15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If 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. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I 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. 19 I 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, 20 loving 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.
There’s an old debaters’ trick designed to funnel one’s hearers towards the position that the speaker prefers. The speaker presents a bilateral view of the matter: it’s either this, or it’s that. No options. No middle ground. Just pick one, and you have to pick. Philosophers, who don’t like the trick much, teach freshman in college that it is a logical fallacy. They call it a false choice, because the world is usually more complex than it is often presented, especially by those who have an agenda. A good example of this technique being used in a debate was during this past week’s confrontation between creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and Bill Nye, “The Science Guy.” On several occasions, the creationist Ham put the matter to his listeners starkly: Either one accepts the Bible, divine creation, moral order, motherhood, apple pie, and puppies; or else one supports evolution, anarchy, ritual sacrifice, and Festivus. You could just picture folks all across the country sitting in their Barcaloungers, looking at their significant other saying, “Well, we don’t believe in anarchy or ritual sacrifice, and we love puppies. And what’s Festivus? So we just can’t be evolutionists.” Because when you put it that way, who wouldn’t want to disassociate themselves from what is being portrayed as the very heart of darkness?
In this week’s Old Testament lection from the Revised Common Lectionary, Deuteronomy 30:15-20 , Moses pulls a “Ken Ham” on the Israelites, giving them two choices, one if them which is unthinkable. The setting is Moses’ final sermon, just before his death. Because of an earlier mistake, he is not being allowed by God to enter with the children of Israel into the Promised Land, so this is it, his final sermon, the last words he will deliver to the people after 40 years of being in charge. And like many farewell orations, it ends up being a thirty chapter sermon.
There are several important features that pastors need to communicate to their congregations about Deuteronomy which will help their people navigate its alien landscape. First, Deuteronomy functions as kind of a hinge between the Torah and the historical books or “Former Prophets” as they are classed in the Hebrew Bible. The narrative portions of Deuteronomy extend the earlier story of Genesis through Numbers, while its theological viewpoint will prefigure that which is found in Joshua through 2 Kings. Because there is little narrative in Deuteronomy, it is one of the least well-known books in the Old Testament. But if you read it carefully, it will foreshadow a great deal of what is about to unfold in the story.
The second thing that congregations need to know is that scholars have, in the last century, recognized that Deuteronomy bears striking resemblance to ancient treaties that conquering states compelled their soon-to-be vassals to ratify. The particular idiosyncrasy of these documents that is shared with Deuteronomy is the formulaic series of blessings and curses. If you cooperate, things will go well for you; if you don’t, there’s going to be trouble. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. This week’s passage is a summary statement of a larger closing section of the book which contains this whole concept in nuce. Do what’s right, Moses declares, or you’re going to regret it.
The third historical feature of the book that congregants need to know is that scholars believe that the book was written sometime slightly before, during, or just after the exile of 6th century BCE. I said earlier that what Deuteronomy warns about in the form of seemingly boring legal statutes and cases, comes to life, at first quite successfully in the conquest, then horribly in the developing train wreck that Israel’s experience in the Promised Land will become.
One of the greatest challenges of preaching Deuteronomy (or any other of the historical books from Joshua to 2 Kings) is the account of the holy war in Joshua 6-11. In the Deuteronomic framework, part of what it means to keep Yahweh’s commandments, statutes, ordinances and decrees is that one is obligated to commit genocide against the inhabitants. Nobody thinks that this is acceptable today, but the pastor can’t ignore this part of the story or justify it by saying that, well, that was how things were back then, or that the Canaanites were really bad. It makes no difference what the times were like or how wicked the people. Genocide is evil and the pastor must say so with no equivocation. We live in an age of genocide and whatever discomfort anyone feels at challenging the morality of scripture has to give way to the reality of modern slaughter. No one should ever walk out of a church wondering whether or not the pastor thought mass killing was OK given the proper circumstances.
But back to the text. Because the informed reader knows that Israel is going to wind up going into exile, Moses functions as the voice of the future generation, the Deuteronomist’s generation, sometime in or around the exile, looking back at their ancestors, screaming to them, “WAKE UP! CHOOSE THE RIGHT PATH!” even though everyone by now knows that they won’t. The narrator’s use of Moses as the voice of a later generation is similar to what therapists do with victims of abuse whose perpetrator is dead or otherwise unavailable. Moses, voicing the the anxiety and frustration of the community yet many generations in the future, gives it to the ancestors straight. There were two paths Israel could follow, but one of those two paths would lead to the unthinkable. “CHOOSE LIFE!” the victims cry, through the stern, stark words of Moses, for, as they well know, there is only one alternative. “IT’S OUR ONLY HOPE!”
While it may have been cathartic for the Deuteronomist’s generation to unload their frustration about the bad decisions of their ancestors, that’s not why this episode is in the canon. People do therapy, not just to address their past, but so that they can better function going forward. The later community of the Deuteronomist was also thinking about its own future, and it used this ancestral myth to say something important about the choices that lay before them and all who would come thereafter. Just as the Deuteronomist was looking back at the mistakes of their ancestors, so their descendants would one day look back on them. And from the vantage point of those who would come after them, the Deuteronomist’s community realizes that, though there may appear to be a wide array of choices for the community to make about the direction it will take, in reality, there are still only two, and one is still unthinkable.
Oh yes, as in the days of Moses, there are yet still many gods after which the community can follow. These latter day alternatives may not be made of wood or stone, but they are equally as compelling as anything which with the ancestors were tempted. In the world of this story, the future is not certain, the way is not guaranteed. Every generation of the community that follows, including our own, the text suggests, like the children of Israel on the banks of the Jordan, is going to have to choose. Only this time, we have to get it right.
Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology. His book, Not “Who Is on the Lord’s Side,” but “Whose Side Is The Lord on?”: Contesting Plots and Divine Inscrutability in 2 Samuel 16:5-14 (Peter Lang, 2014), is due out later this month.