Category Archives: Deuteronomy

Book of Deuteronomy

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

These are my reflections on the book of Deuteronomy from February 2015 to April 2016. As a process of cleaning up my index and making posts more accessible.

Deuteronomy 1: Retelling The Story For A New Time
Deuteronomy 2: The Warrior God
Deuteronomy 3: Visions Of A Future Land
Deuteronomy 4: A Story Formed People And An Imageless God
Deuteronomy 5: The Ten Commandments Revisited
Deuteronomy 6: The Center Of The Faith
Deuteronomy 7: A People Set Apart
Deuteronomy 8: The Dangers Of Abundance
Deuteronomy 9: The Promise Of God And A Stubborn People
Deuteronomy 10: The Covenant Renewed
Deuteronomy 11: Blessings And Curses
Deuteronomy 12: Expounding On The Law
Deuteronomy 13: The Challenge Of Exclusivity
Deuteronomy 14: Boundary Markers And Celebrations
Deuteronomy 15: A Life Of Covenant Generosity
Deuteronomy 16: Celebrations, Remembrance And Justice
Deuteronomy 17: A Society Structured Around One Lord
Deuteronomy 18: Priests, Prophets And Forbidden Magic
Deuteronomy 19: Justice, Refuge And Grace
Deuteronomy 20: The Conduct Of War
Deuteronomy 21: Death, Rebellious Children, Captured Women And Inheritance
Deuteronomy 22: Miscellaneous Laws
Deuteronomy 23: Boundaries, Purity, Interest, Vows And Limits
Deuteronomy 24: Divorce, Purity And Justice
Deuteronomy 25: Punishment, Justice And The Enemy
Deuteronomy 26: Bringing The Story Into Liturgy
Deuteronomy 27: Preserving The Law
Deuteronomy 28: Blessings And Curses
Deuteronomy 29: A Final Address
Deuteronomy 30: Hope Beyond The Curse
Deuteronomy 31: Preparing For Life After Moses
Deuteronomy 32: The Last Song Of Moses
Deuteronomy 33: A Final Poetic Blessing
Deuteronomy 34: The Death Of Moses
Reflections From A Year Spent With Deuteronomy

An Ongoing Reference to Luther’s Works

Martin Luther (1523) by Lucas Cranach

Martin Luther (1523) by Lucas Cranach

I am a Lutheran pastor but not a Lutheran scholar and the breadth of Luther’s works makes them a staggering task to approach. As a part of my study of various books of the scriptures I have also made it my practice, recently, to attempt to go through Luther’s works interpreting scriptures which may not be as concise as many of his theological works but give me as a reader some exposure to the evolution of Luther’s thought and theology in conversation with the Word that he cherished. I also think it is useful as we approach each volume to honestly look at what Luther’s interpretation over 500 years ago in his earliest works might have to still contribute in our time (and some books will be better handled by Luther’s theology than others).

Luther’s Works, Volume 9- Lectures on Deuteronomy (1523-1525)-This volume was written five years after the 95 theses and Luther’s theology and his Christocentric and preference for a plain text reading of scripture are beginning to emerge. Luther in this work is still heavily dependent on the allegorical methods of interpretation he learned in his earlier work, but we see a hermeneutic beginning to evolve. Luther, due to the subject matter, also speaks a lot about his view of the law and its purpose in the life of the believer. Those familiar with Luther’s theology would see his first and second uses of the law reflected in the theological approach to adopting Deuteronomy. One of the other unfortunate things one sees in this volume is a heavily anti-Jewish tone which Luther becomes famous for in some of his late writings. Those who want to confine Luther’s anti-Semitic comments to those later works will be disappointed in the way they occur frequently in his exegetical work. Luther for all his gifts is a man of his time.

Luther’s Works, Volume 10- First Lecture on the Psalm, Psalms 1-75 (1513-1515)- This is a pre-reformation Luther and so his methodology is still heavily dependent on the allegorical methods taught in the renaissance university. Luther is beginning to exercise the linguistic and explore some new hermeneutic roads but his theology has not developed yet. It is amazing how far Luther will come within a few short years after these lectures. There is not a lot in these lectures that are going to be enlightening to a modern reading of the Psalms or that will shed much light on Luther’s later theology. This is probably best used as a reference to understand where Luther’s theology begins before it fully develops.

Luther’s Works, Volume 11- First Lectures on the Psalms II, Psalms 76-126 (1513-1515)-Like the previous volume, this is a pre-reformation Luther and these lectures on the psalms will be strange to any modern reader unfamiliar with the allegorical and typological readings of the renaissance and earlier. There is not a lot of Luther’s developed theology in these works. The Psalms are mainly read from a Christological perspective and many of the readings are deeply critical of the Jewish people and faith. As with volume 10 there is not much that will be enlightening to a modern reader of the Psalms and should really be viewed as a historical document to understand the early theological perspective of Luther and how is evolves.

Luther’s Works, Volume 12- Selections from the Psalms, contains Luther’s Commentaries on Psalms 2, 8, 19, 23, 45, 51 (1524-1536 depending on the Psalm) These are later approaches to the Psalms by Luther and they reflect his more developed theology. These are primarily Theological/Christological approaches to the Psalms. Luther still relies heavily on an allegorical approach to reading scripture which places each of the Psalms as either spoken through Christ or talking about Christ. Other times the Psalms become launching points for Luther to expound upon the Reformation theology. Some of these expositions can become very lengthy and he can discuss a single Psalm for a hundred pages, but there are some good insights into Luther’s Christological approach to scripture and his more developed theology in this volume.

Luther’s Works, Volume 13-Selections from the Psalms, contains Luther’s Commentaries on Psalms 68, 82, 90, 101, 110, 111, 112 (1521-1535 depending on the Psalm) These continue to show Luther’s theology and way of reading scripture developing as well as illustrating some of the conflicts he was engaged in. You also see Luther the preacher in the expositions on the psalms using very earthy imagery and simple illustrations and proverbs. Luther’s reads the psalms through a very Christocentric lens, and many of the psalms he interprets as either applying directly to Christ or the Lord’s Supper. Luther continues to be verbose in his exposition, covering seven psalms in four hundred pages, and some of these expositions were multiple sermons or teachings. Even as Luther’s theological interpretation of scripture develops it would still be strange to most modern interpreters.

Luther’s Works, Volume 15- Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The Last Words of David 2 Samuel 23: 1-7 These are three separate works joined together in one volume and so I will treat each one separately.

Ecclesiastes (Initial lectures 1526, published in 1532)- Luther enjoyed Ecclesiastes and we see him begin to utilize a more plain text reading. There are still times where he falls back into allegory, but there are also times where he has a very lucid reading of the text that would be echoed in some modern commentators. Luther prefers to call this the Politics or the Economics of Solomon and within the later chapters one can see some of Luther’s own political theology (with its respect for temporal authority) being given voice as he wrestles with Ecclesiastes. Luther grasps the way in which our yearning for future things is in his words ‘a part of the depraved affection and desires of men’(8) and reflective of the ‘inconstancy of the human heart’ (10).

