We are studying Deuteronomy 4:1-8, 12-13 for Sunday, October 6 – World Communion Sunday, when we celebrate the universal and multi-lingual, multi-cultural character of the global church, and also “Shop a Lot” Sunday for our congregation and the congregation that will be joining us in that effort this particular Sunday.
So, while we are meditating on the wisdom of “hearing” God’s commands and “statutes and ordinances” we will also be noticing that we are connected to a lot of other people in this, and that there are distinct and distinctive behavioral consequences of that. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve moved on from Numbers to Deuteronomy. This means we’re still in the Torah – Pentateuch – “Law” section of the Hebrew Bible – Old Testament. But the book of Deuteronomy is different from the other books: the scholarly thinking is that it was composed later, some time during the ancient Israelite monarchy. The Access Bible notes say it might have been addressed to the northern kingdom; its core legal material is associated with the “book of the law” that figured prominently in the “Josian reforms” (see 2 Kings 22-23), which people date at around 622 BCE; later, in the exilic-post exilic period, maybe in the low 500s BCE, it was edited into the introduction to the Deuteronomistic history [Joshua – 2 Kings]. Narrative portions of the book might have been incorporated at that time, for instance.
[None of this history of the text detracts from its status as scripture, by the way. Moreover, it still leaves us more than one way to think about the nature of the text we have before us. “God moves in a mysterious way …”]
Our text is right at the transition from narrative material (in chapters 1-3), where Moses is reviewing the critical events of the past 40 years for “all Israel … on the plain opposite Suph,” as a prelude to exhorting the Israelites to obey God’s law.
The narrative does not include the story of the liberation from Egypt. It begins with the divine instruction that “You have stayed long enough at this mountain …” – that is, Mt. Horeb (or, aka, Sinai) and you need to go “take possession of the land” now (Dtr 1:6-7). [So, here’s that instruction from God, which I’d foolishly been looking for in text that came before Numbers 14 last week.] Which, as we know, they refuse to do.
Moses’s review of events differs in some details from the narrative in Numbers (e.g., in Dtr 1:22 it’s the people, not God, who lobby for sending the spies into the land – compare Numbers 13:1). We might expect to find a pattern in those differences, if we tracked them all down, and we might expect it to have something to do with Deuteronomy’s overall theme, that faithful observance of God’s instruction is life-giving, and departures from that standard are deathly.
The narrative includes a brief reference to the time in the wilderness, brief references to the Edomites and Moabites, and a detailed account of the Israelites’ military engagements with the Ammonites, which we would expect to be fresh in the audience’s mind, and which has the ring of “the official version of this story.” [“We tried to negotiate, and when attacked responded proportionately …”]
The exhortation to obedience that is our focus occurs here, and is re-emphasized throughout chapter 4, leading up to the recitation of the 10 Commandments in Dtr 5:6-21. Immediately after that, the sermon will continue with the shema (“Hear, O Israel, YHWH is our God, …”), several pointed and motivated repetitions of the instruction to keep the commandments, statutes and ordinances, for several good and sufficient reasons along with appropriate narrative support (Dtr 6-11), and finally a detailed reprise of the relevant statutes and ordinances (Dtr 12-26), followed by some further exhortation and ritual prescriptions (the blessings and curses in chapters 27 & 28), the sermonic conclusion, the ordination of Joshua, Moses’s song (a long poem), Moses’s blessing on Israel (another long poem), Moses’s view of the land, death, and epitaph.
So we are just getting a little first taste of the Deuteronomy’s exhortation to faithful observance in this text.
[Part of] This text comes up in the Revised Common Lectionary in Year B (22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time), where it is paired up with Mark 7:1-8 and following – there the implication seems to be that it amounts to “adding” something to this commandment to insist on thoroughly washing one’s hands before eating, while not policing the intentions of one’s heart, which may amount to “subtracting” something from it. That is, another one of those places where Jesus comes out on the side of the Torah.
CLOSER READING: Verse 1 is literally “and now listen” with the listen or hear verb the one that generally also means “do” or “obey,” and that gives the shema its name. [This always makes me think of moms. As in “Listen to me, and rinse out these dishes. Do you hear?”]
Our text reads “statutes and ordinances” in v1, 5, 6, and 8 – that is, this body of material Moses is sharing with the people. Our legal categories are different from those of the ancient Israelites – for instance, when I think of a “statute” in some ordinary these-days context, I usually think of some law that was enacted by a legislative body, like a law of the State of Indiana, and when I think of an “ordinance” I usually think of something like “no parking 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.”
Here, the word translated as “statutes” looks like it tends to be used in contexts where something is “prescribed” – that could be something someone has to do, or even something someone has to receive regularly, like a share of food or an inheritance; mostly these prescriptions come from God, although they don’t always. The word translated “ordinances” is related to the basic word for “justice,” and when it is plural, like here, it seems to describe decisions, for instance the decision of a judge in a dispute.
Then there is the word “command” and “commandment,” which shows up three times in the next verse. That speech and that language sounds more appropriate to YHWH, and I think we would be OK to think Moses is quoting God there. [The same verb shows up again in v5, as a reference to a divine command to Moses, and again in v13, as a reference to a divine command to the people.]
The word translated “observe” in v1 and again in v5 and v6 is literally “to do” – we might also say, “put into practice.”
[This reminds me of a story: when I was growing up, part of the chronic fight that was life in our family was that my dad didn’t do enough work and did too much sitting in the dining room drinking coffee and reading a book. “Not enough” and “too much” as defined by my mom, anyway. So one legendary day, my mom said to my dad “Jake, you don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘work.’” So my father said “Fine. Let’s look it up!” Which he proceeded to do. And there in the Encyclopedia Britannica, in black and white, under “Work,” it said … “See: ‘Labor.’” From then on, our family had a saying: “I AM working … I AM seeing labor!” Because the point here seems to be the opposite one: “observing” the commandments is not enough; people actually need to “do” them.]
The reference to the Baal of Peor in verses 3-4 reminds the audience of a story told in Numbers 25. It involved some of the Israelites fraternizing with Midianite women, and along with that, fraternizing with their deity. That episode of idolatry led to bloody reprisals within the Israelite camp, and maybe also to a plague from God. [“You know it’s going to be a bad day when you have to execute an idolatrous loved one,” to crib a line from Emo Philips.]
In v5, the word translated “to possess” carries the sense of take possession by force, as in take away from others. [The impending invasion is justified, from the perspective of Deuteronomy, in light of the corruption of the inhabitants. So, in this context, the possession of the land and the reciprocal dispossession of the Canaanites is consistent with the reward and punishment structure of the statutes, ordinances, commandments, and covenant that are the topic of our text.]
On the other hand, who are the peoples who will hear all these statutes and ordinances and think of them as wise and understanding, and as the sign of a great nation?
At first, it sounds like it will be other people, people who are outsiders to the nation that has these statutes, ordinances, and commandments, perhaps people who live in the surrounding lands.
But then again, as it is the doing of these statutes, ordinances, and commandments that make the hearing of them sound wise and understanding, and that convinces the hearers of the nearness of God to the people, and of the righteousness of the torah, it may be that the people who need to be convinced of this wisdom and understanding most of all are those who need to hear in the first place. And it may be that the most convincing proof of the wisdom, understanding, and righteousness of that instruction comes from the doing of the instruction itself.
Just as the most convincing proof of the presence of God, as the encounter is described in v12-13, also lies in that hearing.
Just as the only adequate image of that God – the only adequate form (v12) that could ever be given to the God who spoke out of the fire – would be putting the words spoken in that event into practice.