Relevant Verses: Deuteronomy 5; 26:16–19
Theme: Promise and Responsibility
Leading Question: Why is keeping a promise important?
The book of Deuteronomy makes repeated reference to the word “covenant.” It appears no less than twenty-seven times. What is more, the entire book is structured along the lines of an ancient Near Eastern covenant. But it is the transformation of an ancient covenant into biblical thought that is so radical and revolutionary. Essentially, ancient covenants were peace treaties, sometimes between individuals, clans, and tribes, at other times between nations. So, for instance, Abraham made a covenant with Abimelech, king of Gerar (Gen 21:27), as did Isaac (26:28). Jacob made a covenant with Laban (31:44).
Archaeological discoveries in the twentieth century brought to light covenants between neighbouring powers in the region of Mesopotamia dating from the third millennium BCE, that is, before the time of Abraham. These could be between nations of roughly equal strength, known as parity treaties, or they could be between a strong power and a weaker one, known as suzerainty treaty. The covenant between God and the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Exod 19–24; Lev 25–26), and the renewal of that covenant in Deuteronomy (chaps. 1–31), have the basic form of a suzerainty treaty, obviously so since God is infinitely powerful. The form of the covenant is borrowed, but its substance is entirely unprecedented. Instead of being a political document to establish power and rule the subjects, it becomes the theological frame through which the love relationship between God and humanity is understood.
There are definitely dangers when the biblical covenant is misunderstood. First, it can lead to overconfidence, the belief that “God is on our side.” This was the message of the false prophets whom Jeremiah denounced in his day. Second, it can lead to moral self-righteousness. People can come to think: We are the chosen people. We know God, therefore, we are morally better than the rest. The prophet Malachi addresses this issue with biting irony: “From where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is great among the nations and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts. But you are profaning it, in that you say, The table of the Lord is defiled, and as for its fruit, its food is to be despised” (Mal 1:11–12). In the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr delivered this same message in his powerful critique, The Irony of American History. Third, it can easily slip into nationalism: the worship not of God but of the nation, the people, or the land, as European history has testified.
Question: How do we make sure that we don’t think less of those who worship differently from us or don’t believe in God?
Read Deut 5:1–5 and 29:13–14.
Question: How do you explain the strange statement of Moses, “not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today,” given the passing of the Exodus generation (Num 14-16; 26:64–65)? Could it be a deliberate theological and rhetorical strategy that he employs? What about Deut 29:13–14? Isn’t there a discrepancy in the passages?
When you live your life within a covenant something extraordinary happens. Your parents and grandparents live on in you. You live on in your children and grandchildren. They are part of your life. You are part of theirs. We are part of a story that began long before we were born and will continue afer we are no longer here. The question for us today is: Will we live our lives inside that story?
Read Deut 5:12–15 and compare to Exod 20:8–11.
Question: Why is there a different version of the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy?
Question: How can we talk about God’s covenant without making it all about legal issues?
When you live your life within a covenant something extraordinary happens. Your parents and grandparents live on in you. You live on in your children and grandchildren. They are part of your life. You are part of theirs. That is what Moses meant when he said, near the beginning of this week’s parsha:
It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and oath, but with whoever stands with us here today before the Lord our God as well as those not with us here today. (Deut. 29:13-14)
In Moses’ day that last phrase meant “your children not yet born.” He did not need to include “your parents, no longer alive” because their parents had themselves made a covenant with God forty years before at Mount Sinai. But what Moses meant in a larger sense is that when we renew the covenant, when we dedicate our lives to the faith and way of life of our ancestors, they become immortal in us, as we become immortal in our children.