Monday, February 18, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 30

In this chapter, Moses predicts restoration after the disasters of the prior chapter and exhorts the people to choose blessing over curses.

I feel awkward about putting this commentary in a separate section from Deut 29, because this really is just a continuation of the prior chapter.  Deut 29 talks about the desolation of the land and the exile that would follow the people sinning and breaking the covenant, while this chapter talks about the restoration that would happen if the people return to the covenant after all the prior events.

Separating these into two separate topics just doesn't feel right to me, because the restoration is juxtaposed against the destruction, just as faithfulness is juxtaposed against idolatry.

What this passage shows, above all else, is that the covenant is not nullified if the people disobey God and are punished by the curses of Deut 28 and sent into exile.  If the people return to God, even from exile, they will be restored back to God and to the land of the promise and to the covenantal blessings.  In that sense, the covenant is a perpetual invitation.  There is no rebellion too great, no departure too far, no sin too sinful that the LORD will turn his back and never accept that person or nation again.  To those who wish to seek God and turn back to him, the path of "life and good" (v. 15) is always open.

Verses 11-14 are a part of Deuteronomy that is quoted often, because it shows in such powerful language the immediacy of the covenant and God's law, that it is in our mouths and hearts to do it.  This is contrary to many religions and sects that believe in "secret wisdom" to attain salvation.  Everyone is always looking for secrets; that's why "miracle diets" and conspiracy theories are so popular.  So many people want to believe that there is some trick or undiscovered principle that can make them rich, healthy and (in this case) go to heaven when they die.

During the early church period, there were sects called Gnosticism that proffered "secret knowledge" as a means of salvation, and Gnosticism itself is derived from the Greek word for knowledge.

What this passage tells us in that God has no hidden his commandments or his law that it would take a feat of great strength and perseverance to find it.  He has put it within our reach and within our hearts that we may freely choose to obey.  The purpose of the law isn't to "weed out" the unworthy and make life harder, it's to open the door back to unity with the divine, just as it was in the beginning.  I previously wrote that the covenant is designed to "reverse the curse" of Genesis 3 which originally broke the fellowship of man and God.  God created the covenant to bring man back to God.  The covenant is not a fence to keep people out, it is a gate to let people in.  The LORD makes it accessible because he genuinely wants people to return to him.

From this framework, we can see that the curses of disobedience are really just the curses from Gen 3 in a new form.  The curse that fell upon the land in Gen 3 was due to the disobedience of Adam, and the curse that falls upon the Israelites in Deut 28 would be due to their disobedience as well.

Framed in this way, verses 15-20 are actually a conclusion to the whole Pentateuch as well as Deuteronomy, because the way of life/way of death paradigm reflects the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil that existed in the garden of Eden.  In the garden of Eden, mankind chose the path of disobedience and death, and now Moses is exhorting the Israelites and their descendants to choose the way of life.  As before, this is not just a physical death, it is their death as a people (because the covenant is a national covenant) and it is a spiritual death.  After Adam sinned in the garden, he lived for hundreds of years and had many children before he physically died.  And yet the LORD declared in Gen 3:19 that Adam would return to the dust because of his sin.  There is often a delay between a sin and the consequences of that sin.  Usually that delay is to give people time to repent of their sins, because as we have seen the LORD will accept people who return to him even after they have sinned.  He will "rejoice over you for good" if you do so.

This passage frames possession of the promised land as a metaphor for life and death, which is a common trope in the Pentateuch that I have referred to many times.  Possessing the land is a type of life, exile is a type of death.  Inheritance of the land is symbolic of the nation's restoration to God, because the promised land is called the place where God dwells.  In a broader sense, we can think of the promised land as being like Eden, to which the people return from Egypt.  As a land flowing with milk and honey, it is full of prosperity like the original Eden, and it is also a land of communion with the LORD, as typified by the tent of meeting (i.e. the tabernacle).

As Christians, we stand in the place of Moses when he exhorts the people to "choose life in order that you may live, you and your children, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying his voice and by holding fast to him."

I really think this is what the entire bible is about.  The bible is a long exhortation for the people of the earth to choose life and not death.  The law of God is meant to be immediate and accessible.  Though it might not always feel accessible, the expectation of the bible is for people to simply obey what they already know and to seek out what they don't.  You don't have to already know everything, obey everything and be in perfect obedience to be within the covenant.  The reason why Moses emphasizes the accessibility of the law is because this is the law that the Israelites would have been familiar with, so to them it genuinely was accessible and therefore they are able to obey it.  As readers of this blog, it is accessible to you as well and that's a good thing.  It might feel bad to have an obligation, but remember that obedience comes with blessing as well.  Not just a material blessing, but the presence of the LORD, which is the purpose of life.

To put it as simply as I can, we are only held accountable for obeying what we know, not what we don't.  To seek the path of the LORD means trying to learn more about how to live in accordance with God's will, and that is the second part of obedience: a desire to increase one's obedience in new things.

Moses concludes by calling heaven and earth as witnesses of this new covenant, and the calling of witnesses is another part of the Hittite treaty form.  From what I've read, it is usually stated before the blessings and curses, so that is one deviation from the standard form.

Deuteronomy goes on for another four chapters, but in my opinion this chapter is the most significant part of the conclusion to Deuteronomy, because in my opinion it states the true purpose of the law and the covenant as a whole.  The covenant is the path of life that has been opened up to us.  The way has been opened, it is in our mouths and our hearts that we may obey, Moses urges us to choose life; now it is up to us to choose.

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