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Politics of Scripture

A Covenant for the Common Good

The weighty and earnest words of Deuteronomy ring out with welcome clarity in a time of partisan wrangling and division. God cuts to the chase, gets right to the bottom line, and calls out what is important—an invitation to a covenant for the common good.

30:15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

The weighty and earnest words of Deuteronomy ring out with welcome clarity in a time of partisan wrangling and division. God cuts to the chase, gets right to the bottom line, calls out what is important and needs to be considered by those who wish to be God’s people. God once again issues an invitation. God offers a covenant for the common good. This covenant that God makes with the people of Israel, longer and more extensive than a treaty, but with those elements, is what forms their identity, binds them together, and makes them one. First made at Sinai, now Moses reaffirms with a subsequent generation what is at stake.

The people’s relationship with God is what holds them together, forms their identity and gives them practices that provide stability and sustainability. The land is God’s gift to them; it is provided for their welfare. But, as a gift it can be taken, just as it is given. God makes the obedience of the people a requirement for the land being and remaining theirs.

This, then, is central to the ongoing dynamic relationship God has with God’s people, that they understand the seriousness of this—that their obedience to God and God alone means life and prosperity, rather than death and adversity. The fortunes of the people are dependent upon obedience to God. They are in this together, all of them, as one, with God at the center. And the ways of God, laid out in the law, bind them together as a people. Without this there is weakness that leaves them vulnerable to internal disunity and external threats, both of which can bring them as a nation to ruin.

Here, as they enter the land, the choice is given to them; the reality that they face is shown to them. Laid out simply in “ifs” and “thens:” if you live by God’s commands, then there will be blessing (verse 16); if you do not, then you will perish (verses 17–18). God’s way is the only way for the people to survive. This is the bottom line. Walter Brueggemann refers to this as the Deuteronomist’s “quid pro quo calculus . . . affirming that conduct matters; by policy and by behavior, we choose our futures. The affirmation is relentless and uncompromising.”

This is a communal decision, to be about life for all now and all in the future. Prosperity and life comes through submission to the common good for all laid out in the law of God. All of the people are in and on the team, playing by the same rules, or the game will be forfeited. The only way to success is this.

God lays this out, clearly, unequivocally, persuasively, and then asks the people to choose. God wants a partnership, wants the people to embrace this vision, this way of living. Throughout these last chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses is presenting God’s case, reasoning with the people, laying out the terms not only as the reasonable option, but also as a reflection of God’s great, great love.

God has compassion for these people. God wishes for them to prosper, to live. And so God comes to them and reaches out to them. In the verses just before this passage, God says: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away (verse 11). No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (verse14).

This intimacy, that this word of God resides within, is heart-breakingly tender. The God of all creation has placed this within us, in our conscience, in our souls. God’s desire to bless us attracts us, and appeals to us. God does not seek to test us or vex us or try us or trick us, but to provide all goodness for us. Our part of the bargain is to reach back and take a hold of this through obedience to God.

This approach, however, is not enough for us. Seemingly it is never enough to cajole, to encourage, even to mildly plead. In negotiating with humanity, God seems wise enough to always bring the stick with the carrot. To these negotiations, God brings witnesses, not just to hear and attend to these proceedings, but to reinforce the message that with God there is life, and without God there is not.

Heaven and earth are the witnesses called, loyal to God alone, outside of any human control. Heaven and earth are visible and real manifestations of God’s eternal, all-surrounding presence, and also God’s power. It is in harmony with heaven and earth that the harvest comes, and God is the one directing the light and the dark, the rain and the drought. This is as real as it gets for those living on the land. When the crops are slow to grow and the flocks are failing, the people know their need to turn to God.

The concern here—the need for witnesses to show up and look the people in the eye—is that when they become settled they just might begin to think their prosperity is of their own making. Deuteronomy 4:25–26 lays it out clearly: “When you have children, and children’s children and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord, your God . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you . . . that you will soon utterly perish from the land; . . . you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.”

If we give ourselves over to other gods out of complacency, self-satisfaction, self-reliance, we will be choosing death. These days, here in the time of the children’s children’s children’s children, we know that indeed we have given ourselves over to other gods—those of greed, self-interest and the profit motive, with the current governmental administration removing countless regulations on environmental protections, fought for and put into place for the common good. Land, water, air, soil, and natural resources that are needed to sustain future generations are in peril because we are not taking to heart the witness of heaven and earth against us and our need to embrace God’s call for the good of all. The bargain is for all to live or all to perish. God has laid that out and made that clear. It is simple, “if”—“then.” Climate activists and individual local communities who still support policies and practices like those outlined in the Paris Accord, speak to us directly, unambiguously about what is to come if we do not change our ways.

And heaven and earth will not stand as silent, passive witnesses. They will, at God’s direction, bring that destruction. It is as if these are God’s henchmen stepping into the center of the courtroom, emerging from the shadows. The choice is clear. Do we want to live and prosper or face our collective demise? The result will be from the choices humanity makes, the quid pro quo.

God is calling for an answer. God is inviting us to come and renew our covenant, to submit to God’s ways, so that we may all live and the common good may prosper, for us and our descendants, as well.

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