Lecture 5: Numbers and Deuteronomy
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Numbers begins with Israel ready to take the Land that God promised to Abraham. The people enter the promised land but Moses and Aaron do not. Deuteronomy emphasizes the fact that God renews his covenant with his people. Passages like Deuteronomy chapter 8 indicate that the love of God is the most important motivation for their service. Moses ends by telling the people that the words of the covenant are their lives, not just idle words.
A. Departure from Sinai (1:1 – 10:10)
B. Israelites lose their opportunity to gain the Promised Land (10:11 – 21)
C. A new generation enters the Promised Land (22–36)
A. Covenant Structure
1. Preamble (1:1-5)
2. Historical prologue (1:6-4:49)
3. General stipulations (5–11)
4. Specific stipulations (12–26)
5. Blessings and consequences (27–28)
6. Witnesses and ratification (29–33)
1. God renews his covenant with His people by reminding them of the past (1–4)
2. Basic rules for possessing the land (5–11)
3. Specific rules for possessing the land (12–26)
4. Blessings and consequences of obedience or disobedience to God’s law (27–28)
5. The people gather to hear the last words of Moses and affirm the covenant (29–33)
6. Moses dies (34)
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
Lecture: Numbers and Deuteronomy
The books of Numbers and Deuteronomy deal with the promise that God has made to give Israel the land. It continues all the promises made to Noah, all the promises made to Abraham, all the promises made to Israel and Moses. But it focuses now on the issue of Israel moving toward Canaan, toward the land promised to Abraham and we see some possibilities and some difficulties.
When the book of Numbers begins, we have great possibilities. There are three sections to the book of Numbers. And this book really is something like a travel document. Let me explain: in 1:1 to 10:10, that is 1:1 to 10:10 Israel prepares to enter the land of Canaan. In 10:11 through chapter 21 we have Israel leaving Mount Sinai but arriving in the desert of Kadesh-Barnea. You should be saying, wait a minute I thought they were supposed to be arriving in the land of Canaan. What happened? As we will see in 10:11 through chapter 21 a great deal of bad things happen. Third section: chapters 22 through 36. These chapters have them moving from the desert of Kadesh-Barnea to the plains of Moab right across from the land of promise.
What does the book of Numbers emphasize about God? It emphasizes that God expects faithfulness. He expects it from His people and He delivers faithfulness Himself. We won’t be able to spend a long time on the book of Numbers and I apologize for that. It is one of the places where I decided to move a bit more quickly.
Departure from Sinai (1:1–10:10)
This section is one of the most hopeful texts in the Old Testament. It covers their departure from Sinai and their arrival in Kadesh. So I should say it begins hopefully. As we start the book of Numbers an eventful year has passed. Remember that Israel has left Egypt, accepted a covenant with the living God who made heaven and earth and has rested near Mount Sinai. Now they prepare to leave Sinai and go conquer Canaan. In Numbers 1 and 2 they take a census to see who they have to go up into the land. In Numbers 3 and 4 they organize the priests who are going to be leading worship as they travel and get to the land. In Numbers 5 they purify their camp so the people will be right with God and ready to go up and do His work in the land.
In Numbers 6 and 7 they dedicate certain people and they make offerings to the Lord so that the work of the Tabernacle and the work of conquest can go on. In Numbers 8, they ordain, they set apart the priests and the Levites to do the work God described in Exodus 25 through 31 and the book of Leviticus. In Numbers 9 they celebrate their first Passover, noting that it has been a year since they came out of Egypt. So many wonderful things have happened: the Lord has sustained them, they have what they need, the Lord forgave them when they worshiped the idol in Exodus 32 through 34, they have much to be thankful for and in Numbers 10 they march out from Mount Sinai. So we see them leaving but soon we will find them not in Canaan but in Kadesh-Barnea.
Israelites Lose Their Opportunity to Gain the Promised Land (10:11–21)
How do we go from all these exciting, hopeful, helpful things to being in the desert? In Numbers 11 through Numbers 20 we find them losing their opportunity to possess the land and instead dying in the desert. Chapters 1 through 10: departure from Sinai-very hopeful. Chapters 11 to 21: losing their opportunity and a very difficult section of the Bible to read because without question Numbers 11 to 21 describe some of the most tragic events of in the Bible. From the heights of marching into the Promised Land the people fall to the depths of dying in the desert. Even Moses, the great leader, loses the privilege of entering Canaan.
This whole segment chronicles one disaster and missed opportunity after another. It is used throughout the Bible from this point on as a cautionary tale of about not believing God and not following His commands. Hints of problems appear in chapters 11 and 12. Despite what God has done on their behalf the people complain about their living conditions (11:1-3). Now I think we have to admit that life in the desert is not pleasant be they have been promised that the situation is temporary, they will soon be in Canaan. But they demand meat instead of manna; they are tired of their diet so the Lord gives them quail and yet also sends a plague because of their complaining.
In chapter 12, Aaron and Miriam oppose Moses because he marries an Ethiopian woman. God defends Moses by striking Miriam with leprosy but He does heal her when Moses prays for her. Moses remains Yahweh’s chosen ruler but these petty arguments and disputes and complaints are ominous. All is not well. There are struggles ahead. I might note here too it is interesting when I was growing up as a child and society was changing a great deal there was a lot of people who argued that people of different races should not marry. Well chapter 12 of course tells us that Moses who is an Israelite marries an Ethiopian so it is a mixed racial marriage. We would like to believe and hope that this Ethiopian woman had faith in Yahweh and I believe she did. So the issue is one of what does this person believe, not what race do they come from. That is the end of chapter 12.
In chapter 13, Israel is now in striking distance of the Promised Land. To help them know their opponents strengths and weaknesses, Yahweh has Moses sent leaders to spy on the Canaanites (13:1-16). Moses instructs them to look at the land and bring back an assessment of the cities and its people (13:17-20). This information, I think, is intended to help Moses know where to invade. The spies carry out their mission and in the process they discover the land is extremely fruitful (13:21-25).
And in the rest of chapter 13 the spies make their report. Here is their report: first they say the land is very fruitful, they say it flows with milk and honey. Life would be preferable there than living in the desert. Second part of the report they state however that the inhabitants of Canaan are numerous and powerful and the cities are heavily fortified. We need to note that God never said this would be easy, it would take His deliverance. But the people making the report highlight the difficulties.
Third they note several people groups would have to be eliminated before the Israelites could conquer the land. This all sounds very hard therefore even though two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, are in favor of invasion, the other 10 spies, the majority, counsel against attack. They even spread lies to advance their opinion claiming the land eats people and that all the Canaanites are giants (13:30-33). God’s promise of a homeland and Israel’s commitment to the covenant are both in jeopardy. Now the responses fly thick and fast. The people, their leaders, and the Lord all speak up.
Bitterly disappointed, as chapter 14 begins, the people crying wish for death. They now believe their wives and children will be killed by the Canaanites which makes them want to choose new leaders and return to Egypt. But Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb try to convince them to move forward. According to them rebellion is the only thing that can stop their ultimate victory. Because of these pleadings, the nation threatens to stone Moses and Aaron. Why are they so unable to move forward when indeed the Lord has delivered them from Egypt and sustained them from the desert?
The answer comes in 14:11-12 when the Lord speaks. And I read, “And the Lord said to Moses “How long will this people despise Me and how long will they not believe in Me? In spite of all the signs that I have done among them. I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Notice what God says: the problem is that the people do not believe in Me. Earlier the spies said that as far as they were concerned that when they looked at the Canaanites they looked like grasshoppers in comparison to the Canaanites. And I heard a series of sermons one time that claimed that the problem with Israel is that they had low self-esteem. They just didn’t think enough of themselves. They saw themselves as grasshoppers and were small and were therefore unable to get the victory.
The Bible places the problem quite elsewhere. It says they do not believe in God. God says they do not believe in Me in spite of all that I’ve done. Therefore, God punishes them. He says that all of these people who decided not to enter Canaan at this time will live the rest of their lives and die in the desert. The giving of the land has been suspended for 40 years by the end of the chapter 14. And yet more woes follow.
After some further instructions on sacrifice in chapter 15, chapter 16 tells about rebellion. A man named Korah leads a rebellion against Moses. And the Lord has to affirm Moses as leader again. But still a greater tragedy in my opinion occurs in chapter 20. Moses, who is one of the greatest of all Biblical leaders, a man that God uses to give His law to the people, a man God uses to deliver Israel from bondage. A man who is on the Mount of Transfiguration with Elijah talking with Jesus Christ about how Jesus will die and be raised from the dead. This great Moses will not go to the Promised Land.
In chapter 20 once again the people complain. As usual they wish they were dead or at least back in Egypt. Perhaps by now Moses wishes they were dead. The Lord tells Moses and Aaron to get water by speaking to the rock. But instead of speaking to the rock Moses strikes the rock. Worse still, in 20:10 he takes credit for the miracle instead of honoring God. Water comes from the rock but Moses has failed to believe in God and make Him holy in the people’s eyes (20:12). He has never acted in such an arrogant way before. He has never taken credit for a single miracle. He has never failed to lift up the Lord more than himself. But because of his prideful insubordination neither Moses nor Aaron will enter in the Promised Land and they will die in the desert. I find it quite sad.
But I want to emphasize something very important. We see the rest of Numbers and Deuteronomy we also again see the greatness of Moses and it is this: that even when he knows he will not get what he so treasures most, that is to lead the people to the Promised Land, to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, even so, he leads the people, he is faithful to the Lord he does what God asks him to do. He is a faithful steward in God’s household. Nonetheless, not even Moses can take credit for what God does. Not even Moses can fail to make the Lord set apart, special, unique in the eyes of the people. We begin to see a few glimpses of hope as we come to chapter 21, because the Lord is beginning to finish the old generation but then give the people victory, the new generation victory, against enemies who attack them in the desert.
A New Generation Enters the Promised Land (22–36)
We then move on to the third section of the book of Numbers, chapters 22 to 36. And once again we have a hopeful section. We have a new people for the land, we have a new generation rising up to be a faithful generation for the Lord. In these chapters, chapters 22 to 36, slowly, painfully the old generation begins to die. Yahweh remains faithful to the people even to those who have been rebellious.
And then in Numbers 22 to 24 we have the Balaam stories. These are unusual to say the least. A pagan prophet named Balaam hears from the Lord. His donkey also speaks to him. If you know the famous story you know what I’m talking about. Though Balaam’s been hired to place a curse on Israel by a foreign government he cannot do so. He keeps going to a different spot looking at Israel and blessing them and incurring the anger of the people who have hired him to curse this people.
This is a strange and difficult account. Nevertheless one idea is evident: God will fulfill His promises made to Abraham. Let’s illustrate. In 23:7-10 Balaam says Israel will be numerous and that God will be with them. He says in 24:3-9 that God will bless their friends and curse their enemies. He says in 24:15-19 God will help them conquer the land. In other words God will keep all the promises made to Abraham. Nothing can thwart, can change, can impede God’s purpose. So, the Balaam stories I believe are factual, I believe they are historically accurate. I believe it is possible for the sovereign God who created donkeys to use them to speak. But I think it is even more important to focus on even this pagan prophet can see that God was keeping promises made to Abraham.
In chapter 26 the old generation has about died out. So in chapters 27 to 30 the Lord begins to re-instruct the people, to instruct the new generation how they will live and what they shall do. In chapter 31 and following we find God giving the people victory against their opponents. And we see the Lord instructing the people in how they will obey God and possess the land.
Finally this tragic books draws to a conclusion. Moses recounts the sad history of Israel’s travels in the desert and warns the people to follow the Lord in chapter 33. It then follows a discussion of what part of Canaan each tribe will possess and there is a naming of new leaders in chapter 34. In chapter 35 Moses explains how the Levites are to be treated and in chapter 36 rules that women may inherit land, there is equality before the law.
Clearly the book’s last few chapters point to a more hopeful future. Israel can expect to approach Canaan again. In fact they’ve journeyed within close range of the land already. Horrible things have happened but a new era is dawning. Numbers has delayed the fulfillment of the promise of the giving of the land. But it cannot stop God’s fulfilling of His promise. God’s word will come true.
The last book of the law, of the five books of Moses is Deuteronomy. This book emphasizes the fact that God renews His covenant with His people. God starts fresh with His people. He is a God who forgives, a God who renews and a God who keeps His promises. So we come to Deuteronomy, a very important book for the rest of the Bible. We will summarize it fairly quickly but I want to emphasize a few important passages that are used throughout the Bible.
First, as we have been doing lets set out an outline of the book of Deuteronomy. The outline of Deuteronomy follows the pattern of an ancient covenant treaty. That is, it is in the form that nations would have used to make agreements with one another. In particular, the form of the book of Deuteronomy follows a format used by the Hittite nation. The Hittites were famous for making treaties with lesser nations, which were called vassal nations. Thus when we think of this treaty form, this covenant form, this outline, it is often called the Hittite Vassal Treaty Form.
This similarity between Deuteronomy and Hittite vassal treaty is significant in helping us to date the book of Deuteronomy. The Hittite vassal treaty was a format used in the second millennium B.C., in other words during the time of Moses. Some scholars have argued that the first five books of the Bible were written many, many centuries after Moses lived. Yet as we look at the shape of Deuteronomy and compare it to the ancient literature, we find that it fits a form that was being used quite frequently in Moses time.
Remember that the setting of the book is about 1400 B.C. If Israel went out of Egypt around 1446, as we discussed in our introduction to Exodus and they spent 40 years or so in the desert we are now coming close to 1406 to 1400 B.C. Israel has migrated northward from the desert now across the boarder of Canaan in the land of Moab poised to invade the land. Here Moses gives a series of three speeches in which he outlines God’s covenant with the new generation. The book of Deuteronomy emphasizes God renewing His covenant. Well, back to the outline.
There are six basic portions to a Hittite vassal treaty. First of all there is the preamble, the opening to the covenant. It states the parties who are making the covenant. 1:1-5 correspond to the preamble to a Hittite vassal treaty. Second the Hittite vassal treaty offered a historical prologue outlining the relationship between the parties in the past. 1:6 to 4:49 give us the history between Israel and Yahweh their God. The third section of the Hittite vassal treaty was to give general stipulations, general rules for the relationship between the two parties. In Deuteronomy 5 through 11 we find the general stipulations that God gives to Israel for His relationship with Him. These general stipulations include a repetition of the Ten Commandments. They also include some very basic statements about how Israel is to love Yahweh as He has loved them.
The fourth section of the Hittite vassal treaty stated specific stipulations. That is, the very particular details of how the nations would relate to one another. This relationship would include details about trade agreements, military agreements, boarders and that sort of thing. In Deuteronomy 12 through 26 we have the very specific stipulations that the Lord gives to His people about how they will live with one another in the land. And in these chapters we have some very important material that gets cited and reflected upon later in the Old Testament. We have material about how specifically prophets must act and how priests must act and how kings must act and how the people must act. There are a lot of case laws in this section, that is, material that says that if one thing happens then this is what you do, so specific stipulations.
The fifth section of the Hittite vassal treaty included blessings and consequences. That is, the nation that was greater would say to the nation that was lesser, if you will keep this covenant and do as required, there will be good things happen to you. But if you break the agreement, then consequences will occur. Usually these consequences had to do with invading the land and defeating them or cutting them off economically. Chapters 27 and 28 of Deuteronomy outline God’s blessings for His people and the consequences they will incur if they do not follow Him. These chapters, Deuteronomy 27 and 28, correspond to a similar passage in Leviticus 26 that we have already studied.
Sixth and finally, the Hittite vassal treaty included witnesses being called to ratify the covenant. Generally speaking chapters 29 through 33 include the witnesses and the ratification of the covenant in Deuteronomy.
So let me summarize the six parts. A preamble stating the parties (1:1-5). Second, a historical prolog detailing who is in the covenant and the relationship in the past, that’s 1:6–4:49. Third, general stipulations for the relationship, that’s Deuteronomy 5 through 11. Fourth, specific stipulations for how the relationship will unfold, that is chapters 12 through 26. Fifth, blessings and consequences for obedience to the covenant or for covenant breaking, that is chapters 27 to 28. And witnesses called and a ratification ceremony undertaken, that is chapters 29 through 33.
Now of course there are 34 chapters in Deuteronomy, not 33. So what is in chapter 34? It is a conclusion to the first five books of the Bible. It tells us of Moses’ death and that a great chapter in Israelite history has ended. So it’s not really part of the covenant structure of Deuteronomy. Rather it is a bridge text between the end of the Law and the beginning of the prophetic section of the Old Testament.
God Renews His Covenant with His People (1–4)
Let’s go back now and do a little bit of work on the specific sections of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 1 through 4 helps us understand how God renews His covenant with His people by stressing His gift of the land and the past. When Numbers ends a new generation has emerged. Raised in the desert, this group seems determined to avoid their parent’s mistakes. Moses is determined to prepare them to enter into the land so he advises them on a number of issues. Including, how to wage war, establish their worship, chose future leaders and deal with false prophets. To convey this information he presents the nations past and God’s standards as a revised, expanded covenant.
He reminds them of their history in Deuteronomy 1 to 4. Even though this generation did not participate in the events of Exodus 1 through Numbers 20, Moses says “You chose spies. You rebelled against God. You were brought out of Egypt” and so forth. He links the new generation to God’s great past deeds and to their parent’s mistakes. Why? Because he wants to encourage them to keep Yahweh’s commands in the future.
Because in the past the people refused to invade Canaan (1:19-46). The Lord made them live in the desert forty years (2:1-25). He reminds them the Lord gave them victories in the desert to prepare them to conquer the Promised Land. He makes that statement in 2:26–3:11. Moses concludes this historical section of the treaty by reminding the people that obedience to God is the key to their future. He tells them in 4:39 that they serve the only living God. In fact, He is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath. There is no other. The God they serve is the only god. He is not just the only god for them, He is the only god there is. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe and they should obey Him. Just as a weaker nation must obey its stronger covenant party in the Hittite vassal treaty, so Israel must abide by Yahweh’s standards if they are to inherit the Land.
So chapters 1 through 4 introduce the book. Reminds us that God renews the covenant, reminds us that He is taking His people to the land in fulfillment of the promise He made to Abraham back in Genesis 12:1-9. And He has reminded His people of the past, His great deeds, their parent’s failures as a way to remind them to move forward with Him.
Basic Rules for Possessing the Land (5–11)
In the next section, Deuteronomy 5 through 11 we have the basic rules for possessing the land. Having completed his brief summary of the past, Moses reviews the basics of the covenant. He also establishes the basis of their national life. I think three ideas receive special treatment.
First, in Deuteronomy 5, Moses tells the people to keep the 10 commandments and the other foundational covenant laws. He tells them in 5:33 that their future in the land depends on this faithfulness.
Second, they must love God above all else, an effort that involves their hearts, minds and strength, all that they are. Dt. 6:4-9 became a very famous passage and was cited at the beginning of worship in Israel for hundreds of years and is even used still today in synagogues. 6:4-9 says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord God with all of your heart, will all of your soul and with all might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way and when lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the door post of your house and on your gates.” Love of God is the most important motivation for their service. When they believe in God and know Him they will love Him. And according to Deuteronomy 8, this love motivates their obedience to Yahweh and eliminates idolatry.
Third, God has chosen them to be a special people. Because He loved them and because He made promises to Abraham, the Lord continues to bless this stubborn and rebellious group. On the subject of God’s love see 7:6-11 and 9:1-6. Their love is as a result of His first love. As the New Testament says, we love God because He first loved us.
If Israel remembers and responds correctly to these truths, that their future depends on faithfulness to God and His teaching, that love is the motivation both for their relationship with God and His relationship with them, and that God has chosen them to be a special people as a way of keeping promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If they will remember these truths, their love for God will lead to a long stay in Canaan (Dt. 11). The new generation must understand and implement the covenant’s basic stipulations before it could hope to obey more detailed instruction. Once grasped, however, the basic requirements unlock new opportunities for blessing.
Specific Rules for Possessing the Land (12–26)
So with a history of the people outlined in chapters 1 to 4, and with the basic standards and motivations for serving the Lord and thus being prepared to possess the land in chapters 5 through 11, Deuteronomy 12 through 26 sets forth specific rules for possessing the land. Many of the standards that are explained in chapters 12 to 26 are familiar to readers. After all they have already appeared in the Pentateuch, in the book of the Law, in the first five books of the Old Testament.
For instance, Deuteronomy 13 says Israel must not worship other gods. This is a repetition of the first two commandments. According to Deuteronomy 14, the people should avoid unclean foods, something that was outlined in Leviticus 11 to 15. Deuteronomy 15 says they are supposed to cancel the debts of the poor, just as Leviticus’ standards about a year of jubilee say. Deuteronomy 16 says they are to observe the national religious festivals that have already been outlined in the book of Leviticus.
They are also told that judges are supposed to be just, in chapters 16 and 17. That priests are to be provided for (Dt. 8). And that property rights and marital bonds are to be upheld (Dt. 22). These laws are restated for this generation but they are hardly new. But they deserve particular emphasis because the people are headed to the land where they will be a kingdom of priests in the middle of the world declaring God’s glory to all other nations.
Because they will soon enter a new land though the people also receive some brand new instructions. According to 12:4-7 when they enter Canaan, they must worship Yahweh in one central place. No longer will they have a traveling sanctuary in their midst. Of course, they may pray and they may praise God wherever they are. But God will choose a permanent location for their major festivals. This emphasis on a particular worship center helps guard against a tendency to bow down to idols at various local shrines. The Israelites found that when they went to the land of Canaan that there were many, many local shrines, many places that people would worship a variety of gods. They were to have nothing to do with those sites and those gods, but were to gather together to worship the Lord at a central location as a means of withstanding idolatry.
Other rules apply directly to life in the new land. According to Deuteronomy 19, they are to set aside a few cities as places of refuge for innocent parties threatened by persons seeking revenge. When they fight wars they must destroy their enemies (Dt. 20). Deuteronomy 20 is talking about their initial incursion into Canaan, not how they are to operate in all wars at all times. Yet, if they take a woman captive in war they may not abuse her sexually. They must marry her and give her all privileges of a wife (21:10-14).
According to Deuteronomy 26 they are to give tithes and offerings when they come into the land and it begins to give fruit and vegetables. Some of these gifts will support needy and defenseless persons. Some of the gifts will support the priests. But the people are to be generous, as the Lord has blessed them so they should bless others.
Two sets of laws about life in Canaan are particularly vital for understanding the rest of the Old Testament. Moses senses that Israel will eventually want a king so he sets rules for the kings in 17:14-20. According to this passage, Israelite kings must come from the people. They must live simply. They must follow carefully all the words of God’s laws and decrees. They are not to rule for their own benefit. They are to rule to bless and help the people. As a reminder of who they truly serve they are to have the law of God always before them and they are to walk according to His instructions.
Moses also knows that prophets will always exist. Prophets of all sorts were already in the ancient world. He knew that prophets would preach various doctrines and would come from many countries. So in 18:17-20 he says a prophet must preach worship of Yahweh only. Furthermore he says true prophets must always speak the truth. If they make predictions they must come true 100% of the time. These laws about rulers and preachers, about kings and prophets are intended to save Israel from political and spiritual ruin.
Various rules complete the specific requirements of the covenant found in Deuteronomy 12 to 26. For example in chapters 24 and 25 Moses includes statements and standards about divorce, about treatment of the poor and about care for widows. These laws combine God’s mercy and justice and they deserve Israel’s active allegiance. So Deuteronomy 12 through 26 gives us extensive examples of how Israel is to live once they come into the land.
All of these specific standards are based on the general stipulations. By that I mean, all of them can be traced to the Ten Commandments in one way or another. All of them can be traced to love for God with heart, soul, mind and strength in one way or another. But the specific stipulations help them know how to live in their homes, in their families, in their courtrooms, in their places of business, and so forth, they give very specific directions.
Blessings and Consequences (27–28)
Deuteronomy 27 and 28 teaches about the God who renews the covenant by telling the people the blessings and consequences associated with obedience or disobedience to the covenant. As in Leviticus 26, Moses realizes that Israel needs reasons to keep the law. The mere promise of land did not assure faithfulness in Numbers 13 and 14. Therefore Moses chooses a picturesque and creative way to encourage them to renew the covenant. He reminds them of a place called Shechem in the new land. This city has special significance because Abraham was first promised a homeland there in Genesis 12:6.
Nearby two adjacent mountains illustrate Israel’s choice of accepting or rejecting the covenant. On the one side of the valley stands Ebal, a rocky, barren mass. On the other side is Gerizim, a mountain that has trees and vegetation. Ebal represents what will happen to Israel if they reject Yahweh’s standards. They will have nothing, their life will be desolate. Gerizim symbolizes the richness of their lives if they will honor the Lord. The people may choose barrenness or fruitfulness, cursing or blessing. Their future in the land depends on this decision. If Israel chooses blessing, if they chose Gerizim, then they will be blessed in their homes, in their jobs and in the world beyond their homeland (28:1-6). All their enemies will tremble before them, they will truly be a special people of Yahweh.
But according to 28:15-68, if Israel refuses to follow the covenant they will suffer reverses in all walks of life. If they sin against God, He will send them reminders to repent to come to Him. Agricultural difficulties will hinder them. Enemies will scatter them. All of these difficulties will be disciplinarily actions given by God to bring them back to Himself. If they rebel long enough they will be eventually driven into exile where they will desire to come back to God and to home. Indeed their lives in exile will be as barren as Ebal, surely this generation has already experienced such existence in the desert. Their future depends on the choices they will make now and in the years ahead. Like other passages in Deuteronomy, chapters 27 and 28 are strategic to understanding the whole Bible.
Let’s review a bit. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is a central passage that tells us our motive to serving God must be loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus said this is the first and great commandment. And He reminded the people of His day of Leviticus 19:18 which says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So two great commandments: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Deuteronomy 17:14-20 gives standards for kings that will stand for the ages. Deuteronomy 18:15-22 gives us standards for prophets that are used throughout the Bible. Deuteronomy 27 and 28 alongside Leviticus 26 stands as a reminder throughout the Prophets and the Writings and into the New Testament that if the people will walk with God, He will give them all the spiritual riches of a relationship with Him. And He will protect and guide and help them.
But if they turn against Him, He will bring disciplinary measures and eventually even cast them off, at least cast those off who do not turn to Him. So all the prophets remind Israel of the covenant blessings and the covenant consequences and even into the New Testament as you recall the Hebrews 12 where it talks about the disciplinary action God brings to His people. We are reminded of how important it is to be covenant keepers living out our faith by showing our love for the Lord. As the apostle John put it, if you love God, or as Christ says, if you love Me you will keep My commandments.
The People Gather to Hear the Last Words of Moses and Affirm the Covenant (29–33)
In Deuteronomy 29 through 33 we have the people gathering to hear the last words of Moses and to affirm the covenant. Moses writes down all the words of the covenant (31:9) and the people agree to keep the covenant. Moses tells them in a final great sermon poem in 32:47 that these words are not idle words to them, they are indeed their lives. By them they will live long in the land and they will cross over the Jordan and possess that land and they will serve the Lord as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation in that land.
Moses Dies (34)
In Deuteronomy 34, Moses dies. And as this great leader passes away, we come to the end of the first great section of Scripture. Joshua will replace Moses, but he will be missed. The new generation will come into the land and do great things for God. But the old generation, in some ways, the old generation that includes Aaron and Miriam and all, they will be missed. But we will not miss, for the people’s sake, the difficulties of living in the desert. Of disobeying God and suffering His consequences, these things are over.
And so we look forward to the future with certain promises in place. That God has created the heavens and the earth. He has made a covenant with all nations through Noah. And He has promised (Gen. 12:1-9) to bless all nations through Abraham. And He has delivered Israel through the Exodus to be a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation, to bless all nations as they live in the midst of the land. And God has given them His covenant of blessing, His gracious words about how to live in the days to come. And He has brought the people, fully instructed, fully empowered, fully blessed to the brink of receiving the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:7 of a new homeland. The Law ends, but in reality it truly simply a great beginning.
- Balaam was faithful to say what God told him even though he knew the king wanted him to say something different. Describe a time when you have said something God told you to say even though you knew it wouldn’t be popular. What was the result?
- Deuteronomy is a book that shows how God keeps His promises and renews His covenant with His people. God showed His mercy by giving them another chance. Describe a time when you kept a promise to be faithful to someone even though it was difficult. Describe a time in your life when God has given you a second chance. How should that affect the way we treat others?
- Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 8 emphasize the importance of the love of God as the primary motivation for obedience to Him. How does God’s love for you motivate you to love God? How do God’s love for you and your love for Him motivate you to love others? How does the love of God motivate you to listen to His voice and obey?
- Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses because of who he married. Who have you unjustly criticized or gossiped about lately? What people is God bringing to your mind that He wants you to be in relationship with so you can demonstrate love to them and allow God to bless them through you?
- Is there something God has told you to do? Are you willing to take a risk and trust Him to give you the strength and wisdom to accomplish it?
- How have your parents and mentors obeyed God and set a good example for you? How have they fallen short? How are you living your life to carry on with what they have done well and do better in areas in which they fell short?