DEUTERONOMY 3:23 – 4:4
“But you, the ones remaining intimate with Adonai” (וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּיהוָה ve’atem hadevaqim b’Adonai). Alternatively, “the ones clinging to Adonai,” this description of the people who were faithful to God uses a marriage metaphor. The root דבק dbq is also used in a classic text from the stories of the origins of humanity: “A man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife,” (Genesis 2:24, alt. “hold fast to his wife,” “cleave to,” “grow intimate with”).
The child-parent relationship dominates our lives until marriage (ideally), where a new dynamic takes over. Human beings are viewed as social, familial in these texts. Part of the definition of being human is the way we are in relationship to the significant others of our lives. Typically we do not stand alone, but rather move from an interdependence on parents to a comparable relationship with a spouse.
The author of Deuteronomy, quite possibly based on legitimate tradition handed down from Moses, views the human-divine connection in a comparable way. God is like a parent and like a spouse. An emotional attachment and interdependence on him in life is considered to be a virtue.
In this speech of Deuteronomy, Moses refers negatively those who had chosen to worship Baal-Peor, referring back to an incident related in the book of Numbers. These individuals were seduced by the allure of a foreign god (literally since seductive women were involved). Religion to them was about some sort of immediate benefit rather than enduring faithfulness to the only deity who had actually shown them lovingkindness.
But Moses speaks positively to the audience in front of him, declaring them to be those who “remained intimate with” God (who held fast to him, clung to him) through the harsh experiences of desert life and war. Their almost-marital faithfulness to God is a trait which Moses commends. It will serve them well going forward just as it has allowed them to survive and come to the brink of the promised land.
What could it be like having a parental/marital love relationship with God who is hidden and whose Presence we do not see? Can Moses’ words be of use to us even still. Some think so. To apply this would require a strong faith, a belief in the God who has acted in the past and will act again visibly in the future. God is like a parent or spouse who is away, absent for a long time, but who we continue to trust will return. The generation of the author of Deuteronomy, five centuries later than the time of Moses, must have understood this.
Deep trust in and intimacy with an absent God is no easy thing. Deuteronomy nevertheless commends it to his generation and we can imagine the thought applies to us still. Jesus certainly continued this thought some six centuries later than Deuteronomy. He not only called God Father and urged his followers to do the same, but said his true “brothers and sisters” were those who shared his trust in God (Mark 3:35). Rabbinic Judaism also has continued to call for clinging to God, a trait of the religious life known as devekkut (from the same root דבק used in the Torah texts). Although it is thoroughly acknowledged in the Jewish Prayer Book that God’s absence is deeply felt, nonetheless, clinging to him is considered to be a necessary and beneficial form of thought.
Can we, as modern people, remain intimate with God? How, without engaging in fruitless fantasy, can we do so? It seems the way to do this is if we believe God is not finished with humanity, that his absence will not last forever, and rather believe that he will come again.
Moses pleads to enter the land with his people (23-25), God denies the plea and orders Moses to ascend Pisgah (26-28), a note about Beth-Peor (3:29), observe the statutes and judgments (4:1), do not add to or subtract from the Torah (2), reminder of God’s judgment concerning the Baal-Peor incident (3-4).
The sources of the Torah disagree in some ways about Moses and the incident which barred him from entering the land. The P source (a priestly author writing in Judah) remembers the water from the rock incident as a case where Moses failed to show God as holy before the people (Numbers 20:1-13). But in Deuteronomy, Moses says it is because of the people that God barred him from entering the land (1:37; 3:26). Deuteronomy’s view of Moses is completely positive. This fits with Richard Elliott Friedman’s theories about the sources of the Torah (see Who Wrote the Bible?). P is from from the Aaronid priests who thought more highly of Aaron and his family line than they did of Moses. D (the author of Deuteronomy) is from the deposed line of priests going back to Shiloh who placed a high value on Moses and his family line.
Whatever the facts of history may or may not be, surely the story of Moses is high tragedy. The leader who led Israel out of Egypt, brought the Torah, and spoke with God as if it were face to face, is now barred from the promised land! The story illustrates clearly that the prophets serve God and have no inherent authority. Properly conceived, leadership in Israel is subsidiary to divine leadership. Prophets and judges and kings rule with God’s authority, not their own.
