In Deuteronomy, the blessings of God which are associated with the covenant are conditional. The people will be blessed by God if they obey God and keep the law. However, if the people disobey God by breaking the law, then God will not bless them but will curse them instead. Thus, in the Book of Deuteronomy, obedience and disobedience are very important. As Moses speaks to the people for the final time on the banks of the Jordan, he is not concerned about whether or not the people are able to possess the land. Instead, he is concerned whether they will obey God this time, or if they will disobey as they did previously.
After reminding the people of the Ten Commandments and other commands that God gave to the people through the previous generation (Deut 5:1-21), Moses next tells the people that God gave him these statutes so that he could tell them to the people. But, Moses does not stop at telling the people about the laws; he calls them to actually do what God tells them (Deut 6:1). Obedience comes through both hearing and doing what God commands. While this may seem obvious, Moses repeats it several times in Deuteronomy, and often reminds the people that they do not always do what God tells them.
As already indicated, Moses writes the Book of Deuteronomy using several journey narratives. Even these journey narratives work to encourage the people toward obedience. As Moses recounts the journey from Egypt to their present location, he reminds them of times when they obeyed God and times when they disobeyed God (Deut 11:1-32). These remembrances encourage the people to remember the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience so that they will later choose to obey God.
The concept of obedience includes more than simply doing what God says to do. Those who obey will neither add to what God has said, nor will they take away from what he has said (Deut 4:2). In context, keeping laws that were not given by God is not equated with obedience. Also, obedience includes recognizing that these commands are important because of their source: God (Deut 4:7). God’s commands are to be obeyed because of the person, nature, and characteristics of God, not because of the personal benefits that come from keeping the laws.
Furthermore, the people are to teach their children to obey God (Deut 6:7). While this instruction can partially take place in formal situations, the people are to primarily teach their children as their live their lives: “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Thus, as the parents obey God, they teach their children to obey God both by their words and also by their lives of obedience.
There are blessings associated with the people’s obedience. Obedience will lead to God exalting the people above other nations (Deut 28:1). The people’s cities and fields will be blessed, as well as the fruit of the womb, agriculture products, and livestock (Deut 28:3-4). These blessings will include everything that the people undertake, from kneading bread to warring against other nations (Deut 28:5, 7).
However, the people should not be motivated to obey because of these blessings. Instead, their motivation should come from the presence and character of God himself. For example, in the context of obedience, Moses tells the people to “fear the Lord” because “the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deut 10:12, 17). Furthermore, when they people obey the Lord, they are demonstrating his “justice” and “love” and that he is worthy of praise above everything else (Deut 10:18-21). Finally, God’s providence while the people were wandering around the desert for forty years is another motivations for the people’s obedience (Deut 8:1-20). Therefore, the people are called to obey God in everything that he says because of who he is and what is has done for them.
In much of his retelling the story of the people’s travels from Egypt, to Sinai, to the promised land, then back into the wilderness, then finally back to the border of the promised land, Moses recounts the people’s disobedience. While God calls the people to obedience, the people continually disobey.
Their disobedience began very early, because they began to complain against the Lord even as they were leaving Egypt (Deut 9:7). While God was delivering the law to the people through Moses on Mount Sinai, the people were disobeying by creating and worshiping a golden calf (Deut 9:16). When the people reached the promised land, they rebelled against God again and refused to enter the land (Deut 1:19-33). Then, after God told them that as punishment for their disobedience they would not enter the land, they disobeyed again and tried to enter the land on their own (Deut 1:41). These were not isolated incidences of disobedience. Instead, God, through Moses, spoke in extreme terms concerning the people’s disobedience. God said that the people had rebelled against him since the day he knew them (Deut 9:24).
In spite of Moses’ reminder of their past disobedience, the people would continue to disobey after they enter the land. The people are instructed to love the Lord with all of their heart (Deut 6:5), and to keep the Lord’s commands in their heart (Deut 6:6), but the people’s hearts will continue to rebel against God and his law, and they would continue to be disobedient. In fact, it was impossible for the people to obey God because their hearts were hard, and because they could not understand the Lord (Deut 29:4). They were completely reliant on God to give them a new heart; otherwise there was no hope for their obedience (Deut 30:6).
Just as blessings were promised for the people’s obedience, the people would face curses because of their disobedience. Curses were declared for those who make idols (Deut 27:15); for those who dishonor their parents (Deut 27:16); for those who move their neighbor’s boundary markers (Deut 27:17); for those who mislead a blind man (Deut 27:18); for those who refuse to care for foreigners, orphans, and widows (Deut 27:19); for those who commit sexually immoral acts toward their father or his wife (Deut 27:20); for those who commit bestiality (Deut 27:21); for those who commit incest (Deut 27:22); for those who commit adultery with their in-laws (Deut 27:23); for those who kill their neighbors, even in secret (Deut 27:24); for those who accept a bribe to kill someone (Deut 27:25); and for those who do not confirm the words of the law by actually putting them into practice (Deut 27:26).
Similarly, Moses says that if the people disobey God, then their cities, fields, gathering baskets, kneading bowls, offspring, agricultural produce, herds, and flocks will be cursed (Deut 28:15-18). In fact, just as the people were told to teach their children “when you come in and when you go out,” if they disobey all of God’s commands, they will likewise be cursed “when you come in and when you go out” (Deut 28:19). God’s curses will include confusion, frustration, pestilence, disease, drought, blight, defeat, boils, madness, and blindness (Deut 28:20-29). Because of these curses, the people will lose their families, their houses, their land, and their reputation among foreign nations (Deut 28:21-62). Perhaps, in the most devastating blow of these curses, Moses says that as God delighted in multiplying the people, if they disobey God will likewise take delight in bringing ruin, destroying, and scattering the people to the point that they will find no where to rest (Deut 28:63-68).
In one of God’s final communications with Moses, he warned Moses (and the people through Moses) that the people would again rebel against God once Moses died. God said that the people would turn to other gods, forsake him, and break his covenant (Deut 31:16). In response, as God had promised earlier, the Lord said that he would be angry and punish the people by forsaking them and bringing many evils and troubles upon them (Deut 31:17). As God repeated through Moses throughout of Book of Deuteronomy, he takes disobedience very seriously. Unfortunately for the people, God had also told them they because of their hard hearts, stubborn disposition, and rebellious nature, they would continue to disobey God, and they would continue to deserve curses and punishment from God. Their only hope rested in God’s merciful, forgiving, and gracious nature.
If God’s people are bound to break their covenant and rebel against God, then their only hope to continue receiving any blessings from God lies in God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace. As Millar says, “The most significant contribution of Deuteronomy to biblical theology lies in its view of God’s grace. The grace that God has shown to Israel in the past will one day be surpassed by his provision of a lasting solution to the problem of human sin. At the deepest level, the theology of Deuteronomy is a theology of grace, and thus anticipates the coming of Christ to deal with human sin.” In spite of the people’s rebellion, God promises to circumcise the people’s hearts and the hearts of the descendants so that they can love the Lord (Deut 30:6). At that time, the curses that will fall on the people because of their disobedience will then fall upon their enemies (Deut 30:7). It is only then (when God gives them a circumcised heart) that the people will real blessings from the Lord (Deut 30:9); and it is only then that the people will be able to obey the Lord (Deut 30:10). Thus, in spite of the promise of future rebellion, the book ends with blessings (Deut 33:6-28) and with pointing the people to another prophet like Moses (Deut 34:10).