Deuteronomy's Blessings and Curses in Perspective.Interpreting blessings and cursings in terms of moral behaviour alone does not fully address the truth of human experience.
The book of Deuteronomy is the renewal of the original covenant that God made with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai just following their escape from Egypt. The forty years of wandering in the wilderness is virtually over and Israel was poised at the edge of the Promised Land, ready this time to obey and take the land that God has promised them. In Deuteronomy 28, Moses set before Israel the blessings and cursings of the covenant that they are renewing.
… evil is not always punished in this life, nor is righteousness always blessed.
God began by issuing a series of blessings (see verses 1-14) and then a series of cursing (see verses 15-68). The blessings are heavily outnumbered by the cursings and each is conditioned by Israel's obedience (see verses 1, 15). If the people of God obey, they can expect blessing in every area of their life. If they disobey, they can expect trouble in every area of their life.
While it would appear that this is, in a capsule, the basic teaching of Deuteronomy, it would be an oversimplification of reality and God's entire revelation if we were to assume that this is the whole truth. This is amply demonstrated by the prophet Habakkuk and Job, both of whom ask questions that challenge this type of reading of Deuteronomy. Habakkuk asks God, "Why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?" (Habakkuk 1:13), while Job suffers because he "was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil" (Job 1:1, 8). Some scholars even hold that Job was specifically written to challenge a simplistic interpretation of Deuteronomic theology.
A close reading of Deuteronomy itself, reveals the folly of interpreting the blessings and cursings in terms of moral behaviour alone. In 8:2-3, Moses reminds Israel that God humbled them in the wilderness not because of any specific sin but in order to teach and test them. In 8:18, God is said to give Israel the power to attain wealth. Hence, their wealth is a gift from Him, not earned strictly through their obedience and lost through their disobedience. In 9:4-6, God declares that He is not giving the blessing of the land to Israel because of their righteousness. Indeed, the fact that they are being given the land is seen as an expression of grace, as they are a stubborn people (see verse 9:6) and because of the promise that He made with "your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob" (9:5). The only reason they were spared God's wrath at all was because of Moses' intervention on their behalf (see verses 9:25-29).
It is obvious from the rest of the Old Testament, that the blessings and cursings were not accepted uncritically as absolute promises. We must temper the teachings of this book with all of Scripture. The historical books of the Old Testament, themselves, present a mixed picture. In war, the sword devours one as well as the other (see 2 Samuel 11:25), the innocent suffers alongside the guilty. In 1 Samuel 22:18-19, the totally innocent priests of Nob are slaughtered for doing what is right. One need only look at the opulent lives of the wicked kings in the history of Israel as they defied the law of God.
It becomes readily apparent that evil is not always punished in this life, nor is righteousness always blessed. This is amply illustrated by the persecution faced by the prophets and the "suffering servant" of God in Isaiah 53.
In response, then, to the question as to whether all good things and all bad things are the result of God's response to man's actions, five conclusions may be drawn:
1. Every good gift comes from God;
2. Many blessings and curses are a result of man's response to God;
3. Some blessings and curses are a result of God's plans for man;
4. Blessings can become curses if we fail to glorify God;
5. The teaching "whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (Galatians 6:7) is a general principle that will be true in the long run, but there will be times when it seems to be fallacy (especially in the short-term).
Glenn Penner is the communications director of the Voice of Martyrs Canada. To receive VOM's free monthly newsletter, please sign up at www.persecution.net http://www.persecution.net.
Originally published in the Voice of Martyrs Newsletter, May 2004.
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2004 Christianity.ca.