Opening The Old Testament
The Danger of Deuteronomy: Reflections on Deuteronomy 30:15-20
But we have still not answered our initial question; what are we to do with this material in Deuteronomy? God's gift to Israel here, in the form of a Mosaic sermon given to the people of Israel as they await entrance into the land of promise (see Dt. 29:2f for the beginning of the sermon), is the choice between "life and death," between "prosperity and adversity" (30:15). And verse 16 appears to make that choice directly dependent on whether or not Israel follows the "commandments of God." "If you obey the commandments of YHWH your God that I am commanding you today, by loving YHWH your God, walking in God's ways, observing God's commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and YHWH your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess." And the disasters of the wrong choice are sounded immediately in verses 17-18: "But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you will perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess." But however obvious the connection between our behaviors and God's rewards and punishments in these verses in Deuteronomy 30, I suggest that a closer look at the larger context of the verses provides another view of them entirely.
Deuteronomy warns that we not only must first "love YHWH our God," but we must also observe (the Hebrew can also be translated "hear") God's "commandments, decrees, and ordinances." I would include within those three different words much more than a series of legal demands. We need to hear Deuteronomy 7:7-8 just as much, if not more, than we need to hear Deuteronomy 5:1-21, his list of the Ten Commandments. If our lives are to be long in the land of promise, we must first love YHWH our God. Why? Precisely because we are first loved by that same YHWH! "It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that YHWH set a heart on you and chose you -- for you were the fewest of all the peoples. It was because YHWH loved you and kept the oath sworn to your ancestors, that YHWH has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of pharaoh, king of Egypt" (Dt. 7:7-8).
The first word of YHWH is not a demand to follow a set of laws; the first word of YHWH is to respond to the love YHWH has freely offered to the helpless people enslaved in Egypt by first loving God and then, out of that rich love, following the commandments that God has lovingly offered the people. This is exactly why the first commandment of the Ten is the first: "I am YHWH your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Dt. 5:6). That, of course, is no command at all; it is a loving restatement of God's first and greatest act for Israel, the people of God's choice.
And now we may hear the language of Deuteronomy 30 in a new way. If you love, and obey, and observe all that God has offered and given for your richest possible life, you will surely live long in the land that God has given, because you will be living in the hopes and promises of God for justice and righteousness for all of those who have received God's promises, namely all of our brothers and sisters. Long life now equals rich life in community, and prosperity means being rich toward and with God who has chosen us and loves us first and always.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.