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The repetitiveness in this passage is intentional. Don’t forget! Don’t forget! Don’t forget! Moses is reminding the people over and over, because there is indeed a great risk that they will forget who they are and where they have come from.
Moses envisages a time of not suffering and not working hard. It was perhaps inconceivable to these Israelites who had known only hardship throughout their entire lives. They had lived essentially as refugees, with no home and no comfort, wandering from place to place and camping in tents – not unlike some people groups’ experience today. Now, on the verge of the land promised to their ancestors and to their own fathers, they hear that they will be living in a land with great cities, full houses, hewn wells, vines and olives they did not plant. At that time they will eat their fill and be satisfied, without having to labour for it. In such a situation, it would be easy to forget the past, to put their suffering far from their minds. And for their children, who had never known hardship, the covenant with Yahweh might seem irrelevant. ‘What is the point of the rules we follow, the commandments and testimonies?’, these children might wonder.
For the sake of their children, and themselves, the Israelites must not forget what and where they had come from. They were slaves in Egypt. Only because of the LORD’s power, demonstrated in fearsome signs and wonders, were they set free from that life. They would live in the sweet land of Canaan only because of God’s grace. And they must never, ever forget it. They would demonstrate their thankfulness and allegiance to their sovereign, Yahweh, by following the commands laid out in the covenant.
Specifically, Moses commands them, positively: Fear Yahweh, worship him, swear in his name; keep his commandments; do what is right and good. And negatively: Do not forget Yahweh; do not go after other gods; do not test Yahweh. The motivation or reason for obedience is manifold: Yahweh, who lives near you, is jealous, so do not provoke him to anger and thus be destroyed; things will go well as you enter in and possess the land; your lives will be preserved; you will be considered righteous.
I like how in verse 13 the normal word order is reversed to keep the LORD foregrounded: The LORD your God you will fear, him you will worship/serve, in his name you will swear. In the original Hebrew, it is just eight words in total, a real ‘rat-a-tat’ sound (cf verse 4, which is only six words in total).
I have never been a refugee, so I can’t imagine how it might have felt. But my father was a refugee, and I have friends who even now are refugees in the country where I live. Mostly, those who can remember how the transition to security felt live in gratitude to the country or community that has given them peace in asylum. But after getting used to the comfort, it is easy to forget, to leave that suffering in the past. As the child of a refugee, I have taken shamefully little time to be thankful to the people that got him out – I don’t even know who they are – and to the country that eventually accepted him as a citizen.
On the other hand, I take time occasionally to reflect on what my life may have looked like if I had not heard the Lord call me out of darkness into his glorious light. What a diseased soul I had, clutching onto anything to find love and get attention. This passage reminds us of the order of salvation: he saves us, therefore we obey him. We do not obey him in order to be saved. Click here to listen to an old song for your meditation today.
Modern western culture would do well to read and meditate on these verses. It is so easy to forget the Lord in the midst of all our comforts, our luxury homes with running water and full pantries. May we never forget to worship and serve the Lord. He is passionate about his love for us, and he will not share us with others whom we elevate as gods in our lives to bring us security and welfare.
Prayer: LORD, my God, fill my mind with your goodness, my heart with your salvation, and my heart with your praise. Let me never, ever forget all that you have done for me. You rescued me, Lord, and put my feet on solid ground.