Proper 18 • Deuteronomy 30:15–20 • September 5, 2010
by Andy Bartelt
Moses is coming to the conclusion of a long “sermon” of encouragement to God’s people on the plains of Moab, of which chapters 5–28 is the major piece. It is also his “farewell discourse” of sorts as he prepares the people to enter the promised land without him, giving them all the support he can muster so that they will remain faithful. The connection to the gospel, Luke 14:25–35, would seem to be around the theme of counting the cost and knowing what lies ahead. Application to the beginning of the fall season (though liturgically right in the middle of the Pentecost semester ecclesiae) might engage the motif of a renewed stage of our life journey as the people of God that simply continues and stays the course that is set.
Chapters 29–30 focus on the renewal of the covenant made at Sinai, now brought forward to the present situation (29:1, Mt 28:69). The past is the basis of the present and future, even as the covenant is “made” today (29:12, Mt 11). Moses has recapitulated the exodus event that has been the foundation of their faith for the past 40 years (29:2–5). The message is simple: Yahweh your God is the God of your salva- tion and life. His promises of grace extend into the future, so you will have no other gods. Indeed, we do not need other gods!
Salvation is by grace alone. Even the “first commandment” follows the indicative statement that precedes it (and is counted as the first “commandment” or “statement” of the “ten words” in Jewish tradition), “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt-land, from a slave house (Ex 20:2).” So also in Deuteronomy 29–30, God seals the covenant with an oath, to “establish you as his people,” literally “for him for a people” (הָקִים אֹתְךָ היּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם, 29:13, MT12).The covenant formula is really that simple and that profound: “I am your God; you are my people.” With that relationship come blessings; actions apart from it bring curses (27:14ff, 28:15ff).
In spite of the obvious preference for blessings, chapter 30, however, actually foresees the worst for the future. Moses had good reason to be concerned. He had witnessed the ease with which they had chosen death and turned blessing into cursing, from the molten calf at Sinai to the apostasy at (and with!) Baal Peor (Nm 25, Dt 4:3). He describes a time when the people would be dispersed among the nations. Yet even there God’s promises are sure, and he would call his people back.
Verse 30:11 returns to the present time of Moses and his exhortation to stay faithful. This is not works righteousness; they are already saved by grace. Simply being and remaining God’s people would seem so obvious, and so simple. It is not difficult, as though we need to ascend into the heavens or reach far beyond the sea. God’s grace, God’s presence, his word of life, is already in us, in our mouths and hearts (v. 15). He has come to us; we don’t need to search for him.
Thus, in conclusion, the pericope itself (vv. 15–20) presents a simple and obvious choice. This is not decision theology. They (we!) are already God’s people. But we do make godly and spirit-led decisions, by grace through faith. We do so when we get up every Sunday morning! In summary, verses 15–20 bring to focus all that Deuteronomy (and the exodus) is about in very succinct terms; it’s a matter of life and death. Life is God’s gift of grace. The “command” to love him and to walk in his ways is an exhortation to do what should be obvious—and what God has given—in being the people he has rescued, redeemed, ransomed, and formed for himself.
Verse 15 The double accusatives link life and death to the simple summary of “good and evil” (cf. Gn 2–3): “the life and the good” (אֶת־הַחַיֹּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב, i.e., all that is good; וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאְת־הָרָע, “death and the bad”).
Verse 16 The verse is an echo of 6:3 and the whole of Deuteronomy (“keeping commandments, statutes, ‘judgments’ [מִצְוֹת וְחֻקֹּת וּמִשְׁפָּטִים]”).
Verse 17 וְלֹא הִשְׁמַע “if your heart turns, and you will not hear…” This is the real issue, not just a bad, rational choice as much as turning away and not listening. The translation “obey” is almost always of the verb “to listen,” which keeps the focus on the one who speaks and who would say, “my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27).
וְנִדַּחְתָּ The verb (נדח) means to “wander off” (cf 22:1, of sheep that go astray usually in the Niphal (with middle/intransitive sense of “wander off, allow to be led astray”). The transitive use of the Hiphil describes the action of either a false prophet (Dt 13:6, ET 5) or God in his judgment (30:1, cf. also Jer 8:3, 16:5, 23:2,3,8).
וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לֵאלֹהִים אחֵרִים וַעֲבַדְתָּם “to worship other gods and serve them” uses language related to the first commandment (Dt 5:9).
Verse 18 כִּי אָבֹד תֹּאבֵדוּן “that you shall certainly perish.” The infinitive absolute intensifies. The results of falling away are already clear: the “choice” in the next verse should be obvious!
Verse 19 אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ “The heavens and earth” are called as witnesses, not the pantheon of gods as in other Ancient Near East treaties. (Cf. the appeal to them in prophetic “covenant lawsuit” rhetoric such as Isaiah 1:2.)
וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים “And you will choose life…” (בחר marks the object with ב). The verb is indicative (perfect “waw consecutive”), not imperative. It follows in contrast to the “if” clause of verse 17 (which is followed by the dire consequences in verse 18) and may be better translated, “but you will choose life!”
אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ “you and your ‘seed.’” Being God’s people has to do with the “next generation” on through his holy history.
Verse 20 לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ The language recapitulates the substance of verse 16, again with a positive sense of “hearing his voice.” The verse concludes by rehearsing the promises of good life in a good land; the “BC” version of living the “first article” of the creed as “second and third article” people, with God’s promises tied to the earthly means of water, bread and wine. Once the messiah comes, the “land” expands to the global stage on which God’s salvation is lived out and proclaimed to all nations.
As noted initially, the fundamental theme is exhortation and encouragement to continue to live as God’s holy people, faithful to the God of our salvation. It is a matter of life and death. And it is more a matter of the indicative than the imperative, first by God’s great indicative that is the narrative of his salvation by grace.
But then, as God’s people, we live out God’s action in lives of thanksgiving, praise, and yes, keeping his commandments and serving Him alone, with no other gods. The Gospel (Lk 14:25–35) reminds us of the difficult “cost of discipleship;” and Moses was well aware of the spiritual temptations to go astray.
But his encouragement is stated positively: “you will choose life.” It is an indica- tive sentence, a “life sentence.” The sermon might play with that theme, which would otherwise ring negatively. And even given the choice between life and death (or, to press the convicted criminal imagery, a “sentence” of punishment or freedom), the choice is clear.
Of course, and remarkably so, our natural inclination for sin, “the evil,” and even death, remains; and our culture is one increasingly “of death,” due, in large part, to the loss of God’s vision for life. In our own lives of sin and grace, and in our influence on the world to hear the life-affirming and life-giving message of God’s salvation, we live every day as those who need to be—and are!—renewed daily in baptismal life.