In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Our passage today is from Deuteronomy 27. We’re reading the first part of it, but once again, we are using this passage more to orient us and to set the stage, because in reality, I want to consider the much larger passage that takes us all the way to the end of chapter 28 (and chapter 28 is quite a long chapter). The verses that follow the reading (to the end of chapter 28) include a proclamation of blessings and curses.
In this way, this passage is reminiscent of Moses’ speech in chapter 11:
11:26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse—27 the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; 28 the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. 29 When the Lord your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses. 30 As you know, these mountains are across the Jordan, westward, toward the setting sun, near the great trees of Moreh, in the territory of those Canaanites living in the Arabah in the vicinity of Gilgal. 31 You are about to cross the Jordan to enter and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you. When you have taken it over and are living there, 32 be sure that you obey all the decrees and laws I am setting before you today.Deuteronomy 11:26-32
There are some structural questions that could be considered – the chapter 11 speech seems to serve as a bracketing (i.e. our passage today takes place at Mount Ebal which is mentioned in chapter 11).
At any rate, we don’t want to get lost here. The point here seems to be that how Israel lives out the covenant responsibilities, seems to determine their fate. The chapter 11 passage seems to make that clear. It says, “11:26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse—27 the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; 28 the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known.” And this theme is repeated in chapter 27. After our verses today, it reads:
- 15 “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret.” …
- 16 “Cursed is anyone who dishonors their father or mother.” …
- 17 “Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone.” …
- And so on…
And so on…
Chapter 28 continues this saying,
28:1 If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…Deuteronomy 28:1-2
This is followed by a list of blessings.
And later in the chapter, we read,
15 However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you…Deuteronomy 28:15
Which is followed by a list of curses.
So this is all well and good, but the basic question we might ask is, what are we to do with all of these blessings and curses? How are we to understand God blessing and cursing His people? Because it seems like what Moses is saying is that if we follow the rules, God will bless us; and if we break the rules, God will curse us.
Some of us are very comfortable with this – in fact, very happy with this. It makes sense to us because so much of our lives work this way.
But it also seems at odds with the theology – of which we talk a lot here at Grace – of grace. Because grace tells us that God loves us and, what’s more, God accepts us no matter how good or how bad we are. Grace tells us that our salvation is dependent entirely upon the will of God. And aren’t passages like this at odds with the notion of grace? Now there are actually deeper philosophical questions and implication that are raised (for example, if outcomes depend on human action, how do we understand the sovereignty, and the limitations on that sovereignty, of God?). So, how then do we understand it?
Firstly, we don’t want to discount the notion that our actions have consequences. And that those consequences have to do with whether or not we receive the blessings of God. Scripture does tell us that Israel, for example, prospers when they are faithful to God and suffers when they are not.
Secondly, we want to understand that these blessings and curses happen within the context of the covenant. The blessings and curses are spoken to those who are already part of the covenant. They are not a requirement for entrance into the covenant.
As we’ve seen in Israel’s history, this is determined entirely by the sovereign choice of God. In the story so far, we’ve seen Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and all Israel repeatedly fall, fail, and rebel, and yet God is faithful to keep His covenant with His people. They are chosen, not because of their exceptional goodness or faithfulness, but solely because of God’s (goodness and faithfulness).
That doesn’t mean, however, that they are immune from the consequences of their actions. Most recently, we’ve seen that the consequences of Moses’ actions kept him from entering the promised land. (This is the story of Moses striking the rock to get water instead of just speaking to it as God commanded. While we didn’t, and cannot today, get into why this was such a big deal it was the ostensible reason for Moses not entering Canaan – He did not obey, because he did not believe, the word of God). Now, even though Moses didn’t enter the promised land, this doesn’t mean that He was outside of God’s covenant – it doesn’t mean that he was rejected in some way. What it did mean was that, as a consequence of his actions, he did not live to see the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.
And I think understanding this is key to understanding the pronouncement of blessings and curses to Israel. You see, we tend to understand “cursed” as something like hated, or rejected. Or at least we understand it as something like, “God is going to make bad things happen to you.” And we tend to understand “blessed” or “blessing” as something like prosperity. If we are blessed, it means that God is going to make you prosperous or lucky. And again, I don’t want to downplay or discount the instrumentality of God’s sovereignty. This is certainly what seems to be going on in Deuteronomy 28:1-2, for example. Remember, these verses say:
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:Deuteronomy 28:1-2
Now I wish I could give you a better understanding of what the word “blessed” (berekah in Hebrew) means. But I am convinced that it doesn’t mean something along the lines of “you will get stuff.”
Now here, and once again, we’re moving pretty firmly into the realm of “what I think about it.” This as opposed to, “this is definitively what these passages mean.” And once again, this isn’t anything new for anyone who has been following along in our study of the Old Testament, or who remembers our study of the Gospel of John, for example. But in short, I wonder if it would help us, when reading passages like this, to remind us that what’s happening in Deuteronomy is that God, through Moses, is trying to lead His people into a way of life that leads to life.
Sometimes we think that, in God, we have someone – a deity – whose primary interest is in making people do certain things and not do other things. We think that God’s primary purpose is to legislate, judge, and punish (or reward). Sometimes we think that God is an accountant of sorts. That he adds up all of our good deeds and subtracts all of our bad deeds in order to determine what kind of ultimate future we will have. And truth be told, depending on where we are, one or more of those metaphors might actually and truly be helpful to you. But ultimately, I don’t think that’s what God is doing.
What God is doing is redeeming creation. What God is doing is redeeming human beings. What God is doing is restoration.
Now sometimes we are very interested in that. For obvious reasons, we are very interested in getting out of the brokenness and being lifted above the fallenness. However, there are also many times that we are not interested in that. There are many times, it seems, when we would rather wallow in our own sinfulness. Where we become so used to the broken state of affairs that all we want is to dig deeper into our brokenness and wrap ourselves with it.
We choose that which is not-life. And when we seek after that which is not-life, that is precisely what we get. When we seek after the ways which lead to separation from God, divisiveness with one another, and recklessness with creation, that is exactly what we get.
What God desires is that we receive what is actually life. And what God desires is that we live in such a way that the way of life is worked into our bones, becomes the very fibre of our being, the very breath that we breathe. And because what is actually life comes only from God, the only way to that life is the way of God.
In short, I think what we’re seeing here is not a recitation of consequences for good or bad behaviour – rather, what we’re seeing is further instructions on the way of life.
Now we’ve talked about this a lot before so it shouldn’t be anything new or surprising. Hopefully, we’re beginning to understand this, and understand how Deuteronomy is all about that life-life.
So What Now…?
In our passage today – the part that we’re actually looking at – what we get is instructions when Israel enters the land of Canaan. When they cross the border, when they step into the entrance of the promised land, they are to set up large stones, inscribed with the words of the law, and coat them with plaster.
I imagine this as a kind of monument, a reminder. That the borders of the land, the borders of the nation, are marked with the reminder. It’s a similar sort of thing that we saw earlier when the king, if the people choose to appoint one, is to copy the words of the law. It’s a reminder that the words of the law, the instructions and guidance for life – for life-life, and not that which is not-life – are to be etched into the fabric of the people.
We need these reminders. We need these reminders especially when we think we don’t need these reminders. We need them when we think we’ve got it all figured out. When we think that all we need to do to please God, to get into heaven, is to fill our spiritual bank account with good deeds, good theology, good whatever. We need to be reminded that we are to pursue life because life is precisely what God has rescued us for.
Very well put, Jim. Thank you for the careful thinking and honest reflections.