Commentary on Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Moses will never enter the land of promise.
He will climb a mountain east of the Jordan, and from that height he will survey the wide and good land God is giving to Israel (Deuteronomy 3:27). And then he will die (4:22). He will never cross the river Jordan, and the children of the people who marched with him out of Egypt will bury his body in a valley in Moab. They will not mark his grave, or perhaps God will hide it, so that no one will be tempted to bring him into the land of Canaan (34:5-6). Moses belonged to the wilderness generation.
They were almost the land-of-promise generation, but in the wilderness their faith faltered. At Deuteronomy’s beginning Moses recalls for their children, now grown, the painful story of failure.
From Mount Horeb, where God had given the Israelites the gift of the law (elsewhere the Bible calls this place Mount Sinai), God led them to the edge of the beautiful land. God promised them victory (Deuteronomy 1:19-21). But at the edge of the beautiful land they doubted God’s word and refused to enter and claim the inheritance God had decreed for them (1:26-33).
Later, so the book of Numbers relates, even Moses’ faith faltered. God had instructed Moses in the power of the word: speak to the rock, and it will gush water to sustain this thirsty people. But in the face of his people’s thirst, Moses could not trust that a word would call forth living water. He struck the rock (Numbers 20:8-12).
Because their faith faltered at the moment of action, a generation of Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt were condemned to die in the wilderness and never enter the land God had prepared for them (Deuteronomy 1:34-40).
Forty years later a new generation of Israelites stands on the threshold of promise (Deuteronomy 1:1-3). They are poised to exit the desert, depart from the land of a king who seeks their death, and enter a land flowing with milk and honey, where rain falls from the sky (11:9-12). They will have blessings of life and love and children, and fertile soil yielding abundant grain, wine, and oil (7:13). They will be free from disease and victorious over their enemies (7:15-16).
If. Every promise will be theirs if only they trust. But to trust is a difficult thing to do.
Moses has told the story of the wilderness generation to remind their children of faith’s fragility.
Now he must show them the source of its strength. He cannot cross with them into the land of promise, cannot carry them there, cannot believe for them. From this moment until the hour of his death he can only pray for them, teach them, and proclaim for them the statutes, ordinances, and commandments that God has given them.
Why should these commandments hold the key to life? How do they form the steel core of faith?
The commandments are the heart of Deuteronomy and the heart of God’s teaching, or Torah, that defines Israel’s life in relationship with God, with one another, and with the nations around them.
They teach worship. They establish norms for political, prophetic, and religious leadership. They mandate communal holidays, festivals, and times of rest. They place limits on the practices of war and blood-vengeance. They ordain a just economy, communal care for the widow, orphan, and poor, and protection of those who are vulnerable. They sanctify labor, meals, and family life. In all of these ways and more the commandments instruct Israel in love (5:10, 6:5, 7:9, 7:13, 10:12, 10:15, 10:19, 11:1, 13:3, 30:6) and give them strength for the life God has called them to live (11:8).
The commandments are the path to life. They are God’s word. But this word does not take root in the minds and hearts of the people by infusion, osmosis, or induction. It is not enough for God to inscribe the commandments on tablets of stone and for the people to carefully guard the tablets in the ark they have made.
Moses — and the preachers that follow him — must proclaim the teaching again and again. Parents must repeat it to their children and their children’s children (4:9-10; 6:2.7.20-21; 11:19-21; cf. 31:12-13, 32:46). And so the book of Deuteronomy is full of repetitions and is itself a repetition, a second iteration of Israel’s story and the teaching God gave them.
Moses’ urgent hope is that the gathered people of Israel will hear, listen, and obey; that they will do what God teaches and calls them to do; and that in their hearing and doing they will form themselves, day by day, action by action, as people of faith. Then they will live and enter their inheritance.
In crafting a sermon on this or another passage, we have occasion to reflect on preaching as necessary repetition of the story and of the commandments that strengthen faith and lead to life. It is not necessary to find or invent new stories each week. Moses cautions the people against adding on to the word God has given. He also cautions against holding back, or subtracting, whether by conscious effort to trim off the parts we do not like or by quiet omission and neglect of the parts we do not understand.
We share Moses’ hope that our children will have the blessing of life. We want them to cross into a place where we will no longer carry them, where they will enter and claim the inheritance God has prepared for them. Our children stand at a threshold. We — preachers, parents, catechists, neighbors, priests, deacons, elders — are their teachers. We are entrusted with our people’s memory and testimony. May our preaching and our life together show to our children the wisdom and justice of God’s teaching, so they may trust in God’s promise and receive abundant life.