Deuteronomy is rather an interesting book. The fifth book of the Torah, the five books of Moses as they have been called, is all about covenant and how to live a covenanted relationship with God and with each other. When Moses first encountered God at the burning bush, he was reluctant to return to Egypt and lead the people because, as he said, “I am slow of speech and of tongue.” In Deuteronomy Moses seems to have found his tongue moved a lot easier than he thought. The section of Deuteronomy of which this reading is part follows a rather interesting list of positive and negative actions (blessings and curses) which, in short, upholds morals and standards of a righteous people and sets punishments for those who violate those morals and standards. This is part of Moses’ farewell address to a people he has led for forty years but who would soon be moving on without him. He had to leave them with some sort of final set of detailed instructions.
Even though Moses may never have said all that Deuteronomy credits him with saying (or writing), the intent was clear. One way to get people’s attention was to attribute it to someone famous or perhaps a legendary figure of the time. With the Israelites, using the name of Moses would guarantee people would pay attention. Still, even if Moses never really spoke all these words, they still have something to say about being chosen by God, having responsibilities and punishments for refusing to abide by the covenant in ways that damage the community as a whole.
Those who would be covered under this covenant is an interesting bit in itself. The male half of the population already wore a sign of the covenant with Abraham, but here Moses was not only including them but also the children, the women and even the non-Israelites who traveled with them (see Exodus 12:38 ) as part of the retinue in this new covenant with God.
This living in covenant of which Moses spoke was serious business; it was marking out the responsibilities of a group of people God chose to call his own and the duties by which they were to maintain this covenantal relationship.
Today, when someone buys a house in almost any subdivision they encounter something called the Homeowners Association, the HoA. In order to live in that community the new owners have to subscribe to a code of behaviors the HoA dictates such as whether the garage door can be open when the car is not going in or out of the garage, what color the house can be painted, maintenance requirements and, almost to add insult to injury, the fee each homeowner has to pay each year as dues which are used to maintain the common areas and the HoA’s incurred expenses in regulating and enforcing the standards. In a sense, new homeowners are asked to subscribe to a covenant in order to live in that particular community. Moses was sort of spelling out the HoA rules that would apply in the new land his people would be entering without him. It was a way of ensuring that everybody knew what the rules were and what the infractions would cost them. It was to ensure conformity and harmony among individuals, families and tribes and set them apart from those in other communities, families and tribes with whom they might come in contact or who might live in the subdivision next door.
I’m not saying that HoA agreements have the status of Moses and this covenant, but the idea is kind of the same: there are rules everybody knows or can read that preserve a unified, conformed, peaceful community. It’s amazing how many people gripe about HoAs and their rules, but they still move into the communities and sign the agreements. The Israelites wouldn’t always pay attention to this covenant and HoA rules and they quite often griped about things but that covenant and those rules were important enough to be written down many years later and long after Moses’ bones had turned to dust.
I wonder, how many of us would be willing to sign on to a HoA-type agreement with God? God might not care if we painted the house blue in a neighborhood of yellow houses, but certainly cares about how we treat each other and how we deal with others who may not belong to our community, our country or our particular faith. That’s made clear in the Bible over and over, but we still don’t seem to get it. The homeless person on the street corner may not be a neighbor in our gated community but is very much a neighbor, a part of our town or city and with as much right to be taken care of as the common greenways and curbside trees. The stranger who comes to our church may not be a covenanted member of that parish but should still be welcomed as one of God’s children even if they’re not dressed in the latest couture. Our children might be pampered and well cared for, but what about legislations that are passed in our name that deprive other children of food, shelter, and education that their parents are unable to supply? Isn’t that part of the covenant too? Isn’t that part of the responsibility of ensuring harmony and unity not to mention safety?
As a Christian, I’m bound by a set of promises that form a covenant with God and with my community. Maybe I need a reiteration from a Moses every now and then to remind me what my obligations are and what price I pay for being part of that community. It may have about the same effect that combination of time and distance did for the Israelites time and time again, enabling them to forget about the covenant for a while and incur some fines and penalties, but maybe I need that kind of reinforcement Moses sought to bring to those men, women, children and aliens gathered before him in his farewell address.
Come to think of it, reaffirming my baptismal covenant from time to time is a way of doing just that, reminding me of what I have promised. Moses may not have written it, but the church, in its wisdom, saw the need and provided the means. That is, to my mind and to quote Harry Potter, “Brilliant!”