Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9
A lot has happened with God, Moses, and Israel since God heard the groaning of the Israelites, remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, looked upon them, and took notice of them (Exodus 2:23–25). A lot has happened since God then turned his attention to a reluctant refugee shepherd in Midian, who asked, “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt,” and (by the way) “who are you?” When God answered, my name is: “I AM” and “HE IS” (YHWH; New Revised Standard Version “the LORD”), promising to be with him, Moses returned to Egypt to encounter his birth people to announce their deliverance. His meetings with Pharaoh eventually led to great smitings (Hebrew) against Egypt, awesome signs and wonders for Israel, and Israel’s dramatic release through the Reed Sea from the house of bondage.
The book of Exodus continues with Israel’s arrival at Sinai (Exodus 19); called “Horeb” in Deuteronomy, where they agreed to a marriage covenant with God (Exodus 24), which they promptly broke by molding the Golden Calf (Exodus 32-34). Exodus ends with Moses and spirit-filled artists completing the Tabernacle, which the LORD filled (Exodus 40:33-8). Leviticus describes rituals of worship to help Israel understand the seriousness of sin, practice holy ways of living, and be priests to the rest of the whole world. The book of Numbers (Hebrew: BaMidbar “In the Wilderness”) describes Israel’s faithless rebellions in the wilderness, where the first generation of emigrants wandered until they died (except Joshua and Caleb; Numbers 14:20-24, 28-35, 26:65).
The setting for Deuteronomy is east of the Jordan, forty years later in Moab, before the second generation will cross to enter the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 1:1-5; 4:44-49). Moses’ three sermons in Deuteronomy, which means “a second law” in Greek, selectively retell and revise Israel’s story, beginning with Exodus 18 (Deuteronomy 1: 6-40; 5:1-26:19; 29:1-30:20). They all emphasize God’s grace evidenced by many wondrous deeds, as well as punishments prescribed for faithlessness. There is a reason for this! Every generation of God’s people, those listening to Moses then and all followers of God now, must hear and obey the statutes and ordinances proclaimed in Deuteronomy. They, and all of us who are alive today—this means you and me, must remember these stories and laws and teach them to our children.
Deuteronomy functions as a bridge between the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) and the Former Prophets (Joshua through 2 Kings). It reiterates much of the Torah while grounding the narratives of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings with the message: keep the covenant as leaders, and as a community so that you will be blessed with the fulfillment of God’s promises; break it and you will be cursed with loss of land and prosperity. Above all, tell your children what God has done for your ancestors and obey with gratefulness, serving only “the LORD, your God.”
Deuteronomy 5:1 introduces Moses’ second and longest sermon (5:1-26:19) with Moses convening all Israel, and saying to them: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently.” Then he announces that living listeners to these words are participants in the covenant God made with Israel at Horeb/Sinai. It emphatically states: “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today” (5:3). The message could not be more clear: those living people hearing or reading these words are recipients of this covenant. These words proclaim that time is transcended. It is just as if we were at that mountain with Moses; as if we were there when the LORD spoke all these words through Moses. And it is we who must observe them diligently (5:1). The covenant is not for those who have passed on—it is for all of us who are alive today.
This is followed by a version of the ten commandments (Hebrew: “Ten Words”) slightly different from that found in Exodus 20. For example, in Exodus 20:11, the reason for keeping the Sabbath is: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” In Deuteronomy 5:15 it is: “And remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; so God commanded you to make a day of rest.” Keeping the Sabbath and avoiding idolatry are the two most often repeated commands throughout the Torah.
In Deuteronomy 6:1-2 Moses continues, “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.”
The verses introduce the passage Jews call the “Shema,” Hear! Obey! (Deuteronomy 6:3-9). The word “shema” means more than listen; it means listen and obey! We have not heard until we have obeyed and keep obeying. The commandments are not optional; our survival and thriving depend upon keeping them. God, your God, YHWH, has not only gracefully delivered you and brought you to the entrance of the land; these ordinances, statutes, and laws are also grace. They show the world what YHWH is really like.
Your necessary response is to obey and love God and neighbor with discipline and intensity (Jesus, in Luke 10:27). In fact, you must memorize and recite them all the time as you love YHWH with all your volition (heart), with all your being (soul), and with intensity (“very much,” might). The Shema Creed repeats, as Deuteronomy often does, that these laws and stories of God’s grace, including, for Christians, the Gospel of Jesus, are for those hearing God’s Word “today.” We must transmit them to our children of all ages and children yet to come (even if we are not biological parents). Writing them everywhere—refrigerators, framed art, email signatures, letters, texts, and posts—will help us remember, be obedient and grateful. These things will keep us faithful to our God and our people; they will keep us from idolatry, which can also be defined as forgetting, complaining, and faithlessness.
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.
I bind unto myself today ELW 450, GG 6/6b, H82 370
My God, how wonderful thou art ELW 863, H82 643
Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song ELW 403, GG 285, H82 513, NCH 270, UMH 544
Open Your Ears, O Faithful People ELW 519, GG 453, H82 536
My God, how wonderful thou art, Oscar Overby