Monthly Archives: April 2015

Deuteronomy 6-The Center of the Faith

The Shema in Hebrew

The Shema in Hebrew

Deuteronomy 6: 1-8 the Shema

1 Now this is the commandment– the statutes and the ordinances– that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

                        4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment he, like most Jewish people of his day, quotes Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 and then he attached on Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. This is the heartbeat of the Jewish, and later Christian, walk with the LORD. They are to be a people who have one LORD and only the LORD who is to be the center of their life and devotion.

Deuteronomy 6:4 is known as ‘the Shema’, which gets its name from the first word in Hebrew of the verse. Shema means to hear or listen and these are to be the first words on their lips as the rise and when they lie down, they are to be seen and heard in their coming and in their going. They are a people constituted by these words and they are not only to say them but to talk about them to their children and their children’s children. Parents become the primary vessels by which the heartbeat of their faith is passed down. They would even wear these words as a reminder of who they were and a public statement of their devotion to the world around them. These words are to be at the heart of their identity and their life. They are not just words to be said but rather to be lived and in continually hearing these words they are recalled to their own identity.

With both the Ten Commandments and ‘the Shema’ the hearing of these words is to all Israel and it is primarily the household that is responsible for passing on the faith. There will be a tension between the household and the priestly authority in times to come, within the story of Israel after the construction of the temple there will be increasing efforts to make the temple the focal point of religious authority, yet for the passing on of the faith much of that will happen in the homes. The church in America is rediscovering the reality that after a couple generations of placing the formation of faith primarily in the hands of the church that we have many who are not equipped to pass on their faith or to think about the ethical dilemmas they encounter on a day to day basis. Martin Luther understood this when he wrote the Small Catechism which equips parents to hand on the faith to their children almost 500 years ago, and perhaps the struggle is finding the balance. Families need the church or temple to call them back to their vocation of training themselves and their children but the church cannot be the only vessel of faith formation when the primary indicator of an adult’s remaining attached to their faith tradition are the conversations about their faith primarily from family members.

It is also helpful to remember that, even though compared to many modern countries, the nation of Israel is fairly tiny that most people would not be able to travel to the tabernacle or the temple for more than festival type occasions and that without having access to the written texts in the home (that we take for granted) they relied on the continual hearing of these words to form their identity. I think there is a lot to learn from this type of repetition, and for example most Christians can readily pull up certain pieces of scripture that have meaning to them, the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm for example, and these become things that can be recalled even if a person is dealing with dementia. These words can begin to form the identity of the people for as long as they are practiced and lived, yet they could be forgotten in one generation and that will happen throughout the life of the people of Israel, just as Christians will at times forget their own identity when they forget their story.

Deuteronomy 6: 10- 25 the Danger of Amnesia

10 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you– a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11 houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant– and when you have eaten your fill, 12 take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 The LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14 Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, 15 because the LORD your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the LORD your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

 16 Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. 17 You must diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. 18 Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you, 19 thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the LORD has promised.

20 When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?” 21 then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 The LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. 23 He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. 24 Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. 25 If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”

 The Deuteronomist is of a mixed mind about the people encountering abundance, on the one hand the abundance they are to receive when they enter the Promised Land is a sign of God’s blessing yet there is also a significant risk that in their security they will forget the LORD. There will always be the temptations to follow other gods or to live in a way that is more concerned with the individuals’ prosperity than God’s covenant of justice. They are called to be different from the peoples around them, a witness to them, and a means of blessing for the other nations. Yet it is in that difference that the people will struggle, the gods and practices of the surrounding peoples will be more concrete, these gods have images and yet the LORD is always a mystery-never contained within these images, not willing to share the LORD’s people with these other images.

