The Lord Has Not Given You a Heart to Know (a look at Deut 29:4)

As we read through Deuteronomy we arrive at a challenging passage.

But to this very day the Lord has not given you an understanding mind, perceptive eyes, or discerning ears!  

Deut 29:4 (NET)

What makes it challenging?

Taking that passage literally, it says that God has not given the Israelites the ability to understand, perceive nor discern something. Further, He has been withholding the ability to understand it, whatever it might be, up to that very day.

Reading this, there are at least three questions that should immediately come to mind.

  • What is it that God is not giving the Israelites an ability to understand, perceive and discern?
  • Is this something the Israelites are only able to understand if God gives them an ability to perceive it?
  • What is the historical context of the day on which this is spoken and what has occurred before the statement is made?

As we read the passages around it, we find that answer to the first question.

Moses proclaimed to all Israel as follows: “You have seen all that the Lord did in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, all his servants, and his land. Your eyes have seen the great judgments, those signs and mighty wonders. But to this very day the Lord has not given you an understanding mind, perceptive eyes, or discerning ears!  I have led you through the wilderness for forty years. Your clothing has not worn out nor have your sandals deteriorated. You have eaten no bread and drunk no wine or beer—all so that you might know that I am the Lord your God!

Deut 29:2-6 (NET)

From the immediate context, the entirety of the events that comprise the Exodus out of Egypt through to the events during the wilderness wandering was what the Israelites have not been given an ability to discern. What is it that the Israelites were supposed to be able to understand from all of these events? That is answered in verse 6. The signs and wonders during the Exodus and the wilderness wandering were all done so that the Israelites might know the Lord.

Stepping back a moment, let’s try to summarize what this section of Scripture seems to mean.

God, through Moses, is telling the Israelites that He wants them to know Him. He has even shown them signs and wonders so that the Israelites could know Him. But, despite this clearly expressed purpose and miraculous activity, God has also decided to withhold from the Israelites the ability to know Him.

God didn’t really want
the Israelites
to know Him,
despite expressly stating
that He did

Assuming that one can only know God if one is given the ability to know Him, that would essentially mean that God didn’t really want the Israelites, at least not the ones that Moses is addressing, to know Him, despite explicitly stating that He did.

To understand what makes this verse an even more interesting challenge, let’s take into account the phrase “to this day”.

Both the open and closing of Deuteronomy describe the historical situation in which the content of the book was delivered. The Israelites are in Moab and they are about to cross the river Jordan to take possession of the promised land (Deut 1:1,5,8; 31:2,13). Before they cross the river to drive out the inhabitants and claim the land, Moses is giving the assembly a presentation of the covenant that they are being asked to accept and enter.

If the Lord has withheld the ability to know Him “to this day”, that would seem to encompass, at a minimum, the entire time from the start of the Exodus when Moses came to Pharoah all the way through to the gathering of the Israelites at the Jordan river as Joshua is about to assume leadership. That would also seem to imply that none of the Israelites have ever had a chance to know God at any point during the Exodus. The likely exceptions being Moses, Joshua and Caleb.

There is one more thing worth noting about this passage. Verse 4 does not seem to be a parenthetical piece of information that is provided to the reader. If it is not, the context has God, though Moses, proclaiming to the Israelites, in the span of a few sentences, that the Lord wants them to know Him AND that He also doesn’t want them to know Him. How is that for an encouraging rally before one heads off into battle. If this passage is a parenthetical piece of information, then the author of the book is still telling the reader that very same thing.

Now, it is admirable to seek a “literal” understanding of the text. But we also know that the Lord is not a God of confusion (1 Cor 14:33). Given what the “literal” reading of this passage seems to be saying, we must now ask ourselves whether we have understood and interpreted the passage correctly.

Interpreting Scripture can be much harder than it might seem at first. What we are (or should be) looking for is the original meaning of the text that the author(s) intended to convey to the original audience and their situation that prompted their need to write. As an English speaker in the 21st century, we find ourselves some 3500 years separated from the time in which the content of Deuteronomy was proclaimed and written. That means we must remember we are reading an ancient document written in an ancient language to an ancient people with vast differences in culture and customs. We must also acknowledge that we have our own presuppositions and theological leanings that we are bringing to the text.

With these challenges before us we must accept the fact that we may not be able to definitively determine the original meaning. That does not mean that any interpretation of the passage is valid nor that there isn’t a correct one. But it does mean that we must examine the case for any offered interpretation and evaluate that against other possibilities. As Sherlock Holmes explained to Dr. Watson: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

So where do we go from here? Read part 2.

What do you think?

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