Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The majestic speech of Deuteronomy nears its conclusion in this stirring exhortation.

September 5, 2010

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

The majestic speech of Deuteronomy nears its conclusion in this stirring exhortation.

In the wilderness beyond the Jordan, the Israelites listen as their prophetic leader, Moses, describes the kind of people they have become: a people formed in the crucible of covenant, a people who are made and unmade by the grace and ferocity of their God. Under the banner of YHWH, Moses had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and guided them through the perils of the wilderness. They had been brought to the towering possibility of Sinai, and they had assented. Theirs would be a life lived in obedience, a faith practiced and witnessed through their devout adherence to the Law.

We listen with them now as Moses lays out in stark terms the choice that lies before his audience: obedience or death. Love God and live; serve other gods and perish! The entire Torah has been driving inexorably toward this choice, made most visible in the call of outsider Abraham and his subsequent near-sacrifice of the long-awaited Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19; see Hebrews 11:8-19). Blessings and extravagant abundance will belong to those who heed the voice of God; unspeakable calamity, terror, and affliction will be the lot of those who abandon the covenant.

In this liminal moment on the brink of the Promised Land and at this crucial point at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts believers to a renewed and fervent commitment to the God who alone is capable of saving us. Here, Deuteronomy employs powerfully hyperbolic language to dramatize the moment of decision that the book is placing before believers. Moses thunders, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” The people must understand what is at stake, and — as will be reiterated by Joshua when Moses dies — they must choose life, which is serving God.

This deeply moving text may serve as an antidote to a narrow-minded view all too common in Christian circles even today: that the Law is a legalistic trap that keeps believers ensnared in calcified ritualistic minutiae. Far from it! Moses is urging his people to commit, heart and soul and body, to a vibrant relationship with the God in whom they live and move and have their being.

The radical hope of Deuteronomy is that God’s redeemed people should never go back to Egypt. Egypt the actual country? Certainly we see antipathy to that age-old enemy throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Consider Jeremiah 44’s vicious invective against Judeans who fled to Egypt during the Babylonian invasion; consider, too, that many of the biblical prophetic books contain bitter oracles against Egypt. But Egypt as terrifying spiritual metaphor looms even larger. In the ancient Israelite imagination, Egypt represents captivity — not only the enslavement of Israelite bodies before the time of the Exodus, but spiritual enslavement in the form of the ever-present threats of idolatry and hopelessness that accompany this once-subjugated people into their future with God.

Living as a holy people involves risk. Wilderness times abound for communities surviving in actual diaspora, for believers contending with the looming threat of cultural displacement, and for those struggling with spiritual anguish or personal experience of the abandonment of God. Deuteronomy knows that believers may be tempted to choose familiar captivities to sin and cultural subjection (ah, those cucumbers and melons and figs! — see Numbers 11:5, 20:5) rather than the alarming freedom that we have in God.

Deuteronomy exhorts us not to yield to fear — not to “go back to Egypt” — but rather to fear only “this glorious and awesome Name, the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 28:58). Deuteronomy’s rhetoric of blessing and curse means to catalyze repentance in the hearts of its hearers, so that they return to God and God’s loving restoration can be theirs. This is crystal clear from Deuteronomy 30:1-5, which affirms God’s compassion for those in diaspora who return to the LORD and live anew in obedience.

Deuteronomy teaches us that the stakes in choosing or not choosing God are dramatic. This is something the biblical writers knew well, for the final form of Deuteronomy emerged after the Babylonian onslaught, when terrible things had happened to Judah: the plundering and razing of the Temple, the despoliation of Jerusalem and slaughter of its citizens, and the deportation of Judean political and religious leaders to a life of exile in Babylon.

That Deuteronomy is reflecting on the exile of the sixth century B.C.E. may be seen in its proleptic gestures toward a time when all of the blessings and the curses will have already happened to the people (30:1). The abundance and peace Israel once knew have been withdrawn; maladies, ruin, and destruction have become their life. God is fully prepared to destroy this holy people — quite literally to take them back to Egypt — and this time, they will not have discernible worth even as slaves (28:68). A harsh warning indeed; Moses’ exhortation is relentless because it is intended to compel the believing community to throw itself once more upon the God who is all compassion (Hosea 11:8-9).

The brilliance of this lection lies in the way it weaves together past and present, formative ancient memory and the urgent present moment of decision. Preachers may want to consider the ancient story of liberation that we have in the Resurrection over against current cultural narratives of liberation. What can it mean to “hold fast to God” (Deuteronomy 30:20) in our diasporas today, as Christians who are in the world but not of it (John 15:19, 17:16; Romans 12:20)?

The magnificent words of Moses blend with the joyous strains of the Exsultet as Christians seek to understand what it means to “choose life” in Jesus Christ. Just as Moses cites Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deuteronomy 30:20) in order to ground Israel’s hope in the ancient promises of God, so, too, contemporary preachers may cite Deuteronomy to ground the Christian hope in the ancient struggles of God’s people. Their dread is our dread: God may yet hide God’s face from us. But their joy is ours too, and it is a transcendent and invincible joy: to serve the living God, and in that service to discover most deeply who we are.