Richard B. Couser is a grandfather. His wife Linda, two children, their spouses, and seven grandchildren are all faithful believers (except the newest baby who needs to grow a little before she understands her faith).
A Greek friend once taught me a traditional Orthodox prayer
known as “the Jesus Prayer.” It is simple; a single sentence: “Lord
Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Th e extended, continuous repetition
of this sentence is said to bring believers into a deeper, even mystical,
communion with God. I don’t know what effect such repetition has
on mind or body to add to the spiritual force that must spring from
absorbing the message of the prayer into one’s soul. Its seven words
contain all that is needed for spiritual life: confessing the Lordship of
Christ, the sin of the believer (without which there would be no need
for mercy), the plea for mercy, and the certainty that the Lord Jesus can
and will provide it to those who ask.
I knew a little, but very little, of such things when I first met Hal. I
had heard it at an early stage of my adult life as a believer of the practice
of “praying the Scriptures”—taking a word, a phrase, or a verse and
focusing meditation and prayer on it until it was absorbed into the soul
like the Jesus prayer. Despite my intellectual knowledge of spiritual
matters, my own life of prayer and meditation had been engaged lightly
and infrequently. I had never experienced the mystical union with God
from such prayer or meditation claimed by saints like Teresa of Avila,
Madame Jeanne Guyon, or John of the Cross.
Even at the “book-learning” level, there were times when my poor
and inconstant study of the Bible became stuck, wheels spinning in the
proverbial rut, at a point that seemed insurmountable. Deuteronomy is
a little-visited book, and it was just there that the mountain of Scripture
was planted in my path, with no way around. A visiting preacher in our
church asked once, only half in jest, if any of us could fi nd Deuteronomy
in our Bibles. Like too many people in the pew, even those who were
biblically literate, I could find Deuteronomy, but I almost never found
myself in it. Th e book is long—and long before Christ. For much of
its length, it seems to bog down in detailed laws that no longer apply,
at least to Christians. It consisted of Moses’ speeches and teachings,
but we had Jesus. It expressed the “old covenant,” but we had the “new
covenant.” It was, in short, too old, too long, too Jewish, and too irrelevant.
What was the point of studying it?
Yet many things about Deuteronomy intrigued me. It was Moses’
end-of-life speeches and teachings, summarizing everything he had
learned from the Lord and taught Israel for forty years. Surely the last
words of such a monumental fi gure in religious and world history were
worthy of attention.
It was also, I could see, a transitional book, marking the end of
Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, when the forty years of desert wandering
were over and the conquest of the Promised Land was about to begin.
Israel was camped on the Plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River, and
Joshua was about to assume leadership. Th e historical books of Joshua
through Second Kings would continue the story of the movement over
the Jordan and the life of God’s people in the land, a story of promise,
failure, and ultimately destruction and exile in Babylon.
And, I read in my study Bible, it was a covenant—a contract or
treaty document expressing the relationship between God and a special
people he had chosen to serve him and to exemplify to the nations
what a righteous nation under God is like.
I knew Deuteronomy to be a book embodying much of the law of ancient
Israel. A literal translation of the Greek title was the “second law”
or repetition of the law, and the title was appropriate. In Deuteronomy,
the laws Moses had given Israel in the three preceding books—Exodus,
Leviticus and Numbers—were sometimes repeated, sometimes summarized,
sometimes abbreviated or expanded. Modern Christians have
little interest in studying Old Testament law. But could the accounts
of people and events in both testaments of the Bible—including the
teachings of Jesus and his controversies with Jewish groups and leaders
of his time—gain meaning from understanding the law contained in
It was also, commentators said, a book of deep theology. One writer
called it “Th e theological colossus that guards the entrance to Old
Testament theology.”1 From beginning to end, it was a document of
teaching and preaching, filled with instruction and understanding
on right living and relationships between people and God, between
people and their community, and between people and other people. It
contained the Ten Commandments. It is the most often quoted Old
Testament book by Jesus and the New Testament writers; it grounded
their understanding of what the universe was all about. If it was that
important to Jesus, perhaps it should be more important to me.
My mind turned over and over its opening phrase: “These are the
words. . . .” Like the beginning of the book of Genesis, or of the Gospels
of Mark, Luke, and John, it held a promise of depth in what followed
that kept one at the beginning, as if peering into a well of pure water
whose shiny surface reflected back the face of the viewer and needed to
be penetrated to taste what lay beneath.
I decided to visit Hal again to explore these thoughts.
“These are the words . . .” (Deut. 1:1).
Anna and I had stopped on a couple of Saturdays but hadn’t found
Hal at home. I took her for a tour of his rose garden, knowing he
would want me to share it with her. Some of the names of the varieties
had stuck with me, but Anna saw color and composition rather than
words, beauty rather than thought. Th e garden, she told me, was a
reflection of the gardener. She told me to call Hal and fi nd a time
to get together with him. She encouraged me to spend as much time
with him as I wanted. She sensed this was important to me and to my
personal spiritual journey. Her own lifelong journey in the Spirit told
her this was the right thing to do, the right time to do it, and the right
person with whom to do it. Hal was happy to oblige my request.
I found Hal in his study on a late summer evening, when the early
chill of fall was in the air. He was sitting in a deep red chair, facing the
hearty fl ames of a fi replace. A soft, dim light fl owed from the floor
lamp over his shoulder. Two others lamps, on a table and a desk against
opposite walls, helped illuminate the room. Th e study walls were floor
to ceiling bookcases on every side, broken only by the entrance door,
two west-facing windows with small panes, and the space where his
desk was set into the bookcases between the windows. Like a condensed
library in an English manor house or an expanded offi ce of a university
professor, bathed in the suff used orange of gentler light, it spoke as the
dwelling of one who lived by words.
Hal invited me to sit in the shallower and harder green chair across
from him. Would he help me study and understand Deuteronomy? I
had purchased some commentaries by various academics and others
about the book, and I was willing to read them—in fact I had already
begun to do so. But I wasn’t getting to the spiritual heart of the book,
so I pressed my case with Hal.
He needed little persuasion. He didn’t have a lot of people to pastor
anymore, he told me. It would be a joy to his heart to share what he
could with me. He asked me to commit to meet with him regularly and
to prepare for the meetings, not just by reading Deuteronomy but by
reading some background on it, studying it so we could talk at more
than a superficial level. When I assured him I would, he reached for his
Bible resting on a nearby table.
“Open your Bible to Deuteronomy and follow me while I read,” he
“Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all the Lord had commanded
him concerning them. . . . Th e Lord our God said to us at Horeb. . . .
Th en, as the Lord our God commanded us. . . . When the Lord heard
what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore. . . . Because of you
the Lord became angry with me also and said. . . . But the Lord said to
me . . .” (1:3, 6, 19, 34, 37, 42).
“You see, Chris, that’s only the first chapter of Deuteronomy, and
already the words you are reading have been given six times as the very
words of God. You are not reading the great American novel. And this
is not a ‘page turner’ to hold you breathless until the next fictional
adventure. Rather, you have come onto holy ground, where the author
of all that is—the only fi nal and ultimate reality—has shared with you
a glimpse of that reality. You are peering into God’s mind more surely
than the scientist who studies the far reaches of the universe through
images from great satellite-mounted telescopes, or one who teases from
DNA molecules the secrets of the chemistry of being. And your author
is about to take you on a journey that will carry you farther and reveal
more to you than journeying to outer space on a rocket ship.
“Contemplate the very term word. Th e acts of creation themselves
occur as spoken word—‘God said’—let there be light, an expanse between
the waters, dry ground, living creatures, man in our image. God
reveals himself to humanity through both word and deed, but the deeds
in turn are remembered and told and retold through the word. Word
is communication, and communication is the essence of the triune
God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. ‘Word’ expresses thought, logic,
rationality, relationship, feeling, and fi nally becomes the expression of
God himself: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with
God, and the Word was God.’ It is in this—the living Word—that all
things hold together. Martin Luther wrote, ‘But to hear God is bliss,
even if He were to sound out the same syllable all the time.’2
“In your soul, you have sensed what ‘the words’ really are and are
really about. You’re afraid to see God. You’re afraid to know him.
Th at’s why you’re stuck in your journey. You aren’t the fi rst, but you
have this—few who read these words have any understanding of the
Awesome Presence in which they stand. You have felt the fi re and seen
the cloud. Don’t turn back. Press on!”