Song of Songs (Delivered 1530-31, published in 1539)- Luther, like most classical interpreters of the Song of Songs, reads this work allegorically as an illustration of the relationship between God and the people of God, or specifically for Luther between Christ and the church. Many of Luther’s concepts (law/gospel, two kingdoms, etc.) play into the interpretation and explication of the allegory. It is interesting to see the sexual language of Song of Songs explained away into something ‘purer’ and although Luther does a good job of drawing out an allegorical reading his overall interpretation in not as insightful as many of his other works.

Last Words of David (1543)-This is a polemical work and it bears the same ugly language of On the Jews and their Lies which appeared in the same year. This is the dark side of Luther’s Christocentric way of approaching scripture. If you want to learn about Luther’s later views on the Jewish people and Muslims this is one of the places where his anti-Jewish views are clearly exhibited. Luther spends a lot of time revisiting the Christological debates of the early church and attempting to argue in a way that would be unlikely to convince anyone who wasn’t already a Christian. Perhaps he was trying to erase any perception that he could have been an ally to the Jewish people from some of his earlier writings, but this is really an ugly piece.

Luther’s Works, Volume 21-The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat

The Sermon on the Mount composes the majority of this volume and reflects some of the developed theological themes of the Lutheran reformation. Particularly the division of the two kingdoms (the kingdom of God and the secular kingdom) and the division of law and gospel are apparent in Luther’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount. The Magnificat is a much shorter work, on a smaller piece of scripture, written for Prince John Fredrick and perhaps most remarkably in this work is Luther’s favorable, for the 1500s, treatment of the Jewish people at the very end of the work.

Treatise on Good Works (1520) This is a part of the Annotated Luther Study Editions published by Augsburg Fortress in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. A good translation of Luther’s 1520 treatise in a good visual presentation. Luther uses the ten commandments as the basis for this treatise to talk about the place of good works in relation to faith. It reads like a series of sermons or some of his other teachings. There are some good theological insights but it is a 1520 document and reflects the thoughts and language of that time.

The Annotated Luther, Volume 4: Pastoral Writings This is a part of the Annotated Luther Study Editions published by Augsburg Fortress in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The volume is visually attractive to read and well put together. Several of the works are excellent examples of Luther’s creative and pastoral thought including: Selected Hymns, the Small Catechism, and Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague. Some of the works like the Little Prayer Book could’ve been left out, but they do show a development of Luther’s thought and style. Overall a good collection of Luther’s writings directed towards his pastoral theology and actions.

Reflections From A Year Spent with Deuteronomy

Torah Scroll, Original image from http://www.nachat-austin.org/weekly-torah/

Torah Scroll, Original image from http://www.nachat-austin.org/weekly-torah/

Deuteronomy is the fourth book, and the second large book that I have worked my way through systematically from beginning to end. It took me a little more than a year (13 months and 1 week) from my first post on Deuteronomy 1 to the final entry on Deuteronomy 34. Deuteronomy is not a book that a lot of Christians spend a lot of time with but for our Jewish brothers and sisters it is one of their most important books. Most Christians don’t spend much time with Deuteronomy, well with the exception of Deuteronomy 6 which has become important to those who want to talk about faith formation in the home or Deuteronomy 5 which re-articulates the ten commandments. Many of the ordinances and commandments of Deuteronomy seemed alien to me and yet, I knew that there was a reason that people had gone back to this work for over 2,500 years. Using Walter Brueggemann’s and Deanna A. Thompson’s commentaries on Deuteronomy as my two primary reading companions I began not knowing how the project would turn out but at least motivated to see what wisdom I would glean from this ancient work. I was motivated by the knowledge that I had made it through Jeremiah, a larger and very challenging work, and that I would be able to eventually reach the point of reflecting back again.

I am a Lutheran pastor who has spent most of my time studying the Gospels and Paul’s letters and who comes from a tradition that is open to reading scripture with a critical eye. Deuteronomy has some sections that in the twenty first century we will not be adopting or advocating and so I have tried to bring the issues of the time into conversation with the events and policies and beliefs of our time. I have tried to use Deuteronomy as a helpful conversation partner-trying to understand how the author of Deuteronomy thought about God and society.

Deuteronomy wants to imagine a society ordered around God’s law and living out of the covenant relationship with the LORD the God of Israel. For the people of Israel and Judah their public life was a reflection of their faith and there was no concept of a separation between church and state. In a world where the people of Israel were surrounded by a plethora of religious alternatives the book of Deuteronomy tries to imagine a society centered around the laws and covenant and ordinances of the God of Israel and a manner both catechetically in the home and liturgically in the worship of the community that would pass on this faith from generation to generation. The great anxiety of the book of Deuteronomy is that in the midst of abundance the generations to come would forget the source of their abundance and become attracted by the practices and the gods of the people around them.

I am very aware of the postmodern, secular, pluralistic world in which we live and I have attempted to bring the questions of that worldview into conversation with the strictly ordered worldview of the Deuteronomist. What has emerged at its best is an opportunity to think ethically about what type of world I as a Lutheran Christian in 21st Century would imagine in dialogue with Deuteronomy imagining God’s will for their time. Because our hermeneutics and starting points are different there are times where we come to different answers and that is OK. Even when I may diverge from the way Deuteronomy understands God or the meaning of what God desires I still try to find the wisdom of the people who were wondering God’s story had entered their story through the Exodus and through their experiences.

As a modern scholar I have used a lot of different tools in working through Deuteronomy. The first is an ancient tool, I simply forced myself to listen to the text by slowing down and manually writing out the text as I commented on it. As mentioned above, I am a Lutheran pastor so I do come from a perspective where the cannon within the cannon (or the most important key to understanding scripture) is what conveys Christ and so I have listened to where Deuteronomy spoke in concert and contrast to the witness of Christ throughout the New Testament. I have brought my experiences and listened to the ways my time in the military, as a father, as a divorced person, and as a pastor have been brought into conversation and filled out the way I can hear these texts. I have been intentionally intertextual, allowing Deuteronomy to be in conversation with the rest of the Bible. But I come to this as a person who loves the Bible and the God it tries to bear witness to and as a pastor who wants to communicate this story to others who would have the patience to listen. I am not a PhD in the Hebrew Scriptures, just a willing student of Deuteronomy.

Wrestling with books like Deuteronomy is more challenging than the familiar gospels or even Paul’s letters but there is wisdom. It is hard to understand the way the early church leaders talked about Jesus without understanding the scriptures they were reading. There are portions of Deuteronomy that help make sense of who Jesus was and what he was striving for. For example, look at Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 and then think about what it meant for Jesus to have the title Messiah (anointed king) applied to him. Deuteronomy forms the basic frame that the prophets will work out of as they protest the injustices and idolatry of the nations of Israel and Judah. The thought of Deuteronomy will form one of the loudest voices in informing the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures as they evaluate their history and as they imagine their future.

If you have benefited from these reflections I am thankful. They have been beneficial for me to write. The process continues to allow me to grow in my faith and understanding. I hope that in them I have exercised wisdom. I have benefited from the wisdom of others who have passed on the faith and this tradition to me.

As an update on what is next I am returning to the book of Psalms and will work through Psalms 11-20 as I decide which book I will work through next. I have enjoyed this project but I also am ready to work with something new and there is always a sense of relief at the completion of a work like this (even if I am the only person who ever reads it).

 

Deuteronomy 34- The Death of Moses

Alexandre Cabanel, The Death of Moses (1850)

Alexandre Cabanel, The Death of Moses (1850)

Deuteronomy 34

1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan,2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea,3 the Negeb, and the Plain– that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees– as far as Zoar.4 The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”5 Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command.6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.

10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land,12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch end with Moses’ death on Mount Nebo. The five central books to the Jewish understanding of faith traditionally attributed to Moses now have come to an end. Moses’ death has been foreshadowed throughout Deuteronomy and has been attributed to both the disobedience of the people and to Moses and Aaron acting without giving proper praise to God the waters of Meribath-kadesh (see Deuteronomy 32: 48-52). Yet, foreshadowing the death of Moses (even though he is reported to be one hundred twenty years old-which is also a way of referring to people being of a good old age) when he can still see well, is still active and vigorous and not suffering from the illness and impairment of old age is still an unexpected death of one who is so alive. The transition from Moses the teacher and leader has been set in motion through the end of the book but Moses will remain a unique figure for the people of Israel.

Many people focus on the unfairness of Moses being unable to enter the promised land but perhaps there is the possibility of grace here in this moment. George Elliot in his poem “the Death of Moses” can speak of Moses’ death as:

A death was given called the Death of Grace
Which freed them, from the burden of the flesh
But left them rulers of the multitude
And loved companions of the lonely. This
Was God’s last gift to Moses, this the hour
When soul must part from self and be but soul. (Thompson, 2014, p. 195)

From a Christian perspective we, perhaps, too quickly make the jump to resurrection or to Moses being with the God of Israel in heaven, but for the ancient Jewish people resurrection was not a part of their understanding of the blessing and promise of God. Yet, after a life of struggle, of constantly being pulled between the needs of the people and their inability to remain faithful and the dangerous engagement of the LORD with those same people. After Moses again and again would place himself between God and the people and after the people would continually disappoint Moses. Perhaps the ending of a powerful but heavily laden life can truly be laying down one’s burdens to, in the words of an old Vince Gill song, go rest high upon the mountain. Or perhaps from another powerful example that Deanna Thompson lifted up was the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. from his speech to sanitation workers on April 3, 1968-the day before his assassination when King prophetically speaks:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now—because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would love to live a long life, but I’m not worried about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the LORD. (Thompson, 2014, p. 245)

Moses, the reluctant leader who in the desert tried to avoid the calling of God would indeed be the one who God would work through in ways that no one else would share. The people began to trust in Moses as a mediator of the presence of the almighty God, as one who would know unknown intimacy with the LORD by being able to speak to God face to face and not die. He would be remembered for wielding God’s power in incredible ways in the land of Egypt and in the journey through the wilderness. Yet, perhaps there is grace in a death that is away from the people in an unknown grave. If the grave was known it is possible, perhaps probable, that people would begin to venerate it in ways that worshipped Moses rather than God. There are certainly times in the book of Judges where people begin to worship the things of the Judge rather than the God who worked through the judge.

Throughout Deuteronomy we realize that the people of Israel’s life is contingent upon the God of Israel who has drawn close to them. Here in this final chapter where Moses dies at the command of the LORD we see the contingency of one drawn so close to God even more clearly. Moses’ position and power derive from his proximity to the LORD who called him at Mount Horeb. No one will know the intimacy of the relationship that Moses does and linked to that connection is also the reality that no one will perform the wonders of the LORD in the same way either. Moses becomes the mediator of the presence of the divine to the people, he becomes the vessel through which the LORD’s power for the preservation (and sometimes the punishment) of the people will pour.

Moses will continue to echo throughout the story of Israel and the church. Others will attempt to carry on the legacy that he began, but even Joshua’s power is here lifted up as derivative of Moses laying on of hands. The absence of the grave will lead to speculations about Moses. By the time of the emergence of the Christian church there was speculation about Moses assumption directly into heaven like Elijah or Enoch. In Mark 9, and parallels, Moses will be present with Elijah on the mount of the Transfiguration talking with Jesus and Jude 9 is either a reference to The Assumption of Moses a Jewish Pseudapigraphal document which we only have one existent 6th century copy of or another tradition of Moses’ assumption which may predate that. Regardless by the first century CE it was common to think of Moses having been assumed bodily into heaven and the absence of a grave becomes evidence to this. Yet for Deuteronomy, this text seems to know of either whispers of a possible gravesite or the search for one and seeks to assure the reader that no one knows of the site to this day.

So we come to the end of this part of the story and to the end of a remarkable life narrated in between the story of the LORD, the God of Israel and the people of Israel. Moses journey with the people has set the stage for the journey they will continue with Joshua.

Deuteronomy 33: A Final Poetic Blessing

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

1 This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death. 2 He said:
The LORD came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran.
With him were myriads of holy ones; at his right, a host of his own.
3 Indeed, O favorite among peoples, all his holy ones were in your charge;
they marched at your heels, accepted direction from you.
 4 Moses charged us with the law, as a possession for the assembly of Jacob.
 5 There arose a king in Jeshurun, when the leaders of the people assembled– the united tribes of Israel.

Now the final words that Moses speaks in Deuteronomy come out as a blessing. For the first time Moses is given the title the man of God, although he will be referred to as the man of God in retrospect as will other prophets. In contrast to the words of the previous song that are to witness against the people when they become unfaithful the blessing on eleven of the tribes (for reasons unknown Simeon is omitted) is much like a father blessing their children. In a sense Moses has been the parent for a generation of Israel that lived as wanderers with Moses as their primary leader and now like Jacob blessing his sons in Genesis 49.

The blessing begins once again with a lyrical retelling of the beginning of the encounter between Moses and God when Moses is called at Sinai. The poetry is not interested in retelling history but instead of reveling in the power of the God of Israel. In mysterious language that probably refers to The LORD as the greatest among the gods (rather than later monotheistic thought which talks about the LORD as the only God) the people are lifted up as the ones chosen by this God among all the nations. Using Jeshurun, a pet name for Israel, the confederation of tribes was brought together under one king (presumably referring to the LORD rather than a later Davidic king). Here the diversity of the tribes is celebrated within their unity and specific aspects are lifted up for blessing.

 6 May Reuben live, and not die out, even though his numbers are few.
 

The blessings are given beginning with the oldest but do not strictly follow any birth order, with Simeon omitted as stated above, but rather seem to be grouped by the mothers of the children. Reuben was the firstborn of Israel but fell from favor after he slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (and mother of Dan and Naphtali). Here in the narrative Reuben’s tribe is already few in numbers. Even though Reuben’s tribe is already in possession of their land they also form the border with the Moabites and will endure struggle in future generations. Here this short blessing only asks for his perseverance.

 7 And this he said of Judah: O LORD, give heed to Judah, and bring him to his people;
strengthen his hands for him, and be a help against his adversaries.

One of the more surprising blessings for its brevity goes to Judah. Judah will be the line that David and the Davidic kings come out of and will also become one of the largest and most powerful tribes. In contrast in Genesis 49 he receives a much longer blessing.  The blessing is simple: that the tribe of Judah would be heard, strengthened and helped in conflict.

8 And of Levi he said: Give to Levi your Thummim, and your Urim to your loyal one,
whom you tested at Massah, with whom you contended at the waters of Meribah;
9 who said of his father and mother, “I regard them not”;
he ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children.
For they observed your word, and kept your covenant.
10 They teach Jacob your ordinances, and Israel your law;
they place incense before you, and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O LORD, his substance, and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries, of those that hate him, so that they do not rise again.

If the blessings were simply birth order Levi would come prior to Judah, yet Levi receives a much larger and more developed blessing, which also reflects the emphasis of Deuteronomy on the role of the Levites. The Urim and Thummim are the stones to be placed in the breastplate of the high priest, first mentioned in Exodus 28: 31 which are to be used as a manner of casting lots and discerning God’s will.  The ignoring of kin probably refers to the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32, where the sons of Levi rally to Moses and kill the people who are running wild through the camp. This is the defining part of the tribe’s story where they are set apart to serve the LORD. As we have seen throughout Deuteronomy, with Moses no longer there to be the teacher of the law now that duty will fall to the Levites.

 12 Of Benjamin he said: The beloved of the LORD rests in safety—
the High God surrounds him all day long—
the beloved rests between his shoulders.

Benjamin’s blessing while short reflects a closeness of the LORD with the title of beloved of the LORD. The parental image of the God of Israel allowing the youngest child to rest in safety between the LORD’s shoulders is a peaceful one.
 
13 And of Joseph he said: Blessed by the LORD be his land,
with the choice gifts of heaven above, and of the deep that lies beneath;
14 with the choice fruits of the sun, and the rich yield of the months;
15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains, and the abundance of the everlasting hills;
16 with the choice gifts of the earth and its fullness, and the favor of the one who dwells on Sinai.
 Let these come on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince among his brothers.
 17 A firstborn bull– majesty is his! His horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he gores the peoples, driving them to the ends of the earth;
such are the myriads of Ephraim, such the thousands of Manasseh.

Joseph also receives a longer and fuller blessing, like Levi. Although the tribes of Joseph are larger and are frequently referred to by the names of his sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. The blessing called upon the half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (or the tribe of Joseph) are for abundance and strength. The image of the bull that gores and the illustration of the size (myriads and thousands) probably reflect the size of the host that Manasseh and Ephraim would contribute to the upcoming battles due to the size of their people.

 18 And of Zebulun he said: Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out; and Issachar, in your tents.
 19 They call peoples to the mountain; there they offer the right sacrifices;
for they suck the affluence of the seas and the hidden treasures of the sand.

Zebulun and Issachar share a blessing. Their blessing is for wealth. They will share territory next to one another and here they share a common blessing in their going out and tents.

 20 And of Gad he said: Blessed be the enlargement of Gad! Gad lives like a lion;
he tears at arm and scalp.
21 He chose the best for himself, for there a commander’s allotment was reserved;
he came at the head of the people, he executed the justice of the LORD, and his ordinances for Israel.

A simile is used to compare Gad to a lion. Gad seems to be lifted up as a dangerous enemy and one who chooses the best spoils of war. As a leader he is also lifted up as an executor of the justice of the LORD and the LORD’s ordinances.

 22 And of Dan he said: Dan is a lion’s whelp that leaps forth from Bashan.

Here the metaphorical image of a lion’s cub extends to Dan. Dangerous and violent, but perhaps not as dangerous as Gad.

 23 And of Naphtali he said: O Naphtali, sated with favor, full of the blessing of the LORD, possess the west and the south.

Naphtali is blessed with the full blessing of the LORD. The blessing of the LORD is linked to the land they will possess which is consistent with the understanding of land in Deuteronomy.

 24 And of Asher he said: Most blessed of sons be Asher; may he be the favorite of his brothers, and may he dip his foot in oil.
 25 Your bars are iron and bronze; and as your days, so is your strength.

Finally, the blessing for Asher where his position as a favorite among the tribes is combined with a blessing upon his strength metaphorically referred to as iron and bronze.

 26 There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help,
majestic through the skies.
 27 He subdues the ancient gods, shatters the forces of old;
he drove out the enemy before you, and said, “Destroy!”
 28 So Israel lives in safety, untroubled is Jacob’s abode in a land of grain and wine,
where the heavens drop down dew.
 29 Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread on their backs.

The blessing concludes with a final bit of poetic reference to the strength of the LORD using the imagery of the divine warrior. Again this is poetic imagery that comes from a world where the LORD is the greatest among the pantheon of the gods of the nations and is able to conquer these other gods (and by extension their people). The LORD is sword and shield, a common image of the Psalms, and Israel will stand victorious over the other peoples because of the strength of their LORD.

Deuteronomy 32- The Last Song of Moses

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Deuteronomy 32: 1-14: The Faithful Rock Provides

1 Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
 2 May my teaching drop like the rain, my speech condense like the dew;
   like gentle rain on grass, like showers on new growth.
 3 For I will proclaim the name of the LORD;
    ascribe greatness to our God!
 4 The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just.
    A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he;
 5 yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him,
   a perverse and crooked generation.
 6 Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people?
   Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?
 7 Remember the days of old, consider the years long past;
    ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you.
 8 When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind,
    he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods;
 9 the LORD’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.
 10 He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste;
    he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.
 11 As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young;
    as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions,
 12 the LORD alone guided him; no foreign god was with him.
 13 He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce of the field;
    he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock;
 14 curds from the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs and rams;
    Bashan bulls and goats, together with the choicest wheat—
    you drank fine wine from the blood of grapes.

This poem of Moses could fit in the book of Jeremiah as easily as the book of Deuteronomy. It in poetic form foreshadows the sweep of the Deuteronomic history which runs from Joshua to 1 and 2 Kings. This is a difficult song to write out and let the words seep out of the pen onto the paper as you hear them. It is dark, and as we heard in Deuteronomy 31:19 the purpose of the song is to be another witness against the people of Israel when they turn to be unfaithful. When they trust in other gods and the LORD abandons them (or actively brings about) the consequences the people are to know and understand. If the song looks forward, peering into the darkness of the future, the poet speaks the darkness in the hope that the words (for those are the only weapons the poet and songsmith have) might alter the path of the future. While the author of Deuteronomy has a dim view of the potential for the people of Israel to remain faithful, it is still their hope. Their anxiety over the disaster they foresee is matched by the intensity of the words they use to try to wake up the people to change the course they seem to be marching upon.

The song begins in praise of the God of Israel and the faithfulness of that God. Throughout this song the Rock will become the metaphorical name for God and be a contrast between the unbending faithfulness of the LORD the God of Israel and the degenerate children of a perverse and crooked generation. Yet, even this generation is called back to their ancestors who still remember and the elders who still trust in the LORD. Just as throughout the book of Deuteronomy it is the responsibility of the previous generation to ensure the fidelity of the upcoming generations, to remind them over and over of the way in which their God has provided for them and the special relationship they have with their God.

One of the reasons that many scholars think this is an early poem (or at a minimum this first section) is that it is not strictly monotheistic. The LORD allots to the other nations other gods, and what make Israel unique is that the Most High God has chosen them and therefore they are to have no other gods before the LORD their God. In beautiful poetic language it expresses that the people are God’s beloved and the ways in which God has sheltered and provided for them. God is an eagle hovering over its nest or bearing its young into the air on its wings. The LORD has provided all the best things: crops of the field, milk and curds from the cows and goats, the best meat from the sheep and bulls and goats, fine wine and bread. Yet, the fear of Deuteronomy is that in the midst of abundance that the people will forget who provided for them. That is where the poem takes its dark turning. 

Deuteronomy 32: 15-25 The Fattened People Forgets

15 Jacob ate his fill; Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked. You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!
    He abandoned God who made him, and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
 16 They made him jealous with strange gods, with abhorrent things they provoked him.
 17 They sacrificed to demons, not God, to deities they had never known,
     to new ones recently arrived, whom your ancestors had not feared.
 18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.
 19 The LORD saw it, and was jealous he spurned his sons and daughters.
 20 He said: I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end will be;
    for they are a perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness.
 21 They made me jealous with what is no god, provoked me with their idols.
    So I will make them jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation.
 22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and burns to the depths of Sheol;
     it devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
 23 I will heap disasters upon them, spend my arrows against them:
 24 wasting hunger, burning consumption, bitter pestilence.
    The teeth of beasts I will send against them, with venom of things crawling in the dust.
 25 In the street the sword shall bereave, and in the chambers terror,
     for young man and woman alike, nursing child and old gray head.

As I’ve been listening to this song of Moses throughout this week I’ve also been reflecting upon the way other popular songs work to try to bring about change and yet may feel overwhelmed by the social forces that seem to be giving rise to the undesired reality. For example, when the punk band Green Day released their American Idiot CD they weren’t desiring the character of the American Idiot to be the reality, they were mocking the emerging culture controlled by a conservative media. Countless songs from numerous genres could be lifted up as attempting to be a voice calling upon the future to change and yet the poets may feel powerless as in the classic Simon and Garfunkel song, The Sound of Silence:

“Fools” said I, “you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

Here the words of the song are placed in Moses’ mouth and just as in the previous chapter the hope is that the words will turn the direction that the people are moving in even when the anxiety is that the words will echo in the wells of silence. The words may bear witness but the people are hearing without listening. Moses prophetically chimes against when the people will bow and pray to the gods of stone and iron and gold they will make. In their fatness and wealth, they will forget the source of their blessings and attribute it to themselves and other things. Later prophets, like Jeremiah, who will attempt to be an echo of the words of this song will be treated as traitors, as woe bringers and will be resisted throughout their life. In the poetry of the song and of the later prophets sometimes the LORD will passively hide God’s face and surrender people to their fate, at other times God will actively bring upon the people their destruction, famine, and illness. In exchanging their Rock for idols of stone they have turned away from their foundation and reason for being. The song desperately rages to try to call the people to return to the LORD their God, and yet it knows people are likely to craft images of other gods rather than accept the God whom they cannot make an image of.

 

Deuteronomy 32: 26-30 A Remnant but Not for Your Sake

 26 I thought to scatter them and blot out the memory of them from humankind;
 27 but I feared provocation by the enemy, for their adversaries might misunderstand and say,
     “Our hand is triumphant; it was not the LORD who did all this.”
 28 They are a nation void of sense; there is no understanding in them.
 29 If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern what the end would be.
 30 How could one have routed a thousand, and two put a myriad to flight,
     unless their Rock had sold them, the LORD had given them up?
 
As in the book of Jeremiah, much of the language here is of a wounded God, a God who is contemplating the betrayal of the people of God. Woven into this song is the appeal of Moses in Exodus 32: 11-14 where he appeals to God on behalf of the people after the incident with the golden calf.

11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Here the logic of Moses now becomes woven into the logic of God and the logic of the song. It is so other nations do not become puffed up in their own accomplishment that a remnant is allowed to remain. In a set of brokenhearted lyrics where the LORD no longer appears to love the people and yet feels obligated to save them yet again we find a reason for that remnant to remain.

Deuteronomy 32: 31-43 There is No Rock Like our Rock

 31 Indeed their rock is not like our Rock; our enemies are fools.
 32 Their vine comes from the vinestock of Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah;
      their grapes are grapes of poison, their clusters are bitter;
 33 their wine is the poison of serpents, the cruel venom of asps.
 34 Is not this laid up in store with me, sealed up in my treasuries?
 35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip;
     because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly.
 36 Indeed the LORD will vindicate his people, have compassion on his servants,
    when he sees that their power is gone, neither bond nor free remaining.
 37 Then he will say: Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge,
 38 who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their libations?
    Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!
 39 See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me.
     I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand.
 40 For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear: As I live forever,
 41 when I whet my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment;
     I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me.
 42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh—
     with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired enemy.
 43 Praise, O heavens, his people, worship him, all you gods!
    For he will avenge the blood of his children, and take vengeance on his adversaries;
    he will repay those who hate him, and cleanse the land for his people.

The song ends with a move towards hope, much like in Deuteronomy 30 where now the LORD will turn on behalf of the remnant of the people once they have undergone the judgment. In a poetic turning the vanquished people now mock their former conquerors in their weakness after the LORD’s vengeance. For the people of Israel, the LORD is the primary actor and the gods of the nations are unable to stand in the presence of the LORD. Much like Isaiah 44: 9-20 which mocks the idols of the nations or Jeremiah 50-51 which speaks of the destruction of Babylon, these words can speak for the hopeless people with the hope of the LORD’s actions on the idols and the nations. The poem closes with warrior imagery for God (flashing sword, arrows drunk with blood, etc.) where God’s vengeance is acted out in a bloody fashion. I have talked about the warrior imagery of God in other place, but here for the people of Israel it is a reminder that there is no Rock like their rock. Even in their apparent weakness their God is a mighty God.

 Deuteronomy 32: 44-52 Preparing for Moses Death

 44 Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua son of Nun. 45 When Moses had finished reciting all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them: “Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today; give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law. 47 This is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life; through it you may live long in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.” 48 On that very day the LORD addressed Moses as follows: 49 “Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, across from Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites for a possession; 50 you shall die there on the mountain that you ascend and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin; 51 because both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to maintain my holiness among the Israelites. 52 Although you may view the land from a distance, you shall not enter it– the land that I am giving to the Israelites.”

As the song ends we are reminded once again that we are approaching the end of Moses’ story. Here, in contrast to the earlier narrative of Deuteronomy where the LORD is angry with Moses because of the people (see Deuteronomy 1: 37, 3: 26, 4:21), now we are linked back to the narrative of Numbers 20: 10-12 as the reason for Moses’ upcoming death. The stage is set for the final chapter of Deuteronomy where Moses ascends the mountain never to return, yet Moses still has a final blessing to declare upon the people prior to the ending of his journey. One final benediction to come from the teacher, leader, mediator, judge and bringer of the law to sustain the people on their journey into the promised land.

