Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:9-14
I am not sure why those who provided us the Revised Common Lectionary texts began this week’s passage in the middle of a thought by beginning with verse 9.
It would be better, if you plan to preach it, be “begin at the beginning,” or at least at Deuteronomy 30:1. This chapter is a continuation for the blessings-cursing dialectic found within this book of laws. And as much as it may grate upon our sensibilities, it lays out a transactional relationship. It is very much, “if/when you do x, God will do y.”
Or maybe it is better to say that this text reinforces the reality that choices have consequences. Prosperity is possible, if one obeys God. And obeying God is deemed possible, if one pursues with all one’s heart. Prosperity requires reciprocity. God will make us prosperous; we will obey all the commandments. All choices have implications and consequences. Each choice leads to another choice, then another one. And a person’s life is constructed through those choices. Deuteronomy 30 is preceded by an account of blessings should the people of ancient Israel obey the commandments God gives, followed by an account of curses should they disobey them (Deuteronomy 28).
These descriptions are followed by a renewal of the covenant at Moab (Deuteronomy 29). The renewal conditions are no easy read, filled with threats against those who already may be turning away from God. For example, the people are told God’s wrath can be kindled and they can be destroyed “like Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim,” Deut. 29:23. These cataclysmic destructions would have been stories the people knew, and the shorthand of just naming them might have made them shiver. But just as ominous as these threats are and seem inevitable, we next encounter a remedy with sure promises of prosperity that if the people and their children return and obey God “with all your heart and with all your soul,” Deuteronomy 30:2, all will be well.
And yet, this recapitulation of how God will bless them when they obey and observe God’s commandments and decrees underscores the very opposite of much of our Christian understanding, i.e., whether it is possible to follow them. The law-and-order of God’s commandments seem impossible. Though many Christians claim that the “whole Bible” informs their faith, what often happens is that we don’t know what to do with Deuteronomy or any of the laws in the first testament. It becomes easy to default to “that was then, this is now,” where the texts claimed by Jews and Christians as sacred are dismissed by Christians for what is perceived as an easier grace-filled New Testament word.
Here in Deuteronomy 30, we are exhorted that it is in fact possible to keep the law, “because you turn to the Lord your God with all our heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 30:10). Here, the “you” and “your” is singular. What happens to the community, if read literally in the Hebrew, depends on individual members of the community turning wholeheartedly to God. Here, Christians are called to take seriously the possibility that one may turn fully to God, despite the way some Christians read Paul on the law (see especially Galatians where the law is a “teacher” or “tutor”). What are we to do with Matthew 5:17-20, where we are told Jesus came to fulfill this law? Or what are we to do with the righteous Gentile, the upright man and God-fearer, Cornelius (Acts 10)? How do we understand the post-exilic text of Jeremiah 31:33, where the law is “written on our hearts”?
The biblical tradition in both testaments is rich for exploration and mining concepts of what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be able to obey God. The Deuteronomy writer notes in verse 11: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” This text insists that the commandment is not too hard for the ones hearing it. It is near, in the mouth of anyone who desires God.
For many Christians, this understanding flies in the face of their understanding of sin and humans’ inability to resist it. Here might be a place for dialogue between Jewish understandings and some Christian ones. A simple google of the phrase “Christians and the law” will reveal much angst about whether Christians can or ought to follow the laws in Deuteronomy or anywhere else in the First Testament. And the answer will depend on who is asking. Unveiling these differences might help listeners understand that “law” and “commandment” is a complicated issue, not easily answered with a “yes” or “no.” And engaging other parts of the canon might also help. For example, what if the preacher decides to consider whether being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) was irrevocably destroyed by Adam and Eve’s disobedience, or whether Jewish understandings of human nature might teach us something?1
For some people, even imagining that God still speaks through first testament texts is hard. But the writer in this passage starts, not with a law, but with a promise and a memory. Preachers might begin in the same place. In the end, preachers have an opportunity to clarify and to proclaim what they understand about God’s commandments, about the nature of God, about the nature of humanity, and what obedience is possible with God’s help. That is the thing. God wants us to succeed. And makes it possible.
- I recommend Alan L. Mittleman, Human Nature & Jewish Thought: Judaism’s Case for Why Persons Matter, Princeton University Press, 2017. See also Y. Michael Barilan, “From Imago Dei in the Jewish-Christian Traditions to Human Dignity in Contemporary Jewish Law,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal Vol. 19, No. 3 (September 2009): 231-259.