The stylistic differences between Deuteronomy and the first four books of the Pentateuch are extremely obvious in this chapter. Even through the translation, it’s clear that the authors of Deuteronomy were working with a far more refined literary tradition than the other books.

Moses and the Ten Commandments by Barbara Goshu

Moses and the Ten Commandments by Barbara Goshu

My Study Bible describes this chapter’s content as “the meaning of the first commandment,” which was to have no other gods before God. That’s a pretty accurate assessment, though there’s also quite a bit about the requirement to pass on the tradition. While we definitely saw concern about outside corruptive influences elsewhere (such as the story of the Moabite/Midianite women in Numbers 31), the concern about keeping the worship of God alive seems particularly pronounced here.

So the chapter opens with a reminder to keep all the statutes and ordinances, to “fear the Lord your God” (v.2), and to carry the ordinances on through “your son and your son’s son” (v.2). A bit more positive than elsewhere, the people are told that “it may go well with you” (v.3) if all the ordinances are kept.

The next part is typically called the shema – named after the first word of the passage in Hebrew meaning “hear.” This is a pretty important passage, apparently. Stylistically, it reinforces the commandments, telling the listener put them (referring either to the ten commandments we’ve just read, to the ordinances that will follow, or both) “upon your heard; and you shall teach them diligently to your children” (v.6-7). It takes a fairly holistic approach to religion – no more Sunday Morning Christians here! The people are to talk about the commandments “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (v.8). It also asks that people bind the commandments to their hand and between their eyes (I’m unsure about whether this was originally meant literally, but it’s certainly become literal as the tefillin) and write them on their door posts (also a practice, called mezuzah).

Fear, Jealousy, and Love

I realize that my definition of love is probably quite a modern one, so it may be anachronistic to look at the use of the term in this way, but I find it interesting how the description of the relationship between God and his people moves so fluidly between fear, jealousy, and love.

In my mind, love is incompatible with the other two, such that a God who is jealous cannot love his people (also, in my experience, jealousy ultimately stems from insecurity, which has its own implications), and a person who fears God cannot also love him (at least not in a relatively uncomplicated and healthy form).

Now, I do realize that the word “love” is not being used in that way here. I think it means something much closer to fear. It’s the mysterium tremendum, the overwhelming sensation of being in the presence of great power. To put it into more human terms, I imagine that “love” is used to mean a sort of fixed loyalty, as a monarch might demand, which makes it entirely compatible with both fear and jealousy.

It also makes it more reasonable for God to command the people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (v.5). Read from my perspective, this makes absolutely no sense. You cannot be compelled – or even force yourself – to love. The best you can do is fake it. But if we look at it from the perspective of a liege/vassal relationship, it makes more sense. Historically, terms have affection have often been used in the context of liege/vassal relationships – both fraternal and romantic (as in the case of Queen Elizabeth I). Even if the two might never meet, fealty used the language of personal affection. Though I doubt that anyone really believed that such love would be felt – merely that the players must act as though it were.

Putting to the test

Never are the people to put God to the test “as you tested him at Massah” (v.16). This is, of course, a reference to the episode in Numbers 20 where Moses hit a rock instead of whispering sweet nothings to it, earning him exclusion from the Promised Land.

It’s rather interesting that we should hear about Massah here, when Deut. 1-3 ignored the chapter entirely. Rather than the rock-beating damning Moses, he was instead said to have been excluded from the Promised land because of the actions of the people in Numbers 14. Even more interesting, Numbers 20 also included a short story about asking for safe passage from Edom that was entirely re-written (with rather important details changed) in Deut. 2.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the authors of Deuteronomy either had access to a story involving Massah but not the one from Numbers 20 (definitely possible given that the story is repeated – with many important details changed – in Exodus 14). Another possibility is that “as you tested him at Massah” (or even the entire passage) was added to Deuteronomy later than Deut. 1-3 were written. Anyone with more information care to comment?

Regardless, the issue of testing is an interesting one. If we put the relationship in human terms, I can agree that repeatedly testing a loved one to confirm their loyalty/love is a really good way to lose them (not to mention a red flag for abuse). So I can sympathize with the sentiment from that perspective. Or, rather, I could if the same rule applied to God. Unfortunately, it seems that he is perfectly allowed to continue his own tests – as the ordinances surrounding this passage can attest.

Pulling back to a “god claim” level, the prohibition on testing is very suspicious. There are many gods to worship, or even none – how do we determine which is the right one? In other places, God has freely demonstrated his power, and therefore worthiness of worship, yet here he prohibits testing. I’m sure that the faithful explanation is that there’s a difference between a willing show of force and a demand for one, but I think it also hints at a difference in writing style and purpose.

Indulging in a little amateur theorizing, it seems to me that the other books we’ve read have been written down from existing oral traditions, and their subject matter was set in the distant past (with the exception of Leviticus, which was just doing its own thing). Where addresses of present concerns (from the time of writing) show up, they take the form of little hints, little passages, slants on stories. Deuteronomy, while pretending to be like the other books, is much more grounded in the present (at time of writing). Its concern is very present. Since it’s a lot easier to remember a miracle than to see one, the authors of Deuteronomy are compelled to address the question: “If God did all that, why don’t we see miracles today?” The answer is, of course: “Stop asking!”

Cities you did not build

There’s a very interesting passage talking about the imminent entry of the Hebrews into the Promised Land, when they will take over cities “which you did not build, and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant” (v.10-11).

It’s almost haunting. In a way, it denies the ownership of these things by the Hebrews. It makes the land and everything in it God’s, given as a loan to the Hebrews. It seems an attempt to curb the egoism that can come from ownership. And, of course, it emphasises that everything the Hebrews will have is a gift, a reason to be thankful. This is especially true since, in most cases, the things one owns are not all self-made – and certainly wouldn’t have been then. Even for a farmer who had been living in the Promised Land for generations, his home, his cistern, his vineyards would have been given to him through inheritance. It would be rare for there to be a true homesteader, striking out and carving his farm entirely anew.

There is, once again, the statement of a positive reason to follow the commandments – do so and good things will come. It’s a breath of fresh air after all the nasty threats we’ve been getting.

The chapter closes with a reminder to pass the laws and the reasons to follow them on to one’s sons.