It was enough for the evening. I was seized with awe and a dread. I
thanked him for his words and fl ed into the night journey home. Hal
had pried the scales a little bit loose from my eyes. I tried to see into the
dark, beyond the short range of the headlights, all the while keeping
my mind on worldly things enough to stay on the right side of the road
and not be blinded by the oncoming masses of glass and steel.
“Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan—that is,
in the Arabah—opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban,
Hazeroth and Dizahab” (Deut. 1:1). Th e words echoed in my mind.
Many Rabbis believe Moses’ words in Deuteronomy were not all spoken
on the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan. Rather they were accumulated
speeches given in the villages along the route of travel—Suph,
Paran, Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Dihazeb, perhaps supplemented,
summarized, or finalized in Moab. Others believe that the villages
referred to are among the many nameless tells, those ancient mounds
that were cities or villages in millennia past that dot the Middle East,
no longer identifiable by name. Still others try to fi nd modern villages
in the area and transfigure the current name into a variation of the
ancient biblical name and speculate that these mark the boundaries of
the location of Israel in the time of Deuteronomy.
I saw none of these that night. As I drove through the little crossroads
and village squares of the several rural New Hampshire towns that lay
between Hal’s home and mine, I counted off their names as the biblical
towns of Deuteronomy: Barrington Suph, Northwood Paran, Epsom
Tophel, Chichester Laban, Loudon Hazeroth, Concord Dihazeb. I had
seen these villages before, from hills overlooking Cardiff in Wales, and
Monaco in southern France, as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles,
and Albuquerque in this country, and from the windows of a hundred
airplanes fl ying over every part of America and much of Europe. Th ey
were every town, and all of their inhabitants stood on the edge of the
Jordan, on the plains of Moab. Instead of deserts, forests, farms, lakes,
and ponds fi lled in between the villages. It didn’t matter. What lay
around me was as dry as those dusty plains where Moses spoke.
These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert
east of the Jordan—that is, in the Arabah—opposite Suph,
between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab.
(It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by
the Mount Seir road.)
In the fortieth year, on the fi rst day of the eleventh month,
Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had
commanded him concerning them. Th is was after he
had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in
Heshbon, and at Edrei had defeated Og king of Bashan,
who reigned in Ashtaroth.
East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to
expound this law.
Monday morning came and the workweek swallowed me. Telephone
callers demanding return courtesies, letters to read, letters to write,
reports to digest and act on, projects to move, meetings, people with
questions, people with needs, bills to send, the sweat of my brow by
which to earn my bread. Th e bright fluorescence and busyness of the
office environment could not be more distant from Hal’s warm library. I
was on the phone when the “notification” box flashed on my computer
screen. It was an e-mail from Hal. My heart quickened, remembering
our recent evening together. I clicked on “read” while still talking to
Chris: God speaks in rhythms as well as in words. Just as
the molecules and atoms and subatomic particles that make
up your being and everything else in the universe are bound
together in a vibrating dance held together by forces that
we give names to and try to measure but don’t really understand,
so does the Scripture cohere in ways we rarely see.
Th e Bible is a whole book, not a series of disconnected texts.
Like all good stories, it has a beginning, a middle, and an
end; protagonists and antagonists; a series of scenes in which
the main character, Adam, strives toward a goal that he is
frustrated in reaching, until he finds the path. It is, of course,
the good story, not a good story. But the music of Scripture
is writ small as well as large. Bars and measures have patterns
within themselves that go together to make up the whole
symphony. Look for God’s patterns in it. Read only the fi rst
fi ve verses of Deuteronomy until you see the pattern. Th en
tell me what it is. When you can see the small rhythms, you
will begin to be able to see the large. Blessings—Hal.
I rushed home that night and plunged into the text after dinner. It
took an hour, but eventually I saw it. Th e text began with Moses speaking
the words, progressed through a description of space (“east of the
Jordan”)—where the words were spoken—then time (“in the fortieth
year”)—when the words were spoken, to the core message, “Moses
proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had commanded him
concerning them.” Th en in perfect rhythm, it reversed order, speaking
to time (“after he had defeated”), then space (“east of the Jordan”), to
where it started (“Moses began to expound this law”). I picked up the
phone and called Hal with my discovery. His voice on the other end of
the phone betrayed his pleasure at my discovery.
“Th e technical term for what you’ve found, Chris, is a chiasm. It’s
a concentric structure of music or text that can operate on any level,
from the few verses you are studying, to the book of Deuteronomy, or
the Bible as a whole. You can see the logic of it in an English translation.
Th e poetry and music only come through fully in the Hebrew.
Th e liturgical churches understand, intuitively at least, something of
this, more than my own evangelical tradition. Truth and goodness are
communicated through beauty. Th e music and poetry of it awaken our
sensitivity to meaning. Th e Holy Spirit is not a hack writer. I think
you’re ready to go on.”
I had a practical question for Hal fi rst. “Why does God insert verse
two in here, Hal? Th e reference to the eleven days it takes to go from
Horeb to Kadesh Barnea seems out of place.”
“Th e point,” Hal said, “is to contrast the ease of God’s way with the
difficulty of man’s. Horeb is Sinai—where the law was given. Kadesh
Barnea was the place they were supposed to jump off for the Promised
Land. You are about to read that part of the story, but the bottom line
is that because of their lack of faith, it took the Israelites thirty-eight
years to make a trip they could have made in eleven days if they had
followed the Lord’s command. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Th e Lord our God said to us at Horeb, “You have stayed
long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance
into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring
peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western
foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of
the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the
Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take
possession of the land that the Lord swore he would give to
your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and to their
descendants after them.”
Hal was in a Socratic mood when we met next. He sat across from
me at a small table in the little coffee shop down the street from my office. Th e business day had not quite begun. To enhance the beginning
of their workday, people drifted in and out, picking up take-out cups
of flavored and specialty coffees. We sipped our own brew with bagels
and strawberry cream cheese, though we didn’t really want to eat but
felt obligated to purchase something to justify occupying the seats.
“Tell me about your education,” Hal began.
I recited my history: public school through the tenth grade, very
ordinary, followed by a couple years at a private preparatory school,
four years of undergraduate education, and three years of law school.
“Why did you spend nineteen years doing all that?” he asked next.
Th e early years were easy; I had, as did all children, to learn basics
that enable one to function in the world. After that, I was more goal oriented,
with the learning gradually becoming more focused on what
would be my life’s work in the law, work I could not have done without
everything that went before.
“How did you feel about education when you graduated from law
I recalled it well. I had been in school long enough. It was time
to leave school and practice the things I had learned. I was eager to
start my first job—to be a real lawyer, with cases and clients, helping
people, participating in the aff airs of life through my chosen field of
“And what does that have to do with the next three verses you are
studying in Deuteronomy?” Hal brought his brief quiz back to the
Scripture. I understood at once.
My schooling was the mountain where I had dwelt “long enough.”
When I finished my schooling, it was time to “break camp and advance.”
Th e Lord had put a world before me and prepared me to take
possession of it. Th e time for sitting at the learning desk was over—it
was the time of life to act. Deuteronomy 1:6–8 was every graduation
speech I had ever heard. I’d heard it at my own graduation; no doubt
my children and their children would hear it at theirs.
“But what does it teach spiritually?” Hal pressed.
His question led me on. We should move beyond being taught the
basics of the faith to act in the world as the Lord taught us to act. Th ere
comes a time when sitting at the Lord’s feet, at “the mountain,” is no
longer where we belong. Th ere are lands before us to conquer in his
“It’s the life goal of every pastor,” Hal said, “to bring his flock away
from the mountain and lead them into acting on the promise. I hear
it in Moses throughout Deuteronomy, and in Paul when he says of
himself, ‘When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me,’ and
in the writer of Hebrews when he scolds his readers for still living on
milk like infants, and not being ready for the solid food of maturity.
Most people in the pew spend their life at the foot of the mountain,
being hearers of the word but not doers. I used to plead with God to
give me one congregation or one board of elders that could leave the
mountain before my ministry was over, but he never did. Th ere were
some very deep and committed believers I knew over the years, some
who moved on spiritually to deeper levels, and some who took possession
of the promises God had laid out before them. But if success in
ministry means leading people beyond the elementary level, I’ve been
one of God’s colossal failures as a servant.”
His eyes were beginning to tear, and I was about to begin reassuring
him that he must be wrong, that he surely had led many to a deeper
understanding, that pastors always had to deal with the lowest common
denominator in the congregation—the new people constantly
coming in who needed the milk of elementary teachings of the faith.
But before I could speak, he pushed his chair back, signaling the end
of our talk. “You’ll be late for work,” he said abruptly. “We’ll talk more
about Deuteronomy later.”
I e-mailed Hal that afternoon to ask if he was all right and to tell him
I was eager to discuss the next section of the text. Verses nine through
eighteen were about government, designation of leaders, judges and
judging, things I thought I knew a little about. Hal quickly set me
“You’re not ready to talk about what you think you know,” he replied
by return. “Th e subject of government will come up in the text again,
and we’ll talk about it then. Just read the rest of chapter one, verses
nineteen through forty-six, and the fi rst verse of chapter two.” So I did.
Later, Hal e-mailed me and told me to meet him in the fast-food area
of the airport for coffee the next evening.
Then, as the Lord our God commanded us, we set out from
Horeb and went toward the hill country of the Amorites
through all that vast and dreadful desert that you have seen,
and so we reached Kadesh Barnea. Th en I said to you, “You
have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the
Lord our God is giving us. See, the Lord your God has
given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the
Lord, the God of your fathers, told you. Do not be afraid;
do not be discouraged.”
Th en all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead
to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the
route we are to take and the towns we will come to.”
Th e idea seemed good to me; so I selected twelve of you,
one man from each tribe. Th ey left and went up into the hill
country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and explored it.
Taking with them some of the fruit of the land, they brought
it down to us and reported, “It is a good land that the Lord
our God is giving us.”
But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the
command of the Lord your God. You grumbled in your
tents and said, “Th e Lord hates us; so he brought us out of
Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy
us. Where can we go? Our brothers have made us lose heart.
They say, ‘Th e people are stronger and taller than we are; the
cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the
Th en I said to you, “Do not be terrifi ed; do not be afraid of
them. Th e Lord your God, who is going before you, will
fi ght for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very
eyes, and in the desert. Th ere you saw how the Lord your
God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you
went until you reached this place.”
In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God,
who went ahead of you on your journey, in fi re by night and
in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and
to show you the way you should go.
When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and
solemnly swore: “Not a man of this evil generation shall see
the good land I swore to give your forefathers, except Caleb
son of Jephunneh. He will see it, and I will give him and his
descendants the land he set his feet on, because he followed
the Lord wholeheartedly.”
Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and
said, “You shall not enter it, either. But your assistant,
Joshua son of Nun, will enter it. Encourage him, because
he will lead Israel to inherit it. And the little ones that you
said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet
know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it
to them and they will take possession of it. But as for you,
turn around and set out toward the desert along the route
to the Red Sea.”
Th en you replied, “We have sinned against the Lord. We
will go up and fight, as the Lord our God commanded us.”
So every one of you put on his weapons, thinking it easy to
go up into the hill country.
But the Lord said to me, “Tell them, ‘Do not go up and
fi ght, because I will not be with you. You will be defeated by
So I told you, but you would not listen. You rebelled against
the Lord’s command and in your arrogance you marched
up into the hill country. Th e Amorites who lived in those
hills came out against you; they chased you like a swarm of
bees and beat you down from Seir all the way to Hormah.
You came back and wept before the Lord, but he paid no
attention to your weeping and turned a deaf ear to you. And
so you stayed in Kadesh many days—all the time you spent
Then we turned back and set out toward the desert along
the route to the Red Sea, as the Lord had directed me. For a
long time we made our way around the hill country of Seir.
Manchester Airport is a busy regional airport. Tens of thousands of
flights and several million passengers pass through it every year. Th e next
evening, as I took my place across from Hal with a cup of McDonald’s
coffee, the security lines for the evening flights were formed, and travelers
by the hundreds were moving in and out of the terminal, a steady
wave of humanity on the way to or from some business or family or
recreational destination. Someone has observed that all stories ever told
could be titled either “I Took a Trip” or “A Stranger Came to Town.”
Th e story contained in the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament, the
Bible that Jesus read—is of the “I Took a Trip” nature, a journey story
of God’s revelation to humanity, focused into the journeys of men and
women of faith and then of a people chosen to be a people of faith. Th e
story told in the Christian Scriptures—the New Testament, the part of
the Bible written about Jesus by those who walked with him or learned
from others who had—is of “Th e Stranger Who Came to Town.”
Hal sipped on his coffee and I on mine as we watched the fl ow of
people for a time.
“I thought we should discuss this section somewhere that we could
get a sense of journeys,” Hal began. “Watch the people going by. Th ink
about what the journey is, for each one—where they’ve been, where
they’re going—now, tomorrow, next week.”
I recognized the journey motif easily in the passage that made up the
rest of chapter one. Th e travel from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea on the
edge of the Promised Land, the mission of the spies, the rebellion against
entry into the land, the change of heart after it was too late and the
unsuccessful attempt at entry, and the thirty-eight years of wilderness
wandering. It was an abbreviated recapitulation of the journey story
told at great length in the earlier books, and a reminder to the people
of where they had been. In academic terms—I had learned from the
commentaries—it was part of the “historical prologue” that preceded
the requirements of the law that was to be given in Deuteronomy and
made part of a covenant between God and the people. But Hal was not
interested in academic analysis. After my summary, he plunged in.
“Journeys,” he said, “are not just travel in space. Th e journey of Israel
in this passage is a journey in space and in time, like these people
around us. But, more importantly, it is the journey of the spiritual
experience of the people. It covers most of the wanderings before the
entry into the land—a period of thirty-eight years—and the experience
of a failure of faith. Th ey have been brought out of the bondage
of Egypt, led through hardship to the edge of plenty, and promised
success by the Creator of the universe. Yet they refuse to go in, blaming
their unbelief on God’s evil motives toward them. Although God saved
them by bringing them out of Egypt, they claim he intends to destroy
them at the hands of Amorites. Although God loved them and carried
them ‘as a father carries his son,’ they claim that he hates them. It’s the
psychological phenomenon of ‘projection,’ where a person attributes to
another the same feeling that he or she has toward that person.”
“You mean they really hate God?” I asked.
“What else can you conclude?” Hal answered my question with a
question of his own. “At every turn, they do the opposite of what he
asks. Every time he shows them why they should have faith in him, they
are unfaithful. Th en the consequences of their unbelief are brought to
them. He sends them back toward the desert and tells them they will
not see the good land; only their children will. Th is is, in eff ect, a death
sentence—to wander in ‘that vast and dreadful desert’ for the rest of
their lives. Faced with the consequence of their sin, they repent and try
to make it up by doing what they’re no longer commanded to do—a
further rebellion—and the result is utter failure. At every point, they
act contrary to God, and the result is that the blessings are withheld
and given to a generation that will accept them.”
I wondered aloud with Hal about how I should fi nd the story relevant
to my own life—or to the lives of people fi ling by. Was it just about a
nation, or does it apply to individuals? Is it of interest only as history?
Or as moral teaching? Or does it represent something more?
“Th e Hebrew scripture of Deuteronomy,” Hal responded, “is written
with ‘you’—the people to whom it is addressed—in both the singular
and plural. Th e shift from addressing the individual to the group ‘you’
occurs throughout the book, often within discrete passages. Since
both are translated simply ‘you’ in English, you don’t see the difference
in English Bibles. In biblical studies, the technical term for this
is the ‘Numeruswechsel.’ Both singular and plural ‘you’ appear in this
passage. You don’t need to remember the technical term, but what’s
important is that the message is addressed to both the nation and to
“To me and my country, then, right?” I asked.
“For you, Chris, that means it is addressed to you personally and to
every other individual human being. But the heir to the Israel of Moses
is not the modern state of Israel, nor the United States, nor any other
contemporary nation. It is the church—in the words of the Apostles’
Creed, ‘the holy catholic church,’ the church universal, the community
of believers, or at least those who associate together and profess to be
“So it’s really for me and the church,” I said. “But how is it relevant?”