The gods of the surrounding nations may promise fertility or individual prosperity or a bountiful harvest, in short they promised things that were in the individual’s best interest. Martin Luther insightfully could say of sin that it is the ‘heart curved inward on itself’ and the commandments and the Shema and the unfolding of them to come are really looking towards the neighbor’s best interest. It is trying to construct a world where the community can live in justice and peace. It will always be a challenge to live into this vision when there are many competing voices encouraging the individuals and families to seek their own interest and yet it is a vision of shalom worth living into.

Even with the practices outlined around the Shema there is the continual danger of a slow slide into amnesia in the generations to come. They are a people whose story emerges out of the story of God taking them out of the land of Egypt and creating them as the LORD’s own people. For their life going forward their life will be defined both by this story and by the quality of their continued relationship with their LORD. Deuteronomy will emphasize over and over the need for continued vigilance in this relationship and the blessings that will come if they keep these commandments and the curse that comes with disobedience.

Deuteronomy 5: The Ten Commandments Revisited

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Deuteronomy 5: 1-21 The Ten Commandments Revisited

Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. 2 The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. 4 The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. 5 (At that time I was standing between the LORD and you to declare to you the words of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:

 6 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me.

 8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

 11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

 12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

 16 Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

 17 You shall not murder.

 18 Neither shall you commit adultery.

 19 Neither shall you steal.

 20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

 21 Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

As we have seen in previous chapters there is the continued collapse of time between the current generation hearing (or reading) these words and the generation that was present at Mount Horeb (Sinai) who heard the original ten words (commandments) delivered. The hearing and reading of this law is to bring the hearer/reader into the presence of the God of Israel speaking to them these words. They are brought into the story of the people who made the journey out of Egypt and who saw the events of the Exodus. They are now the generation receiving the Decalogue (ten words) and charged to live out of them. Moses has already become the mediator of God’s word and now Moses’ voice captured in these words mediates the voice of God to the people.

Martin Luther interpreted the first commandment, which Luther heard being the commandment to have no other gods, as meaning “we are to fear, love and trust God above all things.” (Luther, 1994, p. 13) and for Luther all the other commandments flow out of this one each beginning with “we are to fear and love God so that…” The relationship, or perhaps better the covenant with the LORD precedes the giving of these words and as Deuteronomy narrates the commandments it begins with another reference back to the Exodus, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. It is from this narrative and this action that the LORD has the position to speak these words that constitute them as a people.

When you look at how the commandments are structured here in Deuteronomy two commandments receive significantly more words than the others, the commandment or words dealing with making idols and the commandment/words on the Sabbath. Since Deuteronomy 4 deals heavily with not making images for God I will not recover that ground here even though it is important, but the idea of a Sabbath is one that is heavily needed in our culture.

Contrary to what many people believe, the Sabbath is not primarily about worship, it is about rest. Especially with the center of worship becoming centered in the temple in Jerusalem in ancient times it would have been impossible for the people to come together at the temple every week, but the command to rest for all people: men, women, slave and free, young and old and even animals are to be able to rest on this day. Interestingly the rationale for the Sabbath shifts in Deuteronomy from in Exodus. In Exodus 20 the rationale for the Sabbath harkens back to the creation narrative where the people are to reflect the action of God resting on the seventh day. In Deuteronomy the decisive event is the Exodus and more emphasis is placed on allowing male and female slaves to rest even if they are not Hebrews and that this commandment flows out of their experience of being liberated from being slaves in the land of Egypt.

In our time we may feel there is too much going on to take a day of rest. I think churches and religious organizations of all types often fall prey to the consumeristic drive to fill every available place and time with some activity, but there is something profoundly countercultural about taking a day of rest. Of unplugging from the unending demands of the world of commerce and work and allowing our bodies and spirits to be renewed. I struggle with this personally, I am not good at sitting and resting although I know it can be healing. Sabbath is an act of resistance to a productivity and consumer based mindset where a person’s life is defined by production and acquisition. It allows not only people but the community to breathe and listen.