Moses says that “no god in heaven or on the earth” can equal God’s power. This statement, similar to Exodus 15:11, might seem to grant the existence of foreign gods. Yet Psalm 89:6-13(5-12) indicates the more likely meaning: the council of angelic beings, the heavenly bodies, and the features of earth and sky, are all referred to as “gods” (Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary). God is greater than everything we know to be powerful and majestic. Deuteronomy has a heightened monotheism, defining deity more strictly (see 4:35), and so the statement that no gods can equal Adonai’s power is an important building block of that theology. Some might consider other beings worthy of the name “gods,” but Deuteronomy objects, clarifying that God is in a class by himself, uniquely transcendent and omnipotent.
Meanwhile, God refuses Moses’ request that he be allowed to enter Canaan. Nonetheless he gives Moses a boon, allowing him to see a panoramic view of the land. Beth-Peor is the home territory of Baal-Peor, a valley in Moab, the deity whom the Israelites sinned against God with. Here Moses will be buried (34:6).
After relating this private encounter with God, Moses preaches the need for faithfulness and obedience in keeping the chukkim and mishpatim (statutes and judgments). In traditional interpretation these are the commandments which are rational and evident (judgments) as well as those which are purely by command without another reason, such as the dietary laws (statutes).
The intention of 4:2 cannot be to forbid any further law-making (later in chapters 16 and 17 there will be provision for further lawmaking), but “do not add” must mean something like “do not permit what these laws forbid.” Tigay observes that statements such as this one are always followed by examples of idolatry and pagan practices. Thus, one is not to loosen a prohibition nor cease to practice the worship and ethical principles taught by Torah.
Finally, Moses commends those who held fast to God (being close to God is called devekkut, clinging). An emotional nearness to God is considered to be a mark of righteousness, a powerful teaching with application to our daily lives.
What did Israel see on the mountain? Moses reminds Israel in this speech about the unusual nature of the appearance of God at Sinai. In the context of the book as it presents itself, this is Moses speaking to the second generation, the children of the Exodus generation. In the context of the time Deuteronomy was written, this was late in the days of the kingdom of Judah, not long before the end when exile and dispersion from the land were about to happen. Both generations needed this reminder.
You saw darkness. A cloud. A thick cloud, Moses says (חֹשֶׁךְ עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל chōshek ‘anan va’arafel). But there was no form (וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים u’temunah einchem rō’im, “but a form there was not for you seeing”). Only a sound (זוּלָתִי קוֹל zulati qōl). Only the sound of words (קוֹל דְּבָרִים qōl devarim).
God’s visible manifestation on Sinai was mystery. Only the audible sounds could be understood. And the sound came in the form of words.
These words are Israel’s wisdom and they are for discernment. They are Torah. Ten of them were written on stone tablets. Others were expounded by Moses, who acted as a prophet and intermediary.
God is in some ways not what we expect. Some have said that humans created God in their image. Not so. The wisdom of Torah is both familiar to and yet strange to humanity. One side of us wants to worship the monstrous power of greed and selfishness and we get caught up in power and national strength. But Torah appeals to a different side of human nature, a higher side, where we find love, a desire for beauty and wholeness, and a quest for life.
Human religion without revelation tended to elevate nature and make gods out of symbols of power. Religion revealed from mystery gave us something else, a call to lay aside the symbols of power and trust in the mystery. Torah is wisdom and discernment, mystery and revelation to be found in words and ideas. It’s root is the appearance of God to us, the actual nearness of God at one time and in one place to actual people. Torah was an event and now is the wisdom that remains and emanates from the event (or series of events). Torah is a teaching which continues to evolve and encompasses all that humanity must know and be.
The teachings are full of wisdom and worthy of being followed (5-8), remember the Sinai revelation (9-14), God did not appear in a form like an idol (15), do not make images of earthly or heavenly things (16-18), do not worship the stars and heavenly bodies (19), God is jealous as our story up to now has shown (20-24), if you turn your back you will be scattered, but God will not give up on you (25-31), has any nation had such a revelation? (32-40).
Torah is wisdom and discernment (חָכְמָה chōchma and בִּינָה binah). This is one of many examples of equating Torah with wisdom and of Deuteronomy using ideas and concepts found in Proverbs, which Moshe Weinfeld expounds upon in his introduction (Deuteronomy 1-11: Anchor-Yale Commentary). Moses here expresses admiration for the Torah, for its wisdom, and says the appeal to the people to give Adonai their hearts and allegiance is the epitome of intelligence and prudence. More than a mere collection of words, Torah is divine wisdom given to a community to be lived out in a relationship of covenantal love with God and each other.
Then Moses goes on to describe the appearance of God which Israel saw on Sinai in terms that are almost mystical. They saw with their eyes. They must not forget. But what was it they saw? Not a form, Moses says with some unusual Hebrew (וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים u’temunah einchem rō’im, “but a form there was not for you seeing”). All they was was darkness, a cloud, and a thick cloud (חֹשֶׁךְ עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל chōshek ‘anan va’arafel). What they heard was “only a sound” (זוּלָתִי קוֹל zulati qōl), the sound of words (קוֹל דְּבָרִים qōl devarim).
That is to say, God appeared, but he appeared in a way that did not fit the norms for their culture and time. There was no idol, no apparition of a semblance of man or animal. Instead there was thick cloud, mystery, and along with it some words. Some of the words Israel heard God speak and some they heard from Moses. Furthermore, some of the words were written on stone tablets by the hand of God.
Moses concludes from this, in his speech, that the people are to avoid the use of images. Nothing in heaven (stars, sun, moon) or earth (man, animal, bird, etc.) can represent God. Vs. 19 contains a startling statement, “these Adonai your God allotted to them, to all the peoples under heaven.” Is this verse claiming that foreign gods and the use of images have God’s approval as long as Israelites are not partaking in them? It seems rather the author of Deuteronomy is saying God understands that nations lacking revelation have been deceived by images and the elevation of material things.
Israel owes God a special allegiance since he brought them out of the furnace, a metaphor for the suffering that had occurred in Egypt. Moses uses the example of his own fall from grace to say that Israel must remain faithful. The writer has Moses foretell Israel’s failure (which is what is happening in the writer’s lifetime) and also specifically mention the coming exile and dispersion of the Jewish people. Did Moses ever actually say this or did the writer invent it? We cannot say. It very well could have been part of the tradition passed down that Moses foresaw the people failing in the covenant.
More importantly Moses says God’s love and promise will not fail, even if the people do. God’s choice of the Jewish people as the leading edge of his plan or redeeming all of humanity started before Sinai, going back to Abraham and the other patriarchs and matriarchs. The promise preceded the obligation. No other nation has had such revelation. The Torah is unique, unparalleled. It’s wisdom is eternal.
Moses is going to get to the exposition of the laws. But not until the author has done a great deal of preparing the reader and explaining ideas he considered vital for Israel’s life to make a way forward.
Much of what has come so far in the book of Deuteronomy is historical prelude, looking back to the glories experienced by the ancestors. By the time of the author, those glories were long gone or deeply hidden inside the inner shrine of the temple. Access to divine appearances has been taken away and God speaks only to a handful of prophets. The historical reminiscence is reassuring. The message is that God will not always be silent and the promises of the covenant with Israel include God coming back to appear in a more tangible way if the people will cling to the promise and keep the stipulations. The great hope of the author of Deuteronomy has yet to happen and has lain dormant for thousands of years.
Meanwhile, the book is about to continue with more preludes, but of a different type. The material in 5:1 – 12:1 is going to be more ideological and less historical. The Ten Words given on Sinai (aka, the Ten Commandments) will lead off a long section on how the people are to think of God, themselves, and the covenant. The Shema (“Hear, O Israel”) and it’s V’ahavta (“You shall love Adonai your God”) will grace this upcoming section. Circumcision of the heart will be foreshadowed and clinging to God will be prescribed.
Whether we find it attractive or simplistic, awe-inducing or pedestrian, the spirituality of Deuteronomy is about to be revealed. Much of what is said in the coming chapters has been ruined for many readers by stilted, unimaginative religion. But if, in a creative and open-hearted spirit, we read the chapters to come, perhaps we will find here a way of living that improves our lives and gives us a way of looking at the world differently.
Appendix between discourses (41-43), summary and preparation for Moses’ second discourse (44-49).
Vss. 41-43 interrupt the flow of the narrative and they are in the third person not following the first person style of what has come before. Moshe Weinfeld (Deuteronomy 1-11: Anchor-Yale Commentary) points out these verses appear to be drawn from an outside source. They not only are in third person, but begin with the introductory phrase “then” (אָז ‘az). Similarly other insertions of outside source material begin with such formulas (Exodus 15:1; Numbers 21:17; etc.).
Whereas chapter 3 would have seemed a more logical place for information about the Transjordan and what happened there, the author inserted these lines after Moses’ speech was concluded in 4:40. It seemed important to note that Moses carried out the commandment to appoint cities of refuge, especially since Deuteronomy 19 will include laws about them. Though the placement is awkward, in the mind of the author who desires a complete retelling of the Torah, this historical note seemed necessary.
Moses is about to begin the second and longest speech of the book (5:1 – 28:69). The last part of chapter 4 (4:44-49) are a prelude to that speech and largely repeat what was said in 1:1-5. The medieval Jewish commentator Abravanel says that this repetition was necessary since the whole of 1:6 – 4:40 has been a digression from the topic announced in 1:3 (Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary). 4:44 at last announces that the exposition of the Torah (the Teaching) will begin.
Yet even now the introductory material is not over. The laws themselves will not be expanded until 12:2 and following. The author of Deuteronomy has more ideology and preparation to give his audience. On the whole, Deuteronomy is a book of laws with a lengthy set of preludes and some very important appendices. The laws themselves are found in 12:2 – 26:15.
4:44-49 announce that Moses’ second speech (5:1 – 28:59) will be delivered “beyond the Jordan.” This once again shows Deuteronomy was compiled in the land of Israel sometime after the death of Moses, since it is only from the perspective of someone in the land that the plains of Moab can be considered “beyond the Jordan.” The speech is said to happen in the valley of Beth-peor, the place where Israel defeated Sihon of the Amorites.
DEUTERONOMY 5:1-18 (21 in Chr Bibles)
What can we say about the “Ten Commandments” (Ten Words, Decalogue) as literature, as ideas existing in the sphere of human thought? What sort of literature is this? What significance does it have? How can it be evaluated historically and literarily as a text and as a concept?
One trait to be noticed is the way the Decalogue relates human obligation to God with human obligation to one another. This list of ten imperatives (actually prohibitive commandments) is not merely moral, but also religious. You shall have no other gods, make no sculptured images, not swear falsely by God’s name, not work on the Sabbath day, not show dishonor to parents. These are religious obligations. Only the last five are about social-moral issues: murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, coveting.
Another characteristic to be noticed is that these commandment are not comprehensive. They do not comprise a complete list of moral obligations. They are not the “epitome of Israelite morality,” says Moshe Weinfeld (Deuteronomy 1-11: Anchor-Yale Commentary). We might choose “love your neighbor as yourself” as more or an epitome. They are rather a “fundamental list of concrete commands applicable to every Israelite” (Weinfeld). That is, they are concrete and not abstract. They are applicable and not theoretical. They apply to every Israelite.
The Ten Commandments each become headings in the later parts of Deuteronomy (chapters 12-26) for the expanded discussion of Israel’s laws. The legal section of Deuteronomy is organized by this list of ten concrete commands. In that sense, they are the essence of Israel’s law-code. Readers outside of the Israelite community may learn from them, even though not all of the commandments are applicable (the Sabbath is a specific duty of an Israelite, not a universal command for humanity). They are religious as well as moral, and so cannot be adopted by nations with freedom of religion. They are a way of life for a society devoted to the one God revealed at Mount Sinai.
As Moses said in introducing the Decalogue, “Adonai spoke to you face to face out of the fire.”
Face to face at Horeb (1-5), the Ten Words (6-18).
Deuteronomy is not merely a list of commandments. The commandments are placed within a framework of teaching about covenant, love for God, attachment to God, and being doers as well as a hearers. Vs. 1 emphasizes doing, performing the good deeds consistent with justice and faithfulness. Vss. 2-3 emphasize to the second generation that the Sinai Covenant was not just with their parents, but all generations in Israel. Although many in the second generation had yet been born when Sinai happened, nonetheless in vss. 4-5 Moses says God was speaking “with you face to face.” The giving of the covenant at Sinai has affected all Jews, religious or not, for all time and it keeps altering Jewish destiny all the way until the world to come overtakes this present world.
The first part of the commandments recounted in Deuteronomy are the Ten Words (a.k.a., Ten Commandments or Decalogue), which form the foundation of all the teachings of Torah. They are called the Ten Words in 4:13 and 10:4, but there is not a clear and easy division of these words into ten. Over time, three ways of dividing the commandments have prevailed: Jewish, Catholic/Orthodox, and Protestant. In the Jewish division, usually the first two commandments are (1) I am the Lord and (2) you shall have no other gods, no sculptured images. In the Protestant division, the first two commandments are (1) you shall have no other gods and (2) you shall make no sculptured images. In the Catholic/Orthodox division the first two are (1) you shall have no other gods, no sculptured images, (2) you shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God. In order to keep the number ten, the Catholic Orthodox splits the commandment about coveting into two parts: (9) coveting your neighbor’s house and (10) your neighbor’s wife.
The Protestant numeration has the most support overall. In fact, Josephus, Philo, and the Talmud adopt a numbering identical with the Protestant tradition (Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary). Moshe Weinfeld (Deuteronomy 1-11: Anchor-Yale Commentary) says the text seems to indicate the following division: (1) I am Adonai your God; you shall have no other gods before me, (2) you shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, (3) you shall not swear falsely by the name of Adonai your God, (4) remember to keep the Sabbath day, (5) honor your father and mother, (6) you shall not murder, (7) you shall not commit adultery, (8) you shall not steal, (9) you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, (10) you shall not covet the house of your neighbor.
The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) along with the Shema (in Deuteronomy 6) were recited together daily in Judaism as a creed until the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. After that time, the Decalogue was dropped from the Jewish liturgy (probably because of disputes with early Christianity).
Gauging from Exodus 20:18-20, it would seem that God spoke the Decalogue to all Israel, but the law code that followed was mediated through Moses (Exod 20:22-23:33, see 24:3-8). Yet Deuteronomy 5:5 could be read as saying that even the Decalogue was mediated through Moses. The sages suggested that possibly God spoke commandments 1-2 to all Israel and 3-10 through Moses (after the 2nd commandment, the person of the verbs and pronouns changes to third from vs. 11 on).
There are a few differences in the Decalogue in Deuteronomy from the list in Exodus 5, most notably the rationale for the Sabbath (Exodus 20: because God ceased on the seventh day; Deuteronomy 5: because you were a slave and God freed you). The Decalogue is the beginning of the stipulations of God’s covenant treaty with Israel. The Abrahamic promise is a covenant grant (unconditional, timeless benefits bestowed without condition) while the Sinai revelation is a treaty (conditional, temporal benefits for adherence). The Decalogue can be thought of as headings for all categories of the teachings or as a summary of the rest.
DEUTERONOMY 5:19 – 6:3 (5:22 – 6:3 in Chr Bibles)
The children of Israel decided they could not bear to hear the voice of God directly. They asked Moses to intervene and become the mouthpiece conveying God’s words. This became the basis of a moving sermon in the classical rabbinic age (in the Song of Songs Rabbah).
According to the sermon (called a midrash in Jewish circles), if Israel had continued to hear God’s voice directly then Torah would have been implanted indelibly in Jewish minds and study of the Torah would have been unnecessary. Each Jewish person would be born with perfect and comprehensive Torah knowledge, even of rules and implications arising from the text and comprising a literature as vast as the Mishnah and other Jewish expositions of the Torah. In other words, each and every Jewish child would be born a sage and a scholar.
But since Israel insisted on hearing from a man, a prophet, from Moses, then Torah is a matter of human words which can be forgotten and which must be studied again and again to be remembered.
Is this a story of something lost? Is it intended to be a sad tale to make the reader feel remorse? Not at all. This is a beautiful way the rabbis remind us of the importance of study of Torah. It is a duty they very much believed in. Only by daily engaging with Torah and all of the issues that Torah relates to in terms of religious thought, moral thought, social philosophy, etc., can we be transformed by it.
The rabbis did not so much regret our condition of forgetfulness as embrace it. We happily take on the duty of remembering every day. And forgetting is a sweet pleasure because it gives us the opportunity to learn again and never lose the thrill of discovery and re-discovery of profound truths.
The rabbinic way is continual intellectual engagement for the enlightening of the soul. Staying engaged with Torah keeps our hearts as well as our minds fixed on higher things. We may have lost the voice from Sinai, but we have the joy of always climbing nearer to get back to God’s voice atop the mountain.
The voice of God, the words and tablets (19), Israel pleads for Moses to receive and pass on God’s words (20-24), God accepts their plea (25-27), God gives the teaching to Moses (28), Moses enjoins Israel to obey the words carefully as covenant stipulations (5:29-30), introduction to the teaching (6:1-3).
The Deuteronomy account includes more detail than the Exodus version about the mediation of Moses, that God authorized Moses to pass on his words to the people. The appearance and voice of God at Sinai overwhelmed the people. In fear they asked Moses to receive and pass down the words. Israel trusted Moses and did not need to receive the teaching directly from God.
According to Deuteronomy, God approved of their sense of fear, considering it to be a healthy sense of reverence which should remain part of Israel’s attitude forever when it comes to the words of God. Interestingly, in a famous midrash (sermon) in Song of Songs Rabbah (an early writing from the rabbinic sages), the rabbis to some degree lament this decision. Had the people continued to hear the whole Torah directly from God, according to the midrash, Israel would know the Torah as if it was written on the heart (as in Jeremiah 31). But since Israel was afraid and asked for a mediator, Torah study has become difficult and must be a continual occupation of forgetting and remembering.
Yet in Deuteronomy, the act of mediation is not considered a diminishing of the message. Just as most generations of Israel did not see God directly on the mountain, but nonetheless the words are to be believed as if every generation received them directly, so even the first generation had most of the Torah from Moses and not from God. Israelites hearing or reading Torah in later generations are assured that receiving it by transmission, and not by direct witness, is equally blessed.
After this, God expresses his wish for his children, that they will listen and receive blessing. This is an example of the strong emphasis on free will in the Bible (Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary). God’s desire is real, but he does not force his children or control their will to obtain his desire. This is also an emphasis on Torah as a covenant between God and Israel, a treaty with blessings as God’s terms and obedience and Israel’s terms.
One of the most influential passages of the Bible in all of history is known in Judaism as the Shema (shuh-MA) and in Christianity as the greatest commandment. Recited daily, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, constitutes the first paragraph of the Shema in Jewish liturgy. It is the creed of Judaism. Martyrs such as Rabbi Akiba were said to recite Deuteronomy 6:4 as they were dying. In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus answers the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” by reciting Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Many Christian are more familiar with the Matthew and Luke version of the story in which Jesus only recites Deuteronomy 6:5.
Given that Deuteronomy 6:4 is so famous, it is surprising that the common translation (“Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is one”) is probably incorrect. The Hebrew more readily points to: “Adonai our God is one Adonai” (meaning “is Adonai alone”). The God who revealed himself to the children of Israel lays claim to exclusive allegiance. He is God alone. To recite Deuteronomy 6:4 is to accept his kingship, take it upon yourself, and prioritize this over all other imperatives. It is a declaration of loyalty and an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of God.
The thought is completed by Deuteronomy 6:5: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ v’ahavta ‘et Adonai Eloheicha, “and you shall love Adonai your God.” Human kings, such as Essarhaddon of Assyria, made their subject lords declare love to them in a similar manner (Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11: Anchor-Yale Commentary). But when human kings made nobles kneel and profess their “love,” they were surely exaggerating. We can assume the tradition of professing love to the One God is not an exaggeration.
Weinfeld observes that there is a connection between the key word of vs. 4 and the imperative of vs. 5. That is, the word אֶחָד (echad, “one”) from vs. 4 (“Adonai our God is Adonai alone [echad]”) is tied to the concept of love. Thus, for example, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, he says, “Take your son, your only one, whom you love …” (Genesis 22:2). To be sure, the word in Genesis 22:2 is יָחִיד yachid, a synonym for אֶחָד echad, but the connection is the same: the uniqueness of Abraham’s son adds to the strength of Abraham’s love for him. Similarly, Song of Songs 6:9 refers to the idea that the beloved is the “only one” (“the Only One is my dove, my perfect one,” and the word for only one is the feminine form of אֶחָד echad).
God is our Only One, our perfect and unique King. He is the singular One whom we love. When we profess his Oneness, this is what we mean. There is no other like him. As in romantic love we seek the one and only object of our passion, so in love for the divine we seek the one and only God. The singularity of God, if we truly understand it, compels our love and loyalty.
For those who find affection for God to be difficult, it may be helpful to point out that it is usually the human side of religion that has spoiled our ability to see God’s loveliness. Consider that it is possible everything about loving God that seems difficult for us is really about the difficulty of loving cultural and religious ideas about God. The God depicted in doctrines and creeds of religious communities may not be beautiful to us. But if we were to assume the real God is something else entirely, and if we were to seek that vision above all others, then perhaps we could comprehend the depths of “Adonai our God is Adonai alone.”
Shema (4), V’Ahavta (5), teach these (6-7), bind them on your person and your dwelling (8-9), do not forget in the time of blessing (10-13), revere only the Lord (14-15), keep covenant so your enemies will be driven out (16-19), a haggadah for the children (20-25).
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is known in Judaism as the Shema. Vs. 4 communicates the central idea and vs. 5 the primary commandment. It is surprising, then, that the translation and meaning of vs. 4 are uncertain. The best known translation (“Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is one”) is problematic because it is not common for the subject of a sentence to be repeated in this fashion (“Adonai our God” and “Adonai”). Moshe Weinfeld (Deuteronomy 1-11: Anchor-Yale Commentary) prefers, “Adonai our God is one Adonai” (the verb “is” in Hebrew is not written, but is understood).
If we accept the translation that best fits the syntax of the original Hebrew (“Adonai our God is one Adonai”), what does this verse mean? Weinfeld points out that אֶחָד (echad, “one”) can have the connotation “alone,” as in 1 Chronicles 29:1, שְׁלֹמֹה בְנִי אֶחָד בָּחַר־בּוֹ אֱלֹהִים sh’lōmōh veni echad bachar-bō Elohim, “Solomon my son, God has chosen him alone.” The primary idea of God’s “oneness” in Deuteronomy 6:4 is his exclusive claim as the people’s God. He is God alone. This fits with the use of the verse as a Jewish creed, which is understood as acceptance of his kingship and prioritizing it over all other imperatives.
Vs. 5, then, continues the same thought: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ v’ahavta ‘et Adonai Eloheicha, “and you shall love Adonai your God.” Perhaps it is surprising that the word choice here is “love” rather than “obey.” Obedience is certainly included in this command of love, especially since this is the kind of love an inferior has for a superior person (like a child loving a parent or a subject loving a king). Weinfeld notes that in Deuteronomy, as in other Near Eastern texts, love for a king means “loyalty.” He cites the Vassal Treaties of Essarhaddon (an Assyrian king) as evidence as well as various Greek and Roman texts, where subjects were commanded to “love” the king. But none of this removes the rest of the weight of meaning of the word “love.” Human kings were certainly exaggerating when they demanded not merely that their subjects “obey,” but also that they must “love.” We can imagine the call from the Mosaic tradition (whether this originates from Moses or the author of Deuteronomy) to “love” God is no exaggeration.
Vss. 6-9 complete the thought. This “love” is to be carried out by careful adherence to the commands of Torah, teaching the Torah to children in order to pass the covenant down generation to generation, wearing visible reminders of the covenant, and also posting such reminders in the home. In the original context, “binding” words of Torah on the forehead and arm likely referred to jewelry. In Jewish tradition these became the basis of the tefillin (phylacteries), leather straps binding a small case with miniature scrolls containing words of Torah to the right arm and forehead. Similarly, the original meaning of “inscribe them on your gates,” was no doubt to hang inscriptions on gates and doorposts, but this has become in Jewish tradition the mezuzah (a small, decorative container hung on the doorpost with a miniature scroll inside). The example given for how to “love” God involves memorization, teaching, wearing, and posting his words.
Vss. 10-25 have in view the future generations in the land, never forgetting the covenant blessings and curses and passing the story down to the children. Success and comfort are great tests of faith since self-reliance easily pushes God out of our minds. Remembering and teaching allegiance to the Lord in all generations is what Judaism is all about. Vss. 21-25 provide a catechism for passing the story to the children, such as we do at the Passover table. These verses emphasize God’s salvation of Israel and Israel’s responsibility to live by the ideals of Torah.
Being written some five centuries after the events it describes, Deuteronomy 7 has the double aim of explaining how one tiny nation could have laid claim to the end of Canaan and expressing the view God has of Israel in the age of the Assyrian empire. Israel is tiny but beloved. The enemy is large and terrifying, but God is the divine warrior. The place of Israel is not determined by strength or political position, but by an old relationship God had with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Israelites are God’s סְגֻלָּה (segulah, “treasured possession”). This is a privilege and a duty. The privilege of being the chosen obtained for Israel the land in which they settled, which by the time of Deuteronomy’s writing, has long been a kingdom (albeit a small one). But Israel has not been living up to the duty of chosenness. The people have not acted as God’s treasured possession. Instead they have intermarried, adopted the cultural ways of the surrounding peoples, and basically followed all of the opposite advice of this text.
God is ready to be “the Faithful One” (הַנֶּאֱמָן, hane’eman), “keeping the covenant and the lovingkindness” (שֹׁמֵר הַבְּרִית וְהַחֶסֶד, shōmer haberit vehachesed) for a thousand generations. He will do this for “those who love him and keep his commandments” (לְאֹהֲבָיו וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָו, le’ōhavav ul’shōmrei mitzvōtai). In other words, Judah in the days of Deuteronomy’s author must have a change of ways to start being faithful to the Faithful One. If they do, they will see a thousand generations of goodness and security and peace. If they do not, they will instead see the other side of God who “requites instantly” (literally, “to the face he will repay him,” אֶל־פָּנָיו יְשַׁלֶּם־לוֹ ‘el-panav yeshaleim-lō).
Judah, of course, went on to see the repayment of its unfaithfulness “to the face.” That is, Babylon came and left Judah a ruin. They did not experience the thousand generations of goodness and security and peace. Deuteronomy will address the problem of the destruction and exile in a second layer added to the book after the first layer was written. According to Richard Elliott Friedman (Who Wrote the Bible?) the same author will write the second layer who wrote the first. That is, the one who write a theology of Israel and Torah in the time of King Josiah will add to the book after the beginning of the exile.
The good news is the promise did not end with the destruction. The promise is very much alive. Though Israel will be scattered to every nation under heaven, Deuteronomy will go on to say, from there God will call them back. The dream of a promised land and a thousand generations of goodness, security, and peace lives on.
Avoiding contamination of Canaanite culture (1-5), Israel the treasured people (6), election out of love for the Patriarchs (7-8), long blessing and immediate recompense for violation (9-11).
The number of enemies Israel will face in the land total seven, a symbolic number which appears repeatedly in the Torah. Stephen Cook (Reading Deuteronomy) argues that the holy war language of Deuteronomy 7 is symbolic, part of a “divine warrior” motif. There is no Canaanite threat in the time Deuteronomy was written (the reign of King Josiah, near the end of the kingdom of Judah). But there is an Assyrian threat and the people greatly fear the power of the empire.
One sign that we are dealing with myth and not literal history can be found in the contradictions of the text: verse 2 says “devote them to complete destruction” and yet in the next verse we read “do not intermarry with them.” From reading the histories in Joshua and Judges, we know Israel did not commit genocide, since the large surviving Canaanite population is credited with being a source of temptation for them. The verb for “destruction” in fact my not mean destruction at all, but really dedication to the deity. “Devote them entirely to God” might be a better translation of vs. 2. That is, “defeat them and claim their territory for God and neutralize any claim they hold one you culturally and religiously.”
In the divine warrior motif the enemy, says Stephen Cook, is described as vastly outnumbering the heroic nation. They are a sea of terror before the advance of a tiny group of devotees of the deity. They instill panic and fear, but God turns the fear around and causes the swarming any confusion and panic. Read this way, the exaggerations about Israel’s violent mission in various layers of the Torah become far less horrific. They are later interpretations of the settlement and conquest of the land of Canaan intended to instill faith in later generations who were afraid of the great empires of the world and needed to believe that God could make them secure in the land.
As for the Canaanites, Deuteronomy is concerned about the negative effects of their worldview on the Israelites. The belief system of the Torah is radically different in some ways from the polytheistic worldview. Canaanite culture, by Deuteronomy’s standards, had a low view of deity, a magical view of life, a low regard for human life, and poor ethics and morality. The Canaanites were doomed to defeat and were required to flee, be killed, or perhaps (reading between the lines) to assimilate with the Israelites and adopt Adonai’s ways.
Why was Israel chosen instead of these nations, the text begins to ask? The classic statement from the E source of the Torah describes Israel as unique among the nations, God’s treasure, and priests to all the other peoples of the world (Exodus 19:5-6). Deuteronomy 7:6 agrees, using some identical language (סְגֻלָּה segulah, “treasured possession”). It is not Israel’s size, since indeed they are a tiny nation (especially from the vantage of the time of King Josiah when giant empires ruled the earth). Rather, it is the special relationship God had with the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob). This is why the Exodus happened and why Canaan was being given to the Israelites.
Israel’s position is based on God’s love for and promises to Abraham and his children. God’s love and faithfulness brings benefits through a thousand generations. But his recompense for breaking covenant is “to the face,” meaning the immediate, personal effects of judgment on crops and the national peace. Tigay (Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary) discusses three biblical ideas of cross-generational retribution that need harmonization: punishing to three or four generations, punishing immediately, and only punishing the sinner and not the children. All three are stated in various biblical texts. The point of obedience, as described here, is not “listen or else” so much as “he loved you and did great things for you, so walk in his ways.”