In James Michener’s wonderful book, The Source, a Jewish archeologist on a dig in Israel explained to his colleague: “If you want to understand the Jewish people, read Deuteronomy. Read it five times.”
“It’s the great central book of the Jews,” Eliav said. “If you master it, you will understand us.”
The people of Israel seem to have a strong sense of God’s faithful presence with them. They have seen God’s hand bringing them out of Egypt and into a sacred covenant relationship in a new land. They have recognized God’s amazing grace preserving them as a people and rescuing them from Exile in Babylon. The Moses of Deuteronomy asks:
Ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened …?!
Deuteronomy is set on the far side of the Jordan River, looking over into The Promised Land. Moses recounts the story of rescue from Egypt. He retells YHWH’s presence at Sinai. He reminds of the 10 Commandments and the Law. He prepares them for the years ahead, when Moses will have passed on the baton of leadership to Joshua.
When we read Deuteronomy, we remember how the people of Israel were a motley crew of ragtag slaves in Egypt when the book of Deuteronomy is set. They went from being no people to being God’s own people. Who could have ever imagined?
I know you already know that the Old Testament is the story of Israel. It doesn’t pretend to tell any other people’s story in the vast sweep of human history. There is no mention whatsoever about what God might have been doing in Mongolia or Ethiopia or Machu Picchu during those ancient days. When I think about it, I’m pretty sure God has been on the move throughout all time, in all places, creating relationship and writing the divine story in the human heart in ways we cannot even begin to fathom. But any of those specific stories are not the stories of the Bible. The Old Testament is Israel’s story – and it is shot through with amazement.
Of course there are plenty of sub-themes of arrogance as well as amazement. Whenever people begin to think of chosen-ness as something that is earned; when people think their inclusion requires someone else’s exclusion; when people start thinking that being chosen means they can kick back take it easy – then there is some deep misunderstanding of the concept of chosen-ness as it is used in Scripture. And those mistaken attitudes surely can foster pride and self-importance and complacency.
Deuteronomy sounds a deep warning against such tempting comfort. IF Israel does not keep the covenant God has given them, THEN they will suffer the consequences.
4: 25 When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27 The Lord will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the Lord will lead you. 28 There you will serve other gods made by human hands, objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. 29 From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. 30 In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him. 31 Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.
Here we see the theology of the “Deuteronomist” which is grounded in the Pentateuch and woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. This understanding teaches that God’s covenant is conditional: God will be faithful if God’s people are faithful.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.
But even as this warning is given at the leading edge of the Promised Land, Israel also receives the hope of unconditional grace. This is what sustains them and calls them back into relationship. Even if an entire generation dies in the wilderness (as Deuteronomy relates), the covenant with the whole people of God will continue.
Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.
Here in Deuteronomy, Israel is called to remember – with great humility and for no good reason – God called them into relationship; that God was calling them into God’s own purposes.
In Deuteronomy 4 they have a sense of astonishment that they had been given a vision of the one true God who is full of steadfast love, mercy and compassion; there is amazement that they had been given the gift and the responsibility to bear witness to the nations concerning this vision of God. And then – on top of all that – there is also the wonder that God would hang in there with them even when they would mess up so badly.
It makes me think of an alcoholic who gets so out of line that he finds himself in jail and then standing in front of a judge; then he’s in rehab, then reluctantly, he starts to work the program in AA. And then finally, finally he gets it. What a fool I’ve been! he says. What amazing grace has protected me! What patience and forgiveness has been given to me by my spouse, by my parents, by my friends!
This experience is a little like Israel’s testimony in Deuteronomy, giving witness to the faithfulness of the Lord their God. They are amazed that they have been incorporated into mercy.
And so – even in Exile – because of the story Deuteronomy tells, Israel dares to hope that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob keeps covenant even when they did not. That YHWH will turn to them in mercy whenever their hearts turn back to the One Who Rescues.
Moses, marble statue by Michelangelo, tomb of Pope Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, Lazio, Italy