Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9
From the beginning of the story of the exodus from Egypt, the narrative lectionary jumps directly to a moment forty years later, just before Moses’ death and the entrance of the Israelites into the promised land.
Here the action pauses while Moses instructs the people, reminding them of all that their parents were commanded at Mount Horeb immediately after they left Egypt.
This passage connects with last week’s in naming the mountain of encounter with God “Horeb,” as in Exodus 3:1, rather than Sinai. This unusual appellation appears only two other times in Exodus, a handful of times outside the Pentateuch, and otherwise only in Deuteronomy. The more common term, “Sinai,” appears universally elsewhere, and only twice in Deuteronomy (in a poem in chapter 33).
Most of Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ speech reiterating the law given at Mount Sinai (thus the name “deutero-” [second] + “nomy” [law]). But it is more than a list of laws — rather it is hortatory in nature, sermonic, cajoling and motivating with compelling arguments, and most particularly the injunction to remember and repeat divine instructions.
Three audiences are evident behind, within, and in front of the text. In the first instance, we are continually reminded of the generation that left Egypt and first received the commands at Sinai (or as Deuteronomy says, Horeb). They are the ones whose story Moses reiterates in Deuteronomy 1:1-2:14, whose contrariness caused a journey of several days’ time to stretch to forty years.
The second audience, the one to which Moses speaks, is the next generation, born in the wilderness. Interestingly, distinctions between this audience and their parents are often erased as Moses claims that they too saw God’s great deeds (see for instance Deuteronomy 4:9; 7:19; and especially 5:4: “The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire”). It is as if the children were already present in their parents. Even today for Jews at Passover it is “we” who were delivered from Egypt.
The third audience is the actual one addressed by the book’s writers, generations after Moses, that is, all descendants of the Israelites who read the book, who are taught this law because earlier generations remembered to pass it down, and who are likewise instructed to pass it on to their children, from the time the book appeared until today.
After an opening address in the first four chapters, Moses’ main speech is introduced toward the end of chapter 4, which situates them in land of the Amorites east of the Jordan River. His speech begins in Deuteronomy 5:1 by introducing the covenant made at Horeb. Moses reminds the people that he had stood as interpreter for them, since they were afraid to hear directly from God.
Beginning in Deuteronomy 5:6, the Ten Commandments are repeated in very similar words to those in Exodus 20. Only some details differ, in particular the elaboration on the Sabbath day, which in Deuteronomy is founded not on the six-day creation story in Genesis 1, but on their experience as slaves in Egypt. Here emphasis lies not just on their own rest, but that of all who labor for them.
About half a chapter later, Moses offers what in Jewish tradition is called the “Shema” (“Hear,” from the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4). The four words yhwh eloheinu yhwh echad stand without any verbs, since the stative verb “to be” need not appear. Here, however, its lack inspires translational questions: Is this sentence to be understood as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” as some translations render it, an expression of fealty only to Israel’s God in the face of other options? Or is it a theological assertion, such as “The Lord our God is one Lord,” as the King James Version and other more traditional renderings interpret?
Based on words such as these scattered through Deuteronomy and other biblical books, scholars debate the development of Judean monotheism in a larger polytheistic world. For practical purposes of obeying the command, however, the theoretical composition of the godhead doesn’t matter, since: 1) their orders are to worship only YHWH, their own God; and 2) people in all times seem to be able at will to create gods (that is, objects of devotion), whether they are Babylonian deities, angels, idols, or cars. Therefore it’s not so much a matter of determining what or who is “out there” in the heavens as it is a matter of choosing God alone in word and deed.
The injunction that follows in verse 5 articulates thorough, integrated devotion to God, with the whole heart, soul, and strength — in other words, with all the powers of care, intelligence, and will one might possess. Such devotion does not privilege one faculty over another. Rather, each capacity supports the others: intellect guides will; strength reinvigorates feeling; the heart inspires both inquiry and action. To agree with the law is not enough; to feel awe is insufficient; blindly to act is too little for the capacities of the full human. All work in concert.
Reminders of this command are to be constant — in the heart, in the home, when traveling, when sleeping, when waking — and repeated to the next generation. The Jewish practice of fixing “mezuzahs” or mezuzot containing parchments inscribed with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 on the right doorpost (Hebrew: mezuzah) of a home originates from v. 9 and from 11:20. The practice of binding tefillin, or phylacteries, small boxes containing four biblical passages (the texts in the mezuzahs plus Exodus 13:1-10 and 11-16), on the arms and forehead with leather straps before praying makes visible the injunction to bind the words on hand and forehead.
Judging from Jesus’ appeal to this as the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:38; Mark 12:30; and Luke 10:27, Christianity has placed these words at the top of our priorities as well. We lack a tradition of literal memento such as mezuzahs and tefillin, but the words are no less compelling. Our task is not to argue theology, but to love God.
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