(10) Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength – Deuteronomy 6:5

It would be good to report that the Israelites wholeheartedly embraced the covenant that God made with them and kept to its conditions, but unfortunately they did not. Even as Moses was receiving the ten commandments on Mt Sinai the people were making idols and worshipping them. They constantly complained about their lot in the desert and moaned that life had been better in Egypt, forgetting the fact that they had been slaves. Despite all that, God provided them with food and water and led them towards the promised land, where they could live as a secure, independent nation.

When they got to the borders of the land they sent in twelve spies, whose job was to scout out the terrain and identify its strengths and weaknesses. The spies returned with a good account of the land, and its plentiful supply of food, but ten of them focused on the people who they saw as powerful giants, living in large, strongly fortified cities. They had seen God defeat the Egyptian army without them needing to lift a sword, but they did not believe that they could take the land that God had promised them. Only two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, encouraged the people to go up and fight but the pessimistic message of the ten won the day and the people refused to go and turned on Moses. God responded by saying that he would raise up a new generation to take the land and the people were condemned to spend the next forty years wandering in the desert. During that time all those over twenty, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, would die in the desert while a new generation would grow up to take their place.

The narrative skips over these forty years – there is a 38 year gap between Numbers chapter 19 and 20 – and the account picks up with the new generation ready to go and take the land in obedience to God’s promise. Moses, who is now 120, knows that he will not be the one to lead the people into the land – that honour falls to the faithful spy Joshua – and he leaves the people with a series of speeches in the book of Deuteronomy, which means ‘Repetition of the Law’. This repeats a lot of the material in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but what comes through is the heart of Moses for the people that he has led through what he calls the ‘”vast and dreadful wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:19) for forty years. After so many failures they are ready to take the land and so he urges the people to follow God and keep his laws, the road to true happiness.

Moses does get to see the land of Canaan from the vantage point of Mt Nebo, a mountain to the east of the Dead Sea, before he dies. Despite his age “his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deuteronomy 34:7) and a footnote to the final chapter of Deuteronomy reflects on the unique place that Moses had in the birth of God’s people as a nation, “For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12).

The cry of Moses’ heart for the people he led can be heard in the statement in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The importance of these words is recognised by the Jews (they call this passage the ‘Shema’, meaning ‘Hear’ from the first word in Hebrew and regularly use it in their worship) and it was quoted by Jesus as the greatest of all the commandments. He said that the second greatest was to “Love your neighbour as yourself” which is from Leviticus 19:18 and that “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).

Moses urges the people to take the Lord’s commandments to heart. They are to talk about them regularly, write them on their door frames where they would see them regularly and pass them on to their children. Above all, they are to carefully obey them as that is the path to peace and prosperity. We do well to follow this great man’s advice.

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