The commandment on honoring the father and mother has typically been explained to me as young children honoring their parents as they grow and has been used as a tool to ensure obedience, but perhaps in our culture it is time to hear perhaps the justice based way that the commandment was originally meant to be heard in. The vulnerable in any society are the young and the old and the more I read about this commandment the more I am convinced that this refers to those parents who are now older and now rely upon their children for protection. We live in a culture that values youth and does not value the elderly in the same way and unfortunately they can become looked upon as a burden to society. In the ancient and the modern world there are the elderly who die of neglect and the lack of care, but in honoring the father and mother the working generations are called to care for those who are no longer able to care for themselves.

As a pastor in the United States I sometimes hear people state that our legal system is based upon the Ten Commandments, but it is difficult to make an argument that this is correct. The commandments against murder and stealing are a part of our legal system (and every legal system I am aware of but this doesn’t necessarily flow from the ten commandments) but for example coveting is a central part of the capitalist system, and it would be hard to make an argument that our legal system prevents us from making images, worshipping other gods, violating the Sabbath, dishonoring father and mother, committing adultery or bearing false witness. I think sometimes the commandments being displayed is a way in which people create their own images that they can honor but not necessarily follow. The Ten Commandments may be a part of the resonant images of our country’s religious past but they are not an active part of the legal framework of our system of laws.

Deuteronomy 5: 22-33 Standing Between the People and God

 22 These words the LORD spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me. 23 When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders; 24 and you said, “Look, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. 25 So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? 27 Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the LORD our God will say. Then tell us everything that the LORD our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.”

 28 The LORD heard your words when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me: “I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken. 29 If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever! 30 Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’ 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you all the commandments, the statutes and the ordinances, that you shall teach them, so that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.” 32 You must therefore be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. 33 You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.

The writer of Deuteronomy spends a lot of time emphasizing the immediacy of these words to the hearers and again links the hearers to the generation that heard God’s words at Horeb (Sinai). Even though these words are mediated by hearing and writing across generations they bear an immediacy to the God who speaks through Moses to the people. The fear and reverence of that generation at that moment are lifted up as a positive and as the book of Proverbs will say at a different time, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1.7)

From the mouth of the LORD we hear this lifted up and also lamented as we, and subsequent generations of hearers and readers will know, that this does not last. As the words emphasize here, “If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and keep my commandments always, so that it might go well with them.” Deuteronomy begins a long retelling of the story of the people of Israel as they look back at how they made this journey from being a people at the edge of the promised land to being a people looking back at this lost land from their exile in Babylon and throughout the nations. Throughout Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings we will hear a continued narrative of how the people often did not have such a mind as this. Their time in the promise land would last for generations but not forever but whether in their tent in the Exodus or their isolation in the exile or anywhere in between or beyond they are to be a people who hear these commandments and ordinances and live out of them. When these words are read in a new generation they are once again joined to the story of the people of the Exodus who were brought out of the land of Egypt, who heard the voice of the LORD at Horeb(Sinai) and entered into the promised land.

Deuteronomy 4: A Story Formed People and an Imageless God

James Tissot, Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar

James Tissot, Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar

Deuteronomy 4: 1-14 Living in Light of the Narrative

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2 You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you. 3 You have seen for yourselves what the LORD did with regard to the Baal of Peor– how the LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, 4 while those of you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today.

 5 See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

 9 But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children– 10 how you once stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to me, “Assemble the people for me, and I will let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me as long as they live on the earth, and may teach their children so”; 11 you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain while the mountain was blazing up to the very heavens, shrouded in dark clouds. 12 Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets. 14 And the LORD charged me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy.

Any speech only has a life as long as it is remembered in the memory of the people who continue to remember and tell it. For the collection of books sometimes referred to as the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings) one of the recurring issues is that people turn aside from these words, or a later generation does evil in the eyes of the LORD. Without memory and re-telling the narrative and the commands of the law there will always be other narratives provided in the world. This was true in Israel’s time and it is true in our postmodern digitally pluralistic world. One of the interesting movements of this section of Deuteronomy is the movement from the narrative of the previous generation to that narrative being a part of the narrative of the new generation. Just as the people are reminded of what happened when some of their people began to worship the gods of Moab, this story appears in Numbers 25, and the people are charged to remember how fierce the LORD’s jealousy was in this instance, they are charged to remember that their LORD expects fidelity throughout the generations.

In the narrative Moses takes upon himself the role as the teacher of the commandments of God one last time. In this long extended series of speeches Moses is trying to prepare this generation for a life of faithfulness. In their obedience they will be a place that the nations look to and they will stand apart from others. For the Deuteronomist the people of Israel are expected to be an example to the world around them. This is the covenant they have with the LORD, the blessing and the curse of their identity. They are to live with more access to the LORD but they also live under higher scrutiny than the nations that surround them. In the midst of the ignorance of the nations they are to know the LORD.

By hearing this story the people also now participate in it. They no longer are just those who are hearing about the event of the Ten Commandments (or ten words) being given at Horeb (or Sinai) but now they are there. Physically they were not there, that generation has passed away, that was the generation that wandered in the wilderness and never reached the promised land, but in this speech this new generation becomes an extension of the old. They cannot resort to saying they didn’t see or didn’t hear. The telling of the story from generation to generation will be a way of living that story. Even though they may not have been there to see, later generations will be gathered among those who did see and will be judged like those who did hear. One of the critical focuses of Deuteronomy is the telling of the tradition and the stories from generation to generation so that they, as a people, may live in the land. On a critical edge the Deuteronomist also sees the loss of the land through the lens of the failure of Israel to hold fast to the words and ordinances.

Deuteronomy 4: 15-31 The Imageless God

                15 Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, 16 so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure– the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19 And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven. 20 But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron-smelter, out of Egypt, to become a people of his very own possession, as you are now.

21 The LORD was angry with me because of you, and he vowed that I should not cross the Jordan and that I should not enter the good land that the LORD your God is giving for your possession. 22 For I am going to die in this land without crossing over the Jordan, but you are going to cross over to take possession of that good land. 23 So be careful not to forget the covenant that the LORD your God made with you, and not to make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. 24 For the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.

                25 When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and provoking him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27 The LORD will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the LORD will lead you. 28 There you will serve other gods made by human hands, objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. 29 From there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. 30 In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the LORD your God and heed him. 31 Because the LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.


In a world full of images the Hebrew people had a narrative, a covenant and a law. There is a level of unknown with the God of Israel. The divine form is not to be locked down, the divine name is not to be used, there may be visual aspects to the way in which God has met the people but those representations do not represent the form of God. They were a story formed people, they had words from God and words about God but somehow to lock God into any sort of likeness was to fall into idolatry. Perhaps it is the natural inclination to see in the objects of the world the aspects of the divine and to assign the creation as the image of the creator. In our own age which has become much more visual and where digital images continually are placed before us and can tell us who we are to be and how we are to live the people of God are called again to rely more on our ears telling us specifically this narrative and this story rather than our eyes which are easily led astray to any number of images.

The God of Israel has a special relationship with God’s people, what God allows of others is not allowed to them. The nations around them will have their images and their relationships with these gods in their own ways, but Israel is to be different. They are a people who lives out of their covenant with the imageless God. They are to be separate and obedient and that obedience does not come easily. There will be many images in the world around them, other narratives they will hear, and other people whose ways they admire. Just as the creation narrative in Genesis 1 can talk about God speaking and the world coming into being, they are a speech formed people. Their lives are to be ordered by the words about God, words that can never adequately describe or tame their LORD. It is a risky strangeness to the God portrayed in Deuteronomy, a God who is never too familiar. A God who is good but also jealous for God’s people, a God who desires to bless but is willing to curse, a merciful God who is willing to destroy. It is the God of Exodus and exile who sees the people through their faithfulness and unfaithfulness, and while human beings may be formed in the image of God they cannot claim to capture the image of God.

