Good morning! Ancient covenantal formulas had a common format where the terms of the covenant were followed by lists of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. We’ve had many chapters now of covenantal instructions, so now in Deuteronomy 27-29 we arrive at a set of blessings and curses.
Chapter 27 begins by describing how the covenant is to be publicly “validated” in the new land—inscribed on stone and sealed with an impressive liturgical display of the tribes on two mountains, calling “Amen!” to curses on those who disobey. Note how this action makes public and communal what has so far been presented as one-voice proclamation from Moses. When they do this, the people of Israel truly “own” the consequences for following or breaking the covenant.
Lovely blessings form the beginning of chapter 28, and then are followed by dreadful curses. The blessings sound as tender and sweet as a parent blessing a son or daughter at the child’s wedding. Everything ahead is an open possibility, and all providential abundance awaits the people, if only they can be faithful. However, the curses that follow are much longer than the blessings. This list goes on for dozens of verses, and includes ecological devastation, military defeat, and revolting child consumption. (Don’t eat a meal while reading this chapter.) It sounds truly ghastly—a foretaste of (and perhaps written about the same time as) the terrifying prophecies in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other later prophets. This writing has the emotional power of ghost stories, where the words come viscerally alive in those with active imaginations.
Unlike ghost stories that I know, these curses describe (at least in part) what actually happened in the Babylonian exile, when many of the people saw the loss of all their property, were marched into exile, and then forced to worship other gods. The theology throughout Deuteronomy and especially in these chapters is that these terrible effects are caused by sinful disobedience, and are the direct will of God. There is no sense of God being somehow separate from or displeased with the conditions of God’s people. In a framework where God is all-powerful and all-involved, the only way to understand bad things happening to good people is that they have been unfaithful or somehow displeased God. I believe this is the framework which the writer(s) of Deuteronomy are using to make sense of the later exile.
Deuteronomy 29 uses the power of historical memory as another aid to faithfulness. The writer remembers all the blessings and protection of God in the wilderness, with the intention of evoking gratitude and loyalty forever after. In the ears of those who heard this and knew the devastation of Exile, there could be no more powerful urge back to righteousness. If God has truly done all these terrible things, how much more will God want to bless those who return to faithfulness? We’ll have to wait for later books like Job to wrestle with what happens when people who DO live righteously still suffer such dreadful conditions. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Deuteronomy 30-31. Thanks for reading!