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Deuteronomy’s Covenant: Israel’s Choice between Obedience and Destruction

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Adi Ophir

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Deuteronomy’s Covenant: Israel’s Choice between Obedience and Destruction

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Deuteronomy’s Covenant: Israel’s Choice between Obedience and Destruction

As the Israelites are about to enter the land, Moses presents them with a covenant. Yet, Israel is already subject to YHWH’s commands since the covenant at Horeb and has already been punished for disobedience, so what choice do they really have?

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Deuteronomy’s Covenant: Israel’s Choice between Obedience and Destruction

Moses presenting the covenant to the Israelites, generated using DALL-E 2.

The book of Deuteronomy presents itself as the final address of Moses, delivered to the Israelites upon the plains of Moab, on the verge of their entry into the land.[1] The book is set in the time between the wilderness period and Israel’s future life as inhabitants of the land, a space opened between memories and threats, past and future.

The core of the book is the Deuteronomic law collection, spanning chapters 12–26,[2] which is followed in chapter 28 by a list of the rewards for obedience (vv. 1–14)[3] and a much longer list of consequences for disobedience (vv. 15–69).

The Extensive Range and Types of Curses in Deuteronomy 28

Deuteronomy’s list borrows, paraphrases, and elaborates on formulae from ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties[4] in a way that enabled it to exceed them in length, density, variegation, and creative viciousness.[5] The Deuteronomist indulged in a spectacular rhetorical display, with an abundance of lively, sensual descriptions of calamities that will be visit on the sinful Israelites,[6] which we may divide into different categories:

  1. environmental disasters that generate famine and impoverishment;
  2. illness and physical harm;
  3. mental suffering, anxiety and depression;
  4. social disintegration;
  5. military and political blows, siege, defeat, enslavement and exile;
  6. other nameless plagues, ‏וְהִפְלָא...גְּדֹלוֹת וְנֶאֱמָנוֹת, “astounding…, great, and relentless” in scope (28:59).

The list goes on and on as if to ensure that no known or imaginable evil would be missing. And in case a reader were to think of something not covered in the list, it also includes toward the end the catch-all כָּל חֳלִי וְכָל מַכָּה אֲשֶׁר לֹא כָתוּב בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת “every illness and every plague that is not written in this book of teaching” (28:61).[7]

Many of the curses portray total loss of control over one’s life, hard labor that yields nothing but forfeited expectations, what Laura Quick describes as “futility curses,” a common northwest Semitic trope found in old Aramaic inscriptions and across the Bible.[8]  Others describe the total collapse of one’s life-world and the consummate disorientation. For example, after all one has—a house, a vineyard, flock, fame, a wife, sons and daughters—is taken away and one is utterly powerless, the stricken Israelite will be left רַק עָשׁוּק וְרָצוּץ כָּל־הַיָּמִים... מְשֻׁגָּע מִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה “only exploited and crushed always… crazed by the sight of your eyes” (28:33–34).

Since every kind of evil was anticipated in Deuteronomy’s list of curses, it was possible to recognize each disaster as God’s punishment for Israel’s offences. A meta-narrative was set, within which one would be able to anticipate every downfall and ascribe its theopolitical meaning.

Total Destruction or Political Destruction

Deuteronomy 28 does not present its threats in a linear, intensifying fashion; indeed, total destruction is threatened towards the beginning of the list:

דברים כח:כ יְשַׁלַּח יְ־הוָה בְּךָ אֶת הַמְּאֵרָה אֶת הַמְּהוּמָה וְאֶת הַמִּגְעֶרֶת בְּכָל מִשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה עַד הִשָּׁמֶדְךָ וְעַד אֲבָדְךָ מַהֵר מִפְּנֵי רֹעַ מַעֲלָלֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר עֲזַבְתָּנִי. כח:כא יַדְבֵּק יְ־הוָה בְּךָ אֶת הַדָּבֶר עַד כַּלֹּתוֹ אֹתְךָ מֵעַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Deut 28:20 YHWH will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be destroyed and utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me. 28:21 YHWH will make pestilence cling to you, until He has put an end to you in the land that you are entering to possess.[9]

Destruction (shmad < שׁ.מ.ד)—total loss (ovdan < א.ב.ד), used here as synonyms, together with the verb “ending” (“I will put an end,” akhale < כ.ל.ה), communicate finality, the culmination of the divine punishment.[10]  Thus, YHWH’s familiar outburst of wrath accompanied by genocidal threat (e.g., Ex 32:10; Num 14:12, 17:10) has been incorporated into the covenant and became part of its juridical-political apparatus. And yet, soon after this threat of destruction, the text continues with more curses, questioning a literal reading of that threat.

