It’s always gratifying, as parents, when people compliment our children, not just because we are proud of who they are as individuals, but because we are relieved that our parenting has borne fruit! It’s perfectly normal that we should want our children to uphold our values and represent us well. We hope to sow foundations to enable them to thrive in the big, wide world and prevent them from leading unhappy, unfulfilled lives. The most rewarding words a parent can hear from an outsider are, “Your child is a credit to you.”
This in essence is what today’s reading is about. God wants his children to follow his ways so that they are a testimony to who he is to the rest of the world. Of course, he wants his children to flourish by blessing them, but they are the “chosen people” (Deut 14:2) because they were chosen to show HIS glory to the whole earth, rather than to be the sole recipients of his favour throughout time. As we know from God’s ultimate plan to incorporate Jews AND Gentiles through Jesus, relationship with him was not meant to be restricted to just one people group. It was meant for all of us.
Deuteronomy 26:17-18 gives us the background to Deuteronomy 28. It says, “You have declared today that the LORD is your God, and that you will walk in his ways, and keep his statutes and his commandments and his rules, and will obey his voice. 18 And the LORD has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments, 19 and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honour high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.” The Israelites had made a commitment that the Lord would be their God and He reaffirmed their position as his treasured possession.
What follows in today’s reading is a covenant modelled on a typical Near Eastern legal treaty for a vassal state, that is, a nation in subordination to a greater power; a convention with which the Jews would have been very familiar. Although God is clearly not a dominant nation forcing a weaker one into submission, the style of the covenant resembles the common format at that time of blessings conferred for compliance and punishments for non-compliance. For us, in 21st century England, it makes strange reading. The first part, involving the many and mighty blessings of God, sits far more comfortably with us than the second part, which outlines the horrendous penalties of disobedience. Additionally, there is the very perplexing verse 63, “And as the LORD took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the LORD will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you.” This doesn’t sound like the loving God we know, does it? But we have to look at this verse and the curses in the covenant in the context of God’s overall plan.
First and foremost, God wanted to bless the Israelites so they would be a beacon to his goodness, mercy and power. His desire was that other nations would be awed by him because of the favour they saw resting on the Israelites. God’s “holy people” were to prosper in every sphere of life, including in battle, so that the surrounding peoples would be inspired to believe in and follow him, too. Think about the story of Rahab in Joshua 2:9-11, where she says, “I know that the LORD has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” Rahab went on to become integrated into the people of God and great-grandmother to King David!
God’s curses, on the other hand, were intended to deter the people from following other gods because God knew this would bring harm to his people. It’s like us saying to a child, “Don’t go near the oven, it’s hot!” It was dangerous for the Israelites to walk away from God’s protection, so the curses were a strong warning. In the final analysis, though, God informed them that their behaviour would not stop his purposes (coming back to v63). He would become known either through their overwhelming prosperity in obedience or the magnitude of their suffering in disobedience.