Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20)

DEUTERONOMY 29:9-11 (10-12 in Christian Bibles)

OUTLINE
All the people from the least to the greatest stand before God for a covenant ceremony.

OVERVIEW
It is not certain what covenant ceremony Moses has been referring to throughout (26:17-18; 28:69). This may refer to the future ceremony (fulfilled in Joshua 8) or it may be a ceremony held in Moab at the time the words were given, but which is not narrated. The first section makes it clear that the covenant is unending, for all generations, with those in Moses’ time and also “with those who are not here with us this day” (i.e., later generations). The description of the people, from the least to the greatest, includes the men, the wives, children, and even non-Israelites. The non-Israelites are described in menial roles (water-carriers and woodchoppers) serving Israel.

DEUTERONOMY 29:12-14

OUTLINE
A ceremony to establish Israel as the people (12), not with one generation but with all to come (13-14).

OVERVIEW
The description of a covenant agreement continues and it is unclear whether Moses performed a covenant ceremony in Moab before the Israelites entered the land or of this refers to the covenant ceremony which Joshua will carry out in Joshua 8. The you in vs. 12 is the second generation, the children of the Exodus generation, and also the non-Israelites who have attached themselves to Israel. The covenant has the same provisions as the one God made with the first generation (“your fathers”). When God says it is “not with you alone,” he includes all future generations in the covenant.

DEUTERONOMY 29:15-28

SPOTLIGHT
“The hidden things belong to Adonai our God.”

Some verses reveal how modern readers differ so greatly from ancient audiences. Deuteronomy 29:28 (29:29 in Christian Bibles) is often used as a prooftext about the nature of Biblical revelation (about how scripture works and God reveals himself through scripture). But the chapter has not been about the topic of revelation. It has been about the moral requirements of God’s covenant and the consequences on earth for Israel.

What could the “hidden things” be? The chapter has just raised the issue of an Israelite who thinks, “I will be safe; I will follow my own willful heart.” We think God will not see our actions or perceive our thoughts. Deuteronomy says that nothing we do or think escapes his perception. As the rabbis said, there is a God who sees all. Every deed and thought is weighed in the balance.

Deuteronomy 29 here combines this observation with a terrifying theology of divine retribution. Should we take this theology of retribution to heart literally, as an absolute principle? Will God literally see to it that “every sanction in this book” comes down upon us? Deuteronomy itself and that larger context of the Bible should ameliorate the terror of this thought. God delays judgment. He gives continual chances. In the next chapter he will teach us that punishment is not forever.

Nonetheless, the meaning of Deuteronomy 29:28 is clear, “Hidden sins belong to God [he knows all about them] but the revealed things [the ways of heaven taught to us in Torah] are for us and our children.” God knows every thought and deed and the penalties for these belong to him.

Just as importantly, God teaches us a higher way, a Torah. And these instructions belong to us. What does it mean they belong to us? In a very real sense, Torah has come down from heaven. It has been given as a gift to inspire us to higher thoughts and acts of benevolence and grace. This is not because Torah is a God-dictated set of commandments, since we know Torah is largely human and reflects internal changes and impermanent laws. How then is Torah “for us” and from God? The author of Deuteronomy, though he certainly was aware that some laws in his book were different than those passed down from previous generations, nonetheless believed Israel’s laws were formed as a result of the ancestors’ encounter with God. God is truly hovering over the Torah, watching his children form it, live it, and remember it.

OUTLINE
Having seen idolatry, Israel should be immune (15-19), the desolation of the land if the people turn to idolatry (20-27), the concealed and the revealed (28).

OVERVIEW
Moses’ polemic against idolatry is potent and an insightful expose of human nature. The Israelites should have been able to see how detestable the way of idolatry is (yet, we know the people chose it anyway). Though they should have been immune, having seen the emptiness, they would fall for it anyway. Similarly, we see the emptiness of living for the appetites or power over others and other modern sins, and yet humanity falls again and again for things which cannot profit. If a person thinks, “I don’t need to keep all of Torah; I’ll be faithful to God in my own way,” the result will be a descending spiral into the unprofitable. Disaster starts with small steps. Spiritual success flows from a full attention to God’s teaching. Vs. 28 (29 in Christian Bibles) has been translated variously and understood in different ways. The rabbinic interpretation has much to commend it: “concealed acts [hidden sin] concern the Lord our God, but the revealed things [open obedience] are for us and out children to apply the Teaching.” In other words, vs. 28 is not about scripture (revealed things = revelation) but about hidden and open deeds. We cannot hide wickedness from God by being solitary and secretive. But in open obedience as a community we find blessings.

DEUTERONOMY 30:1-6

SPOTLIGHT
After all the disappointments and tragedies, God will still be here. Some face the darkness and are caught up in pessimism. Some understand darkness is part of the process and wait for the light. During the early years of the exile period of Judah, with Jerusalem destroyed and all the symbols of hope in God ruined, the author of Deuteronomy added a second layer to the book, a layer with a different kind of hope. Whereas most of Deuteronomy presents hope for Judah to reform and avoid destruction, the second layer is during the destruction. It presents hope after darkness.

First, the change we could not bring about in ourselves as a human race, God will bring about. “Adonai your God will circumcise your heart.” The heart in Torah is more the mind than the emotions. Circumcision is a symbol in the body of an Israelite male of a connection to the divine. The author of Deuteronomy is saying, “God will change your capability and capacity of thinking so it is more like his own divine mind.” In a word, Deuteronomy is talking about enlightenment.

What we will become has yet to be seen. Human beings will by God’s creative power evolve into higher beings, aware of evil but having surpassed it, perceiving true good at last and living out a new reality which will be the fulfillment of desire and love. To be sure the description in Deuteronomy 30 is brief, and we cannot say how deeply the author was able to perceive what a new reality of enlightened hearts would look like. But the author’s entire point is that the goal of Torah — that the Israelites would be able to know and love and cling to God, keeping all his ways — will ultimately come to us as a gift, not something we could achieve for ourselves.

If our ultimate transformation into enlightenment comes from God, what use is transforming work now? Why grow in love and righteousness? The assumption of Deuteronomy up to this point (and it seems a good one) is that to be authentically human is to aspire to our higher identity, to pursue now the things that will be. The ways of humankind that make for darkness are not worth running after. Even if we may not be able in this era to transform our minds to their divine potential and experience the full light of the coming world, every taste of it we can find now is like finding out who we really are.

A realistic view of human nature is, at best, one in which the fly ruins the ointment. Therefore the human condition will be to experience betrayal, mindless destruction, senseless loss, and terrifying uncertainty. There are two basic outlooks we might have on the future. One is cynicism leading to despair. Since all good things are eventually ruined and life ends in entropy and sadness, we might expect this to be the final word. The sun itself will degrade and kill the earth. What hope is there for humankind? The other view is hope. The God revealed to us in Torah is reason for hope. Our desire for the infinite, for the unattainable, is likely to be the very evidence that we will arrive at it eventually.

OUTLINE
The future time of redemption (1), returning in heart and soul (2), regathering from the nations (3), the ends of the world (4), the land of the fathers (5), circumcised hearts (6).

OVERVIEW
An earlier promise very similar to this one is in Deuteronomy 4:29-31. Tigay (Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary) points out the repeated use, with different connotations, of the word שוב shuv (return, turn). A future generation of Jewish people will bring back (hashevota) God’s words to their minds (vs. 1) and return (shavta) to the Lord (vs. 2). The Lord will restore the Jewish people’s captivity (shav…shevut, vs. 3) and they will return (shav) and be gathered from the peoples (vs. 3).

The author of Deuteronomy wrote at the end of the kingdom of Judah. Most of his book is a reinterpretation of ancient Torah directed at helping Judah prevent destruction. But he also added a second layer, after the destruction happened. Deuteronomy 30:1-6 is a key part of this second layer and the hope the author finds when all hope (Jerusalem, temple, and seemingly all the covenant promises) is lost, is that God will turn event around and bring a happy ending to the darkness.

