Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

The single-minded focus on the law in the book of Deuteronomy can too easily be summed up into catch phrases.

July 11, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:9-14

The single-minded focus on the law in the book of Deuteronomy can too easily be summed up into catch phrases.

Reducing the book to single statements can distract from the different perspectives on the law in the book. This passage contains two such perspectives. Including them in the same pericope for a lectionary reading on one level can present difficulties. On another level, the verses selected for this reading offer interesting interpretive possibilities.

The passage begins at an awkward place. In English translations verse 9 occurs in the middle of a sentence. While in the Hebrew verse 9 forms a natural break, the verse still depends upon the previous verses for its full meaning. This verse offers a list of areas where “prosperity” will occur. This contrasts with the curses for enemies in verse 7. This binary of curses-prosperity is a standard feature of chapters 27-28. However, unlike previous instances where failure to keep the law will lead to curses, the curses in verse 7 are directed to enemies. The context of chapters 30 presumes not merely the breaking of the law but restoration after the punishment of loss of the land as a consequence of breaking the law.

The relationship between the conditions and the consequences in verses 8-10 stand in ambiguous association that make starting the passage at verse 9 problematic. As it reads in the NRSV, the condition for obeying the Lord in verse 8 leads to the consequences of verse 9a. Similarly, the conditions of verse 10 result in the consequences of verse 9b. However, the “return” (tasub, translated as “again”) of verse 8 stands in relation to the “return” (yasub, translated as “again”) in verse 9b. This makes the consequence of once again obeying the Lord (verse 8), the Lord’s return to the state of the relationship with the ancestors (verse 9b). This raises the question as to whether the two clauses of verse 10 should be seen as conditional clauses with the consequences already outlined in verse 9b. If so, then the restoration of the ancestral relationship stands in the middle of a series of conditional clauses as the core promise of renewal.

Most translations read the passage as a promise of “prosperity.” The presence of hotirka (“excess”) at the start of verse 9 emphasizes the importance of the word in the verse. The threefold example of abundance — children, livestock, and crops — fills out this picture as well. However, whether such prosperity comes as a reward for obedience or as a result of divine restoration of a relationship remains ambiguous in the Hebrew. Translators make the determination on the relationship of prosperity to obedience. The repetition of the word “prosperity” in verse 9b in describing the ancestral relationship presumes that this relationship is marked by excess. Yet the Hebrew leads one to think that this relationship is more marked by divine pleasure in doing good for the people. The promise of excess (the concern of verse 9a) need not be confused or equated with good or even subsistence (the description of the ancestral relationship in verse 9b).

A clear shift occurs in this passage at verse 11. The specter of failure and punishment in verse 10 gives way to confidence that obedience is achievable. The plural “commandments” (verses 8, 10) contrast with the single “commandment” (verse 11). The written commandment of verse 10 appears not to be assumed in verse 14. Richard Nelson believes that 30:1-10, like other passages, belong to a later postexilic time. Therefore, he thinks that verses 11-14 represent an earlier layer of the book of Deuteronomy.1 The lack of inducements for obedience in verses 11-14 set it apart from the earlier section of the chapter. These verses give a vivid description of the divine commandment. They call for obedience based upon familiarity, availability, and ease of the commandment.

The use of spatial dimensions fills in the description of the nearness of the commandment. The assertions of verses 12-13 with their rhetorical questions expands on the appeal in verse 11 that the commandment is not “too far away.” The heavens and the sea function as markers of distance and the verbs “go up” and “crossover” convey the effort required to bridge these distances. The repetition of the removal of the need to question who will undertake the heroic efforts to bring the commandment near emphasizes the availability and ease of the commandment.

This repetition weakens the power of the word niple’t (literally “wonderful”) in verse 11. The twin concerns of hearing and doing the commandment remain at issue in these questions. Excuses of ignorance for failure to obey the command are thereby removed. Similarly, excuses of difficulty are undermined as everything that would require superhuman effort to perform the commandment has been removed from the ordinary person. These efforts of verses 12-13 appear to rest upon the Mesopotamian saying, “Who is tall enough to reach heaven, who is tall enough to encompass the earth”?2 They contrast strikingly with the fruitless question for wisdom in Proverbs 30:4 and Job 28:12-28.

Inasmuch as this passage asserts availability of the commandment, it sees successful obedience as a product of familiarity with the commandment. Reducing the plural commandments of the earlier chapter to a single “the word” (verse 14) indicates simplification of divine will. While the earlier chapter speaks of the commandment as written, this section views it in its oral form. In verse 14 the divine commandment exists “in your mouth and in your heart.” This may well be touching on memorization of the commandments as in 6:6-9 and 11:18-19. For a non-literate society techniques of recall would help familiarize persons with texts.

Ultimately, the ability to obey comes through internalizing the divine word. As the emblematic prophet of 18:18 and Jeremiah 1:9 receive God’s words in their mouth, so too all persons can hold the “word” in their mouth. Alongside this, the “word” resides in the hearts of all persons. This indicates that both memory and intellect affect the will and result in obedience. The emphasis on doing lies in verses 12-14. As verses 12-13 remove the stumbling blocks to obedience, verse 14 presents the enabling mechanism for obeying the divine commandments. While the qualities of the commandment make obedience both possible and desirable, the mouth and heart filled with the divine word suggests a will attuned to God serves as the ultimate predictor of obedience.

1Richard D. Nelson, Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 346.
2Jeffrey H. Tigay. Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 286.