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The Standard Interpretation

The NASB translates Deuteronomy 30:11-14 as follows:

“For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

Clearly the NASB translators felt that Moses was speaking of the listeners' present internalization of the commandment.

The Argument for a Future-orientation

I am beginning to question whether this is correct, though. I am wondering if this could actually be forward-pointing, for several reasons:

  • The context leading up to this statement is future-oriented;

"So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you" -v.1
"then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity" -v.3
"Then the Lord your God will prosper you" -v.9 . . . "if you obey" -v.10 . . . "For this commandment which I command you today is not [will not be-?] too difficult for you" -v.11

  • Verse 6 describes this future state as a time when God will perform a heart-change in them, which would seem to be necessary before the commandment could actually be "in" them;

Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. -v.6

“For this commandment which I command you today is not [will not be-?] too difficult for you, nor is it [will it be-?] out of reach. . . . But the word is [will be-?] very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. -vv. 11, 14

  • We know from other revelation (both OT and NT) that at that particular time their hearts were not circumcised, and (especially if you take the counsel of the NT as authoritative,) the commandment was too difficult for them under the Old Covenant, as they did not have the indwelling of the Spirit of God. For example, Deuteronomy 29:4, which is near the beginning of the same pericope, says the following:

Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.

  • Romans 10:5-8, which I consider equally canonical and authoritative, may be taking Moses' words as pertaining to the New Covenant (not the Old/ Mosaic Covenant.)

Is a Future-orientation Possible?

What is preventing me from feeling any sort of confidence in this possibility is my uncertainty about the Hebrew here. Does the Hebrew1 grammar & syntax allow for a future-oriented interpretation of the text? (e.g. "the word will be . . . in your heart" instead of "the word is in your heart")

If this is an equally valid rendition, why wouldn't the Christian translators of the NASB have gone that route in their interpretation?


1) Feel free to assume the Leningrad Codex has preserved the original wording, so as to avoid the complexities of trying to reconstruct the autograph from scratch in your answer.

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The tense of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is open to debate but is usually taken as the narrative present, with some debating that it could or should be read as future oriented. However, it is drawing a long straw to say that anything written in the future tense is a prophecy, or that a reasonable person would expect it to be a prophecy. Imperative statements are about the future whether given in the present or future tense, so to this extent the passage is future oriented (regardless of tense) but we need a sign of prophetic intent for it to be a prophecy.

As the question points out, Paul uses this passage in Romans 10:5-8 as pertaining to the New Covenant of Jesus. Bruce N. Fisk discusses Paul's reference to the Deuteronomistic passage in his essay 'Synagogue Influence and Scriptural Knowledge Among the Christians of Rome', published in As it is Written, page 158 (Edited by Stanley E. Porter and Christopher D. Stanley). He says of this and other scripture citations that Paul makes, that he diverges from any contextual reading of the Jewish Scriptures, and therefore we should not assume that he was engaging his audience on the level of biblical exegesis. Paul made much use of the Old Testament scriptures, but sometimes did so out of context or by implying a different meaning than the original text conveys.

In this case the translators of the NASB Bible (and also the KJV and the NAB) place Paul's additions to the Deuteronomistic passage in brackets, so that without these additions it is hard to perceive the original as a prophecy of Jesus.

When we look at Deuteronomy 30:11-14 without the benefit of Paul's citation, all we see is a poetic expression of how easy it is to carry out the Lord's commandment - it is not up in the sky or across the sea, but in your mouths and in your hearts. There is nothing here to imply prophecy.

  • I DV'd because the only direct answer to my actual question was an "I believe" statement. I'm specifically asking for guidance on the interpretation of the Hebrew in Deut. – Jas 3.1 Dec 18 '14 at 4:47
  • @Jas3.1 No problem. But in your question, you seem to have been relying on Paul to justify Deuteronomy 30:11-14 as a prophecy. I dealt with Paul's citation, so that Deuteronomy has to be read on its own merits alone. The original text of Deuteronomy seems to be in the present tense, but even changing this to the future tense does not make it a prophecy. Perhaps, I am not assertive enough, whenever I say "I believe," but I believe that hermeneutics is a study where assertion leads to downfall. – Dick Harfield Dec 18 '14 at 5:05
  • That's fine, but why do you say it seems to be in the present tense? And why would such a shift to future tense not make it a prophecy. This is what I'm looking for help on. Explain the Hebrew grammar and syntax which leads to this conclusion. – Jas 3.1 Dec 18 '14 at 17:13
  • I edited the question to emphasize the contextual clues and make Paul's use if it more secondary. – Jas 3.1 Dec 19 '14 at 17:36
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    @Jas3.1 The tense of Deut 30:11-14 is open to debate but is usually taken as the narrative present, with some debating that it could or should be read as future oriented. However, it is drawing a long straw to say that anything written in the future tense IS a prophecy, or that a reasonable person would expect it to be a prophecy. Imperative statements are about the future whether given in the present or future tense, so to this extent the passage is future oriented (regardless of tense) but we need a sign of prophetic intent for it to be a prophecy. – Dick Harfield Dec 19 '14 at 20:14
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Peter Gentry attempts to answer this question in the 2nd edition of his book Kingdom through Covenant. You can read an except from his book here https://equip.sbts.edu/publications/journals/journal-of-theology/the-relationship-of-deuteronomy-to-the-covenant-at-sinai/

Search for Deuteronomy 30:11-14 to jump to his comments specific to this passage. I have copied a pertinent passage below.

A major part of correctly grasping the tension in the plot structure is interpreting the time of Deuteronomy 30:11-14. Is it present or future?

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it (esv).

Frequently commentators view it as present..23 The most obvious pointer to this is the expression “I am commanding you today” (participle plus .wYh1) Nonetheless, all of the clauses or sentences in these verses (11-14) are nominal sentences and have no explicit tense. Recently Steven Coxhead has argued that Deuteronomy 30:11-14 refer solely to the future. He considers the fact that there is no finite verb in the text and as a result the tense is determined by the previous text in vv 1-10.24 Both positions are anchored in the data of the text. How do we decide?

The ancient Near Eastern epic of Gilgamesh relates how in the face of the death of his closest friend he sought answers to the issues of death and life by going across the ocean. Moses, by contrast is saying that the issues of death and life are not that far away. The issues of death and life entail two matters: divine instruction and the loyalty of the heart. In the covenant at Moab, the divine instruction has already been given to them. The only issue preventing blessing and life is the loyalty of the human heart. So the answer is not very far away: it is in our own hearts. The answer is not out there; it is in us. According to Deuteronomy 30:1-10, Israel will obtain a circumcised heart at a future time, and that is why 30:11-14 refers to the future and not to the present. Paul in his exposition in Romans 10 was right.25 Yet when is that future time? In God’s providence, Moses thinks it might be today, i.e., his present, and hence the force of his appeal for the present. Let us remember Deuteronomy 29:29, the meta-comment and the tension in this text: there is a tension in chapters 29-30 between divine sovereignty (i.e., the secret things), when God will give the circumcised heart at a future time, and between human responsibility (i.e., the revealed things), and therefore Moses’ urging in his present, hence today. This, in fact, turns out to be the tension of his entire ministry.

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