The worst fate a person can endure? That would be loss of self. It is not the same as selflessness, a desirable state of humility which YHVH honors. Loss of self means removal of what defines a person as a person. We see this in loved ones who slip slowly away through the ravages of progressive dementia. Little by little they forget who they are until in the end there is nothing left of them but the memory carried in the hearts of those who once knew them. It is a tragedy as old as humanity.
Some of our best stories spring from this loss of identity. Nearly 2,500 years ago Sophocles dramatized this phenomenon in Oedipus the King, a tale of a man whose birth was accompanied by a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The parents attempt to circumvent the prophecy by ordering the infant slain, but to no avail. Oedipus is saved and brought up by foster parents, completely ignorant of his identity. Eventually he fulfills the prophecy. When at last the secret of his identity is revealed, his mother commits suicide and Oedipus puts out his own eyes.
This motif of hidden identity and forgotten knowledge manifests not merely in classic Greek drama, but in every literary form. It appears even in fairy tales, where protagonists like Beauty’s Beast and the Frog Prince lose their humanity. Rapunzel’s prince retains his identity, but he wanders in blindness. Similarly, Hansel and Gretel lose their way in the forest despite their best efforts. Princesses also succumb to identity loss, as we learn from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Even Cinderella’s true station in life is a mystery to her prince.
The fairy tales generally have happy endings, or at least the Disney renditions make them so, but that is not the case in every tale of this sort. One might say this identity issue is a perpetual human condition. We make it worse by ignoring our history, severing the connection with our fathers and mothers of ages past. This ignorance, whether self-inflicted or imposed by other forces, is the foundation of George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It is also a reflection of prophetic truth uttered by two men of God in the 8th century BCE:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:6 NASB)
Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude is parched with thirst. (Isaiah 5:13 NASB)
Those messages were delivered to the two parts of the nation of Israel within the same generation. Hosea prophesied to the Ephraimite kingdom of northern Israel, which the Assyrian Empire conquered in 722 BCE. Isaiah delivered his warning to the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah some years later, prophesying the captivity in Babylon that would occur just over a century afterward. Neither event should have been a surprise to the people of Israel and Judah. Moses declared in the Torah that conquest and exile would be the judgment for violation of YHVH’s Covenant (Leviticus 26:27-39; Deuteronomy 4:25-28, 28:63-65). But that was precisely the problem: by the time Hosea and Isaiah began prophesying, the people had drifted so far from the Torah that they had no clear idea what was in it. Israel had departed from the ways of the Lord when Jeroboam I led the Ten Tribes in rebellion against King David’s grandson Rehoboam (I Kings 12:1-33). Judah remained faithful at least outwardly, but by the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE) the Torah was forgotten (II Kings 22:8-13). Both kingdoms still worshipped YHVH, but the insidious corruption of idolatry crept into their hearts and minds, making their worship of the Holy One indistinguishable from the wicked perversions of the nations around them. It happened because they chose little by little to ignore the Lord’s instructions given through Moses, and YHVH’s continued exhortations through the prophets. Truly the people perished for lack of knowledge.
The knowledge they spurned permeates the last words of Moses, particularly in Deuteronomy 27:1-26, 28:15-68. In those passages he lists the curses the people are to pronounce on those who disobey YHVH’s commandments, and the consequences of that disobedience. He continues with this theme in Nitzavim (You Are Standing, Deuteronomy 29:10-30:20). Consider these ominous provisions:
Now the generation to come, your sons who rise up after you and the foreigner who comes from a distant land, when they see the plagues of the land and the diseases with which the Lord has afflicted it, will say, “All its land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows in it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in His anger and in His wrath.” All the nations will say, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?” Then men will say, “Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they have not known and whom He had not allotted to them. Therefore, the anger of the Lord burned against that land, to bring upon it every curse which is written in this book; and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and in fury and in great wrath, and cast them into another land, as it is this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:22-28 NASB)
The testimonies of Scripture and of history tell us that all this has indeed come to pass. It is a story written in the wanderings of the Jewish people, the only visible remnant of the nation of Israel to this day. They at least retain knowledge of who they are; the people of Ephraim lost their identity completely, experiencing a type of national amnesia as they ceased being a people and were scattered into the nations (Hosea 1:1-2:23; Romans 9:22-29; I Peter 2:9-10). Yet the story does not end there. Moses goes on to say something quite remarkable:
So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. (Deuteronomy 30:1-6 NASB)
Ah, so there is a happy ending after all! The people of Israel get to come back to the Land, and they come back as humble, obedient servants of the Lord God.
Has this happened yet? Yes, and no. Judah is returning, and by the grace of God has reestablished the Jewish State of Israel. However, the Jewish people are by no means the humble spiritual giants one would expect from this passage. There are many persons of faith among the Jews, but for the most part they are a secular people, whether they live in the Land of Israel or remain in the Diaspora among the nations. Apparently this shall be the case until the Ephraimite House of Israel begins to return, initiating a process that will not be complete until Messiah’s appearing (Zechariah 12:10-11). If that is so, then perhaps we should try to understand the identity of Ephraim, if for no other reason than to abide by YHVH’s exhortation to bless Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3).
