We’re studying three short, related texts in Deuteronomy for Sunday, December 5. Deuteronomy 5:1-3 is the preamble to Moses’s reprise of the 10 Commandments. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 is Moses’s wrap-up of the meaning of the covenant at the Mountain of God for the Israelites. Deuteronomy 27:1-10 sets out a ceremony designed to enshrine the instructions associated with the covenant as central to the life of the community of the Promised Land. Our study of these texts opens a quarter that is organized around the Biblical notion of justice. Here are a few notes on these texts:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Deuteronomy is part of the Torah, in its sense of “a sacred text.” That is, in the sense of “the first major division of the Tanakh,” or “the first five books of the Bible,” or “the Pentateuch,” or as people mostly in the past used to think of them, “the five books of Moses.” Insofar as the Torah in this sense has a plot, Deuteronomy is the end of the story, and the beginning of a new part of the story. The people are assembled “beyond the Jordan” on the plain of Moab (Deuteronomy 1:1-5), on the verge of crossing over the river and entering the Promised Land. We have followed their story since the beginning of time (Genesis 1), through the call of Abraham, their getting trapped in Egypt after the death of their ancestor Joseph, their liberation from Egypt by God through the action of Moses, and Aaron, and their ups and downs in the wilderness. At long last, the whole generation (besides Moses, Joshua, and Caleb) who left Egypt, and who refused to enter the land at the first opportunity, has perished. The wilderness generation is ready for a second effort at entering the land.
This is one way of explaining why this reprise of the Torah, in the sense of God’s instruction about how to live together as God’s people, is necessary. This is a generation of Israelites who didn’t personally experience the events at Mt. Sinai – or, if they did, they were too young for it to have had the proper meaning for them. Nevertheless, Moses addresses these people explicitly as part of the “us” with whom God – Adonai, YHWH, the LORD, the God of Israel – made this covenant at Horeb (the name being used for the Mountain of God in this text). The covenant is immediate and personal and present.
Between chapters 5 and 10, there is a recitation of the 10 commandments (5:6-21), exhortation to take the covenant really seriously, including the instructions in the Shema (6:4-9), and instructions about the attitude the people need to have towards the peoples of the land, their obligation to the covenant, their future victory, and themselves. This includes a reminder that they’ve been faithless in the past, and that didn’t work out well at all! (Deuteronomy 9) This is what made the second set of tablets of the 10 words, sheltered in the ark, necessary (Deuteronomy 10:1-5). The practical implications of this story, then, are summed up in continuing exhortation to observe the commandment, in the rest of chapter 10 and chapter 11.
Then comes a more detailed discussion of the commandment, the “statutes and ordinances” that apply to the people of God. This section specifies various possible situations, lists prescribed and proscribed acts, and assigns punishments for some violations. (chapters 12 – 26)
So, in Deuteronomy 27:1, when Moses says “keep the entire commandment that I am commanding you today,” a reasonable inference is that the “entire commandment” includes the material in chapters 12-26, as well as the instructions that came before. Christians since St. Paul, however, believe we have a pass on a lot of it. Which specific parts are included in “a lot” remains up for discussion among Christians.
[And just as an aside, when Moses says in Deuteronomy 30:11 “Surely this commandment that I am commending you today is not too hard for you …” it is still a reasonable inference that he is referring to the material in chapters 12-26, as well as the instructions that came before. It seems useful to remember, when we are tempted to talk about how impossible “following the law” is, that there is more than one school of thought on that. We keep on thinking that the specific provisions of the law are what’s too demanding for us humans. When it’s obvious that our biggest problem is actually loving God, and our neighbor.]
Then Moses gives instructions for a permanent memorial of the terms of the covenant and a ceremony to celebrate the covenant, in Deuteronomy 27:1-10, involving Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim. And further ritual designed to instill in people a ritual commitment to the covenant, in Deuteronomy 27:11-26. That ritual emphasizes the way following the terms of the covenant, or not, will produce blessings or curses. Arguably, Moses makes an auxiliary covenant here (Deuteronomy 29:1). The one about choosing life (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Then, Moses takes his leave of the people, commissioning Joshua, giving final blessings, and ascending Mount Nebo. Moses dies, the people mourn, Joshua succeeds him as the next leader, and there’s an end, and a beginning.
If we are historians, we will note that this part of the text is almost certainly more recent than other parts of the Torah, has a unique voice, leads into the Deuteronomistic history awfully neatly, and all in all probably reflects at least editing, if not authoring, in the post-exilic period. What does that mean for us? Maybe that people who have been through a particular kind of formative experience look back on their past and see things they might not have seen otherwise. And we have the benefit of that in this text.
These snippets of text we’re studying, taken together, probably ought to remind us that there is lots of moral and practical instruction included in God’s covenant with Israel. The covenant incorporates Torah, God’s instruction, in how to walk in God’s ways. We’re skipping over all those specifics. But hopefully we’ll remember that, taken all together, they constitute the covenant way of life that is identified with the well-being of the people of God.