We live in an age where image is everything. If we are truly in a post-literate society where people no longer pay attention to written and spoken text but instead are swept up in the unending stream of digital images that portray reality then perhaps this is one of the central challenges for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christianity has wrestled with the prohibition of images since its beginnings and the iconoclastic controversy seems to present itself each time Christianity has to re-imagine itself in a new age and time. The wisdom of the ancient church was that if God could present Godself in the person of Jesus, as Christians believe, then these images could be used to help tell the story of the God who met us in this way. Yet the images were to be connected with the narrative. With time and distance there is always the danger of the image becoming isolated from the story, for example the loss of the Jewish nature of Jesus’ identity for hundreds of years, but there the danger that the story becomes lost as well.

Deuteronomy 4: 32-40 The Uniqueness of the Relationship

                32 For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? 33 Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? 34 Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? 35 To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. 36 From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, while you heard his words coming out of the fire. 37 And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, 38 driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today. 39 So acknowledge today and take to heart that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. 40 Keep his statutes and his commandments, which I am commanding you today for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time.

In the speech Moses is portrayed calling the people back to the uniqueness of their relationship with the LORD and more directly to the uniqueness of the LORD. Unlike most of the peoples of the ancient world who saw their gods as tied to their tribes, nations or lands the Hebrew faith is in a God who creates the whole earth and has a unique relationship with Israel. There is a diversity of views of what to think of gods of the other nations, whether they are real or not, but as Deanna Thompson insightfully states, “Deuteronomy is the first biblical book to state explicitly that “there is no other” besides the God of Israel (4:35, 39).” (Thompson, 2014, p. 47) The people are linked back to the generations that experienced God’s taking them out of Egypt, going with them through the exile, presenting them the Ten Commandments at Horeb and setting them aside as a people. In this closing of this speech Moses again calls them back to remember that their relationship with the LORD, the God of Israel is both unique and decisive. They are not to acknowledge any other God and just as their ancestors heard the words of God they are to continually go back to these statutes and commandments which make them who they are.

Deuteronomy 4: 41-49 Closing Business

                41 Then Moses set apart on the east side of the Jordan three cities 42 to which a homicide could flee, someone who unintentionally kills another person, the two not having been at enmity before; the homicide could flee to one of these cities and live: 43 Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland belonging to the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead belonging to the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan belonging to the Manassites.

                44 This is the law that Moses set before the Israelites. 45 These are the decrees and the statutes and ordinances that Moses spoke to the Israelites when they had come out of Egypt, 46 beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-peor, in the land of King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned at Heshbon, whom Moses and the Israelites defeated when they came out of Egypt. 47 They occupied his land and the land of King Og of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites on the eastern side of the Jordan: 48 from Aroer, which is on the edge of the Wadi Arnon, as far as Mount Sirion (that is, Hermon), 49 together with all the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan as far as the Sea of the Arabah, under the slopes of Pisgah.

The speech ends and we transition to the closing business before moving on to the larger speech to follow. Deuteronomy narrates the setting aside of Bezer, Ramoth and Golan as cities for refuge, also narrated in Numbers 35: 9-14 which goes back to the appeal for the sort of justice the people are to live under. They are to be a people where vengeance is not supreme and the people and the judges are to act in accordance with justice even for those at the margin. In the event of a homicide there are places of refuge where the accused can go to and seek refuge until the evidence can be heard. The simplicity of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was never to be the way of the Jewish people. They were to be a people of justice and of God’s law.

Finally we hear the preparation for what is to come and a brief narration of what was before. The decrees and statutes find their authority in the God who has rescued them from Egypt, journeyed with them through the exile and in the eyes of the people who were before Moses had led them into the land they currently occupied past giants and walled cities. In what is to come the people are to listen, to hear and to obey these final words that Moses will speak to them prior to their journey across the Jordan under Joshua and their residence in the Promised Land.