Biblical Commentary

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28



The book of Deuteronomy opens by saying: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan” (1:1). Moses recalled something of their history, including their wilderness years—years spent wandering because of their unfaithfulness to Yahweh—as well as an account of the defeat of Kings Sihon and Og (1:1 – 3:22). He then recounted seeing the Promised Land from Mount Pisgah. Moses asked Yahweh to be allowed to cross over into the Promised Land, “But Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes, and didn’t listen to me” (3:26)—in other words, Yahweh denied Moses entry into the Promised Land because of the sins of the Israelites.

In chapter 4, Moses told the Israelites to “listen to the statutes and to the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that you may live, and go in and possess the land which Yahweh, the God of your fathers, gives you” (4:1). He also charged them to “make them known to your children and to your children’s children” (4:9).

In chapter 5, Moses recited the Ten Commandments, given originally in Exodus 17. He concluded chapter 5 by saying, “You shall observe to do therefore as Yahweh your God has commanded you: you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way which Yahweh your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (5:32-33).

In chapter 6, Moses gave the Israelites the commandment that would become known to Jews as the Shema—a commandment that summarizes the demands of the first two of the Ten Commandments—a commandment that calls them to internalize the commandments, so that the commandments, once written on stone tablets, would be written on their hearts (6:6). He also commands them once again to teach this commandment to their children (6:7a) and to take specific measures to remember the commandments (6:7b-9).

In chapters 6-11, Moses appeals to the Israelites to be faithful to Yahweh and gives a rationale for doing that. These chapters serve as an introduction to the more detailed giving of the law that Moses outlines in chapter 12-26.


18Therefore you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes. 19You shall teach them your children, talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. 20You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates; 21that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.

This paragraph has extensive parallels with Deuteronomy 4 and 6:7-12.

“Therefore you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes (v. 18). The parallel verse in chapter 6 is 6:8, which says, “You shall bind (these words) for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes.”

This verse gave rise to the wearing of phylacteries (also known as tefillin), which are small leather boxes containing verses of scripture (usually Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; and Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21). Typically, when attending to his prayers, a Jewish male would affix a small scripture box to his left arm and a larger scripture box to his forehead. These would serve as reminders to him of the core beliefs of his faith—and would also serve as witnesses to his faith to those who might see him.

While phylacteries might seem odd to us, they served a religious education purpose in the same way that stained glass windows or Stations of the Cross do in Christian churches.

“You shall teach them to your children” (v. 19a). The parallel verse in chapter 6 is 6:7, which says, “teach (these words) diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

Another parallel appears in 4:9b-10: “Make them known to your children and your children’s children… that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.”

I must mention a concern here. In many churches today, Biblical instruction for children is relegated to a distant back seat. Pastors and worship committees focus first on worship schedules and then tuck in Sunday school wherever it will interfere least. Many churches provide little (if any) teacher training, and sometimes emphasize entertainment-oriented activities over actual instructional time.

Also, publishers of children’s curriculum often fail to produce materials that help children to make sense of the Biblical story. One major publisher presents Biblical stories, but groups them in accord with artificial themes rather than in accord with Biblical chronology—a bit of the Old Testament one week and a bit of the New Testament the next. The themes (such as “We Choose God”) often have little meaning to the children, who are left trying to figure out how last week’s lesson on Daniel relates to the next week’s lesson on the Widow’s Mite.

Our failure to teach our children the Bible is one of the several reasons that mainline denominations are in decline. Churches that fail to teach their children the Bible deserve to wither away. Failure to teach children the Bible constitutes ecclesiastical malpractice.

Let me also comment about adult Bible studies. The next time someone tells you that they are involved in a Bible study, ask what they are studying. You will find that few are actually studying the Bible. In most cases, they are studying a book by Philip Yancey or another popular author. While Yancey and other popular authors provide an important service, substituting their work for the study of God’s word constitutes unfaithful discipleship.

“talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way” (v. 19b). The technical word for this kind of expression is “merism.” A merism is a pair of contrasting words (such as near and far) used to express totality. In that example, “near and far” mean “everywhere.” In this verse, “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way” means “wherever you are.”

“when you sit in your house.” We need to persuade parents that Christian education begins at home. We need to encourage them to read Bible stories to their children, preferably from age appropriate Bible story books.

We need to have good children’s Bible story books in our church libraries—and lists of such books with places where they can be ordered online (such as Christian Book Distributors or Amazon)—and some idea of prices.

We need to give children age-appropriate Bibles, such as the NIV Adventure Bible, when they are in third or fourth grade—and regular Bibles when they start high school.

We need to encourage parents to pray with their children on a regular basis—and to say grace at the table.

“and when you walk by the way.” When the parents bring their children to church, we need to have excellent Sunday school classes and youth groups. In both cases, we need to have an appropriate mix of fun activities (so they will want to keep coming) and good, solid Biblical education (so they will have something to guide them in their daily lives).

“and when you lie down, and when you rise up” (v. 19c). This is another merism, which means “whatever your state or condition.”

In other words, this verse calls for us to devote all-consuming attention to talking about God and the commandments. Those are appropriate subjects of conversation wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

“You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates (v. 20). The parallel verse in chapter 6 is 6:9, which says, “You shall write (these words) on the door posts of your house, and on your gates.”

This verse gave rise to the mezuzah, which is similar in purpose to the phylactery. A mezuzah is a small metal device containing the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) which is affixed to a doorpost.

It is possible to misuse any spiritual discipline, and that happened with phylacteries. Jesus told his disciples to practice what the scribes and Pharisees taught, but not to do what they do—for “all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad, enlarge the fringes of their garments, and love the place of honor at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ by men” (Matthew 23:5-7).

“that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth (v. 21). The parallel verse in chapter 6 is 6:2, which says, “that you might fear Yahweh your God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, you, and your son, and your son’s son, all the days of your life; and that your days may be prolonged.”

Another parallel is found in 4:40: “You shall keep (God’s) statutes, and his commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land, which Yahweh your God gives you, forever.”

“that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children (v. 21a). The promise to the faithful is a long life.

At this early date, the Jewish people have no concept of resurrection. For them, life equates to longevity and eternal life is something lived out through one’s children. Thus they would have thought of the promise of this verse as lengthy lives on this earth rather than in the heavenly realm.

As time passed, this would change. By Jesus’ time, some people (such as the Pharisees) believed in resurrection, but others (such as the Sadducees) did not (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18).


These verses aren’t in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. They constitute Yahweh’s promise to drive out the current inhabitants of the Promised Land so that Israel might occupy it. “No man shall be able to stand before you: Yahweh your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread on, as he has spoken to you” (v. 25.)

But the promise is conditional—valid only “if you shall diligently keep all this commandment which I command you, to do it, to love Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, and to cling to him” (v. 22).


26Behold, I set before you this day a blessing (Hebrew: berakah) and a curse (Hebrew: qelalah): 27the blessing, if you shall listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God, which I command you this day;28and the curse, if you shall not listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known.

“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing (berakah) and a curse” (qelalah) (v. 26). Moses gives the Israelites a stark choice—blessing or curse. This reflects what some Biblical scholars call a Deuteronomistic view of history. According to that view, reflected in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings, faithfulness to Yahweh leads to prosperity/life and unfaithfulness leads to poverty/death. In those seven books, there are numerous examples of this principle. However, the dominant theme is not faithfulness but unfaithfulness—not life but death. While those books report instances where the people are faithful and prosper, they more often explain why things have gone badly for Israel.

The word berakah has to do with a blessing bestowed by one person upon another. In Hebrew Scripture, it most often refers to a blessing bestowed by God on the righteous (Baker & Carpenter, 167).

There are several words that are typically translated “curse” in the Old Testament. The one that is used here is qelalah, “denotes harm, but mainly as abuse or disrespect” (Thistleton, 811). “Jeremiah used several other words in close connection with this one to describe the undesirable nature of this word: reproach, proverb, taunt, curse, hissing, desolation, and imprecation (Jer. 24:9, 25:18; 42:18)” (Baker & Carpenter, 997).

The prophets reinforce this understanding of the linkage between conduct and consequences (Isaiah 1:19-20; Jeremiah 4:1-2; 31:16; 32:16-25; Zechariah 6:15). The book of Proverbs also points out the linkage between wise or foolish behavior and good or bad outcomes.

This view of cause and effect is easy to understand, and it embodies a truth that tends to validate it. We all know Godly people whose Godly living has brought them some sort of prosperity. While they might or might not be rich, there is a solid, settled, optimistic quality to their lives that we would all like to emulate. We have also seen people bring ruin upon themselves by living ungodly lives.

However, we also know Godly people who have suffered more than their fair share, and we also know ungodly people who have prospered far above anything that they deserve. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes wrestle with exceptions to the Deuteronomistic view, as do some of the Psalms (10; 13; 44; 73).

But we also need to acknowledge that the Deuteronomistic understanding of history is intended to apply primarily to the nation of Israel rather than to individuals. It is the people of Israel who stand to gain or lose based on their faithfulness to Yahweh’s commandments.

The New Testament does a great deal to modify the view that faithfulness leads to prosperity in this world. Jesus says:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

“Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you”(Matthew 5:11-12).

“But many who are first will be last; and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

“If anyone comes to me, and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he can’t be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t bear his own cross, and come after me, can’t be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).

Jesus tells of a rich man who said, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry”—but God replied, “You foolish one, tonight your life is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?” Jesus concludes, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:19-21).

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) tells us that those who are rich in this world might very well find themselves on the wrong side of the chasm in the next world—and those who are poor in this world might well find themselves in the bosom of Abraham in the next world.

So as we preach on these verses from Deuteronomy, we need to deal faithfully with the tension between their promise and the reality that life is sometimes not as simple as these verses appear to make it.

“the blessing, if you shall listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God, which I command you this day (v. 27). The commandments about which Moses is speaking are found in chapters 12-26 of the book of Deuteronomy. First and foremost are commandments having to do with faithfulness to Yahweh—destroying pagan shrines (12:1-12)—worshiping Yahweh only at the prescribed place and in the prescribed manner (12:13-28)—and avoiding idolatry (12:29-13:18) and pagan practices (14:1-21).

“and the curse, if you shall not listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God” (v. 28a). We prefer talking about blessings instead of cursings, but both Old and New Testaments make it clear that the faithful are to receive blessings and the unfaithful are to be accursed. If our preaching is to be faithful, we must acknowledge both the possibility of blessings and cursings.

“but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known (v. 28b). Chapters 12-26 include many commandments, but (as noted above in the comments on v. 27) first and foremost are those having to do with faithfulness to Yahweh.

Chapters 27 and 28 of the book of Deuteronomy outline in great detail the blessings and curses that the Israelites can expect to experience based on their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to Yahweh’s commandments.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan