Scripture: “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.” Deuteronomy 29:18-19 ESV
Observation: Having outlined the sacred ceremony of the thanksgiving basket (see yesterday’s Daily Focus), Moses adds that Israel is to recite before the Lord a historical account of how he led them from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land (26:5-11). Moses then addresses the earlier command regarding presenting a community tithe at the end of the third year. In like manner to the thanksgiving liturgy for first fruits, on this occasion, each is to recite a prayer to God that confirms adherence to festive protocol and requests Yahweh to bless all his people (26:12-15).
In the following two chapters, Moses instructs the people to construct an altar on Mount Ebal and then conduct an antiphonal ceremony between the tribes pronouncing curses for disobedience to God’s laws and blessings for adherence. Thus, having established the consequences, Chapter 29 recounts the words of the Mosaic covenant renewed in Moab before entering the Promised Land. Emphasizing the stipulations apply to all God’s people and the god-fearing sojourners among them, Moses commences with the warning “beware” (above verses). Essentially, it is a call to be wholeheartedly devoted to God by being on guard against apostasy (worshiping other gods), regardless of gender or number. (Of note, the Hebrew word for turning away one’s “heart” is lēb, a term that integrates all aspects of our personality: will, emotion, and passion.)
Continuing with the second “beware,” Moses likens the dissident to “a root bearing poison and bitter fruit.” The English translation “bitter fruit” actually means “wormwood” in Hebrew. Wormwood oil contains the chemical thujone, which is poisonous and excites the central nervous system, causing seizures and other adverse effects. Thus, Moses draws on this imagery to warn his people against the arrogant person who pays no heed to the sanctions (curses) and smugly congratulates himself for appropriating God’s blessings without accountability. But in the end, as theologian Daniel Block contends, he will be swept away from the covenant’s safeguard with both its “moist” (blessings) and “dry” (curses) elements.
Takeaway: Israel’s succession of judges and kings, most of whom “did what was right in their own eyes,” demonstrates our human propensity to deceive ourselves of the outcomes of disobedience. Not only did they flout their godless behavior, but they surrounded themselves with those who would tell them what they wanted to hear (sycophant advisers and priests). While not all suffered immediate consequences, in the end, each faced the curse of eternal separation from God and all that is pure, right, and holy.
This arrogant posture of thinking and acting according to what we deem is right and believing the consequences do not apply to us is just as prevalent today. In owning up to my sins and counseling others crushed by the weight of their transgressions, I have learned that no one gets a pass. And that’s a good thing. Consequences (the “curses”) steer us back on the right course. And we gain positive reinforcement (to borrow a child-rearing term) when we come under the “blessings” of the covenant through obedience to God’s will. So even if the fallout lingers, we can still experience the blessings of our Lord’s peace, strength, and hope for a future in eternity where there are no more curses but only the blessings of worship in the presence of our Triune God.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who took on the curse that we might reap the blessing. Would you please help us submit to accountability through your Holy Spirit and the community of believers, repent without delay, and come under your blessings? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling