1 July 2013Deuteronomy 7:17-26
“Have no dread of them, for the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God.” (v. 21)
Deuteronomy was composed long after the events which it describes, and was first used extensively in the reign of Josiah, king of Judah from about 640 to 610BCE. 2 Kings 22:8 describes a spring-clean in the temple, during which the High Priest Hilkiah found the book of the law and sent it 'up the line' to the king himself. It is not clear where the book had come from. However, the concerns of Deuteronomy reflect the conditions of the seventh century BCE far more than those of Moses' own time, and so most scholars think that it took its final shape not long before its discovery, though it may also include older material.
A little earlier in the nation's history, they had suffered a disaster when the king of Assyria destroyed Israel, the northern kingdom, and came close to inflicting the same fate on Judah, the southern kingdom (2 Kings 17). After this, there are hints in the story that Judah's military position changed. They are no longer able to depend on a paid army. The "people of the land", the peasants, become much more important, even making Josiah king (2 Kings 21:24). Suddenly, Judah's survival depends directly on its people being willing to fight for their country.
Against this background, Moses' 'war speech' can be seen as a response to a need of the time when the book was first used in Israel. Peasants, accustomed for centuries to tilling their fields, needed to become soldiers - and the fear reflected in verse 17 makes sense. The speech encourages them by asking them to remember God's power, seen in actions long ago. Secondly, it reminds them that God continues to be a great God, whose power is directed towards them for their good.
Recent history makes us uneasy with the destruction described in verse 20, but it's useful to remember that these words are intended to encourage the faint-hearted, and that their rhetoric probably is just wishful thinking, rather than a reflection of historical reality. The cost of allegiance to God is reflected in the absolute prohibition on using anything that has been an idol (verses 25-26), no matter how beautiful or valuable it may be.
- Where in your life do you need to hear these words of comfort 'Have no dread ... for the Lord your God, who is with you, is a great and awesome God'?
- How far does it help us make sense of the violence of this passage if we understand it as a metaphor for God's campaign to eradicate evil from creation?