Deuteronomy 29: 1-9 Restating the Covenant
1 These are the words of the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.
2 Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 3 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. 4 But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear. 5 I have led you forty years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; 6 you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink– so that you may know that I am the LORD your God. 7 When you came to this place, King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan came out against us for battle, but we defeated them. 8 We took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. 9 Therefore diligently observe the words of this covenant, in order that you may succeed in everything that you do.
In a world of legal contracts where a signature is binding until such time as a legal contract that supersedes the previous contract is agreed upon it seems strange for us to see the need to go back within the same document multiple times to the same story and to restate the covenant. Yet, the way that Deuteronomy is shaped owes to its oral structure and possible origination. Just as in Deuteronomy 6 with its continual recitation of the central statement of faith when a person enters the house or leaves, when they rise up or when they lay down, so the re-iteration of the covenant multiple times serves to reinforce its binding nature upon the people. Chapter 29 begins what is often referred to as the third address of Moses and it begins by restating in a concise way the narrative laid out in Deuteronomy 1-3 as well as reminding them, as in Deuteronomy 8 of how the LORD provided for them on their journey to this point.
The covenant is always connected with the narrative. The people are the people of God because of the LORD’s action to bring them out of Egypt, through the wilderness and to the promised land. The Exodus becomes the central story of who they are as a people and their life flows out of the LORD’s provision for them. The great fear of Deuteronomy is that in the midst of abundance the people will become complacent. Yet, the people always lives in response to God’s action to free them from their captivity. Their life flows from the ways in which they embrace or turn away from the therefore of God’s action to give them freedom. As we have seen in the previous chapters the people have the ability to choose blessing or curse, and the fear is that they will choose by their actions the curse.
Within the prophetic imagination of Israel, the people will have to wrestle with their inability to remain faithful in the covenant. Is free will only a partial option, do they lack eyes that see, ears that hear and minds that understand? Will they become the embodiment of the people Isaiah is sent to in Isaiah 6:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Isaiah 6: 9-10
Yet as we will see in Deuteronomy 30, even with the inability of the people to remain faithful the LORD will, even though it is painful, remain in a relationship with them. There will be a place for those with eyes to see and ears to hear and a trust that eventually that the LORD will write the law on their hearts and they will all know the LORD (Jeremiah 31: 33)
Deuteronomy 29: 10-29 The Danger of Complacency
10 You stand assembled today, all of you, before the LORD your God– the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, 11 your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water– 12 to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, sworn by an oath, which the LORD your God is making with you today; 13 in order that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 14 I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand here with us today before the LORD our God,
15 but also with those who are not here with us today. 16 You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. 17 You have seen their detestable things, the filthy idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, that were among them. 18 It may be that there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is already turning away from the LORD our God to serve the gods of those nations. It may be that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth. 19 All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways” (thus bringing disaster on moist and dry alike)– 20 the LORD will be unwilling to pardon them, for the LORD’s anger and passion will smoke against them. All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the LORD will blot out their names from under heaven. 21 The LORD will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this book of the law. 22 The next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the LORD has afflicted it– 23 all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD destroyed in his fierce anger– 24 they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?” 25 They will conclude, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. 26 They turned and served other gods, worshiping them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them; 27 so the anger of the LORD was kindled against that land, bringing on it every curse written in this book. 28 The LORD uprooted them from their land in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is now the case.” 29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.
After the previous chapter it may seem like overkill to return again to the possibility of disobedience, yet this is a pressing concern of Deuteronomy and this is also set up as a later address. As the people reaffirm the covenant there is both consequence, but there is also hope beyond consequence that is to come. In our world where we are hesitant to talk about God’s activity within our lives and within the movements of the world this may seem odd. In Deuteronomy’s world faithfully living out of their covenant identity is the meaning of life and peace and there is the trust that if they are faithful the LORD will provide. Yet, the danger is that they will become complacent or begin to place their trust in other things or gods. The LORD has invested in the people of Israel and for them to turn away rejecting God’s blessings grieves God. If you have read any of my writing on Jeremiah, you would see I approach the wrath in that book from the perspective of a wounded God crying out in pain at the loss of a relationship. Addressing this passage Deanna Thompson makes a similar point:
Amid the anger and fury, however, we also catch glimpses of an expression of rejected and wounded divine love similar to what we see in Hosea when it talks about Israel’s rejection of God. Israel’s disobedience leads to a portrait of God who is not just angry and wrathful but wounded as well. (Thompson, 2014, p. 207f.)
Time and time again Deuteronomy and the prophets of later times will try to speak to a people who do not hear on behalf of a wounded and grieved God. The people cannot rest upon any special status, on kings or temples or walled cities or land. They are a people whose lives are bound into this covenantal relationship with a God who takes these bonds seriously. They have been given the law and the covenant, they are witnesses of the way the LORD has provided for them and now they live in the therefore. They may not know all the secrets of the universe, but their God has revealed enough for their life of faith as a people.
The other theme that re-emerges here is the way that the people and the land are linked. Much as in Genesis 3: 17-19 where the ground is cursed for the disobedience of Adam, here the land becomes a witness to the people’s unfaithfulness for generations to come. The soil becomes unable to support life and mirroring the lifelessness around Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet, the wrath articulated here in its fierceness seems to not be the first response of their God. The LORD will deal with the anger, woundedness, and rage but will continue to hope for a turn in the midst of the people. Moses is preparing to relinquish his position between the people and their LORD. It may seem like judgment takes a lot of the text of Deuteronomy or that wrath is the primary emotion, but as we will see in the coming chapter love always outlasts any wrath, and that even in desolation there is a way forward. As in Jeremiah there is a hard won hope that emerges out of the broken and exiled people, and here as well there is always the opportunity to return to the LORD their God who is gracious and merciful.