Moses Speaks to the Church in Deuteronomy: Keeping the Faith Alive
God’s desire for his people is life, a real, full, vibrant life of blessing and purpose in God’s presence. In Deuteronomy, God’s call for Israel to trust and obey him expresses that desire (e.g., Deut 6:2-3; 7:11-14; 10:12-13; 28:1-14; 30:11-20). However, the very real danger of Israel turning away from God hangs over Israel in Deuteronomy. As with the exodus generation, this new generation, who now stands on the border, and future generations could choose against God and God’s call. So it is imperative to keep the faith alive within the community. Deuteronomy provides seven means (a nicely biblical number!) woven into the life of the community to help God’s people keep the faith alive, then and now.
1. Informally, in daily speech and deeds (Deut 6:1-9). Couched in the great call to love God with one’s entire being, Moses tells Israel to impress God’s commandments on their children. How? By talking to the children about God’s will everywhere, day and night. God’s word should permeate every level of the community: the individual (bound on the hands and head); the household (on the doorposts of the house); and the larger community (on the gates). Language of God’s will should fill their conversation with respect to every aspect of life. Of course, the expectation would be not simply talking about the commands but also obeying them.
How do we cultivate the regular conversation and practice of the faith in our lives, homes, and churches?
2. Telling the story of God’s mighty deeds (Deut 6:20-25; 26:5-10). Israel is to tell its story of God at work for and among them. Sometimes the telling comes in informal settings. For example, when the children ask about the commandments, the response is not “Because God said so!” Rather, the “why” is answered in the parents’ recital of the story of God’s mighty delivering of Israel from Egypt and bringing them into the Promised Land. At other times, the Israelites tell the story in formal, liturgical settings. So, as the Israelites present the first of the harvest to the priest at the sanctuary, they are to recite a fixed creed that recounts the story of God with Israel going in and out of Egypt. The firstfruits are an acknowledgement that they continue to live under the blessing of their God.
What informal and formal settings provide us to opportunity to recite the mighty acts of God in Israel, in Jesus Christ, through the Spirit, and in the history of God’s people? What might such recitations look like in those contexts?
3. Holy Days and Feasts (Deut 5:12-16; 16:14-15). Weekly Sabbath observances as well as the celebrations of the three annual major festivals become opportunities for reviving the faith. Sabbath, in Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments, is a weekly reminder that all Israelites are beneficiaries of rest because God delivered them from Egypt. It is also a weekly reminder to imitate the character of God by providing rest. Passover (with the Feast of Unleavened Bread), the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Booths are joyful annual celebrations that reorient Israel on the God who has provided for them and protected them, with the anticipation that God will continue to do so. The festivals even draw Israel into their story, reenacting past events but also showing the continuity of God’s care and blessing into the present and anticipation of such care in the future. Thus, the feasts are celebrated with joy. Furthermore, they are inclusive of the entire community, regardless of station in life or status. Therefore, the festivals also remind the whole community of their common redemption by God.
What weekly and annual observances can help us keep the faith alive in our communities and how? How do our observances draw us into the story of faith? Or do they?
4. Giving gifts to God and others (Deut 15:7-11, 19-23; 14:22-29; 16:16-17). When Israel gives offerings at the festivals, they acknowledge that God has blessed them. Likewise, giving generously to the poor leads to God’s ongoing generous blessing in the land. Thus giving directs Israel’s attention not only to the one in need but also to the God who has and will make the generous giving possible. Tithing brings these together as a reminder of God’s blessing and a means to share God’s blessings with those in need within the community.
How can our giving be a reflection of and response to our experience of God’s grace? (Cf. 2 Cor 8:1-9)
5. Symbols (Deut 22:12; 27:1-4). Israelites are to make tassels for the four corners of their cloaks. The purpose of the tassels is not defined in Deuteronomy, but Numbers 15:37-40 indicates that when Israel saw these tassels they would remember God’s commands and not pursue the lusts of their hearts and eyes. After they have entered the land, Israel’s elders are to erect stones on Mount Ebal with the all the words of the torah written on them. The stones will remind the people of their covenant with God. These symbols remind Israel of who they are and of the life and mission to which God has called them.
What symbols can we and our churches use to remind us of who we are and of the life and mission God has given us in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit?
6. Song (Deut 31:19-22; 32:1-43). God commands Moses to write a song to remind Israel of their covenant obligations with God. More specifically, the song in Deuteronomy 32 will serve as a witness against Israel when they turn from God to pursue other gods and so experience the curses of the covenant. The song itself highlights God’s faithfulness to Israel, God’s judgment on Israel for their unfaithfulness, God’s restoration and vindication of Israel, and God’s incomparability. Such songs are a powerful vehicle for ingraining the faith in our hearts, memories, and imaginations.
What do the songs we sing in church convey about God and our life with God? How do we ensure that what sing is faithful to Scripture and sound theology?
7. Public reading of the Scripture (Deut 31:9-13). Every seven years, at the Festival of Booths, the priests were to read the torah publicly to all who gathered for the feast. There, the children who have never heard the law read will hear it, and the people who have heard it will be reminded and refreshed on its content and meaning. Keep in mind that the Israelites would not have had private copies of the torah. Though seven-year intervals seem a long time to remember something that was read, oral cultures often have a better ability to retain what they hear. Also, remember that Israel is to post and recite the commands in their daily lives, bringing us full circle to the first way of keeping the word ever-present in Israel.
Is public reading of significant portions of Scripture a regular part of our gatherings? Over time, do we and our children hear the whole counsel and story of Scripture?
In these ways, Deuteronomy guides us in keeping the faith alive in the community of God today. Such practices immerse the community in language and practice of the faith with the hope that we, our children, and their children are faithful to God and so choose life.
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).