The book of Deuteronomy can be read as Moses’ farewell speech to Israel. After 40 years of camping it is time to take the land of Canaan. It’s also time for Moses to retire. His death is at hand. Moses too is not allowed to enter the Promised Land due to an infraction which to many seems like a minor technicality. Moses’ being barred from entering the Promised Land of Canaan seems especially harsh and severe considering all of the aggravation and opposition that he had had to have put up with these past 40 years. Kind of a crummy reward for 4 decades of faithful (almost perfect) service. But from another standpoint, Moses’ removal is really necessary. The people of Israel couldn’t lean on him forever. He was a fine leader. But the time had come for them to stand on their own two feet. It would have been totally self-defeating for the people of Israel to have emerged out of the shadows of slavery under Pharaoh only to exchange one tyrant for another. Moses could have emerged as the new Pharaoh.
In the book of Deuteronomy Moses is dealing with and addressing a whole new audience. These are the children of those who had been slaves. And as Moses prepares to set them forth; in this moment of anticipation before a great transition; the great lawgiver and leader reviews the past 40 years, reiterates some major ideas and reinforces others.
The book of Deuteronomy is almost entirely lacking for any narrative episodes that can be extracted and presented to the sunday schooler. The material in Deuteronomy is rather dry; a lot of legislative material along with the historical recap. But the one scene that can be vividly painted for the sunday schooler is the epic scene towards the book’s end when Moses stands up before the people and arranges them into two divided congregations, at which time he will pronounce the blessings and the curses. Good will follow them, Moses tells, if they keep to God’s ways. Troubles will multiply and cause rot and decay to the people if they decide to ignore God’s injunctions.
At last Israel stands at the brink. They lay encamped on the eastern edge of the Jordan River, the boundary line between the wilderness where they have spent the last 40 years and the land of Canaan, which they are soon to cross over into to claim as their own. Moses, who will not be going with them on the next stage of their adventure, stands up to address them.
“Fellows,” he says, “It’s been nice knowing you. It’s been a rough 40 years, but here you are, ready to complete your journey. I’ve done all that I can for you. I want you to know, I did my best. And you folks weren’t always so easy to work with. You can blame it on your parents, but keep in mind, they were raised as slaves. You kids aren’t perfect either. You’ve got your faults. But now it’s time for you to go out on your own and to be responsible for yourselves. I can’t always be there to watch over you. And, even if I could, that wouldn’t be in your best interest anyway. You need to stand on your own two feet.
I think most of you know where we have been and what it’s been like these last 40 years. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. As you move forward, consider the past. Think about what you’ve learned. There have been lots of ups and downs. But now you’re ready. We just fought two big battles with nasty foes; sort of preseason games before we cross the river and get this thing cranked up.
I can’t go over that river with you. I blame you for that. You guys got me in trouble with God that time when I got fed up and sort of lost my temper. But it’s better for you anyway if you go without me. I don’t want to be a shadow from the past hanging over your future.
When you get over that river, don’t forget the things that I taught you. Don’t forget what God told you is good and what isn’t right.
Now, kids, we’re going to engage in a little exercise. I’m going to split you into two groups. Count of by twos. Half of you stand up over there on that mountain. Now the rest of you, position yourself on that other mountain there next to it.
Okay, just for illustrating my point, I’ll call team 1 the good guys and team 2 the bad guys. Remember, we’re just acting this out.
Okay, you guys over here…you good guys. What do you do? You listen to God. You follow instructions. You don’t think up or make up your own rules. And, where’s that going to get you? You, in the back row; you, Timmy–did I see your hand up? What’s that? What’s that you say? That’s right, Timmy–God will bless you. These rules are good for you. God doesn’t give you instructions that lead to failure. He wants you to succeed.
But now there’s this group over here. These are the bad guys. They don’t think that they have to follow any rules. They think, ‘hey, once we have the land we wanted, and we’ve got all we need, we don’t need anymore help. We’ll just do whatever we want. We’ll enjoy all of the good things we’ve got and forget about where they came from. And we’ll just act like they’re ours and no one can ever take them away from us.’
