In these two chapters, Moses concludes his treatise. Once again, he summarizes the journey so far and the sorts of awesome works God has used to demonstrate his power, including the fact that they’ve been wandering in the desert for forty years without their clothes or sandals wearing out. Personally, I’d say that might be more indicative of losing a couple calendars, time warps, accidentally entering the Fey lands, or perhaps a testament to the quality of pre-WalMartization clothing.
There’s another mention of conquering lands from King Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, giving their lands to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh.
Coming to the present, the people are gathered at Mount Horeb to swear to the covenant, which will be binding not only on them, but also those who are not present (I assume he means the descendants).
A Poisonous Root
Moses reminds the people to beware of anyone who approaches the covenant without full commitment, “lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deut. 29:18).
The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Further, no one should think that simply agreeing to the covenant is enough, that they’ve done their good deed, and can then continue to “walk in the stubbornness of my heart” (Deut. 29:19).
This is actually quite a good point and something that made me rather cynical when I worked for not-for-profits. Generally, people in my sector (at least in my corner of the sector) earned less than their for-profit or public sector doubles. I noticed that a lot of my co-workers, particularly the higher ups, seemed to think that they were earning their brownie points by working in the sector, so they didn’t have to do other little acts of kindness – like treat the people at the bottom of the totem pole with respect and fairness, or not steal people’s labelled lunches from the common refrigerator (seriously, what is someone making $100K+ doing stealing the lunch of someone who makes under $30K??).
It reminds me a bit of the famous compassion study.
Anyways, point is that I do like that Moses makes clear that simply making a big show of faith is not enough, commitment must be demonstrated by action.
I also find it notable that Moses tells the whole congregation to “beware” of those who are this way (and though I haven’t mentioned it, this includes people who might worship other gods, not just hypocrites). In doing so, it becomes the whole community’s responsibility to be on the lookout for evil or lapsing. Obviously, this isn’t something I like at all. I am all for an individual being held accountable for his stated beliefs, but all the stuff we’ve been getting about worship and the relationship with God being a communal action makes me very nervous – particularly as someone who is of a minority belief in my geographical area.
Then there’s a passage I’m a bit confused about. In Deut. 29:29, Moses says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
According to David Plotz, the distinction being made is between an individual’s private thoughts and his outward actions:
The Israelites don’t believe in thought crime! The community must punish public wrongdoing. But God will take care of private sin and bad thoughts. This is, you could argue, the first right to privacy.
My study Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to see this at all:
The secret things refer to the divine wisdom beyond man’s ken; the revealed things are the teachings set forth in Deuteronomy. (p.254)
Which I take to mean a distinction between the mysteries of spirituality and that which God has revealed to his people. I’m not sure that I understand how this interpretation is supposed to fit in the context, and I’m inclined to take Plotz’s interpretation.
More Carrots, More Sticks
Unable to help himself, it seems, Moses returns with the carrot and the stick. Follow all the commandments and everything will be completely, utterly, stupendously awesome. Interestingly, the description of how awesome it will be in Deut. 30:1-10 seems to presuppose a people in exile, rather than a people coming into awesome for the first time.
Remember, God made the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would bring their descendants to greatness. Never was it assumed that they were great at the time (and with only ~70 people heading down into Egypt and the slavery that followed, they could hardly be considered to be as numerous as the stars!). Then there was slavery, then there was walking in the desert for forty years eating nothing but manna and poisoned quail. There’s no call for all this “return” and “restore” language.
This passage also doesn’t describe a whole people moving from one place to another. The language suggests a scattering – “if your outcasts are in the uttermost part of heaven” – and a calling back – “from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will fetch you” (Deut. 30:4).
And there’s there obligatory “if you don’t follow the commandments” threats. Namely, that Israel will be pulverized so bad that they’ll resemble Soddom and Gomorrah, or Admah and Zeboim.
I had to look up the latter two because I couldn’t recall a destruction of any Admah or Zeboim. If my Google-fu can be trusted, my memory was correct. The cities have come into the narrative twice, but in very different contexts:
- Gen. 10:19 – They are used as geographical markers to describe the borders of Canaan.
- Gen. 14:2 – They are on Sodom and Gomorrah’s side in the totally contextless and very confusing battle against Chedorlaomer.
But apparently there exists some alternative tradition in which they are also named among the destroyed cities.
Look, I’ve made it easy for you
Closing up, Moses argues that the people now have the Law, it’s been given to them. It isn’t far off in heaven or across the sea, it’s not inaccessible. Therefore, there is only the choice to either follow it or not, with no excuse not to. “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15).
Which makes perfect sense from a Hebrew, “chosen people” perspective, but I wonder how Christians view this passage given how many people have lived and died with the Law literally being across the sea and totally inaccessible. From the perspective of a missionary religion, this passage is much more difficult.
I do know that there’s been some wrangling to make sins “not count” for people who had never been in contact with “the right religion” and therefore had no ability to make an informed choice. I would also include in that lot people who grew up with their own religions – such as some of my Muslim friends – and who would therefore have heard of Christianity in a very different context (when they finally did).
Also, has Moses even read the ordinances? Most of them aren’t too bad, but one thing I hear often from devout Jews is that keeping them is extremely hard, especially if you add in the difficulty of even knowing what they are some of the time (like the extent that the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk should be applied, or how to understand the prohibition against making others work on the Sabbath in a modern context). To reduce it to a simple matter of choice isn’t exactly honest.
There’s also some conflating of Moses and God in this passage. In telling the people to follow the Law, Moses says: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you” (Deut. 30:11). Is Moses merely describing his role as the relater of the laws, or is there really some conflation?