Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20
It’s time to make a choice.
Today is decision day. And the choices are limited.
As Moses’ third speech in the book of Deuteronomy winds down, our passage calls for a selection between two options: life and death. The Common English Bible translation stays close to the Hebrew wording: “life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong.”
So, that’s a rather easy choice, right? Surely if given the option of life or death, we would naturally and enthusiastically choose life. Unless we find ourselves in dire circumstances, the urge and desire to live, to survive, is quite strong. Creatures large and small go to great lengths to remain alive.
But Deuteronomy’s choice does not concern mere existence. We are not talking about simply a decision to subsist. To be or not to be: that is not the question really. God’s admonition to choose life, as we find it in this passage, is defined rather clearly here and within the whole book of Deuteronomy.
What does it mean to choose life or to choose death?
Deuteronomy’s answer concerns religious practices such as obedience to God’s torah (teachings) and loyal worship of God. These practices have been reiterated throughout Deuteronomy to this point; they have been examined in some detail so that it is now clear to the readers and hearers of the book what constitutes correct worship and a faithful lifestyle. It is becoming clearer and clearer what all life involves.
The answer to the above question also involves the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God (Deuteronomy 7:9) who has established a covenant not just with the ancestors of old (such as Noah and Abraham) but with the people alive during this time as well (Deuteronomy 5:3). Incidentally, contemporary Jews understand this same covenant to continue to this very day.
And the answer to the question concerns the land (the opening verse of our passage here, verse 15, echoes Deuteronomy 1:8, “See, I have set before you the land.”). This land of promise has been promised already to Israel so that their possession of it in the following books of Joshua and Judges represents God’s fulfillment of God’s intentions (Deuteronomy 1:21). These three elements — torah, covenant, land — are definitely ways to choose life.
The six verses of our passage provide a quick summary of the major theological points of this covenant including the central notion that obedience brings blessings and life, while disobedience leads to curses and death.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 presents two separate sequences of three infinitives that speak to the relationship between life, covenant, and the teachings of God. Verse 16 lays out a triad of commands:
to love God,
to walk in God’s ways,
to keep God’s commandments, statutes, judgments.
Verse 20 presents a slightly different triad:
to love God,
to hear God’s voice,
to cling to God.
The two triads form a beautiful synopsis of life.
First, choosing life involves loving God. Deuteronomy presents this love as more than an emotion and certainly not an infatuation. The ancient reader (and perhaps the modern) is reminded of an earlier statement from this biblical book: “You shall love The Living God, your God, with all your heart, and with all your self, and with all your might.”
Love is depicted as a whole person experience involving heart, the seat of intelligence and conscience (not emotions as in modern usage), as well as body. To love God is not to have a purely intellectual or emotional experience. Likewise, choosing life involves more. It involves a holistic commitment to be and to do.
Second, choosing life involves walking in the ways of God and listening to the voice of God. Here we have general, biblical images of discipleship. Psalm 1 uses this same image of walking to conjure up notions of following and listening: “Happy are those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers.”
The link between hearing the voice of God and obeying it is so established in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Bible that some modern translations (NRSV, CEB, NAS) simply translate “obey God.” In our contemporary context, obedience, especially unexamined obedience to authority, can get a bad reputation. We often view it as submissive or uncritical in nature. Yet, Deuteronomy envisions obedience as a respond to God’s covenant. It is active — walking and listening.
Third, choosing life involves keeping God’s commands and clinging to God. This admonition reminds us that the Israelites were also expected to act in appropriate ways toward each other and God. The commands were not burdensome or impossible, as they are often viewed in Christianity, but a way to remain faithful, to mark religious identity, and to respond to God’s initiative.
To love God with our whole selves.
To follow God’s voice as we walk.
To cleave to God by keeping commandments.
This is the way to life, not death.
The Gospel Reading for this Sunday, Matthew 5:21-37, has Jesus engaging the Ten Commandments and, although Deuteronomy 30 is not referenced, we can see that Jesus’ interpretation of these commandments stands on the side of life. Jesus and his followers, as Jews, are well aware of the requirements of Deuteronomy; therefore, he calls them to act and to obey as a way to choose life.
So, choose life!