16th Sunday After Pentecost
September 4, 2016
Commentary on the Texts
Because of the character of this reading, it is tempting to view it as relatively self-contained, presenting a choice to enter into covenant relationship with God that transcends the time and circumstance of "BC" Israel or the context of the book of Deuteronomy. Because of the homiletical character of the book itself, there is some dimension in which that might be true. It is a call that can echo across the centuries and challenge people today.
However, this reading actually requires the entire book of Deuteronomy as a background for presenting that choice since it stands as the literary and theological climax of the whole book. There is more to the text than just a call to God. If we are not careful, we will tend to hear the text through our own frame of reference, such as the revivalism heritage of the USA, and not hear the larger theological grounding for the text within Scripture and Israel's witness to God. Since Deuteronomy is one of the most deliberately structured books in the Torah, we need to take seriously how the community of faith shaped this call to God in order to hear its richness and the depth of its theological framework.
Context in Deuteronomy
The book of Deuteronomy is organized around a series of three discourses by Moses (1:6-4:40, chs. 5-28, chs. 29-30), connected by brief introductions and transitions (1:1-5, 4:41-49, etc.). The book concludes with an addendum (chs. 31-34) that includes instructions concerning Moses' successor, final instructions and liturgies, the Song and Blessing of Moses, and his death.
Some have characterized Deuteronomy as Moses' last will and testament for the Israelites. As a historical statement, that tends to place too much emphasis on the figure of Moses and does not take seriously enough the dynamic of the later community in shaping these traditions (see below for historical context). Yet, however we see these speeches historically, theologically that is precisely what this book intends in the setting in which it is placed. It is the summary and application of Mosaic torah to the life of the community of faith.
Again, no matter how the historical issues are addressed, the setting in which the carefully organized structure of the book unfolds is significant and must be seen as a part of the theological communication of the book. As the book opens, the Hebrews had spent the past 40 years as nomads in the desert. Now they are camped in the plains of Moab east of the Jordan preparing to enter the land of Canaan. The failures of the past lie behind them in the desert, and the challenges of a new future lie before them across the river. This results in a unique theological linking of the past and the future around the present. 1. The first discourse (1:6-4:40) summarizes the events between the encounter with God at Sinai and the encampment in Moab, followed by an urgent appeal for faithfulness to God. 2. The second discourse (5-28) recounts the giving of the Ten Words (Commandments) at Sinai. This is followed by an explanation of the first commandment centered around the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9; Heb: "hear"), and an extended appeal to remain faithful to God in spite of the temptations that will come in the new land. Specific instruction in communal life begins in chapter 12, concluding with a covenant ceremony and homily focusing on their responsibilities to God and each other. 3. The third discourse (29-30) encapsulates the first two, with a historical review, covenant renewal, admonitions to faithfulness, and warnings of the consequences of disobedience.
This sequence gives a teaching dimension to the material, and the resulting theological linking of the community past, present, and future form the literary and theological dynamic of the entire book. The past is important as a grounding for who they are as God's people and who God is as a God of grace and deliverance and promise. The future is important because it is the arena in which they will be able to live out being God's people in blessing, where they will be able to worship God in security, and where the promises will be realized. Past and future intersect in the present as they stand in decision between the two. They are called to remember their failures, to look forward to the opportunity to move beyond them, yet all contingent on their willingness to make decisions in the present. Will they be governed by the failures of the past? Or will they move into a new and unknown future defined by God and his promise? They are faced with a choice. This is the core of the book, and moves to the heart of this reading.
The Book and History
While in many cases, historical and authorship questions do not have as much bearing on the message of a book, understanding how the book of Deuteronomy functioned within the community of ancient Israel will let us better hear the message of the text, especially in modern application. Traditionally, the entire book of Deuteronomy has been attributed to Moses. From this perspective, the narrative setting of the book and its historical context are the same. That is, since it is organized as a speech of Moses then it must have been written by Moses in the time period in which it is set (13th century BC), and so reflects the actual words of Moses himself.
However, some features, including the account of Moses' death, have led scholars to conclude that parts of the book come from a later time. While there is little consensus as to its precise history, there is general agreement that the book reflects a long process of compilation as the community reapplied the Mosaic traditions in later situations, as indeed the book itself reveals (e.g., 30:1-5, cf. 6:20-25). That suggests that the narrative setting of the book in the time of Moses is not the same as the historical setting of the community who compiled the book.
