Introducing Deuteronomy: Life and Death: Deuteronomy 30.11-20
By the time we reach this section of the Deuteronomy, chapter 30, Moses has retold the story of the Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the wilderness, and he has recapitulated the law and the covenant. He has described to the people how they are to ceremonially rededicate themselves to keep the covenant after they have crossed over Jordan into the Promised Land. There is very little left to say, but what there is is of crucial importance to Moses because he has very little time left himself, since he is not allowed to cross over with the people to the other side. Hence his urgency in summing up the choice which lies before them.
This is the third of the three addresses by Moses that make up the main section of the book of Deuteronomy but in it we hear the voice of the Deuteronomist even more clearly than that of Moses, I think. Moses is driven by knowing that he won't be with the people in the new challenges that lie ahead in the new land. But the Deuteronomist is driven by knowing how they met those challenges and were defeated by some of them. There's a tone, especially in the beginning of this section, of mingled patience and exasperation, that seems to fit the circumstances of the author himself better than those of time of which he was writing. For both the original Deuteronomist and the school that followed him, producing the final form of Deuteronomy itself and the Deuteronomic history that follows it in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, wrote after the 'national experiment' of a land and a king had gone seriously wrong. And both thought they could diagnose the root of the problems in some very specific failures, in remembering and obeying YHWH and YHWH's commandments.
It's difficult for us, looking back, to agree with all the conclusions that they reached -- in identifying the root causes of the people's drift away from God and into idolatry the Deuteronomist's school came to some conclusions about the purity of the people and the land, and God's ordinances in those matters, that we now reject. But we can still respect their desire to come to terms with their failures and take responsibility for them. That attempt, beginning in the time of Hezekiah and Manasseh, was what produced the stark contrasts in black and white with which the Deuteronomist literally lays down the law through Moses' words. At a time in which corruption was so rife both in the state and in the religious life of the people, there would have been very little patience for grey areas.
And so we begin with an emphasis on the accessibility of the Instruction, the Torah, that Moses is enjoining the people: it is not something that's distant from them, up in the heavens or across the seas. It's not rocket science either: 'this Instruction .. is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach'. There's encouragement here, for a time when discernment seems difficult: we don't actually have to figure out what to do, where the right lies, because Moses has set it out for us: 'I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules'.
It isn't difficult to hear behind this emphasis on the Law's accessibility the excuses that may have been offered in the days of Hezekiah and Manasseh to the prophets that tried to rally the people and their leaders to the Lord's words. Nor is it difficult to hear their answer in Moses' words: 'I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse'. The simplicity of this is a great part of its appeal: when we are surrounded by doubt and confusion, as the people of Israel and Judah were, and discernment seems clouded and hard, simplicity is what we long for. When everything seems corrupted or hopeless, the black and white of clear right and wrong is very appealing. We long for a world when it is easy to see what is right and what is wrong, when it is easy to discern God's will and do it.
Of course, real life is seldom that simple and straightforward. If it were, we wouldn't need Moses and the Deuteronomist and the prophets to point the way, to reveal God's words, to remind us over and over of the need to love God and our neighbours. But works like Deuteronomy can be more than encouragement and reminders, they have the ability to act as a compass. Even when we disagree with some of the Deuteronomist's conclusions about what had gone wrong in the life of the community, we can and should be guided by the unswerving commitment he showed to God and God's will.
When King Josiah ordered the Temple to be repaired and refurbished, he was the indirect cause of the rediscovery of Deuteronomy. The reaction by the king, his courtiers, and the priests was everything the Deuteronomist could have hoped for. After reading the book and consulting the prophet Huldah, Josiah summoned the elders and the people and went to the Temple with all the people, the priests, and the prophets. There he read the book out to them all and made a covenant to follow the Lord in which all the people joined. Faced with the choice set before them by Moses, that day the king and the people chose life.
We know that it did not last -- there would be further departures from the covenant in the future -- but the message of Deuteronomy is one of constant re-imagining and rededication. In the early Christian church, early communities of monks grew up in the desert of Egypt, engaging in a sort of return to the wilderness. And someone is supposed to have asked one of the monks what they did in their monastery all day, and he replied, "We fall down and get up, and fall down and get up." This too is what the community of Deuteronomy learned from the experience of the desert and the Promised Land -- that however often they fell down, they must get up again. The Deuteronomist knew that the work of living in covenant with God is constant: the story of God's saving works must be retold to each generation and each generation must make the covenant anew. That task lies on this generation as well -- through the Deuteronomist Moses tasks men and women of every time to retell the story of God's deliverance, remember God's law and commandments rooted in the shared experience of slavery, deliverance, and wilderness journey, and rededication to the covenant. 'I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.'
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