In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Our passage today is at the beginning of Moses’ last speech to the Israelites before they enter the land of Canaan. As we remember, Deuteronomy is essentially Moses’ final address(es) to the Israelites before they enter the land of Canaan. Moses has reminded them of their history and spoken to them of the law and talked about what kind of people they are called to be in the land that has been promised to them by God. And these are the final words he will speak to nascent Israel.
We’re going to consider a couple of chapters. But we’re actually going to focus on a smaller section – the verses at the end of our passage today. But the longer passage is important in giving us a fuller sense of what’s going on in Moses’ final speech.
The verses that we want to focus on are the last several (11-20), the ones which most of us are probably most familiar with anyways. In the NIV, the inserted heading is “the offer of life or death.” However, these verses are contained within the larger passage that we read today, which is contained within the larger context of Moses’ final speech to the Israelites, which is contained within the even larger context of Moses preparing Israel to enter the land of Canaan.
And based on everything we’ve been saying in the past many months, as we’ve walked through the Pentateuch, it’s a fitting way to wrap up our exploration of Deuteronomy. Because the essential question that’s being asked is, “who do you want to be?” Or, in the language we’ve been using over the past many months, “what kind of people do you want to be?”
Now the passage in question is quite straightforward. The first verses remind us that what is being talked about here is not some esoteric philosophy. It’s not hidden so it has to be discovered. And it’s not a riddle that has to be solved. Moses says that it’s not too difficult. In other words, it’s in reach. Fundamentally, this means that it’s not about effort.
In the next verses, Moses lays out the simple truth that if one chooses to follow the ways of the Lord, they will have life. But if they choose to turn away from God, they will find death.
And in the final verses (of this passage), Moses says simply, “now choose.”
It seems like such a simple proposition, and in truth, it is. And I love the way that Moses puts it: “… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…!” It really doesn’t get much more basic than that.
But while I love the way Moses phrases this, and the simplicity of it, I also think that we tend to in fact oversimplify it. I think it’s more complicated than it seems at first glance. And it’s more complicated, not because Moses has mis-led us, or phrased it poorly, it’s more complicated because of the way we have been taught to frame the choice – the way we have become used to understanding the choice. In other words, I wonder if we need to give some more thought to what it is that we’re actually choosing.
Once again, I don’t want to assume that my personal experience is representative of everyone else’s – or indeed, anyone else’s. But usually, in my growing up, I understood the choice that was put before me as the choice between rewards on earth and rewards in heaven. Verses like Matthew 6:19-21, which say:
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Matthew 6:19-21
I was told things like, “would you rather have temporary pleasures here and now, or would you rather have greater treasures in heaven forever?” (I should clarify, this may not be what I was told, but it was certainly what I heard).
In short, when I read verses like our passage today, I typically understood it as the distinction between present pleasures or future reward. Or, more concretely, I understood it as a choice between enjoying my life on earth and my being promised heaven in the future.
What I want to suggest is that, while not disagreeing with the principle of delayed gratification, for example, perhaps this kind of model misses at least some of the point of what’s going on here.
Now it’s at this point that I want to expand our view beyond the 10 verses which are our focus. That is, I want to consider the wider passage that we read at the beginning. And without spending too much time and energy examining the passage, I want to make two main points. Firstly, that the choice that Moses is offering is very much about how the Israelites will live their present life – that is, their life in history. Secondly, we want to make the point that the choice is not just about how, for example, I will live my life. But it extends beyond this to ask the question, what story will you be a part of?
So firstly, we want to consider that the choice Moses presents to the Israelites is firmly rooted in history – in this space and time. When we look at chapters 29 – 30, what we see is that the choice Moses offers isn’t framed in, at least a purely, eschatological context. Look at 29:19-22:
19 When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,” they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. 20 The Lord will never be willing to forgive them; his wrath and zeal will burn against them. All the curses written in this book will fall on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven. 21 The Lord will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for disaster, according to all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.22 Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the Lord has afflicted it.Deuteronomy 29:19-22
What we see is that the person who persists in going their own way will suffer the wrath and the curses of God. We also read that the curses suffered will be evident to the children and the later generations, as well as to foreigners who come from distant lands. It is evident, then, that the curses of the covenant are realized within the context of history.
Now we want to be careful here because it sounds like I’m saying something like, “If we break the Law, bad things will happen to us; and if we obey the Law, good things will happen to us.” In other words, am I advocating a sort of prosperity doctrine here?
The short answer is, “No, I am not.” Without getting into it, because it will take us off track, to ascribe to a prosperity gospel at this point would be, in my opinion, to ignore everything that we’ve been talking about in our journey through the Pentateuch. Specifically, God’s business is not to make us happy or to provide us with benefit. God’s business is the restoration of a fallen creation.
Allow me to say a little more that I hope will clarify a bit: I am suggesting that Moses is offering a choice, not about the ultimate outcome of our souls, but about the situated, in-history state or direction of our lives. Once again, when I was young, frequently the content of the gospel was communicated to me as (or I heard it as) “Where do you want to wind up when you die?” There are a lot of historical and cultural reasons for this, and I’m not saying that it’s wrong – or even that it’s a bad question.
And I’m not saying that there isn’t any eschatological component involved in Moses’ speech. We know – or we will know as we continue to look at Israel’s story – that it is only at the eschaton that the final fulfillment of God’s purposes will be realized – that we, and creation, will be fully redeemed. But what we’ve also been considering is that God’s concern in this part of Israel’s history is better understood through the lens of telos rather than eschaton. The question is not so much, “where will you end up?” as much as it is, “who will you be?” We remain concerned about the eschaton, but we are concerned about the eschaton inasmuch as it is only at the end (which is really the beginning) where we will finally realize our telos. It is only at the final day when we will become, or be able to be, who we were always meant to be. But until then, we continue to strive, continue to grow, and indeed continue to choose.
In other words, in the language that we’ve frequently been using, the choice that Moses presents might better be understood as, “choose to live life; not that which is not life.”
So, in other words, Moses’ question is not just about where do you want to wind up when you die? In this context, I think it’s much more about, what will you do with the life that you have been given?
Secondly, if we look at chapters 29-30, and indeed if we remember reading through Deuteronomy, Moses spends a lot of time reminding the Israelites of their story from Egypt. We’re pretty familiar with this story so we won’t delve back into it. But a couple of sections bear noting. Firstly:
2 Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them:
Your eyes have seen all that the Lord did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. 3 With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those signs and great wonders. 4 But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear. 5 Yet the Lord says, “During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. 6 You ate no bread and drank no wine or other fermented drink. I did this so that you might know that I am the Lord your God.”Deuteronomy 29:2-6
16 You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. 17 You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. 18 Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.Deuteronomy 29:16-18
The point that I want to make here is that the Israelites that Moses is talking to saw no such things. We have made the point several times, as we saw in scripture, that the people that Moses is talking to here is an entirely different generation of people than those that were delivered out of Egypt. The generation that escaped Egypt all died in the wilderness, destined to never see the land of Canaan because of their sin and rebellion.
Now, of course, it is possible that some of the ones that Moses is now speaking to were children in Egypt and indeed did witness some of these things. But the vast majority would have been born in the wilderness, and scripture treats them as a new people.
Further, remembering what we saw in verses 29:22
22 Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the Lord has afflicted it.Deuteronomy 29:22
We also read in 30:1-3
30:1 When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, 2 and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunesand have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.Deuteronomy 30:1-3
Without spending too much time on what all of this means, it strikes me that the choice offered to the Israelites at the entrance of Canaan, cannot be made without consideration of both the generations that have come before and the generations that will come after. In other words, the choosing has to do with much more than just me. What do we mean by that? And how does that even work?
There’s a somewhat familiar phrase, “Everyone’s the hero in their own story”? The origin of that phrase, as far as I can tell, is uncertain. But it essentially means something like, we are all central to our own understanding of the world. A more provocative way to phrase that is simply, we are all self-centered – that is, centered on the self.
Everybody wants to be Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie. Everyone wants to be Meryl Streep (or someone else that you think is a strong lead actor). Nobody wants to be the comic relief, the plucky sidekick, or the romantic object. Nobody wants a supporting role; we all want to be a star. And, in our story, we all are.
When we think of ourselves as the center of reality, the choice that Moses seems to be presenting ultimately comes down to, “which choice provides the most benefit to myself?” Indeed, many people present the gospel in just this kind of way. Evangelism, then, essentially becomes, “In the long-term, Jesus is your best investment.”
But what we’ve been saying, without being too cynical or condescending about it, is that this is not our story. I don’t in any way mean to imply that any of us don’t matter or that we are somehow secondary. But what I want to reiterate is that, what we’re seeing in scripture, is God’s story. It’s the story of how God is redeeming creation. It’s the story of how God loves us, even more than it is the story of how we are loved.
Meta-narratives is a term coined (or popularized?) by French philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard which talks about the framework which we use to make sense of the world. Essentially, a meta-narrative helps us answer the questions of, “who am I and what am I doing here?”
And what I want to suggest is that it’s possible to be a Christian (truly and sincerely) and yet live with and operate out of an un-Christian (as distinct from an anti-Christian) meta-narrative.
Simply put, I think one way of understanding what Moses is asking/offering is, “whose story are we participating in?” Are we participating in God’s story? Or are we asking God to serve ours? Do we realize that we are, and are we willing to be, part of what God is doing in this world, in history, in and through us, to redeem creation and bring His kingdom here? Or are we asking God to merely play a bit part? To merely be the deus ex machina to our hero – which is, of course, me?
So, as Moses addresses the Israelites at the entrance to the land of Canaan, preparing them to take hold of the promise for which God rescued them out of Egypt, he says to them:
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.Deuteronomy 30:15-20
And the life that they, and we are called to, is a life that is very much here and now. It is life in this place and in this time. And yet, that choice reverberates throughout eternity. Because it’s not just about what you or I want, or what you and I will get. But it’s about what God is doing. Will we be a part of that? Will we take hold of the promise? Will we choose life?