Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is one of the most important books of the OT: without it we wouldn’t really be able to make much sense of several later books. It is presented as three sermons from Moses as the people overlook the Promised Land, which through their own faithlessness and grumbling the previous generation were doomed not to enter. So before he dies at the end of the book Moses gives the people a pep talk, reminding them of the journey so far, of some of the laws from Exodus (hence the book’s name, which means ‘second law’) and telling them how they and their children should live when they did cross the border.

Two themes ring out from this book: one has to do with separation, the other with worship. These two areas are to become foundational for what lies ahead. The Israelites are to keep themselves separate and holy by not compromising with the standards of the nations around them, when it comes to morality and idolatry. And they are to worship God as he demands, not as they might fancy, and in particular they are to worship him in the place which he is going to choose, which will turn out to be Jerusalem. These principles are set out clearly in chapters 12 and 13.

The next few books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, are known collectively as the ‘Deuteronomic History’. Like all history they are written up from a particular point of view, and that point of view is set out in Deuteronomy, the ‘preface’. A few centuries later the people find themselves in exile in Babylon, and they can’t help but ask themselves the question ‘What went wrong? How did we get ourselves into this mess?’ The answer they come up with is that we have systematically violated the two principles set out in the book of Deuteronomy: we have not kept ourselves separate and holy to God, and we have tried to worship in places other than Jerusalem. The Deuteronomic history books, and some would say Deuteronomy itself, were almost certainly compiled during the exile, and served both as a review of the past but also a warning for the future. So we shall see in a few weeks that all the kings of Israel and Judah are judged almost exclusively on whether they adhered to the policy of ‘centralisation of worship’, in other words did they allow worship only in Jerusalem or did they tolerate it elsewhere?

A distinctive section of the book is the ‘blessing and cursing’ section in chapters 27 to 30. If the people will do as they are told, they will experience a long list of blessings throughout the land, particularly centred around victory over their enemies and fruitful harvests, whereas if they choose disobedience (which of course they subsequently did most of the time) they would know God’s curse in the shape of defeat in battle, sickness, removal of possessions, unfruitfulness and lack of harvest. Finally the choice is set before them in the starkest of terms: life or death (30:11ff).

Moses then prepares for the future by appointing Joshua, who along with Caleb, the other faith-filled spy are the only ones from that generation to enter the land, as his successor as leader, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. After blessing the people he dies on Mt Nebo, is mourned, and the stage is set for Joshua to lead them over into the land.

How are we to read this book today? Surely the same two principles around which the book is centred apply every bit as much to those the other side of Christ’s cross: we are to be holy and different from those around us, and we are to worship God on his terms and not our own. Blessing and cursing may not be quite so clear cut as they are set out in Deuteronomy: indeed we shall see much agonising as we continue through the OT about why innocent people suffer and the nasty get away with it. But ultimately the choice is ours, on an eternal canvas – death or life?

OT Lectionary 16th Feb Lent -3 Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Choose Life!

‘I chose not to choose life. I chose something else.’ Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton off of Trainspotting deliberately chooses the self-destructive lifestyle of heroin addiction, counting that a better way than middle-class conformity. The choice the Israelites are called to make is even less complex than that. Obey God, and you’ll thrive, oppose him and you’ll be destroyed. Bit of a no-brainer, isn’t it? Yet those who are supposed to be God’s people constantly make bad choices, you and I included. History tells us that rather than enjoying God’s blessing and many more years in the land God had promised and given to them, a land which they were about to enter for the first time, they constantly rebelled against God and were eventually exiled and scattered among the other nations. Still today the ‘land’ is a matter of major international dispute and warfare.

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This stark passage raises two questions worthy of our consideration: the first is ‘Why are we so stupid?’, but the second is deeper: ‘Is it really that clear cut?’

The answer to the first is quite simply that sin is enjoyable. It has to be, or else no-one would bother with it. Right back in Genesis 3 the fruit ‘was good for food and pleasing to the eye’: I guess it would have been much less tempting had it looked and smelt like tripe or mussels or something. When the C of E was revising its Baptism liturgy for Common Worship the original draft of the promises asked:

‘Do you reject the glamour, deceit and corruption of evil?

Do you renounce all proud rebellion against God?’

The text which was finally authorised had lost the words ‘glamour’ and ‘proud’: I consider that this is a tragic weakening of the biblical picture of sin and arrogance, and I still keep them in when I baptise. If we are not interested in something, it will have no power over us, but it is precisely that ‘glamour’ which feels so attractive, although of course there is always a sting in the tail, which is why the word ‘deceit’ is so vital too. It is worth considering which sinful things attract us, and what we might do to see through their deceit, see them as they really are and so find it easier to avoid them. I guess sanctification is a life-long journey of discovery in this area, as sin appeals less and less the more time we’ve spent with God.

But is it really as simple as Deuteronomy makes out? Obviously not, or why the eternal agonised questioning of the human race as to why good people suffer, a debate into which I have myself have dipped my toes? #godingrimtimes.  The fact is that those who honour God often find themselves in deep trouble, whilst those who ignore him appear to prosper. But what the Bible does say, I believe, that to refuse to choose God won’t ultimately get you anywhere. And to those who do choose him, there is the promise of eternal reward eventually. Pie in the sky when you die? Of course! As we said last week, the Bible is unashamed in its promises of reward for God’s faithful people. Our mistake is that we want that reward now, rather than later.