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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, he began by telling them to return (Hebrew: sub) to the Lord (30:2) and 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).
It is difficult to understand why the framers of the lectionary would begin this reading with verse 9—in the middle of a sentence. I have chosen to begin this commentary with verse 8—at the beginning of that sentence. I recommend that you begin your reading of this text with verse 8 or earlier.
DEUTERONOMY 30:8-10. YAHWEH WILL MAKE YOU PLENTEOUS
8You shall return and obey the voice of Yahweh, and do all his commandments which I command you this day. 9Yahweh your God will make you plenteous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground, for good: for Yahweh will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers; 10if you shall obey the voice of Yahweh your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law; if you turn to Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.
“You shall return and obey the voice of Yahweh, and do all his commandments which I command you this day“ (v. 8). For the most part chapters 28-29 are quite negative in tone—warning Israel of the consequences of disobedience while calling them to obedience. But now Moses holds out hope that the Israelites will be obedient so that they might enjoy Yahweh’s blessings.
“Yahweh your God will make you plenteous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground, for good: for Yahweh will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers“ (v. 9). Earlier, Moses outlined the blessings associated with obedience to Yahweh’s commandments. These included blessings in the cities and in the field (28:3)—blessings on the “the fruit of your body, the fruit of your ground, the fruit of your animals, the increase of your livestock, and the young of your flock” (28:4)—blessings on their “basket and your kneading bowl” (28:5)—and blessings on them when they came in and went out (28:7). This verse largely repeats those promises, but adds the last part—the part that tells of Yahweh’s delight in showering blessings on them and their ancestors.
“if you shall obey the voice of Yahweh your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law“ (v. 10a). But they will receive these blessings only if they observe Yahweh’s commandments. “The question here is not when Israel would obey and turn to the Lord but if” (Merrill, 388). IF they obey the Lord’s commandments, they can expect the blessings outlined in verse 9. That is a big IF.
“if you turn to Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul“ (v. 10b). The Lord is looking for more than rote compliance with the law. The Lord wants these people to give him their hearts and their souls—their very essence.
DEUTERONOMY 30:11-14. THE WORD IS VERY NEAR TO YOU
11For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?” 14But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.
“For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off“ (v. 11). In verses 11-14, Moses emphasizes that he is not asking the impossible. These people are quite capable of complying with Yahweh’s commandments. They are quite capable of turning to God with their hearts and souls (v. 10). Their problem isn’t their capacity to keep the law but their will to do so (Biddle, 447).
In the New Testament, we encounter a contrasting view—that compliance with the law is a burden that nobody can carry perfectly—that we are all in need of God’s grace (Acts 13:39; 15:1-29; Romans 7:1-6; 8:3; 10:4; etc.). Moses doesn’t deal with that here. God has not revealed everything to him. He conveys that which God has revealed—that God will bless the people if they obey God’s commandments and that God will curse them if they don’t. We can expect that God’s grace was involved even in these pre-messianic times. God would know if they had, indeed, given him their hearts and souls (v. 10). If they had, they could expect blessings in spite of their sins.
“It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?‘” (v. 12). The Lord has not kept the law in the heavens—a place that is in accessible to these people—a place so removed from their existence that the presence of the law in heaven would do them no earthly good.
God had revealed the law to Moses, and Moses had conveyed the law to the people. Throughout their journeys in the wilderness, they had carried the tablets of the law in the Ark of the Covenant. God had gone to great lengths to make the commandments known and accessible. The people could not plead ignorance—or, if they were ignorant, it was by choice. God has done his job. Now it is up to the people to do theirs.
“Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?‘” (v. 13). The Gilgamesh Epic tells the story of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian hero, who spent his life on a fruitless spiritual quest on land and sea. It is possible that some of the Israelites might have been familiar with that epic.
But the Israelites have no need to search land and sea to learn what the Lord requires of them—to know how to please the Lord and to obtain the Lord’s blessing. The Lord has made those things known through the giving of the commandments. What matters now is the people’s compliance with those commandments.
“But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it“ (v. 14). At that time, the people would not have a personal, written copy of the law. That kind of personal access would not be available until the development of the printing press in the 15th century A.D. However, the people of Israel would begin learning the Torah from the early years of their childhood. Christensen says that they would memorize it and thus it would be in their hearts (Christensen on v. 14).
After Moses’ death, Joshua will tell the people,
“This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth,
but you shall meditate on it day and night,
that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein:
for then you shall make your way prosperous,
and then you shall have good success” (Joshua 1:8).
Paul will adapt these verses when he speaks of the accessibility of Christ:
“But the righteousness which is of faith says this,
‘Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’
(that is, to bring Christ down);
or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’
(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead.)
But what does it say? The word is near you,
in your mouth, and in your heart;’
that is, the word of faith, which we preach” (Romans 10:6-8).
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.
Biddle, Mark E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2003)
Brueggemann, Walter, Abingdon Old Testament Commentary: Deuteronomy (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Christensen, Duane L., Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 34:12, Vol. 6B (Dallas: Word Books, 2002)
Clements, Ronald E., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Craigie, Peter C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Deuteronomy(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)
Jenson, Robert W., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Mann, Thomas W., Westminster Bible Companion: Deuteronomy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Maxwell, John C., The Preacher’s Commentary: Deuteronomy, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987)
Merrill, Eugene H., New American Commentary: Deuteronomy (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994)
Miller, Patrick D., Interpretation Commentary: Deuteronomy (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990)
Thompson, J.A., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy, Vol. 5 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Wright, Christopher , New International Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996)
Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan