There are several places in the Bible where the choice between life and death is set before people. It’s there in the Garden of Eden with two trees – the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that would bring death if its fruit was eaten. The book of Proverbs sets up wisdom and folly as ways to life and death respectively. God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah about setting before the people a path to life and death, life by surrendering to the Chaldeans, but death if they remained in the besieged city.
But the one that always gets me is Deuteronomy 30:11-20. Twice in these few verses, Moses states that he is setting before the people life, good and blessings over against death, evil and curses. A quick read might suggest that the way of life and blessing is by obedience to God’s commandments, statutes and rules, and this is true in many respects. But a deeper read reveals that the whole life-death bit is bound up in relationship rather than rule-keeping.
Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days…. (Deut 30:19-20)
It is significant that in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17) Jesus declared eternal life to be this relational knowing of God: And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
In other words, life in its truest and fullest sense is found only in relationship with the God who made us for Himself. I think CS Lewis was right: God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.
This truth helps me understand much of the Old Testament narrative: its many, many warning about the dangers of idolatry and turning to other gods; the judgment on nations that worship falsely; the threatened judgments to Israel if they turn from their God…. It all seems so severely monolithic and sectarian, when in fact it is the alarmed pleadings of Love to not destroy ourselves by insisting that life be given to us apart from the only One who is our life.
Interrupting annoying illustration: I really would like to be able to jump off a high mountain with a sheer face and fly around on the updrafts and then land gently in the valley below. But hey, I ain’t no bird, and gravity would not be kind to me if I actually attempted such a thing. Question: should I be angry that I can’t fly, or is part of sanity to know how to accept the way things are?
Back to the main: I take Deuteronomy 30 and related passages not as a divine stinginess disallowing human freedom, and not as a reflection of a harsh and angry bent toward mankind. Rather, I see it as a statement about the way things are – the way the universe is wired and the way mankind is wired. To kick against the truth revealed here would be like getting bent out of the frame that gravity can’t be suspended for me to fly around a bit. It is simply wiser and healthier to accept things for what they are.