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Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy
By Walter Brueggemann
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2001 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Memory as Context for Interpretation (1:1-3:29)
These introductory chapters to the book of Deuteronomy are a mixture of speech by Moses and narrative memory. The speech of Moses is the voice of the tradition that summons Israel to enact its peculiar destiny as the object of YHWH's special promise, presence, and demand. Here as for all of the book of Deuteronomy, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Moses as the deepest human authority this tradition can know, as the authorizing human voice that is taken as YHWH's own word.
The narrative memory is laid out as a travel report, tracing the way in which Israel moved from Sinai—the mountain of command—to the goal of the promised land, just beyond the Jordan. The selective, stylized narrative memory appeals to what may be older narrative sources in the book of Numbers. The text assumes the foundational reliability of that memory. The narrative memory serves as a matrix out of which Moses may address Israel in a compelling and didactic way. From the context of memory the voice insists that Israel must ponder its past in order that in the present, it may be more fully, obediently, and responsibly the people of YHWH. The intention of the retrospect is to make cogent and palpable Israel's distinct identity in the present, an identity rooted in loyalty to YHWH.
1:1-5: The initial paragraph of this introduction quickly locates Moses in a particular time and place (1:1-5). The time is specific: first day, eleventh month, fortieth year from Sinai. The reference point is Sinai; what counts is how far removed from Sinai is this speech of Moses. The statement at the same time links these words of Moses to Sinai and distances them from Sinai. These are not Sinai words. These are derivative. The place is equally specific: it is by the Jordan, that is, near the land of promise but not in the land. The time and place locate Moses, who dominates this opening account as he will dominate the entire book of Deuteronomy. He will speak, and his words will be remembered. He needs no introduction or further authorization. His voice is a decisive given in Israel. It has been so since Sinai. In Exodus 20:18-21, Moses was accepted as the mediator, the one who will "relay" the word of YHWH to Israel.
This two-step, relayed utterance from YHWH-to-Moses-to Israel is crucial for the revelatory process of Deuteronomy and for the way in which the Old Testament understands the gift of YHWH's disclosure of Torah. This is divine word; but it is human speech.
Israel received the divine word directly only in Exod 20:1-17. Such direct address is too ominous for Israel to bear. From that moment at Sinai, Israel is prepared for the human speech of Moses. The word of Moses is reliably the command of YHWH. This stratagem places Israel's high confidence in this particular human utterance, but acknowledges that it is human. The text gives no hint and expresses no curiosity about how Moses is commanded by YHWH. Everything that follows in Deuteronomy relies upon this shrewd interpretive "two-step."
The work of Moses is to "expound" Torah. The phrase "this Torah" suggests that there is a recognizable corpus of teaching that is known to be authoritative in Israel. The corpus that follows here "expounds" "this Torah," that is, the Torah of Sinai. The term "expound" (b'r) means to "make plain, make clear" (see Deut 27:8; Hab 2:2), that is, to say it so that it can be understood. While the other uses of the term suggest writing more legibly or larger, in 1:5 the word means to explain or exposit, that is, to extrapolate meanings. Deuteronomy is Israel's great book of exegetical extrapolation; thus it is commanded that Torah be made more explicit in terms of particular circumstance. The Torah of Sinai is always in need of such interpretive extension in new circumstance.
1:6-8: When Moses begins his "clarification" of Torah, the first utterance concerns a departure from Sinai at the command of YHWH, alluding to the memory of Num 10:11-13 (1:6-8). YHWH does not intend Israel to remain forever at Sinai, and certainly the community here addressed is far removed in time, in place, and in circumstance from Sinai. YHWH wills for Israel a future elsewhere, in the land.
The command is in the service of the promise of the land already pronounced in Genesis to the ancestors. Thus the final book of Torah complements the first book of Torah, pairing Genesis and Deuteronomy as "land documents," focused on Israel's promised inheritance. The promise brackets the emphasis on Torah found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Moses' first utterance quickly accomplishes two matters. First, it asserts that the present generation is yet again a generation under promise whom YHWH intends to be recipients of the land. Second, the promissory utterance specifies the boundaries of the land in the most sweeping scope, thus echoing the promise to Abraham in Gen 15:18-21 (see Deut 1:24; Josh 1:4). Note well: the first utterance in this book of commands is a promise for what is not yet given to Israel. All of the commands to follow are in the service of that promise that is YHWH's primal intent for the present generation of Israel.
1:9-18: Moses' initial recital perhaps looks back to Exod 18:13-37 (1:9-18). Here the memory of that administrative initiative is prefaced in two ways. In verse 10, it is affirmed that God has multiplied Israel as promised. Indeed it is the fruitfulness of Israel that creates the need for a more complex judicial system. The promise of "many heirs" was made to Abraham (Gen 15:6); its actualization was acknowledged at the beginning of the Exodus narrative (Exod 1:7). The verbs "multiply" and "bless" recall the creation account (Gen 1:28); God's initial words of blessing are enacted in Israel, who is the carrier of YHWH's will for all creation. The celebrative retrospect of verse 10 is matched by the future hope of verse 11. Moses expects that in time to come there will be even more sons and daughters, more heirs to occupy the huge expanse of the land of promise now envisioned. YHWH's generative promise marks this community even in the wilderness.
What counts, however, in the context of such fecundity is the proper management of the community. From the outset, Israel needs a procedure to ensure reliable justice. Here it is Moses, not Jethro, who has devised a judicial system accepted by the community. There must be good judges who are impartial and unintimidated, for what they administer is the justice of God (v. 17). The charge to the new judicial appointees is decisive for Israel (see Exod 18:21; Deut 16:19-20; 2 Chron 19:7). From the outset Moses understands that the land of promise must be ordered justly. A trustworthy judiciary is a sine qua non for a covenant community. It is the judges' task to ensure that the land given in promise will be a land kept in Torah. Moses melds together the key traditions of Israel, traditions of promise and of demand.
The actual content of this "justice" is to be equitable to "small and great," with no advantage to the powerful. Furthermore, this justice is to be equitable for covenant members and outsiders ("resident aliens"), that is, for all parties to any social dispute. In the prophetic tradition, it is precisely the failure of justice that causes the loss of land (Amos 5:7, 10-11, 14-17; Isa 5:8-10, 2425; Jer 7:5-7). The land of promise must be ordered by justice, or the promise will evaporate. Anticipating Deut 17:8-13, verse 17 foresees a court of appeal to the central authority of Moses atop the pyramid of judicial power (Wildavsky 1984:146).
1:19-25b: After the "pause for justice" in verses 9-18, the text returns to the theme of verses (6-8) (1:19-25). The initial part of the journey from Sinai is to Kadesh Barnea, a major oasis in the arid south, apparently a place prominent in Israel's memory as a way station on its journey (see Num 13:23-27; 32:8-15). According to tradition, Israel was poised to enter the land of promise from the south. The tribes sojourn to the very edge of the land, and are ready to enter. In verse 21, Moses authorizes Israel to "take possession" of the land. The wording is worthy of note. Tradition knows that finally the land is not given, but is taken. The land for Israel is indeed willed and authorized by YHWH, but Israel must act. The verb "take possession" signifies forceful military action.
Perhaps ironically, the mandate is followed immediately by a salvation oracle: "Do not fear." This form of affirmation is a characteristic assurance given to the army that is about to undertake a risky enterprise (see Deut 20:3). There is no doubt in the utterance of Moses that the venture will succeed, for it is authorized and overseen by YHWH. The anticipation of conflict, however, is reason enough for fear and anxiety. The success of the troops' mission cannot be sure, apart from this utterance. Moses utters an assurance that makes YHWH a partner in the venture, thus weighing the odds of success heavily in favor of Israel.
Moses is immediately ready for an assault on the inhabitants of the land. The community of Israel, however, is more cautious and wants to reconnoiter in order to determine strategy and to assess risks (v. 22). Moses approves the mission. There is no hint here that such a maneuver is a fearful delay nor is it reckoned to be an act of faithfulness; it is simply prudence. The exploration party is sent and returned quickly, all within the scope of verses 22-25. Their report is unreservedly positive. The land is good! The produce is fabulous. No wonder, for they had witnessed "the Valley of Eshcol" (see Num 13:23-24).
1:26-45: By verse 25, all seems in readiness for entry into the land in pursuit of which Moses and Israel have come so far. All are agreed about the desirability of the land. None doubt Israel's entitlement to the land from YHWH. Moses' work in remembering, however, is also to recall that the past concerning the land has been problematic. These present verses function as a negative counterpoint to the celebrative tone of verses 19-25. Verses 26-27 are sober in their alarm. Moses accuses Israel with a threefold indictment: "You were unwilling ... you rebelled ... you grumbled." This speech of Moses appeals to the "murmur tradition" of the wilderness sojourn prominent before (Exod 15:2226; 16:1-3; 17:1-7) and after (Num 11:1-15; 14:1-4) Sinai (Coats 1968, 47-127). That is, in the remembered tradition Sinai is situated in the midst of complaint.
Whereas the Torah of Sinai is YHWH's command to Israel, the murmur tradition that frames Sinai is about Israel's challenge to and dissatisfaction with YHWH. In the older tradition, the murmuring complaint against YHWH and against Moses is grounded in the risk of the wilderness where there are no visible means of life support. But here, as in Num 14:1-4, based on the data of Num 13:28-29, the murmur is at the brink of the land. The threat protested now is not lack of resources in the wilderness but dangers in the land entry. The complainers looked back to Egypt with an imagined preference for the conditions of slavery. They looked forward to the land ahead and saw formidable resistance to their coming.
The murmuring Israelites took stock of the God of promise and concluded that YHWH was in fact their enemy who willed to destroy them. The entire journey to the land of abundance is seen as a grand plot to destroy. Israel has completely misconstrued YHWH's leadership in its life. That, of course, is the point of the indictment against Israel: Israel's pervasive misconstrual of YHWH.
The ground for Israel's remembered refusal to enact the promise of YHWH and receive the land is that Israel will be at risk. They were scared! The cities—surely formidable Canaanite citystates—with their mind-boggling fortifications were too much for this resourceless company fresh off the wilderness. Moreover, there had been reported sightings of the residue of old "giants" who were too big and strong to be taken. The children of promise are wholly immobilized. They are unwilling to continue the venture on which their faith had started them.
Moses, however, remembers not only the recalcitrance of Israel. He also recalls his own vigorous response to their cowardice. He had addressed them with an imperative that was designed to stiffen their spines. The assurance remembered in verse 21 is here remembered as a demanding imperative. The wording of verse 29 echoes that of verse 21. But while verse 21 is phrased as an assurance, verse 29 is worded as an imperative. Israel is a people of faith, and so cannot be a people of fear. The immobilizing fear comes because they no longer trust YHWH as an adequate force on their behalf. Moses asserts the defining mark of Israel that the tribes had forgotten in their fear. Israel is accompanied by YHWH, who can meet any threat awaiting them in the new land. YHWH is the key agent in the land-taking maneuver; Israel is completely misinformed if it imagines that success depends upon its own prowess. It is YHWH who will make the decisive difference, who will be the leader in the violent dispute over the land. The ground for the assurance concerning the land ahead is the memory of the Exodus, when Israel had been hopelessly defeated by the Egyptian powers—except YHWH was engaged (Exod 14:13-14).
What happened then will happen again, now. This will be "just as" that (v. 30). The "just as" (= "according to all") is parallel to the "just as" of verse 3. The Exodus, so far as this tradition is concerned, is not in doubt. It becomes the ground for trust in the future. What YHWH did in Egypt, moreover, is matched by what YHWH has done in the wilderness. In the wilderness, when Israel was in despair,
the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place. (v. 31)
Indeed, YHWH carried a people that could not travel under its own power. YHWH has been and will be utterly reliable. There is no reason to back down at the brink of the land, no ground for fearing the giants and the fortresses in the new land; YHWH is more than a match for any such threat.
After Moses' remembered appeal for trust in YHWH, however, Israel's squeamish response is also recalled. The verdict of verse 32 is terse: "You have no trust" (amen). The term means to have complete confidence in YHWH in a situation of threat when Israel has, on its own, less than adequate resources to cope. The episode of the Exodus was a time of trust (see Exod 14:30-31). In this analogous circumstance, however, Israel showed no confidence in YHWH (see a parallel negation in Isa 7:9). YHWH is characteristically willing and able; Israel is characteristically frightened and refuses to act on that assurance. Israel prefers to count on its own inadequate resources.
YHWH, Moses asserts, is indeed faithful and trustworthy; but YHWH will not be mocked. Israel's refusal to "trust and obey," so says Moses, evokes YHWH's harsh judgment. The condition of the new land is complete trust in YHWH; thus, no trust equals no land. None who doubts YHWH will receive the land.
The only exceptions in the present community are Caleb and Joshua. In the memory of Israel, Caleb and Joshua stand firm in faith against the community of doubters (Num 14:6-9). These two have complete confidence that YHWH is reliable and adequate in the face of even this great threat. Because of their readiness to risk all for the sake of the promise and because of their complete confidence in YHWH, Caleb and Joshua are exceptions to the death verdict issued upon the entire generation of Israel in verses 35-40 (Olson 1985). In the book of Numbers Caleb and Joshua symbolize the new generation that is unmarked by faithlessness who will receive the land of promise. The contrast between these two and all the others is the contrast between faith and faithlessness and consequently, between those who receive land and those who do not.
This simple contrast is further enhanced by two surprises the narrative reports in its conclusion (vv. 37-39). First, who would have suspected that Moses would be identified with the disbelieving community and included in their exclusion from the land? Moses is not charged with faithlessness but is contaminated by the community of unfaith, and so suffers exclusion along with the others. The text in verse 37 provides a nice bracket with 34:1-8 where the verdict of exclusion of Moses from the land is enacted. Second, "the little ones," whom those without faith thought would be lost as spoil in defeat, turn out to be the wave of the future; the vulnerable ones who will receive the land. The contrast between the hard-hearted doubters and the innocent children is complete. The ones most at risk will receive the promised land. Everything, asserts Moses, depends upon trust. The speech of Moses makes a characteristically sharp contrast between old and new, between faithlessness and faith, between loss and gift.
Excerpted from Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy by Walter Brueggemann. Copyright © 2001 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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