Deuteronomy has been aptly described as the 'heartbeat of the Old Testament'.
'Feel the pulse of Deuteronomy', urges Chris Wright, 'and you are in touch with the life and rhythms of the whole Hebrew Bible.' It is 'one of the great theological documents of the Bible' concludes Gordon McConville.
In its final form, Deuteronomy is presented to us as based on the last three addresses of Moses to the new generation of Israelites who after the debacle of the wilderness wanderings are now poised to enter the Promised Land (1–4; 5–28; 29–32).
There is within this a simple past-present-future format: the story of the past (chapters 1–4), the shaping of the present (chapters 5–28), the securing of the future (29–32).
This makes Deuteronomy very much a 'boundary book', presenting the challenge to a people facing the death of Moses and standing 'at the frontier' of a whole new phase of its existence.
It offers a vision of life for Israel as God’s people whose mission is to be a 'holy nation' within a pagan environment.
Will God’s people succumb to the attractions of the surrounding culture or can they live differently? This is the question posed by the book.
It is 'a pivotal book: it provides an interpretation of what precedes and what follows' (Terence Fretheim).
It is 'for a people on the move … as it moves into the future with God' (Chris Wright).
Deuteronomy therefore serves as a plumb-line against which the subsequent history of Israel is to be measured.
So the narrative books which follow – Judges to 2 Kings – are often termed the 'Deuteronomic history'.
Neglect this charter for national faith and well-being and Israel drifts away from covenant; recover this book and revival ensues.
If Deuteronomy – or some form of Deuteronomy – was in fact the law-book which King Josiah so dramatically rediscovered during his reign, then we have a graphic illustration of the impact it can make (2 Chronicles 22–24).
The title of the book in English comes from the Greek version (LXX) of 17:18 where the Hebrew speaks of a 'copy of this law' which the LXX translated as 'deuteronomium' or 'second law'.
But to call the book a second law is potentially misleading; it is not a second law but a re-affirmation and expansion of the 'first' law given at Sinai demanded by the occasion.
And the occasion – as we have seen – is the renewal of the covenant with the new generation about to occupy the Land of Promise.
In this regard, it is fascinating to see how Deuteronomy roughly matches in its structure the classic covenant-treaty form as used in the Ancient Near East.
These 'suzerain-vassal treaties' regulated the relationship between the King and his subjugated people and were arranged to a set formula to which the book of Deuteronomy approximates.
- Preamble: identifying the participants (1:1–5).
- Historical Prologue: summarising the previous relations between the participants (1:5–4:49).
- General Stipulations: outlining the broad terms of the treaty (chapters 5–11).
- Specific Stipulations: offering detailed 'case laws' to maintain the sanctity of the relationship (chapters 12–16 and basically following the order of the 'ten words')
- Blessings and curses: describing sanctions and motivations (27–28).
- Witnesses: in this case 'heaven and earth'! (30:19) and in future, the book itself (31:19,26) deposited as an official record and enshrined in song (31:21).
- Continuity provisions: including the amazing provision of hope beyond the 'death' of the nation in exile (30) and the more immediate transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua (31:7–8; 14–15; 23; 34:9), the transmission of oral Word of God to the written text of Torah (31:9–13; 31:24–29) and even the translation of Torah from prose into poetry! (31:21; 32).
In fact the Song of Moses itself can be broken down into these elements we have listed which parallel ancient suzerain-vassal treaties.
This song serves as the foundational covenant lawsuit upon which subsequent prophetic lawsuits against Israel are drawn.
For this reason Deuteronomy consists largely of teaching material which Israel must learn and observe.
Much of this takes the form of laws. But to think of 'law' in strictly legal terms is to do less than justice to the rich concept of Torah which has the broader connotation of 'teaching and instruction'.
Deuteronomy amounts to an Old Testament 'manual for discipleship' (Dennis Olsen), a catechetical document intended to shape a way of life for God’s people.
With this in mind it is important to note how Deuteronomy – as with the wider Torah – is an 'interweaving of law and narrative' (Fretheim).
The obligations only make sense within the framework of a gracious story, a redemptive relationship.
In other words 'the law does not stand as an external code but is integrated with Israel’s ongoing story' (Fretheim).
Obedience is not to some rigid and fixed law but to the integrity of the story, so that God’s people are enjoined never to forget who they are.
Instead, theyare urged to live by this story and no other.
This opens the possibility that law will need to be revised, re-applied and even altered in the light of new phases of the story of the Creator God and His redeemed people.
In fact, Deuteronomy is already evidence of this process at work (cf for example the laws on slaves in Exodus 21:1–11 with Deut 15:12–18).
Its memorable highlights include:
- the Shema (6:4ff)
- The basis for Israel’s election being solely God's love (7:7)
- The priority of living by God’s Word (8:3f)
- Warnings against rebellion in the light of the Golden Calf apostasy (9:7ff)
- The three main temptations Israel was inclined to (7:17; 8:17; 9:7ff)
- The centrality of love and worship to the covenant relationship with God (10:12f; 12:4f)
- The promise of Rest as encapsulating the end of obedience (12:10)
- The hope of a prophet like Moses arising (18).
The blessings and curses (27–28) are not some technique for health, wealth and prosperity but the outcome of walking in covenant relationship with God (cf Mark 10:28–31 with the bonus of added 'persecutions'!)
The book may well contain – as conservative scholars suggest – a substantial core of Moses’ teaching, adapted to later situations after influencing (or being influenced by?) prophets like Jeremiah, and receiving final editorial shape at the time of the Exile ('as it is today' 29:27).
It certainly anticipates the tragic end of the story in Exile (30).
Even then God will act in sovereign grace to restore His people beyond exile.
Note, for example, how the command of 10:16 becomes a promise in 30:6! Chapter 30 is an extraordinary anticipation of the new covenant realities propounded later by Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
In this future there is offered a daring new way of being God’s people in the world.
This will be based 'not so much on human abilities and faithfulness as on the promise of God’s faithfulness and God’s active transformation of people and communities' (Dennis Olsen).
As the title of Gordon McConville’s helpful study of the book indicates, Deuteronomy offers 'grace in the end'.
Deuteronomy has been called Jesus’s favourite book! His temptations in the wilderness, according to the evangelists, mirror the testing of Israel there, with His forty days evoking their forty years.
And it is to Deuteronomy that Jesus turns as the charter for how God’s covenant partner should live.
Jesus, in effect, re-enacted Israel’s story, being disciplined as Israel was in the wilderness as a 'son' is disciplined (Deut 8:5).
But He succeeds where Israel failed by holding fast to the Deuteronomic vocation (Matthew 4:1–11).
As God’s Son and faithful covenant Partner, Jesus, the True Israel, fulfils the Law.
(More of this on another occasion.) And we also note what is another immensely important implication of this Deuteronomic identification of Jesus with Israel: the uniqueness of Jesus in a pluralistic world is rooted in Israel’s own uniqueness among the nations (Deut 4) and His embodying of that uniqueness.
Deuteronomy chapters 27–32 are an important seedbed of Paul’s thinking – especially in Galatians 3 and Romans 9–11 – where he presents Jesus as bearing the curse of exile and releasing the promised blessing of Abraham to the whole world.
The immediacy and challenge of Deuteronomy is felt by the reader through the repetition of 'now' and 'today' (5:1 etc.) The timespan of the Torah has embraced the immeasurable eons of creation, the strange ages of the antediluvians, the longevity of the patriarchs, the four hundred years in Egypt, the forty years in the wilderness, and it’s all come down to this, to this now, to this today – the 'eternal now', the crucial moment of choosing again life or death! 'Today if you will hear his voice' … Deuteronomy seems to plead with us.
As Andrew Murray, spiritual sage of an earlier age, once said: '"Today" is the key to your failure: you waited for strength to make obedience easier and for feeling to make the sacrifice less painful!!'
A renewal of covenant vows in remembrance of Him brings the redemptive past into the vivid present ('It is not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive today' 5:3) and in an extraordinarily prophetic way draws in the future also ('I am making this covenant … not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those whose are not here today' 29:14).
In the light of this, how might we keep the eucharistic feast, remembering until He comes?
As the 'heartbeat of the Old Testament', Deuteronomy reminds us that law and covenant are metaphors describing the dynamics of our relationship with a living God.
His voice speaks living words which are our food and drink: He invites us to love Him in return with passionate intensity and risk-taking faithfulness – and to start again today.
NB: My 'must read' is Chris Wright, Deuteronomy in the NIBC series, published by Hendrickson 1996 (ISBN 0-85364-725-9)
I also recommend as very helpful:
Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy in the Interpretation Series published by Westminster/John Knox Press 1990.
Dennis Olsen, Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: Overtures to Biblical Theology.
Fortress Press 1994.
Bruce Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence Fretheim, David Peterson, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament Abingdon 1999.