Deuteronomy 5:1-3 is not in the lectionary, though Deuteronomy 5:12-15, with its specific rationale for sabbath observance, shows up a couple of times. No part of Deuteronomy 10 or Deuteronomy 27 is in the lectionary. In short, all of this text is something you would not know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees take note.
CLOSER READING: Several distinct words come up in these passages that refer to things people are being told to do. In Deuteronomy 5:1, we have the words translated “statutes” and “ordinances.” “Statutes” (Hebrew chukim) seem to be something like “prescriptions,” often used in contexts like the payment of dues, or shares of something, or allotted portions of land, etc. “Ordinances” (Hebrew mishpatim), in other contexts may be translated as variously as “judgements,” “justice,” “regulations,” etc. At least since Rashi, tradition has held that chukim are rules we don’t know the reason for, while mishpatim are ones that make sense to us. The term “commandments,” (Hebrew mitzvot), which occurs in 10:13, 27:1 and 27:10, generally includes both, and also a third kind of rule, edot, usually associated with customary rules, such as those pertaining to holidays. [A little more on chukim and mishpatim, from a Reform perspective, and from a more traditional perspective.]
In 5:1, Moses literally tells Israel to hear what I speak in your ears – that is, “in your hearing.” The importance of hearing will be emphasized. It will come up again in 27:10, closing out our texts. In these contexts, hearing means listening to, and then following the instruction.
Hearing will be important, but so will keeping or guarding and doing the statutes and ordinances, the instruction at the end of 5:1.
In v3, the statement that God’s covenant was not with “our fathers” or “ancestors,” but with “all of us who are here now living” is extraordinary. On one hand, it’s obviously counter-factual. Or: it’s an assertion that all Israel was there at Mt. Sinai. Or: it’s a strong statement that the covenant is an ever-present reality, that always pertains to people in the present. I’m partial to 2, and really partial to 3, above.
In 10:12, I think I understand why translators would render it “what does YHWH require of you,” but the verb most often means “ask” or “demand” or even “seek.” This seems, to me, to shade the meaning of “require.” God wants from people that they do this.
It’s fashionable to translate or comment away the blunt verbs in 12 & 13: fear YHWH your God, walk in his ways, love him, and serve him. Probably because we know it’s wrong to imagine God as the kind of human parent who makes his children flinch. But on the other hand, God does scare people. (See Deuteronomy 5:22-27!!) Honestly, I think this is the kind of fear we have in mind when we say “I would never take the car without asking, my mom would kill me.” We know she wouldn’t, but she would be mad, and we would be sorry. Softening that meaning to “reverence” and “awe” is probably not totally wrong, but I suspect also not exactly correct. Because the fear involved does seem to be related to people’s enthusiasm for doing the commandments.
The serve here really is the same ordinary word used constantly to mean “doing tasks” or “working.” So no doubt it includes “worship.” But it seems to really mean doing stuff, too, like helping your neighbor’s oxen out of ditches and paying your workers on time. And whether there’s any distinction in Torah between “worship” and life as one of God’s people is fundamentally questionable, anyway.
In 27:2 and 4, there is a unique word / phrase that means, depending on who translates, “cover with plaster” or “whitewash with lime.” The point of covering the memorial / boundary marking stones with this substance – and whitewash does seem to be a kind of thin plaster – may have been to preserve the stones, or to make them visible from a distance. Whitewash, or white plaster, would do both those things.
In v3, the word usually translated “law” is torah, “instruction.” This seems essential to remember, especially for Christians who might be inclined to think of the covenant as “legalistic,” a word that should be banished from our vocabulary.
In v8, there are two infinitive absolutes at the end of the sentence, that STRONGLY EMPHASIZE the point that the people are to write clearly these words, and do it real good, as we would say here in southern Indiana. The verb for writing clearly is the same one used in instructing Habakkuk to write his vision plainly on tablets (Habakkuk 2:2).
Here’s scholar Jim West’s take on the significance of this mound of stones:
The purpose of this memorial mound is clear enough—the land is bordered by the Law and the lives of its inhabitants are to be so ordered as well. Stepping outside the land means stepping outside the place where God dwells; and stepping outside the Law means the same thing.Jim West, Deuteronomy for the Person in the Pew, Quartz Hill Publishing House, Quartz Hill, CA 2008, 168.
In vv5-6, in the instructions for the altar that is to be built in the same location as the mound of stones with the torah inscription, the stones are to be “unhewn,” on which “you have not used an iron tool.” One explanation for why uncut stones has to do with the iron tool: these are often implements of war, or violence. That makes them inappropriate for an altar, which is dedicated to purposes of reconciliation. Another explanation has to do with the unhewn, or “whole,” character of the stones. The word for whole is related to the word for peace, well-being – wholeness. Again, the wholeness of the stones represents the wholeness, completeness, and well-being to be obtained at an altar.
The people are instructed to eat and rejoice before the LORD at this altar. For good reason. The covenant is a covenant of peace: well-being, wholeness, fullness, good. Happy are the people whose God is the LORD.