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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
Deuteronomy 18

 

 

Introduction

This chapter stands at the very center of O.T. prophecy of Jesus Christ the Messiah, but, true to the form of the shotgun type of address that Moses was here giving, there are a number of other things in the chapter. Due to the change of the law instituted here by Moses, which permitted animals to be killed at places other than the central sanctuary, which, of course, resulted in a decrease of the revenue of the Levites and priests, Moses here specified some additional contributions that were to be given to them (Deuteronomy 18:1-5). Next, there is a short paragraph concerning Levites that might wish to sell their patrimony and move to the area of the central sanctuary, in which case thy should receive contributions just the same as the Levites and priests already there (Deuteronomy 18:6-8).

Deuteronomy 18:9-14 lists nine kinds of occult and magic practices as "abominations to God," designating them as absolutely forbidden to the Israelites.

The great passage in the chapter is found in Deuteronomy 18:15-19, where "that Prophet like unto Moses" is promised. (See a special discussion of this subject under the discussion of that paragraph.) The chapter concludes with a short paragraph regarding the question of how one was to tell the difference between true prophets from false prophets (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).


Verses 1-5

"The priests the Levites, even all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion nor inheritance with Israel: they shall eat the offerings of Jehovah made by fire, and his inheritance. And they shall have no inheritance among their brethren: Jehovah is their inheritance, as he hath spoken unto them. And this shall be the priests' due from the people, from them that offer a sacrifice, whether it be ox or sheep, that they shall give unto the priest the shoulder, and the two cheeks and the maw. The first-fruits of thy grain, of thy new wine, and of thine oil, and the first of the fleece of thy sheep, shalt thou give him. For Jehovah thy God hath chosen him out of all thy tribes, to stand to minister in the name of Jehovah, him and his sons forever."

"All priests were Levites, but only the sons of Aaron were priests."[1] Despite this simple truth extensively revealed throughout the O.T., "The RSV renders Deuteronomy 18:1, thus: `Priests, that is, all the tribe of Levi,' foisting off on Deuteronomy the false view that all Levites were priests."[2] This, of course, creates a conflict between Deuteronomy and the other Biblical legislation. And yet it is clear enough, as Kline wrote:

"Deuteronomy itself conveys a distinctly different image distinguishing between priests and Levites. The priests are the ministers at the altar of the central sanctuary, who enjoy a position of supreme honor and authority. The Levites are everywhere functional subordinates and social dependents. Priests and Levites did share the commission of instructing Israel ... The Deuteronomic stipulations assume the validity of the more minute regulations given earlier, unless, of course, the purpose was to alter them (as in the increased revenue called for in this paragraph)."[3]

Another Biblical example of the differences between priests and Levites is seen in that, "Different portions are assigned to priests in Deuteronomy 18:3-5, and to Levites in Deuteronomy 18-6-8. Some priests taught the Law (Deuteronomy 31:9-13), but the Levites had actual custody of the book which was kept near the ark of the covenant."[4]

"The first of the fleece ..." (Deuteronomy 18:4). is supplementary to earlier legislation and amounts to an increase in the revenue of the Levites, an increase that was very appropriate in that under the new rules applicable to the occupation of Canaan, many animals once slain at the central sanctuary would then be slain at home, omitting the chance for any offering at all to the priests. The fact that different parts of sacrificed animals are specified here from those specified in Leviticus 7:19ff could mean: (1) either that the parts here specified are in addition to those, or (2) that they are to be substituted for those. There are many things about the implementation of that whole complicated law that people today simply cannot find out. We may believe, however, that all of the details of it were perfectly understood by those who were expected to abide by its teachings.

"The first-fruits ... the first fleece ... etc." indicated that, "God's servants were to get their share first!"[5] It should be recalled in this connection that when Elijah encountered the woman who was to nourish him through the days of the drought, and found that she was virtually without any food at all, he commanded her, "Make me a little cake first!" (1 Kings 17:13). Those who place their obligations to God above and ahead of everything else will always prosper in their lives, just as did the woman who took care of Elijah.

Cousins pointed out that the critical allegation is that, "`All the Levites were originally priests, and the limitation of the priesthood to the sons of Aaron was a later development,' declaring also that this passage does not support that theory."[6]

We noted above that, whereas earlier legislation had given the "right shoulder" to the priests as their portion, this passage in Deuteronomy does not at all specify "the right shoulder." The discovery of the ruins of a pagan temple at Lachish where they unearthed large numbers of right shoulder bones has led some scholars to suppose that this practice of the pagans may have resulted in the variation of the priests' portion in order to avoid resemblance to pagan sacrifices. Here again, there are many things about all of this that must remain hidden.


Verses 6-8

"And if a Levite come from any of thy gates out of all Israel where he sojourneth, and come with all the desire of his soul unto the place which Jehovah shall choose; then he shall minister in the name of Jehovah his God, as all his brethren the Levites do, who stand there before Jehovah. They shall have like portions to eat, besides that which cometh of the sale of his patrimony."

"These verses guaranteed the rights of all Levites against any restrictive tendencies of vested priestly interests at the central sanctuary."[7] In Leviticus 25:33,34, the law required that sufficient pasture lands be allotted to the Levites in the vicinity of the Levitical cities; and in this passage we catch a glimpse (but only a glimpse) of how the law worked out. It is anticipated here that the Levites would erect houses, or residences of some kind, in these areas and use the pasture lands for animal husbandry, and perhaps other forms of agriculture. Thus, although the Levites would have no landed inheritance in Canaan, as did the other tribes, there is no indication that they would live perpetually in poverty. These verses deal with the situation in which a Levite living at some considerable distance from the central sanctuary would desire to dispose of his patrimony, which he had acquired either by inheritance, or by his personal endeavor, in order to move to the place where the central sanctuary would be set up. As Keil noted:

"Such a Levite might either rent out his property in the Levitical town and use the annual rent as his income, or sell his house there to someone else ... These words are convincing proof that the allegation that the Levites were absolutely without possessions is not supported in any manner by the Book of Deuteronomy."[8]

Verses 9-14

"When thou art come into the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found with thee any one that maketh his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one that useth divination, one that practiceth augury, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto Jehovah: and because of these abominations Jehovah thy God doth drive them out before thee. Thou shalt be perfect with Jehovah thy God. For these nations, that thou shalt dispossess, hearken unto them that practice augury, and unto diviners; but as for thee, Jehovah thy God hath not suffered thee so to do."

Note that there are nine of these abominable practices, the word `abominable' being the very strongest word that the O.T. has to express God's disapproval. Significantly, "all of these were alleged oracular sources"[9] in ancient Canaan, and they were most frequently consulted by people who desired to know the Divine will about this or that. Now some of these practices were used to protect from enemies, to acquire benefits or blessings, to assure success or failure of some project, and similar objectives. The big thought in the whole passage seems to be that Israel must rely upon the written will of God and that they should, under no circumstance, resort to occult, magical, or satanic consultations in the hope of knowing God's will.

The N.T., as well as the O.T., leaves no doubt that all of the things mentioned here are sinful, unprofitable, deceitful, and of no earthly benefit whatever such activities are just as "abominable" in the sight of God today as they ever were.

The list here is representative, rather than exhaustive, and we may add astrology, soothsaying, rhabdomancy, and all similar things. The N.T. writers condemned such things, leading to the unsupported charge that "they believed in such practices." Well, they "believed in" them exactly as does this writer, that such practices are widely indulged in by the people, that countless thousands of people are making a living by such shameful "arts," that they are altogether useless, powerless, deceitful and entirely evil in every sense of the word. The astrology nonsense, for example, is a 2 billion-dollar-a-year business in the U.S.A. at this very time, yet all Christian values are contradictory in every particular to the whole system of astrology. Leon Morals affirmed that "In the order of the listing of the precious stones making up the foundation of the New Jerusalem, the author of Revelation contradicts all heathen conceptions, the principle being that God reverses human judgments."[10]

