Israel stands just outside the border of Canaan, the land they are promised to inherit. Moses is there with them, but he will not follow them in. God has told him it’s the end of the line. So, the man who has lead Israel for 40 years now, delivers unto them a final address.
To be honest, it really does read like a parent giving last minute instructions to their child before he or she boards the bus for school. Eat this. Don’t eat that. Do this. Don’t do that. These are the “nice people.” These are the “mean people.” This is God. This is not.
Of course, in true children’s lit narrative fashion, there is a short list of good things that will happen if you obey the instructions and a very, very long list of bad things that will happen if you disobey them.
But the narrative does not end there. Because Moses is channeling the voice of God, we gain insight into later events that this fledgling nation won’t deal with for a while.
God tells them how a king should act. David wouldn’t become king for 400 years. God tells them that they will eventually turn away from His instructions, be taken over, and redeemed. That happened 800 years later at the hands of the Babylonians and Assyrians. He tells them that a prophet in the same vein as Moses would come. At the recording of the final chapter of Deuteronomy, no such prophet had appeared, yet we know that prophet, king, and priest to be our Savior, Jesus Christ, and He didn’t come onto the scene for 1400 years.
Thus, these simple instructions lasted young Israel not just into elementary, not just into middle or high school, but up into its college years, where Israel now stands poised to spread to the whole world (via the diaspora).
It’s into this transitional stage that Jesus enters, and He shakes up everything that Israel has learned. He hangs out with the “mean people.” He challenges the “good.” He grants mercy where before there was punishment. He works on the holy days. His famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is full of statements like “you have heard it said, but I say…” In doing so, He does seek to negate the Law (Deuteronomy means “second law), but rather to deepen Israel’s understanding of it. Everything they have known about holy living and their relationship with God, He calls into question, not to invoke doubt, but to force Israel to delve deeper into the instructions they already know.
Why does He do this? Because 40 years after His physical departure from Earth, the temple of God would be ransacked and Israel would have to go out into the world to create a new national identity.
But Jesus did not send them out alone. He sends His Holy Spirit on our journeys, to continue our education through a deepening relationship with Him and an emphasis on critical thinking, which drives us to discern what God has to say to us in the very nuanced and particular situations we face in our lives.
I think of my own parents. When I was a child, they gave me simple and good instruction, the black-and-white “thou shalt”s that kept me happy, healthy, and safe. Now that I am older, they trust me to make good decisions and offer advice where they see ahead into places I have not been. My relationship with them is deeper than it was as a child. I recognize and appreciate the ways their mannerisms, behavior, and values have copied themselves into my daily life. I am as much their child as I am a adult, both fully theirs and fully myself. And the more I step into my own, the more I find my place in the Ybarra family.
Likewise, God is our Good Father. He raises us up to be more and more like Him and more and more into the person He created us to be. He continues to teach us through His Holy Spirit, offering us advice and instruction as we grow and mature. We are forever His children, yet we also disciple others, teaching them to be more like Christ and also themselves (Matthew 28:18). That way, we continue the legacy of the family of God.