The impressive curses of Deuteronomy 28:15 ff. are probably what awed young king Josiah when he heard them. He interpreted the curses to mean that Israel in his time stood under the wrath of God (2 Kings 22:11-13). However, it is important to observe that the blessings also are impressive and come first.
Stephen L. Cook in his Reading Deuteronomy interprets Deuteronomy 28 in the light of ancient Near Eastern texts. Blessings and curses were also part of vassal treaties. In such treaties the curses often came from the hand of the state. In other words, the vassal that broke the treaty would soon face violent reprisal from the master state.
The transfer of this notion of a wrathful king to God probably seemed natural to ancient people. People today with democratic notions will have trouble with the concept. So Cook interprets this chapter in keeping with his thesis that Deuteronomy is about the spiritual formation of the people of God.
In Deuteronomy’s vision the people flourish when they allow themselves to be formed into the kind of community that God wants. Some of the blessings are natural consequences of a lifestyle dedicated to God, his people, and his land. So also the curses are at least partly consequences–like a kind of Karma–of departing from that lifestyle. There is a sense in which the Deuteronomy lifestyle is inherently advantageous.
Yet Deuteronomy excludes any kind of prosperity gospel or simple tit-for-tat system of rewards and punishments. The curses are not just meant to punish. The curses were disciplinary. Hardships teach the people to rely on God’s word and not the seek to live by bread alone (8:3). This is what the long, hard trek of Israel through the wilderness was about. Some of the curses put Israel back in that situation of learning to depend upon God.
It is only after Deuteronomy 28:46 that the curses turn totally destructive. So they are graded. The earlier curses are meant, like some of the hardships of Israel in the wilderness, to encourage a return to God. Verses 36-37 and 41 refer to the Babylonian Exile and are later additions to Deuteronomy.
Siege warfare was horrific. The disturbing kinds of suffering evoked in 28:50 ff. reflect that reality. In 28:55 a father is eating his children. This kind of suffering raises the problem of evil, especially since these curses come from God.
Cook’s response is that Deuteronomy depicts a journey through death to new life. He says that the death of Moses on this journey is programmatic. All Israel must follow Moses in letting go of self and life in order to achieve spiritual transformation. There is a natural progression from Deuteronomy’s view of suffering to the prophet’s vision of apocalyptic renewal that arose during and after the exile.
Deuteronomy certainly does not speak about resurrection from the dead. But its view of life as a journey through death to another destination points that way. Recently Cook has published online a short essay about the rise of belief in the resurrection within biblical religion. See here.