A Warning Against Idolatry
The portion opens with Moses recounting how he beseeched God to allow him to enter the land of Israel, but was denied. The Israel Bible points out that Moses was motivated not by arrogance or a desire to continue leading the people, but rather by a desire to step into the Holy Land and breathe its air.
Moses then goes on to warn the people of the dangers of idolatry. As witnesses to the incident at Ba’al Pe’or, the Israelites standing before him should understand the gravity of such a crime. He tells them to heed the law which he has taught them, and to pass it on to their children when they dwell in the land, for it will make them seem wise in the eyes of their neighbors.
Moses reminds them that, when they stood before God at Mount Sinai, their fathers did not see any image. Why, then, should they or their descendents create graven images to worship? They should also refrain from imitating the sun, moon, or any creatures in heaven, earth or the sea. No other nation has merited to hear God’s words directly and the people should appreciate the magnitude of that honor.
Should the Israelites fail to live up to God’s expectations on the matter of idolatry, Moses warns, they will be removed from the land which God has given them. They will suffer in exile until such time as they return to God and He brings them back to their land.
Moses reminds the people of their unique heritage. No other nation was ever taken by God from the midst of another and brought close to Him. The Israelites were shown all these wonders that they may know God. As the Israel Bible indicates, the Hebrew word used for “knowing” here is da’at, a word that connotes intimacy. Thus, Moses tells the people they are meant to forge an intimate connection with God.
Moses then sets apart six cities of refuge for accidental killers, three on each side of the Jordan river. These cities, first mentioned in Numbers 35, are to be used by manslayers to escape the wrath of their unintended victims’ families.
Virtual Classroom Discussion
Twice during this passage, Moses notes that he was forbidden from entering the Promised Land because of the people (3:26, 4:21). Yet in Numbers 20, it seems Moses and Aaron were punished for failing to sanctify God’s name. What do you think Moses means when he holds the people responsible for his punishment?