A Revised Common Lectionary
Rabbi Harvey Fields identifies two major themes in scriptures surrounding our text for today. Those themes are repentance and passing leadership from one generation to another.1
This was Moses retirement speech. Moses had done it all. He spent the first 40 years of his life getting a good education and in government work. Then like all senior government officials, he went into the private sector and worked there. Unlike many retired senior civil servants, Moses did not sit on the boards of major corporations. Moses actually did real work. Moses was in the private sector work for another 40 years. God called Moses into full-time service. Moses spent the next 40 years leading God’s people.
At 120 years of age, Moses was still strong. The Word tells us he was still energetic and had good eye sight.2 I suspect many people less than half Moses' age wish they had Moses strength and energy. But Moses knew he did not have long to live. He was not going to enter the promised land. What is recorded here is a message Moses gave the people.
The structure of the speech is the deeds of God, obligations we have as a result of God’s work for us, the Lord’s right to our loyalty and rewards and punishments.3
Outlining what Moses told the people - Moses gave a testimony of the Lord’s leading in the lives of the children of Israel. Then Moses encourages the people to be loyal to the covenant. Moses assures the people God will restore them. At the end of the speech, Moses announces his death and passes the torch of leadership to Joshua.
Deuteronomy 30:15 - 19 (Good News Bible) "Today I am giving you a choice between good and evil, between life and death. 16If you obey the commands of the LORD your God, which I give you today, if you love him, obey him, and keep all his laws, then you will prosper and become a nation of many people. The LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are about to occupy. 17But if you disobey and refuse to listen, and are led away to worship other gods, 18you will be destroyed---I warn you here and now. You will not live long in that land across the Jordan that you are about to occupy. 19I am now giving you the choice between life and death, between God's blessing and God's curse, and I call heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Choose life.
The pattern of Moses speech was not unique. The respected commentator Rabbi Gunther Plaut notes that the pattern was similar to other speeches Moses gave.4 Moses was consistent in his service for the Lord. That is not remarkable. We are creatures of habit. Consistency can be very easy.
What makes the speech remarkable is that this was a very difficult time for Moses. He lost leadership of the people. He knew he was not going to see the promised land and he knew he did not have long to live. At such a difficult time, you would think Moses mind would be completely preoccupied with his own needs. But it was not! His heart and his mind were focused clearly on the needs of God’s people, the children of Israel.
Moses could have been consumed by grief, grief over his loss of leadership, grief that he would not be able to enter the promised land and grief that he was going to die. Lesser men and lesser servants of God would have been buried by grief. And a big part of grief is anger.
Moses could have been ravaged by bitterness and anger. After serving the Lord for forty years, Moses does not get a golden handshake, an indexed pension and a lucrative consulting contract with a law firm in Egypt. Moses does not get to retire to a condo overlooking the Mediterranean or a house boat on the Nile.
Moses lead the children of Israel for forty years. It was a tough job. Moses put up with bickering, bellyaching, complaining, rumors, gossip and slanderous attacks. Moses did not get to pass go on the Monopoly board of life. Moses’ reward for forty years of leadership is death and not entering the promised land. That is a tough pill to swallow!
But Moses eyes were focused on God. In times of tremendous trial, Moses kept His eyes on the God of the burning bush, the God of the parted sea and the God that should shake mountains when He spoke.
At the end of Moses’ life and leadership, he extends a choice to the children of Israel. This was not really a new choice. The choice was to be God’s people, to be faithful to God and to have life or to be unfaithful and to give up life.
There is meat in this Bible passage for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans Christians. To a community that can feel some division along theological lines, God asks us to focus on what is important. In a community where personalities can loom large, God calls us to focus on those things that are lasting. When personalities, styles and winning theological debates are important, God calls us back to what is important. What is important is not us, but our people, our community. The spiritual community is important and can hold a major part in our hearts as long as we live.
As Moses, we are called to help lead people, to help point people to the promised land and the Lord and Savior that delivers us the promised land. With the consistence of Moses, we are asked to help people see the clear choice between the true God and life and false gods that bring death. So I invite you to Choose life and to choose to serve the Life Giver.
1Harvey J. Fields. A Torah Commentary for Our Times. Vol. 3 (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), 168.
3Gunther Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. (New York: UAHC Press, 1981), 1535.