However, this does not preclude the likelihood that some core of the book, perhaps large portions of it, does come from Moses. It is generally believed that Josiah used an early form of the book of Deuteronomy to guide his sweeping reforms (ca. 621 BC; 2 Kings 22:1-7; 2 Chron. 34:1-7; see Josiah and Religious Reforms).
Still, there is also compelling evidence that portions of the book, in fact its entire present structure, reflect the crisis of Babylonian exile (587-539 BC, for example, 29:28; cf. 29:29-30:5, 28:49-57, 64-68). This provides a wider and significant historical context for the book and its message. If the final form of the book was complied after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC as the book itself seems to indicate, then there is a dual level of history throughout the book.
On one level the issues facing the people are entering the land and the choice to remain faithful to God lest they lose the land. Yet on the second level, they have already lost the land to Babylonian because of their failure to be faithful to God. The question then becomes how they will live as God's people if they regain the land, and how they will keep it. That is, the people are still faced with a choice, except it is a much more serious choice in the exilic context. They have already suffered the consequences of their own disobedience in exile, and are faced with a future that is at risk by their own actions. They must decide again if they want to be God's people, to enter into covenant relationship with God. Only this time it is not just a choice about entering an unknown future and fighting Canaanites. This time the choice is genuine faithfulness to God that will require some hard choices in the reality of living in the land. They have been there before. And they have failed. Yet they have a second chance. What will they do with that second chance? This question becomes the governing motif of the book.
Character of the Book
Deuteronomy is not a book of laws; it is a book of the heart, instruction (Heb: torah) in how to live intentionally as God's people in response to His love and mercy (for example, 4:29, 6:4, 32-40, 11:1). One of the most important features of the book is its homiletical style. The commandments are not presented in legal format, but are cast in the style of a sermon, interwoven with pleas and exhortations to obedience, all grounded in the prevenient (initiating) grace of God.
Also, the concept of covenant around which the book revolves is not primarily a legal concept, but a cultural way of expressing relationship between Yahweh and His people. The call to obedience throughout the book is an appeal to order all of life in relation to the One who had revealed Himself in their history as the true and living God. It is not just the imposition of law; it is a call to choose God (30:15-20, cf. Josh 24:14-15), which worked out in practical instructions (see Torah as Holiness: Old Testament "Law" as Response to Divine Grace).
The book develops the idea that obedience brings blessing and life, and disobedience brings curses and death (11:26-28, 30:15-20), a way of affirming the positive results of life properly ordered under God. While that view would later be distorted, Deuteronomy itself stresses obedience on the level of proper love (10:12-15, cf. Mic 6:8). There is concern expressed throughout the book that the people will fail, perhaps reflecting a later time when Israel had already failed. This leads to two emphases held in tension: the people should be diligent to follow God and not forfeit the benefits of the land (28:47-68), yet God would be merciful in the midst of their failures and bring them (again) into the land (30:1-10).
The immediate context of this reading is the renewal of the covenant that comprises chapters 29-30 (note 29:1). While this material is cast as a historical narrative, its structure suggests a liturgy that functioned within the community long after the Israelites entered the land. As such, the theological character of the reading deserves particular attention. The preceding chapters are dominated by the negative assumption that the Israelites will fail, or have already failed, to remain faithful to God and thereby incur(ed) the consequence of losing the land (for example, 28:15-46).
However, this section turns to a more positive tone. While there are again the warnings of disobedience and its consequences (29:17-28), chapter 30 begins with a clearly marked shift ("when all these things have happened to you," v. 1) to a time of restoration and return to the land (vv. 3ff). Chapter 30 also concludes on a positive note (vv. 19a-20), emphasizing the possibilities inherent in obedience. These factors, especially as focused in this concluding reading of the speeches of Moses as the climax of the book, suggest that the overarching theological stance of the book of Deuteronomy is that the consequences of sin, while severe, are not the final word of God. As in the book of Amos where a series of threats about endings are mitigated by a conclusion that talks about future restoration (Am 9:11-15), the impact of the book as a whole points beyond endings to new possibilities through repentance, humility, and renewal.
IT is in this context that the reading opens by presenting two choices before the people, "life and prosperity" and "death and adversity" (v. 15). This same choice between life and death, between blessing and cursing, had been presented in elaborate ritual at the Shechem covenant ceremony in chapter 27-28. In both places the choice is connected with obedience to the commandments and faithfulness to God. That picks up the same emphasis of the first four chapters of the book, and echoes other covenant ceremonies (e.g., Josh 24). That is, the choice for life and for blessing is directly related to observing the commandments and faithfulness to God, while the choice for death and curses is marked by disobedience and rejection of God.
The "if . . .then" construction of this reading (vv. 16-17; the first "if" in v. 16 is lacking in the Hebrew text, but is supplied from the Greek version) clearly places the decision presented to the people in terms of consequences or results. The choice that they would make here was not just a choice for the moment, but would have unfolding consequences long into the future. In light of the observations above on the structure and flow of the book, this conditional construction takes on added importance. In the setting of this reading, as the people are poised between the past and the future, the present decision would shape that future. They are facing two paths into the future, one that holds possibility and life and the other that holds endings and death. The format here serves to lay great weight on the results and consequences flowing from this decision.
The positive condition is given in three verbs: "to love (Heb:'ahab) the Lord your God," "to walk (Heb: halak) in his paths," and "to observe (Heb: shamar, to keep, guard) his commandments, decrees, and ordinances" (v. 16). These should not be seen as three separate activities but rather as different ways to express the same committed relationship with God. To love God is to walk in his paths and to observe (keep, guard) his word (the terms used here are virtually interchangeable in Deuteronomy with torah, "instruction" and the "word" of God, for example, 6:1-17).
In this sense walking and keeping are ways to define how the people are to love God. It is not that they observe his word in order to love God, but that loving God results in observing his words. Loving God is not to be just an emotion or even an experience of the past, but is to be lived out in all of life, both now and unfolding into the future. Or, to put it another way, loving God is to be expressed in walking in God's paths and observing, putting into practice, his directions for how to live as his people.
The metaphor of a path to symbolize the journey of life and walking a certain path as living a certain way or exhibiting a certain lifestyle in that journey are common biblical metaphors (for example, Jer 6:16, Psa 1, Prov 2:13-22, etc.; cf. Eph 5:2, Phil 1:27). There are various paths of life in which one can walk, but the correct path, and therefore the path of life, is the way of God. This is dramatically illustrated by the fact that one of the primary Hebrew words for sin (chatta') basically means "to walk the wrong path" or "to go in the wrong direction" (cf. the non-technical use in Prov 19:2). Even in this passage, the warning is against being "led astray" (v. 17, Heb: nadach, cf. 22:1 where it describes sheep wandering away from the flock).
The metaphor of walking in God's ways is often connected, as it is here, with torah and its synonyms (for example, Isa 42:24, Isa 9:12-14, Psa 89:30, etc.). This conceptualizes "walking in his ways" as following the instructions he has given for the journey, how to live as his people in the world by doing torah in the "commandments, decrees, and ordinances." Yet, the "way of torah" is not primarily a book to obey or rules to follow; it is a path to walk, a way of life to lead that authentically reflects the character of the God who has called people to walk it. The OT concept of torah is a lifestyle of nurtured and nurturing relationship with God and others, subsuming every facet of life to a dynamic (growing) and joyful acknowledgment of God as supreme Sovereign and Lord of the earth. It is this relationship that brings life, and the lack of it that brings death.
This dynamic conception of relationship with God should be integrated into any understanding of the journey of the faith community in history, as well as any theological formulation of relationship with God arising from this reading. Israel took the historical nature of its relationship with God seriously. That is, she understood that relationship with God as His people meant translating it into the very arena in which He had revealed Himself to initiate the relationship: the real life arena of human history. Relationship with God was never left in abstracted categories, nor could it be mythicized into a cosmic realm, nor could it be encompassed by legal requirements. It must be lived in real time, in real place, in changing human existence. That meant that relationship with God was dynamic as the community moved through history. Walking in God's ways became a suitable metaphor to capture this dynamic dimension of God's interaction with the people, and their response.
