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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Extraordinary Ordinariness—Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 (Alastair Roberts)

Moses taught Israel that its primary calling as a people before the nations was not conflict but witness through its showcasing of the goodness, wisdom, and righteousness of the divinely given law. Likewise, the chief political task of Christians is found in the cultivation of a quiet extraordinariness in the most ordinary affairs of life.

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2 You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.

6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? 9 But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children

Deuteronomy 4 is the bridge between the historical prologue of the opening three chapters of the book and Moses’ declaration of the law beginning in the chapter that follows. Richard Nelson observes that, together with verses 32-40, the initial eight verses of the chapter bracket ‘three paragraphs beginning with “be careful lest”: vv.9-14, 15-22, and 23-31.’[1] The chapter charges the Israelites to do the law and to refrain from the fashioning of idols, and warns them of the dangers of choosing a different path.

The chapter’s opening ‘so now’ challenges the Israelites, in light of their reflection upon the narrative of their wanderings and initial victories recounted in the preceding chapters, to ready themselves for the promulgation of the law that will follow. The alerting of the addressees to the specificity of their temporal situation is also seen in repeated references to ‘today’ or ‘this day’ (verses 4, 8, 20, 38-40). The Israelites stand at a pivotal and crucial moment: YHWH is presenting them the opportunity to establish a break with their previous wandering and the resources to start anew in a blessed land, if they will only grasp it. As they prepare to enter into the land promised to them by YHWH, Israel is charged to obey the ‘statutes and ordinances’ that Moses sets out before them. The importance of the law for Israel’s continued existence in the land is underlined within the verses that follow. At stake is both their life itself and their possession of the land (verse 1).

Moses’ purpose is to teach them the law: not merely to list its bare precepts, but to give Israel a sense of what keeping them will look like. While the Ten Commandments might be the central body of the law (verse 13), these commandments sketch the contours of what is unpacked in more detail in illustrative case law. There is no comprehensive legal system provided, but rather the pattern and manner of justice is set out in broad principles and specific examples.

The law set before Israel is an unusual body of material, establishing a regulation of Israel’s life as a people that involves considerably more than merely public judicial administration of justice. The Ten Commandments contain a commandment against covetousness and there are several other such commandments that could never be enforced by any institutional organ of justice. At various points the law gestures away from human authorities to its deeper grounding in divine justice, a grounding that establishes the basis for God’s blessing or cursing Israel as a nation, guaranteeing the force of the law when it is otherwise rejected in practice. The pedagogy of the law is intensive and extensive, overcoming any division between public and private realms to take root in the familial life of the people: they must teach these statutes and ordinances to their children as they recount YHWH’s deliverance of them from Egypt and his revelation to them at Horeb. The law is the charter of Israel’s existence as a people and observing, meditating upon, and passing on this law are nothing less than the principles of Israel’s continued life in the land.

Perhaps the most striking statements in our section of Deuteronomy 4 are found in verses 6-8. On a number of occasions in Deuteronomy Israel’s relative smallness and insignificance as a nation is highlighted and it is contrasted with the much greater and mightier peoples that surround it (e.g. 4:38; 7:7; 9:1; 11:23). In verses 6-8, however, Moses presents a threefold argument that the law is the means by which Israel will be established as a ‘great nation’ in reputation among its neighbours, an argument that thereby serves as a threefold rationale for obedience.

The first argument (verse 6) is that obedience to the law will lead Israel to be praised and honoured by its neighbours for its wisdom. The admiration typically extended to the wise and discerning ruler would be shown to Israel as an entire people. The affinity between law and wisdom here is striking, occurring as it does outside of the Wisdom literature.

The second argument (verse 7) is that Israel’s observance of the law would serve as a demonstration of the nearness of YHWH to them, a nearness far greater than any of the gods and idols of the nations could offer. The law was a divine gift, an enduring symbol and memorial of YHWH’s coming near to Israel at Horeb. The law, as it was designed to establish the terms of life in communion with YHWH, was both founded in God’s proximity to Israel and established the enduring conditions for the enjoyment of a state where YHWH was near to Israel whenever they called upon him. The intensity and extensity of the law allowed for the kneading of the principles of life in fellowship with YHWH into every aspect of Israel’s life as a people.

The final argument (verse 8) concerns the inherent equity of the law. The law was given as a sign of liberation into service of YHWH and its law serve to bring that liberation into all of Israel’s social relations, with the poor, orphans and widows, strangers, debtors, and slaves.

Within Deuteronomy, much of the focus is upon preparation for war in the land and the relationship with other nations is routinely presented in terms of conflict and opposition. Israel’s place as a nation among other nations will be established by driving out the nations currently inhabiting the land promised to it. Here, however, Israel’s place among the nations is framed differently. Israel’s renown among the nations will be secured, not by violent conquest and military might, but by dedicated observance of the principles of righteous life in close fellowship with God before the gaze of the peoples surrounding it.

In Moses’ message to Israel, he declares that its international reputation and influence would be established as it showcased the righteous, wise, and enlightening principles of the law of fellowship with YHWH, a God who was close to his people. The nations will be converted to the way of YHWH and his law as they see it manifested—incarnated—in the life of Israel. As Telford Work remarks, ‘Israel’s obedience is life-giving as well as life-keeping.’[2]

In the West today, the Church often regards its political task chiefly in terms of direct ‘prophetic’ address to the powers or in terms of ‘culture war’. Although the frequently confrontational and oppositional cast of our political theology can often be bracing, it can no less often involve a dangerous neglect of our primary political task, which is that of being a ‘city set on a hill’ (Matthew 5:14), showcasing the goodness, wisdom, and righteousness of life in fellowship with God, portraying a form of life that is both compelling and convicting to all surrounding us. Sadly we have often abandoned our principal task of being an illuminating and inviting lamp, preferring the dazzling ‘prophetic’ spotlight or the weaponized laser beam for culture warfare.

Reading the New Testament epistles, a recurring emphasis is placed upon the duty of churches, their leaders, and their members to be held in good reputation by those in the societies that surround them, leaving even the most firm opponents without anything evil to say of them. These passages can often be an embarrassment both to those who emphasize prophetic activism and those who emphasize political conflict, focusing as they do upon the virtues of lives that are characterized by submissiveness to authorities, peacefulness, gentleness, humility, and minding our own business. Christians are to be those who are quietly extraordinary in their behaviour in the most ordinary things of life. It is in so doing that, like Israel, we will fulfil the main part of our political duty as the people of God.

[1] Richard D. Nelson, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 63.
[2] Telford Work, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 61.

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