In the game called “telephone,” some is whispered one person at a time. Little by little, details are lost as each person whispers the message down the line. It is often a stark contrast the difference between the initial message and what ended up being communicated on the other end. Like many games, it teaches a lesson. In this case it is one about poor communication. If all the participants would just engage with more than just hear-say and were careful to hear, observe, and convey the words, perhaps everyone would be on the same page rather than in awe at just how skewed a message can get in the span of minutes.
Deuteronomy 4 sets up the Israelites for the rest of what is to come in the book of the law being constructed in the subsequent chapters. Hearing the commands of the Torah is partnered with the blessing of God’s grace and the fulfillment of God’s promises. Hearing and obeying the commands of the Torah lead to life in the promised land. Obedience to God is not a private venture where one may read and study at leisure the laws and follow them on their own. Rather, it is to the whole community that the call to “hear” and “observe carefully” is proclaimed.
All of Israel needs to be on the same page here, knowing the Torah with such intimacy that the message doesn’t get added to or subtracted from. This is not for reasons of legalism – God does not care so much that they can recite the exact verses. Rather, God’s hope in their careful hearing is that the life of Israel would be so in step with God’s commands that the community reflects the wholeness of God’s intentions in its way of life. Indeed, that is what the blessing is for. Their life in the land is the embodiment of the grace and presence of God. God’s covenantal life with Israel is manifest in how it lives in community within the new land afforded it by God’s grace. It is by God’s grace that they have a flourishing life bursting in possibilities and it is by obedience to this God that they will be able to see that life come to fruition.
However, God does not stop with what the Torah will do for Israel, but proceeds to speak of the witness they will bear of God’s glory to all the world. Israel’s life in the land as a covenant people is not a symbol of a privatized promise that only benefits Israel, but of a worldwide blessing. This is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant in that God is making the descendants of Abraham a blessing to all the nations. How do they become a blessing? By hearing, doing, and telling. Only through careful hearing of the commands of God in the Torah and putting them into practice are they going to bear witness to Yahweh. God’s work among them and the commands themselves are to be told and kept in communal memory throughout generations. When they live as an obedient people, the blessing of God’s presence is known and the world will recognize the glory of the Lord at work among them, a glory that surpasses all other gods.
It is our responsibility as Christians to live out this devotion to God in our own contexts. We must hear, obey, and proclaim the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Just as the Israelites are grounded in the covenantal relationship with God founded at Sinai, we are bound by the New Covenant made through Christ which brings that former covenant into fullness. It is through careful discernment in our own contexts as we follow Jesus that we heed the Word carefully. While faith in Christ is for a universally realized Body, each part of the body practices their faith and obedience to God’s commands in ways that are contextualized.
Therefore, Israel bore witness to God in the promised land by how they lived, it is how we live faithfully in our land, in our cultures, and in our time that Christ will be proclaimed by the Church. This requires careful engagement in the scriptures and participation in the Church. It requires diligent practice and growth in our life of holiness unto the Lord. It requires a telling of the Gospel that goes beyond merely words and moves toward a wholistic lifestyle. This telling is not quietly proclaimed in private that the message gets lost, but is told in community so that we can know the story of God’s faithfulness and live our faith out loud together. We must hear the word, put it into practice, and keep the memory of what God has done so that the world might know and that every generation might hear, remember and experience God for themselves in their own lands and contexts.