Monday, February 18, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 31

In this chapter, Moses commissions Joshua to lead the people into the promised land and the LORD predicts that the people will turn to other gods.

Until we got to this chapter, I almost could have forgotten we were on the bank of the Jordan.  I mean, the last... 30? chapters have been all about murder and adultery and laws of warfare, and so on.  Now I've done what I can to make those chapters interesting and understandable, but they don't really relate to the flow of the story from Numbers at all.  This chapter doesn't really return to the story, but it at least reminds us that they are about to cross over and that Joshua is the new leader.

I think "crossing over to the promised land" is important to the context of this book.  I think Deuteronomy is meant to be understood as guidance and a series of warnings for these people who are going through a transitional period in their history.  Back in Exodus I wrote a lot about how the covenant and law is meant to help establish the national identity of Israel and I think it's a similar idea here.  The covenant of Deuteronomy is meant to be a stabilizing force for Israel as they go through this transition, that in the midst of all this change that they would have something to cling to and to coalesce around.

We know that overcoming their fears was a big deal in the invasion of the promised land.  Moses has given several pep rallies to the Israelites regarding their victory over Sihon and Og, and this chapter offers us another one.  "Be strong and courageous" is a refrain that is repeated several times in Joshua, because as I said before, morale is a critical factor in ancient warfare.  Most battles are won or lost because of panic, not because of directly inflicted casualties in the battle itself (though casualties after a rout are usually substantial).

Intermixed with the commissioning of Joshua is a prediction from the LORD that the Israelites will fall away and worship other gods, bringing upon themselves the curses of the covenant.  I argued that certain prior chapters (like Deut 28) seemed to imply a falling away would occur, but this chapter states it outright.  Many scholars use this passage as evidence of a late date of Deuteronomy by presuming that the prophecy is written after the events it describes, during the post-exilic period (after c. 600 BCE).

I'm not going to rehash the JEDP stuff now.  Rather, I will focus on what this says about Israel, Israel as a metaphor for Adam, and the overall story of redemption.

To begin, remember that Israel already has a long history of rebellion against the LORD, which Moses briefly references in v. 27.  It largely started in Ex 32 when the people created a golden calf, but continued to escalate in severity throughout Numbers.  Moses makes a reasonable point.  If the people are sinning even with his moderating influence, what will they be like without him?  Israel is presented with a choice between life and death, but it seems likely at this point that they will choose death.

Next, I believe that Israel is a metaphor for Adam.  In Deut 30 I said that the choice between life and death was an allegory for the trees of life and the knowledge of good and evil from Gen 2.  Adam was presented with the choice between good and evil and, with the assistance of his wife, chose death.

In this case, Israel is also presented with a choice between life and death and here, the LORD prophesies that Israel will choose rebellion and death.  The covenant that was meant to be a pathway back to God will be rejected; the people (just like their father Adam) will choose death and turn away from the LORD.

What does this say about the human condition?  Is mankind destined to always turn away from the LORD?  And yet we know that Abraham followed the LORD, Noah followed the LORD, Jacob followed the LORD, Moses followed the LORD.  All of these men had their own life issues and struggles, but despite that they did follow the LORD.  But Adam sinned.  Israel (like a second Adam) sinned.  Israel, the very object of the LORD's affection and covenantal promises, turn away from him and descend into idolatry.  Is mankind destined to sin?  There's a question about free will (or lack thereof) in here, but I don't want to address that now.  You can read my thoughts on that here.

What I want to know is this: is there any hope for us?  As people?  To quote Terminator 2,
"John Connor: We're not gonna make it, are we? People, I mean.
The Terminator: It's in your nature to destroy yourselves. "
Is it in our nature to destroy ourselves?  From everything that I have seen, the answer is yes.  But we can overcome that nature, what the new testament calls the "sinful nature" (Galatians 5:17), what the old testament calls a "stubborn heart" or "rebellious heart" (Deut 29:19, Jeremiah 5:23, Psalm 78:8, etc).

What does this say about redemption?  The covenant was God's plan of bringing humanity back into fellowship with himself, but if Israel turns away from the covenant then what is God to do?  Does that mean the covenant, having just barely begun, is destined to fail, that mankind is destined to be separated from the LORD?

Think about it this way.  The covenant with Israel was God's response to the sin of Adam.  The sin of Adam separated man from God, so God created the covenant with Abraham (eventually descending to Israel) in order to restore that broken relationship.  If Israel, who now have a choice between life and death, also choose death, even when they have the covenant, then God will have to do something else to bring them back.  Perhaps what he will do is create a new covenant for them, one that they will obey and through which the restoration of the world may proceed?  Maybe we can infer already, from this very chapter, an anticipation of the new covenant that began with Jesus?  It's an interesting thought.

Of course, Deut 30:1-14 appears to predict a restoration of Israel, but this chapter does not include a restoration promise.  So maybe we can infer a renewal that happens after the "turning away" in v. 16-18.  But still, I feel like there's something being left out.  If the people are only going to sin more when Moses is gone than when he's here, then what is going to change to bring the people back to God?  Without something changing, there is nothing that will make the people repent.

The fact is, if Israel is indeed going to slip into sin and idolatry as this chapter clearly indicates, then they will need their own salvation.  The form of that salvation cannot really be predicted at this point, but it is premature to suppose that God will abandon them.  God is not done with this world.

The text continues by declaring that Moses will sing a song to witness against the people how the LORD has loved them and how they have turned away from him.  This song is contained in the next chapter.

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