Introducing Deuteronomy: God's Requirements: Deuteronomy 8.11-18, 10.12-22
Both Moses and the Deuteronomist who recounted these traditions about him understood human nature very well. The Israelites to whom Moses is speaking are on the verge of their great deliverance -- but they've been here before and it didn't exactly work out for them. As Numbers tells us and Moses reminds the people earlier in Deuteronomy, they stood on the brink of the promised land once before and they funked it. Instead of doing what Moses and God through Moses told them, they listened to voices of doubt among them and paid a price, the last nearly forty years. That time in the wilderness has not been exactly fun, and the period before, the time of their slavery in Egypt followed by flight and an anxious journey to Horeb or Sinai (different traditions have different names for the mountain of God) was even harder.
So the deliverance they are now so close to is one from very real suffering and very real horror -- the traditional name for Egypt, their former home, was 'house of slavery', which sums their recollection up very clearly. And Moses thinks he knows what will happen next, after they cross the river to the other side. They will forget all about God and what God has been doing these forty years of wandering. You see, in one way at least one thing has been easy on this long road from Egypt to Jordan's banks -- it's been easy to remember God. It's hard to forget Someone who is traveling with you constantly for forty years, revealed in the sheltering pillar of cloud by day and the visible pillar of fire by night, present in the ark of the covenant that accompanied the people wherever they went. But once they cross the river everything will change, their lives will become settled and they will start to accumulate stuff -- all the wealth and possessions that wandering tribes can't carry with them. Instead of camps in the desert, they will build cities to live in. They'll scatter in separated communities. And in all this change it will be harder and harder to remember God.
And this is not just Moses being fearful for the future, a future in which he will not be there to guide them. We need always to be conscious of a dual perspective in a book like Deuteronomy -- there is the perspective of Moses at the time of the Exodus but there is also, behind the scenes, the perspective of the Deuteronomist, who knows at least part of what happened next. He saw the problems that emerged after the people entered the promised land and started to live a very different kind of life, ultimately governed not by God through inspired leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam but by hereditary kings or military captains. And he thought he knew some of the answers to what had gone wrong and what his ancestors should have done instead. He was sure that they had forgotten God in their new territory, and it guides his selection and presentation of the traditions about Moses.
And the danger is not just that they will forget God -- they are also in danger of forgetting who and what they were before God delivered them. They were slaves and foreigners, strangers in someone else's country. Why is it so important to remember that? It seems a very natural human urge to want to forget about trouble and trials, especially ones that seem shameful or show weakness, like being enslaved by a people who once welcomed you as friends and allies. But Moses doesn't want them to forget their past any more than he wants them to forget God -- who they were is not so important in itself, but it is important for what it says about God.
Their God, the God who has brought them to the brink of a new land of their own, cares about strangers and slaves. As Moses reminds them, God is the one who 'freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness'. And they are not to forget merely because they ought to respond in love and gratitude to a God like that. No, they are not to forget because God wants them to do as he has done. Their experiences in Egypt and the wilderness give them a unique insight into the heart of God and that is why they must not forget.
As in the Ten Commandments, where we saw that the slavery in Israel's past was to be the motive for the weekly sabbath in Israel's future, here the ethical imperative does not rest on a divine command but on a shared experience of suffering. We are not to do what is just because God says so, but because we too have experienced injustice. We are to befriend the stranger not because there is a reward for doing what God says, but because we know what it is to be a stranger, in a strange land.
Israel's history, which we have made our history too, by being (as St Paul says) grafted into the covenant relationship between Israel and God by grace alone, is the key to Israel's future. Without it, the law is incomprehensible -- it is the matrix of sacred history that gives the law power and force. What is this law? Earlier we read the Ten Commandments, God's Ten Words that define God's covenant with a people, and here we hear another summary of the law.
Like the commandments, it comes in two parts: one God-directed and one directed to one another. There is an important principle at work here and throughout Deuteronomy: loving and serving God and loving and serving our neighbour are indissolubly joined: we cannot have one without the other. And here we see why that is so, because in doing justice and befriending the stranger we are imitating God. Israel should never forget the experience of being slaves and strangers in Egypt, because that experience opens their hearts to others who are slaves and strangers. But it also shows that God is the one who opens God's heart to the slave and the stranger, and calls the Israelites to be like their God.
So Moses asks them to consider what the Lord demands of them now, and the key to answering that question is that they are to walk in God's paths, and in God's only. And he goes on to detail exactly what that means. The God they have met in the Exodus and in the wilderness is 'the great, the mighty, and the awesome God', the creator and sustainer of the whole universe. But they have also discovered that this God 'shows no favour and takes no bribe but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.' And Moses concludes 'You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt'.
Go on to the last section.