Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9
This week we’re talking about Law, and we have in our reading two texts that loom large in both Christian and Jewish theology: the Ten Commandments (obviously Law) and the Shema (more on that in a minute).1
You know the Ten Commandments, of course. You’ve heard them, memorized them, and perhaps even taught them to confirmation students. Note, however, that this is the second iteration of the Ten Commandments in the Bible. The first rendition (which is almost exactly the same as this one) is found in Exodus 20, right after the Exodus, right after the readings from last week, in fact. In Exodus, Moses is called up to the top of Mt. Sinai and is given the Ten Commandments and other laws, while the people at the base of the mountain dance around a golden bovine they’ve built for themselves.
It’s just a foretaste of things to come. That generation of Israelites, the ones who saw the mighty acts of God against Pharaoh, the ones whose sandals stayed dry as they crossed through the Red Sea — they don’t trust that God will indeed bring them into the Promised Land (see Numbers 13-14). For their disbelief and for their repeated rebellions (the first of which we saw last week), God vows that that first generation will not enter the land (Numbers 14:26-35).
Between that first giving of the Ten Commandments and this one, then, we have a span of 40 years. The Israelites wander in the wilderness until that first generation dies off. Their children, the second generation, come to the edge of the Promised Land at the end of Numbers, and then Moses preaches some sermons (which are the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy).
That’s where we are this week. We’re on the cusp of the Promised Land, and Moses, that great preacher, is reviewing for this new generation of Israelites what has come before. He brings them rhetorically to the base of Mt. Sinai (called Horeb here) and preaches to them:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. (Deuteronomy 5:2-3)
Now, on the face of it, what Moses says is wrong. The people to whom he preaches are not that first generation of Israelites who stood at the base of Mt. Sinai. These are their children, 40 years later. But Moses’ concern is not history; it’s transformation. He seeks to persuade this new generation to re-commit to the covenant God made with their parents at Sinai. As they are about to enter the land promised to their ancestors (Genesis 12:7), they renew the covenant with the God of their ancestors.
The rhetorical force of this passage (and what follows it) is not confined to that second generation of Israelites standing on the edge of the Promised Land. It speaks also to the generations who live in the land, and to the generations who, in exile and in diaspora, are outside the land again. Each generation is called upon to enter anew into the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai.
Preachers take note: This passage — and what follows it — also speak to us, the umpteenth generation removed from Sinai. We are addressed by these words! We, “all of us here alive today,” are called upon even now to enter into and recommit to that relationship with the God of Israel.
That is the rhetorical force of this passage. That is the rhetorical force of all of Scripture, really. Scripture seeks to inform, but even more, to transform, to invite us to enter into the story of God and Israel, and the story of Christ and the church, and therein to find our own story.
And the particular part of the story that we hear today concerns the giving of the Law. We, “all of us here alive today,” are standing at the foot of Sinai! And God is giving us the Law as a gift! You cannot understand the Old Testament witness without understanding that. The Law is not a burden placed on us by an oppressive taskmaster. It is a gift given to promote life, life with God, and life with one another.
Note that the Law is given within the context of relationship. The commandments begin with this: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7). Jews don’t count the “no other gods” part of that passage as the first commandment.
They count what comes before it as the first commandment (or, more accurately, the first “word,” since it is not actually a commandment). “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” There is a relationship there, already established, a relationship of intimacy (Israel knows God’s name) and of faithfulness (God has freed Israel from slavery).
It is out of that relationship, then, that the commandments are given. God gives them to Israel so that they know how to live into that relationship, how to be God’s own people, “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The gift comes before the commandment. To put it in Lutheran terms, here the Gospel comes before the Law.
A fruitful sermon on the Ten Commandments might set them in the context of this story of the Exodus and of God’s saving work on behalf of the people. Such a sermon should also demonstrate how these commandments are life-giving, here and now.
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” for instance, is a counter-cultural commandment that can be a word of promise and hope in our 24/7 frenetic world. We are not automatons. We can stop and rest, trusting that God will provide. Such a delving into the commandments would be a gift to any congregation.
Our reading for today includes one more section that warrants discussion. Deuteronomy 6:4 — “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one” — is known as the Shema (after the first word in the verse, Shema, Hebrew for “hear”). It is a central passage in Jewish theology and practice. An observant Jew recites the Shema two times a day, in the morning and in the evening. (The term “Shema” is also used of the whole passage, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, with the addition of Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41 as part of the daily prayers.)
Jesus, being a good Jew, recites the Shema when asked which is the greatest commandment:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
It is easy to see why the Shema holds such importance for Jews (and, as part of the greatest commandment, for Christians). The Shema affirms the oneness of God and God’s sovereignty.
The passage also commands us and every hearer or reader of the text (the “you” of the text) to love God with our whole being — mind, heart, spirit, and strength. Combined with the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (from Leviticus 19:18), the whole of the Law is encapsulated in this passage.
The gift of the Law is your topic for this week, dear preacher. It is a gift that has been passed down from one generation to the next (Deuteronomy 6:7), even to us, “all of us here alive today.” It is a gift given for the flourishing of God’s people, and it is rooted in a relationship of love, the unfathomable love that God first showed us and the love that God calls forth from us in grateful response.
- Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 9, 2011.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Loving Lord, you gave commandments to your people as a gift. Teach us to be obedient to your word and to care for each other as we do your will. Amen.
My God, how wonderful thou art, Oscar Overby