Commentary on Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Readers of Deuteronomy need to be prepared to travel through time and in the process experience the value of James Russell Lowell’s assertion that “new occasions teach new duties.”
The book of Deuteronomy invites its readers to hear Moses addressing them directly as if they are participants in the first crossing into the land. Yet at the same time the book reveals, intentionally or through sloppy editing, foreknowledge of events that happen after the entry into the land. Moses, the presumed narrator of the book, dies before the end of the book throwing off the concept of the book as authored by Moses. The transition from chapter three to chapter four leaves the reader expecting Moses’ charge to Joshua in the leadership succession forced upon Moses when he failed to negotiate a place for himself beyond the journeys of the wilderness (Deuteronomy 3:26-29). Instead, chapter four introduces what Richard Nelson calls, “reading instructions” for the book’s core legal requirements.1 These shifts and turns in time point to the complexity of the book that benefitted from multiple experiences of standing at the threshold of a do-over.2 Modern readers of Deuteronomy can therefore easily apply the insights of the book to their own second chances, the opportunities to hear again from Moses what God expects with this new occasion.
At the threshold of a reset, Moses repeats the importance of following the teachings he promulgates, collectively called “statutes and ordinances” for most of the book. The exact contents of these teachings are not as important as the necessity for following divine instructions to form a people worthy of the relationship with God. The idea of rules, laws, expectations, or even standards creates anxiety and fear for some persons. Some hear a call to perfection. Others sense failure before they even start. And yet others see this as an imposition on a relationship that should be liberating. These perceptions misunderstand how Deuteronomy characterizes the relationship between the people and God. These “statutes and ordinances” represent a gracious invitation into the relationship. Not simply commands issued from on high, these are teachings given through patient education to form the character of the people of God. These teachings bring life rather than perfection (Deuteronomy 4:1). Following them leads to life and importantly life in a space marked by freedom (v. 5). This collection of “statutes and ordinances” represent the wisdom of the years communicated to the people so that they may learn and benefit from the experiences of previous generations to enable life at a higher quality.
Anxieties around the emphasis on obedience in this passage need to come to terms with Deuteronomy’s awareness of speaking to people who need structure and identity. Whether characterized by the wilderness of wandering after the domination in Egypt or the wilderness of exile, these “statutes and ordinances” provide the help of recovery and rehabilitation for a people who can easily slip back into old and comfortable but harmful practices. Moses’ address presumes the helplessness of the people and their need for something greater than the options they used in the past to offer them a more secure future. Obedience to the path, as God lays it out, invites the people to experience prosperity in the land that God offers them. To reduce this relationship of obedience to the crass economic quid pro quo of the prosperity gospel misses the point. Greed is never presented as a motivation for obedience. Rather a willingness to participate in formation, to be God’s people, to live by God’s standards, and to express the radical difference of identity that comes with belonging to the community of God’s people serve as the impulse to obedience. That the choice of obedience is more than simply responding to inducements of riches can be seen in the cited example of what happened to those who refused the path of obedience and followed instead the Baal of Peor (v. 3 cf. 3:29, Numbers 25). Precisely because the “statutes and ordinances” of God are far more demanding and call for a higher way of living than other values and options makes it necessary for Moses once again to speak to those who need a new start. This way requires critical change since it calls for a way of life that differs from what the dominant culture presents as natural. Christian antipathy to laws may focus attention upon the inevitability of failure that such forms of obedience entail. However, that these laws are presented in the context of a do-over indicates that faithful obedience rather than successful achievement of the laws marks the expectations in the relationship. Through Moses’ voice, God offers subsequent generations the gracious path of re-entering into the space of a thriving relationship.
The sermonic quality of the passage means flourishes seen here in the rhetorical appeal to greatness. Obedience produces a great a nation, a claim made in three different ways in three verses in the passage (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). This appeal to greatness carries with it also the appeal to a visible greatness. Obedience to the way of God not only makes the people great but noticeably great to the surprise and perhaps envy of other nations. The discourse at this point suddenly changes from a private matter to a more public one. Obedience is not simply a pious concern for the individual; obedience serves a public function of witnessing to the conspicuous worth of the way of God. In this passage, other nations will take notice of the different choices, values, and character of this people formed by God, seen here as “wisdom and discernment” (v. 6). The witness of the people will also beckon to the difference of their religious encounter — a power near at hand to save, to comfort, to grant a new start (v. 7). The witness of the people also testifies to a superior social arrangement that creates a community marked by laws described as just, in the Hebrew tzadîqim — promoting social solidarity (v. 8). The rhetorical force of vv. 6-8 directs the attention of those hearing Moses in their day to a vision of a restored people who can take pride in their obedience. Their obedience is not merely self-serving. Instead their obedience enables their restoration to perform the vital work of witness and the creation of community built upon “statutes and ordinances” that are good for the world.
The ideal community transcends time but can also be experienced in real time. This passage encourages a group of people to take advantage of the new opportunity that God gives to them to become worthy of that ideal community and to actively participate in sustaining that ideal community. The opportunity to do it again comes not simply to those who have fallen down but also to those who faithfully pursue this vision to repeat it from generation to generation. The challenge to avoid failure through forgetfulness or inattention to the transmission of the values of the community to the next generation points to the critical nature of routine obedience (Deuteronomy 4:9). The routine of obedience is not a good in itself. This routine of obedience works for promotion of the just community. Through obedience, those who follow God’s “statutes and ordinances” enact the vision of righteous community, conspicuously different in all the ways that the world today needs to ensure full thriving for all.
1 Richard Nelson, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 60.
2 See Walter Bruggemann, Deuteronomy. Abingdon Old Testament Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 50 for Deuteronomy as addressed to sixth century exiles.