An Exegetical Perspective
The Valedictory Address of Moses.
Today’s passage concludes Moses’s farewell address to the people of Israel gathered in general assembly in the land of Moab (29:1-30:20). In this sermon he sums up all that has transpired in the lengthy “repetition of torah” (mishneh torah) or “second law-giving” (deuteronomion) that is the book of Deuteronomy.
Our text is expressed in the unmistakable style of the Deuteronomists. It is hortatory. The familiar “if … then” syntax of conditional sentences is in place. Like much of the book of Deuteronomy, it is structured around the “two ways”: faithfulness and blessing vs. disobedience and cursing. Retribution theology is dominant throughout the book. God rewards the faithful and punishes the unfaithful. Keep in mind that this is a covenant made with the nation of Israel and does not translate to our covenant.
One of the curiosities in the study of the book of Deuteronomy is its style. After the discovery by archaeologists of the “suzerainty treaties” in the ancient Near East (one of the most famous of which is the about 1280 BCE treaty between Ramses II and the Hittite king Hattusilis), many scholars came to see that Deuteronomy too was a kind of treaty between the sovereign God and the subject, Israel, in that its structure bears close resemblance to the patterns of these treaties. That pattern is as follows: (a) a ruling power reviews the history of its beneficence toward a vassal; (b) treaty stipulations are listed; (c) the code is witnessed by the divine and sanctioned with rewards and punishments; and (d) provision is made for the public reading of the agreement.
The Deuteronomists may indeed have drawn upon memories of this ancient treaty pattern. Their book opens with a historical memoir by Moses (1:1-4:43), followed by a torah of Moses (4:44-28:68) that includes a body of law (12:2-26:15) and curses and blessings as sanctions (chap. 28). At the end of the book are provisions for public dissemination and archiving (chap. 31).
In recent years scholarship has also favored to take the encompassing style of the book to be a last will and testament, Moses’s final gift to his people. Enclosed within that (pedagogical and homiletical) frame is a covenant text, the torah of Moses and the sanctions attached to it. This covenant functions as a sacred constitution for the ideal theocratic state. It was a style that Israel would eventually reject.
Unlike treaties of that day, which was imposed by a sovereign on a subjugated vassal, this covenant (political charter) requires community assent. Deuteronomy’s task is to win that assent through exhortation, the carrot and the stick, even the hard sell!
This passage, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, reveals the passion for national unity and common loyalty that animate this great document, the book of Deuteronomy.
The Conditions for Life and Death (vv. 15-18).
This climactic final paragraph of Moses’s farewell address opens with the theme of retributive justice, cast in the familiar conditional manner favored by the Deuteronomists. There follows summations of deeds that are reckoned to be good or evil. The good deeds to which Israel is summoned are expressed in verbs: “obey … loving … walking in his ways … observing.” These lead to the multiplication of life, long tenure in the land, and God’s direct intervention to bless (v. 16). In contrast, idolatry—the only sin listed in verse 17, but a cardinal one for sure—inevitably leads to alienation from the land and death (v. 18).
Choose Life! (vv. 19-20).
At the end we reach the segment of the passage that assured that this text was to be well known and loved.
First, Moses sets out in a stark form the two ways: life and death, blessings and curses. In his comparable sermon in 4:25-31, Moses calls heaven and earth to witness against Israel (4:26; see also 31:28). There the people perish because of their fatal choice of idolatry over worship of the true God. In this passage, heaven’s witnesses are invoked not to testify to Israel’s sin, but to vouch that YHWH has placed before them the choice between life and death.
Then comes the great challenge: “Choose life!” The form of the Hebrew verb for “choose” (ubaharta) is imperative. It points to a unresolved decision. What do they do? At the end of the book of Joshua, in the context of a covenant ratification ceremony, the people publicly commit themselves to rejecting idolatry. They say, “We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (Josh. 24:18). They seal the covenant with their choice and consequently are liable for their subsequent apostasies.
In Deuteronomy 30:19, the summary conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy(a book always held to be the centerpiece of retribution theology in the OT) suggests that God’s hands are not tied to mandatory prison and death sentences for transgressors. The choice of life always remains an option.
This open-endedness, flowing from the one who cares about the people’s fate, in spite of their constant betrayal, actually underlies the entire book. Moses’s sermon in 4:25-40 comes to the same point by making the key affirmation: “Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them” (4:31). This covenant provided Israel a way of understanding why bad things such as the Babylonian exile happened to them. It also left them room always to make a new start, to reaffirm their allegiance to God, to choose life.
Finally, by leaving this appeal of verse 19 open-ended, the Deuteronomist exhorts all generations. Think of it! The choice of life is an option always open to everyone.
W. Sibley Towner