It is not difficult to uncover Ephraim’s identity. The search begins with Moses’ explanation of who exactly is included in this Covenant with Almighty God. In Ki Tavo, the previous Torah portion, Moses indicates that the Covenant applies not only to the Israelites who left Egypt and heard YHVH’s voice at Mount Sinai, but also to the next generation, meaning the people he was addressing at that very moment. In this portion he once again expands the Covenant’s application through time:
Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today. . . . (Deuteronomy 29:14-15 NASB)
Who exactly would these people be who “are not with us here today”? Perhaps the words of Yeshua can help us. In the prayer He uttered after the Passover Seder on the night of His betrayal, Yeshua prayed this on behalf of His disciples:
I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:20-21 NASB)
Christian understanding of these words is that Yeshua included the spiritual descendants of His disciples in this prayer, linking all who would believe in His Name through time. At that same Passover meal, Yeshua linked His life’s blood to the New (or Renewed) Covenant the Lord would establish with the House of Judah and the House of Israel (Luke 22:20-21; I Corinthians 11:25; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-11). That linkage gives the Apostle Paul confidence to assert confidence that everyone who accepts the atoning sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua as God’s gift of salvation by grace, regardless of genealogy or station in life, is adopted into the nation of Israel and becomes a descendant of Abraham (Ephesians 2:11-13; Galatians 3:26-29).
Paul did more than that. In another letter he links believers in Messiah with the fallen House of Israel by making direct reference to Hosea’s prophecies:
What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. As He says also in Hosea, “I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’ and her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’” “And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not My people,’ there they shall be called sons of the living God.” (Romans 9:22-26 NASB, quoting Hosea 1:10 and 2:23)
This passage in Romans 9 is part of the apostle’s essay explaining how people from among the Gentiles become part of the nation of Israel (Romans 9:1-11:36). The culmination of his argument is the illustration of Gentile believers in Yeshua as wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:17-24). In that same essay he makes reference to Nitzavim, citing Moses’ explanation of the Covenant in terms of how Messiah makes its fulfillment possible.
For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:5-13 NASB, quoting Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
Christian teaching often upholds this passage as establishing the difference between Law and Grace. That, however, is not what Paul intends. To understand his meaning we must look at Moses’ words in context. Those words come immediately after Moses issues the promise that YHVH will restore the nation of Israel in the latter days, once they have experienced the curses of disobedience and come to their senses:
Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. The Lord your God will inflict all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. And you shall again obey the Lord, and observe all His commandments which I command you today. Then the Lord your God will prosper you abundantly in all the work of your hand, in the offspring of your body and in the offspring of your cattle and in the produce of your ground, for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, just as He rejoiced over your fathers; if you obey the Lord your God to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this book of the law, if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:6-14 NASB, emphasis added)
Here is a message of hope, one that Christians should understand quite well. This is the New Covenant, the promise to replace our rebellious, stony hearts, with new hearts on which the Holy Spirit can write the Law of our God so that we may live by its precepts and be blessed (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 11:14-20). It is not a question of Grace replacing Law, but of YHVH’s Grace bringing us back into relationship with Him so that we may live according to His Law. That is His purpose in creating a nation He calls His own, so that this nation of Israel may serve as the example to all nations about how to escape death and serve as His vehicle for bringing them into life. To do that, however, the nation must first choose life, which is the next part of Moses’ instruction:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 NASB, emphasis added)
By now it should be clear that this instruction applies to all of Israel throughout all ages, but especially to that generation of Israelites who shall understand the full revelation of God’s mystery. That is our generation. It is only now that we who have been grafted into (or back into) the nation by the Blood of Yeshua are awakening to the fact that we are indeed part of the nation, descendants of Abraham as surely as our brethren of Judah. With this healing of our national amnesia we are coming to our senses regarding the Torah of YHVH, understanding at last its continuing applicability to all people and our relationship to it. This lesson could not be learned before now. It required the pain and suffering of our ancestors of Judah and Ephraim over the ages to teach us the folly of departing from YHVH and His commandments. It is a lesson we could understand only in hindsight, and which we can apply with our whole heart only now that the Lord has begun to circumcise our hearts so that we will not wander from Him again. We know the cost now, and we know that we cannot bear it – neither we, nor our children, nor even our fathers and mothers who came before us. And thus we have come to understand something else which Moses said:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29 NASB)
I shall make mention of the lovingkindnesses of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has granted them according to His compassion and according to the abundance of His lovingkindnesses. For He said, “Surely, they are My people, sons who will not deal falsely.” So He became their Savior. In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His mercy He redeemed them, and He lifted them and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:7-9 NASB)