DEUTERONOMY 7:12 – 8:10
Deuteronomy 7 presents us with a problem. The commands for extermination of the Canaanites contradict other Torah passages which speak of driving out and dispossessing them, whereas Deuteronomy 7 speaks of devouring, wiping out, putting an end to, and causing them to perish. Even internally Deuteronomy 7 is indeterminate about the fate of the Canaanites, completely aware on the one hand that the Canaanites were not exterminated while at the same time imagining Moses commanding total genocide.
This chapter of Torah demonstrates how important it is to understand when texts were written, for what audience, in what time period, and for what purpose. The original readers of Deuteronomy knew this was not a literal writing of Moses and that these speeches did not emanate from Moses himself. This was the Mosaic Torah reinterpreted for the generation of D (the author) during the time of King Josiah.
The verbs about devouring, wiping out, causing to perish, and putting an end to the Canaanites are a symbol for something else: the need for Judah’s people to utterly change their ways in the days of Assyrian domination. The tiny kingdom of Judah exists precariously, a small nation subject to much greater powers. Up to the time of D, the rulers of Judah have relied on treaties and appeasement of the greater powers. The upper classes in Judah (see especially Isaiah’s critiques) have bought into the culture of power and decadence of their time.
Wipe these things out, Deuteronomy 7 is saying. Cause decadence to perish. Put an end to corruption and mimicking Assyrian degeneracy. Be people of the Torah. Believe in a power that is not natural, one that transcends politics. Rely on the blessings of Adonai’s covenant, which will make you blessed above all other peoples. No emperor can give you what God can. Think back to Israel in the desert, eating manna and finding water in the rocks. What does Adonai lack and what will be not give you? Be Israel. Live Torah. Experience the supernatural.
The kingdom of Judah did not heed Deuteronomy or Isaiah or any other of the voices speaking for Adonai. Babylon was about to come and the people would go into exile. But the voice of this text continues to resonate, for those who believe (as Deuteronomy does, see 30:1-6) that the promise is still alive.
Blessings of covenant faithfulness to the Lord (12-16), do not fear the Canaanites (17-24), do not covet their idols or wealth (25-26), depend on God completely (8:1-10).
Deuteronomy 7 uses the harshest language in all the Torah about destroying the Canaanites. Moshe Weinfeld (Deuteronomy 1-11: Anchor-Yale Commentary) discusses the difference between Deuteronomy’s language and that of earlier sources in the Torah. In J and E, God “drives out” the Canaanite. See, for example, Exodus 23:28, in which God sends a “hornet” to make the Canaanites leave. In P, the people are told to “dispossess” the peoples living in Canaan (Numbers 33:52-55). But in Deuteronomy 7:20, God sends the “hornet” to do far worse: to find and kill all the hidden survivors of the Canaanites. And the verbs in Deuteronomy 7 are far more harsh than in the earlier texts: devour (אָכַל, ’achal), put an end to (כָלַה, kalah), wipe out (הַשְׁמִיד, hashmid), and perish (אָבַד, ‘avad).
How is it that the fate of the Canaanites has changed from the time of the earlier sources (from the time of Hezekiah and earlier) by the time of D, the latest source (written in the time of Josiah)? Stephen Cook (Reading Deuteronomy) argues that this is the divine warrior motif being used symbolically. The absolute and utter destruction of the Canaanites is not literal. He points out that Deuteronomy 7 already betrays this knowledge in contradictory statements warning Israel not to intermarry with the Canaanites (how do you intermarry with a people you have wiped out?). Rather, Deuteronomy 7 is about people in King Josiah’s time needing to utterly reject all foreign ways and subscribe completely to to the Torah. It imagines utter destruction, using language familiar to its readers about the gods as warriors. It was accepted that descriptions of war exaggerated the destruction of enemies. Thus, Deuteronomy 7 is not about an actual genocide, but transforms the memory of Israel’s settlement and occupation of Canaan into a myth of total destruction, signifying the need for D’s generation to completely reject idolatry.
Vss. 12-16 preview the blessings of the covenant (more fully expressed in Deuteronomy 28). Families will have children. The land will produce abundant crops. The people will be free from disease. Israel will be blessed above all other peoples.
Vss. 17-24 use the language of utter destruction (discussed above) to make the point that the people in Judah should not fear (as in, not fear Assyria) but trust in the supernatural covenant.
Vss. 25-26 depict a people completely free from idolatry and the cultural trappings of the surrounding peoples. Deuteronomy calls for Israel to follow only the Torah and avoid everything related to idolatry. Judah (in the author’s time) needs to change, to become more distinctly the people of Adonai.
Chapter 8, vss. 1-10, refer to Israel’s wilderness experience as a test. God caused them to wander for long years in order to test them. Would they keep God’s ways during hard times? The manna in the desert, which came with commandments to follow about how to gather and when not to gather, was designed to teach them to rely on God’s commandments and not just on food. They experienced a miniature version of the supernatural covenant promises. Instead of the full blessing of living in the land of Canaan with plentiful food, ideal weather, and security from all disease and warfare, they subsisted in the desert on miracle food with supernatural blessings on their garments and shoes. The lesson of the wilderness was to teach Israel that Torah is the way to happiness and peace.
Instead of the wealth and sophistication of the Canaanite cities, God offered Israel a bountiful land of agriculture ever supplied through a relationship of trust and covenant love. 8:10 is the basis for the Jewish custom of reciting grace after meals. 8:8 lists the seven species of the land, an important remembrance at Tu B’Shevat (the festival of trees).
DEUTERONOMY 8:11 – 9:3
The one constant in life is God. This is not an apparent truth. We see the universe, at least the part of it we happen to occupy. It runs by its own rules. Sometimes it seems as if the earth gives us manna, as if our work provides for us wealth and ease. At other times the landscape seems to be swarming with poisonous snakes and scorpions with giants looming over the horizon to cause terror in our hearts.
For D, the author of Deuteronomy, the great question was how could his generation recapture a relationship with God like the children of Israel had in the desert. Was it possible? They had “fine houses to live in.” Silver and gold and flocks and herds had all increased. Isaiah, the great prophet who lived a few generations before D, had warned about the corruption of the upper classes, “It is you who have spoiled the vineyard!” (Isaiah 3:14). “You have stashed in your houses what you took from the poor,” complains the prophet (3:14). He accused Judah’s upper classes and those charged with administering the government with being “champions at drinking wine” (5:22). Therefore, said Isaiah, God is bringing Assyria to test you, to ravage the land and wake you up.
But Assyria had come, razing the land of Judah and leaving nothing but Jerusalem standing. Since then Judah’s rulers had existed in a tenuous vassal-ship, paying costly tribute to Assyria. And new giants were coming, namely Babylon. “Remember,” says D, “it is Adonai your God who assigns you the power to make wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). The way forward for Judah was simple: return as an entire people to God and let the miracles of the covenant begin to unfold.
But today’s readers of Deuteronomy are not in the same position as the kingdom of Judah in the seventh century BCE. What meaning can this text have for us? No miracle covenant is going to bring us wealth and security in this life. Some things have changed and yet, some things never change. God is the constant. What seems to be a self-sustaining cosmos, running all on its own, is actually the work of God. Though he is hidden, if we remember him, it will go better with us. The good things we ultimately want lie in his power and his power alone to grant. To know him, to see him beyond what is apparent to our senses, is to feel peace and hope.
Don’t forget God in prosperity (11-13), you have depended on God in the desert (14-16), don’t pretend it was your own strength (17-18), forgetting God will destroy you (8:19-20), the task before you is God-sized (9:1-3).
The people experience something very different in the land of Canaan from what they knew during the wilderness journey. The desert through which the children of Israel traveled was inhospitable to life and relied on miracles. It was a sort of incubator for faith. God was openly appearing to the people in the form of a pillar of cloud. Their leader, Moses, heard from God regularly.
But in the land, God is hidden and the land itself seems to provide for them. The tests of faith are not so obvious. It is easy to forget God and covenant in a land where a person can bring food from the ground and, by sweat and hard work, even come to enjoy some prosperity.
The concern that good times will lead to forgetfulness and a lack of dependence on God is a theme in Deuteronomy (6:11-12; 8:12-14; 11:14-16; 31:20; 32:5). Tigay (Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary) considers this a wisdom teaching, similar to a theme found in Proverbs. “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” said the unknown wisdom sage in Proverbs 30:8-9. Riches, he mused, might cause him to forget God completely.
The desert experience Israel had for forty years was a well-designed test, says the author of Deuteronomy. Snakes, scorpions, the threat of dehydration, the reality of hunger — these were all part of a test designed to help them. It was a picture on a small scale of what the covenant promises could be in the land. Israel had potential to experience those same miracles of bounty in Canaan, but on a much larger scale. Instead of manna and water, they could have hills dripping sweet wine and bread, fruit, and the fatness of the soil.
By the time Deuteronomy was written, some five centuries after Moses, the people had seen the disappearance of God. Miracles were lacking. A large empire threatened their very existence and extorted wealth from them as protection money. They had worshipped other gods. They had taken on the ways of the other peoples surrounding them. Judah was not living Torah. A people great and tall threatened them. In Moses’ time they had feared Anakim, giants in the land. In the time of D (the unknown author of Deuteronomy) the giant was Assyria (but would soon be Babylon). They needed to recapture the hope of Moses, a hope in God as the divine warrior fighting for them.
“It was because Adonai loved you.” This is Deuteronomy’s answer to the question: why the Jewish people? So we read in Deuteronomy 7:8. Why did God set his heart on you and choose you? Because he loved you.
Deuteronomy 9 asks why the Canaanites are losing the land that Israel is about to gain. God has judged them to be wicked. The Judge of all the earth is dispossessing them. But the sobering truth is that the children of Israel are just as morally deficient.
You are a stiff-necked people. You betrayed my love with the Golden Calf. You complained again and again and have been ungrateful. You had no faith in me when you send scouts to survey the land. You are faithless and no better than the nations I am dispossessing.
But I have loved you, says God.
Stephen Cook (Reading Deuteronomy) observes that God fell in love with Israel much as a man loves his wife (Hosea 2-3). God has feelings for Israel. Love is irrational. Love seems to defy rules. When the wisdom sages asked in Proverbs who could understand romantic love, the answer is, “It is too wonderful for me” (30:18-19). Cook quotes Blaise Pascal who said, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.”
This is ultimately where we stand as human beings with God. He loves us in spite of our faults. How will he give the land to the Israelites? He loves them. But what about the need for righteousness? That is something God will have to bring about in the souls of his beloved. God is not forgetting his desire to have righteous people. If God does not relinquish his concern for goodness in the human soul, how will God’s desire be fulfilled?
That is a problem only God can solve.
Not Israel’s righteousness, but Canaan’s wickedness (4-5), you are a stiffnecked people (6-7), the provocation of the Golden Calf incident (8-21), other provocations (22), faithlessness at Kadesh-barnea (23), you have always been defiant (24), a summary of Moses’ prayer for defiant Israel (25-29).
The land is a gift, not something deserved as a reward for faithful service. Deuteronomy is clear on this point (see also 29:3; 31:27: and throughout ch. 32). This raises the question, “Why the Jewish people?” Deuteronomy 9 rejects utterly the expected answer that God has rewarded the virtuous nation. Instead, it is neither Israel’s tzedaqah (צְדָקָה, “righteousness”) nor its yōsher (יֹשֶׁר, “uprightness”) but rather the rish’ah (רִשְׁעָה, “wickedness”) of the native population that is bringing about their dispossession.
Though the question is raised, the text does not go on to explore the surprising notion that the peoples of the world are liable to judgment even in the absence of a revelation like Israel’s Torah. Divine justice is assumed to be universal, as we have seen since the earliest narratives in Genesis. Case in point is Abraham’s understanding in Genesis 18, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
But are the people of Israel morally superior to the Canaanites? Not at all. Israel is chosen, chosen because God made an oath to “your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The choosing of the Jewish people is based on a relationship God had with Abraham.
The moral condition of the Israelites is not good. עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹרֶף אָתָּה ‘am-qesheh-‘ōref ‘attah, “You are a stiff-necked people.” God had been angry enough to destroy the children of Israel. In the incident of the Golden Calf, Israel had deserved to lose the covenant relationship. But Moses interceded.
And Israel tried God again at Taberah (Numbers 11:1-3, grumbling), Massah (Exodus 17:7, quarreling because of the water shortage), and Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 11:31-34, complaining about lack of meat). They also failed to have faith in the incident with the scouts sent to survey the land (Deuteronomy 1:19-39).
But Moses interceded each time. He argued with God. He persuaded God. Israel is the people you freed by your own arm, he said. What will the other nations think if you destroy them? Deuteronomy raises the question: can God choose any people and make covenant with them? The Canaanites are being judged by the Judge of all the earth, but what about the Chosen People? Is there hope for human beings?
DEUTERONOMY 10:12 – 11:9
Considering the scarcity of texts about religious devotion, at least texts that rise to the level of poetry and spirituality, we possess from the ancient, pre-classical world, Deuteronomy 10 is surely a classic. Mostly texts about religious duties from the Near Eastern world in that era are either cultic (obligations of the king and people to the temple) or they are concerned with royal propaganda (justifying kingship with expressions of religious commitment).
Deuteronomy 10 stands out as a text concerned with complete and utter devotion of human beings to the One divine being. Fear, walk, love, serve, keep. Circumcise your inner being. You have been rather faithless. Change your ways. All God asks is total, unrestrained obedience to his every command along with complete love and service!
Stephen Cook (Reading Deuteronomy) points out that the author of Deuteronomy is likely familiar with prophets such as Micah, who said, מָה־יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ mah-Adonai dōreish mimmecha, “What does Adonai require of you?” So Deuteronomy asks, מָה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ mah Adonai Eloheicha shōeil mei’immach, “What does Adonai your God ask of you?” Micah’s answer is threefold: “doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God.” Deuteronomy’s is longer, but includes the same things with a stronger emphasis on commandments. Similarly, Deuteronomy 10 compares well to Hosea 6:6, which prioritizes obedience and moral goodness over bringing offerings and being devoted to the temple.
Richard Elliott Friedman (Who Wrote the Bible?) notes that scholars have long noted the relationship between Deuteronomy and the book of Jeremiah. Many have assumed that Jeremiah drew on Deuteronomy. But Friedman thinks the relationship is more direct. Someone close to Jeremiah, someone in his circle, wrote Deuteronomy. Friedman suspects it was Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe.
And anyone who reads Jeremiah knows the prophet decried the people’s foolish confidence in their temple worship as a means to save themselves from Babylon. Israelite religion was off center, the prophet declared. People gave God what was easy: offerings, outward displays of worship. But what God truly wanted was deep: moral character, a transformed society, a good people.
This is what we should hear, as modern readers, in Deuteronomy 10. It is a call for true religion. “Obedience” to Torah may sound harshly conservative. But the intent is just the opposite. “Conservative” in the time of Deuteronomy was about showing up for public worship services. “Radical” in the time of Deuteronomy was social justice, the practice of kindness, and loving God with the inner being. D, the anonymous author, longs to see his nation change in this radical direction and throw off the excesses of conservative religion.
Summary of the essence of God’s national requirement of Israel (12-13), the good fortune of Israel to be elected (14-15), be circumcised in heart in response to this good fortune (16), God’s worthiness to be followed faithfully (10:17-22), your generation knows of God’s acts of judgment (11:1-7), therefore, keep the Torah and receive the covenant blessings in the land (8-9).
Moses’ speech has been remarkably honest, recounting Israel’s past failures and God’s faithfulness. Tigay (Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary) remarks about the message of 10:12-22, “Your history of rebellion shows that you lack the following qualities, to which you must dedicate yourselves in the future.”
The essence of God’s requirement for Israel is all-encompassing: total, unrestrained, sole obedience to his every command along with complete love and service.
Considering God’s greatness, Israel is fortunate that his electing favor has turned toward the wayward nation. The people need a change of heart, a complete circumcision of character. From what they have been, the journey to what they must become is a total turnaround. The author in the late years of the kingdom of Judah has high hopes which will go unfulfilled and then in chapter 30 we find more on this topic from a second layer that was added to Deuteronomy. This second layer consists of passages inserted during the exile. And concerning the circumcision of character Israel needs, we find that God will do it. What was a command in chapter 10 becomes a promise in chapter 30.
God is good and worthy of this singular devotion, the author argues, because of his mighty deeds done for the fathers. Vss. 12-13 command a way of life and vss. 17-22 explain what it is about God that merits such an all-encompassing commitment.
Chapter 11, surprisingly, declares that the second generation, the children of the Exodus, were alive to see the miracles — both in Egypt and in the desert afterward. “It was not your children . . . it was you,” says Moses. Usually Deuteronomy makes the converse point, suggesting that all generations of Israel experienced God through the ancestors, whether a particular individual was present or not (see 29:13-14). But here, the author singles out the second generation: “it was you who saw with your own eyes.”
Perhaps the point the author wishes to make is that those who experience deliverance and divine power should be transformed by it. By the time of King Josiah, the time of the actual writing of Deuteronomy, Judah had survived the Assyrian threat. The author is implying that those rescued from the might of foreign kings should see God in their circumstances and adjust their lives accordingly. He wants something that will not come to pass: for Judah to “endure long upon the soil that Adonai swore to your fathers.” Alas, Judah was not long for the land by the time Deuteronomy was written.
Sadly, Israel never achieved ten half of its potential blessing. “A land of hills and valleys,” God promises it can be a place that “soaks up its water from the rains of heaven” (Deuteronomy 11:11 JPS Translation). By contrast, Egypt was a vegetable garden, a place where constant tending and irrigation yielded a crop. Not so the land of Israel. Grapes flourish on the hillsides along with figs. When planting barley and wheat, there is no irrigation work, but rain makes the stalks grow quickly and yield bread a hundred times the seed planted.
At least that’s how it can be.
“People lie on their beds and God makes the rain fall down” (Sifrei Deuteronomy, cited in Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary). In Egypt they were up early working, maintaining irrigation canals, routing water through the fields. In Israel the crops can, in the best weather, almost grow themselves.
“Days are coming . . . when the one at the plow will overtake the one reaping, the treader grapes the one sowing seed” (Amos 9:13). “They will set, every one of them, under his own vine and his own fig tree and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). “In that day the branch of Adonai will be beautiful and the fruit of the land will be the glory and honor of the survivors of Israel” (Isaiah 4:2).
The Torah and prophets depict a possible future, one with plenty for everyone, a veritable Garden of Eden. It is a promise for a messianic future, an ideal era that has yet to be seen on earth but surely will. Deuteronomy 11:13-21 constitutes the second paragraph of the Shema (the creed of Judaism). They are words to engrave on the heart, to repeat to the children, to write on the gates.
Israel was commanded to live a lifestyle as a nation and see messianic bounty on earth. The blessing was never achieved. But days are coming when people will live in a just world, when hunger will be a memory, when fear will never be felt. Some people live for that vision now, not waiting for it to simply happen. Unable to change the whole world, they work to change themselves and to be part of a people transformed, following a unified direction known as Torah.
As long as there is a heaven over the earth, we can hope.
The promised land dependent on rain from God (10-12), benefits for the land and people that come with covenant faithfulness (13-17), teaching and remembering God’s Torah (18-20), enduring in the land in covenant relationship (21).
Vss. 10-12 describe the beautiful possibility of fruitfulness in Canaan, which is not like Egypt. Egypt is a mighty nation because of the Nile River and its flooding allows for irrigation culture and an abundant crop. Canaan is quite different. It is a land dependent on a small amount of rain (much of is semi-arid). The supernatural potential for Canaan to be a paradise is activated by Israel’s clinging the Torah. If the people are loyal in love, God will make the rain abundant and the fruits of the land will overflow. Fertility will not be a blind game of appeasing the deities as in the rest of the Near East. In Sifrei Deuteronomy, the sages said, “People lie on their beds and God makes the rain fall down” (cited in Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary).
Vss. 13-21 make up the second paragraph of the Shema, an extended statement of the benefits that come with covenant faithfulness. This is not a promise from heaven that any person in any place and time and history can have abundant crops. It is a specific miraculous promise to a distinct people, Israel. No other nation has a covenant of earthly benefits comparable to the Torah.
The Deuteronomic emphasis on writing God’s teachings on gates, teaching them to children, and even wearing them like jewelry is about making the covenant relationship central to daily life. The summary of our duty to God is to love and serve, which has a slightly different meaning than love and obey. To serve suggests a purpose, an active agenda of God on earth, which we are to seek out and follow, becoming his servants in this world. The Jewish tradition for fulfilling the commandments, including the mezuzah, tefillin, and recitation of the Shema, can and should be a reminder of the purpose to love and serve at all times.
“If then (כִּי אִם ki ‘im) you will indeed observe (שָׁמֹר תִּשְׁמְרוּן shamōr tishmeroon) all of this commandment (אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת ‘et-kōl-hamitzvah hazzōt)…”
Deuteronomy is full of self-references such as this one. Keep all of “this” commandment. The commandment is stated in the singular, not the plural. And the people re to keep “all” of it. That is, Deuteronomy sees itself as a unified code, a complete collection, for its own generation. It is the way forward for the people in the time of its author.
The author, generally known to scholars as D, is also the editor of the “former prophets,” the historical writings known as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. As readers of those books can easily see, D believes Israel’s woes derive from a failure to take the Torah tradition seriously and to adhere to a covenant made with them long ago at Sinai.
D does not see the Torah as a fixed document, delivered as a complete package once and for all by Moses. This is counter-intuitive for the reader, because Deuteronomy presents itself as speeches by Moses. If D intended readers to take this literally, then it would indicate Mosaic Torah had been delivered once-for-all, never to change or adapt. But we can see quite easily D did not mean this.
That is because Deuteronomy represents major changes in Torah since the earliest layers written by J and E and P. In Deuteronomy there can only be one official temple for Adonai in the entire land, whereas earlier layers of Torah and biblical characters including Samuel, Elijah, David, and Solomon knew nothing of a one-sanctuary rule. The tithes have changed, being an offering for the people to enjoy together at the festivals. Many other changes in Torah are evident as well.
What D has done is to collect and adapt the Torah traditions to fit his time and place. He has turned this collection into a manifesto for his generation, a document that will potentially bring them out of fear and initiate a golden age of heaven on earth. This realization about Deuteronomy tells us something about how we, as modern readers, should study Torah — balancing the tradition with change in the world and with the progress of divine revelation. Contained within Torah we find many clues about what God’s ultimate will for humanity would be. In a word, Deuteronomy will sum up the divine will simply as “life.”
Love and loyalty to the Lord (22), the Lord will drive out the Canaanites (23), every place your feet fall will be yours (24), the inhabitants of the land will be afraid of you (25).
If, says Deuteronomy, the people will “indeed observe” all of “this commandment” — probably meaning the commandments section in chapters 12-26 —God will dispossess their enemies and grant them the largest territory Israel ever contemplated. Brueggemann (Deuteronomy: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries) notes that this description of the boundaries is the one contemplated in the Abraham tradition (Genesis 15:18-21) and fits with the territory under Solomon’s influence (1 Kings 3:21). That is, the author of Deuteronomy who was actually writing near the end of the kingdom of Judah, in the time of King Josiah, believed that if there was a definitive collection of Torah and if the people as a whole devoted themselves to it, then all fear of empires would dissolve and Judah would enter a golden age.
The author has written many descriptions of the methods of devotion the people are to show. Observe commandments. Love God. Cling to him. The word for “clinging” is from the root דבק dvq, from which is derived a Jewish term for a trait of spirituality: devekkeut, a continual awareness of God’s existence and nearness. The verbal root for clinging is used in the well-known verse from Genesis 2:24, about a man leaving father and mother to cling to his wife.