A Theological Perspective
Part of God’s final words to Moses that he delivers to the Israelites, this passage is rich not only in thought but also in theological (how we understand God) ideas.
As we have seen, the first part, verses 15-16, focuses on choice and promise. The second part, verses 17-18, presents the consequences if the wrong choice is made. The third part, verses 19-20, is an exhortation to choose life, a choice that will result in blessings.
The main theological theme in verses 15-16 is obedience.
Having experienced the hardships of Egyptian bondage, having been set free from such bondage, having entered into covenant with God, having been entrusted with God’s law, and having survived much of the challenging journey through the wilderness, the Israelites now stand on the plain as Moses prepares to die and the people prepare to enter the promised land.
Delivering God’s message, Moses now declares to them that they have two choices—either life and prosperity or death and adversity—and the choice rests with them. If the people make the correct choice, then Israel will have a long future. If not, then Israel’s days are numbered.
For Israel, life and prosperity meant that all human activity would be under the protection of the Divine. They would live securely on the land; their land would be fertile and prosperous; and they as a people would be fertile, blessed with many offspring and descendants. On the contrary, death would mean that all human activity would be devoid of the divine presence. The people would be forced to exist outside of the land, without security and peace. They stand at a crossroads.
Part of their choosing life means that they choose to be “obedient” to God and God’s ways. At first thought, the choice for life seems freeing. When coupled with obedience, the choice seems to be somewhat constricting, but is it really?
The Israelites are called to obey God’s commandments. Immediately the 10 Commandments comes to mind, which is not merely a set of laws set down to achieve perfection or individual holiness (see Exod. 20:1-17). These laws are meant to preserve covenant and, above all, right relationship with God (Exod. 20:1-7) and with one another (Exod. 20:12-17), with the central prohibition being to remember and keep holy the Sabbath day (Exod. 20:8-11).
This day was meant to be a day of celebration, rest, recollection, and reflection whereby people were afforded the time to delight in God’s creation, to take stock of their relationship with God and with one another, and ultimately to enjoy rest in God and with God. This has value for our time spent on the Lord’s Day.
The commandments of the Lord also call to mind Deuteronomy 6:1-9, a text that beckons the people to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, soul, and might—to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts to God (Deut. 10:16). Obeying God’s commandments means that the people are to love God wholeheartedly; to walk in God’s ways, which are ways of justice, righteousness, and loving-kindness like what they have already experienced; and to observe not only God’s commandments but also all the decrees and ordinances that are part of the commandments.
The people are called to live Torah as a way of life. Their reward for their fidelity and integrity will be divine blessing. To be blessed by God is to be guaranteed safety, well-being, strength, prosperity, and progeny. Furthermore, the people themselves will become “a blessing” (cf. Gen. 12:2-3). God’s commandments and ways are meant not as restriction but rather as prescriptions that leads to the fullness of life for all.
Obedience is not merely doing as one is told. Obedience means “to listen,” which involves more than just hearing and following. Obedience is a discernment process that involves not only the mind and will but also, and most especially, the heart.
In Deuteronomy (11:13; 13:4; 30:2), Moses calls on the Israelites to listen “with all [their] heart.” In the biblical tradition, the heart is the most important organ, one that is central to God’s relationship with Israel. God set God’s “heart” on Israel and chose Israel because Israel was the fewest of all peoples (Deut. 7:7).
God’s love for Israel is an affair of the heart, and God, in turn, wants such a relationship to be reciprocal. Covenant is supposed to be grounded in mutual, wedded love. Obedience, then, calls the Israelites “to listen” to God’s word in their inner selves, at their core, and to live out that word, which, in turn, will result in life transformed truly into God’s image, according to God’s likeness, with God’s ways made manifest through the people’s daily life together.
Having had two choices placed before them, the people are now warned that if they turn their hearts away, and do not hear, and consequently turn to idolatry (placing anything in God’s place), then serious consequences will follow. The people can choose a life of blessing or a death sentence with its curses.
In the last section of our reading, Moses gives the people a specific directive with regard to the choice they face. He exhorts them to “choose life” (v. 19). Now the Israelites are faced with a decision as to whether they will listen to the wise directive given to them.
The scenario has been laid out before them; God’s will has been revealed. The people are left free to exercise their free will.
History bears out, however, that many times the Israelites chose their own way and suffered the consequences of their own decisions. God, however, remains faithful to the people in a myriad of ways, despite their wrong choices. Choosing life, then, is a lifelong process, sometimes learned only in the midst of struggle.
Carol J. Dempsey