Now, what’s going to happen to these guys? Anybody? Anybody else? Is Timmy there the only one willing to speak up? Okay, Timmy; tell these folks what will happen to these bad guys? Yes. That’s right. They’re going to wreck the good thing that they have been given and self-destruct.
Now, people, I am putting before you today these two choices. It’s all up to you. You can have life or death; blessings and curses. Nobody has kept anything hidden from you. But now it’s up to you to choose. You have to choose everyday. Every morning when you get up you have to push away the bad thoughts and desires to just satisfy yourselves and, instead, ask yourselves what is the good and the best thing to do.
Well, I’ve talked long enough. I gotta go.”
And with that Moses, the old man (120 but still as fit as a middle-ager), turned around and climbed up a different mountain than the other two on which the two teams stood. Moses marched up Mt. Nebo and disappeared into the cloud covering above. And he was never seen nor heard from again.
People made all kinds of guesses as to where Moses could have gone to. But most of them figured that probably he was dead. He was, after all, no spring chicken. And God probably would have to find the body and bury Moses, because no one else was allowed to go up on that mountain with him.
And here’s a funny thing: 40 years earlier Moses had climbed up a mountain and disappeared from the people’s sight. And at that time they were pretty freaked out about it. Moses had, at that time, just led them up out of Egypt and led them, as released slaves across the Red Sea waters. And when Moses, that time, was out of sight, the people all figured he was dead. Actually he was up on the mountain getting orders from God–the Ten Commandments and other such laws. But the people didn’t know that. They just knew that he had been gone a long time–40 days, in fact. And that’s when they made the gold calf because they thought that they had lost Moses and figured a nice statue of a cow (sort of a butter-cow, but made out of precious metal instead of precious milk-fat) could replace him. Moses, of course, came back at that time and was pretty peeved to see that he had been replaced by a cow-statue. But now, this time–40 years later–Moses really was gone for good. And what did the people have left but his teachings?
And that is why, to this day, Moses and his teaching are held in such honor and venerated by the people of Israel. They no longer had the man. But they had the instructions that he had written down. To this day, nothing is so precious to the people of Israel as the law of Moses.
But, you know, people can make an idol out of anything; even out of something good–maybe especially out of good things. And Moses’ law became such an object of worship to the people of Israel that it later got in their way of being able to listen to and understand Jesus when he came.
CONNECTIONS:The close of the commandments is a very powerful statement about the sorts of consequences that people can expect for regarding or disregarding God’s law as laid down for them. We should fear and love God. There are blessings or curses to be had. There is the way of life and the way of death. And it’s our choice. The consequences that are described in the close of the commandments should not be read as random punishments that God delivers, or rewards, unrelated to the commands themselves. The rewards and punishments (probably not the best terms to use) are merely natural consequences of the paths that we choose. Rewards and punishments sound too much like the carrot or the stick. If God is merely the guarantor of rewards and punishments, there is the necessary implication that he is merely training us, like rats in a maze. And then our choices are never really virtuous or vile. We are merely programmed to do this or that. If such it were with God then we could never become the free and responsible creatures that he would have us to be. Bad comes from bad behavior simply because that’s what it produces. Likewise, good works for good. What God does is to give us a heads-up. God is frank and plain not only about what is right and wrong, but also to that which they lead. The remarkable freedom that God grants to us is frightening. To men who once were slaves, freedom can be a dangerous allurement. But with liberation comes, also, preparation; education and guidance. God will speak through Moses, very famously, in the book of Deuteronomy about the persistent and continual presence or prophets amongst them. God would not simply fall silent. He wishes to advise. The law is not the last word that he speaks. But God will go on to notify his people as to how the law applies to the various circumstances of their lives. He will remind them of the possibilities before them for blessings or curses. But always God lets them choose.