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Relevant Verses: Deut 4:25–31; 5:22–29; 30:1–10

Theme: Repentance

Leading Question: Why is it not good enough to say sorry?

Deuteronomy 30 brings Moses’ third speech to the Israelites to a climactic end. After placing blessings and curses before the people according to the ancient custom of a covenant ceremony, the tone changes. Moses offers an exceptional word of assurance to the descendants of slaves, namely, if they should be slaves again in exile, God will surely act on their behalf and reinstate them as free people. The first ten verses in Deut 30 stress an element that will be essential should this situation come to pass.

The chiasm below (Deut 30:1–8, my close translation from the Hebrew text) shows that the keyword in this section is the verb “to turn” or “return” (Hebrew shuv). The seven clauses where the word is used express a threefold act, Israel’s return to God, God’s turning to Israel, and God’s act of returning Israel to a state of well-being. At the center of the chiastic structure is God as the agent who brings the “return” about, and how this act is accomplished.

A    It shall be when all these words come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you return them to your heart in all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice with all your heart and soul . . . then the LORD will return you from captivity and have compassion on you. He will return you from all the people where he has scattered you (vv. 1–3)

X     Moreover, the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live (v. 6)

A’    You will return and listen to the voice of the LORD, and observe all His commandments which I command you today, . . . and the LORD will return to rejoice over you, . . . for you will return to the LORD your God with all your heart and soul (vv. 8–10)

Moses places the most important part at the center of the chiastic structure: Circumcision of the heart and love for God come from the heart (v. 6). Circumcision of the heart becomes a metaphor of removal of all barriers that hinder a person to be totally committed to the Lord. As a result, devotion to the Lord will be evident in undivided love and obedience. Those who the Lord will bring back from the exile will have undergone a “surgery of the heart.” As a result, the former exiles will be restored to their place among the nations.

Question: What images of repentance are better than others in explaining what God really wants? How does repentance fit into the context of God’s laws?

“Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more” (Deut 10:16). What is circumcision of the heart? The second half of verse 16 elucidates the first part: A circumcised heart is the antithesis of a stiffened neck. Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld explains that “an uncircumcised heart, like an uncircumcised ear (Jeremiah 6:10) and uncircumcised lips (Exodus 6:12, 30), means than an organ is incapable of absorbing feelings and impressions from the outside.” To circumcise the heart, then, is to open it, and thereby to become genuinely receptive to God and God’s command. The image of a circumcised heart thus symbolizes “achieving a condition of responsive openness to God’s word.”

Scholars have long struggled to understand just what the heart (Hebrew lev) symbolizes in biblical thinking. The heart in Hebrew thought is “the preeminent metaphor for the inner being of a person, the seat of intelligence; the seat of emotions; and the seat of volition, i.e., the will.” Moses demands that the people totally transform their inner lives, so that they will respond to God’s command with loyalty, readiness, and faithfulness. As Bible scholar Richard Nelson explains, “circumcising the heart is a metaphor for a radical, interior renewal that makes love and obedience fully possible.”

Question: How can we know the difference between being sorry for the consequences of our sins and being sorry for the sins themselves? Why is this distinction so important?

The New Testament, of course, is filled with the idea of repentance. In fact, John the Baptist began his ministry with the call to repentance.

Read Matthew 3:1–8.

Questions: How does the idea of “return” appear in these verses in Matthew 3? In other words, what is John the Baptist telling that reflects on what is written in Deuteronomy?

“God’s forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart. David had the true conception of forgiveness when he prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10. {MB 114}

Question: How do we explain the concept of repentance to people today?

Question: How do we deal with those who believe they’ve committed the unpardonable sin?

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