Deuteronomy is the definitive statement of the law by which Israel is supposed to live. That law was never rescinded, but only superseded by the higher law, which embraced and reinforced all its principles. The New Testament repeats it with emphasis, as do the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Discourses of Brigham Young, and so on. Like the Word of Wisdom, it "points our souls forward." It is preparation for more to come when we are ready to receive it, and its strict observance is the indispensible prerequisite to any further progress.
I have chosen the Deuteronomy version of the old law, because the reward it promises explicitly and repeatedly is success—prosperity and long life in the new land of promise. One looks in vain for direct promises of eternal life and exaltation. That is why Jacob 4:5 says that the early Nephites knew that salvation did not come by the law of Moses, but they followed it to the letter because they could not receive higher law on any other conditions; it pointed their minds forward. But Deuteronomy definitely is the plan, guide, and handbook for "success" in this world; and as such, it is accepted as no other book by Israelis today. No commentaries or comparisons are required hereafter! And the rules for them are the rules for us!
Chapter 5 begins with Moses announcing for the last time that in bidding farewell to the children of Israel, he is summarizing for them exactly what their law is to be (Deuteronomy 5:1). They are to consider it not as something for the ancients, a mere tradition, but something meant for "those living right now and right here" (Deuteronomy 5:3). This statement is followed by the Ten Commandments. What we are given in Deuteronomy is to be received henceforward as the law by which Israel will live; not a word is to be added to it or taken from it until God sees fit to make what changes he will (Deuteronomy 4:2). Once men start "clarifying" the words of the prophets, they can rewrite the book; God will not tolerate that. If, with the passing generations, Moses tells them, they should dilute it or corrupt it, they will not be merely reprimanded but utterly destroyed—scattered among the nations and reduced to pitifully small numbers (Deuteronomy 4:25-27). They are instructed to write the law down and memorize it (Deuteronomy 31:9). Every seven years the whole nation shall gather together and the high priest "shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing." This includes women, children, and outsiders, that all "may hear, and learn, and fear the Lord, and observe to do all the law" (Deuteronomy 31:10-12). They are to take good care of the holy book, keeping it carefully guarded in the Ark of the Covenant "for a witness against thee," that is, it will always be there as a standard to judge them by (Deuteronomy 31:25-26). Thus they will be left without excuse, "for this commandment this day . . . is not hidden from you, nor is it something far off. Not in heaven, that you should say: Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it unto us? . . . You don't have to send anyone over the sea to fetch it, . . . but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
The first rule, and one never to be forgotten, is that everything you have or ever will have, individually and collectively, is a gift from God, something that he blesses you with, has blessed you with, or will bless you with—you owe it all to him. Throughout the book, the refrain is repeated at the end of almost every pronouncement: You must do this in recognition of your dependence to God, because first and foremost he has given you your lives, he rescued you from Egypt, and he redeemed you—that is, he paid the price for you that you could not pay yourself: "And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and Jehovah thy God redeemed thee [brought you free, paid the price, for nothing], . . . and therefore I command thee this thing today" (Deuteronomy 5:15). You are not to turn to any other source of life and guidance; "do not look to the sun or the moon or the stars" to represent me. "It is to me directly and to me only that you must turn: The Lord who brought you out of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 4:19-20). Remember that he "is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible" (Deuteronomy 10:17); all persons are equal to him, and he cannot be bought. How can you make a deal with him when you have nothing to offer? "Behold, everything in heaven and earth belongs to him" (Deuteronomy 10:14).
The first thing the Israelites are to do when they have settled in their new land is to fill a basket with firstfruits, the first gifts of the land, and bring it to the priest, who sets it before the altar; then they are to recite these verses: "A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: and the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. We called upon the Lord . . . and he heard us. . . . He brought us forth out of the land of Egypt . . . with signs and wonders, and he brought us to this place and gave us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Deuteronomy 26:5-9). Why a Syrian or Aramaean? Why was he also called "Abraham the Hebrew"? All of those words denote a displaced person, a vagabond, a starving wanderer, a homeless outcast moving among wicked and haughty people. It was from such a condition, "ready to perish," that God raised them up. The great gathering and feasts, whose strict observance makes up such an important part of the old law, all have the same purpose, to remind the Israelites that everything they had was a free gift from God. In holding these solemn conferences, "you and yours—sons, daughters, servants, . . . strangers, orphans, widows must all come together and rejoice and be happy," as one big happy family. That is the spirit in which this must be done, and that is the spirit of the law of consecration and the United Order. "Remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt"—if some are slaves, all are slaves. This is to show where we stand with each other and the Lord. Thus in the Feast of the Tabernacles at the harvest, all must share, all rejoice together as one family, "thou and thy son and thy daughter, and thy manservant and thy maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow that are within thy gates," for seven days in the appointed place. Three times a year, all males come together before Jehovah at an appointed place for the feasts of (1) unleavened bread, (2) weeks, and (3) tabernacles. And they must never come empty-handed: "Every man shall give as he is able, [that is,] according to the blessing of the Lord thy God, which he hath given thee" (Deuteronomy 16:11-17).
Moses reminds the people that they are about to settle down not in the lush Nile valley, but in the hill country that depends on the rains for life, "the rain of heaven"—a free gift. "If you will keep the commandments, [and so on,] . . . I will give you the rain your land needs and that at the proper seasons and in the proper amounts for maximum harvest. . . . And I will send grass for the flocks and herds as long as you take heed to yourselves. . . . If you do not, the Lord 'will shut up the heaven,' and you will get no rain and no harvest" (Deuteronomy 11:11-17). What is more, God has given good things to other nations also, some of them weaker than Israel, and all of them hostile. Those gifts of God to others are to be strictly respected. Speaking of Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites, the Lord gave stern commandments: weaker nations are greatly concerned about the Israelite threat: "Meddle (titgaru) not with them; not an inch of their land belongs to you, because I gave it to them. I gave it all to the children of Esau" (Deuteronomy 2:5). The same applies to the Moabites (Deuteronomy 2:9) and to the Ammonites: "When you come to the children of Ammon, distress them not nor meddle with them" (Deuteronomy 2:19). He tells them that when he has a score to settle with other nations, he will let Israel know if it concerns them. Meanwhile, let no one interfere with the gifts God chooses to bestow on others!
The second point Moses insists on is that Israel understand very clearly that they have not earned the good things they enjoy. Beware, he says, "lest when you have eaten and are full, . . . and your silver and gold has piled up along with everything else," you get the idea that you earned it. "Then your heart will be lifted up, and you will forget the Lord thy God. . . . And you say to yourself: My ability and hard work (kokhi we-otzem yadhi) has made for me this fortune (khayil, power, influence, success). But you must keep in mind that it is God himself who has given you the koakh (capacity) to make khayil (success), for the sake of confirming the agreement (covenant) which he made with your fathers. [It is for their sake that he has blessed you.] If after that you forget in any degree any stipulation of the covenant, you will be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 8:12-20). That is why Moroni ends with his impassioned plea: "Deny not the gifts of God" (Moroni 10:8). Despise not the gifts of God. Never fail to recognize the pure gifts. No one, says King Benjamin, can so much as pay his own way. If we work day and night for twenty-four hours, we are still unprofitable servants. "Can ye say aught of yourselves? . . . [He] is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath" (Mosiah 2:25, 21).
Furthermore, the Israelites are not to get the idea that because the Lord has turned out other people to give them the land, it is because of their righteousness, or that victory in the field has come to them as a reward of virtue: "Speak not thou in thine heart saying: For my righteousness the Lord hath brought me to possess the land: but rather for the wickedness of these nations the Lord doth drive them out" (Deuteronomy 9:4). This is exactly the lesson of Nephi to his brothers as they pass through those same lands. Whether or not these people were more or less wicked than Israel is for the Lord alone to decide. But here he tells them that it was not because they are righteous, but because the others were wicked; he had a score to settle with them and would have smitten them whether Israel had been anywhere around or not (1 Nephi 17:33-38). "Understand therefore, that Jehovah thy God is giving you this good land, not as a reward of righteousness, because you are not righteous, you are a stiffnecked people" (Deuteronomy 9:6). There were times when he told Moses, "Let me alone that I may destroy them and blot their names out and raise up a better people," specifically from Moses' line. When God said the Israelites were no better than the others and deserved the same, Moses was terrified at what was going to happen. He begged the Lord to spare the people just once more, "and the Lord hearkened to me at that time also" (Deuteronomy 9:13-19). Even so, he was ready to spare the very wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of Abraham (Genesis 18:20-33). Again and again Moses hammers home the point: Don't get the idea that you are the good people and your enemies are the bad people: "Ye have been rebellious against the Lord ever since the day I first became acquainted with you" (Deuteronomy 9:24). And his final word to them was, "I know what a stiffnecked people you are. If you are rebellious while I am still alive . . . and will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn aside from the way I commanded, . . . you will suffer evil accordingly" (Deuteronomy 31:27-29). "I have led you for forty years, and up to now you still have not learned. . . . Yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear unto this day" (Deuteronomy 29:5, 4).
