They Couldn’t Humble Brag

By James Cornwell

A Reading from Deuteronomy 9:4-12

4 When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land’; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. 5It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of those nations that the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

6 Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. 7Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place.

8 Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you. 9When I went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water. 10And the Lord gave me the two stone tablets written with the finger of God; on them were all the words that the Lord had spoken to you at the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly. 11At the end of forty days and forty nights the Lord gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. 12Then the Lord said to me, “Get up, go down quickly from here, for your people whom you have brought from Egypt have acted corruptly. They have been quick to turn from the way that I commanded them; they have cast an image for themselves.”


Today’s Old Testament reading is a clarion call to humility among those who judge. Moses is exhorting the Israelites on behalf of the Lord before they can lay claim to the promised land.  Moses makes it clear that the acquisition of this land is first and foremost a fulfillment of God’s promise, and — to the extent to which it represents an ethical exchange at all — it is a judgment against the wickedness of the land’s current inhabitants, rather than a vindication of the Israelites.

In our contemporary society, there is plenty of wickedness to go around. Indeed, our discourse seems to be filled with endless judgment, faction after faction calling out the sins of their rivals. Many of these judgments are well-deserved, but where we have frequently fallen short is in humility regarding our own ethical position.

I do not mean the weak-tea humility that paints our own sins as merely a faint echo of the sins of others, the kind that condemns others as incorrigibly and irredeemably nasty and cruel, while acknowledging that there may, at times, perhaps, be instances where we could be a bit kinder ourselves. This is “humble-bragging,” an attempt to reinforce our own moral authority.

Moses does not simply say that the Israelites are a less bad version of the Gentiles. Instead, he relates to them the history they know all too well: one filled with idolatry, infidelity, and wickedness. It is the kind of personal, clear-eyed humility that undermines one’s moral authority rather than reinforces it.

These fault lines in our society are not going away, nor is the need to correct injustice, wickedness, and oppression. But we should take great care when sitting in judgment — ensuring that the justice we are seeking is a revelation of the promises of God and not merely a reflection of ourselves and our values projected onto the world around us.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their six children.

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The Diocese of Northern Argentina (Anglican Church of South America)
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