It is this dimension of a lifestyle lived that helps define the meaning of "keep" or "observe" in this verse (v. 16). It might be possible to see this term as simply meaning "obey the law." There may well be such overtones to the term, at least in the sense of duty or obligation. However, in light of the other terms and well established metaphors here, the connotation of the word moves away from any legal meaning. It is much closer to "observing" the torah, the commandments, etc., as an act of celebration, an act of joyful response to God that arises from choosing to live a certain way in the world as his people. To love God is to choose to walk in his paths, and to walk in God's paths means to observe his directions for how to walk in that path! Keeping the torah is simply part of the response to God's grace, an act of faithfulness in responsive relationship to God (note Psa. 105:43-45).
Another theological metaphor that is absent from its expected location in the Hebrew text of verse 16 (although in the Greek version) appears in the negative warning of verse 17. The term "hear" (v. 17; Heb: shama'; the term occurs again in v. 20 in the phrase "to hear his voice") is actually an idiom in Hebrew and is often translated "obey." The cultural concept behind the idiom is that if a person has genuinely heard they would respond to what was spoken. This is especially the case when used in relation to God. So the impact is not just hearing, but to respond to what is heard (Neh 8:3, 9, 13:3, 2 Chron 34:19, Zech 7:12, etc.). And that response is often understood as a lifestyle (walking a path). So in passages like Jeremiah 32:21-23, "hear your voice" and "walk in your torah" can be used synonymously (cf. Isa 42:24). The emphasis in this metaphor falls on the expected faithful response God's instruction or leadership.
Consequently, as verse 17 suggests, if a person does not respond it is because they have not heard. The failure to "hear" would be the cause of not properly knowing God, and therefore of not acknowledging him as God. The idolatry that would result would bring death.
The heart language in verse 17 is important to note. In our modern cultural context, not only in English but other languages as well (e.g., Spanish and Italian) the heart often symbolizes an emotional dimension that can be expressed as love or anger. The metaphor of heart as representing passion is often contrasted with reason and calm rational decision (for example, "a crime of the heart," i.e., something done without rational decision). However, in Hebrew, and especially in Deuteronomy, the metaphor of heart most often implies that very cognitive and rational dimension that we mean by will or reasoned decision. To "love the Lord with all your heart" (6:5) means to make a deliberate decision about how top life live.
The warning of verses 17-18, then, is not against accidentally turning away from God in a moment of passion. The combination of "if your heart turns" and "[if] you do not hear" are two ways to say the same thing, that of making a deliberate decision to turn from God and thus to choose death. It is a warning of making wrong choices, and thereby living in such a way, that will lead to death.
With these combinations of metaphors here, the theological idea that emerges is an understanding that the people must respond faithfully to God (hear His voice) by living in a certain way (walk in his ways). To hear God, either in words or in deeds, calls for a response. The parameters of that response are described as torah, or "the commandments, decrees, and ordinances" of God.
As noted above, we must let the conclusion to this reading (vv 19-20), especially as the conclusion to the core teaching section of the entire book, have its full impact. The final word is not about warnings or failure. And neither is the final word an open ended, disinterested, and dispassionate call to make a decision. This is a call to make a particular decision. It is not a call simply to choose, it is a call to choose life! The purpose of the book and this reading has not been to simply set before the people two ways to live but to demonstrate the folly of choosing death and to plead with them to choose life. And it is likely that the people have already experienced the consequences of choosing death as the nation had been destroyed and the future lost. Yet the possibility of now choosing life, of standing once again as they had so long ago between the failures of the past and the possibilities of new life in the future, provides a powerful context for the call, "Choose life."
Yet, from the previous explanation of the torah, and from the repeated emphasis in this reading on the commandments of God, this choice is not just something they can do and then move on as if it had not happened. This choice is not just a mental exercise of deciding to believe the right things. This is a choice about how to live in that unfolding future. It is a choice grounded in the very fact that God has by his grace allowed them the possibility of choice when their own actions have already chosen death. It is this very fact of the possibility of choosing life amid the consequences of having already chosen death that makes this passage such a powerful summary of the nature of God and his grace revealed in the world!
The choice facing the people in this reading is presented as a "life" and "death" choice. It will be very easy to spiritualize or even allegorize this too far into spiritual life and death and assume that the topic here is "salvation" in the Christian, evangelical sense of "saved from sin." That is not really what is in view here, although there may be some later theological application more broadly in that direction (to which we shall return below). What is in view in this text, especially in its setting, is the physical life of Israel in the land. The conception here is that there is a direct correlation with how one lives in God's world, how one hears God and walks in his paths, and the quality and even length of life.
In this immediate context, the passage is clearly drawing parallels between Israel's faithfulness to God and Israel's occupation of the land (whether in the time of Moses or in the time of Nehemiah). We dare not spiritualize that away and risk distorting the text. The life that is offered here is life in the land (vv. 16, 17, 20), and the death that is threatened is not only shortness of days, but loss of the land (vv. 17, cf. 28:21ff). And since in the context of the Old Testament that has not yet developed the idea of resurrection and life after death, this poses the ultimate threat of disruption of relationship with God.
The impact of this needs to have its full import. We might be tempted to move this into future rewards and punishment. But there is a dimension here that will not be pushed that far into the future. The torah of God must be lived now, and that is where the decision will be lived out. Clearly, the consequences here are very this worldly, as are the rewards in this context.
We might also be tempted to reduce this passage to individual reward and punishment and assume that this is an absolute guarantee of prosperity if we choose God. There are many proponents today of a "prosperity gospel" who have made that mistake. But this passage is very communal; it is about a people, a community of Faith, not just about individuals making personal and disconnected decisions. Out temptation to make this too individual does not take seriously enough God's work in the larger community.
With that in view, we should begin with a caution about promising too much from this text. This passage is primarily about relationship with God, not about rewards. We would violate this text and slip into a magical view of the world and an idolatrous view of God to see obedience to God as a guarantee of our own personal prosperity. Yet, there is no escaping the fact that this reading sees a relationship between our choice for God and how we live in God's world. It affirms a clear relationship between how we have chosen to live under God and the quality of our lives.
With those cautions, two aspects of this text become significant proclamation points. First, this text is about God's grace, God's willingness to offer life even though we have already chosen death. It will not take too much effort immediately to see the same theology expressed in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This text is not about Jesus. But it proclaims a truth about God that we again see unfolding in God's revelations of Himself in Jesus. God is the kind of a God who is willing to offer a second chance of life (or a third, or a thousandth!) to those who have already rejected him and chosen death (cf. Rom. 5:8). There is no more powerful proclamation of God's grace than the message to a broken and sinful world that God's has loved us and has offered us life.
A second feature of this text revolves around the call to choose. This can be unfolded in several dimensions, but again we should take care to see this in different terms than simply an "altar call." This choice is not simply the mental assent that God is God. This is a choice to "hear" God, to allow who we have chosen to be as God's people to define how we love in the world. It is not the keeping of legal proscriptions, the belief of correct doctrine, or the following of church rules and regulations. It is the putting into practice in all aspects of life the same grace that we have received. It is living torah, living a life of righteousness and holiness before God that is so well summarized in the prophets: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8; cf. Isa 1:10-20, 58:1-12, Hos 6:6, etc.). This is consistent not only with the whole tenor of the Old Testament, but also with Jesus' teaching where the emphasis falls on living out in everyday life what it means to be the people of God (for example, Matt 5-6, 25:31-46).
In some evangelical churches, salvation is front loaded with the most emphasis placed on the moment of decision. Yet this text points to a broader understanding of decision. "Choose life" is a matter of living that is expressed in loving God, in hearing him, in walking in his ways, in keeping his torah, in holding fast to him and not going astray. Choosing the life that God has offered means living out that life in such a way that it creates life, that it brings about blessings that come from living in harmony with God and his world.
Still, there is the unmistakable dimension of this text that choices make a difference. There is absolutely no sense here that God decides people's relationship with God, nor that once it is decided by us or God that the choice is then irreversible. There are clearly implications here that the choice, the life lived hearing God or refusing to hear, create their own effects in the world for good or evil. While God offers life, there is a sense in which we also create that life as we respond by choosing life. If we reject it, we have chosen death and by so doing then we create a death in the world that consumes us. To choose life is not only to accept life but also to create life; to reject life is not only to choose death but to create death in the world.
Life is realized by living in God's world hearing the voice of God. It is in that sense that this text pleads, "Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live!" Life is also realized by doing God's word, by living torah, by "loving the lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him" (v. 20). It is in that sense that the text cries, "for that means life to you."
This Sunday in the Church Year
Color this Sunday:
Green or Church Colors
Reading also used:
Deut: Year A, Epiphany 6