Category Archives: Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy 33 & 34

Just prior to his death, Moses blesses each of the 12 tribes of Israel. One thing stands out to me. Pretty much everything in these first five books of the Bible take place in the realm of the temporal. You don’t really see references to the eternal and spiritual. Even those who die are gathered to their fathers, not said to be with God in eternity. One place where there is a vision of heaven and angels is Genesis 28, where Jacob dreams of a stairway to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. Other than that, and it was a dream, all of God’s dealings have been focused on earthly blessings and consequences.

But verse 27 of chapter 33 may be the first reference to things beyond. Moses says:

The eternal God is your refuge,
    and underneath are the everlasting arms.

The only other time the word eternal is used in the Pentateuch is in Genesis 21:33. After Abraham negotiates a treating a treaty, it says that he plants a tree and “called upon the name of the Lord, the Eternal God.” The word everlasting is found more often, but almost every reference is to “everlasting covenant.” We know what God meant by that word, literally forever, but to an ancient near eastern people everlasting probably meant a really long time. Conceiving of eternity would have been incomprehensible. That would only be revealed slowly in the course of redemptive history. Until then, it was all about the land and temporal blessings from God.

In chapter 34 we see Moses’ end. God shows him the land one last time, but he tells him again he will not “cross over into it.” Moses a type of Christ, could not take God’s people into the promised land, a type of heaven. That would require a perfect mediator, which Moses was most definitely not. He dies and is buried in an unmarked grave, and Joshua takes over. I think it not a coincidence that the one to lead Israel into the land, to cross the river (a type of death), has the same name as the one who became our eternal mediator and leads us into eternal life. But there is a ways to go before we get there.

Deuteronomy 32

We read here the song Moses is to read to the people, which is a reiteration of Israel’s future, including rebellion and restoration. There is a lot here, and I learned much from a commentary by James Burton Coffman, but I want to focus on just two verses:

I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
    Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
    and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
    upright and just is he.

Here you have the dividing line between those who have faith, i.e. trust, in God, and those who reject him. I think it especially important we find this in Moses’ song that tells the story of redemptive history, including judgments of God that are hard for human beings to accept because suffering comes with the territory.

When anyone is tempted to sit in judgment upon God’s doings, including me, I always go back to Genesis 3 and the very nature of the fall and sin. We want to be God, and call the shots, determine what is right and wrong. God’s revelation here tells us that God is perfect, and that he is perfectly just, that he is faithful and can do no wrong. Or our assessment will be that he is not perfect, nor just and can in fact do wrong is true. It’s an either/or, one or the other; human beings cannot hold both conceptions of God’s character in their mind at the same time. Either God is worthy of our trust, or he is not, and we will interpret everything that happens in life, ours and everyone else’s, through one of these two lenses (even those who claim to be atheists).

I simply, and logically, do not feel that I have enough information about the nature of reality to make judgments about God that differ from what scripture tells us. On the surface some of his decrees and actions appear harsh and unjust because we assume our knowledge is superior to God’s, that somehow we know more, even though by definition God’s knowledge is infinite and ours finite in every sense of the word. Bottom line, I trust God; his character is flawless, perfect in every way perfection is measured, and most important for these issues, morally and ethically. It is not possible for him to do wrong, not only because as God whatever he does is by definition is right, but that right itself is defined by the person of God himself.

Right gets it’s rightness from his character, and we see this rightness built into the nature of the reality he created. I like what Michael Ramsden said about the impossibility of breaking the moral law, and how that is analogous to the impossibility of breaking reality’s physical laws. You cannot break what is, so, for example, when we do what God has commanded that we don’t do in the Ten Commandments, the consequences will follow, in one degree or another. God’s law, the expression of his being, is built into our being, and it cannot be altered. We either benefit from it, or are harmed by disobeying it.

We see Paul in Romans do his best to explain the history of salvation and all that it means, and he was one to whom this was directly revealed by Christ himself. What is his conclusion? In Romans 11 we find the doxology that is the conclusion of everything:

33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and[i] knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”[j]
35 “Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”[k]
36 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.

God’s enemies, which would be natural fallen man, hate him for his judgments. We who are his, transformed by his mercy and grace, bow down in humble gratitude and awe, and rejoice in him.

Deuteronomy 31

We’re getting close to the end of Moses’ story. He’s made it to 120, and now it’s time to pass the baton to Joshua. He encourages him and the people by affirming that it is God who is going with them to settle them in the land and defeat their enemies. He wrote down the law and commanded the people that every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles the law should be read so all the people could hear it. We so take it for granted that anyone can have or buy a Bible for cheap and read it every day. Reading God’s word was a rare thing in ancient Israel.

But then Moses goes all negative, and God’s presence in the pillar of cloud confirms to Moses, that the people will rebel and suffer the consequences. He tells them, if they were rebellious and stiff-necked when he was with them, imagine what they’ll do when he’s gone! So we know before they even cross the river that Israel’s history isn’t going to be all sweetness and light. You have to wonder how these people felt when they were continually told they were going to blow it. Did families and neighbors gather and ask each other, why is Moses so negative. But if past is prologue, the people certainly didn’t inspire confidence.

But the point for those of us who read such passages in light of the gospel is that salvation isn’t attainable via human obedience, that our inclination as human beings is always rebellion, and yet God has a plan to save rebellious sinners. As the cliche goes, hindsight is 20/20, and we know exactly why Israel could never live up to God’s standards; they were sinners! Over 2000 years God had to use his people as an object lesson, that our eternal salvation from sin and death comes only by his initiative and it is his accomplishment. We can rest in knowing, it is not up to us; we cannot transform our own heart. That is God’s supernatural work by his Holy Spirit. Good news indeed!

Deuteronomy 29 & 30

The blessings and curses, and exhortations for the former and warnings of the latter are getting redundant. These two chapters lay it all out again. You have to wonder if they get the message if it needs to be repeated so often. In verse four of chapter 29 we have our answer why:

But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.

So it’s the Lord’s responsibility that they get it or not? Somehow this truth of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility coexist. The last verse of The chapter, which seems out of context but which helps us deal with the mystery, says what we cannot know, we cannot know, but God has revealed what we need to know:

29 The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

God reveals enough that we are held accountable for our obedience or lack thereof. God’s revelation is effective. Those who claim he hasn’t revealed himself or enough for them to have faith in him, are not looking; they don’t want to find him lest they don’t like what they find, which is that they stand before him guilty as charged.

As in any relationship it ultimately comes down to trust, and thus to character. If someone lies to you or betrays you or damages you in some way it is pretty much impossible to trust them anymore (without both compelled by the mercy and grace of God). Would anyone ask such a person to watch their house while they were out of town? Of course not. Most of the people who refuse to believe in God, which only means they refuse to trust him, to affirm his fundamental goodness and justness, believe him to be not worthy of that trust based on their cursory assessment of him. Whether it’s the problem of evil generally speaking or in their own lives, i.e. some kind of suffering or loss, or what they’ve read or heard, e.g. the OT God is a mad man, a “moral monster” as some atheists assert, they cannot put their faith in such a God. They cannot trust such a God who is this way or allows what he does.

But if you take the whole revelation of God, i.e. his revelation of himself in creation, in scripture, and in Christ, we can completely buy into verse 29, we can let God have the secret things, those things he has seen fit in his wisdom not to reveal to us, and we can run with the things he has revealed, so that we may “follow all the words of this law.” But we know this is impossible. At the end of chapter 30 Moses lays it out once again but in the most succinct way possible. He lays before the people of Israel life or death, blessing or curse, the covenant of works. In verse 14 he says something we know is patently untrue:

No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

The human heart is exactly the issue because we know it “is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). But it is not beyond God’s curse, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. He had to show us that we could never have or sustain a relationship with a holy and righteous God in a covenant of works. Only in a New Covenant of grace and mercy where God himself fulfilled the covenant of works and imputed to us that obedience, can we have a new heart, a heart that is the abode of the Holy Spirit, one that wants to obey, even if it always can’t. God’s wrath has been satisfied, the wrath we see all throughout the Pentateuch against sin. God is now our father, not our judge, and we rejoice in that acceptance, that assurance that we are his, and he is ours.

Moses gives us a hint of this in chapter 30:6. After the people have been brought back to the land by God, Moses says:

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

This is amazing. God himself will do the surgery. He will cut off the foreskin of our rebellious and sinful hearts, as we now know by his Holy Spirit, so that we will no longer be his enemies. It’s a matter of the heart, not outward conformity to the law, and God will give us new hearts.

Deuteronomy 28

This is one harsh chapter. It outlines the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, and the latter is far longer than the former. The first 14 verses are blessings, and the rest of the 68 verses are curses! If I were a Hebrew listening to this, I’d want out, right away. Way too much down side. Yet this is part of God’s redemptive history for a reason, and that reason is Jesus. As he says in Luke 24:27:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

The point of blessings and curses is that in order to receive the former all we have to do is obey God’s law perfectly; the latter come to us when we pretty much do what comes naturally. So the deck is stacked, no matter how hard we try we are cursed. Thus we are driven to the one who hung on a tree and willingly took upon himself the curses that belonged to us that we might experience God’s blessings.

For the people of Israel the news isn’t so good. Moses makes some brutal predictions in this chapter about what will happen to them in years to come, when they will be under siege and God will scatter them to the four corners of the earth. All of this had to be to show us that human inclination in relationship to a holy and just God will always lead us away from his presence. That is ultimately what this scattering means. God was present with Israel, they were his people where he put his presence, and because of their disobedience they must be driven away from it.

