by Hugh Nibley
from an address
given in March 1982 in St. George, Utah
The reward it promises explicitly and repeatedly is success—prosperity and long life in the new land of promise.
One looks in vain for direct promises of eternal life and exaltation. That is why the early Nephites knew that salvation did not come by the law of Moses, but they followed it to the letter because they could not receive higher law on any other conditions; it pointed their minds forward.
But Deuteronomy definitely is the plan, guide, and handbook for "success" in this world.
The first rule, and one never to be forgotten, is that everything you have or ever will have is a gift from God — you owe it all to him.
All persons are equal to him, and he cannot be bought. How can you make a deal with him when you have nothing to offer? "Behold, everything in heaven and earth belongs to him" (Deuteronomy 10:14).
The first thing the Israelites are to do when they have settled in their new land is to hold a ceremony in which they are to recite these verses:
"Ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: and the Egyptians afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. We called upon the Lord . . . and he heard us. . . . He brought us forth out of the land of Egypt . . . with signs and wonders, and he brought us to this place and gave us a land flowing with milk and honey" (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)All of those words denote a displaced person, a vagabond, a starving wanderer, a homeless outcast moving among wicked and haughty people. It was from such a condition, "ready to perish," that God raised them up.
The great gathering and feasts, all have the same purpose, to remind the Israelites that everything they had was a free gift from God.
In holding these solemn conferences, "you and yours — sons, daughters, servants, strangers, orphans, widows must all come together and rejoice and be happy," as one big happy family. That is the spirit in which this must be done, and that is the spirit of the law of consecration and the United Order.
This is to show where we stand with each other and the Lord. Thus in the Feast of the Tabernacles at the harvest, all must share, all rejoice together as one family.
Moses reminds the people that they are about to settle down not in the lush Nile valley, but in the hill country that depends on the rains for life, "the rain of heaven"—a free gift (Deuteronomy 11:11-17).
What is more, God has given good things to other nations also, some of them weaker than Israel, and all of them hostile.
Those gifts of God to others are to be strictly respected. He tells them, let no one interfere with the gifts God chooses to bestow on others!
The second point Moses insists on is that Israel has not earned the good things they enjoy.
Beware, he says, "lest when you have eaten and are full, . . . and your silver and gold has piled up along with everything else," beware of getting the idea that you earned it.
Furthermore, the Israelites are not to get the idea that because the Lord has turned out other people to give them the land, it is because of their righteousness, or that victory in the field has come to them as a reward of virtue (Deuteronomy 9:4).
He tells them that it was not because they are righteous, but because the others were wicked; he had a score to settle with them and would have smitten them whether Israel had been anywhere around or not (1 Nephi 17:33-38).
"Understand therefore, that Jehovah thy God is giving you this good land, not as a reward of righteousness, because you are not righteous; you are a stiffnecked people" (Deuteronomy 9:6).
Again and again Moses hammers home the point: Don't get the idea that you are the good people and your enemies are the bad people.
All Have a Right to Whatever They Need
The third rule is that since God is giving it all away free to everyone, regardless of all other circumstances, everyone has a right to whatever he needs to live on.
Thus if you have taken a man's coat for security, you must return it to him by sundown, because he needs it to wear or to sleep in. Whether he has paid up or not has nothing to do with it. If you feel short-changed, "Jehovah your God will give you credit," so don't worry (Deuteronomy 24:13).
Under no circumstances can you take for a pledge or security a millstone or anything else upon which a person's livelihood depends (Deuteronomy 24:6).
In passing through anyone's vineyard, you may help yourself to whatever you can eat, but you may not carry off any in a container. If the owner denies you what you need, he is greedy; if you take more than you need, then you are greedy (Deuteronomy 23:24).
As Paul also reminds us, it was when the people of Sodom and Gomorrah denied passing strangers and even the birds of heaven their share of the fruit on the trees that Abraham cursed them in the name of his God.
According to the Midrash, their sexual aberrations were second in wickedness to such meanness of spirit.
And what does God ask us to do to requite his goodness? The basic rule of his economy is that he is just and equitable:
"He doth execute the judgment for the orphan and the widow, and he loves the stranger and wants him to be provided with food and clothing. Therefore, you must do the same: love the stranger—remember that you too were strangers [and were oppressed] in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).Yes, we are to imitate God's freedom and bounty, to be as free with the substance he has given us as he is in giving it to us. He lets his rain fall upon the just and the unjust. He was good to you though you were disobedient; so when you give to others, never ask whether they deserve it.
And in all of this, Israel is being put to the test: the Feast of the Weeks requires "a tribute of a freewill offering of thine hand." The offering is required—it is tribute, but the amount is freewill; you determine it yourself, on the basis of how much the Lord has given you.
But though we must be kind to each other, we are not to go into debt with each other. God wants us to be in debt to him alone and not to each other.
This raises a problem to which the law of Moses provides the only possible solution. It is almost impossible in the world's economy to pay off a debt without incurring more debt. Young people optimistically expect to work off their indebtedness, naively overlooking their helplessness in the hands of creditors, who can always decide how much their work is worth to them. And so we find ourselves strapped.
Get out of debt! we are told, but go into business! How do you do both? We hear both themes at the Credit Union banquets: "Don't borrow," the speakers tell us, "but please do your borrowing from us."
God gives Israel the solution to the dilemma. Do not decide these things on the basis of your own self-interest; someone must draw the line and say, "Here this business of depending on each other must stop."
Before all things, we are told today that Latter-day Saints must be independent. It is only by the law of "the Lord's release" that the massive logjam that paralyzes the world today can be broken: every seven years all debts are canceled (Deuteronomy 15:2).
To us it appears laughable. But God absolutely insists upon it.
Every seven years you must make a release (Deuteronomy 15:1). After six years of service, any and all Hebrew servants must go absolutely free no matter what you paid for them (Deuteronomy 15:12). And you can not turn them out into the world: "Thou shalt not let him go away empty" (Deuteronomy 15:13).
A week's severance pay? Not at all. Again, "thou shalt furnish him liberally out of whatsoever the Lord thy God hath blessed thee" (Deuteronomy 15:14). But he is not holding you to any specific figure—that is up to you. That is the whole idea.
When men receive gifts from each other, they become dependent upon each other; and jealousy and meanness follow. The judicial order in Israel must rest on absolute fairness without respect of person.
"Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons; neither take a gift: for a gift does blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the righteous" (Deuteronomy 16:19).Note well, it is not only the foolish who are blinded or the wicked who are perverted — when we start passing the gravy around, it is even the wise who are blinded and the righteous who are perverted.
The key to all this is the spirit in which it is done and which alone can make it workable. The first and most common word in every decree is, surprisingly, love.
The question is never raised, "Will this work, is it practical, is it sensible, is it realistic?"
Quite the contrary, the main question always is whether people feel good about serving him:
"O that there were such a heart in them, that they would really feel it, that they would fear me, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:26).God feels for us and worries about us. His concern for our welfare is far greater than our own. Again and again a special command is introduced with the words of the first great commandment and the second follows hard upon: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, . . . soul, . . . might".
This is the main theme of Deuteronomy, and it is an admonition against that very legalism which later became the obsession of the rabbis as well as our own society.
But how can a law of love be legislated or enforced?
Simply by the society's becoming completely immersed in it — the law is not only in your heart, it is written all over your person, marked in your manner and your appearance. This shall be ingrained in the consciousness of everyone in a natural, even unconscious, manner.
Now comes the most important part of the business.
We have no laws requiring a man to be generous or penalizing meanness of spirit, for the obvious reason that no one can know exactly what is in another's heart. But God knows, and he does require these things. You shall not only give to the poor man, but you should do it magnanimously.
But that is not all! It is not enough to do merely what you are told, you must do it in the right spirit without any mental reservations.
In this case you are not supposed to calculate how near the day of the Lord's release is. Let us say it is only ten days away, which means that if I loan him something, he won't ever have to pay it back. Leave the computer and the calculating alone!
Remember, a gift given grudgingly is a curse on the giver.
The respect for human dignity and the feelings of others always have priority on other claims. It is always the spirit that counts.
The celebrations in which everyone is generous and open-handed in recognition of God's bounty are joyous affairs. All come together and rejoice and be happy as one big happy family. That is the spirit in which this must be done, and that is the spirit of the law of consecration and the United Order.
From all of this we see that the one thing God will not tolerate in his children is that meanness of spirit which would take advantage of his other children and even of him.
"Thou shalt not sacrifice unto the Lord . . . any bullock, or sheep with any blemish or fault whatever or any evil-favoredness: for that is an abomination" (Deuteronomy 17:1). Why? Because it is cheap, it is mean, the equivalent of shaving one's tithing or underestimating one's fast offering.
As Brigham Young said so often, God has put these things into our hands so that we can show him and all the world and ourselves how we will handle them and what we will do with them.
It is meanness of spirit that before everything else will disqualify us for a celestial assignment. No double bookkeeping, says the Lord. Do not "carry diverse measures with you or keep such in your house; . . . such little tricks and strategies of business to maximize profits are an abomination" (Deuteronomy 25:13-16).
Those habits of thrift that were taught me as shining virtues by my Scottish forebears can easily lead to meanness. We have the famous law of the gleaning: "When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgotten a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it," It is not yours anymore: "It shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow" (Deuteronomy 24:19).
Don't worry, the Lord will bless you for it. In beating the olive trees, "thou shalt not go over the boughs again" (Deuteronomy 24:20); granted that this is sound business practice, it is nonetheless forbidden.
When you gather grapes in the vineyard, "thou shalt not glean it afterward" (Deuteronomy 24:21); it is for the disadvantaged.
The usual explanation is given for all this: "Never forget that you were a bondsman in Egypt" (Deuteronomy 24:22).
Mention of processing olives and grapes brings up the word "extortion"; the literal meaning of the word "is to squeeze the last drop out of a thing." The gifts of God, we are told, which are the bounties of the earth, are to be used "with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion" (D&C 59:20). How often it is that these last drops mean the extra profit we so eagerly pursue.
And now comes one of the most famous passages in the Bible: "For the poor shall never cease out of the land" (Deuteronomy 15:11). We have given this a rather mean twist today, arguing that since the poor will always be there, it is a waste of time to help them, for that will only encourage them and make more of them.
Thus we ignore the rest of the verse (I have never heard anyone quote it), which is: "Therefore I command thee, saying thou shalt open up thy hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land" (Deuteronomy 15:11). Their perpetual presence is not to make us indifferent, but it is a constant reminder that God has his eye on us.
What we are warned against more than anything else is taking advantage of those who are disadvantaged. A list of things is given for which people are told they will be cursed. Of the nine specific crimes, all but one—the worship of graven images—are in the nature of taking advantage of weaker parties: holding one's aged father or mother in contempt; removing a neighbor's landmark (while he is not looking); taking advantage of a blind person, taking advantage of strangers, orphans, and widows with the help of lawyers; incest; striking anyone off guard.
The most common way of taking advantage of another's need is loaning money at interest, and this is strictly forbidden, though it is the cornerstone of our present-day economy (Deuteronomy 23:19).
But even more effective is the iron law of wages, which forces a worker to accept the lowest possible pay from you because he is desperate for work — as long as his labor brings you a profit, you will continue to hire him; when it doesn't, you let him go. And in all this, you pose as his benefactor.
The question arises, Are these laws realistic? Are they workable in the modern world? No!
They are very special laws given to very special people. They are simply fantastic as far as the world is concerned. But that is just the point, says the Lord. The people of the world are not good enough to be my people.
"I have called you out of the world." You are something different from the world — holy, set apart, chosen, special — peculiar.
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