Total destruction may not be the ultimate intent of the curses. This is highlighted especially well in the concluding passages, which first state that YHWH will strike Israel with every imaginable disease עַד הִשָּׁמְדָךְ “until you are destroyed” (v. 61), but continues by describing what will happen with the remaining Israelites:

דברים כח:סב וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר הֱיִיתֶם כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב כִּי לֹא שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Deut 28:62 And you will remain a scant few instead of your being like the stars of the heavens in multitude because you did not heed the command of YHWH your God.

This same back and forth between total destruction and less than-total destruction appears again in the next verse, which begins by discussing Israel’s total destruction and ends with exile:

כח:סג וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׂשׂ יְ־הוָה עֲלֵיכֶם לְהֵיטִיב אֶתְכֶם וּלְהַרְבּוֹת אֶתְכֶם כֵּן יָשִׂישׂ יְ־הוָה עֲלֵיכֶם לְהַאֲבִיד אֶתְכֶם וּלְהַשְׁמִיד אֶתְכֶם וְנִסַּחְתֶּם מֵעַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
28:63 As YHWH exulted over you to do well with you and to multiply you, so will YHWH exult over you to make you perish, to destroy you—and you will be torn from the soil to which you are coming to take hold if it.

Ending the verse with exile changes the meaning of the threat to “destroy,” and from here to the end of the curses in v. 68, we read about captivity and enslavement, not destruction.[11]

Such a change may imply a later redaction, perhaps by a scribe aware of the exile and adjusting accordingly to reframe the genocidal threat by limiting it to the political sphere.[12] However the text developed, the idea of exile fits well with the other curses, whose point is not merely to convince the Israelites to observe YHWH’s laws, but to leave the horizons of their relation with God indefinitely open while offering a post-hoc explanation for their past and future suffering.  

YHWH’s Eternal Sovereignty

In sum, the curses migrate between places, communities, individuals, and generations, and assume multiple forms, but always materialize as a manifestation of divine power. Each catastrophe could serve as a sign: when calamity struck, God sent it; if no calamity struck, he averted it. If it struck Israel, they should repent; if it struck their enemies, Israel should rejoice and be grateful that YHWH has not abandoned them.

In both cases, any catastrophe is a revelation by other means. YHWH is the only power capable of disciplining catastrophes and putting them in some legible order, the God of all catastrophes, those that already happened, those about to happen, and those which are still dormant potentialities.

To ensure the never-ending nature of this pact, Deuteronomy includes the curses as part of a binding contract from which no one could escape. Disobedience and resistance can never release Israel from their subjection to God’s rule. The ceremony anticipates, proclaims, and establishes the perpetuity of this subjection. 

Sin and Punishment: Past and Future Generations

The curses are set as part of Moses’ speech to the wilderness generation, and thus in the distant past, reflecting on the future:

דברים כח:טו וְהָיָה אִם לֹא תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַקְּלָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה וְהִשִּׂיגוּךָ.
Deut 28:15 But if you do not obey YHWH your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect.

Here the presentation is from cause to effect: if they violate the covenant at some point in the indefinite, uncertain future, they will be punished with these curses. Later, the text tells the story in the other direction, from effect to cause (28:45).

דברים כח:מה וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַקְּלָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה וּרְדָפוּךָ וְהִשִּׂיגוּךָ עַד הִשָּׁמְדָךְ כִּי לֹא שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר צִוָּךְ.
Deut 28:45 All these curses shall befall you; they shall pursue you and overtake you, until you are wiped out, because you did not heed YHWH your God and keep the commandments and laws that He enjoined upon you.

Here, the emphasis is on how a future generation, experiencing one or more of these curses, should look back and understand that their violation of their covenant with YHWH is the cause. The narrative audience is made to look back at sin and punishment themselves when Moses surveys the experience of the Wilderness Generation.

