my literature professor defined tragedy as a story whose main character has an opportunity to choose wisely but instead is destroyed because of a fatal flaw. King Lear descends into exile and madness because of vanity. Romeo and Juliet die because they value selfish, sentimental affection over love of family. Anakin Skywalker is transmogrified into Darth Vader by a craving for power. Aristotle said tragedies move us when we can envision ourselves as those characters headed to destruction and see how their flaws are similar to our own.
In many ways, the Old Testament is a tragedy, with the Israelites in a starring role. Nowhere is this more apparent than the book of Deuteronomy. God’s people came to the Jordan’s edge, and their leader Moses offered to them a final helping of wisdom. Knowing how willful they’d been when he oversaw them, he was pessimistic about their willingness to keep God’s commandments after he was gone: “For I know your rebellion and your stubbornness; behold, while I am still alive with you today, you have been rebellious against the Lord; how much more, then, after my death?” (Deut. 31:27).
Moses knew the faithlessness of the Israelites, having sojourned in the desert 40 more years than necessary. He knew as well the faithfulness of God, and this was the crux of the message he spoke to them after laying down the Law. He promised that God stood ready to bless them for their obedience. But God is not Pharaoh; He does not enslave us. He invites us into communion and then lets us choose whether to accept that invitation. And so Moses exhorted the Israelites: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him” (Deut. 30:19-20).
The blessing would be fruitful harvests and abundant offspring. Safety and increase. Primacy over other nations. “The Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you only will be above, and you will not be underneath” (Deut. 28:13).
And if God’s people chose to leave the path? They would be subjugated. Instead of being fruitful for them, the earth would receive their blood and offer little in return. They would live in fear. Their children would be taken away. “The alien who is among you … shall be the head, and you will be the tail” (Deut. 28:43-44). The Israelites who were now poised to enter the Promised Land had seen their parents and grandparents perish in the desert as a consequence of faithlessness; surely it was reasonable to expect they’d make a better go of things. But as we read Deuteronomy, we do so with an eye to Jeremiah—to the coming destruction and captivity.
Two Words That Matter
For most of my Christian life, I couldn’t really identify with Israel’s flaws. I’m a sinner, sure, but making gold idols and committing incest? What kind of terrible people were they? Sitting comfortably in the modern-day audience, I couldn’t imagine myself falling as far as they fell. A terrible consequence of my arrogance and shallow Bible reading was that, for many years, I missed the relevance of Moses’ warning to my own life.
As I’ve reread Deuteronomy, I have found that Moses was speaking not just to stubborn tribesmen with whom I have nothing in common, but directly to my own crooked heart: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in the lack of all things; and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you” (Deut. 28:47-48).
The wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—of all men, of this man—are germinated by ingratitude. This was the fatal flaw Moses espied in his countrymen. Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart for the abundance of all things. He wasn’t saying that God would afflict them out of anger over their inadequate gratitude, but rather that ingratitude would lead to forgetfulness, and then to falling away and depravity.
And is ungratefulness not the modern disease as well—afflicting nations, our churches even, our homes, our children? How many of us hourly give thanks for a day without pain, for safety, a warm bed, a Bible, fellow believers, family, and friends? How often do we meditate on the miracle that is clean water, sunshine on our skin, rain for our gardens, and food in our bellies? How many of us go days and weeks speaking to God only of our lack? For every complaint, we ought fall to our knees tenfold with the simplest of prayers on our lips: Thank You.
Moses urges us to choose life, and this applies not just to what we do, but also to what we see. We can choose to focus on negatives: My health is failing; I don’t have the money to do all I want for my family; I’m unappreciated at work. Those burdens are real, to be sure. But when we choose to remember God’s blessings, we are cultivating grateful hearts, which keeps us close to our Shepherd. Gratitude, in other words, helps safeguard our inclinations. And it’s catching. Each of us can be a beacon—giving praise and thanks at every opportunity and sparking those around us to do the same—or we can spread darkness to the lives of others, through grumbling and complaints. The world already has plenty of darkness. Adding to it? Now that would be a tragedy.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft