If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God: Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading-bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you; they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways. The Lord will command the blessing upon you in your barns, and in all that you undertake; he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. All the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you. The Lord will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings. You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow. The Lord will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom—if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I am commanding you today, by diligently observing them, and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I am commanding you today, either to the right or to the left, following other gods to serve them.
This is one of those readings in Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus will later turn on its head. The start of the last sentence is particularly telling: ‘The Lord will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom—if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God.’ Jesus contraindicated this understanding of the Law many times throughout his teachings, but perhaps most notably in the beatitudes, when he made it clear that the first would be last and the last would be first. Maybe following the letter of the Law isn’t so appealing or important after all… Jesus implied, in-fact, that if you tried to be ‘only at the top’, you would end up at the bottom. Combine this with Jesus’ commandments to love God and love each-other, and you might find the Law seriously wanting.
Paul picks this up later, not by implying that the Law ought to be, or is, abolished, but by teaching that only faith can truly fulfill the Law (Romans 3: 31). Many people have read Paul’s teachings as an exhortation to follow the Law, but I think that this understanding is problematic. Paul does not tell us to keep the laws laid out in the Torah, suggesting that any attempt to do so would be futile, we all break the Law in tiny ways daily… Rather, Paul suggests that faith in Jesus is all that is required of us in order to fulfill the Law today.
Am I saying that we should ignore the Hebrew Scriptures? No. Am I saying that all law is useless? Absolutely not. Rather, I suggest that we consider our own lives carefully, before condemning others; that we prioritise faith in Jesus and love for God and our neighbor, and that we focus on good news, rather than law. Can you break the chains of law for a neighbor in need today?
God, Your yoke is light when we lift the burden together in love, Help us to live more simply, in faith, Truly believing in your good news, Which turns our human desire for rules and certainty upside down. Amen.
Alex Clare-Young is an ordinand at Westminster College.