Moses gives the least motivating pep talk ever in the third movement of Deuteronomy. He outlines God’s covenant and the various blessings and curses associated with it, and then he tells Israel, “You’re going to fail.” Talk about demoralizing! In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they explore the paradox of righteousness accomplished by divine sovereignty and human freedom through the lens of Deuteronomy and the New Testament writers.
Part of the Torah’s diagnosis of the human condition is about misdirected or distorted desire … The most deceptive ones are when people think they’re actually doing the right thing, and they end up bringing pain. A circumcision of the heart––there’s something that needs to be removed so that the real heart can be exposed in the way Yahweh knows humans are capable of.
In part one (00:00-11:45), Tim and Jon discuss Moses’ last words to the Israelites. His closing speech is the opposite of a motivational pep talk. He lays out all the potential blessings for Israel’s faithfulness and the curses that will come upon them if they fail, and then he tells them he expects them to fail.
It’s very likely that Moses had prophetic insight from Yahweh and discernment from his own experience with the Israelites that caused him to say this. It’s also likely that his words have been amplified by the final compilers of Deuteronomy sitting in exile centuries later who had the benefit of retrospect to see the choices Israel had made.
In part two (11:45-35:15), Tim and Jon explore Deuteronomy 28. Although verses and chapters were added to the Bible much later, Deuteronomy 28 is a complete literary section—one of the longest in the Torah.
Deuteronomy 28:1-14 is a series of blessings that have to do with abundance and multiplication—multiplying flocks, crops, and children. The blessings of Deuteronomy 28 also include a promise that Israel will be the “head” of the nations—that they will be elevated above other surrounding nations in order to be a blessing to them. However, Israel never becomes a blessing to other nations in a significant way, and after their exile, they never became an autonomous nation again (except for about a century when the Maccabeans revolted.) From the perspective of the prophets and final authors of the TaNaK, although Israel failed their covenant with Yahweh and was dispersed among the nations, God turned their failure into something good as they waited for the Messiah, bearing witness among the nations to the savior who would one day unite and bless them all.
In part three (35:15-47:30), the guys turn their attention to the covenant curses (far more plentiful than the covenant blessings) in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. It’s important to read this and other sections like it in the context of the entire story of the Hebrew Bible. If we were to read these curses on their own, we would come away with a portrait of an angry, vindictive God. However, this section is a tile in a larger mosaic, but it still makes clear that God takes human evil seriously.
Many of the curses resemble the plagues that God brought upon Egypt. Ultimately, all the curses have to do with one thing: Yahweh giving Israel exactly what they want. If they want to worship other gods, then they will reap the painful consequences of their choices.
In Deuteronomy 28, Moses lays two clear choices before Israel: life and death. In Deuteronomy 29, Moses predicts that Israel will not maintain their covenant with Yahweh. Then, in Deuteronomy 30, Moses’ tone takes a turn again.
When all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you return to the Lord your God and obey him … then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples.
This progression between Israel and Yahweh feels a bit paradoxical. God wants to bless his people, yet they are repeatedly unreceptive to his kindness. However, Moses says Yahweh will have the last word and will give Israel another opportunity to repent and experience restoration.
In part four (47:30-58:00), Tim and Jon continue exploring Deuteronomy 30 and God’s plan to bless Israel.
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.
Moses can confidently predict that Israel will both rebel and return to covenant with Yahweh, but only because of Yahweh’s initiative not Israel’s. However, when Yahweh initiates, it’s up to Israel to respond and live accordingly. In Protestant theological terms, this brings us face-to-face with the tension between divine sovereignty and human free will, and it seems Moses views them as two complementary realities.
In the Hebrew Bible, the human heart is the birthplace of moral discernment (e.g., Gen. 6:5), so for humanity to live righteously, they need God to circumcise, or cut away, the wickedness within their hearts—an impossible task on their own. Desire is a subtle but central theme in the Torah, starting with the forbidden fruit Eve believed was “desirable” (Gen. 3:6). The most striking failures in the Torah are committed by people who think they’re doing the right thing (e.g., Abraham and Sarah’s abuse of Hagar).
In part five (58:00-1:18:50), Tim and Jon look at where these same themes show up in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul repeatedly contrasted the desires of the flesh with the desires of the Spirit, which is connected to the idea that the very flesh of human hearts is corrupted and in need of circumcision.
The language of cutting away or cutting off in the Hebrew Bible describes both circumcision and death. This is no accident—circumcision of the heart is depicted as a death to sin and the parts of us that lead to death so that we might experience the resurrection life of Jesus.
This commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.
Without intervention from God to circumcise human hearts, we would never be able to obey our way to true life in him. This is why it’s important to read the Hebrew Bible as a forward-looking saga. As we continue in the story, we’ll find other key pieces of the unfolding mosaic. Jeremiah says that God will one day make a new covenant with his people (Jer. 31:33). Ezekiel declares that God will give his people new hearts and a new Spirit (Ezek. 36:26). Jeremiah emphasizes humanity’s role in this, while Ezekiel emphasizes divine responsibility.
This paradox between divine and human responsibility raises all sorts of questions for us. Why did God give humans the ability to choose? Was he setting us up to fail? It’s good to explore these questions, but when we frame the Eden narrative as God “allowing” Adam and Eve to fail, we ignore humanity’s present responsibility to choose life and blessing instead of death and curse.
In part six (01:18:50-1:25:58), Tim and Jon reflect on Romans 10.
Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
Paul ties some of the major themes of the Torah together in his letter to the Romans. Here he says that if someone followed the law perfectly, he would be so righteous he would be able to walk the path that leads to eternal life. However, because no human is able to do that perfectly, God has provided a way for us to be made righteous by faith in the only human to live perfectly according to the law, Jesus the Messiah.
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.