s a fundamental idea that the land and the people (and how they behave) are linked - that the land is a promise to the people, and that the people’s living in God’s way is essential to the well-being of the land and indeed living in it.
As to the various explicit as well as metaphorical meanings of “the land,” that’s for another day.)
C. Finally, let’s get to the issues involved in resolving the property rights for the daughters?
(This was a superb illustration of the required balance between the fairness due individuals and the requirements for preserving a strong community. Plus, it’s a matter that must be resolved immediately since it relates to the disposition of land, which is top of the agenda when they enter. The broader task, that of achieving a fair resolution in justice and righteousness of the claims of individuals as against the needs of others and the community, will be a basic one in the land of promise.)
We’ve journeyed all the way in the wilderness to the boundary of the land of promise. The action of Torah is largely completed. We will soon move to Moses’ remarkable oration, his valedictory, which will take up the space of Deuteronomy. But before we go there, and we will next week, let’s relish this movement and the growth that has occurred as the people have traveled with God from slavery through all the trials and tribulations as well as the nearness and instruction and inspiration and leadership they’ve experienced along the way.
We’ve journeyed from the narrow places to the place of life as promised by God - how we are to live in the space of our lives in ways that are pleasing to God, ways in which we live out love of God and love of neighbor. It’s complex. It takes effort. It takes fidelity to God’s word. As we wrestle with such matters on our path to the promised land, we have learned to understand and appreciate the meaning and challenge of being in covenant with God.