Deuteronomy 26 & 27

More commands and instructions for the people when they have “entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it.” First they are to take the firstfruits of their blessing and present it to God via the priests at his dwelling. When they do they are to recount how God saved them from slavery, a consistent theme throughout the Pentateuch. Not only do they, but we too, God’s eternally redeemed people must continually affirm the fruit of our labor is his blessing, and give back because he has redeemed us from our own slavery to sin and death.

They are to give this “sacred portion” to the Levite (for God’s work of his presence and mediation), the alien, the fatherless and the widow.” I’ve said it previously, but this concern for the powerless who cannot care for themselves was a completely radical notion in the ancient world, unique among the peoples of the world. From the very beginning, human power and strength and wealth had a tendency to set themselves up against God, as if human beings could ever be self-sufficient.

As Paul says in Acts 17:25, God gives all men life, breath and everything else. Our care for the least among us communicates this fact that as these are dependent on the community to survive and prosper, so are we dependent on God to survive and prosper. So there is a theological reason for giving in addition to practical reasons that people just need help. And directly flowing from this obedience to God the people are commanded to asked to be blessed because of it. As Jesus says, it is more blessed to give than to receive. 

The end of the chapter affirms that the people will obey all the the Lord commands, and that God will bless them as his “treasured possession,” that they will be a people holy to the Lord and set high above all the nations of the world. But the downside of God’s blessing for obedience is his curse for disobedience, which is declared loudly in chapter 27.

When they cross the Jordan they are commanded to build an altar of stones and write all the words of the law on it. It says in verse 5 that the altar must be natural stones; they were not to “use any iron tool upon them.” I think this commentary gets it right:

This was commanded because God did not want the glory of the stone carver to be the center of attention at His altar. God, at His altar, will share glory with no man – the beauty and attractiveness would be found only in the provision of God, not in any fleshly display.

Then on that same mountain the priests are to declare to all the tribes the curses for doing things contrary to God’s commands. It just so happens there are 12 curses corresponding to the 12 tribes, and they all start with “Cursed is the man who . . . ” and ends with the people saying “Amen!” The first is casting an idol, something detestable to the Lord. All ancient peoples had gods who they could see; the idea of an invisible God was inconceivable to them, but gods who can be seen in the form of idols are false gods, they don’t exist. The invisible God is the only god that actually is real, a message Israel had to be taught again and again and again, as do we.

There is also some basic stuff, like dishonoring your father or mother (we take it for granted that mom and dad are co-equals in a marriage, but in the ancient near east it wasn’t so, until the Hebrews came along), or moving a neighbor’s boundary stone (God took private property very seriously), don’t lead the blind astray, or withhold justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow (again, something we take for granted in a Western culture that has been steeped in Judeo-Christian thought for 2000 years). Then come the curses for sexual sin, like a man who sleeps with his father’s wife, or sleeps with his sister or mother-in-law, or the apex of disgusting, with an animal. You can be sure the peoples of the land they were entering did all these things. The living God brought a completely new ethic to the human race, delivered to his people Israel and eventually to his Church.

Finally, “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” No pressure. Just perfection. Shouldn’t be that hard, right? All of redemptive history, and non-redemptive history at that, tells us otherwise. It is impossible for human beings to keep God’s law perfectly, thus we are cursed. Do you think God wanted to get that point across by having it declared to all the people 12 times! Fortunately, we are not left to being cursed; God himself became a curse for us by hanging on a tree for our salvation. Praise the Living God!

Deuteronomy 23-25

These chapters are a bunch of miscellaneous laws about many different things. Some require that the evil of certain deeds or sin must be purged from Israel, so harsh consequences must follow, but what stands out is something reiterated over and over that makes Israel stand out from the rest of the nations of the world: mercy. Over and over, Moses tells the people to care for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, the least powerful among them, the outcasts, who in the rest of the world would be shunned and ignored. It’s rather extraordinary.

They were aliens and slaves in Egypt, thus they should be able to relate. God rescued and saved them, thus is wasn’t their own power or goodness or worth that is bringing them into the land of promise; it’s all God’s doing. And this of course is analogous to our slavery in sin and death, and God rescuing and saving us not because of anything we have done, so we to can love the alien, the fatherless and the widow.

And everything that the people are commanded to do, whether being honest or considerate or kind or just, is required if God is to bless them, even to the blessing of the land they will enter. This is quite revolutionary because how we treat others is now, because of God’s revelation to man, equated with how we treat God himself. Loving another means we’re loving God! Because human beings are made in God’s image, are a reflection of God’s glory and majesty and not just dirt and chance, they must be treated with ultimate value.

This is why Jesus says that all the law and the prophets can be summed up in, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. The two cannot be separated.