Those reading through the final chapters of Deuteronomy might find themselves feeling a little unfulfilled. Nearly all of the plot tensions that have developed from the earliest chapters in Genesis, through the entire Torah narrative, remain unresolved! Abraham’s family is really big now, but they’re still not in the Promised Land, and all the nations have not yet discovered God’s blessing. To make it more complicated, the Israelites keep rebelling and bringing disaster on themselves. After forty years of putting up with these grumbling road-trippers, and after God gives Moses a spoiler-alert, Moses concludes his long speech by predicting how Israel’s story is going to unfold.
Then the Lord appeared at the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the cloud stood over the entrance to the tent. And the Lord said to Moses: “You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. -Deuteronomy 31:15-16
Divine Strategy at Work
The Torah concludes by preparing you for a long history of failure in the Promised Land. This is intentional, and it’s part of the strategy of the overall narrative to help you see the good news in the midst of failure. This dismal past generates hope for the future. Think of how many times in the Torah we’ve watched a character receive some kind of command or guidance from God, respond with fear, unbelief, or straight up disobedience, and then face the tragic consequences.
God places Adam and Eve in the garden as divine image bearers of God, empowered with choice, freedom, and authority in this temple garden.
They choose to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and define right and wrong for themselves (Gen 3:6), and they suffer the consequences by being exiled from the Garden (Gen 3:23).
God warns Cain that “sin is crouching at the door, it desires to have you” (Gen 4:7).
Cain does not heed the warning, kills his brother Abel (Gen 4:8) and is banished from the Lord’s presence (Gen 4:16).
God tells Israel not to make idols or worship other gods (Ex 20:1-6)
They make a golden calf and worship it (Ex 32).
One of the most common, repeated themes in the biblical narrative is how people constantly evade God and his wise commands. We had hoped that, after being redeemed in the Exodus, this “kingdom of priests” would respond differently. Surely witnessing the ten plagues and walking through the sea would compel them to love God and each other and fulfill God’s promise to become a blessing to the nations.
Old Habits Die Hard
However, it quickly becomes clear that this is not going to happen. The Israelites are humans, after all, and we know what humans are like, both from personal experience and from Genesis 1-11. So, at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses merges the story of Israel up to this point with the story of humanity’s rebellion in the garden.
See, I set before you today life and good, death, and evil. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will have life and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But, if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. -Deuteronomy 30:15-18
If Moses was a coach giving this speech to a team of players about to run onto the field, he would get fired. This is not the way to inspire people, telling them that their failure is certain! As we mentioned earlier, Moses knows all about Israel’s rebellious hearts, and the Lord goes a step further and actually predicts Israel’s continued rebellion, and the resulting exile from the Promised Land. But, Moses has hope, and so should you.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Hope in the Future
If the fulfillment of God’s promises depended solely on human ability, then hopelessness would be an appropriate response. But, it doesn’t! God has been the faithful one in this story, and it’s his covenant promises that are carrying the day. God is committed to having a covenant people who will love him, love each other, and who will become the vehicle of his divine blessing for all nations. However, this story is showing us that this will never happen unless God accomplishes a deep level of transformation in the human heart. The laws were given to Israel to point out the way for them to love God and others, but paradoxically they only pointed out how broken and selfish the Israelites actually are. Now, we discover that the consequences of breaking these covenant laws will bring disaster upon Israel. In a twist however, amidst this darkness of the human condition, Moses discovers a glimmer of hope:
Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you can love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. -Deuteronomy 30:4-6
Israel is going to fail, just like the rest of humanity. But, after their failure, God transforms their hearts so that they can become what God has called them to be. The Old Testament prophets succeeding the exile picked up these promises and developed them. The New Testament apostles believed that this new reality of the transformed heart was taking place through Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The Prophet Ezekiel:
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” -Ezekiel 36:26
The Prophet Jeremiah:
“I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.” -Jeremiah 24:7
The Apostle Paul:
“No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.” -Romans 2:29
Read more about Paul’s theology of the Spirit in Romans 8:1-17.
The prophets and apostles present Israel’s Messiah as the one who truly obeyed the law and loved God and neighbor. Jesus was the kind of human, and the kind of Israelite, that God made us to be, but that we perpetually fail to be. He did this on our behalf, so that faithless people might receive life and blessing instead of death. This is ultimately what Moses was hoping for, a day when God transforms the hearts of his people so that they can love God and others.
The conclusion of the Torah is kind of a downer and Moses’ speech is somber and his prediction is grave. However, the whole point of this story is that humans can not achieve the new creation on their own. We are in desperate need of help in the deepest way, which is precisely what Jesus came to offer when he did for us what we could never do for ourselves. The Ten Commandments, all the laws of the Torah, Israel’s failure and rebellion, it all points to the future new covenant of God transforming the hearts of his people. This is the only way that our old humanity and this broken creation will be ushered into a new future.