In recent decades there have been a number of studies on the framing chapters of Deuteronomy noting the close lexical, rhetorical, theological, and syntactical similarities. This paper seeks to contribute to this conversation through an investigation of a key difference between Deuteronomy 4 and 29. Specifically, I argue that there is a difference on the epistemological level, namely Israel’s ability to know YHWH as her God and respond appropriately to his acts in history. This difference, though, is not one of kind but one of degree and emphasis.
The argument proceeds in three parts. For heuristic reasons I begin by looking at the claim of 29:3 (Heb.) that personal, sensory experience does not always lead to understanding. Seeing is not always believing. I then turn Deuteronomy 4 and look at its communal rhetoric which has the effect of transmitting to later generations the personal experiences of Israel’s ancestors at Horeb. Put differently, the account of Horeb in Deuteronomy 4 presents the logical reverse of what is seen in Deuteronomy 29 (i.e., not seeing is not always not understanding). Finally, I hint at ways these two epistemological claims might constructively shape the way we read Deuteronomy in its received form, specifically as it relates to Israel’s covenant making and covenant keeping.
To begin our discussion, let us turn to the well-known claim in Deut 29:3 (on your handout) that simply because Israel has collectively experienced an event does not mean that Israel will understand that event’s significance. Crucially, Deuteronomy assumes a causal separation between Israel’s faculties of sensory perception and her ability for understanding, that is, the ability to live in accordance with what has been perceived. Readers of the biblical text are undoubtedly familiar with the concept that is expressed here and taken up elsewhere in Scripture. The aphorism “Seeing isn’t believing” comes to mind.
According to the text, the surprising claim is that despite all he has done for Israel through the exodus (vv. 1–2), God has not opened Israel’s mind to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear עד היום הזה. There is no hint in the text either that God has closed Israel’s eyes and ears as an act of judgment or that God has kept them closed in order to reveal himself to others. Instead the claim is stated as simply as it is shockingly: God has not given Israel the ability to understand the significance of what she has experienced. What is at stake is not that God had veiled these events from Israel’s view, but that she has not perceived them truly. Far from being fatalistic, therefore, Deuteronomy communicates hope regarding Israel’s state of affairs that is predicated on understanding God’s actions in history as intended to teach Israel that YHWH is her God (v. 5). “Until this day” suggests the possibility of a new beginning. So how might understanding be achieved? How might the epistemological blockage of Deut 29:3 be overcome?
We now turn to Deuteronomy’s opening frame—Chapter 4, especially the retelling of God’s revelation and giving of the law to Israel in vv. 9–13. As we do so, we must keep in mind that readers of the received form of Deuteronomy are confronted by the repeated claim that we are dealing in this book with a new generation. The old generation that departed from Egypt and entered into Covenant with YHWH at Horeb has died and its children have replaced it. Moses addresses a new generation that does not have in a personal way the experiences that it is purported to have.
With Moses’s imagined audience in mind, let’s take a look at our text. What begins in vv. 9–10a as an address of Moses to the wilderness generation transitions into a quoted speech of YHWH relating to the exodus generation. We are dealing here with embedded speech. Moses, speaking to the children of the exodus generation, quotes a past address of YHWH regarding their parent, the exodus generation. The rhetoric of vv. 9–13, however, conflates these two generations.
I’ve visualized this on your handout (with references to the first/exodus generation having a single underline and references to the second/wilderness generation having a double underline).
In God’s quoted speech he says to Moses, “Assemble the people (i.e., the exodus generation) for me, and I will let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me as long as they live on the earth, and may teach their children (i.e., the second generation) to do so.” The reference to the people is clearly a reference to the exodus generation. They are to assemble to the mountain, learn to fear the Lord, and teach their children also to fear the Lord. Moses then continues in v. 11 by relating the events of that day, “you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain.” Here the “you” refers not primarily to the exodus generation but instead to Moses’s audience on the plains of Moab, that is, the children of the exodus generation. With the use of this imbedded speech, then, Moses has turned the “their children” of v. 10 into the “you” of v. 11.
Moses then continues in vv. 12–13 with the affirmation that his audience heard the voice of YHWH from the midst of the fire and that they are the ones who entered into that covenant. Instead of speaking to his audience as the second generation who is inheriting the terms of the Sinai covenant which their parents accepted, Moses effectively speaks to his audience on the plains of Moab as if they have the experiences of their parents, as if they were the ones that stood at Horeb, as if they are the ones that saw all of the sights and sounds, and as if they were the ones that entered into the covenant with YHWH.
This rhetoric, therefore, compresses a later generation (and all later generations for that matter) into the covenant making experience of an earlier generation. The wilderness generation, despite the fact that they were not present at Horeb, are nonetheless obliged to be faithful to that covenant’s stipulations. This indicates that simply because this generation did not have personal experiences of Horeb does not mean that they cannot understand it (that is, respond in faithfulness to it). This is the reverse claim of Deut 29:3. In the case of Deuteronomy 4, “Not seeing is not not understanding.” Whereas the closing frame says that seeing does not guarantee understanding, the opening frame assumes that these experiences can be relived and that Israel can gain understanding. This assumption is formulated in sensory language that is out of place apart from a communal, transgenerational identity within the context of a covenant between Israel and her suzerain.
Now the conclusion: As we have seen, Deuteronomy 29 and 4, though in different ways, indicate that Israel’s relationship with YHWH depends on understanding YHWH’s works in history on her behalf as a covenant making God. Why is this and how is this related to the core of the book? My proposal is that the issues of epistemology and memory that are explored in the frame have a direct bearing both on Israel’s cultural understanding of her past and on the practice of covenant making.
By blurring the generational boundaries in Deuteronomy 4, the past is perpetually brought into the present. The past acts of YHWH on behalf of a past Israel become the perpetual acts of YHWH for all of Israel. This is possible precisely because of the causal separation between experience and understanding we explored in Deuteronomy 29. Understanding the acts of God and responding to the covenant faithfully does not require a personal experience of God’s actions just as personal experience of God’s acts does not guarantee understanding and proper responsiveness. Instead, this understanding comes through the compression of all generations into a near singularity: all of Israel was brought out of bondage; all of Israel stood at Horeb; all of Israel entered into the covenant together. This helps us understand the language of the historical prologue such as, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Deut 5:6). Of course it was not this generation for whom this statement is accurate according to any modern historical criteria. On the other hand, the rhetoric of Deuteronomy teaches us to understand the formative events of Israel’s history differently, in a way that places the burden of grateful, responsive obedience to Deuteronomy’s legal core upon every generation. “Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, we ourselves, who are all of us here alive today” (Deut 5:3). This affirmation, along with the covenant to which it refers becomes an enduring reality.