Deuteronomy 7-10 reveals that the faithfulness of God’s people to their covenant with God—and so their fulfillment of God’s purposes through them—faces constant dangers on several levels. One does not have to dig too deeply to find manifestations of these same dangers within the community of God today.
The Danger of Pride. In Deuteronomy 7:6, Moses tells Israel that they are “a holy people” to God, his chosen people, and his “treasured possession.” Then, lest they get the big head, Moses emphasizes that their election has nothing to do with their size or impressiveness:
“The Lord did not set his affection on your and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” (7:7, NIV)
The Israelites are not the biggest, the strongest, or the best, and God did not choose Israel because they were. Instead, God chose them because he loved them and because he is faithful to his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. However, their smallness is neither an impediment to God’s plans for them nor a reason to be afraid. Moses reassures Israel that God will bless them and fight for them, if only they remain faithful to their covenant with God by keeping the commands (7:11-24). God will do it. So there is no place for pride in any supposed size or might.
The Danger of Prosperity. In the midst of the prosperity God has in store for Israel (8: 7-9), a new danger may arise: Israel may forget that their prosperity is the result of God’s blessing. They may convince themselves that God helps those who help themselves, or maybe that God doesn’t have that much to do with it at all (8:10-14, 17; cf. 6:10-12). The preventative against such forgetting is threefold. First, they must remember. They must remember God’s commands, which constantly orient their lives on him and what it means to be his people (8:1, 6, 11). They must remember the discipline of the wilderness, where God led, cared for them, and taught them to trust him (8:2-5, 14-16). Second, they must praise (or bless) God when they have eaten their fill (8:10), so acknowledging the Source of blessing. Third, they must bear in mind that God enables them to produce what they have:
“But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” (8:18, NIV)
The danger in prosperity is forgetting God. The result of forgetting is that Israel will become like the nations God has rooted out of the land (vv. 19-20).
The Danger of Self-Righteousness. A third danger is that Israel may convince themselves that they deserve the land because of their own righteousness. They may convince themselves that God has driven out those wicked Canaanites to replace them with us, the righteous Israelites (9:1-4). They would be half right. While the conquest of these people is judgment on the Canaanites for wickedness (cf. Gen 15:16), receiving the land has nothing to do with Israel’s righteousness:
Receiving the land has everything to do with the fact that God made a promise to Israel’s ancestors (9:5). To make sure they get the point, Moses tells them three times, “It’s not because of your righteousness.” (9:4, 5, 6). Then to prove it, he recounts Israel’s history of idolatry and rebellion (9:7-10:11). The danger of self righteousness is coming to believe it is about them rather than God.
Ongoing Dangers for the Community of God. As Israel’s and the church’s history have repeatedly shown, those whom God calls can frustrate God’s purposes for them. In language that echoes Deuteronomy 7:6, Christians are God’s chosen people, royal priesthood, and holy nation (1 Pet 2:9). Like Israel, our calling is not about us but about God and God’s purposes to be accomplished through us. However, our own sense of importance, our prosperity, and our self-righteousness can, and often does, prevent us from fulfilling our calling. This may be especially true for American Christians, who so often blend nationalism and faith. We belong to a nation that commands an inordinate amount of the world’s power and wealth. Because of our size and strength as a nation, we may see no real need to trust God for our protection and care. If we do fear, we often turn to our political leaders, our national resources, our financial institutions, and our armed forces. Our prosperity and confidence in our ability to generate and maintain that prosperity lead us to trust in those gods that Jesus names “Mammon” (Matt 6:24) and Paul calls “Greed” (Col 3:5). In religious matters, we can convince ourselves that we are doing quite well on our own, or with only minimal help from God. We are basically good, after all. So we can compare ourselves to others, especially those who are not Christians, and think we look really good by contrast. From there it is a short step to believing we deserve what we have because we are morally superior.
Deuteronomy warns us against those dangers of pride, prosperity, and self-righteousness. It points us to God, the God who chose us in Jesus Christ, not because we were impressive but because God so loved the world. It reminds us that we do not find our sustenance in bread alone, but in Jesus, the Bread of Life and the Word of God made flesh. It assures us that our standing before God is not because of our righteousness but the righteousness of Jesus. It undermines our idolatries as we are reminded that it is not about us. It’s about God.
Phillip Camp is an Associate Professor of Bible in Lipscomb University’s Hazelip School of Theology and in the College of Bible of Ministry. His latest book is Living as the Community of God: Moses Speaks to the Church in Deuteronomy (CrossLink, 2014).