“As for its relevance,” Hal said, “this would be a good time to talk a
little bit about how we should interpret Scripture. We’ll need to deal
with this all the way along in our study together. Th e story we are
reading now is, first of all, history, and we can learn from its example.
It is, of course, history with a moral. Th e story is not told just to tell
it, and not just because it happened or is interesting. It is a story with
a point, a teaching, something we need to absorb and by which we
need to be guided. Acting in faith and in accordance with God’s will
brings success, while unbelief and hesitancy in the face of God’s clear
command brings defeat, disaster, and wandering without hope in a
wilderness. As the saying goes, ‘Those who do not learn from history
are condemned to repeat it.’”
Th e security lines were growing short. Most of the evening fl ights
had loaded and left; the sojourners within them were on their way to
the next stage of their journey, or to their destination.
“What else?” I asked. “Th is sounds like a literal understanding.
Simple enough. Th e Bible tells a story, the facts are true, and there are
lessons to be gained. Are there other ways of understanding it?”
“Th ere are,” Hal said. “Beyond the literal historical sense—and the
moral or example we can take from that—are the allegorical, typological,
and anagogical senses of Scripture. Th ese are not the same, but people
use the terms somewhat interchangeably, and everyone doesn’t always
mean the same thing when they use them. Th ey must be used with
“I think I know about allegory and types,” I said. “But what’s the
“In allegory,” Hal replied, “whole stories or sections of Scripture are
sometimes seen as symbolic or fi gurative of something else, ways of
expressing truths about God and humanity. Stories that don’t fi t well
with our current human understanding, such as the early chapters of
Genesis, or the books of Job or Jonah, are often seen as allegorical. A
great danger in allegory is that it can lead to fl ights of fancy where the
true meaning of the Scripture is lost in human imagining and we hear
man and not God. Another danger is that allegorical interpretations
become focused on words, or, worse, numbers, and fi nd hidden meanings
in the text that are supposedly known only to some inner circle.
Th is is the stuff that leads to cults.”
“And the allegory here?”
“Th e story of Israel is the story of humanity,” Hal replied. “God does
great things for them, and they turn away from him, afraid to follow
his commands, blaming him for their fears. In the end, they deserve
only wilderness wanderings and death.”
“And what about typology?”
“In typology,” Hal said, “particular historical events are seen as
prefiguring or symbolizing something that comes to full significance
in Christ. Th e crossing of the Red Sea prefigures baptism; Jonah prefigures the resurrection of Christ. Typology is usually grounded in the
Scriptures themselves, which often make these connections explicit.
Jesus taught that the Law of Moses, as well as the prophets and the
psalmists, all wrote of him, so we are not off base in seeing these connections.
Moses is a type of Christ in many respects.”
“You had something else, too,” I said. “A word I’ve never heard
“Anagogical,” Hal replied. “In anagogical interpretation, one finds—
beyond the literal, moral, allegorical, or typological—a spiritual and
even mystical sense in which the scripture has eternal significance
in leading believers to the true homeland. Th e anagogical sense of
Scripture is better felt than taught; it’s what comes from the depth of
contemplating God in prayer and meditation in light of the Scriptures.
When you understand Scripture in an anagogical sense, you will have
gotten beyond the milk of elementary teachings and will be eating real
Th e last evening flights had landed and their passengers disembarked.
As Hal and I parted, we passed through the crowds on their journeys
through the world, briefcases in hand, suitcases trundling behind them,
and children in tow. I had much to contemplate. History with a moral.
Israel as an allegory of humanity, its journey that of Everyman. Moses
prefi guring Christ. And that other word—anagogical—the deeper
spiritual meaning. I could think of far too many events in my own
life—and in that of churches of which I had been a part—that were
troublingly similar to the story of the spies, the rebellion against taking
God’s promise, and the resulting exile in the spiritual wilderness. I
watched the travelers in the airport making their way past, to cabs or
cars or shuttle vans, carrying the baggage of life to wherever they were
going. Every one was a human soul on a journey—in time, in space,
and in their spiritual life. How many, I wondered, were wandering
in the wilderness? How many standing in disobedience to God’s clear
commands? How many on their way to the Promised Land? How
many—indeed, were there any—who knew God’s words in their truest
spiritual sense? Did I? Could I?
I was glad I would be meeting with Hal again soon.