Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…”
The Old Testament reading opens with a solemn choice, portrayed starkly in terms of life and death. The choice for life is a choice for the “good”, translated as “prosperity” by the NRSV in this text. The meaning of this word includes but is not limited to “prosperity”; its semantic range encompasses the sense of being morally upright, appropriate, or even being in some way valuable.1 The choice for death is a choice for “evil,” a term that can mean “reprobate,” “contemptible,” “of little value” or “sinister.”2
The sense of these words here in Deuteronomy ought to be understand as referring respectively to the people’s success or failure to thrive in the Promised Land and so “prosperity” and “adversity” are apt translations of the terms, but their broader connotations are brought into play as the biblical writer clarifies the nature of the two choices with which verse 15 begins.
Choosing life or death might seem at first glance to refer to a single event, a one-time decision, but the metaphorical language of verses 16-17 suggests that the writer is talking about the choices one makes over the course of one’s entire life, for both of the word pairs, life/prosperity and death/adversity, are described in terms of pathways. So life/good is defined as “obeying the commandments of Yahweh,” “loving the Lord your God,” “walking in (God’s) ways” and “observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances.” Opposed to the good life is the one who chooses another path, who “does not hear” and “turns away” from Yahweh to other gods. For the former, the consequences will be prosperity, numerous offspring, and a life filled with blessings. For the latter, there will be only death.
The language of Deuteronomy 30:15-20 places it firmly in the context of the ancient Near Eastern covenant. A binding document, agreed upon by two parties, outlining their obligations to one another, covenant documents have been found throughout the ancient Near East. The two parties may be equals or their relationship may be characterized as hierarchical, as in the case of the covenants between the great empires and their vassal kingdoms. In the Old Testament, the language and characteristic features of the ancient Near Eastern covenant are taken up and used to describe the relationship between Yahweh and the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 30:15-20 in particular contains several elements that are clearly associated with a covenant:
(1) The witnesses to the covenant in verse 19. Note that these witnesses are not divine beings as in many of the ancient Near East covenants. Here one can see that the monotheistic perspective one finds in the Old Testament has changed the nature of the witnesses from gods, so that the earth itself testifies to the agreement.
(2) The stark nature of the choice before the people: be loyal or die. Their loyalty will be rewarded with innumerable blessings, but any failure to honor the terms of the covenant will result in the dissolution of the covenant. So we read in verses 17-18: “But if your heart turns away…and (you) are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them. I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”
It is important to highlight the theological significance of the covenant language used here. The people and Yahweh have entered into a covenant that is mutually binding. This covenant is the broader context of the entire book of Deuteronomy: the people will be established by God in the land and will thrive there if they live according to the law. Everything depends upon the people’s willingness to live in a way that reflects the alliance they’ve made with Yahweh. There is no room in the Promised Land for other gods.
These words seem simplistic in many ways. Follow God: Be blessed. Follow other gods: Be cursed. Prosperity is linked with faithfulness, while the failure to thrive is a clear sign that one has strayed from the right path. That theological promise may ring hollow to those who have witnessed or experienced suffering firsthand. Indeed, within the canon of the book of Job is a challenge to this simplistic take on achievement. Do we throw out the perspective of Deuteronomy then? I think not. Rather, it is important to understand both Deuteronomy as a whole and this text in particular as establishing a basis for living the “good life” but not answering, or even attempting to answer, all the questions that arise over the course of our lives.
In the first place, Deuteronomy upholds the value of human life, in particular, the value of success and flourishing community. These joys of human life are honored as gifts from God and to be treasured as such. Prosperity can be a good thing, a sign of hard work and divine blessing. Faithful stewardship of God’s gifts can reap remarkable rewards that should be celebrated, and yet Deuteronomy 30:15-20 provides a much-needed perspective on what it truly means to live the “good life.” A truly rich and full life is one that is lived in right relationship with God and with others. Walking in God’s ways and being obedient to God’s will is a solid basis for a life that won’t be unmoored by economic downturns.
February 13, 2011