The book of Deuteronomy begins by saying, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness…. It happened in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel, according to all that Yahweh had given him in commandment to them” (1:1, 3). Moses is the spokesperson, but he speaks only what God has given him to speak.
In the first four chapters, Moses recounts Israel’s history with Yahweh. In chapter 5, he recites the Ten Commandments, along with the circumstances in which Moses received the commandments and, in turn, gave them to the Israelites. In chapter 6, he recounts the greatest commandment, “Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (6:4-5).
In chapter 7, Moses begins to prepare the Israelites for the day when they will enter the Promised Land. He reminds them that they are God’s chosen people, and warns them not to intermingle or intermarry with the people who currently occupy the Promised Land. He also reminds them that they are a covenant people (7:12) and promises blessings and prosperity if they will keep the commandments that Yahweh has given them.
Chapter 8 begins with a call to keep the commandments and to remember their history—a history in which God humbled Israel in the wilderness—and a history in which he fed the Israelites manna and kept their clothing from wearing out. He says, “You shall keep the commandments of Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to fear him” (8:6).
DEUTERONOMY 8:7-10. YAHWEH BRINGS YOU INTO A GOOD LAND
7For Yahweh your God (Hebrew: Yahweh ka elohim) brings you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of springs, and underground water flowing into valleys and hills; 8a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey; 9a land in which you shall eat bread without scarceness, you shall not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig copper. 10You shall eat and be full, and you shall bless Yahweh your God for the good land which he has given you.
“For Yahweh your God (Yahweh ka elohim) brings you into a good land” (v. 7). Moses is preparing the Israelites for the day when they will enter the Promised Land. They will need to remember that they did not enter that land on their own. It is Yahweh who is bringing them into that land. It is Yahweh who will help them to overcome the inhabitants of that land. It is Yahweh who will provide for their needs in that land.
“a land of brooks of water, of springs, and underground water flowing into valleys and hills“ (v. 7). Water, of course, is essential to life. In that arid part of the world, flowing streams and underground springs of water constitute the very picture of well-being. This land that they are preparing to enter must be a truly wonderful place if it is watered as this verse describes.
“a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey“ (v. 8). These plants constitute a broad palate of attractive food—wheat and barley for bread, the staple of their diets—vines for wine—fig trees and pomegranates for fruit—olive trees for oil, essential for cooking—and honey for sweetness.
Talmudic authorities thought of this honey as derived from dates rather than bees. They base this conclusion on the fact that all the other items mentioned in this list are plant-based (Buescher, see also Christensen). Note that, while this land is often described as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” milk is not mentioned in this verse.
“a land in which you shall eat bread without scarceness, you shall not lack anything in it“ (v. 9a). As noted above, in primitive societies, bread is the staple of life. If these people have plenty of bread—which Moses promises that they will have—they will feel prosperous indeed. Moses goes on to promise that their blessings will not be limited to bread. They will lack nothing.
“a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig copper“ (v. 9b). The Arabah (the region south of the Dead Sea) will produce both iron and copper ore.
“You shall eat and be full, and you shall bless Yahweh your God for the good land which he has given you“ (v. 10). Moses instructs the people, when they have eaten their fill, not to forget that it was Yahweh that made their prosperity possible.
This verse and the following verses have an obvious connection with Thanksgiving. That holiday calls us to count our blessings—and to remember the Lord who made those blessings possible.
DEUTERONOMY 8:11-16. BEWARE LEST YOU FORGET YAHWEH YOUR GOD
11Beware lest you forget Yahweh your God, in not keeping his commandments, and his ordinances, and his statutes, which I command you this day: 12lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and lived therein; 13and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; 14then your heart be lifted up, and you forget Yahweh your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage;15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirsty ground where there was no water; who brought you forth water out of the rock of flint; 16who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers didn’t know; that he might humble you, and that he might prove (Hebrew: nasah) you, to do you good at your latter end:
“Beware lest you forget Yahweh your God, in not keeping his commandments, and his ordinances, and his statutes, which I command you this day“ (v. 11). Remembering their covenant with Yahweh will keep the Israelites grounded. Forgetting the covenant would cast them adrift in a world that has the potential to turn treacherous. Remembering the mighty acts of Yahweh is the pathway to wisdom and life. Forgetting Yahweh is the pathway to foolishness and death.