"Rhabdomancy ..." This is a class name for a number of ways to make decisions, one of which was described by Keil, thus: Two rods were held upright, and then allowed to fall while incantations were uttered, and the oracle was inferred from the way in which they fell, whether to the right, or to the left.[11]

"Pass through the fire ..." There can be no doubt whatever of this being a reference to the sacrifice of children to such pagan gods as Molech, but nobody ever heard of this being a "method of divination." Of course, that is what Dummelow declared: "The context here seems to imply this."[12] We do not believe that the context "implies" any such thing, and the only discernible reason for such an assertion is that it fits in with the critical denial of the plain meaning of the following passage relative to that Prophet. The lack of any historical example whatever of anybody's ever sacrificing a son or a daughter to "get an oracle," however, did not prevent Davies from affirming (without proof or evidence) that "This was a common practice for obtaining an oracle!"[13]

"Augury ..." refers to some practice which "is uncertain"[14] and thus impossible to classify as a means of divination.

"An enchanter, or diviner ..." This class of magic pretended to predict future events by watching the flight of birds, reading tea leaves, pouring oil on a cup of water and studying the resulting patterns, etc. In our day, palm reading is a thriving business in a place like Houston, where a dozen establishments in one square mile (or less) are making all kinds of promises based upon this dubious "so-called science." It will be recalled that when Joseph, the all-powerful deputy of Pharaoh planted his cup in Benjamin's sack, the "discoverer" stated that Joseph used that cup "for divining." (Genesis 44:5).

"Witch ..." Such words as "warlock" and "wizard" amount to the masculine gender of this word, although "witch" has also come to include either sex. "Sorcerer" is a synonym. "The word comes from a Greek term [@farmakeia], which is also the source of our word `pharmacy'."[15] Such persons had nothing whatever to do with revealing information or any kind of revelation concerning future events. Their business was that, generally, of helping people to get rid of their enemies, by means of casting some spell upon them. Such persons freely used all kinds of drugs, potions, and medicines. Vine tells us that the word came to mean "poisoning."[16] Also, there can be little doubt that some of the hallucinatory drugs were known and used for various purposes by this class of persons. The drug culture element in our current society immediately comes to mind.

"Charmer ..." Dummelow listed this evil practice as the device by which one claimed to weave magic spells and curses by tying knots, etc."[17] By no stretch of imagination can this be related to "getting information from God."

"Consulter with familiar spirits ..." Such persons, pretending to speak with ghosts or spirits, "were probably ventriloquists who claimed to hold communications with subterranean spirits."[18]

"Necromancer ..." This referred to one who made inquiries of the dead, pretending to procure vital information by this device. Despite this evil, futile thing being condemned in the law of God, Saul, king of Israel sought out the witch of Endor in order to have a conversation, as he thought, with the deceased prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7-25). From the above, it is clear enough that this paragraph deals with a number of evils that having nothing whatever to do with "getting a revelation from God," yet that is the cornerstone of the false allegation that "because of the context, we must accept the next paragraph (regarding `that Prophet') as primarily dealing with Israel's receiving proper revelation from God through their succession of prophets. We have seen repeatedly throughout this extended address by Moses that it is a "shotgun sermon," and that the proximity of paragraphs touching different subjects is no safe criterion whatever for exegesis of a given passage. There is absolutely nothing in Deuteronomy 18:9-14 that casts any light whatever upon the meaning of Deuteronomy 18:15-19.


Verses 15-19

THAT PROPHET

"Jehovah thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken; according to all that thou desiredst of Jehovah thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, Let me not hear again the voice of Jehovah my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not. And Jehovah said unto me, They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him."

"In all of our studies thus far in the Holy Bible, we have never encountered anything so unreasonable, unbelievable, and ridiculous as the efforts of critical scholars to shout the Lord Jesus Christ out of this passage."

The utter bankruptcy of criticism as currently practiced in the U.S.A. is starkly evident in the false exegesis that one encounters on this passage. Before attempting to present the obvious and undeniable meaning of this wonderful passage, we shall clear away some of the rubbish that one encounters in the commentaries:

T. Witton Davies: "There is no primary reference here to the Messiah, though the words naturally suggest to Christian readers the Great Prophet."[19]

The approach here is simply that of Satan to Eve, "Ye shall not surely die." Criticism often resorts to this device. When a truth is so glaring as to be self-evident to all, the knee-jerk response is, "Well, it doesn't mean that!"

Also, note the snide insinuation to the effect that the great prophecy of the Messiah is something which only "Christians" can find in the passage. Such an inference is NOT true. All of the leaders of Israel in the days of Christ knew of this prophecy and understood it as a reference to the Messiah (John 1:19-24), and those leaders were in no sense whatever "Christians!"

J. R. Dummelow: "This is closely connected with what precedes ... There is no need for Israel to employ such arts of divination, because Jehovah Himself will communicate His will to them through His prophets that He raises up and instructs ... `A prophet' does not refer to a particular individual."[20] As a refutation, it should be noted that there is NO connection whatever between this paragraph and the preceding one. As for Jehovah's intention of communicating with Israel through a "succession of prophets (plural)," there is no mention whatever of any prophets (plural) in this passage. As for the assertion that "a prophet" does not refer to a particular individual, we must reply that it most assuredly DOES refer to one individual alone, namely the Christ. It is grammatically impossible for "a prophet" to mean fifteen or twenty prophets! "Nowhere in all the Bible is the singular employed to mean more than one individual!"[21]

G. Ernest Wright disposed of this remarkable prophecy in three lines, as follows: "As the need arises, God will raise up from among the Israelites one of their own number as his prophet. Like me, like Moses the speaker, in the sense that he is the mediator and interpreter of the divine will."[22] The astounding error here is that the likeness of "that Prophet" to Moses is restricted to only two things, one of which is mere interpretation of God's Word! The likeness between "that Prophet" and Moses consists of scores of the most remarkable correspondences, the totality of which is one of the most remarkable things in the Bible. (See the list of these below.)

Donald F. Ackland: "There would be no need for appeal to false prophets, for God would provide His people with a succession of prophets like Moses himself."[23] A false interpretation like this is disproved by the fact that no such thing ever happened! In all the history of the world, there was never but ONE prophet who was like Moses, to name only a few particulars:

Both Moses and Christ forsook a palace to identify with men in slavery in order to redeem them.

Both Moses and Christ were preeminently the only two great miracle-workers of human history.

Both were transfigured.

Both incurred the hatred of Israel by their "marriages" to Gentiles, etc., etc.

A "succession" of such prophets? Ridiculous! It is flatly affirmed in God's Word that following Moses in the generation that succeeded him, "There hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom Jehovah knew face to face, in all the signs and wonders which Jehovah sent him to do in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 34:10,11). Furthermore, there was a half of a millennium in which God sent NO prophet at all to Israel, fulfilling the prophecy of Hosea: "The children of Israel shall abide many days without king, and without prince, and without sacrifice, and without pillar, and without ephod or teraphim" (Hosea 3:4). Also, Micah prophesied of this same thing: "Then shall they cry unto Jehovah and he will not answer them; yea, he will hide his face from them ... concerning the prophets ... it shall be night unto you, and ye shall have no vision; and the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them" (Micah 4-6). This dreadful condition of Israel's having no prophetic word lasted for about five hundred years. Where is all that "succession" of prophets the critics insist on finding in this chapter?

Peter E. Cousins: "The promise has both individual and corporate significance."[24] This is the angle on this passage that is taken by a number of able scholars, and while it is very commendable that such interpretations allow a reference to the Blessed Messiah in the passage, they do NOT restrict it to that meaning. This appears to us as inadequate and unsatisfactory. To whom else, in the history of mankind, could the passage apply? Some find what they call no setting up of an "institution of prophecy" to guide Israel. Abraham was a prophet, and many of the ancient leaders of Israel were prophets, and, in fact, the whole world at that time and for centuries earlier knew all about the institution of prophecy in which men either spoke, or pretended to do so, in the name of God. There were countless false prophets, so there is not any institution of prophecy whatever to be found in this passage. What is here is that glorious promise of the Messiah.

W. L. Alexander: "This promise ultimately applies to the Messiah, the Great Revealer of God, between whom and Moses there should be a long succession of prophets, so that there should always be a medium of communication between Jehovah and his people."[25] The great error here is in not seeing Jesus Christ as the only object of this prophecy. That "long succession of prophets, so that there should always be a medium of communication available to God's people" is a fundamental misconception of the truth. First, there never was such a succession of prophets, and in one single span of God's displeasure, Israel went five hundred years without a prophet. Therefore, we must not suppose that God here prophesied something that never took place. Now, it is true that there was to be a source of knowing God's will in all generations, but what is it? Malachi stated it thus:

"Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, even the statutes and ordinances (Malachi 4:4)."

The Word of God, therefore, namely, the Holy Bible - the O.T. and the N.T. - constitutes the "continuing witness of God's will in all generations." The very notion that there is any need whatever to know God's will except as revealed in the Holy Scriptures was refuted by Jesus Christ who said that. "If they will not believe Moses and the prophets, they would not believe if one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

THE TRUE MEANING OF THE PASSAGE

"This prophecy, therefore, is very properly referred to JESUS CHRIST in the N.T. as having been fulfilled in Him."[26] Philip had this passage in mind when he said, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law did write, Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:45)." Christ had it in mind himself when he said, "Moses wrote of me (John 5:46)." Stephen declared Christ to be the fulfillment of this prophecy (Acts 7:37). Peter expressly quoted the prophecy in Acts 3:22,23, as referring to Christ. The very language of this prophecy "Unto him shall ye hearken" was quoted verbatim by Almighty God Himself on the Mount of Transfiguration, and He applied it unequivocally to Jesus Christ alone (Matthew 17:5). The Samaritans had no O.T. except the five Books of Moses, but upon that basis, and therefore upon the testimony of this passage the Samaritan woman said, "I know that Messiah cometh, he that is called Christ" (John 4:25). Now this unanimous testimony of Christ, the apostles, and even the Samaritans that Moses "wrote of Christ" has to be a reference to this passage, because, if Moses did not write of Christ in this place, where is it found that he did?

In this connection, Keil mentioned the fact that it is implied in this passage that "that Prophet" would be in every way "equal to Moses," a quality in which every other prophet of human history was sadly lacking. Keil emphasized this by writing, "Let anyone paraphrase the passage to read, `A prophet indeed inferior to me, but yet the channel of divine revelation,' and he will at once feel how unsuitable such a meaning is."[27]

"The prophet here promised was preeminently the MESSIAH. He alone was like Moses in his mediatorial office, in the peculiar excellence of his ministry, in the number and variety of his miracles, and in his being the Supreme Lawgiver of the whole New Covenant."[28]

The traditional Jewish exegesis, to avoid the application of this passage to Jesus Christ, applies this to "a prophet rising in each generation."[29] We are delighted that Harrison stated flatly that, "Such an exegesis is untrue historically."[30] It is significant thus to see the background of this corrupt exegesis of this passage and to note that those who deny the Messiahship of Christ are precisely the source of this so-called "interpretation" which the critical community of our day have so avidly received.

"Jesus Christ was that very person of whom Moses was the type, and who should accomplish all the purposes of the Divine Being. Such a prophet as had never before appeared, and who should have no equal until the consummation of the world. That Prophet is the Lord Jesus, who was in the bosom of the Father, and who came to declare Him to mankind. Every word spoken by him is a living oracle from God Himself; and must be received and obeyed as truth, on pain of the eternal displeasure of the Almighty. This passage cannot in any sense be understood of ordinary prophets."[31]

The mention of Horeb in this passage makes it certain that what Israel received there was a mediator of Divine revelation,[32] and that must mean that another mediator alone could fulfill this prophecy. Of course, Jesus Christ is that "One Mediator" (1 Timothy 2:5). Where in all history was there after Moses another mediator except Christ? In this we have the certainty of the unique application of this passage to Jesus Christ and to Jesus Christ only.

There remains the investigation of the ways in which Jesus Christ was uniquely "that Prophet" like unto Moses.

Both were objects of Divine intervention to save their lives in infancy.

Both were sons of virgin princesses.

Both were called to deliver God's people.

Both were rejected by Israel.

Both were the greatest miracle-workers that the world ever saw.

Both left a palace (Jesus left heaven, Moses left Pharaoh's) to do their work.

Both gave themselves up for God's people.

Both were mediators, Moses of the Old Covenant, Jesus of the New Covenant.

Both were both prophet and king to the people.

Both have their words enshrined in the Bible.

Both were Israelites from among the brethren.

Both accomplished their missions.

Both delivered God's law to men.

Both were transfigured.

Both had God's people baptized "unto them."

Both gave bread to Israel, the manna and "the bread of life."

Both received special treatment in death - God buried Moses and God raised Jesus.

Both lead God's people - Moses in the wilderness; Christ during our lives.

Both Moses and Jesus were faithful.

Both were full of compassion and love for the people whom they led.

Both constructed essential institutions, the tabernacle and the church.

Both spoke with God face-to-face.

Both were prophets of super ability.

Both were master teachers of superlative ability.

Both exhibited infinite patience with sinful men.

Both were honored by 3,000 responses the day their laws went into effect.

Both began their miracles in water - the Nile to blood; the water to wine. Both gave water to the people - Moses at the rock, Christ the living water.

Both delivered people from slavery - Moses literally, Christ from sin.

Both were shepherds - Moses literally; Christ is the Good Shepherd.

Etc., etc., etc.

Even this extensive list should not be considered exhaustive, but it is sufficient to show how utterly inadequate is any interpretation of this promise of the Great Prophet that applies it to any person except Christ!


Verses 20-22

"But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if thou say in thy heart, How shall we know the word which Jehovah hath not spoken? when a prophet speaketh in the name of Jehovah, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which Jehovah hath not spoken: the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him."

These last verses in the chapter deal with how to distinguish between the true prophets and the false prophets. Dummelow thought that, "At no time is it easy to distinguish between the true prophet and the false prophet,"[33] but it appears to us that he was mistaken in this. It is easy enough to tell the true from the false, whether in the instance of prophets or teachers, and it is just as imperative now as it was then to be able to tell the one from the other. Of course, in these two verses, only one test was proposed, and as Dummelow said, "This test could only be applied to prophecies of the immediate future."[34]

Unger gave the following as a means of distinguishing between true and false prophets:

  1. The false prophet leads into some form or variation of idolatry.
  2. He speaks his own words (not God's words), and in the name of other gods.
  3. His promises are fake or only half-true. The prophecies of true prophets are true.[35]"

In addition to these tests, the moral character of the prophet himself, or the teacher, and the moral quality of their teachings give invaluable clues. In the N.T., the same question of how to discern the false teacher is treated, and there it all turns upon his evaluation of Christ. "Every spirit that confesses not Jesus, is not of God" (1 John 4:3). To this we might also add that any denial of the Holy Bible is a certain mark and indication of the false teacher, of which we say, sadly, "many of them have gone out into the world."

Notice here how Moses moved immediately to the subject of the false prophets, not adding any explanation whatever. Why? Prophecy was already known throughout the world of that day, and the people already knew of both kinds, the false and the true, having very recently at the time Moses spoke these words stripped the clothes off of the dead Balaam. Thus, there is no "institution of the law of prophecy" here at all, but a promise of "that Prophet" who would redeem people from sin.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/deuteronomy-18.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, October 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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