Studying Deuteronomy 8 1-11

We’ll be reminded, in light of the history of ancient Israel in the wilderness, that all of us depend entirely on God. No doubt that fact has implications for us in terms of gratitude. Given our ongoing focus on the theme of freedom, we’ll probably notice that it has implications for that theme, too. As I read it, this all this arises from Deuteronomy 8:1-11, the text we’re studying for Sunday, March 27. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on that text:

red line embellished

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve moved to the book of Deuteronomy – depending on how we want to think of it, the last book in the Torah, or the first book in the Deuteronomistic history.[1] Overall, it’s a “re-citation” of the instructions given to Israel at Sinai, with some variation. That Deuteronomic law code (specifically Deuteronomy 11:31-28:69) is one of the four major bodies of legal material in the Torah. Our text is about two-thirds of the way through the preamble to that major code, still in the part of the larger text where Moses is reminding his audience of all they went through to get here.

“Here” according to Deuteronomy 1:1 is the “plains of Moab,” across the Jordan from Jericho. According to Deuteronomy 4:45-49, however, this “here” extends farther south than we might imagine if we don’t look at a map [like this one, which shows Beth-peor or this one, that shows Aroer].

The audience is rather remarkable. Moses continually addresses the audience as “you” (masculine singular) – sometimes breaking into plural forms, but not in our text – and a lot of what he says to that audience takes the form of telling them everything they went through leaving Egypt, and receiving God’s Torah at Sinai, and then refusing to enter the promised land, and wandering in the wilderness. But we readers know, from having read Numbers 26, that NONE OF THESE PEOPLE WERE THOSE PEOPLE. This identification is imaginary – and we would probably say, “identity-creating.” The rhetoric keeps insisting on an identity between “you,” the audience, and the original, liberated, and also only fitfully faithful, children of Israel.

[I am kind of proud of myself that I noticed this before I read Robert Alter’s introduction to the book of Deuteronomy.[2] Alter makes the same point, only more elegantly. The main point: this has got to be intentional. Certainly, because of the way the text – carefully, designedly – addresses its audience, it readily draws us, the readers, into that audience. I am old enough to remember a television show, with Walter Cronkite, You Are There. The whole idea was to make you feel that you were an eye-witness to epochal historical events. The whole book of Deuteronomy is a lot like “You. Are. There.”]

The preamble to this second discourse really begins with chapter 5 which includes a restatement of the Ten Commandments, and then a little narrative piece reminding the audience that everyone heard God say these words. And then begged Moses to go do all the work of listening to God, because “if we hear the voice of Adonai our God any longer, we shall die” (Deuteronomy 5:25). I always think of this as Moses’s suicide mission. But the upshot is that there is more that God had to tell the people, and Moses has to relay all that. Chapter 6 includes the Greatest Commandment, or the Shema, depending on how we think of it. It’s the essence of the longer, more detailed legal corpus that will follow: love God, with everything you are. And the rest of the preamble continues to circle around the themes of obeying God, and not disobeying God, and doing everything God says to do, and keeping God’s commandments, drawing on important examples from the recent history of Israel. Moses sums this all up again at the end of chapter 11 (Deuteronomy 11:12-22), before turning to the commandments proper:

So now, O Israel, what does the HOLY ONE your God require of you? Only to fear the HOLY ONE your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the HOLY ONE your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the HOLY ONE your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.

Deuteronomy 11:12-13

One of the lectionary texts for Thanksgiving Day, Deuteronomy 8:7-18, overlaps our selected verses. This makes sense, as the whole chapter stresses the themes of proper recollection, and giving gratitude for prosperity where gratitude is due: to God.

red line embellished

CLOSER READING: In v1, the phrase “diligently observe” the commandments is literally “watch/guard to do” them. The instruction to watch/guard is emphasized, being repeated five times in these verses.

It’s not emphasized as much as the verb “to know,” though. Verses 3-5 include a frenzy of knowing and not knowing and being made to know, first on the part of God, then – and mostly – on the part of the Israelites. God wants to know what is in their hearts. They never knew “manna” before, and this special provision was to make them know that “not by bread alone lives humankind, but by every exit from the mouth of Adonai lives humankind.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) The repetitive emphasis there on how humankind does not live, and how humankind lives, seems important, too.

[The word “word” does not occur in the verse, by the way, although including it is undoubtedly better English. But Hebrew leaves the substance of whatever exits or goes forth or flows out of the divine mouth open. And that also seems significant, because later on – in verse 7 – we’re reminded that a lot of things flow out. Water, in particular. And then we’ll think of this verse again.]

Ultimately, the audience [which seems to include us] will know that God disciplines Israel in the same way a father disciplines a son.

In vv2-3, the word “humbled” can also be, and often is, translated as “afflicted.”

The descriptions of water in v7 are evocative: “brooks of water, springs, and deeps” – the word “deeps” echoes that deep from Genesis 1:1; they exit valleys and hills in the land, the way things exit the mouth of Adonai. All in all, right about here, we might be recollecting that all of the [good] created world has that character – of having been spoken into existence by God. The whole created land, that is on display in the next verses, in its  goodness and with its various “plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it” (Genesis 1:11), all pointedly reminds us of that original divine creation.

V10 is the origin of the custom of saying grace after meals.

V11, as Bernard Levinson notes[3], clearly equates devotion to God with observance of the instruction contained in the Deuteronomic code. Walking the walk is simply what it means to remember God.

red line embellished


[1] Akenson, Donald Harman. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. University of Chicago Press, 2001, 24-28.

[2] Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible. Volume I: The Five Books of Moses. A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

[3] Levinson, Bernard M. “Introduction and Notes – Deuteronomy.” The Jewish Study Bible. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler editors. Oxford University Press, 2004.

red line embellished

Image: “Thora synagogue detail,” by Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: