Saturday Aug 06, 2022

Deuteronomy 28:15-46 - God’s Curses for Disobedience

Deuteronomy 28:15-46 - The Lord’s Cursings

     Having already presented God’s blessings for obedience (Deut 28:1-14), Moses turned to the cursing section of the covenant, saying, “But it shall come about, if you do not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you” (Deut 28:15). The responsibility fell upon Israel to abide by the terms of the covenant. They were to abide by “all His commandments and His statutes”, and failure to do so would bring God’s curses. Earl Radmacher states:

  • "A curse is the opposite of a blessing. It wishes or prays for ill or injury on a person or an object. God cursed the serpent and the ground after the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:14, 17). Jeremiah, in despair, cursed the man who brought news of his birth (Jer 20:14, 15). The seriousness of God’s covenant with His people is illustrated by the threat of a curse on any who violate it (Deut 28:60, 61)."[1]

     The curses would reverse all God’s blessings and would overtake His people wherever they were. Moses wrote:

  • "Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 18 Cursed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in and cursed shall you be when you go out" (Deut 28:16-19).

     What follows in Deuteronomy 28:20-68 spelled out God’s curses in specific detail and were intended to produce a healthy fear in the Israelite who might be tempted to turn away from the Lord and His clear directives. Moses informed his people that the curses would pursue them in stages until they were destroyed (Deut 28:20-22, 24, 45, 48, 51, 61). Daniel Block states, “By means of a seemingly endless catalogue of secondary agents of doom, Moses warns that Yahweh will marshal every conceivable agent of destruction against His people.”[2] God is offering a theological understanding of Israel’s circumstances and experiences should they break their covenant with Yahweh and not abide by His directives.

     Moses gave an overarching summary statement of all God would do to Israel if they pursued evil and forsook Him. Moses said, “The LORD will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken Me” (Deut 28:20). The word send translates the Hebrew verb שָׁלַח shalach which in this passage means to “send out, forth, send on a mission.”[3] The form of the verb is intensive (Piel), which means the curse will be relentless in its pursuit. God’s judgment would come because of Israel’s choice to forsake the Lord and to pursue a life of evil deeds. According to Craigie, “The root cause of the disaster would be forgetfulness; the people would forget God, and in forgetting God they would forget his commandments. Having forgotten the commandments of God, the people would inevitably commit evil deeds and bring upon their own heads disaster. God sends the curse (v. 20a), but man invites it by his deeds (v. 20b).”[4]

     At the beginning of the judgments, Moses said, “The LORD will make the pestilence cling to you until He has consumed you from the land where you are entering to possess it” (Deut 28:21). The pestilence (דֶּבֶר deber) could be something like bubonic plague, which afflicted both people and animals with fever and delirium. This might explain Moses’ next statement, saying, “The LORD will smite you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with fiery heat and with the sword and with blight and with mildew, and they will pursue you until you perish” (Deut 28:22). Blight and mildew refer to attacks on crops, which God brought upon His people during times of judgment (see Amos 4:9; Hag 2:17). Daniel Block states:

  • "In verse 22 Moses becomes more specific, listing seven afflictions with which Yahweh will strike his people. The catalogue of seven afflictions expresses Yahweh’s sovereignty over all agents of death and destruction. The first four entries elaborate on deber in verse 21 and specify diseases at Yahweh’s disposal: wasting disease, fever, inflammation, and scorching heat. The fifth refers to the sword (ḥereb), which functions as shorthand for Israel’s defeat by enemy armies (cf. vv. 25–26), and the last two refer to crop diseases."[5]

     The judgments would include a severe drought upon the Land. Moses said, “The heaven which is over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you, iron. 24 The LORD will make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven it shall come down on you until you are destroyed” (Deut 28:23-24). A bronze sky and iron earth is a picture of impenetrable material which would frustrate the farmer. And the Lord, rather than sending rain that would soften the earth, would only send “powder and dust” upon the land. Eugene Merrill states, “As impervious as these metals are to water and tools, so both the heavens and the earth would be in the day of calamity. The rains would not leak through the skies, nor would the earth be able to be broken up to receive the farmer’s seed. Instead, the heavens would rain down dust, which would only exacerbate an already hopeless situation on the earth.”[6]

     Moving to a picture of military defeat, Moses said, “The LORD shall cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you will go out one way against them, but you will flee seven ways before them, and you will be an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 Your carcasses will be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away” (Deut 28:25-26). Israel would always have enemies, but rather than know victory, God would cause them to know only defeat. Israel, going out against their enemy “one way” speaks of a planned attack. Fleeing seven ways meant their efforts would fail, as they would scramble to “flee seven ways” from the battle. Israel’s choice to separate themselves from God meant they forfeited the Lord’s protection against hostile forces. According to Craigie, “Disobedience to the law of God separated the people from him, and in this state of separation they could not expect to experience the presence of God in the midst of their army; without God in the midst of Israel’s army, defeat was inevitable.”[7] Not only would Israel be an example of terror to surrounding kingdoms, but their dead bodies would be food for wild animals. Merrill states, “Israel would, in fact, become a field of corpses, a banquet for winged and four-footed scavengers that would be free to eat their fill (v. 26). The irony of the contrast between Israel’s feeding off the land (vv. 4–5, 8, 11) and being itself a food supply for carnivorous beasts is inescapable.”[8]The wise Israelite understood, “the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge” (Psa 73:28).

     Moving from military defeat, Moses then describes various skin diseases that would inflict the nation. Moses said, “The LORD will smite you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors and with the scab and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed” (Deut 28:27). Concerning the boils, Earl Kalland states, “The ‘boils of Egypt’ are doubtless the boils of the sixth plague, which so discomfited the Egyptian magicians, as well as all other Egyptians, that they could no longer stand before Moses (Ex 9:9–11). This may have been a form of leprosy known in Egypt.”[9] The reference to tumors (עֹפֶל ophel) could mean hemorrhoids, much like what afflicted the Philistines when they took possession of the Ark (1 Sam 5:6). The scab (גָּרָב garab) was something that irritated the skin, perhaps a rash of some sort. Interestingly, such a skin disease would disqualify a priest from service (Lev 21:18-21), as well as an animal from being sacrificed (Lev 22:20-22). The itch (חֶרֶס cheres) referred to some eruptive disease.

     All of this would have great psychological and social impact on the Israelites, as Moses continued, saying, “The LORD will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart; 29 and you will grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways; but you shall only be oppressed and robbed continually, with none to save you” (Deut 28:28-29). Their mental, emotional, and social condition would make it impossible to function on a daily basis. They would become like a “blind man” who cannot see his way clearly to do anything, and the result will be that they “will not prosper” in any of their activities. Furthermore, there would be none to help, as those around them would only oppress and rob them, and there would be “none to save” them from their troubles. Eugene Merrill writes:

  • "The inclusion of blindness between two states of emotional or psychological disorder suggests that this loss of vision was not physical but metaphorical (cf. Psa 146:8; Isa 29:18; 35:5; 42:7, 16; 43:8; 56:10). The groping about in midday like a blind man (v. 29a) is a simile qualified in the next line, “You will be unsuccessful in everything you do.” The blindness, then, was the incapacity to think clearly or form intelligent judgments. It would lay the ones under the curse open to all kinds of exploitation including oppression…and robbery (v. 29b). Having broken fellowship with the Lord, they would have no one to deliver them from their insanity and its consequences."[10]

Peter Craigie adds:

  • "In broad daylight, the cursed blind man gropes around. He cannot see and does not know how to make himself prosperous, but he can be seen by others; his fumbling ineptitude makes him an easy prey for robbers. Having brought about his sad state through disobedience to the law of God, he is now at the mercy of those who live outside the law, and there is no one to offer help. His fellows are equally cursed, and he has gone too far from God to call for his deliverance."[11]

     Having turned away from the Lord, Israel would no longer enjoy His protections, and this meant what was precious to them would be vulnerable to attack and harm. These included attacks on one’s spouse, home, business, children, and safety from one’s enemies. Moses said:

  • "You shall betroth a wife, but another man will violate her; you shall build a house, but you will not live in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but you will not use its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will not eat of it; your donkey shall be torn away from you, and will not be restored to you; your sheep shall be given to your enemies, and you will have none to save you. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and yearn for them continually; but there will be nothing you can do. 33 A people whom you do not know shall eat up the produce of your ground and all your labors, and you will never be anything but oppressed and crushed continually. 34 You shall be driven mad by the sight of what you see." (Deut 28:30-34)

     Here is a picture of harm by one’s enemies, frustration by helplessness, and eventual despair of soul and madness of mind by the sight of what they will see. They would have no control over their lives but would be perpetual victims of their enemies who take possession of their wives and mistreat them. The fruit of their ground and livestock would be eaten by another, and their children would be forcibly taken and sold into slavery while they looked on in helplessness, and there would be nothing they could do to stop it. The end result was mental madness by what they saw happening to them. All of this was the result of their walking away from the Lord’s protections.

     Revisiting the motif of boils previously mentioned (Deut 28:27), Moses said, “The LORD will strike you on the knees and legs with sore boils, from which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deut 28:35). This disease would cover the whole body, but emphasis seems to be given to the knees, legs, and soles of one’s feet, which would make normal activities very difficult, thus exacerbating one’s efforts to work.

     The judgments also anticipated a time in the future when Israel would have a king over them. Moses said, “The LORD will bring you and your king, whom you set over you, to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone. 37 You shall become a horror, a proverb, and a taunt among all the people where the LORD drives you” (Deut 28:36-37). If Israel turned away from God and refused to serve Him, they would fall victim to slavery in godless nations who served dumb idols of wood and stone. Eugene Merrill states, “Deportation does, however, imply submission, a condition contrary to the exaltation of Israel described in the list of blessings. Rather than being a nation set “high above all the nations” (v. 1), God’s people would lose their children to another nation (v. 32) and would themselves go off into ignominious captivity (v. 36).”[12] Israel’s fallen condition would serve as a horror and proverb to other nations.

     Deuteronomy 28:36 describes how God will bring His people and their king into captivity in a foreign land. Because Israel did not have a king until nearly four centuries after Moses gave the law, it is argued by liberal scholars that Deuteronomy is actually a late book, written around the seventh or fifth centuries B.C. These liberal scholars—who operate on antisupernaturalistic presuppositions—reject the Bible as divinely inspired and treat it as a humanistic book and the events described therein as history rather than prophecy (Lat. vaticinium ex eventu = after the event). However, because the Bible is supernaturally inspired by God, these prophetic statements are not a problem, as God had promised Israel would have a king (Gen 17:6, 16; 35:11; Deut 17:14-20).

     Returning to the judgments, Moses stated that all their efforts at labor and production would be met with futility. Moses said:

  • "You shall bring out much seed to the field but you will gather in little, for the locust will consume it. 39 You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them. 40 You shall have olive trees throughout your territory but you will not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives will drop off. 41 You shall have sons and daughters but they will not be yours, for they will go into captivity. 42 The cricket shall possess all your trees and the produce of your ground." (Deut 28:38-42)

     Again, we have a picture of fruitless labor by the Israelite farmer. Frustration would come as locusts and worms would be used by the Lord to destroy their crops. Even their sons and daughters—who often helped with farming—would be taken away into captivity, further exacerbating their ability to farm. Daniel Block states:

  • "The catalogue of futility curses involves the entire range of ancient Palestinian agricultural activity: fields of grain (v. 38), vineyards (v. 39), olive groves (v. 40), and fruit trees (v. 41). The crop failures are caused by little creatures that Yahweh will send to devour and despoil the crops before they can be harvested. “Locusts” (v. 38) are grass-eating insects that fly in vast swarms and devour everything in sight. “Worms” (v. 39) refers to fruit grubs that attack the grapes. The meaning of “swarms of locusts” (v. 42) is uncertain, but it probably refers to a species of beetle that kills vegetation by attacking leaves or stems."[13]

     Israel would also experience social and economic decline, as Moses said, “The alien who is among you shall rise above you higher and higher, but you will go down lower and lower. 44 He shall lend to you, but you will not lend to him; he shall be the head, and you will be the tail” (Deut 28:43-44). The alien (גֵּר ger) was the one who originally came to Israel to be elevated and blessed, but his low position would become the new standard, not because he was lifted up, but because Israel was brought down to a lower position. Israel would experience economic slavery by being the borrower rather than the lender.

     Moses continued, “So all these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the LORD your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you. 46 They shall become a sign and a wonder on you and your descendants forever” (Deut 28:45-46). The curses would pursue (רָדָף radaphto pursue, chase, persecute) and overtake (נָשַׂג nasag) Israel like a relentless hunter who is tireless in his pursuit to catch and destroy the hunted animal. All of this would happen because Israel refused to walk with the Lord and to keep His commandments. Peter Craigie states, “Disobedience to the word of God would result inevitably in disaster…For a sign and for a wonder—the disasters that would befall the Israelites, if they were disobedient to God, would serve to illustrate the ways of God to other nations, who would be prompted to ask questions when they saw the plight of the Israelites.”[14]


[1] Earl D. Radmacher, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 263.

[2] Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 652.

[3] Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 1019.

[4] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 342.

[5] Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, 653.

[6] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 359.

[7] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 343.

[8] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary, 360.

[9] Earl S. Kalland, “Deuteronomy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 172.

[10] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary, 361.

[11] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 345.

[12] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary, 362.

[13] Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, 657.

[14] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 347.

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