Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 26:57-75; Romans 16:1-16; Psalm 76; Deuteronomy 27-28
The list of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 may lead us to wonder whether we can expect similar prosperity or should fear the same curses. The rest of Scripture and our experience show that obedience does not always lead to prosperity. Following God led Priscilla and Aquila to risk their lives (Romans 16:4). The only person to completely obey God as the covenant required (Deuteronomy 28:1, 14) was Jesus, yet he was mocked and beaten (Matthew 26:67), and ultimately murdered.
Deuteronomy 28 lays out the terms and conditions of the treaty (or covenant) that God was entering into with Israel (Deuteronomy 29:1). We do not live under that covenant, and therefore this passage does not promise us prosperity today, nor does it list how we will be punished for disobedience. This passage is written in the standard treaty format of the ancient Near East. The horror of the curses compared to the blessings may seem disproportionate to us, but it was standard literary practice then. Such lists were not intended to provide a step by step logical description of causes and effects. Rather, they built up a vivid picture intended to have a general, and deep, impact on the hearers. As with a skilful orator, the writer presents image upon image so that the hearers see and feel the significance of the agreement they are undertaking.
As with a legal contract today, these chapters inform Israel of the benefits of entering into this arrangement, and the consequences of violating the agreement. The blessings cover all areas of life, as do the curses. Lists of curses using identical phrases have been found in treaties made by other peoples during this same era. Again, these chapters use a standard literary method to get people’s attention rather than providing a judicial list of punishments for specific wrongdoing.
The order of the curses does not point to their sequence in time, but again reveals literary patterns. For example, Deuteronomy 28:25-37 arranges the curses into a pattern which reaches a central point and then reverses order (defeat, Israel seen as a horror, disease, madness, oppression, lack of success, oppression, madness, disease, defeat, Israel seen as a horror). Such chiastic structures are literary methods used to highlight significant points. The turning point (verses 30-32) notes a lack of success in every aspect of daily life, including marriage, home, food, work, transport, and children. Another literary way to emphasise a particular point was to break an obvious pattern. At the end of the list, putting ‘defeat’ last would have followed the overall pattern. Instead, the order of the last two curses is reversed, jolting the listeners into paying close attention. Through literary means the hearers are told that what is really important is the way Israel will become an object of ridicule among all the surrounding peoples.
This same message comes through as the horrors pile up. Instead of responding to God’s abundant blessings and serving him joyfully and gladly (28:47), they will serve their enemies (28:48). This will lead to the horrors of war and defeat. When under siege, they will resort to cannibalism, something that happens later in Israel’s history (Ezekiel 5:10).
God’s desire, originally revealed to Abraham, was to bless a people who would walk closely with him and through them bless the rest of the world (Genesis 12:2-3). For others to take notice, God’s people must live distinctive lives. If they walk closely will God, following him faithfully and with gratitude, their homes and families will be fruitful (Deuteronomy 28:9-11, 47). People will admire their lives and wonder what lies behind their view of life and how they live. That is how God sought to draw people to himself through Israel, and he continues to do so today. Likewise, those who do not follow God faithfully will be riddled with fear, anxiety and insecurity (28:65-66). Even though they might call themselves God’s people, their lives will not differ from those around them. That pattern also applies today.