This theme is a prominent one in Deuteronomy. Each section we have looked at so far has said something about the heart. Chapters 9-11 bring the theme together. Chapter nine opens with the familiar “Hear, O Israel” (5:1, 6:4, 9:1). The situation for this hearing is “you are to cross over the Jordan today.” And we find the theme of the election of Israel. The reason for the theme of election and the discussion on the heart being interrelated is that not everyone who is chosen externally is also chosen internally. In other words, one can belong to the “Chosen People” without being one of the elect, the chosen, personally. This chapter introduces the word “stubborn” (the Hebrew idiom of “being stiff-necked” = stubborn). This is in the context of talking about many of the times that the people failed (i.e., the golden calf incident is prominent among them).
The task before them is again stressed in terms of facing giants: “dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourselves, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’” (9:1-2). The text continues, “Know therefore today that He who goes over before you as a consuming fire is YHWH your God” (3). Somewhat in contrast with the previous chapter, which stressed destroying the Canaanites little by little and slowly, the text here says, “So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as YHWH has promised you” (3). The conquest of the land in fulfillment was both quick and slow – just read Joshua. How Israel responds to these things will depend on their heart.
Here the heart theme is applied to the election of Israel among the nations: “Do not say in your heart, after YHWH your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that YHWH has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that YHWH is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations…” (4f). The text continues by saying, “YHWH your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people” (6). The text then relates many examples of the stubbornness of the heart of Israel.
There are the general statements of “you provoked YHWH your God to wrath in the wilderness, from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against YHWH” (7). But then we also have the specific examples:
1. Even at Horeb…He was ready to destroy you
The example given is the 40 days and nights when Moses was on the mountain receiving the tablets of the Ten Words and when he came down he found they had made a golden calf. (vv.8-21).
2. “At Taberah also” – this refers to Numbers 11 when the people wanted meat to eat (9:22).
3. “and at Massah” – first time water from the rock in Exo 17 (9:22).
4. “and at Kibroth-hattaavah” – cf. Numbers 11
5. “when YHWH sent you from Kadesh-barnea” (9:23) – this is when they were to enter the land after the spies reported back
Nevertheless, these other examples (#2-5) are given very briefly and just to support the main argument based on the Golden Calf episode that they had stubborn hearts. Thus the discussion of the answer to the Golden Calf episode resumes with verses 9:25-10:5. All of this history, which continues through 10:11 is building up to the climax of 10:12-22.
And Deuteronomy tells us that the answer to a stubborn heart is a circumcised heart: “And now, Israel, what does YHWH your God require of you, but to fear YHWH your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of YHWH, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to YHWH your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet YHWH set His heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For YHWH your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe” (10:12-17).
We should not just “follow our hearts” if they are stubborn hearts, but circumcise our hearts. We are to obey God’s commandments “to love YHWH your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (11:13). But the heart can be deceived: “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them.” (11:16). This is not only true when we think we are in love with ourselves or someone else, but anytime we are in love with anything in creation rather than the Creator God.
Another way to put heart circumcision is to say that the word of God would be “laid up” in the heart. Thus Moses says, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…” (11:18ff). This should sound very familiar.
Remember the Shema?
“Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is one. You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them 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. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (6:4-9).
Deuteronomy is a new law code. Whatever is consistent with the previous ones continues, wherever there is a change in the law you were to follow Deuteronomy. It was added because Israel had a stubborn heart. But it required obedience from the heart. Thus the chapter concludes, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of YHWH your God, which I command you today, and the curse if you do not obey…but turn aside from the way…to go after other gods…” (11:26ff).
For Israel to be able to do the commandments, statutes and rules of Deuteronomy required heart surgery. God commanded them to circumcise their heart. God was right to so command them. Yet the history of Israel would demonstrate that they are unable to do so. But Deuteronomy itself provides the answer to the problem. Deuteronomy 30:6 says, “YHWH your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Later prophets would develop this theme. For example, God said through prophet Jeremiah, as fitting with Deut 11:18, about the new covenant, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33) and “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (32:40).
Another example is the way Ezekiel combined the imagery of the giving of the Spirit with the circumcision of the heart. God said through Ezekiel: “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (11:19) or the more quoted way “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (36:26f).
Thus the one who has the Spirit (that is, the one with a circumcised heart) will want to and be able to do the righteous requirements of God’s law. This new covenant would not consist of written stipulations but it would the law of God would be written on the heart. Thus like Abraham, we are reckoned righteous by faith and so we keep God’s charge, His commandments, His statutes, His laws, from the heart (cf. Gen 26:5, before the law was written).