Reflecting on the Past to Underscore the Future

Throughout the early part of Moses’ speech earlier in Deuteronomy, before the introduction of the Deuteronomic law collection, Moses reminds the Israelites of their past sins.

דברים ט:ז זְכֹר אַל תִּשְׁכַּח אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִקְצַפְתָּ אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמִּדְבָּר לְמִן הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַד בֹּאֲכֶם עַד הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה מַמְרִים הֱיִיתֶם עִם יְ־הוָה. ט:ח וּבְחֹרֵב הִקְצַפְתֶּם אֶת יְ־הוָה וַיִּתְאַנַּף יְ־הוָה בָּכֶם לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶתְכֶם.
Deut 9:7 Remember, never forget, how you provoked YHWH your God to anger in the wilderness: from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have continued defiant toward YHWH. 9:8 At Horeb you so provoked YHWH that YHWH was angry enough with you to have destroyed you.

Thus, Deuteronomy retells the story of the spies, the golden calf, and also makes quick reference to other sins such as:

דברים ט:כב וּבְתַבְעֵרָה וּבְמַסָּה וּבְקִבְרֹת הַתַּאֲוָה מַקְצִפִים הֱיִיתֶם אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Deut 9:22 And at Taberah, and at Massah, and at Kibroth-hattaavah, you provoked YHWH.

The recollected events are narrated as examples for the catchall offence, וַתַּמְרוּ אֶת פִּי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, “you rebelled against the word of YHWH, your God,” (1:26; cf. 1:43; 9:23). This became a general characteristic of the Israelites, as Moses declares after referencing the sin of the spies:

דברים ט:כד מַמְרִים הֱיִיתֶם עִם יְ־הוָה מִיּוֹם דַּעְתִּי אֶתְכֶם.
Deut 9:24 You have been rebellious against YHWH from the day I knew you.

The memory of past events turn into a threat of future calamities, and sometimes Moses connects the past sins with the possibility of future sins explicitly:

דברים ו:יד לֹא תֵלְכוּן אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים מֵאֱלֹהֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבוֹתֵיכֶם. ו:טו כִּי אֵל קַנָּא יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּקִרְבֶּךָ פֶּן יֶחֱרֶה אַף יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּךְ וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. ו:טז לֹא תְנַסּוּ אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר נִסִּיתֶם בַּמַּסָּה.
Deut 6:14 Do not follow other gods, any gods of the peoples about you—6:15 for YHWH your God in your midst is an impassioned God—lest the anger of YHWH your God blaze forth against you and He wipe you off the face of the earth. 6:16 Do not try YHWH your God, as you did at Massah.

Invoked as a cluster of memory capsules and hovering while being suspended through a long list of ominous threats, God’s violence has become virtual,[13] “temporalized away” into the past and the future but not actualized in the present, allowing for a new modality: Actual violence was inscribed in the psychological scars of a traumatic memory, while virtual, withheld violence was awaiting its right moment.

The curses in Deuteronomy 28 are only presented as a possible future, depending on whether or not they keep אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, “all this command” (11:22; 30:15–17). In other words, YHWH’s power is not arbitrarily wielded, since keeping the law emerges as a means for keeping divine violence at bay. The unpredictable outbursts of divine violence described in pre-Priestly and Priestly sources are offered here a rationalizing frame, as the authors of these texts turn the law into a system of restraints that apply to YHWH, not only to his people. At the same time, encased in memory capsules (the wilderness sins) and formulaic imprecations (the curses), YHWH’s withheld violence becomes a mechanism of law enforcement.

Israel’s Choice

Moses’s Deuteronomic address, delivered to the Israelites on the eve of their entry into the land, anticipates and establishes the perpetuity of the Israel’s subjection to YHWH’s rule. In this, YHWH was no different from any other suzerain in the ancient Near East, or ever since. The people as a multitude and as a nation[14] are placed at a juncture in which they have to agree to serve YHWH loyalty, or face an endless slew of punishment, and they remain in that juncture ever since.

For the people standing in the Plains of Moab, compliance is not really a choice at this point. The revelation at Horeb has already taken place, the previous generation has already been punished for its sins, and the laws have already been explicated. Israel’s agency here is limited to their agreeing to follow YHWH’s commands or suffer the deity’s wrath.

Today’s Covenant

Moses talks up Israel’s quasi-agency by repeated use of the key phrase “this day/today”—what scholars call the “temporal deictic”—in the concluding chapters following the Deuteronomic law collection (26:15–30).[15]

For example, immediately after the law collection, we read:

דברים כו:טז הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.
Deut 26:16 YHWH your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.[16]

Then, after the curses and a reminder of YHWH did for Israel before this point, Moses returns to the theme of the covenant, and the importance of all Israel accepting it where they are standing “today”: 

דברים כט:ט אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. כט:י טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ. כט:יא לְעָבְרְךָ בִּבְרִית יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּבְאָלָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם.
Deut 29:9 You are stationed here today, all of you before YHWH your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your overseers, every man of Israel, 29:10 your little ones, your wives and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water, 29:11 for you to pass into the covenant with YHWH your God, and into His oath YHWH your God is to seal [koret][17] with you today.

The immediacy of the moment is juxtaposed with the contract’s future orientation as binding on Israel for all time:

דברים כט:יד כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם.
Deut 29:14 And not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath, but with him who is here standing with us today before YHWH our God and with him who is not here with us today.[18]

…And the Covenant Is Simple

As the speech progresses, Moses emphasizes that the full weight and responsibility of the moment of decision over life and death is Israel’s alone:

דברים ל:טו רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם אֶת הַחַיִּים וְאֶת הַטּוֹב וְאֶת הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת הָרָע.
Deut 30:15 See I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil.

The conditions of Israel’s servitude and survival are not difficult to follow; they is all very plain, as Moses claims:

דברים ל:יב לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.
Deut. 30:12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”
דברים ל:יד כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.
Deut. 30:14 No, the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

Obedience to God’s law is a choice, but the choice is between life and death. That moment of decision is meant to be recreated at every instance in which action could be articulated in the language of the law, thus carrying into the future the (always uncertain) power to keep deferring the return of God’s punishing violence.

An Eternal Moment of Pseudo-Choice

While Deuteronomy’s narrative audience comprises people who experienced or heard eyewitness accounts of these wilderness period sins, for the literary audience, i.e., the intended readers of the book of Deuteronomy, these events are from the ancient past. And while the curses in chapter 28 are in the narrative audience’s distant future, for the literary audience, they foretell and explain the many terrible events that they or their ancestors already experienced, such as (according to the putative date of composition) the fall of Israel in 722 B.C.E., the campaign of Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E., and perhaps other, earlier or later disasters.

Deuteronomy is presented as an address delivered by Moses, in his own words; YHWH is absent from the “today” of the covenant between him and Israel on the plains of Moab. This framing allows for later Israelites, who are living in a time situated between past disasters and possible future ones, to recreate that moment of decision for themselves. If they would only choose life, as articulated in the language of the law, they could succeed in deferring the return of YHWH’s wrath into the always uncertain future.

Postscript

Joshua’s Bargain

The simulation of choice at the center of the covenant ceremony is presented more explicitly at the end of Joshua’s final speech, where, after telling the Israelites that they may no longer worship their ancestors’ gods, he continues (using the same temporal deictic rhetorical technique):

יהושע כד:טו וְאִם רַע בְּעֵינֵיכֶם לַעֲבֹד אֶת יְ־הוָה בַּחֲרוּ לָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת מִי תַעֲבֹדוּן אִם אֶת אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר (בעבר) [מֵעֵבֶר] הַנָּהָר וְאִם אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹשְׁבִים בְּאַרְצָם וְאָנֹכִי וּבֵיתִי נַעֲבֹד אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Josh 24:15 Or, if you are loath to serve YHWH, choose today which ones you are going to serve—the gods that your forefathers served beyond the Euphrates, or those of the Amorites in whose land you are settled; but I and my household will serve YHWH.

The people respond adamantly that they are committed to serving YHWH:

יהושׁע כד:טז וַיַּעַן הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר חָלִילָה לָּנוּ מֵעֲזֹב אֶת יְ־הוָה לַעֲבֹד אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים. כד:יז כִּי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ הוּא הַמַּעֲלֶה אֹתָנוּ וְאֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם.... כד:יח ...גַּם אֲנַחְנוּ נַעֲבֹד אֶת יְ־הוָה כִּי הוּא אֱלֹהֵינוּ.
Josh 24:16 In reply, the people declared, “Far be it from us that we should forsake YHWH to serve other gods, 24:17 for YHWH our God is He who brings our forefathers and us from the land of Egypt… 24:18 …We, too, will serve YHWH, because He is our God.

