Certain Failure and Certain Promise

Certain Failure and Certain Promise

As I mentioned in my last post, I am working on a Bible study and Sermon on Deuteronomy 28 and 2 Kings 5. In this post, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned through sitting with these texts over the past couple of weeks. Specifically, I will focus on Deuteronomy 28 in this post, and deal with 2 Kings 5 in another.

I have to admit, I didn’t know very much about Deuteronomy or the Hebrew Bible before starting this. Growing up sporadically Christian, the New Testament was emphasized at the expense of everything else. The Hebrew Bible was only relevant as a sign, pointing towards Jesus. So some of what I will be sharing might not come as a surprise to those of you who are more versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. But I was certainly excited and surprised at what I found!

So in no particular order, here is a summary of what I’ve learned about Deuteronomy 28 specifically, and Deuteronomy in general.

  1. The structure of Deuteronomy resembles other ancient Near East vassal treaties, which include a preamble, historical prologue, stipulation of allegiance, treaty agreement proper, invocation of witness, and blessings and curses (which are found in chapter 28). As suggested by the treaty-like structure, covenants are more political than they are religious – though the distinction between the two is not easily made.
  2. If you just quickly skim ch. 28 you will notice that there are a lot more curses than blessings – 3 times more, in fact. Not just that, but the blessings and curses address every area of public and private life.
  3. Some of the curses have been altered or added to at a later point in time. This may seem problematic for some, but it is in keeping with the Deuteronomic tradition of reinterpreting the tradition in light of new circumstances. Interestingly, the word “Deuteronomy” means second law, or copy of the law. Walter Brueggemann suggests that this means you can imagine a third law, or fourth law, etc. The covenant made at Moab in Deuteronomy is a supplement to the covenant made at Sinai.
  4. The curses outlined in chapter 28 can be broken up into three or four large themes that correspond to the blessings in the beginning of the chapter: antiprosperity, antiprotection, antiprominence, and antiorder.
  5. The theme of antiprominence can be further divided up into themes of madness and pestilence, which are concepts relating to exile. The curses in this section (vv. 28-42) are a subset of curses called futility curses, as in, you will try to do something good but the result will be bad, and this futility will lead to madness and/or pestilence. What is interesting to note about these curses is that it is actually very difficult to discern divine action in any of these outcomes. The outcomes described are vague in describing how God is the one causing them.
  6. Chapter 8 reminds the people of Israel not to forget that it is God who provides them with the blessings of prosperity, protection, and prominence. But the curses outlined in chapter 28 shows what happens when Israel forgets that it is God alone who provides, thereby disobeying God’s ordinances and mismanaging the gifts given to them.
  7. Directly connected to number 6 is the connection between moral order and cosmic order – moral order affects cosmic order. The future of Israel, the land, and God, depends on what Israel does in response to and light of the laws of God. I cannot stress this last point enough – what you say and do matters because it affects not just your future but God’s future as well. These curses, then, are not inflicted by God but result from your actions.
  8. Lastly, not only are the blessings of God revocable, so too are the curses. What makes this different from a treaty (see number 1) is that God is free to change God’s mind. In chapter 30 (after the blessings and curses section) God reasserts God’s fidelity. And this is where God’s people live – between commands and promises, stipulations and gifts, blessings and curses.

There is a lot more, but that is a good overview. There is, however, one more theme I’d like to point out. In contrast to the commodification and scarcity of Pharaoh, the covenant between God and Israel is one based on fidelity and abundance. If Deuteronomy is an ongoing interpretation of the laws of God, it makes sense that there would be reminders of the time spent in exile. In the very beginning of chapter 28 the Israelites are told to obey God by observing the commandments. Contrast this with what Pharaoh says in Exodus 5:2,

“Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out.”

In vv. 25-42, compare the curses with the plagues of Egypt in Exodus. In vv. 47-48, the iron yoke is a reminder and threat of political oppression. In vv. 60-68 is a very explicit reminder of the exile plus a threat to return Israel to Egypt if God’s commandments are not obeyed. Immediately following, in chapter 29:18, Moses tells Israel that worshiping the Gods of Egypt will poison the community. And in chapter 29:24-27 is the clearest and most direct warning:

they and indeed all the nations will wonder, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?’ They will conclude, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. They turned and served other gods, worshiping them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them; so the anger of the Lord was kindled against that land, bringing on it every curse written in this book.'”

I bring all of this up to reiterate the importance of understanding Deuteronomy and the whole Deuteronomic tradition in terms of providing and alternative to the Pharaohic narrative.

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