Commentary on Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
The season that we anticipate as the COVID pandemic seems to ebb gives the listeners to this text a context: a new hearing of the instruction of God. At the last stop for Moses there was no photogenic setting of people and monuments. It was the river and history alone that set the stage for the sermons that built on a similar rhetoric of ethics. Successful completion of the tasks assigned by God through Moses would result in life, possession of the promised land, a sense of community, and esteem in the eyes of other peoples.
It is always now for community (Deuteronomy 4:1-2)
The passage begins with a temporal term interjection. Time organizes human emotion, perception, and action. The language of now accents the urgency of the present to spark obedience.
The word pair “Israel” and “hear” occurs four other times in the book of Deuteronomy (5:1; 6:4; 9:1; 20:3). “Hear” includes emotion and decision to act. Then there is the call to community in the name Israel. The legal aspect and poetry have a rhetoric of request in the language “give heed.”
Who are you all?
What is Israel? Practices, ordinances, and statutes forge group identity. Moses as the prophetic prototype promotes unity through orthopraxy, common behavior, and practice. The mentoring has clear student outcomes as they say in higher education. The assumption is that teaching changes action with the verb “do them.” Action shapes group identity.
The benefits of being you
Common practice builds group identity, but it has other material benefits. Keeping the statutes and ordinances results in divine favor expressed in the gift of the land. God who provides this favor has roots in the religious history of the people noted in the language “the God of your ancestors.”
A legal proceeding depends on evidence presented according to approved standards. That evidence must stand up to scrutiny as coherent and to some degree unified without addition or subtraction. Religious revelation depends on coherence, inviolability, and unity. When that testimony is altered by addition or subtraction then the validity of the revelation comes under doubt.
Divine instructions come as a package. The writer instructs the community to avoid additions or omissions from divine instruction. Similar passages occur elsewhere in the Deuteronomy (12:32) but also in Revelation 22:18-19. The text points to the integrity of the witness. The instruction of God for this writer provides a coherent unified testimony that should remain unaltered.
You have to see it to be it (Deuteronomy 4:6-9)
The Hebrews stood at the edge of a promised land, but the promised land was already inhabited. Deuteronomy 4 argues that the embodiment of obedience of the people of faith elicits obedience from other people groups. The canonical setting of the Book of Deuteronomy helps to frame this understanding.
The Hebrew word pair “keep” and “do” the NRSV renders as “observe diligently”. The intense adherence to the instructions of God demonstrates wisdom and understanding. The writer uses the word pair of these synonyms to accentuate the synergy between these words of knowledge as perspective. The adherence to the instruction of God becomes a way of knowing the entire universe. One that the eyes of the people can recognize.
The unique God builds a unique people
The recognition of the other people groups sparks two things. First the audience hears and obeys all the ordinances. Second, the peoples affirm the national stature of the Hebrews. The intimacy between God and the Hebrews out strips any other religious community. They observe that no other god is that near and that responsive. Yahwistic claims of incomparability in Deuteronomy 4 anticipate Isaiah 40:12-31and Psalm 113. The God of the Hebrews has no peer. The people of God likewise; the statutes and laws of God have no equal.
Remembering good, forgetting bad
The writer of Deuteronomy believed that covenant had both benefits for completion and consequences for derelict behavior. On the one hand, “remembering,” a term that does not occur in this verse, has its benefits but on the other hand, “forgetting” illustrates a type of transgression. The believing community remembers through diligent obedience. Absent mindfulness self-care amnesia destroys persons and community. The term “forget” occurs for the first time in Deuteronomy in this passage. However, it will occur again at key times in the book of Deuteronomy (4:23, 31; 6:12; 8:11, 14; 9:7; 24:19; 25:19; 26:13; 31:21; 32:18). The narrative of this transgression is twofold. First one forgets the words or things that God has done to save and liberate the community which they saw with their own eyes.
The final instruction uses the Hebrew term shamar twice which the NRSV translates as “take care and watch.” Such behavior insulates the person and group from forgetting what the eyes have seen and the mind and heart have used as true North.
Forgetting allows the knowledge of and relationship with God to give way. The task of memory and keeping the memory at the forefront of thought and action remain central.
Teach your children well
Children create a problem. Eyewitness accounts give way to generational memory. The task of remembering includes instruction of subsequent generations who did not see the deliverance firsthand. The grand narrative of God’s salvation, liberation provokes the behavior that makes the Hebrews unique and intimately connected to God. Here the passage anticipates Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The laws we observe depend on the God we have observed and continue to observe in history.
Israel parked on the edge of the Promised land heard Moses encourage them to keep God’s instruction. Moses in Deuteronomy calls us today, parked on the edge of the COVID pandemic.