Yahweh has provided Israelites with the tools for remembrance. They are to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” by foregoing work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8ff.). They are to forego eating leavened bread during Passover (Exodus 13:3ff.) to insure “that the law of Yahweh may be in your mouth” (Exodus 13:9). They are to wear a fringe on their garments” that you may look on it, and remember all the commandments of Yahweh, and do them; and that you not follow after your own heart and your own eyes” (Numbers 15:39). They are to “teach (the commandments) your children, talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates; that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth” (11:19-21).
Remembering, then, involves more than bringing to mind an event from the past. Remembering requires action—participation in the rites and ceremonies that God has given Israel to keep their memories fresh—obedience to the laws that God has given them to keep them holy.
“lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and lived therein; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied“ (vv. 12-13). The wilderness taught Israel how to live in adversity. In the wilderness, they had just enough food and water for the day. They had to keep on the move, in part, to provide forage for their sheep and goats and, in part, because they had no homeland to call their own. The wilderness, for Israel, was like the refiner’s fire, purging the dross and purifying the whole.
Now Israel must begin to learn how to live in prosperity, a condition that they have not enjoyed for many centuries—not since Joseph died and a new pharaoh who knew not Joseph came to the throne.
But that is now due to change. For the first time as a nation, Israel is now to experience real prosperity—fine houses, generous herds and flocks—silver and gold in abundance. That sounds like a wonderful future, and it has the potential to be just that—but it also has the potential to be their undoing. As Thomas Burton put it, “If adversity has killed his thousands, prosperity has killed his ten thousands.”
We might ask, “How can that be?” The answer is that, in the midst of prosperity, people tend to forget the disciplines and the values and the faith that helped to make them prosperous. In the midst of prosperity, people become bored with their easy lives—and become prey to any number of temptations—drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex, the list goes on and on. In the midst of prosperity, they are inclined to forget God.
“then your heart be lifted up, and you forget Yahweh your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage“ (v. 14). For the Israelites, the greatest temptation of prosperity is that they will become focused on material things and forget Yahweh, who made their prosperity possible.
They will be tempted to forget their centuries of slavery in Egypt—and their miraculous deliverance in the Exodus. They will be tempted to forget the plagues that caused such suffering in Egypt that pharaoh finally allowed them to leave. They will be tempted to forget that, when they were trapped between the waters of the Red Sea at their front and the Egyptian chariots at their back, Yahweh saved them. They will be tempted to forget that, at Yahweh’s command, Moses stretched out his staff over the sea and divided it so that they Israelites might pass through the sea on dry ground. They will be tempted to forget that, once they had passed through the sea, at Yahweh’s command, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea so that the waters returned to their natural state, drowning the Egyptian army. They will be tempted to forget, not only their history with Yahweh, but Yahweh himself.
“then your heart be lifted up, and you forget Yahweh your God” (v. 14a). The epitome of forgetfulness would be for the Israelites to remember their own victories—and to forget Yahweh’s role. They will be tempted to remember their military exploits—and the work they did to subdue the land itself—and to forget the hand of God that brought about their success. When that happens, they will begin to believe that they are a nation of giants, rather than a nation led by a wondrous God. Then they will be poised to take a fall, because God will need to discipline them once again to bring them back to their spiritual senses.
“who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirsty ground where there was no water; who brought you forth water out of the rock of flint“ (v. 15). Once settled in their good land—the land into which Yahweh is leading them—Israel will dwell in fine houses amidst many possessions, and their memories of the wilderness will quickly fade. In their comfort, they will be tempted to forget their uncomfortable years. They will be tempted to forget the poisonous snakes and their ever-pressing need for water. They will be tempted to forget that Yahweh provided water from a rock.
“who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers didn’t know“ (v. 16a). When their storehouses are overflowing with wheat and barley (v. 8), they will be tempted to forget the time when they had none. They will be tempted to forget the manna with which Yahweh fed their ancestors. Once they have bread to spare, they will be tempted to forget that Yahweh made it possible for the Israelites to gather their daily bread in the manna-fields, but that Yahweh also made it impossible for them to gather tomorrow’s bread, unless tomorrow happened to be the sabbath.
