Good God, horrible curses?
The beautiful promises and blessings in Scripture get quoted and preached on a lot. The nasty curses? Not so much.
Why does a loving God not just bless, but also curse?
And these aren’t small curses like, “Your kittens will die and there will be no more sunsets.” These curses are saying, “You’ll suffer from terrible abuse and diseases, and you’ll become so desperate even the gentlest among you will eat their own children,” (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).
It’s gross and disturbing. These curses reverberate beyond the individuals who sinned, harming future generations as well (Deuteronomy 28:59). Needless to say, most of Deuteronomy 28 is a pretty uncomfortable read.
Before going further, let’s pause for a second to reorient ourselves in the larger Biblical narrative up until this point. Israel was on the cusp of moving into Canaan. Moses has just preached one of the most intense sermons of all time, reminding the Israelites of how God has provided for them, warning them against rebellion and telling them to love God.
Remember, this generation of Israelites had fled Egypt as children and seen God literally make a path through the sea for them. They’d seen their parents reach the border of Canaan 40 years ago and turn back in fear because the people living there were strong, and they didn’t trust God’s power.
As a result, God said that no one from that generation would get to live in Canaan; instead, they had to wander in the wilderness until that group of people had died (Deuteronomy 1:27-35). During their time in the desert, these children grew up being sustained by bread that fell from the sky and water that came from rocks. For four decades, their clothes and shoes never wore out (Deuteronomy 29:5). The Lord led them with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Deuteronomy 1:32-33)
In both big and small ways, God cared for his people. They learned to depend solely on him for everything. They also lived out the cost of disobedience. Because of their parents’ rebellion, they had to wait a long time to receive the home God had promised them.
But now, the Lord knew that they were on the brink of entering a prosperous land, where they could settle down and become comfortable and rich. The gift he was giving them could also be their downfall. As soon as we humans feel like we’re in control, we stop thinking we need God and begin to either become our own gods or try serving the things we think will keep us in control.
The Lord wants so badly for this not to happen. I can sense the anguish in the words he speaks through Moses; he knows the Israelites will not listen, but he warns them anyway.
“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
He also warns them that if they become corrupt and stop obeying him they will be scattered among many nations, where they will serve idols who cannot save them (Deuteronomy 4:25-31). As part of his warning, God sends certain tribes on a field trip up Mount Ebal.
Picture this: a group of six tribes standing on a mountain yelling out curses at the top of their lungs, directed at people who’ve committed certain misdeeds. Granted, the list is pretty nasty, including murder, incest, bestiality, cruelty and idolatry (Deuteronomy 27:13-26).
But still, it’s a pretty weird picture. Today we know Christians are supposed to love and forgive others, not curse them. Now we find the Israelites reciting curses and responding with a resounding “amen” of affirmation after each curse.
What is going on in this picture?
Well, we see in Deuteronomy 28 that all the terrible stuff described there will occur if the Israelites do not follow God’s good, perfect ways. I think that God gets them to participate in the cursing as a reminder to them that sin will always cause death.
Sin poisons relationships—both with God and other people. It twists what the Lord intended for good and pollutes his creation with evil. Like it or not, evil choices can have terrible effects on the next generation, just as good choices can have positive effects.
For example, babies born during World War I or II experienced terrible conflict due to the evil decisions people made before they were alive. Today, those born of African descent in Britain and the U.S. are born free thanks to the work of anti-slavery movements that came before their time.
I think God spends so much time talking about the terrible consequences of sin in this chapter because he desperately wants his people to turn to him and trust him instead.
“Oh that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep my commandments always, so that it might go will with them and their children forever!” —Deuteronomy 5:29
The Lord’s blessings are wonderful (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). His desire is for our good, even when we get bogged down by the sorrow and pain that comes as a consequence of our sin.
God always provides a way back to himself. In fact, he even does through these curses, since they bring the Israelites again to a symbolic wilderness—a place of desperation and dependence where they realize the things they’ve chased after have enslaved and destroyed them.
“When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” —Deuteronomy 30:1-3
If you want to dig deeper, here are a few other voices who’ve weighed in on this topic.