REFERENCE SHELF – JUNE 24, 2012
Session Text: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; 16:18-20
Session Title: The Heart of the Law
The almost stream-of-consciousness logic of this section makes it difficult to establish clearly the boundaries of its constituents. The vocative “And now, O Israel!” unmistakably indicates a new beginning, but no similar markers occur in the following sequence of admonitions and declarations. In contrast to good English style, which abhors repetitive use of the conjunction “and,” Hebrew syntax relies heavily on the conjunction to link phrases and whole sentences in a coherent unit. Syntactically, the sequence of dependent clauses and conjunctively linked sentences beginning in v. 12 ends with the call to love the sojourner issued in v. 19. Even this syntactic coherence is very loose, however.
Thematically, the argument opens with a paraphrase of the Shema (“with all your heart and with all your soul,” vv. 12-13), and continues with a reminder that, although the Lord of the universe with all of creation at his command and all the nations of the world at his disposal, YHWH still chose Israel. Although he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, YHWH shows no partiality to the mighty or the powerful. Instead, YHWH demonstrates protective concern not only for insignificant Israel, but also for Israelite society’s most vulnerable and powerless: widows, orphans, and resident aliens (v. 18). Indeed, YHWH demands that Israel emulate its God by “loving” the resident alien just as YHWH had loved Israel when it was a resident alien in Egypt (v. 19).
This remarkable logical sequence begins with a rhetorical question (compare Mic 6:8) that implies by its very structure that YHWH’s expectations of Israel are neither complicated, nor impossible, nor obscure. By nature, rhetorical questions call attention to the obvious (compare the parent’s “What did I tell you to do with the peanut butter when you’re finished with it?”); they are not designed to elicit new information. The question of whether the four verbs describing YHWH’s expectations of Israel should be understood as synonyms for one another or as a depiction of a hierarchy of behaviors cannot be answered with confidence.
Interestingly, the verb “to love,” which so dominates the Shema, occupies only third position here, alongside verbs of obedience and respect. Once again, modern readers must remember that the concept of love for YHWH found in Deuteronomy bears virtually no resemblance to present-day notions of love as a passionate emotion. In the book of Deuteronomy, love is either synonymous with or based upon respect for YHWH. It involves definite actions (v. 13, “walking in his ways” = “keeping his commandments”). It manifests itself in service. As in the Shema, the adverbial phrase (answering the question How?), “with all your heart and all your being,” indicates the total scope of YHWH’s expectation–no area of one’s life falls outside the realm of YHWH’s claim.
What is the basis for YHWH’s claim to Israel’s exclusive and total obedience? Paradoxically, the Creator and Supreme Lord of all chose Israel’s ancestors, the patriarchs, and their descendants. Once again, Deuteronomy lays open the mystery of divine election. This supreme God, “great, mighty, and terrible” (v. 17) “clung to” Israel’s ancestors “to love them and choose their seed after them.” The paradox of election consists in the fact that this mighty deity “shows no partiality” (literally, “does not lift his face”) and cannot be bribed. Since all is his by right of ownership, the wealthy and powerful have nothing to offer him. Instead, of his own gracious choosing, he devotes particular care to those at the margins–the nation Israel, on the one hand, and the powerless in Israelite society, on the other.
The fact that YHWH, the Supreme Lord of Creation, chose Israel yields two admonitions. First (v. 16), Israel should “circumcise the foreskins of their hearts.” This graphic metaphor calls on Israel to sanctify the organ of volition (on the heart as the seat of volition, the organ of decision-making, see the commentary on 6:4-5), to prepare for obedience to YHWH. Of course, the heart cannot be circumcised literally. Even on a metaphorical level, it is difficult to envision what might be “removed.” The key to understanding the image lies in recognizing circumcision as an inaugural rite that prepares one for full membership in the covenant people. In this regard, the metaphor resembles others that contrast hearts of stone and hearts of flesh (Ezek 11:19; 36:26) and describe the covenant written on the hearts of individuals instead of on stone tablets (Jer 31:31-34). The second phrase of v. 16 clarifies the precise intention. Israel is to cease its stubborn rebellion (literally, Israel is “stiff-necked,” an idiom for “intractable”) against the will of YHWH. Israel’s will needs to be corrected.
Second, perhaps the most striking feature of the logical progression apparent in this unit is its concluding statement concerning ethics. The triplet “widow, orphan, and resident alien” appears frequently in Deuteronomy (10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17, 19, 20, 21; 26:12, 13; 27:19) and in texts influenced by it (Jer 7:6; 22:3; Zech 7:10; compare Isa 9:17; Ezek 22:7; Mal 3:5; Pss 68:5; 94:6; 146:9) as a reference to those most needful of protection. From Deuteronomy’s perspective, the exodus experience demonstrated once and for all YHWH’s concern for the abandoned, the oppressed, and the insignificant in society’s eyes. As he did for Israel in Egypt, YHWH continues to watch over those who would otherwise be left unprotected and vulnerable to the unscrupulous or the careless.
Deuteronomy charges Israel to emulate YHWH and to remember its own experience as the oppressed and powerless. These two poles constitute a firm basis for social ethics. Theologically, Israel knows its God as Redeemer, as Liberator of the needy. To love YHWH, then, is to share YHWH’s concerns, to further YHWH’s program of redemption and liberation. Experientially, Israel knows firsthand the hardship and injustice of powerlessness. It must never allow status and security to cloud its memory or make it insensitive to hardships suffered by elements of its own society.
It should be noted that the passage calls attention to a significant feature of the Bible’s concept of “justice.” Verse 18 describes YHWH as one who “does justice” for the powerless, those without legal status or rights. Modern Western society usually defines “justice” in terms of statutory rights and wrongs, crimes and torts. To bring someone to justice is to ensure that he or she is duly punished for crimes committed or penalized for civil infringements.
This text, however, envisions circumstances in which the legal system fails to apply. Furthermore, the criminal is not the subject of YHWH’s “doing justice.” Widowhood, parentlessness, and expatriation are (usually) involuntary circumstances, not crimes. YHWH’s justice in these cases does not entail punishment or penalty for the wrongdoer, but protection and provision for the needy. In fact, people in these circumstances enjoy very little or no legal protections, especially in the realm of economics and property. “To do justice” for them means to provide for them in an “extra-” or “supra-legal” fashion, to protect them when the law does not or cannot. In this context, the criteria for “justice” are not legal matters of rights and privileges, but the ethical and humanitarian values of decency, fairness, and compassion.
Mark Biddle, Deuteronomy, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: 2003) 177-183.
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Session Text: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; 16:18-20
Session Title: The Heart of the Law
10 (12) And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, (13) and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? (14) To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. (15) Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. (16) Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. (17) For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. (18) He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. (19) And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. (20) Fear the LORD your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. (21) He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. (22) Your forefathers who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.
16 (18) Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. (19) Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. (20) Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.