Vs. 1 shows that Jewish history is to be reflected upon and in some generation our people will reflect and be awakened by the evidence of God’s hand in that history, for good and evil. Vs. 2 shows the extent of revival required: a turning of heart and soul toward Adonai. Vs. 3 becomes a major theme in the prophets, the regathering from the nations. Vs. 4 shows the extent of Adonai’s saving love, reaching to every distant part of the world in redemptive power. Vs. 5 is about the place of this miraculous redemption, the covenanted land, the land of the fathers, Israel. Vs. 6 is about the transformation that will take place in our people at that time: circumcised hearts.

For Jeremiah that means hearts inscribed with Torah (31:33), and for Ezekiel it is a new heart with a new spirit (36:26). The meaning of the circumcised heart is spelled out in the prophecy: we will at last love God will all of our heart and mind, a state of perfect love never realized in this world, requiring a divine transformation of our being, bringing us to a higher level of being than we have ever realized before.

DEUTERONOMY 30:7-10

SPOTLIGHT
In the future the author envisions, life goes on in two very different conditions. “Curse” is actually the condition we are familiar with in this life. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain, “Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonized apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering.” Deuteronomy summarizes the curses Israel might experience in chapter 28. They are the normal conditions of this life.

But blessing is something entirely supernatural. “But you will return,” the author promises. You will return from the place of your exile and reinhabit the land of promise. You will leave behind enslavement and humiliation and dreariness to come again into the land of light and psalms and freedom. “You will listen to the voice of Adonai and obey all his commandments.” The ways of Torah will come easily to you. Your society will be governed by justice and love. And all the blessings of Deuteronomy 28:1-14 will befall you. Abundance. Peace. Life. Joy.

The “enemies” in Deuteronomy are simply a picture of human beings living in ignorance of God and lacking enlightenment. The children who return from exile are, of course, the Jewish people, but the blessing is not ultimately limited to the nation of Israel. The intention of God is to bring all people into this future life of blessing. It will be earth remade, earth running according to a new set of laws and principles. It will be for human beings in a future state, where we have known the ways of oblivion and found them distasteful and desire them no more. It will be for us when we have stood before the Infinite and felt the might of his Presence and been changed.

Just as the future Israel the author of Deuteronomy foresees is completely changed from the Israel he has been familiar with, so blessed humanity in the age to come will be unlike the humanity we know now.

OUTLINE
God will heap these curses on our enemies (7), but will delight in us and bless us (8-10).

OVERVIEW
The Babylonian army came three times to Jerusalem, in 605, 597, and 586 BCE. In the first two encounters, they took some of the best and brightest of Jerusalem’s young men captive to Babylon. When the city continued to defy Nebuchednezzar, his army came in 586 and completely destroyed the city and temple, taking away all of the upper classes as captives in chains for a thousand mile march to resettlement beside the Chebar river.

The picture in Deuteronomy 30:7 is of the children of Israel returning from exile. The first thought in this passage is that the cruel nations (Assyria in 722 BCE and Babylon in 586 BCE) who have made captives out of them will suffer curses. The curses are enumerated in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. They are the usual conditions of violence, destitution, misery, and pain. The curses are not extraordinary. They are normal human existence.

But the children of Israel will at last escape this cycle of the human condition. The author of Deuteronomy sees a hopeful vision. The people will begin listening to God, actually hearing his voice (וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל יְהוָה veshamata qōl Adonai, “and you will listen to the voice of Adonai”). What voice does he mean? The specific answer comes in vs. 10, “laws that are recorded in this book of the Torah.”

Deuteronomy refers often to “this book of the Torah” (29:21; 30:10; 31:26) and “this Torah” (1:5; 4:8; 17:18; 27:3, 8, 26; 28:58, 61; 29:29; 31:9, 11, 24; 32:46). The author does not mean the unified Torah as we know it today (Genesis through Deuteronomy) but is referring to his own book. Deuteronomy itself is a retelling of the law, the teaching of Israel. It reflects changes in the commandments (some things in Deuteronomy are different from earlier law codes in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers). The Deuteronomy author was convinced his book of teaching was the final version, that the coming transformation of Israel would come soon. He fully expected to see soon the children of Israel following the Torah’s teaching in an ideal society based on justice and love.