The Lord Has Not Given You a Heart to Know (Part 3)

I recommend starting with part 1 if you have not read that already…

We started what has turned into a mini-series of posts by reading Deuteronomy 29:4 and asking three questions.

  • 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?

Focusing on the immediate context, as well as the overall context of Deuteronomy, we found the historical context. Moses is addressing the Israelites as they are gathered at Moab. The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land and Moses is transferring his leadership to Joshua. Given the phrase “to this day”, we concluded that it was reasonable to assume that the Lord has not given the Israelites an ability to understand, perceive nor discern something throughout the entire Exodus.

The immediate context, also answered the question that the something that the Israelites were unable to understand, perceive nor discern was all of the Lord’s activities, the signs and wonders, during the Exodus and the wilderness wandering. These activities were given to both teach the Israelites so that they would know the Lord and to test them.

That led us to suggest the following interpretation of Deuteronomy 29:2-6.

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.

This interpretation presents God with two expressed purposes that are at odds with each other. We found that this pericope gets a bit more interesting when we read through the narratives describing the exodus out of Egypt. We find God being revealed to us as frustrated and angry at the Israelites’ lack of trust in Him. This response from God seems to be at odds with the idea that He is withholding an ability to know Him. Finally, we find that God has made it clear that He considers the command given to be Israelites to be something they could achieve. If the Israelites can choose life or death then we can reasonably conclude that God didn’t need to give them anything additional to know Him. Are we to conclude that in depriving the Israelites of understanding that God was actively preventing the Israelites from knowing Him and choosing life?

The Israelites harden themselves and then they are given over

One way to attempt to resolve our interpretive conundrum is to examine some passages that reflect back on the Israelites during the Exodus. If we jump ahead in time, we find the prophet Zechariah giving a message to the remnant that is returning to the Promised Land. The book starts off, “The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.” The prophet is reminding the people that God was angry with their ancestors when they failed to obey Him. The result of this disobedience was the foretold cursing of the nation that has just come to an end.

Later in the book, we find Zechariah explaining in more detail why God was angry with their ancestors. The people were stubborn and refused to obey the commands that Moses had laid out. They refused to listen to all of the warnings that they had been given.

Again the Lord’s message came to Zechariah: “The Lord of Heaven’s Armies said, ‘Exercise true judgment and show brotherhood and compassion to each other.  You must not oppress the widow, the orphan, the resident foreigner, or the poor, nor should anyone secretly plot evil against his fellow citizen.’

“But they refused to pay attention, turning away stubbornly and stopping their ears so they could not hear. Indeed, they made their hearts as hard as diamond, so that they could not obey the law of Moses and the other words the Lord of Heaven’s Armies had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies poured out great wrath.

Zechariah 7:8-12 (NET)

The command that was given by Moses was within their ability to obey (Deut 30:11-15,19). But here the people are described as not being able to keep the command. Why are they not able to keep the command (ie the law of Moses)? The text tells us that it is not because they did not get a “heart to know” but because the people had hardened their hearts as hard as diamonds and refused to listen.

In Hebrews 3:7-11 we find it quoting Psalm 95:7-11

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks!
Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness.
“There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years.
“Therefore, I became provoked at that generation and said, ‘Their hearts are always wandering and they have not known my ways.’
“As I swore in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest!’”

Hebrews 3:7-11 (NET)

Here the psalmist and the author of Hebrews are urging the original audience to listen to the Lord and to not harden their hearts in the same way as those in the Exodus from Egypt. The people presented as an illustration in Hebrews and Psalm 95 refer back to the people Moses is addressing in Deuteronomy. The Israelites of that time are presented as hardening their own hearts, matching how Zechariah represented them.

We find the same thing being taught in Psalm 81. Here the Psalmist reminds the reader of the journey out of Egypt and the failure of the Israelites at that time.

I am the Lord, your God,
the one who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.
But my people did not obey me;
Israel did not submit to me.
I gave them over to their stubborn desires;

they did what seemed right to them.
If only my people would obey me!
If only Israel would keep my commands!
Then I would quickly subdue their enemies,
and attack their adversaries.”

psalm 81:10-14 (NET)

In this excerpt, we again find the Psalmist is reflecting back in time on past disobedience to encourage those who are now hearing the song to obey the Lord. The expectation of the Lord in this psalm is that the people would submit and obey. There seems to an expectation that the people during the flight out of Egypt would have submitted and obeyed. There is also a recounting of the bewilderment and dismay by the Lord that they did not. We also find an appeal that the nation’s fortunes would change if they would not follow their example.

These small sampling of passages show us that Israel was hardening their own hearts. And here in Psalm 81 we find that the Lord eventually gave them over to their own desires. Seen in this way, we could understand God’s activity as permitting the people to be foolish & harden themselves. While this may explain the intent behind Deuteronomy 29:4, it doesn’t adequately deal with the language in that passage. Further it seems that the turning over of the Israelites to their own hard hearts was the result of continual rebellion. It would not adequately explain why the Lord would have done that at the outset of the Exodus.

A Hebrew Idiom

Having looked at numerous passages describing the Israelites during the flight from Egypt, we still haven’t seemed to found a way to interpret Deuteronomy 29:4 that doesn’t put God at odds with Himself.

There is another option that we need to consider. We can attempt to interpret the passage as a Hebrew idiom. defines an idiom as “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements … or from the general grammatical rules of a language.” An example in English might be; it is raining cats and dogs. A literal interpretation would have us dodging animals as they are falling from the sky. However, we know that it simply means that there is a heavy downpouring of water.

Bullinger’s Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, describes several types of Hebrew idioms. One of groupings is related to the passage we are looking at.

Active verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do.

p822-823 (

Treating the passage in Deuteronomy 29:4 as this type of idiom, it would mean something very different than it seems.

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

DEUT 29:4 (NET)

Instead of interpreting this as God not giving an understanding mind, we would instead infer that God has allowed the Israelites to choose not to have an understanding mind. That is a very big difference.

In the collection of essays, Giving the Sense: Understanding and using Old Testament Historical Texts, we find Robert B. Chisholm Jr offer the suggestion that a literal reading of the text may be misleading.

Several scholars have demonstrated the importance of viewing Old Testament historiography and narrative in its ancient Near East context. Such analyses often identify literary conventions that were used in the culture and appear in the biblical narrative. Recognizing such conventions enables one to read the biblical accounts as they were intended to be read and understood in their original context by their original audience. What this means, however, it that our modern, straightforward reading of the text sometimes proves to be simplistic and misleading. … Failure to recognize these conventions will cause one to misread the intention of the author and make wrong assumptions about what actually happened.

History or Story? The Literary Dimension in Narrative Texts (page 56-57)

If we were to understand Deut 29:4 as an idiom it allows the passage to fit both the immediate context of the pericope as well as numerous other passages that we have explored. God is no longer at odds with Himself, both wanting the Israelites to know Him and actively hindering this by not giving them an “understanding mind, perceptive eyes, or discerning ears!”

We can now offer a different interpretation for Deuteronomy 29:2-6.

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 God’s miraculous activity and provision throughout the entire flight from Egypt, the Israelites rebelled and stubbornly refused to trust God.

God’s permission would entail allowing the Israelites to truly decide between the life and death that He was offering. This would reasonably explain God’s anger when they chose against Him and the life and blessings He offered. Finally, it would make sense that Moses would want to remind the Israelites of their past rebellion as a warning not to make the same mistake as the prepare to enter the Promised Land.

The interpretive approach of seeing this verse as an idiom, as suggested here, was also taken by the authors of the REV Bible Commentary.

There is of course nothing in the grammar that tells us when something is an idiom. It is possible that this is not the correct approach to interpreting the passage. However, if we were to take Sherlock Holmes advice regarding examining our options, it is clear that this accounts for the data given to us in text and solves the conundrum the other interpretation created.

What do you think?

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