In these final chapters of Deuteronomy we see a key feature of ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaties renewed: the blessings of submission and obedience, and curses for rebellion and disobedience. There is even to be a ceremony of treaty renewal, with a recitation of the blessings and curses, the one on Mount Gerizim, the other on Mount Nebal. The blessings and curses are dramatic and emotive enough to make obedience desirable, and disobedience frightening. But they are a necessary reminder for the new generation of Israelites, about to enter their promised home.
Which leads to another crucial matter that transfers from the Law of Moses to the New Testament: the orientation of the believer to the God of the Covenant, and to the Covenant itself. The choice, then and now, in both the Old and New Covenants, is between being stubborn, hard-hearted and stiff-necked, and that of “fearing the Lord your God.” By such fear is not meant mere terror of punishment (though the condition described and its consequences are terrifying), but a fear of rupturing and losing a sacred, life-giving relationship. The “Fear of God” is, in some ways, a fear of oneself, that is, a healthy fear of one’s own capacities for self-delusion, self-justification and the inner tendency and temptation to turn one’s back on God, even while being outwardly and formally religious. The God-fearer, in a Biblical sense, trusts in God, more than himself or herself, to keep the intimate, covenant relationship alive.
Also presaged is the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua. How striking and subversive, in that historical context, that Joshua will lead, not by virtue of birth or lineage from Moses (almost nothing is known of Moses’ children) but by virtue of his faith, qualities and gifting.
The story of Israel’s fall, exile and rising again is foretold in Moses’ final warnings and prophecies, told in the form of benedictions for each of Israel’s twelve tribes in chapter 33 (Remember that the tribe of Joseph includes two sub-tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh). This too is unique in the world’s whole body of religious historical literature, which most often serves to sanitize, aggrandize and divinize the people and their leaders through their foundational stories. Here is another sense in which Israel has gifted the world, by holding up to all peoples a mirror of themselves in her own conflicted story. Not even Moses comes off completely clean. His death and burial are recounted in the final chapter, 34, with a tribute in the final verses, 10-12. For any of us in positions of leadership and responsibility for God’s people, it is of first importance that we imitate Moses in this respect: that we seek to be one “with whom the Lord spoke face to face.” This also serves notice that, while Moses and his written and spoken materials were central and foundational to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the law), the people of God who followed him had a hand in its final shape and editing, unless we wish to assert that Moses wrote about his own death and burial ahead of time.