Deuteronomy 31 Preparing for Life after Moses

Moses Delivers a Charge to Joshua from th Philip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations

Moses Delivers a Charge to Joshua from th Philip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations

Deuteronomy 31

1 When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 2 he said to them: “I am now one hundred twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the LORD has told me, ‘You shall not cross over this Jordan.’ 3 The LORD your God himself will cross over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua also will cross over before you, as the LORD promised. 4 The LORD will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. 5 The LORD will give them over to you and you shall deal with them in full accord with the command that I have given to you. 6 Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

7 Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. 8 It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

9 Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 Moses commanded them: “Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people– men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns– so that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, 13 and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”

14 The LORD said to Moses, “Your time to die is near; call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him.” So Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting, 15 and the LORD appeared at the tent in a pillar of cloud; the pillar of cloud stood at the entrance to the tent.

16 The LORD said to Moses, “Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them. 17 My anger will be kindled against them in that day. I will forsake them and hide my face from them; they will become easy prey, and many terrible troubles will come upon them. In that day they will say, ‘Have not these troubles come upon us because our God is not in our midst?’ 18 On that day I will surely hide my face on account of all the evil they have done by turning to other gods. 19 Now therefore write this song, and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be a witness for me against the Israelites. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I promised on oath to their ancestors, and they have eaten their fill and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, despising me and breaking my covenant. 21 And when many terrible troubles come upon them, this song will confront them as a witness, because it will not be lost from the mouths of their descendants. For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath.” 22 That very day Moses wrote this song and taught it to the Israelites.

23 Then the LORD commissioned Joshua son of Nun and said, “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you.”

                24 When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, 26 “Take this book of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God; let it remain there as a witness against you. 27 For I know well how rebellious and stubborn you are. If you already have been so rebellious toward the LORD while I am still alive among you, how much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officials, so that I may recite these words in their hearing and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, turning aside from the way that I have commanded you. In time to come trouble will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”

 30 Then Moses recited the words of this song, to the very end, in the hearing of the whole assembly of Israel:

The final chapters of Deuteronomy use the transitions (chapter 31), song (chapter 32) and final blessing (chapter 33) to prepare for the death of Moses in chapter 34 and the transition to the narrative of Joshua. Moses carried enormous power and importance for the generations that left Egypt, wandered in the desert and now stand at the precipice of the promised land. Future leaders will lead differently than Moses did, they will not have the same relationship with the LORD the God of Israel. They will not be called to be the teacher of the law, the political leader, the final judge, and the faithful mouthpiece of God in their midst. Even with Moses’ stature, he would struggle to bring the people out of Egypt, through the wilderness and to this point. Frequently he would find himself between God and the people, pleading for the people who seemed to be unwilling or unable to live up to the ideals of the covenant. The anxiety of the book of Deuteronomy that the people will not remain faithful in the comfort of the promised land is heightened by the knowledge that Moses will not be there to ease their transition from a wandering people into a settled confederation of tribes that will make up the nation of Israel.

Moses’ role becomes divided into three parts in this chapter: as the leader (both politically and militarily), as the witness to the people, and as the teacher of the law. Now Moses will be replaced by a man, a song and a book. Joshua son of Nun first enters the story in Exodus 17 in the battle between the Israelites and Amalek. Joshua is the leader of the people of Israel in the battle in the valley while Moses, Aaron and Hur are on top of the hill with Aaron and Hur supporting Moses’ arms in the battle (for while Moses’ hand is held up the Israelites prevail). Shortly afterwards Joshua becomes Moses’ assistant and he is one of the two Israelite spies who advocate courage and invading the promised land the first time the people arrive. The choice of Joshua as the leader to succeed Moses is not a surprise, but Joshua has some large shoes to fill and a daunting task ahead of him. Joshua is commissioned twice, first by Moses with words that are not identical to, but foreshadow the central command in the book of Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD you God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) Then Joshua is commissioned a second time in the tent of the meeting by the LORD. Publically now the mantle of leadership is passed to Joshua for a new task in a new time.

The song, which will come in chapter 32, is to become a witness for the people when they are unfaithful. Deuteronomy does not have an optimistic view of the potential faithfulness of the people of Israel, and the people will not have written copies of the law in their homes, but the song is to become the reminder of who they are called to be. Music does have the power to become the bearer of memory in powerful ways and the Hebrew people, as well as early Christians, dedicate significant portions of their scriptures to songs. The book of Psalms may be the best known example, but there are songs throughout the narrative, the prophets and the other documents that form the scriptures. For example, both Moses and Miriam have songs recorded in Exodus 15, and these songs probably formed a part of the storytelling and worship of the ancient Hebrew people.

Finally, the law is physically written down and place with the priests and the elders. The reading of the law is to be read as a part of the ritual of the festival of booths every seven years as a way of continually reinforcing the law to the people. I have said several times throughout the book of Deuteronomy that this is primarily an aural document meant to be heard instead of read. Most of the people would not have been able to read or write and depended on the scribes and priests to read the law and other holy words to them. Deuteronomy is concerned with passing on the law from generation to generation and here is one more attempt to create the possibility for future generations to know the LORD their God.

Moses is preparing to utter his final two messages to the people, the last song of Moses and the final blessing. Joshua is now to be the leader that will carry the people from the edge of the promised land to become the occupants of that land. The songs they sing will now become witnesses that call them back to faithfulness and the law is entrusted to the Levites and the elders so that they may order the society in accordance with them. Moses will, for the Jewish people, occupy a place that no one else will. He has been the faithful teacher, visionary leader, righteous judge, and the one stood face to face with God. The best that leaders who follow Moses will be able to do is to be ‘strong and courageous’ and to hear and learn the law of the LORD their God.

Moses Delivers the Law to the Priests, Phillip Medhurst Collection of Biblical images

Moses Delivers the Law to the Priests, Phillip Medhurst Collection of Biblical images

Deuteronomy 30 – Hope Beyond the Curse

Water  original image from splashhttp://www.ripples.ca/

Water original image from splashhttp://www.ripples.ca/

 

Deuteronomy 30: 1-10 Returning to the LORD

1 When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. 5 The LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors.

 6 Moreover, the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. 7 The LORD your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you. 8 Then you shall again obey the LORD, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, 9 and the LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, 10 when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Deuteronomy 30 is one of those passages whose images will have a ripple effect in both the prophets, particularly Jeremiah, and later in the words of the apostle Paul. Whenever these words are spoken, they speak to the context of the Babylonian exile where the land, Judean king, and the temple which formed the central parts of the identity of the Jewish people prior to the exile are all lost. It is in the midst of this experience of desolation that the prophetic hope arises, but it is always a hope that is not easily won. It only comes after all the curses have been exhausted, or in the experience of the exile once the nation has been conquered multiple times and not only with the elite being carried off into exile but rather after continued rebellion and failed cheap solutions like those presented by false prophets like Hananiah in Jeremiah 28 which promised a quick and easy end to judgment. There is hope in the midst of what may seem like hopelessness. In exile there is the promise of return and the primary actor is the LORD.

