Lent Devotions: Life and death choices

Design by Doug Puller/Bread for the World.

Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

By Dr. Polly Coote     

Deuteronomy 30:11-20               

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him;”

In this passage, as in many others sprinkled through the book of Deuteronomy, Moses declares to the people that the Lord offers them a choice: “Which do you want, life and good, or death and bad? Take my way, and you will have a blessed life; otherwise . . . unspeakable consequences.” This is surely a no-brainer, like the choices candidates put forth to us in this election year. “Choose me for a return to the good old America, promised land of prosperity and security; going with the other guy (or gal) leads to certain doom.” We’re free to make a choice, but who’s going to prefer disorder, destruction, and death over longevity in a prosperous and secure homogeneous community?

The conditions for obtaining the blessing are clear: “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” And fulfilling the conditions too is a no-brainer: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. You don’t need to have it imported down from heaven or from across the sea. It’s right here very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart.”

Reassuring as this might be at first glance, it’s not so easy to get with the Deuteronomistic program, not for the people Moses addresses, and not for us. For “this commandment” to fulfill the covenant obligation to “love the Lord your God” with all your being comprehends a multitude of commands, decrees, and ordinances, namely the whole of law as spelled out in the book of Deuteronomy, the second giving of the law after the first delivery of the ten commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God* that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live. . .” that is, by adhering to every jot and tittle, from the regulation of the household to the requirement to annihilate the inhabitants of the land you are given to occupy. There’s no freedom to choose which parts of the law you want to obey if you want to enjoy its benefits, including living “in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess . . . loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

This is supposed to be an easy and accessible law, a no-brainer? What seems the harshest and most repellent part of Deuteronomy’s rule for loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might — dispossessing people who don’t belong in “our” land, who are devoted to other gods — often does come easy. The part about freeing the poor from economic slavery by remission of debt, now that’s a challenge.

Dr. Polly Coote is a former faculty, associate dean and registrar at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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