“that he might humble you, and that he might prove (nasah) you” (v. 16b). Yahweh intended the wilderness experience to humble the Israelites and to test (nasah) them. The word nasah means to test or to prove. God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22). He tested the Israelites on a number of occasions (Exodus 15:25; 16:4; 20:20; Deuteronomy 13:3; Judges 2:22; 3:1, 4).
“to do you good at your latter end“ (v. 16c). These testings were not intended for Israel’s ill, but for their good. We might think of them as a quality-control procedure, rather like the testing procedures that we might find in an industrial plant. In that modern setting, workers test random samples of the product to detect flaws and to correct them quickly. Testing in the wilderness setting had a similar purpose. Yahweh needed to expose any flaws in Israel’s faith and faithfulness so that he might provide the necessary discipline to restore their faith. The testing was not to do them harm (although the corrective discipline must sometimes have seemed that way), but to do them good.
DEUTERONOMY 8:17-18. REMEMBER YAHWEH YOUR GOD
17and lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.” 18But you shall remember Yahweh your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day.
“and lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth ‘” (v. 17). This is the peril of the “self-made man”—the person who has worked hard and achieved much. It is the peril of the person who has pulled herself up by her bootstraps. It is the peril of arrogance—of presumption.
This verse brings to my mind an old friend who was a star athlete in his small college. He lettered in four sports while maintaining a high grade-point average. He was tall and handsome—and charming when he had a mind to be. Women came easily to him. He was raised in a Christian home and studied for the ministry—but it was always difficult for him not to get the “big head.” He acknowledged the problem. He said that it was difficult to maintain any humility when women were throwing themselves at him and telling him that he looked like a Greek god. The Mac Davis song, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way,” fit perfectly. To make a long story short, my friend’s marriage was short-lived, and so was his faith. He hasn’t been inside a church for years. His faith might have survived adversity, but he couldn’t handle prosperity.
It is that sort of attitude that Moses counsels against here. If my friend had been able to remember that his talents were a gift from God, his life would have taken a different course. Moses is counseling the Israelites to remember Yahweh’s role in their lives—and to give Yahweh credit for their success rather than imagining that their success is the natural outgrowth of their hard work.
“But you shall remember Yahweh your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth“ (v. 18a). See the comments on remembrance in verse 11 above.
“that he may establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day“ (v. 18b). There is a promise underlying the commandment to remember Yahweh. The promise is that Yahweh will “establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day.”
The covenant that Yahweh had established with Israel began with Abram, long before there was an Israel (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18-20). Yahweh renewed this covenant with Moses (Exodus 24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17). The covenant between Yahweh and Israel was many-faceted, but Yahweh summarized its essential provisions in his promise to Abram:
“Get out of your country, and from your relatives,
and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you”
DEUTERONOMY 8:19-20. IF YOU SHALL FORGET YAHWEH
19It shall be, if you shall forget Yahweh your God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish. 20As the nations that Yahweh makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you wouldn’t listen to the voice of Yahweh your God.
While these verses aren’t in the lectionary reading, the preacher should be aware of them. The earlier verses tell the people about the blessings that they can expect to receive at Yahweh’s hand—and call them to acknowledge that those blessings are Yahweh’s gift rather than anything that the Israelites have earned. Verse 18 gives a brief description of the blessing that will accrue to them if they remember Yahweh—Yahweh will “establish his covenant” with them.
Now verses 19-20 spell out the consequences of forgetting the Lord and following other gods. If the Israelites do that, they will perish.
I can only guess why the people who formulated the lectionary left out these two verses. My guess is that they did so because these aren’t “happy” verses and are therefore inappropriate for a Thanksgiving Day reading. I must admit that I am uncomfortable with that approach. I would probably include these verses if I were to preach on this text. People need to know both sides—that God blesses the faithful, but that God also punishes the unfaithful. To avoid “unhappy” verses strikes me as unfaithful.
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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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan