The Israelites are in Moab, east of the Dead Sea. They have wandered forty years in the wilderness under Moses leadership, and are facing two significant changes. One is that Moses will soon die, without having entered the Promised Land. The second is that the people will soon cross the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. Throughout this book, Moses is giving them his death-bed wisdom.
In chapter 28, Moses promised blessings if the Israelites would obey God’s commandments (28:1-14). He then warned of the consequences of disobedience (28:15-68).
In chapter 29, he called them to a renewal of the covenant with Yahweh, and reminded them of the miraculous journey that they had taken from Egypt to Moab. He said, “but Yahweh has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, to this day” (29:4)—much of chapter 29 has that negative sort of tone. He reminded them of the idolatry of the nations through which they had passed and warned that the Lord would punish idolaters. He concluded on a more positive note: “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (29:29).
In chapter 30, Moses began by telling the Israelites to return (Hebrew: sub) to the Lord (30:2) so that the Lord would restore (Hebrew: sub) their fortunes (30:3). He promised that the Lord would bring them into the Promised Land (30:5) and circumcise their hearts (30:6) and curse their enemies (30:7). He promised that the Lord would bless them (30:8-10). He then reminded them that the Lord’s commandments were both accessible and doable (30:11-14). There was nothing standing in the way of their receiving the blessings that the Lord had in store for them.
DEUTERONOMY 30:15-16. I HAVE SET BEFORE YOU LIFE AND DEATH
15Behold, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil; 16in that I command you this day to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it.
“Behold, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil“ (v. 15). The word “today” appears four times in verses 15-19, giving this text an urgent quality—a feeling of immediacy. Indeed, “this day” is always the day to decide for the Lord—the day to choose life—the day to begin anew. The person who defers important decisions until tomorrow will be tempted to defer them to other tomorrows—tomorrows that might never come.
Moses sets out the possibilities clearly. They can choose life and prosperity or they can choose death and adversity. There is no middle ground.
These are choices that every person faces in ways great or small almost every day. The small decisions are as important as the great ones, because those are where the seeds of evil are planted. “The Devil does not shock a saint into alertness by suggesting whopping crimes. He starts off with little, almost inoffensive things to which even the heart of a saint would make only mild protests” (Walter Farrell, Companion to the Summa). Few of us will be tempted to rob a bank at gunpoint, but most of us will be tempted to take advantage of a clerk’s error in our favor at the cash register. Few of us will be tempted to become major players in the sex trade, but most of us will be tempted to look at pornographic movies or to flirt with someone other than our spouse. If we can learn to choose life when faced with those smaller temptations, the larger temptations will never gain a grip on us.
“in that I command you this day to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it“ (v. 16).
A literal translation of the Hebrew would begin, “I am commanding you today to love the Lord your God by keeping his ways, his commandments, and his statutes.” This word order is significant, because it begins with the commandment to love God. The keeping of God’s commandments follows that—is subordinate to that. If these people will love the Lord their God, they will naturally want to please God. They know that pleasing God means keeping his ways and obeying his commandments. Therefore, if they will obey the first commandment (“loving Yahweh your God”) that love will enable to them to obey the rest of the commandments.
Why should the people of Israel love God? They have only to look to their recent history to answer that question. God has brought them out of slavery in Egypt and has led them for forty years through the wilderness. During this time, God has fed them with bread from heaven (Exodus 16:4). Neither their clothing nor their shoes wore out (29:5). God protected them from their enemies (29:7). God brought them to the edge of the Promised Land, and promised that they will soon enter it. How could you fail to love a God like that?
Most of us, if we carefully review our lives, can find similar reasons to love God. Our lives might not have been easy (the Israelites wilderness years were not easy either), but God has sustained us day by day. We also have the assurance of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Why should we NOT love God? The most likely reasons are (1) that our love for something ungodly is blocking our ability to love God or (2) that we have chosen to be bitter rather than thankful. We all have reasons to be bitter and reasons to be thankful. Choosing thankfulness is akin to choosing life, and choosing bitterness is akin to choosing death.
DEUTERONOMY 30:17-18. IF YOUR HEART TURNS AWAY, YOU SHALL PERISH
17But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; 18I denounce to you this day, that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land, where you pass over the Jordan to go in to possess it.
“But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them “ (v. 17). The First Commandment (in some numbering systems the following are the First and Second Commandments) is:
“You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourselves an idol,
nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above,
or that is in the earth beneath,
or that is in the water under the earth:
you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them”
This priority is not accidental. People who worship God and nothing else will not be tempted to break the other commandments. They will honor God by their daily lives, and will treat other people respectfully, knowing that other people are also God’s children. In other words, they will obey the five commandments relating to God as well as the other five that relate to their neighbor.
But, as we will see, idol worship will be a constant temptation to the Israelites once they enter the Promised Land. When drought threatens their crops, they will be tempted to bow their knees to Ba’al, the Canaanite rain or fertility god. They will see their Canaanite neighbors keeping carved idols in their homes, and will be tempted to do the same. When they are taken into exile in Babylonia, they will be tempted to believe that the Babylonian god, Marduk, is more powerful than Yahweh. Idolatry will always be a temptation.
We, too, are constantly tempted by idolatry. Not many of us are likely to make a carved idol and bow down before it, but we are tempted to put other things in the Number One place in our hearts. A Christian leader once summarized those temptations in the acronym, SAM, which stands for Sex, Alcohol, and Money. There are many other tempters, of course, but he held those three up Clergy Killers—the three temptations that pose the greatest threat to our ministries.
While the word “then” does not appear in verse 18, there is a clear if/then relationship between verses 17 and 18. IF the Israelites bow down to other gods (v. 17), THEN they will suffer the consequences (v. 18).
“I denounce to you this day, that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land, where you pass over the Jordan to go in to possess it“ (v. 18). Moses outlines two consequences of bowing down to other gods. First, they will perish. Second, they will not live long in the Promised Land.
Neither consequence was ever fully realized in Old Testament times. While Israelites were killed by the tens of thousands by the Babylonians prior to the Babylonian Exile, other Israelites were taken into captivity and were ultimately allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem. Yahweh always looked for a remnant to restore Israel rather than electing to destroy it totally.
And while the ten tribes of the north were obliterated, the two southern tribes were allowed to continue. Again, the idea was punishment as a means of restoration rather than obliteration.
DEUTERONOMY 30:19-20. CHOOSE LIFE SO THAT YOU MAY LIVE
19I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed; 20to love Yahweh your God, to obey his voice, and to cling to him; for he is your life, and the length of your days; that you may dwell in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse“ (v. 19a). Calling witnesses serves to emphasize the importance of what Moses is saying. Most Near Eastern people would call the gods of the first party and the gods of the second party to serve as witnesses, but that would hardly do for Israel. Instead, Moses invokes heaven and earth—Yahweh’s creation—to serve as witnesses. Moses calls them to witness the fact that he has offered Israel a clear choice—a choice between life and death—between blessings and curses. If the Israelites fail to make the right choice, no one can say that Moses failed to warn them. No one can accuse him of spiritual malpractice.
“therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed; to love Yahweh your God, to obey his voice, and to cling to him; for he is your life, and the length of your days“ (v. 19b – 20a). Now Moses summarizes his call in clear and direct language. “Choose life,” he says. He then makes the point that it is not only the lives of these Israelites but also the lives of their descendants that are as stake.
Once again (see the commentary on verse 16), Moses places the first emphasis on loving God, because loving God will lead to the second imperative, which is to obey God. He promises that this combination (loving and obeying God) will lead to life and length of days.
Those two things (life and length of days) seem redundant, but they are not. Length of days by itself can be a curse instead of a blessing, but a life of faith will always result in blessing, even among people whose lives are otherwise difficult.
“that you may dwell in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them“ (v. 20b). The Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land, and Yahweh has pledged to give it to them. The question is whether they will be allowed to remain there indefinitely. The answer depends whether they will choose life—loving and obeying Yahweh. If they do that, Yahweh will insure their future. If they do not, they will lose their heritage.
DEUTERONOMY 30:31-34: POSTSCRIPT
These chapters are not in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. They begin with Moses informing the people that he is old and, by God’s dictates, will not cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. However, God will go before them and give them the victory. Also, Joshua will cross over before them to provide human leadership. Moses encourages the people to “be strong and courageous (because) Yahweh, he it is who does go before you” (31:7-8). He tells them to read the law publicly every seven years (31:9-13). The Lord commissions Joshua to lead the people (31:14-23).
Then follows The Song of Moses (chapter 32), his final blessing on Israel (chapter 33) and his death and burial in the land of Moab (chapter 34).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Burgess, Joseph A., and Winn, Albert C., Proclamation 2, Epiphany, Series A (Fortress Press, 1980)
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan