The season of Epiphany is marked by an emphasis on light, a symbol of the manifestation or revelation of God in Jesus. (Epiphany is from the Greek word for “shine forth”—thus, a manifestation, a revelation.)
The note of revelation through light was sounded in the announcement of an unnamed post-exilic prophet found in the Hebrew Scripture reading for The Feast of the Epiphany: “arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you … nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:1, 3).
It was continued in the words of another, earlier, unnamed prophet in the Hebrew Scripture reading for Epiphany 1, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, in words sung to The Servant: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is 42:6–7).
Then, for Epiphany 2, we heard a repetition and extension of that imagery of light, in the second song sung to The Servant: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). There was also a repeated indication of the worship that kings will bring: “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you” (Isa 49:7).
The motif of illumination continued on Epiphany 3, as the prophet Isaiah, some centuries earlier, foresaw the significance of the birth of a child in the royal line: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (Isa 9:2).
For Epiphany 4, the focus shifted to the way that people were to respond to the revelation of God’s ways, made known in the words of the prophets, through the testimony of The Servant, and even through the birth of a child. So, Micah proclaimed, “the Lord … has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).
Then followed, on Epiphany 5, the advice of the anonymous post-exilic prophet whose words are collected in the last section of the book of Isaiah. Ne advises the people to enact the fast that the Lord chooses: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (Isa 58:6–7).
Immediately following this, the prophet returns to the Epiphany theme of illumination: “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isa 58:8). These ways of acting are, as I have explored, central to the covenant between God and Israel; the prophet itemises a series of practical behaviours that would signal that Israelite society was founded on the justice and righteousness that God required through the covenant. That is how they were to respond to the illumination of the light, given to them time and time again. See
So each week, an excerpt from a prophetic text has undergirded the key feature of the ongoing season of Epiphany. Of course, the prophets weren’t speaking about our Christian season of Epiphany; but the compilers of the lectionary have chosen these passages, quite deliberately, to provide an ongoing focus each Sunday throughout this season.
This coming Sunday, by contrast, there is no mention of light, or dark. However, the passage chosen from Hebrew Scripture (Deut 30:15–20) does continue the motif of justice, as articulated by prophets before the Exile (Micah 6) and on return to the land, after exile (Isaiah 58). We are offered an excerpt from the final speech of Moses, the great prophet, as it was attributed to him by a writer many centuries later from the time he is alleged to have lived—the unknown author of the book of Deuteronomy.
When Josiah was King of Judah (from 640 to 609 BCE), he instituted a series of reforms (probably during the late 620’s). What drove the reforms was the discovery, in the midst of the restoration of the Temple, of an ancient book of the Law, at the bottom of a money chest that had recently been raided to pay for renovations to the Temple (2 Ki 22:8–10).
This book set out the requirements of the Law; when it was discovered, Josiah realises that the nation has not been faithful to the covenant, and that God will punish them. He consults the prophet Huldah, who advised King Josiah to undertake the thoroughgoing reforms of religion in Judah that characterised his reign. “Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel, and made all who were in Israel worship the Lord their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors” (2 Chron 24:33).
It is thought by some scholars that the book found in the money chest was Deuternonomy, or perhaps an earlier version of the book we now have. (The name, Deuteronomy, comes from two Greek words, meaning “second law”—perhaps a reference to the fact that in this book so many of the laws stated in Exodus and Leviticus are restated a second time.) There is no doubt that this book sounds a single, insistent theme, requiring that the people of Israel listen to the words that God gave Moses to speak to them, that they listen and obey, putting the instructions and commands into practice in every element of their daily lives.
Indeed, a key statement in this book is recited to this day by faithful Jews, reminding them of their obligation to respond to God’s gift: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:4–5, known for the first word of these verses, the Shema).
So this passage continues: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut 6:6–9; see also 11:18–21).
This central commandment is to be remembered and enacted at every time of the day, in every situation and place. Throughout this book, the people are regularly reminded to “keep” the commandments (4:2, 40; 5:10, 12, 15, 29; 6:2, 6, 17, 24; 7:9; 8:2, 6, 11; 10:13; 11:1, 8; 13:4; 16:10, 13, 15; 26:17–18; 27:1, 9; 28:9). They are told to “obey the voice of the Lord God” (8:20; 13:4, 18), the Lord who speaks through the commandments (11:27–28; 12:28; 15:5; 26:17; 27:10; 28:1–2, 13, 15; 30:2, 8, 10, 16). Loving the Lord God is at the heart of these commandments (6:5; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). In this way, the people “hold fast” to God (10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20).
In the passage offered for this coming Sunday, this requirement of diligent listening and faithful obedience is sounded for the final time in this long book; the people are instructed to “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut 30:19–20).
And so, the benefits of such listening, obeying, and holding fast are set forth: “if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess” (Deut 30:16).
We have already discussed how Torah (the Law) was widely appreciated and deeply valued amongst the people of Israel, such that psalms and prophetic voices could exclaim, “happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments” (Ps 112:1). See
It is worth noting that, in Hebrew, the same word (Shema) is translated into English by two key terms—most often, as “hear” (as in Deut 6:4), but on occasions, as “obey” (as in Deut 11:27–28, and other places in this book). The sense of obey, then, is to hear, register, and put into practice what has been heard—thus, to obey. Hearing is not simply an act of the ear; it is an act of the whole being, moving from what the ear registers to what the mouth says, the hands do, the heart shows. That is the full sense of the instructions that are given in this speech by Moses at the end of his life (according to the narrative setting of the whole book; see Deut 31:14; 32:48–52; 34:1–8).
In the verse prior to this section, the people are reminded of how they are to relate to God: “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (30:14). Hearing God, obeying the commandments that God has given, and living God’s way, are all immediately at hand—indeed, they are within the people. This is much like Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant, when “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33), or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, when God promises, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezek 37:14).
Indeed, this positive appreciation of the Law is picked up well in the Psalm offered for this Sunday, namely, the first stanza (verses 1–8) of the longest psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119. This psalm offers lavish and continued praise for Torah—identified variously as “the law of the Lord” (v.1), “his decrees” (v.2), “his ways” (v.3), “your precepts” (v.4), “your statutes” (v.5), “your commandments” (v.6), “your righteous ordinances” (v.7), and once again “your statutes” (v.8). These terms recur in each stanza of this lengthy, extended psalm of 178 verses, along with the familiar “your word” (vv.9, 11, 16).
The blessings of hearing and obeying this law are also set forth in this opening stanza of Psalm 119: those who hear and obey are blameless (v.1), blessed (vv.1,2), they do no wrong (v.3), keep the precepts diligently (v.4), have steadfast ways (v.5), will not be opus to shame (v.6), praise God with an upright heart (v.7) and are not forsaken by God (v.8). Similarly appreciative phrases recur through all 22 stanzas of this psalm.
“Choose life, that you may live; loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut 30:19–20). “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps 119:1). Or, as Jesus declares, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19).