The Curse of the Law: Part 1 – Deuteronomy as a Treaty

English: Moses Pleading with Israel, as in Deu...

(This post was first published over a year ago, but then I realized I hadn’t set it up very well. Hopefully, second time’s the charm.)

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I’ve been working on a paper that I hope to get peer-reviewed at some point. It turns out that that’s a tricky task for two reasons: First, you basically have to go and find just about every piece of scholarship out there that might even touch on your subject so that you can find out what arguments have been made for or against your position in the past, make sure you’re not just deluding yourself about the meaning of a given passage, and also see which direction scholarship has gone as more evidence has been opened up.

Secondly, if you’re really going against the grain, you find out that you have to establish about six other arguments to get to the point you really want to make.

Today’s post comes out of that second problem. My article is exploring just what Paul meant when he warned the Galatians that they were in danger of falling back under the power of the not-gods, the elemental spirits or stoichea that they used to follow, if they became circumcised as Jews. The main thrust of my argument involves careful exegesis of “the curse of the law” in Deuteronomy 28 through the lens of Dr. Heiser’s Divine Council paradigm. In the process, I’ve come to believe that failing to really understand the nature and scope of the curse of the Torah in Deuteronomy 28 is at the heart of a whole host of theological errors.

Sounds like a good subject for a series of blog posts, huh?

My own exploration of Deuteronomy 28 in detail didn’t originate in a desire to decipher Galatians, but rather to understand the inspiration of a particular prophecy. I wished to try to trace back to the Torah, the wellspring and foundation of all prophecy (as noted way back here), the prediction of Isaiah 11:10-11 that Hashem would recover his people from exile not once, but twice, and that the second time would happen after the Gentiles turned to Messiah, the Root of Jesse. One might find hints of such a double-exile in the pattern of Jacob’s life, in which he first fled the land to escape Esau and then was forced to leave it a second time to find refuge from the famine in Egypt. However, there is a better and more plain prophecy of this double-exile in the book of Deuteronomy in the description of the single, specific curse that would befall Israel should the people betray the covenant.

suzerain Egyptian Hittite 1250 bc treaty
Bronze tablet in 1235 B.C. testifying to the treaty between Tudhaliya IV (Egyptian) and Kurunta of Tarhuntassa (Hittite), which promises the sovereignty of Tarhuntassa and another territory to Kurunta and his sons for the future.

Deuteronomy, as many scholars have noted, is written in the form of an ancient Hittite suzerain-vassal treaty—in other words, the contract between a king and his people.1 While some skeptics have tried to claim that Deuteronomy has the form of the later Assyrian treaties in order to late-date the Torah, this does not hold up, as J.P. Holding notes:

In format Deuteronomy is most compatible with Hittite suzerain-vassal treaty texts — secular texts which “find their florescence in a period slightly later than 1400 (BC)” and went out of style in 1200 BC. [Merr.Dt, 23, 36] Deuteronomy contains “all the essential elements of these Hittite treaty texts and in precisely the same order” [ibid., 28] as well as a few other additions suitable to the context (a farewell address, itineraries, and hymns, for example — and of course, modifications for monolatry . . .

While it differs in that Deuteronomy calls upon heaven and earth and the song of Moses to be witnesses (30:19, 31:19, 32:1-43) instead of pagan gods, it contains the necessary components of the Preamble (1:1-5), the Historical Prologue (1:6-4:40), the Stipulations (5:1-26:15), Provision for the Keeping of the Law and Public Readings (27:1-8, 31:9-13; see also 17:18-20), and the Blessings and Curses (27:9-28:68). It is that last section that most concerns this paper.

Moses’ description of Israel’s curse for violating the covenant is long and almost tedious at first glance. This may be why so many commentators gloss over it. Indeed, most conflate all of the punishments together into a kind of amorphous mass, numbing the ears with their seeming repetitions. However, a more careful reading reveals that far from simply repeating itself, the curse actually gives a very specific timeline marked by three very distinct events. The first is exile to another land:

The LORD will bring you, and your king whom you shall set over you, to a nation that you have not known, you nor your fathers; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone. You shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all the peoples where the LORD shall lead you away. (Deu. 28:36-37)

This specific prophecy was fulfilled in 586 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, laid siege the third and final time to Jerusalem. At the conclusion of the siege, he “put out the eyes of [King] Zedekiah and bound him with bronze fetters and brought him to Babylon” (2Ki. 25:7) along with all but the meanest remnant of the rest of the kingdom (vv. 11-12).

The second prophecy is often jumbled with the first:

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far, from the end of the earth, as the eagle flies; a nation whose language you shall not understand; a nation of fierce facial expressions, that shall not respect the person of the old, nor show favor to the young, and shall eat the fruit of your livestock, and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; that also shall not leave you grain, new wine, or oil, the increase of your livestock, or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish. They shall besiege you in all your gates, until your high and fortified walls come down, in which you trusted, throughout all your land; and they shall besiege you in all your gates throughout all your land, which the LORD your God has given you. (Deu. 28:49-52)

Scholars are divided as to the identity of this second nation. Keil and Delitzsch write, “This description no doubt applies to the Chaldeans, who are described as flying eagles in Hab. 1:6., Jer. 48:40; Jer. 49:22; Eze. 17:3, Eze. 17:7, as in the verses before us; but it applies to other enemies of Israel beside these, namely to the great imperial powers generally, the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Romans . . .” Calvin likewise ascribed this prophecy to the Chaldeans. The Ramban, on the other hand, saw the Romans in this description and that of the siege that follows, while the Talmud records a tradition that Alexander the Great saw himself in this prophecy (b.Sukkah 51b).

However, there is good reason to understand that the prophecy refers to the Greeks or the Romans—or both—rather than the Babylonians. First of all, the prophecy here follows that of Israel being taken into captivity by “a nation,” that is, the Babylonians and, as we will see, the prophecy is most specific about the order of events. Therefore, an enemy nation after the Babylonians must be in view. Secondly, verse 49 is specific that this second nation would be one “whose language you shall not understand.” Aramaic, which was spoken by the Chaldeans, is a sister-language to Hebrew, much as Spanish is to Italian, and many Jews spoke both. Greek and Latin, on the other hand, come from a completely different language family and would indeed be different enough from Hebrew for Moses to use that difference to mark out the second nation.2

Towards the end, the curse speaks of second exile, this one of quite different character from the first:

It shall happen that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you, so the LORD will rejoice over you to cause you to perish, and to destroy you; and you shall be plucked from off the land where you go in to possess it. The LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from the one end of the earth even to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, which you have not known, you nor your fathers, even wood and stone. Among these nations you shall find no ease, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot: but the LORD will give you there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and pining of soul; and your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. (Deu. 28:63-66)

Note the distinctions: The first exile was to a single nation, the second to “among all peoples, from one end of the earth even to the other.” The Babylonian exile provided a period of stability for the Jews so taken, so that Jeremiah encouraged them,

Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat their fruit. Take wives, and father sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there, and don’t be diminished. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you shall have peace. (Jer. 29:5-7)

This second exile, Moses tells us by the word of the Lord, would have no such peace, nor any sure place for the Jew to call his own, nor any safety provided by the kings who would rule over the Jews. And indeed, this is precisely the exile that has played out for the last two thousand years of Jewish history, with the Jews being allowed to settle in a nation for a time, but then being driven out at the whim of some future ruler (often one who was deeply in debt). All this culminated in the Holocaust, when indeed the Jew’s life hung in doubt before him; and he feared night and day, and had no assurance of his life.

I don’t often post pictures from the Shoah–they make me too angry. But I will because there are still too many people in the world who think that the Holocaust was a lie, but also that it’s a good idea.

So then, we have a clear outline of events: First, God would curse Israel in her own land (vv. 20-35). Then, he would cause a single, specific nation to carry Israel and her king into exile (vv. 36-37). Then Israel would return to the land, but not prosper (vv. 38-48). Then another nation would swoop down on the land like an eagle, and besiege its cities (vv. 49-62). And finally, there would be a second exile, this time throughout the whole world, in which unlike the Babylonian exile, the Jew would find no place to rest and no safety (vv. 63-68).

All of these punishments are given as a single, unified curse. Deu. 30:1 reads, “It shall happen, when all these things have come on you, the blessing and the curse . . . (Heb. haq’lalah, הקללה, which indeed employs the definite article ha-). When Paul speaks of “the curse of the Torah” in Gal. 3:13 (tes chataras tou nomou, της καταρας του νομου), he is not calling the Torah a curse (cf. Rom. 7:12-13), but rather referring to the same singular and specific curse as Deu. 30:1. He also quotes Deu. 27:26 in Gal. 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who doesn’t continue in all things that are written in the scroll of the Torah, to do them.’” In all cases, the singular and specific nature of the curse is underlined by the text.

Understanding that both exiles were covered under a single, unified curse destroys the popular conception that the Jews were cursed for rejecting Jesus as their savior. On the contrary, careful exegesis of “the curse of the law” proves that the nation had been laboring under the curse for at least seven hundred years. KingManassehAccording to 2Ki. 21, it was pronounced during the reign of the wicked king Manasseh, who filled Jerusalem with idolatry and blood from one end to the other:

The LORD spoke by his servants the prophets, saying, “Because Manasseh king of Judah has done these abominations, and has done wickedly above all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols; therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I bring such evil on Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears shall tingle. I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab; and I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will cast off the remnant of my inheritance, and deliver them into the hand of their enemies. They will become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies; because they have done that which is evil in my sight, and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came forth out of Egypt, even to this day.’” (vv. 10-15)

Even the reforms of Josiah could not turn back the curse, but could only forestall its effects for the duration of his reign (22:14-20).

What this means is that, contrary to common Christian interpretation, the Jewish people were not cursed because we rejected Yeshua. On the contrary, we had already been under the curse of the law for over seven hundred years before Yeshua came! In fact, I believe we will see that the rejection of Yeshua by all but a minority of Jews was the result of the curse, not the cause of it!

This should be a delightfully controversial series, but I hope you’ll find it rewarding and insightful.


1 See, for example, George E. Mendenhall, “Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East, “ The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. XVII No. 2 (May, 1954), retrieved from on May 29, 2013.

2 It is true, on the other hand, that Jer. 5:15 refers to the Babylonians as “a nation whose tongue you do not know.” As Calvin remarks (to Deu. 28:49), “the Prophets were careful to take their form of expression from Moses, lest the Jews should, according to their custom, proudly despise the threats which God had interwoven with His Law.”

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