Deuteronomy 1: Israel’s Lack of Trust in God

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
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Historical Setting

            The geographic setting indicated within the text of Deuteronomy is Kadesh-barnea, across the Jordan River from Canaan.  Moses and the Israelites have come to the edge of the land of Canaan once again poised to take possession of God’s promise.  Moses begins to re-tell the story of Exodus and the wilderness wanderings.  Further, he expounds upon the ten words (Decalogue) given at Mount Horeb (Sinai).  It is Moses’ final speeches and exhortations as a leader, as that mantle is now being passed on to Joshua who will now lead the people into the land.

Traditionally, the Book of Deuteronomy is credited to Moses.  Although there is undoubtedly a Mosaic tradition that can be found in these texts, it would seem nearly impossible for the book to have been entirely Moses’ work.  First, it would not physically seem possible for Moses to write about his own death.  Nor would it seem plausible for Moses to write about himself in third person, barring the possibility of extreme narcissism.  Thus, it appears that some order of editorial or narrative work was added to the Mosaic tradition.

Second, it does not seem very plausible that a wandering community in the desert for forty years would have or be able to obtain materials for writing.  In addition, these communities would most likely have passed down traditions orally.  Written texts are generally indicative of settled, stable communities (which the wandering Israelites were not).  This gives strong evidence for a much later date of composition.

The authorship and setting are much more complex than is indicated explicitly within the text.  The Dtr (Deuteronomic History) is likely a composition collected and formed by several editors.  Furthermore, it is likely that Deuteronomy was shaped over an extensive period of time which was filled with much social upheaval, including exile.  As such, it is difficult to assess who these editors are or exactly where the setting may have been.

It is during the reign of Josiah that the Law of Moses is re-discovered.  As a result, Josiah calls his people to repentance.  It is also during this time, between 622 and 609, that the Deuteronomistic history is thought to be predominantly compiled.  Thus, the literature would have a strong pre-exilic presence found within its text.  This explains the tones of hope describing the Josianic reform, which ultimately fails due to his untimely death.  This calls for further redaction after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587.  What would the Deuteronomistic texts mean in light of the Babylonian exile?  How might God’s people understand their plight?

There are four strong theological themes found in the Deuteronomistic history.  The first relates to the “religious and political alliances” formed with other nations.  Second, exile is seen as the fulfillment of curses warned about in Deuteronomy if obedience to the Law is not kept.  Third, death and destruction is not the end.  God provides hope in the midst of despair.  Finally, the people are called to repentance.  This framework encompasses, not only a pre-exilic concern, a post-exilic desire to re-constitute the covenant between God and His people.

There are several proposals for the author of the Dtr.  First, prophetic circles are thought to have originated the material (e.g. Jeremiah or Hosea).  Both of these prophets share similar concerns for social justice that is found within Deuteronomy.  Another proposal is the Levitical priesthood, who was largely concerned with Law.  They would have had immediate access to these source materials.  Finally, Deuteronomy is sometimes attributed to wisdom and scribal circles.  Wisdom traditions, largely influenced by a motivation to live out of a righteous fear of God, might possibly hold an interpretive key for Dtr.  Whatever group might have claim to authorship is not easily accessible to us.  However, we can guess that they were religious leaders engaged in teaching and preaching to the community (Fretheim 153).

The Dtr is most prominently concerned about what it means to be the people of God.  How is that to be lived out?  The Dtr will consistently say that obedience to the Law of God is necessary for God’s covenantal community.  And, as with all or most prophetic voices, it is a call to be separate from the pagan societies surrounding the communities.  It is a call to live apart from the world.  And, for those who find themselves captured by those false allegiances, it is a call to repentance.  Obedience allows God’s blessings to become a reality for the community.  Disobedience consequently results in curse.  These would have been very understandable concepts in pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic communities.

Literary Setting

The Book of Deuteronomy is situated literarily in the Pentateuch, Genesis through Deuteronomy, and the Deuteronomistic History, Deuteronomy through 2 Kings (Olson 1).  As such, Deuteronomy cannot be simply thought of as a self-contained book, but one intimately connected and dependent upon that which comes before and after it.  Likewise, it serves as a hermeneutical key to understanding both the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History.

Deuteronomy is a conclusion for the Pentateuch.  It summarizes the history of the people of God and situates them on the verge of entering the Promise Land, albeit with a change of leadership.  The people are prone to fear and disobedience, but it is God alone who can fulfill these promises.   However, Deuteronomy ends haphazardly with a number of loose ends and various genres, suggesting an open future of uncertainty (Fretheim 53-55).  Fretheim notes, “Because of the nature of this ending, scholars have often been moved to create a different one, and so they speak of a Hexateuch… In this way, they get the fulfillment of the promise (of land, at least) as the ending, and the story – to their way of thinking – is appropriately rounded off” (55).

Furthermore, Fretheim suggests that Genesis and Deuteronomy are brackets around the whole of the Pentateuch.  He convincingly proposes that a creation narrative is easily conceived from beginning to end, thereby intensifying this theme inherent in the Pentateuch.  Terrence Fretheim states:

The situation of the first human beings standing before God on the morning of creation corresponds to that of the newly redeemed people of God on the eve of the entry into the land.  Just as Adam and Eve are created in the image of God and are commanded to have dominion in God’s creation, so also Israel as God’s covenant partner is given responsibilities to further the divine purposes for the life and well-being of the creation.  In addition, the prohibition given humankind in Gen 2:16-17, the response to which means life or death, parallels Moses’ words to Israel about the commandments (Deut 30:11-20) (56).

Deuteronomy also serves as a beginning point.  Scholars believe that Deuteronomy is the starting point for the Dtr “because of [its] links with the literary styles and theological perspective of Deuteronomy, which may have originally introduced Dtr” (Fretheim 59).  One such theological link that is commonly referred to is the “land” promised in Genesis and settled in Joshua.  Such theological connections point to the possibility of Genesis-Numbers having been an editorial addition to Deuteronomy-Kings (Fretheim 59).

Due to the editorial nature of Deuteronomy, it is difficult to nail down one genre that fully encompasses its texts.  “Biblical scholars have offered primarily four options for describing the basic form of Deuteronomy: covenant, sermon, law code, and constitution.  Each of these proposals for the genre or form of Deuteronomy reflects some but not all of the truth about Deuteronomy in its present form” (Olson 7).

The book of Deuteronomy is known by three names; two Jewish, one an English translation.  The first, `elleh haddebarim meaning “these are the words.”  The second, seper tokahot meaning “the book of hortatory directives.”  And, finally, Deuteronomy meaning “the second law” (Miller 1-2).

The entirety of Deuteronomy, with its various literary genres, is constructed as a speech or exhortation.  It reminds Israel of their recent history, their tendency to apostasy, their call to holy living, and God’s faithfulness.  As such, it is a preparatory speech, delivered via Moses, to the people entering the Promise Land.  In addition, it is meant to encourage and motivate to the people to live in a certain way.  And, further, it is a re-presentation of the Law to the people (Miller 1-2).

Deuteronomy 1:19-33 is situated in the narrative of Mount Horeb (Mt. Sinai) found in chapters 1-4.  It is a historical , theological narrative summarizing the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Moab.  It provides a basic hermeneutical key for understanding the need for recapping and re-working the commandments.  Moreover, it serves as a warning from experience to live in fidelity to the covenant that God is making with them at Moab, just as He did at Horeb.

Within the narrative of the first four chapters, Deuteronomy 1:19-33 serves as the conflict of the story.  It is the pivotal moment that interprets the wilderness wandering theologically for the community.  Furthermore, it provides a hermeneutic for God’s judgment upon the people.  In light of this, the passage serves as an explanation and warning for future generations that might find themselves at a similar crossroads.

Theological Vision

             As has been pointed out, the Pentateuch is very concerned with a vision of God as Creator.  He is the one who hovered over the waters of chaos before time.  From that watery darkness, God created light and life.  After the fall, humanity had become corrupt and continuously evil.  As a result, the waters above collapse on the waters below.  That which had been separated in creation deteriorated into chaos, destroying all life… save for Noah and his family.  God had shown Noah how to construct the Ark and had commanded him to take two of every kind of animal onto the vessel.  Despite the fact that humankind was still continuously evil, God bound himself by a covenant with creation not to destroy it by water.  Creation was once again restored, though it still maintained many problems due to sin.

This was the same God who opened up the barren womb of Sarah, who was able to bear the seed of Abraham and God’s promise.  This God transformed Jacob, a man conniving for his own personal gain, into a man who wrestled with God.  This was the God that led Joseph to become a great leader who saved nations and his own family from certain death.

As the people of God grew in number and strength, they eventually found themselves a displaced people enslaved to the harsh Egyptian overlords.  It was a land of darkness from which they were brought out under the leadership of Moses.  However, even before they were able to escape far enough into the desert, Pharaoh changed his heart and pursued them.  Trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea, darkness had once again descended upon the people.  The waters of chaos seemed to swell and threaten to swallow them.  Yet, once again, God provided a way through the waters, making dry land appear by which life might once again be sustained.

Despite their continuous groaning and disobedience, God provided for the Israelites in the desert giving them food and water.  However, Israel was found fearful upon the report from the twelve spies.  Ten spies said it was impossible to enter the land while two spies reassured the people that God would give them the land as He had promised.  The people, however, became dismayed and refused to enter the land.

The peoples’ fears continue to surmount as the increasingly focus upon the obstacles that seemingly impede their possibility for possessing the land.  In fact, despite seeing God’s gracious salvation from Egypt, the Israelites choose to “see” God maliciously removing them from Egypt to destroy them.  This has hardly been their experience, given that God has graciously provided for them with mighty, powerful displays.  Yet, the people only see a negative future despite the positive assertion of God’s promise.

The Anakim are the “paradigmatic symbol” of the obstacles that are “too great, that strikes fear into the hearts of the people” (Miller 35).  They are a great and mighty people living behind mighty, fortified walls.  They are definitely a formidable opponent.  “The issue is not whether the Anakim are there, mighty and tall.  They are indeed.  If one doubts that, one has only to view King Og’s fourteen-foot bed!  The issue, however, is whether the people will ‘see’ that God has brought them safely by the Amalekites to this point (Exod. 17) and can and will give them victory over the Anakim they see ahead” (Miller 36).

The Israelites’ disobedience is not the primary problem.  Rather, it is a symptom of the underlying issue.  Israel has refused to trust God, a lack of faith.  It is this lack of faith and trust that ultimately leads to Israel’s disobedience.  Not relying, trusting upon God means that the people are depending on something else, which is a form of idolatry and a violation of the first commandment.  It is operating out of fear rather than love.

This fear does not allow the people to “see” the realization of the promise.  The result is displacement.  The people find themselves wandering around the desert for forty years.  They are headed back in the direction of the Red Sea toward Egypt, the symbol of their bondage and slavery.  The people’s lack of faith and trust has enslaved them.

This serves as a warning to future generations.  Fidelity to God is a necessity.  Infidelity leads to the opening up of the curses that are later described in Deuteronomy.  Faithlessness leads to judgment, which may keep that generation from participating in the promise of God.  However, judgment is not the final word.  “And even, finally, when disaster must fall, it is cast in terms of death, but not annihilation, for judgment is perceived as a refining fire, as a means by which life might finally come again” (Fretheim 62).

Ultimately, the final word is God’s fidelity.  He is faithful even when His people are not.  “Though a rebellious generation may not live to see the fulfillment of the promise, the promise can be relied on.  The promise is an everlasting one, though participation in its fulfillment is not guaranteed to every person or generation.  The promise is always there for the believing to cling to, and they can be assured that God will always be at work to fulfill it” (Fretheim 62).

To a community finding itself in exile, and seemingly removed from the promise of God, this would be good news!  As it is, this passage stands as a warning to be faithful to God.  It is a call to trust God and His promises, even when the obstacles to those promises seem overwhelming.  This passage is a vision of God’s power.  God is mightier than the power of Egypt, the Amalekites, and the Anakim!  There is no power on earth that can thwart the promises of God for His people.

This passage is also a promise that God will renew the promise for those who love Him alone.  Like Joshua and Caleb, God fulfills His promise to those who rely upon God and trust in His faithfulness.  Those who “see” God and respond in loving faithfulness will see the fruits of God’s promises in their lives.  Saying “yes” to God is planting the seed of blessing; saying “no” to God invites the curse that brings death.


Works Cited

Campbell, Antony F., and Mark A. O’Brien. Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, Present Text. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Cousar, Charles B., Terence E. Fretheim, and Gene M. Tucker. The Pentateuch (Interpreting Biblical Texts). New York: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Miller, Patrick D. Deuteronomy (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: J. Knox Press, 1991.

Olson, Dennis T. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005.

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version With the Apocrypha. New York: Abingdon Press, 2003.



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