Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20
When my children were small, I read parenting advice about how it was helpful to present choices to them by holding my hands out, and asking them to physically touch the hand that represented the choice: “Would you like to wear your red sweater (left hand) or your green jacket (right hand)?” The idea is that it is empowering for children to be given a choice, and they can be more confident when they connect their intellectual decision with a physical embodied action. I think of that when I read this pericope, because the choice Moses gives seems utterly obvious: “Would you like to choose life and prosperity (left hand) or death and destruction (right hand)?”
If it’s not inherently obvious that the choice for life is better than the choice for death, Moses adds motivational clauses: if you make this choice, you will live and multiply, you will enjoy many years in the land, God will bless you, your children will live. And in addition to the positive reinforcement, Moses includes the negative consequences for choosing poorly: you will be destroyed, you will not live long in the land. Why would anyone voluntarily, willingly, or consciously choose death?
While Moses presents this (obvious) choice in a simple way, it turns out that it might not be that easy. After all, simple is not the same as simplistic. The choice for life gets spelled out in verse 16 and also in verses 19-20, with two sets of triads. Deuteronomy 30:16 explains that “life” involves 1) loving God, 2) walking in obedience to him, and 3) keeping his commands, decrees and laws. Deuteronomy 30:20 describes the choice for “life” as 1) loving God, 2) listening to God’s voice, and 3) holding fast to him. Love gets repeated in both verses, as love of God is the biblical fountainhead from which our obedience to God flows.
Immediately after Moses gives the first set of three explanations about what it means to choose life in verse 16, Deuteronomy 30:17 contains an “if” that could precede a choice for death in two ways: first, your heart turns away and you are not obedient; second, you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them.
Regarding the first, the “heart” is the same word as “mind” in Hebrew; it includes our emotions as well as our thoughts. The “heart” can also be understood as the human will or the place from which our decisions are made. Therefore, a heart that turns away from God would be related to the person’s emotions, thoughts, will, and decisions. It would be a choice, whether deliberate or a more gradual process. As Deuteronomy 30:17 indicates, one’s choice to turn one’s will and motivation to or away from God certainly affects obedience to God and ultimately that choice affects our choice for life or against it.
The second way to choose death in Deuteronomy 30:17, “being drawn away,” occurs in a passive verbal form. That is, the grammar suggests that someone or something else would be the active agent in drawing a person away to worship other gods. In Deuteronomy 4:19, the same word occurs in the same passive form when Moses warns against a person who sees things in the heavens—the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the heavenly host—and consequently is “drawn away” to worship those things instead of God. It remains true today that so many other things (social media, 24-hour news coverage, et cetera) are vying for our attention and allegiance, and ultimately, for our worship. And yet, even when it would appear that those things are the active agents, even when we feel passive or even powerless to resist, there is at least some implicit choice to be made.
The simple choice is not as easy as it appears. It is hard to love God. It is hard to be obedient to God. It is hard to listen to God’s voice with all the distractions and competing voices around us. It is hard to hold fast to God when we are tempted to cling to other things. Therefore, it is hard to make the obvious, right choice for life. It is also the case that a choice for death may not be intentional; we may not realize that we are obviously choosing death instead of choosing life.
More practically, it can be hard to choose life in everyday situations: in a meeting, when having a conversation with someone, while parenting children or making decisions for elderly parents, in traffic, when being criticized, while doing errands, et cetera. Even if it is simple to choose life over death, the choice still requires wisdom and discernment, and even guidance from the Holy Spirit.
As with children, though, it is empowering for us to be given the choice for life. Also, as with children, when we reach out to choose life we can embody that choice for life not only in what we believe, but also through our physical actions. We can choose life by hugging a neighbor who is grieving. We can choose life by falling to our knees in prayer. We can choose life by sharing a meal with a neighbor who is homeless. We can choose life by loving God. We can choose life for ourselves, for other people, for the vulnerable and marginalized, for those we love and those who are hard to love. We can choose life by being obedient to God, by turning to God and holding fast to God. We can choose life by seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness. We can choose.