The third rule is that since God is giving it all away free to everyone, regardless of all other circumstances, everyone has a right to whatever he needs to live on. Thus if you have taken a man's coat for security, you must return it to him by sundown, because he needs it to wear or to sleep in. Whether he has paid up or not has nothing to do with it. If you feel short-changed, "Jehovah your God will give you credit," so don't worry (Deuteronomy 24:13). Under no circumstances can you take for a pledge or security a millstone or anything else upon which a person's livelihood depends (Deuteronomy 24:6).
In passing through anyone's vineyard, you may help yourself to whatever you can eat, but you may not carry off any in a container. If the owner denies you what you need, he is greedy; if you take more than you need, then you are greedy (Deuteronomy 23:24). In a field of grain, take what you need then and there, but don't take a sickle to cut or collect it. If you take it for profit or gain over and above what you need, you are in danger (Deuteronomy 23:25). As Paul also reminds us, it was when the people of Sodom and Gomorrah denied passing strangers and even the birds of heaven their share of the fruit on the trees that Abraham cursed them in the name of his God; according to the Midrash, their sexual aberrations were second in wickedness to such meanness of spirit.1
And what does God ask us to do to requite his goodness? He does not need anything from us to show him and ourselves whether we have learned our lesson. The basic rule of his economy is that he is just and equitable: "He doth execute the judgment (mishpat) for the orphan and the widow, and he loves the stranger and wants him to be provided with food and clothing. Therefore, you must do the same: love the stranger—remember that you too were strangers [and were oppressed] in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Yes, we are to imitate God's freedom and bounty, to be as free with the substance he has given us as he is in giving it to us. He lets his rain fall upon the just and the unjust. He was good to you though you were disobedient; so when you give to others, never ask whether they deserve it (King Benjamin taught the same text in Mosiah 4:11-24). "And now I [the priest] have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. . . . Set it down before the Lord and worship him and rejoice in every good thing which Jehovah thy God hath given unto thee and to thy house and to the Levites and to the strangers among you" (Deuteronomy 26:10-11). (You do not have to be an Israelite to qualify.) "In the third year you start tithing, giving it to the Levite, stranger, fatherless, and widow, that they may eat within thy gates and be filled. At this time you will say: 'I have brought away the things of my house which have been sanctified, and also have given them to the Levite, stranger, fatherless, widow, according to all thy commandments. . . . I have not transgressed thy commandments, or forgotten them'" (Deuteronomy 26:12-13).
The word sanctified in the King James Version means the same as consecrated, set apart; and it is the law of consecration, given as it is at the culmination of all the other laws. And in all of this, Israel is being put to the test: the Feast of the Weeks requires "a tribute of a freewill offering of thine hand." The offering is required—it is tribute, but the amount is freewill; you determine it yourself, on the basis of how much the Lord has given you [the Septuagint kathoti he cheir sou ischyei means to the limit of your ability], what he has given you, even with what your God has blessed you (Deuteronomy 16:10; bless here means to give: All that with which the Lord has blessed you or with which he may bless you.) What is more, you must recognize any kindness shown you by others. Thus Israel is not to despise the Edomite or the Egyptian, though both of these had opposed and oppressed Israel, because Israel was permitted to pass through their lands in spite of everything (Deuteronomy 23:7).
But though we must be kind to each other, we are not to go into debt with each other. God wants us to be in debt to him alone and not to each other. This raises a problem to which the law of Moses provides the only possible solution. It is almost impossible in the world's economy to pay off a debt without incurring more debt. Young people optimistically expect to work off their indebtedness, naively overlooking their helplessness in the hands of creditors, who can always decide how much their work is worth to them. And so we find ourselves strapped. Get out of debt! we are told, but go into business! How do you do both? We hear both themes at the Credit Union banquets: "Don't borrow," the speakers tell us, "but please do your borrowing from us." God gives Israel the solution to the dilemma. Do not decide these things on the basis of your own self-interest; someone must draw the line and say, "Here this business of depending on each other must stop." Before all things, we are told today that Latter-day Saints must be independent. It is only by the law of "the Lord's release" that the massive logjam that paralyzes the world today can be broken: every seven years all debts are canceled (Deuteronomy 15:2). This is admittedly not a human arrangement—to us it appears laughable. But God absolutely insists upon it. Every seven years you must make a release (Deuteronomy 15:1). After six years of service, any and all Hebrew servants must go absolutely free no matter what you paid for them (Deuteronomy 15:12). And you can not turn them out into the world: "Thou shalt not let him go away empty" (Deuteronomy 15:13). A week's severance pay? Not at all. Again, "thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, out of thy winepress; out of whatsoever the Lord thy God hath blessed thee, thou shalt give unto him" (Deuteronomy 15:14). You know exactly what that means and what God wants you to do. But he is not holding you to any specific figure—that is up to you. That is the whole idea.
When men receive gifts from each other, they become dependent upon each other; and jealousy and meanness follow. The judicial order in Israel must rest on absolute fairness without respect of person. "Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons; neither take a gift: for a gift does blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the righteous" (Deuteronomy 16:19). Note well, it is not only the foolish who are blinded or the wicked who are perverted—when we start passing the gravy around, it is even the wise who are blinded and the righteous who are perverted.
The key to all this is the spirit in which it is done and which alone can make it workable. The first and most common word in every decree is, surprisingly, love. "And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I have commanded you to keep this day, all for your good" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). The question is never raised, "Will this work, is it practical, is it sensible, is it realistic?" Quite the contrary, the main question always is whether people feel good about serving him: "O that there were such a heart in them, that they would really feel it that they would fear me and keep all my commandments always that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:26). God feels for us and worries about us. His concern for our welfare is far greater than our own. Again and again a special command is introduced with the words of the first great commandment, and the second follows hard upon: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, . . . soul, . . . might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart" (Deuteronomy 6:5-6). This is the main theme of Deuteronomy, and it is an admonition against that very legalism which later became the obsession of the rabbis as well as our own society.
But how can a law of love be legislated or enforced? Simply by the society's becoming completely immersed in it: "Thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, talk of them when you are sitting at home, talk of them whenever you are on the move, about town or on a journey, talk of them going to bed and getting up. Bind them on your hand and make them like a sign between the eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:7-8). (This had mystical connotations for later Judaism—the law is not only in your heart, it is written all over your person, marked in your manner and your appearance.) "And you shall write them on the mezuzoth of your houses and gateways" (Deuteronomy 6:9). This shall be ingrained in the consciousness of everyone in a natural, even unconscious, manner. One is to take advantage of every opportunity to answer children's questions and take care in various ways to stimulate the asking of those questions. Your children will hear you talking about these things, and "when at any time in future a child shall ask, 'Daddy what are these edoth [testimonies, witnesses, ordinances, the Ten Commandments, councils, assemblies, and so on] and the huqqim and the mishpatim which Jehovah our God ordered you to keep?' you shall answer by telling him the story of the deliverance from Egypt" (Deuteronomy 6:20-21). The whole thing is kept alive on a family basis with a warm and urgent appeal to take these things to heart. "Thou shalt also consider in thy heart, that as a man chasteneth his son, Jehovah your God chasteneth you"—think of him in that way, as a kind Father, who would not do anything that was not for his son's good (Deuteronomy 8:5).
Now comes the most important part of the business: the reaching out beyond immediate family to all the world. "If there be a poor man of your brethren living anywhere within your knowledge, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7). These are Benjamin and Mosiah's orders also (Mosiah 4:13-25). We have no laws requiring a man to be generous or penalizing meanness of spirit, for the obvious reason that no one can know exactly what is in another's heart. But God knows, and he does require these things in his law. You shall not only give to the poor man, but you should do it magnanimously (and this is a direct order): "But thou shalt open thy hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need of whatever he is in want" (Deuteronomy 15:8). But that is not all! It is not enough to do merely what you are told, you must do it in the right spirit without any mental reservations. In this case you are not supposed to calculate how near the day of the Lord's release is. Let us say it is only ten days away, which means that if I loan him something, he won't ever have to pay it back: "Beware that there is not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying the seventh year, the year of release is at hand; if I give anything to him now he will not have to repay it, and I will never get it back, and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought, . . . and he cry to the Lord, and it be a sin unto thee" (Deuteronomy 15:9). (Leave the computer and the calculating alone! Remember, a gift given grudgingly is a curse on the giver.) Speaking in general terms, "Thou shalt surely give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him" (Deuteronomy 15:10). My Scottish forebears, how it hurt them to part with a penny! "Because for that thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee [no amount specified] in all thy works" (Deuteronomy 15:10). He guarantees full payment. It may seem severe to us to say, "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee" (Deuteronomy 23:15). But the law goes further. Not only shall the refugee "dwell with thee . . . in that place which he shall choose," but while he is with you, "thou shalt not oppress [tonennu, grumble about, mutter under your breath, complain about] him" (Deuteronomy 23:16). When the time comes for your own servant to leave you after his six years, he does not have to leave if he has become attached to your service (Deuteronomy 15:16-17); the important thing is that if he does want to go, you must let him go cheerfully. "It shall not seem hard unto thee when thou sendest him away free"—you will be happy about it, because he has worked for you all that time, because you are doing the will of the Lord, and because you have faith in his judgment and goodness: "If you do that," the order continues, "the Lord thy God will bless thee"—you can't lose a thing (Deuteronomy 15:18).
If a man has two wives and loves the one and can't stand the other, and the unloved one has a son before the other, that son must inherit a double portion, for a man must always deal fairly and play no favorites (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). That is the essence of the law—complete fairness at all times.
But the fair thing is also the decent thing, the noble thing. "If a man take a beautiful captive to wife, he must allow her the full period of mourning for her own family, respecting her feelings and allowing her to make the transfer" (Deuteronomy 21:11-13). If after all he decides not to marry her, then she is free to go where she will. Though a captive of war, she is a free woman: "Thou shalt not make merchandise of her because thou hast humbled her" (Deuteronomy 21:14). The respect for human dignity and the feelings of others always have priority on other claims.
This principle is clearly shown in the rules of battle. If you have the right on your side, you are not to fear the enemy (Deuteronomy 20:1). Before the battle, the priest gives an address to the people, a pep talk, telling them, "Let not your hearts be faint, . . . for Jehovah your God goes with you to fight for you . . . and to save you." The main thing is that you know perfectly well that your own hearts and hands are pure (Deuteronomy 20:2-4). But certain men are not permitted to go into battle: "anyone who has bought a house and not yet dedicated it, or who has planted a vineyard and not yet eaten of it," for life must go on, and such homely matters have priority over the claims of the military. Indeed, they are the only justification for the military anyway, whose whole purpose is supposed to be to protect the life of the society. One who has "betrothed a wife and not yet taken her" may not go to battle, "lest he die and another man take her" (a favorite theme of wartime romances) (Deuteronomy 20:5-7). But it is mostly out of consideration for the bride. The husband may not be required to go to war or indeed to engage in any distracting business for one year—"for the sake of cheering his wife" (Deuteronomy 24:5). It is her feelings that deserve first consideration. Most significant is the rule that before the battle, the fearful and faint-hearted should be allowed and even requested to go home without prejudice, "lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart" (Deuteronomy 20:8). This recognizes the simple fact that all men are human and have their limits of endurance. The host is not divided into higher heroes and cowards in the Patton fashion, but into those with lower and higher thresholds of resistance to fear, with the understanding that everyone has a breaking point—Peter broke when he denied the Lord because he was scared stiff. The weak-hearted are to be dismissed in recognition of the fact that all men suffer from the same weakness—the timid soul is dangerous because the rest of us are almost as susceptible as he is and only too easily affected by his example. So we must let him go, before we get cold feet too!
It is always the spirit that counts. The celebrations in which everyone is generous and open-handed in recognition of God's bounty are joyous affairs. Sons, daughters, servants, strangers, orphans, and widows must all come together and rejoice and be happy as one big happy family. That is the spirit in which this must be done, and that is the spirit of the law of consecration and the United Order. "Remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt"—if some are slaves, all are slaves. This is to show where we stand with each other and the Lord (Deuteronomy 16:11-12).
From all of this it would appear that the one thing God will not tolerate in his children is that meanness of spirit which would take advantage of his other children and even of him. "Thou shalt not sacrifice unto the Lord . . . any bullock, or sheep with any blemish or fault whatever or any evil-favoredness: for that is an abomination unto the Lord thy God" (Deuteronomy 17:1). Why? Because it is cheap, it is mean, the equivalent of shaving one's tithing or underestimating one's fast offering. As Isaiah reminds Israel, God does not need your offering, it is you he is testing. He does not ask us to get rich so that we can help him; as Brigham Young said so often, God has put these things into our hands so that we can show him and all the world and ourselves how we will handle them and what we will do with them. It is meanness of spirit that will disqualify us before everything else for a celestial assignment. No double bookkeeping, says the Lord. Do not "carry diverse measures with you or keep such in your house; . . . such little tricks and strategies of business to maximize profits are an abomination" (Deuteronomy 25:13-16). Those habits of thrift that were taught me as shining virtues by my Scottish forebears can easily lead to meanness, and for that we have the famous law of the gleaning: "When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgotten a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it," It is not yours anymore: "It shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow" (Deuteronomy 24:19). Don't worry, the Lord will bless you for it. In beating the olive trees, "thou shalt not go over the boughs again" (Deuteronomy 24:20); granted that this is sound business practice, it is nonetheless forbidden. When you gather grapes in the vineyard, "thou shalt not glean it afterward" (Deuteronomy 24:21); it is for the disadvantaged. The usual explanation is given for all this: "Never forget that you were a bondsman in Egypt" (Deuteronomy 24:22).
Mention of processing olives and grapes brings up the word "extortion"; the literal meaning of the word "is to squeeze the last drop out of a thing." The gifts of God, we are told, which are the bounties of the earth, are to be used "with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion" (D&C 59:20). How often it is that these last drops mean the extra profit we so eagerly pursue. And now comes one of the most famous passages in the Bible: "For the poor shall never cease out of the land" (Deuteronomy 15:11). We have given this a rather mean twist today, arguing that since the poor will always be there, it is a waste of time to help them, for that will only encourage them and make more of them. Thus we ignore the rest of the verse (I have never heard anyone quote it), which is: "Therefore I command thee, saying thou shalt open up thy hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land" (Deuteronomy 15:11). Their perpetual presence is not to make us indifferent, but it is a constant reminder that God has his eye on us.
What we are warned against more than anything else is taking advantage of those who are disadvantaged—the stranger, the orphan; "nor take the widow's raiment to pledge," always remembering that you were once the disadvantaged (Deuteronomy 24:17-18). A list of things is given for which people are told they will be cursed. Of the nine specific crimes, all but one—the worship of graven images—are in the nature of taking advantage of weaker parties: holding one's aged father or mother in contempt; removing a neighbor's landmark (while he is not looking); taking advantage of a blind person, "making the blind to wander out of the way" (Deuteronomy 27:18); taking advantage of strangers, orphans, and widows with the help of lawyers; incest; striking anyone off guard, as Cain did Abel; and taking a reward to slay someone who has not offended you (the Mahan principle) (Deuteronomy 27:15-25). The one person who is held up as a monster of wickedness so evil that he should be forever forgotten by all men was Amalek, king of the Amorites, who "smote the hindmost of thee, the feeble laggards on the march; when you were faint and weary, he attacked, and he feared not God (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). The most common way of taking advantage of another's need is loaning money at interest, and this is strictly forbidden, though it is the cornerstone of our present-day economy (Deuteronomy 23:19). But even more effective is the iron law of wages, which forces a worker to accept the lowest possible pay from you because he is desperate for work—as long as his labor brings you a profit, you will continue to hire him; when it doesn't, you let him go. And in all this, you pose as his benefactor. "Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy" (Deuteronomy 24:14). What is more, you must not only pay him a living wage, but you must pay him every day before sundown: "Because he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it" (Deuteronomy 24:15). Everyone has a right to his daily bread.
In a word, the right to life always supersedes the right to profit. Thus, "thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee" (Deuteronomy 23:15). Here is the clear confrontation of life versus property, which played such a large role in the history of this country; apparently the pious slave owners never read this part of the Bible. And everyone knows the law that "thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn" (Deuteronomy 25:4). The beast is working for you—give him a break.
Indeed, "anyone stealing an Israelite to make merchandise of him or sell him outright must die" (Deuteronomy 24:7). In the ancient world, stealing and selling people into slavery was at all times one of the most profitable businesses. But in our free Anglo-Saxon tradition, it has been carried out in a more covert (and therefore more respectable) manner: press-gangs, indentured servants, slave-raids, pimping, enlistment of workers for unknown jobs that turn out to be sweatshops or labor camps, brain washing by certain cults, and so on. And here is an interesting one: criminals in the law of Israel even have human rights. When a felon is to be beaten, the judge must prescribe a set number of blows, but never one strike more than forty, regardless of the crime, "lest thy brother seem vile to thee" (Deuteronomy 25:2-3). Making those we don't like seem vile is one of the most advanced techniques of modern society.
The question arises, Are these laws realistic? Are they workable in the modern world? No! They are very special laws given to very special people. They are simply fantastic as far as the world is concerned. But that is just the point, says the Lord. The people of the world are not good enough to be my people. "I have called you out of the world. Your covenant is not with them, nor need you make any concessions to (tekhannem) them. Do not intermarry with them, for marriage is a covenant. You must have nothing to do with them, because you are something different from the world—holy, set apart, chosen, special—peculiar (am segullah; sealed, segulloth), not like any other people upon the face of the adamah. God will keep faith with you all the way; he is merciful and loving and wants to bless you for a thousand generations" (Deuteronomy 7:1-9). To reject such an offer of love is to incur resentment and disaster; disposed love turns to hate. If you hate him, you will have to pay for it. That is fair, because he intends to make you blessed above all other people. You will be a veritable Zion, of eternal increase, without sickness (Deuteronomy 7:10-15). You shall not follow their fashion. No cutting and tattooing (titgodadu) or shaving of eyebrows for the dead.
In his farewell prayer for his people, Moses calls upon the Lord: "Look down from thy holy habitation . . . and bless thy people Israel, and the land which thou hast given us, . . . flowing with milk and honey." The Lord has insisted that you observe and do these things with all your heart and soul, and you have promised and covenanted this day that you would do that. While he has covenanted with you and accepted you this day as his sealed people, the wonder of other nations is that you may be a holy people, as he has said. This is the conclusion of a prayer in which the whole emphasis is on the Levite, the stranger, the orphans and the widows (Deuteronomy 26:15-19). The best security, and in the end the only assurance of survival, is this: "That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which Jehovah thy God giveth to thee" (Deuteronomy 16:20). "Ye shall not respect persons. . . . Ye shall hear the small as well as the great" (Deuteronomy 1:17). What makes this a practical and working scheme is that God himself guarantees the bottom line. If you observe all of these things, he says, you can't lose. You will be overwhelmed with blessings: blessed in the city and in the field, in families, crops, and herds, in your harvest and in your storage, in your going out and in your coming in; when your enemies rise up against you, they shall be smitten and scattered (Deuteronomy 28:1-7). But only if you keep his commandments and walk in his ways will he give you boundless prosperity; "he will open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give rain unto thy land in his season, . . . if you heed and carry out all his commandments, not deviating from them to right or to left" (Deuteronomy 28:12-14). You may look forward to times "when there shall be no poor among you; for the Lord shall greatly bless thee," but "only if you carefully hearken and strictly observe and do these commandments which you now receive" (Deuteronomy 15:4-5).
The last four chapters of Deuteronomy are devoted to the most harrowing, detailed, prophetic descriptions of what will happen to Israel if the people do not walk up to all the covenants. The Lord insists on a viable equation: the promise on the land is equal to the curse; the greater the blessing if the laws are kept, the greater the curse if they are broken. This vast land is yours, and in giving it to you, "behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse." For there is no contract without a penalty clause. A blessing, if ye obey, and a cursing, if ye will not obey (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). The Lord orders the heads of six tribes to pronounce the blessing on the people as they enter the land, and the heads of six others to curse the people "with a loud voice"; and after each blessing and cursing, all the people cry "Amen!" formally accepting the conditions (Deuteronomy 27:12-14). Great stones are set up and inscribed in bold, plain, legible letters so that no one can ever forget what they are committed to. Then Moses and all the priests address the people, telling them that they are formally and legally the people of the Lord, henceforward under obligation to obey his voice, observe his rules and carry out his commandments (Deuteronomy 27:2-10). After listing all the blessings in the first half of chapter 28, Moses turns to the second half, beginning, "but . . . if thou will not hearken, . . . these curses shall come upon thee" (Deuteronomy 28:15); then he lists the same blessings, but in reverse. "The curses will dog you in all your undertaking, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly" (Deuteronomy 28:20). This is the Book of Mormon situation also, which is characteristic only of Israel to this degree; other nations have sinned and suffered, and they are still in existence, still sinning and suffering, after thousands of years; but in the Old World, and the New, Israel was smashed and scattered. Epidemics, war and drought will wipe you out.
Reversal of the Blessings
1. If you do not keep the covenant you have made, "the heaven will be brass over your head and the earth will be iron under your feet" (Deuteronomy 28:23).
2. Your rain-clouds will be clouds of dust (Deuteronomy 28:24).
3. You will be destroyed like the Jaredites by the hand of the Lord, for "the Lord shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies: thou shalt go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them" (Deuteronomy 28:25).
You will suffer crushing defeats:
4. You will wither away physically (Deuteronomy 28:26).
5. There will be most unsightly skin diseases, itches, scabs, hemorrhoids (Deuteronomy 28:27).
6. And also mental illness of all sorts: "madness, blindness, and astonishment of heart" (Deuteronomy 28:28).
7. You will "grope at noonday . . . and shalt not prosper in thy ways." Everything you try will fail (Deuteronomy 28:29).
8. Everything you prepare will go to someone else (Deuteronomy 28:30).
9. You will end up in the hands of your enemies (Deuteronomy 28:31).
10. Even your sons and daughters will go over to others. It will all be more than you can stand (Deuteronomy 28:32).
11. "So that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see" (Deuteronomy 28:34). (It sounds like wild poetry—not so fantastic anymore.)
And it is also history for the Jews:
12. "The Lord shall bring thee . . . to a nation your fathers never knew" (Deuteronomy 28:36).
13. "Thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, a byword among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee" (Deuteronomy 28:37). (The unique history of the Jews bids us take the whole scenario seriously.)
14. The toil and desperate moves and ultimate checks and frustrations they have had to suffer in the world—still half their own fault—is described (Deuteronomy 28:38-40).
15. And all this will go on "till thou be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 28:45).
16. "Because thou servedst not Jehovah thy God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart for the abundance of all things, therefore, shalt thou serve thine enemies?" (Deuteronomy 28:47-48). (This is how he wants you to accept his blessings, to make everybody happy.)
17. "The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from afar . . . whose language you don't understand" (Deuteronomy 28:49).
18. There will be fierce, warlike people "which shall not regard the person of the old, nor show favor to the young"—hard-faced military officers, such as rule the world today (Deuteronomy 28:50).
19. They will take everything over and reduce you to nothing" (Deuteronomy 28:51).
20. Your supplies will be reduced to the point where you prey on each other without mercy, everyone turning against everyone else (Deuteronomy 28:54).
21. You will suffer from chronic epidemics (Deuteronomy 28:59).
22. Your populations will dwindle away (Deuteronomy 28:62).
23. In short, "as the Lord rejoiced . . . to do you good and to multiply you, so the Lord will rejoice . . . to destroy you, and reduce you to nothing," an endangered and homeless species (Deuteronomy 28:63).
24. Among these nations shalt thou find no peace (Deuteronomy 28:65).
25. "And shalt have none assurance of thy life" (Deuteronomy 28:66). (Absolutely no security. No matter how rich and powerful they have become in many countries and in many centuries, even the greatest of them have been subject to immediate torture and death without notice.)
26. At night you will wish for day, and all day wish for night (Deuteronomy 28:67).
The next chapter begins the windup. "Ye stand this day all of you before Jehovah your God . . . that he may establish thee today for a people unto himself . . . . Let there be no one with any mental reservations as to what he has sworn to; . . . that will be gall and wormwood" (Deuteronomy 29:10, 13, 18). Someone who thinks the words of the curse will not apply to him will say: This won't bother me—I'll just go my way! But "the Lord will not spare him. . . . All the curses written in this book will be upon him." You will be bringing the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboim upon you. People will marvel at what a desert the land has become and wonder why. Answer: "Because they have forsaken the covenants of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 29:10-25).
And then Moses' own testimony: "See I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil. Your choice is to flourish or perish. . . . I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, . . . that thou mayest love the Lord, . . . obey his voice, . . . cleave unto him: for he is thy life and the length of thy days" (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
*This address was given in March 1982 in St. George, Utah.
1. Gerald Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer (New York: Hermon Press, 1965), 176; cf. Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968), 1:245-50; and Nathan Ausubel, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (New York: Crown, 1948), 124.