The people clearly insist that YHWH has long been their God and remind Joshua their history as his people. Ignoring the people’s (abbreviated) version of their history and relation with God, Joshua then, ostensibly, tries to talk them out of it, warning them that once they take this step, there is no turning back:

יהושע כד:יט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל הָעָם לֹא תוּכְלוּ לַעֲבֹד אֶת יְ־הוָה כִּי אֱלֹהִים קְדֹשִׁים הוּא אֵל קַנּוֹא הוּא לֹא יִשָּׂא לְפִשְׁעֲכֶם וּלְחַטֹּאותֵיכֶם. כד:כ כִּי תַעַזְבוּ אֶת יְ־הוָה וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהֵי נֵכָר וְשָׁב וְהֵרַע לָכֶם וְכִלָּה אֶתְכֶם אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר הֵיטִיב לָכֶם.
Josh 24:19 Joshua, however, said to the people, “You will not be able to serve YHWH, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions and your sins. 24:20 If you forsake YHWH and serve alien gods, He will turn and deal harshly with you and make an end of you, after having been gracious to you.”

When the people reiterate that they will serve YHWH (Josh 24:21) Joshua notes that the pact has been made:

יהושע כד:כב וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל הָעָם עֵדִים אַתֶּם בָּכֶם כִּי אַתֶּם בְּחַרְתֶּם לָכֶם אֶת יְ־הוָה לַעֲבֹד אוֹתוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ עֵדִים.
Josh 24:22 Thereupon Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have by your own act chosen to serve YHWH.” “Yes, we are!” they responded.

Joshua then commands Israel to get rid of their foreign idols, but the people respond with a general promise, ignoring the specificity of the command and merely reiterating what they already said:

יהושע כד:כד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָעָם אֶל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ נַעֲבֹד וּבְקוֹלוֹ נִשְׁמָע.
Josh 24:24 The people said to Joshua: “We will serve none but YHWH our God, and we will obey none but Him.”

The scene ends with Joshua writing down the pact בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהִים “in the scroll of God’s teaching” and putting a standing stone before the temple in Shechem as a permanent witness. For later generations, however, the written testimony is one that records not only the pact with God but the way it was performed.[19]

If there was ever a real choice here, it was the one made long ago, by God, not by the people:

יהושע כד:ג  וָאֶקַּח אֶת אֲבִיכֶם אֶת אַבְרָהָם מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר וָאוֹלֵךְ אוֹתוֹ בְּכָל אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן...
Josh 24:3 But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through the whole land of Canaan…

Their relationship with YHWH was established long before Joshua offers them a new covenant. They have no intention of resisting or refusing YHWH’s rule now. What is left for them is only the mode of accepting YHWH’s choice, a matter of sheer performance.

For anyone who chooses life over death the other option proposed by Joshua, to serve other gods, is void. Rejecting Joshua’s repeated gestures of testing, the people display the emptiness of the choice they were offered while acknowledging its outcome—loyalty to God. In this, they exhibit the only freedom they still enjoyed, the freedom to acknowledge and perform their submission.

Published

September 13, 2022

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Last Updated

November 28, 2022

Footnotes

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Prof. Adi Ophir is Visiting Professor of Humanities and Middle East Studies at Brown University's Center for Middle East Studies and Cogut Institute for the Humanities, where he directs the Political Concepts Initiative. He is also Professor Emeritus at Tel Aviv University. He holds an M.A. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Ph.D. from Boston University. Among Ophir's many books are Plato's Invisible Cities: Discourse and Power in the "Republic" (Routledge, 1990); The Order of Evils: Toward an Ontology of Morals (MIT 2005); The One-State Condition (with Ariella Azoulay; Stanford 2012), and Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile (with Ishai Rosen-Zvi, Oxford, 2018). His next book, In the Beginning Was the State: Divine Violence in the Hebrew Bible is forthcoming from Fordham.

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