Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Many Christians today seem to assume that keeping God’s law is impossible.

The Good Samaritan
JESUS MAFA. The Good Samaritan, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

July 14, 2013

First Reading
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Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:9-14

Many Christians today seem to assume that keeping God’s law is impossible.

Isn’t the law meant to be too hard for us to keep, in order to show us that we can only be saved through God’s work and not by our own efforts to keep the law? This text from Deuteronomy challenges the assumption that we cannot follow God’s commandments. In this brief but powerful segment of Moses’ larger speech, Moses makes three rhetorical moves to encourage the people of Israel that they can, in fact, keep God’s law.

Moses’ first rhetorical move is in verse 9 when he promises the people that their future will be an abundant, blessed one. Everything they do (literally, “all the work of your hand”) will be blessed by the Lord. There will be fruitfulness: of children, of livestock, of produce. All this abundance will be for good. How can they know it? Moses makes this hoped for, promised future, more concrete when he draws on the past, telling them that Lord will do this for you, just as the Lord did for your ancestors. You can trust that the Lord will act this way in the future because the Lord acted this way in the past.

Additionally, the Lord is not some abstract deity, but is a personal God, referred to as “your God” three times in verses 9-10. Certainly, a message of hope and blessing for the future must have been encouraging for this new generation at the precipice of entry into the land. But anyone, in any situation, who is anxious of what will come would benefit from assurance for the future based on the past.

A difference among English translations muddy the clarity of Moses’ second rhetorical move, where Moses explains what the people are to do: obey God by observing God’s commands, turning to God with all their heart and soul. Many translate 30:10 as, “if you obey…” making the promise of the future blessing in verse 9 contingent on the people’s obedience (NIV, NASB, KJV).

Both NRSV and ESV translate it as “when,” suggesting that the promises of future abundance will happen when God’s people obey. In the JPS Tanak, Deuteronomy 30:10 reads, “since you will be heeding the Lord your God…” which would also signify that God’s blessing is a response to our actions. Yet, this translation presents it as a given, instead of only a possibility. A similar confidence is found in Young’s Literal Translation, “for thou dost hearken to the voice of Jehovah thy God…” The Hebrew word here, kiy, certainly can be used to express a condition.[1] It can also be translated as “for,” as YLT does.

In some ways, however, the different translation possibilities are made moot by Moses’ third rhetorical move, when he assures the people that they can keep God’s commandments. Even if we translate 30:10 as “if,” which could allow that the people might not obey, Moses declares in verses 11-14 that they can. Or, if the word in 30:10 is “when, for,” the move is still one of assurance. You can obey! You will obey!

Moses gives this assurance by explaining to the people that it is not too hard for them (“wondrous,” or “astounding” would also work), nor is it too far away. Ronald Clements writes that one of the aims of Moses’ address is “to thrust aside the objections that the survivors of Israel nursed in their hearts, that made such a message of hope appear impossible.”[2] That is certainly true for this small section of Moses speech. If the people object that the commandment to obey God is too hard for them, Moses is pushing that aside.

The language of distance — “it’s not too far away” (30:11) — can be understood as part of Moses’ assurance. Here, he is allaying fears that the commandment is in a place beyond their grasp — it is not in the heaven, nor is it over the sea. In both verses 12 and 13, Moses imagines someone saying, “Who can go to that place, take the commandment for us, cause us to hear it so that we can do it?”

Spatial concerns, about distance and location, must have been close to the surface for a people about to enter a new land. And those who knew that Moses was speaking his final address must have been worried about the presence of a leader who could help them to act in a certain way. Moses anticipates those fears and faces them directly, and in the final verse in our pericope he completes his encouragement that the people can and will follow God’s law. Instead of being far away, the command is so near to them that it is inside them, inside their heart.

Such language recalls the new covenant described in Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Certainly, many people understood God’s promise in Jeremiah as yet to be ultimately realized. But, the language of a command inside the heart of God’s people occurs here, at almost the beginning of their story as a people. The new covenant, then, certainly has connections with the old one.

Another important aspect of Moses’ final rhetorical move to assure the people that they can, in fact, do what God asks is how he enables the people to have ownership of it. Moses affirms two things: that it is both in the people’s mouth and heart to do it (30:14). The language that it is in their “mouth,” suggests that the people are able to speak it, perhaps to speak their own words of assent to follow God (cf. Exodus 24:3, 7; Joshua 24:16-24). And the language of heart can suggest a yearning to do what God has asked. When it is in their heart to keep God’s law, what may have seemed impossible becomes not only possible but desired.

[1] Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 637.

[2] Ronald Clements, “Deuteronomy,” in The New Interpreters Bible, vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 512.