Stephen Cook’s new commentary on Deuteronomy, Reading Deuteronomy, is my topic for this series of posts.
Cook saw the Assyrian and Babylonian threat in the late monarchy as the actual historical setting for Deuteronomy–though it deals with Moses and the people on the verge of entering the promised land as a literary device.
Besides the threats from foreign powers, there was another side to Israel’s existence in the late monarchy. That was the prosperity of Israel. The book warns Israel not to think that “the power and might of my hand have gained me this wealth” (8:17).
In 8:14 they are warned not to let their “heart be lifted up”. This seems stilted and not too meaningful in English. But the warning is actually against arrogance, self-importance, and lack of gratitude. Deuteronomy buttresses this warning by recalling the years Israel spent in depredation and need in the wilderness. Yet this was a period of particular intimacy with God. It was a time of formation as God’s special people.
I have noted that the idea of spiritual formation gets taken up by Cook as an important concept in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy reaches back to the journey of Israel in the wilderness to speak of Israel’s continuing journey with God. This is at the forefront in 8:2:
Remember the whole way by which he has brought you these forty years through the desert so that he might, by humbling you, test you to see if you have it within you to keep his commandments or not (NET Bible).
Nasah, the Hebrew word for testing, is full of meaning. Cook says it is God’s way of bringing his people through trying and refining experiences so that they own for themselves a relationship with God that is more than an expression of their self-interest. It leads them to authentic intimacy with their divine Lord.
In testing them, God is not performing a capricious experiment upon his people. Instead, he is teaching them to revere him by pushing them to the limits but holding them close even in times of trial and suffering. Thus they learn that they do not “live by bread alone” (8:3).
Cook strongly argues that Deuteronomy has gotten a bad reputation as a legalistic book. It is not an ironclad book offering punishments and rewards. He cites more than one scholar who claims that Job’s friends based their insistence that Job was being punished for his sins on Deuteronomy. But Cook says this does not fit with Deuteronomy 8 at all. Here God tests his people in a way similar to the testing of Job. He does not automatically reward good behavior with material benefits.
Undeserved bad happens. And undeserved good happens too. When people prosper they should not think it is a reward for their virtue. Rather, they should be grateful and humble. And when they suffer, people should see it as a challenge to cast off “self-sufficiency and control needs, throwing oneself instead on the mysterious provision of God . . .”
When I think of Deuteronomy I think of the sense of gratitude conveyed in the book. Clearly the book calls us to see whatever blessings are in our lives not as accidents but as manna and water from the rock, divine gifts. I loved Cook’s perspective on chapter 8.