Deuteronomy 30:15–20 (NASB95)
15“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; 16in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. 17But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it.
19“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, 20by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”
Moses is almost at the end of his life by the time he’s giving this speech; and as his life is coming to a close, so is the Torah. He brings Israel to a pair of mountains, one representing goodness and life (which is consequently the greener, more lush of the two), and one representing death. On the one representing life, the tribes descended from Leah’s four middle sons, as well as those descended from Rachel are stationed. On the one representing death, those descended from Leah’s first and last born, and those descended from the enslaved women, Zilpah and Bilhah are stationed.
Reasons as to why are speculative, and range from the innocuous: “It’s for the aesthetics”; to the cruel: “God liked these ones better”. I am most persuaded with an explanation tied into the origin story of the tribes. In the narratives about Jacob and his sons in Genesis, Reuben rapes Bilhah, his father’s wife and his aunt’s enslaved maid. At the birth of Leah’s last two sons, she says she’s being repaid her wages for giving her maidservant in concubinage to her husband, and with Zebulun specifically announces her continuing desire to be the Matriarch of a divided house. The enslaved woman have no voice at all in the story; a fact which reflects their utter powerlessness in life. When Abraham and Sarah abused an enslaved woman in this way, God made Abraham go through a restoration process that involved setting the enslaved woman free, and giving her son over to her. Jacob and his wives did the same thing twice.
I think the author is invoking those parts of the narrative here, not as a de facto condemnation of the tribes produced from the bad behavior of the patriarchs, but as an implicit symbol of the wickedness that has led to death and suffering in the past.
And I’ll go even further back than that. When Abraham and Jacob abused their enslaved women, the author clearly intends for the reader to hear echoes of Cain’s descendants, Lamech; a figure who serves as an example of the extent to which humanity had grown depraved before the flood. The grievous evils the narrative preserves of Lamech’s legendary evil are: violence, pride, and the sexual exploitation of women, and particularly enslaved women. The Eden narrative envisions a paradise in the middle of a desert waste. In that garden paradise is a tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. God gave the garden pair a choice; choose to learn the knowledge of good and bad from God on His timetable, and live with uninterrupted access to God and to the tree of life. Or they could take the knowledge for themselves on their own timetable, or perhaps even define good and bad for themselves apart from God. If they choose this, they’ll be exiled back out into the desert waste, to a life characterized chiefly by death. They chose death. Their son, Cain, chose death. Cain’s legacy chose death. They saw what they wanted, it seemed right in their eyes, and they took. Sarah and Abraham do the same (with the same vocabulary I might add) to Hagar. Jacob, Leah and Rachel do the same to Zilpah and Bilhah. Reuben does so again to Bilhah.
God has given Israel a whole host of commands, statutes, and judgements by this point in the story. While it may be difficult to tell from our modern standpoint looking back, many of those commands had to do with protecting, or at least limiting harm towards vulnerable people; especially women, children, the enslaved, and the foreigner. I think in this final speech, even just in the choice of who stands where, God is reenforcing that to choose life is to safeguard the vulnerable, and uphold justice on behalf of the powerless. To choose death is to take and use whatever, or whoever you want, to abuse power, to exploit others. God chose an enslaved people to be His special possession when He chose the people of Israel, and ransomed them from Egypt. He chose a Moabite widow in the person of Ruth to give birth to the line of Kings. He chose the last son of a shepherd, a political non-entity, to be King over His people. And He chose an unwed mother, and her impoverished fiance in the persons of Mary and Joseph to be parents to His incarnate Son. God is at home with those experiencing homelessness. He’s the unseen traveling companion of the refugee and the nationless outcasts. He’s a father to the fatherless, hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak and the exhausted.
John the Revelator records the Resurrected Christ’s words to the church in Laodicea: “3:20Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” The verse is often taken out of context as an invitation to no-Christians, but it’s part of Christ’s address to ‘already Christians’. The context is, Jesus is instructing the church in Laodicea regarding their abundance of wealth when many around them are starving. In those days, when an unhoused person needed food, they’d knock doors until someone gave them something to eat. When Jesus tells them “I’m standing at the door knocking”, He’s saying, “I’m that beggar, if you want to have a meal with me, then have a meal with the hungry, and learn to see me in them.”
In Jesus’ final sermon to his disciples, on the night He was arrested, he similarly tells them this about God’s judgment; Matthew 25:34-40:
34“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
40“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
Christian, before you stands life, the life of sacrificial love toward God and others on the one hand; and death, the death of selfishness, of destructive greed, of careless indifference to those who suffer on the other. Choose life; Jesus is there among the sick and hurting waiting for you to come and talk with Him.