The Word in the Wings
From the study: God's word is very near
By: KAYA WEAVER
Through the patriarchal narratives of Genesis and the exile and return journey in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, Israel is a small group of wanderers or outsiders. By Deuteronomy, Israel is on the brink of a major transition: their numbers have grown and they are about to enter the land which God has promised to grant them as a nation. Before the people make this transition, their leader Moses gives a final exhortation, reminding the people of the commands God has given them to guide their conduct as a nation.
Deuteronomy 30:11-20 describes the significance of God’s commands in mediating Israel’s return, not just physically to the geographical space that God promised to give Israel’s ancestors, but also relationally to the boundaries established in creation to govern fruitful interactions among God, humanity, and the earth.
11 For this command which I am commanding you today–
it is not too extraordinary for you, nor is it too distant.
12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say,
“Who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us
so we may hear it and do it?”
13 And it is not across the sea, that you should say,
“Who will cross for us across the sea and take it for us
so we may hear it and do it?”
14 For the word is very near to you,
in your mouth and in your heart,
to do it.
Moses poetically describes the people’s relationship to the law that God has given them during their time in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. The first lines declare that God’s instructions are not outside the people’s reach; they are “not too extraordinary” for their comprehension, and they are not “too distant” for the people to access their content.
Moses specifies that the command is not located in “the heavens” or “across the sea,” in areas of creation that humans cannot access. Robert Alter notes that pagan heroes such as Gilgamesh were specially-empowered representatives who would undertake a great quest to find divine secrets on behalf of ordinary people (The Hebrew Bible Vol. 1: The Five Books of Moses, p. 722); but no such questing hero is needed for the Israelites, because their instruction from God “is very near,” even touching their own bodies. Their mouths can form the words of the law, and their hearts can understand and be moved to obey.
Verses 12-14 constitute a threefold pattern that exemplifies the statement in verse 11. Verses 12 and 13 describe parallel counterfactuals, and verse 14 describes the reality that cuts across those images. In the counterfactual images, the people would ask for a champion to obtain the command “so we may hear it and do it.” In verse 14, this refrain is shortened because in reality the people have already heard the command, so it remains only for them “to do it.” Now is the time not for waiting or wavering but for action, for the people already have access to God’s instruction.
15 See, I’ve placed before you today
life and goodness
and death and evil,
16 which I’m commanding you today
to love Yahweh your God,
to walk in his ways,
and to keep his commands and his statutes and his judgments,
so you will live and multiply,
and Yahweh will bless you in the land
where you are going to possess it.
17 But if your heart turns and you don’t listen,
and you turn aside and worship other gods and serve them,
18 I’ve told you today that you will surely die;
you will not lengthen your days on the ground which you are crossing the Jordan to go and possess.
What action are the people of God to take? Moses describes their options in terms of opposing word pairs: “life” and “death,” “goodness” and “evil.” He also describes the choice in terms of allegiance: life comes through loving Yahweh and following Yahweh’s commands, but serving other gods leads to certain death.
The phrase “you will surely die” echoes God’s warning to the human in the garden of Eden: “But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–do not eat from it, for on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The Israelites’ choice between “goodness” and “evil” also echoes key vocabulary from the garden narrative (Alter, p. 722). The references to heavens (v. 12), sea (v. 13), and land (v. 16) bring all three spaces of creation from Genesis 1 into view, and God’s promises of multiplying and blessing in the land bring to mind the humans’ vocation to participate in God’s ongoing creation (Genesis 1:28).
Thematically, the same primal story from Genesis 1-3 is retold here in Deuteronomy 30. Humanity receives instructions from God and is given the choice between abundant life and certain death. Life comes with good relationships to Yahweh and to the land. As God restores the people to their dwelling in the land across the Jordan, reversing humanity’s exile from the garden, they also have the chance to restore the intimacy of their relationships with God and with each other.
19 I’ve called the heavens and the land to witness for you today;
life and death I’ve placed before you–
blessing and curse–
and you will choose life
so that you and your offspring may live,
20 to love Yahweh your God, to listen to his voice and to cling to him,
for he is your life and the length of your days to dwell on the ground
which Yahweh swore to your ancestors,
to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
to give them.
In the garden, the human listens to the voice of his wife, who was deceived by the serpent, and acts against God’s instruction (Genesis 3:17). Moses exhorts the people to listen to God’s voice directly, and, in the language of appropriately intimate relationships, to cling to Yahweh (see Genesis 2:24). In the garden, the humans hide when they hear (or listen to) the sound (or metaphorical voice) of God walking about (Genesis 3:8). Deuteronomy 30:20 imagines that fear and avoidance can transform into love and nearness. The command that God has given to Israel shows God’s people the way to walk so they may experience that transformation from death to life.
The story of GPA’s ballet Casefile: Euangelion invites its audience to appreciate how accessible and powerful God’s word is for us. Moses’s exhortation to Israel in Deuteronomy 30 puts forth a similar message, highlighting the wonderful gift of God’s word to guide the people of Israel to life and peace as they establish themselves as a nation in their own land. Even when faced with realities of curse, exile, and death, the way to life and peace is not out of reach for those willing to listen and cling to God.
Scripture quotations in this post are my own translation.
Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible Vol. 1: The Five Books of Moses (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).
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