The prophets will spend a lot of ink talking about the return from exile. Isaiah 40-55, Jeremiah 30-33, Ezekiel 36-37 and several of the minor prophets all address this. The poetic and prophetic hope emerges out of this place of desolation and destruction. The promise is again the land and prosperity and this becomes a central image for the people. Their lives and stories are linked to the land, but their prosperity in the land is linked to their ability to live out of the covenant. We are linked back to Deuteronomy 6:5 by the echo of loving the LORD with all of their heart and soul. If the people return to the LORD, then the words of Isaiah echo the sentiment of this passage:

Do not fear, I am with you, I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43:5-7

The image of circumcision is now used metaphorically in relationship to the heart. Just as the physical act of circumcision became a mark of the covenant for the Jewish people, now the LORD circumcises the heart of the renewed people. In Deuteronomy 10: 16 the people are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts so that they would no longer be stubborn and would be receptive to the commandments of the LORD. Now in this period of renewal God is the primary actor and the one enabling the people to love the LORD with their heart and soul. In Jeremiah 4:4 this image re-appears in language similar to Deuteronomy 10, in the sense of a warning to turn towards the LORD prior to the experience of exile:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go out like fire, and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your doings. Jeremiah 4:4

But for the apostle Paul, who has to justify his ministry among the Gentiles before those who expect Gentiles to undergo physical circumcision, he is able to use these passages to reflect his ministry in a different light:

For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receive praise not from others but from God. Romans 2: 28f.

The condition of exile, much like the captivity in Egypt, creates the space where the covenant can begin again and God hears the cries of the oppressed people. Just as in the exodus from Egypt, in the return from exile the primary actor will be God. Yet, in this condition where God has acted on behalf of the people, the people still have the obligation to live in obedience to the commands and decrees and that begins with loving and turning to the LORD their God with all their heart and soul.

Deuteronomy 30: 11-20 Obedience is Possible

 11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

 15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

The people to this point in the story have not demonstrated that they have a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear as Deuteronomy states in Deuteronomy 29: 4, yet for Deuteronomy obedience is not only possible, it is easily within the people’s reach. The Jewish people were not to view the law as a heavy burden but rather as Psalm 1 can state that for the faithful the law of the LORD is their delight. To live in accordance with commandments, decrees and ordinances is to choose life and to fail to do so is to choose death for the people. The earth, who we have seen at previous points, bears some of the consequences of the disobedience of the people of God is called to witness against them. The people are urged once more to choose life, just as at the end of the book of Joshua they will be charged to choose to serve the LORD (Joshua 24).

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans demonstrates how for the followers of Jesus the focus of this obedience changes. In Romans 10: 5-8 now Christ takes the place of this word that is near you and on your hearts.

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); Romans 10: 5-8

Much as John’s Gospel can refer to Jesus as the Word of God (John 1) or Matthew’s Gospel can refer as Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5: 17) it shows how this concept becomes completely transformed in a Christian worldview. Even though Jesus will echo the greatest commandment being Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 which comes down to loving the LORD with all the heart. These texts become transformed with now Jesus occupying the place of the law, and the righteousness of faith takes the place of the righteousness of the law. It is not surprising that Paul was frequently in trouble with other Jewish people over a transformation that affects such a central thing as the law, and that is probably why he spends much of Romans (in addition to Galatians) trying to re-interpret the scriptures in light of his experience of the risen Christ.

Deuteronomy 29: A Final Address

Deuteronomy 29: 1-9 Restating the Covenant

James Tissot, Moses (1896-1902)

James Tissot, Moses (1896-1902)

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.

 

Deuteronomy 28 Blessings and Curses

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Deuteronomy 28: 1-14 Blessings for Obedience

1 If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; 2 all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God:
 3 Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.
 4 Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.
 5 Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
 6 Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.
 7 The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you; they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways. 8 The LORD will command the blessing upon you in your barns, and in all that you undertake; he will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 9 The LORD will establish you as his holy people, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in his ways. 10 All the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you. 11 The LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you. 12 The LORD will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings. You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow. 13 The LORD will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom– if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I am commanding you today, by diligently observing them, 14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I am commanding you today, either to the right or to the left, following other gods to serve them.
 
Deuteronomy closes this section with a series of blessings and curses. The previous chapter gives instructions for Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin to stand on Mount Gerazim to proclaim the blessings. Although the ancient world had a much stronger view of blessings and curses than we do in our culture they are not quite these magic words that linger in the air and take on a power to bless or smite, rather they are a continual reminder of the contingent nature of the blessings that the LORD has promised. Israel does not have a true freedom in the sense of being able to choose its own destiny but it does, according to Deuteronomy, have a choice of which destiny it will live into. The reward for covenant obedience is that they will be materially blessed in this life, their harvests will be good, their flocks and herds will grow, they will have children and good health.

In an American context it would be easy to misread Deuteronomy as some sort of prosperity gospel for individuals, but this would be to miss much of what Deuteronomy is saying. Yes, in the author of Deuteronomy’s view the people (as a community) will be blessed if they are obedient. That obedience involves a harsh set of justice requirements and the continual care for the oppressed in their midst. It involves an acknowledgment that their blessings come from the LORD their God who brought them out of the Egypt and to this land of milk and honey. It is a way of thinking that is simple, and one that other books of the bible do challenge (for example in the book of Job which revolves around the righteous sufferer and in Matthew, Mark and Luke where prosperity is viewed with suspicion) yet it is a perspective that helps many people make sense of their lives, and probably helped the people Deuteronomy is written to initially make sense of their lives.

The people will often fail to diligently observe all the commandments and the much larger portion of this chapter is dedicated to the consequences for disobedience. Perhaps as we approach the following fifty three verses of curses, which seem oppressive and distasteful in our time, we can suspend our judgment and wonder about the experiences of the people who would hear these words.

 

Deuteronomy 28: 15-68 Curses for Disobedience

      15 But if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you:
 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field.
 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.
 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.
       20 The LORD will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. 21 The LORD will make the pestilence cling to you until it has consumed you off the land that you are entering to possess. 22 The LORD will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat and drought, and with blight and mildew; they shall pursue you until you perish. 23 The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron. 24 The LORD will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed.
      25 The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you shall go out against them one way and flee before them seven ways. You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 Your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air and animal of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. 27 The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind; 29 you shall grope about at noon as blind people grope in darkness, but you shall be unable to find your way; and you shall be continually abused and robbed, without anyone to help. 30 You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be butchered before your eyes, but you shall not eat of it. Your donkey shall be stolen in front of you, and shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, without anyone to help you. 32 Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people, while you look on; you will strain your eyes looking for them all day but be powerless to do anything. 33 A people whom you do not know shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors; you shall be continually abused and crushed, 34 and driven mad by the sight that your eyes shall see. 35 The LORD will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head. 36 The LORD will bring you, and the king whom you set over you, to a nation that neither you nor your ancestors have known, where you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone. 37 You shall become an object of horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the LORD will lead you.
 38 You shall carry much seed into the field but shall gather little in, for the locust shall consume it. 39 You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. 40 You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off. 41 You shall have sons and daughters, but they shall not remain yours, for they shall go into captivity. 42 All your trees and the fruit of your ground the cicada shall take over. 43 Aliens residing among you shall ascend above you higher and higher, while you shall descend lower and lower. 44 They shall lend to you but you shall not lend to them; they shall be the head and you shall be the tail.
      45 All these curses shall come upon you, pursuing and overtaking you until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the LORD your God, by observing the commandments and the decrees that he commanded you. 46 They shall be among you and your descendants as a sign and a portent forever. 47 Because you did not serve the LORD your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you. 49 The LORD will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, 50 a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favor to the young. 51 It shall consume the fruit of your livestock and the fruit of your ground until you are destroyed, leaving you neither grain, wine, and oil, nor the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, until it has made you perish. 52 It shall besiege you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout your land; it shall besiege you in all your towns throughout the land that the LORD your God has given you. 53 In the desperate straits to which the enemy siege reduces you, you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters whom the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most refined and gentle of men among you will begrudge food to his own brother, to the wife whom he embraces, and to the last of his remaining children, 55 giving to none of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because nothing else remains to him, in the desperate straits to which the enemy siege will reduce you in all your towns. 56 She who is the most refined and gentle among you, so gentle and refined that she does not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground, will begrudge food to the husband whom she embraces, to her own son, and to her own daughter, 57 begrudging even the afterbirth that comes out from between her thighs, and the children that she bears, because she is eating them in secret for lack of anything else, in the desperate straits to which the enemy siege will reduce you in your towns.
      58 If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, 59 then the LORD will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies. 60 He will bring back upon you all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were in dread, and they shall cling to you. 61 Every other malady and affliction, even though not recorded in the book of this law, the LORD will inflict on you until you are destroyed. 62 Although once you were as numerous as the stars in heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the LORD your God. 63 And just as the LORD took delight in making you prosperous and numerous, so the LORD will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction; you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to possess. 64 The LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other; and there you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. 65 Among those nations you shall find no ease, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and a languishing spirit. 66 Your life shall hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread, with no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, “If only it were evening!” and at evening you shall say, “If only it were morning!”– because of the dread that your heart shall feel and the sights that your eyes shall see. 68 The LORD will bring you back in ships to Egypt, by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.

One of my practices as I write these reflections is to physically write out the text. I have done this for Haggai, Esther, Jeremiah, Psalms 1-10 and now most of the way through Deuteronomy. This is a challenging text to listen to as you write it, but it is not the first time I have approached a text like this. What the text reminded me of was the end of Jeremiah, particularly Jeremiah 46-51 where the curses are uttered towards all the nations around Judah. Even though it is unusual in our time to think about dedicating this much energy to a ‘hex’ or ‘curse’ it is not unusual in the ancient world: both in Israel and in the cultures around them. Many ancient texts end with a long set of curses for failing to observe the commands or view of the text, but Deuteronomy does not end here. While this is the closing of this central portion of Deuteronomy that deals with the law, in the narrative of Deuteronomy Moses is still going to renew the covenant one more time, promise them that even in the midst of the curses that there is still an option to return to the LORD, a challenge to choose the way of blessing and life, the setting up Joshua as a successor and establishing practices for reminding the people of this law, Moses’ song and Moses’ final blessing. Yet, there is no avoiding the discomfort that a passage like this causes modern people.

I am amazed at the ways I have seen people misuse this text, for example the text in verses 56 and 57 (which is very reminiscent of Jeremiah) which talks about parents eating their own children within the context of a land under siege I have seen it twisted by a person trying to discredit the bible to God commanding parents to eat their children (which never happens). I can understand why people would misread these curses, but let’s take a little time to try to understand what is going on here. The great fear of the author of Deuteronomy is that the people when they enter the promised land will forget the covenant and turn aside to worship other gods. If they do this they lose their identity as being Israel, and with that they lose the land, their prosperity, and everything else. If scholars are correct that Deuteronomy, like many other books, reach their final form during the Babylonian exile then this portion in verses 47-57 makes a lot of sense. It does not parallel any of the blessings but does reflect the experience of the siege of Jerusalem and the departure into exile. As harsh as this language is, it may reflect the process of meaning making that is a part of the recovery from trauma. In her well written book interpreting the book of Jeremiah from the perspective of trauma and recovery Kathleen O’Connor can write about the rhetoric of responsibility and survival by saying:

If the world is ever to be trustworthy, victims need interpretation. For their lives to rest on the most minimal order, they must have meaning, interpretation, explanation, even if the explanation is ephemeral, inadequate, partial or outright wrong. Explanation puts order back in the world…. He (Jeremiah) claims without qualification that God is still in charge of the world; God controls events and governs justly. But perhaps even more important and surprising, when he places responsibility upon the people, he gives people a sense of control. (O’Connor, 2011, p. 43f.)

Amazingly in these curses, perhaps in a period where the world seems out of control, the people of Israel and Judah can find a sense of control and things they can do to return to their former state. The answer may be incomplete or there may be times where it doesn’t adequately address the complexity of the situation. Yet, in a time of a crisis of belief and life where the people are seeking an answer the simple answer is often the one that people cling to. In an option where they could either say their God is powerless or that they themselves were under judgment it was an easier option, at least for those who would become the remnant, to claim that they were the party that failed the covenant. This reflection is not likely to convince the person who does not have God as a central part of their life but to those who consider themselves the faithful they may find great comfort in it.

As I mentioned above, the great fear voiced throughout Deuteronomy is that the people will forget the covenant in their prosperity. They will begin to trust in their own work or in the practice of the nations around them. The narrative that follows beginning in Joshua and running through 2 Kings bears out this fear. If Deuteronomy does have its origins in a speech of Moses, then it is conceivable that this fear of what would happen after his death could be a pressing anxiety for Moses on behalf of this people. Wherever Deuteronomy emerges from in time and history, the form we have it now does spend a lot of energy on these curses in a way that encourages the people to remain faithful. Also remember this is more of an aural document (written for the ear) than a textual one. Even though it is recorded it was to be read to the people and then repeated emphasis on the consequences are probably intended to encourage one more time obedience.

The book of Deuteronomy does have a very binary manner of looking at the world. There is either Mount Ebal, the mountain of curses, or Mount Gerazim, the mountain of blessings. Reality is probably closer to the valley between the two. Even though God is portrayed harshly in Deuteronomy, and other places as well, this wrath of God is never the primary thing. Even though this chapter is dominated by curses for disobedience, the continuing unfolding of this narrative will show how often God attempts to get the people to turn away from the practices that are leading them to destruction. God will be the heartbroken one often in the story going forward, and yet a God who does not judge is an apathetic god, not the passionate God of the Bible. Yet, just as these curses are not the end of Deuteronomy, nor are the experiences of destruction and loss the end of God’s calling for the people. As the final chapters will make clear there is always the possibility for the people’s return and the LORD’s forgiveness.