The Rhetorical Power of Deut 1-3

As part of my research into missional-ethics I’m doing some exegetical work in Deuteronomy 1-11. I came across a quote yesterday that I thought was so good I simply had to share. It’s from an essay by Susan Slater on the rhetorical force of the historical prologue in Deut 1-3 (full citation available on request!).In Deut 1-3 the history of Israel’s journey through the wilderness and to the edge of the promised land is recounted. One of the interesting features is the tendency to use ‘we’ and ‘you’ to refer to the generation addressed. Most of them were of course not even a twinkle in their Daddy’s eye, but Moses deliberately connects them with what’s gone before. Why? Here’s Slater on the rhetorical power of the section:

“The rhetoric of these chapters [Deut -1-3] is not so much propositional as experiential. Deut 30:19-20 says “I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life that you may prosper in the land.” Deuteronomy 1-3 does not say this. Rather, it brings readers through the experience of disobedience and death, fidelity and prosperous life, and sets them before the moment of decision to enter the land in obedience to the LORD’s command. It offers the identity required to hear the law and understand the urgency of its imperative, while at the same time reminding readers that this imperative is addressed to them in their own present circumstances, and not in some far off long ago. Identification with the people positions readers to hear the law addressed to Israel in Deuteronomy, while awareness of their own context positions readers to respond faithfully in their own time and place.”

Good, no! Perhaps it’s just me!

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4 thoughts on “The Rhetorical Power of Deut 1-3

  1. Good question! On Deut 1-3 I think it means you want to make people feel the pain of disobedience and the challenge of trust so that they feel themselves the need to choose this day – go for the emotions, more than just historical info.
    On preaching more generally I think it’s a helpful pointer in the direction of speech-act theory – texts don’t just give information they call for response – that is they can be performative and transformative. So you keep asking what does the author intend our response to be to this – what should this do to me? So it’s not simply ‘here’s some interesting information from history which I’ll now drag along the bridge of culture to apply to you.’ It’s what is the perlocutionary effect this passage should have on me – what should I feel or what should I do as a response? The warning passages in Hebs are a good example – don’t get your knickers in a twist about whether the elect can fall away – the intended perlocution is for hearers to heed the warning and not harden their hearts. For me most of this stuff reminds me that our preaching needs to be more than merely propositional. It shouldn’t be less but it needs to also be experiential – keep asking what’s the rhetorical force of the text seeking to achieve in the hearers and work toward re-creating that end. Does that help?

    1. Yes! Helpful. But hard work… And the last time I read the work “perlocutionary” was in a very insightful little volume called ‘The Power of Pentecost’

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