In the final movement of Deuteronomy, there’s a pretty lengthy list of curses that will fall upon Israel if they break their covenant with Yahweh. But what exactly is a curse? Why are there so many of them, and what do they have to do with Israel’s covenant with Yahweh? In this episode, Tim and Jon talk about blessings and curses, ancient Near Eastern law code, and the choice all humans have between death or life.
In a way, the blessings and curses are kind of a defense of Yahweh’s integrity to say Yahweh was being faithful to the terms of the covenant as Israel agreed to them … which makes the redemption from exile even more brilliant of a gem shining in the dark … The curse will come, but also, Yahweh will show mercy so the curse doesn’t get the last word.
In part one (00:00-18:28), Tim and Jon dive into the final movement of Deuteronomy and begin tracing the words “blessing” and “curse.” You may remember these key words from the second movement of Genesis, and that’s no accident. Deuteronomy and Genesis form mirrored bookends to the Torah, and the theme of blessing and curse shows up more in those two scrolls than anywhere else in the Torah.
In Genesis and in Deuteronomy, Yahweh’s blessing is an invitation to be fruitful and multiply and participate in God’s life-sustaining power in a secure, abundant environment. A curse is the inverse—not a vindictive punishment from God. But when humans choose to reject the blessing of life, they automatically choose death. God’s blessing has everything to do with his power to create order and abundance out of chaos. So when God hands humans over to the curse, they enter into the state at which the cosmos existed before God brought order to the chaos. To make choices that separate you from the one who is the source of all life puts you in the realm of death and destruction.
In part two (18:28-40:25), Tim and Jon explore the terms of Yahweh’s covenant relationship with Israel, spelled out clearly in Israel’s laws. Obedience to the terms of the covenant results in blessing, but rebellion leads to curse.
In this last movement of Deuteronomy, the curses outnumber the blessings, acting as warnings of what will happen if Israel rebels against their covenant with Yahweh. This parallels common rhetorical techniques of other ancient Near Eastern law treaties. When two nations entered into a covenant with each other, the terms usually included a lengthy list of curses so that the two parties would understand the stakes of the agreement.
In part three (40:25-58:02), the guys take a closer look at Deuteronomy 27, an example of the types of covenant curses we find all over Deuteronomy and in other ancient Near Eastern law codes.
At the beginning of Deuteronomy 27, Moses instructs the people to divide themselves into two groups and ascend either Mount Gerizim or Mount Ebal. The group on Mount Gerizim would pronounce covenant blessings over Israel, and the group atop Mount Ebal would shout covenant curses (which the Israelites do in Joshua 23-24).
The instructions we read in Deuteronomy 27 are repeated from Deuteronomy 11, but there are some subtle differences woven into the two accounts by the biblical authors. In Deuteronomy 11:29-32, Moses describes the two mountains as being near the oaks of Moreh—the same oaks where Abraham met Yahweh when he first entered the land of Canaan. In Genesis 12, Abraham receives his first test of faith at the oaks of Moreh, which is connected to his last test of faith at Mount Moriah in Genesis 22. By connecting these events from Abraham’s life to Israel’s covenant with Yahweh, Moses is not only reminding them that Yahweh is fulfilling the promise he made to their forefathers but also that an even older principle is at work. The blessings of Eden are for humans who are faithful to Yahweh and the values of Eden (the mountain garden).
Just like Adam and Eve at the tree and Abraham at the oaks of Moreh, Israel meets Yahweh at the edge of the garden land, surrounded by trees and mountains. And the nation has a choice to make: Will the people trust Yahweh’s word? Will they choose the blessings that lead to true life or follow their own way and embrace curses and death?
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.