This is one of those passages where I feel the absence of something familiar. It’s in the great commandment of 6:4-5.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
It’s the heart of Israel’s faith from that day to this – and it’s the emphasis that takes Deuteronomy beyond all the books that come before it in the Bible in its clarity about the absolute distinctiveness of God, and the absolute dedication required to worship and serve him.
Following on from Moses’ recap of the Ten Commandments, I find it inspirational. Since we heard the commandments for the first time in Exodus 20, we’ve had all sorts of regulations about worship and life, and many of them have been worked out in enormous detail. The repeat of the commandments calls us back again to the key ‘big picture’ stuff about living God’s way. Then this is driven home by that absolute demand – all your heart, soul and might is to be put into loving God, and the commandments help to spell out what that means. The call to love God gives life to the law of the commandments, and it’s great! Israel is then called to remember this truth forever, and given a way to do so. These are the verses which are inside the phylacteries worn by Orthodox Jews on their foreheads and arms, and fastened to the door-frames of their houses, never to be forgotten.
We hear them every time we celebrate the Eucharist, and there they are coupled with another command, taken from Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:34-40 and in turn quoting Leviticus 19:18. From the Common Worship communion service we say,
Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
The first commandment is this:
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Amen. Lord, have mercy.
It’s that second commandment that I’m missing here. All the more so because we move quickly into the command to cleanse the Promised Land entirely of its current inhabitants. Now I can see how it was necessary in that circumstance for there to be an absolute separation of Israel from other nations, in order for a society to be built which could one day lead to Jesus’ work to open salvation to all nations. It doesn’t mean I have to like it or even be comfortable with it, but I can just about live with the violence commanded here as a necessary if desperate measure for a particular time.
Yet we live in a time when love for God – or at least devotion to him – is still used to justify appalling acts of violence, oppression and discrimination at all sorts of levels of intensity and breadth. I can’t help feeling that this may be a natural result of human beings taking seriously this first great commandment without adding to it the second – which I confess I missed recognising when it came up in Leviticus 19:18. For let’s not forget that the command to love our neighbours as ourselves is also part of the Old Testament, not a new invention for the ‘kinder’ New Testament.
When it’s paired with ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ then ‘Love God with all your heart, soul and might’ becomes more humane. Without it, it risks becoming at best austere and strict, at worst (when filtered through human suspicion and xenophobia) oppressive and murderous.
We need the clarity of Deuteronomy to focus our hearts and minds again on God and on faithful, dedicated service to him. But without love for our neighbour we risk building a faith that divides and diminishes humanity, rather than one which unites and builds up.