Lectionary Text for February 16th, 2014
Old Testament Lesson
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
The Choice of Life and Death
11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” 
This is a somewhat perplexing text in that it can confuse the reader if we do not understand the context of what God is saying to His people (you) and if we misunderstand the force of the verbs. So, let’s dive in…
First, we must look at the preceding verses that are not included in the lectionary. Verse 11-14 are not included in the lectionary reading, though I think they should be. They set the tone for what God says through His prophet Moses.
In verse 11 we have the word “commandment” (מִצְוָה) used. Our English understanding of this word brings with it a lot of baggage. As 21st century Americans, we really do not like for anyone to command us to do anything. We also, when we hear this word, go straight to the “Ten Commandments” and think of them. However, both our disdain for being commanded to do anything, and our lack of understanding of the Ten Commandments interrupts our ability to appreciate the gift of life God is giving us in these words in Deuteronomy 30.
The word “commandment” would better be understood in our vernacular as gifts, or wisdom. While I would not suggest translating it as such, the thought in our context or conceptualization of these words would be better. So that verse 11 would be more comparable to this, “For this gift/wisdom that I gift you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.”
This is amplified in the place to which God puts these gifts of wisdom in verse 14, “But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”
One of the overly simplified statements that we have made concerning God’s commandments, especially when it comes to the Ten Commandments, is that we can never truly obey them. While this is certainly true as it pertains to our sinful nature, we are lost in the statement that we cannot obey them. God becomes for us a tyrannical creator who has made laws and commandments that we will never be able to keep. Our default position is then to think, “why would God purposefully make a law that I cannot possibly do?”
However, on the contrary you certainly can do these things, because of who has put them in you to do. We have to start with God and not with ourselves. God has given us these things. In fact He has put them in our mouth to say them, and in our heart (לֵבָב the concept of this word for the Hebrew is the place of thought and not emotion so this could also be translated in the mind).
Therefore, with this context in mind, God places before us “life and good” on the one hand, and “death and life” on the other. The choice is a false choice. God is not giving us the choice to live or die, though the imperative in verst 19, “choose life” would make it appear that way. Remember, He has already set life in us. He has already put these gifts of wisdom in our lives. They are already there. Therefore, the only real choice is not to have them, but to deny them.
Verse 16, being the crux of this thought is itself also difficult to translate into English. A literal translation would look like this, “According to what I am commanding you this day, that is to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and keeping His commandments and His statutes and His judgments (rules), you will live and be blessed in the Land of LORD your God which He is giving you to take possession of it.”
The emphasis of the original text is on God first and what He has given and done. We are a passive force in what we do. On the other hand, verse 17 begins with “If” which is not conditional. Meaning that the conditions of God’s blessing are not based on what we do. However, not living in that state brings about bad results. Therefore verse 17 no longer begins with God, but the construct of the sentence has people as the force and the negative consequences of our own actions away from God are the result. Verse 18, “you shall surely perish” then is not an indictment or a punishment dished out by God, but is simply a natural result of not living in what God has given us.
All of this then is culminated in Christ. Because we know that inevitably we fall short of the wisdom and gifts of God which He has placed upon us, Christ who completed and lived perfectly in all of these things becomes the one we look to and that which we receive forgiveness through. So that we can now say that God has placed the gifts and wisdom of Christ in our mouths through His Word, and in our hearts and minds by His gifts.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Dt 30:11–20.