Deuteronomy 11: Blessings and Curses

Ivan Aivazovsky, Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891)

Ivan Aivazovsky, Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891)

Deuteronomy 11

1 You shall love the LORD your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always. 2 Remember today that it was not your children (who have not known or seen the discipline of the LORD your God), but it is you who must acknowledge his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, 3 his signs and his deeds that he did in Egypt to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and to all his land; 4 what he did to the Egyptian army, to their horses and chariots, how he made the water of the Red Sea flow over them as they pursued you, so that the LORD has destroyed them to this day; 5 what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place; 6 and what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, how in the midst of all Israel the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households, their tents, and every living being in their company; 7 for it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the LORD did.

8 Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, 9 and so that you may live long in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. 11 But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, 12 a land that the LORD your God looks after. The eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

13 If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today– loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul–14 then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; 15 and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. 16 Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, 17 for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.

                18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

 22 If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, 23 then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves. 24 Every place on which you set foot shall be yours; your territory shall extend from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the Western Sea. 25 No one will be able to stand against you; the LORD your God will put the fear and dread of you on all the land on which you set foot, as he promised you.

                26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known. 29 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. 30 As you know, they are beyond the Jordan, some distance to the west, in the land of the Canaanites who live in the Arabah, opposite Gilgal, beside the oak of Moreh.

                31 When you cross the Jordan to go in to occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and when you occupy it and live in it, 32 you must diligently observe all the statutes and ordinances that I am setting before you today.

The author of the book of Deuteronomy approaches the same topics multiple times in similar ways over the first eleven chapters, and throughout the rest of the book. Because of this, on a topical level, there is not a lot of new material in this eleventh chapter, yet I also think it is important to consider the implied narrative that the book of Deuteronomy is set within. The book of Deuteronomy opens by telling us, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan.” And the book portrays itself as primarily an oral speech rather than a written text. For most people in a literate or even post-literate context (post literate coming from the assumption that most people now receive information more through digital images rather than written text) our attention span for a spoken text is fairly short, but this is written for an aural culture (aural-information is received through hearing) where the majority of the hearers are not literate. Speech in an aural culture is repetitive so that is can be remembered and just as the words are connected to concrete actions to enhance remembrance (binding the words upon the forehead and on the hands, writing them on doorposts as a visual reminder of the spoken word) the repetition of certain critical words and phrases should continue to enhance the memory of the speech event. Music does this all the time by repeating a chorus or using certain patterns to fit words within. So while Deuteronomy may be an unwieldy written text as an aural presentation its continual re-narrating of the story, emphasis on the commandments, statutes and ordinances laid down for the people to live by serve to enhance its effectiveness.

Figurine of a Semitic Slave, Acient Egyptian figurine, Hecht Museum

Figurine of a Semitic Slave, Acient Egyptian figurine, Hecht Museum

There strong contrast set throughout Deuteronomy, and particularly here in chapter eleven between the people of Israel and the land they are to enter and their former masters and land in Egypt. Part of the story of their people is their being exploited as slave in the nation of Egypt. Egypt is the first major power and they are able to be a successful people because of the waters of the Nile. Yet to provide for food in this hot and arid land it required the irrigation of crops and this is a very labor intensive process. The Israelite people were probably a part of the slave labor force that used foot pumps to pull water out of the Nile to irrigate the fields of the Egyptians and to pull from a hot and unforgiving environment by the exertion of human will a harvest each year. Yet the system in Egypt was dependent upon slave labor and provided great agriculture riches for the owners and the elite on the backs of the enslavement of others. The Israelites are not to have this type of economic relationship where their culture is dependent upon the enslavement of other people. They are also entering a land of milk and honey, a land of abundance. The availability of water is not dependent upon the exertion of human labor but instead is dependent upon the God of Israel who provides the rains in their season and allows the waters of the heavens to provide for the crops of the Promised Land. In this land of abundance they are called to be attentive to the commands of their God, for the eyes of the LORD are always on the land but also always watching them as a people in their obedience.

The obedience to the commandments and to the words spoken here are a matter of blessing and curse for both the people and the land. They do not have a great river like the Nile that they can utilize to irrigate in the drought years, instead they are dependent upon their God granting them rain at the appropriate time. Obedience, as continues to be stressed over and over in Deuteronomy, means blessing for the people and their children and their children’s children. Disobedience means the loss of prosperity and ultimately the loss of the land. The book of Deuteronomy constructs a world of sharp alternatives in a tightly ordered universe. It is a matter of life or death importance that the people of Israel hear again their story, remember who they are and remember their LORD, and then live out of the commandments, statutes and ordinances of their God. They are to be a people who live in justice, not taking advantage of the exploitable to form a new class of slaves. They have this story and these words read to them again and again to reinforce the imperatives that Moses is putting before them in speech. It is speech that is reinforced by not only the emblem on their foreheads or sign on their hands but by the sight of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal where blessing and curse symbolically reside.

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