Child in a rebel camp in the north-eastern Central African Republic
15The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.
I decided to add the preceding verses, 9 -14, to the reading from Deuteronomy this coming Sunday. Moses is speaking to the people at the end of their long journey through the wilderness, as they are about to enter the land of the Canaanites. He warns them:
9When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. 14Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.
It’s not the kind of thing we normally read in worship. A little too dark. A little too judgmental. It reminds us a little too much that these readings come from far away in time and culture.
But it’s important to be reminded.
Scholars debate whether the Canaanites actually practiced child sacrifice or whether this reference to passing through the fire refers to some ritual that does only that: a wave offering rather than an actual holocaust. My hunch is that these were real sacrifices – perhaps not routinely, but real nonetheless. Otherwise, why is Abraham on the mountain with his son and a knife? And why does Hiel of Bethel found the gates of Jericho on the sacrificed bodies of his sons Abiram and Segub?
Such a sacrifice is unthinkable to us – though we can cognitively understand the strange logic of giving to the gods your most precious possession to show them the depth of your devotion in hopes of gaining their favor.
But lest we think we are morally superior, we should consider how easily we also sacrifice our children. There are bodies of our young men being flown home from wars. There are children sacrificed to the sexual desires of their parents. There are children laying dead at the hands of a murder-suicide, children who crack under the pressure of success, children who wither while parents pursue wealth and power. We sacrifice our children on the altar of our parental happiness (You’ve heard it said about divorce: “the children will be happy if the parents are happy”. Really? We say that without blushing? Have you ever heard a child say that? We are not talking about violence in a home, mind you, or abuse, or such for which children would readily vote. And we’re not even talking about the painful, wrenching decision to divorce – just the way we rationalize it as a culture, as if happiness were the god we served.)
So we survey the bombed out villages, the refugee camps, the abused and abandoned children, and we have no claim to moral indignation at the ancient practice.
But God who revealed his name as LORD does. It was Pharaoh’s murderous plot against the infant sons of Israel that started the crisis in Egypt that led ultimately to the death of Pharaoh’s own child – a child sacrificed on the altar of the right to keep slaves.
Our country paid dearly on that altar, too.
This matter of child sacrifice is in a passage about divination, about the ways in which we try to gain secret knowledge and power from the gods. It is leading to this promise that God will not leave Israel without a prophetic voice.
Moses’ attacks the myriad ways in which we want to read the tea leaves, to access hidden and divine information to know what the future will bring, to know what we can do to guarantee success or to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Farmer’s Almanac does the same thing reading the coats of wooly caterpillars – and we have that wonderful little ritual every February to see whether the sun is shining on a rodent in Punxsutawney. We joke about these ‘divinations’, but we know the drill. If I could know which lottery numbers to pick – as vainly promised by my fortune cookies – if I could know what tomorrow brings, then I would be king.
But God is king.
It is our desire to be king, our desire to control, to conquer, to rule, to grasp the fruit from the tree, to be as gods, that leads to the death of children.
God is king.
And God does not deal with us by omens and tea leaves. He speaks. He reveals. And we are meant to hear, to receive, to trust.
This is the sweetness in this promise of a prophet: God will not stop speaking to us. God will not leave us without knowledge of him or his will. He will continue, day after day, Sunday after Sunday, to reveal himself, to encounter us, to proclaim his grace and love, to call us to fidelity to God and neighbor, to summon us to lives that mirror his faithfulness and compassion.
God will speak. And in case we have trouble hearing, he makes his word visible in water and in bread and wine. For you. For the world. For the lifting away of every debt of shame and sin. For the granting of grace and life. For the birth from above, the breath of his Spirit. Moses may be gone, and Isaiah, Jeremiah and David – but their words remain and God still speaks to us through them. God will not leave us desolate. He will speak.
As Jesus kept saying, “Let the one who has ears to hear, listen.”
Photo: By Credits: Pierre Holtz / UNICEF CAR / hdptcar.net at hdptcar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons