Derek Leman had interesting thoughts in his August 7 Daily Portion. Deuteronomy frequently states that God has set God’s name to dwell in the sanctuary, rather than saying that God personally dwells there. Derek, engaging Stephen Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy, offers possible reasons why. Enjoy!
“God’s presence in Deuteronomy,” says Stephen Cook (Reading Deuteronomy), “. . . is mysterious.” The author here has a new way of describing the connection between God and the temple, between God and the people. Instead of insisting as the priestly texts of Torah do that God’s visible manifestation is always inside the shrine, Deuteronomy says his “name” is at the place. As Cook says, “The book emphasizes a striking presence and absence of God.”
Israel’s history up to that point has included many close encounters with God. God had brought Israel out “by his Presence,” in other words, in person in a tangible appearance (Deuteronomy 4:37). The people heard God speak out of the fire on Sinai (4:33). God went “before them” during the conquest in Joshua’s time (1:30; 9:3). God is said to be presently “in your midst” (7:30). God’s care and blessings will be over the land where the people live (11:12). As Stephen Cook observes, Deuteronomy even asks, “What other nation has a god so near to it?” (4:7).
But Deuteronomy also takes pains, says Cook, to emphasize absence or only partial presence. The people did not see any shape or semblance of God on Sinai, but heard only a “voice” (4:12). In the historical writings which are edited by the author of Deuteronomy, Elijah goes to Horeb (Sinai) and does not see God there, but hears only a voice (1 Kings 19:12). What the people will find at the temple is God’s “name.”
It is vague. God may or may not be actually present, but his name is always there. Cook says with an idol, a statue thought to concentrate the divine energy into a physical object, the god is forced to be there. Idols are objects used for trapping deities in a place, for making divine beings do the will of human beings.
But God is free. The relationship between human beings and God is subject to the will of the Omnipresent, the Transcendent One, who is always a mystery to us.
He may or may not be present in any tangible sense, but God is in the world, in the land of Israel, and in the place of the temple in varying degrees of potency. In one sense the whole earth is under his care. In a heightened sense, the land of Israel is a place God potentially will bless with supernatural conditions unlike anything experienced in any other place on earth. And at its most potent, the divine Presence is potentially at the site of the temple, the place where God chooses for his name to dwell.
People need not limit their worship to places and times when God appears in a visible manifestation. We can honor his “name” from anywhere at any time. In Judaism there is a longing for God’s actual presence and thus, like Daniel in Babylon, we face Jerusalem several times a day and pray in the direction of the temple site. As Solomon is represented as saying in his great prayer in 1 Kings 8, when the people of Israel find themselves thrown out of the land, living in exile in some far country, may “they pray to you in the direction of their land which you gave to their fathers . . . and of the house which I have built in your name” (1 Kings 8:48).
The idea of God’s “name” being with us is a fitting description for the situation we find ourselves in, where God’s proximity to us is a matter of mystery, where presence and absence both seem to be true.