This post is on the book of Deuteronomy. STOP! WAIT! Don’t leave. I know, I know… “Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy… booorrrring…” But wait. The book of Deuteronomy, I’ve discovered, is so important to understanding the rest of the Old Testament that I would challenge you that if you have no time to join me in this challenge, then at the least you should jump to the bottom of this post and take five or ten (or carefully fifteen) minutes to read the selected passages I have listed. If nothing else, do that slowly and contemplatively. (Jump there now if you want, skip the post, I won’t be offended.)
The word Deutero means “second”. The concept is that here Moses is giving the law a second time, but to a new generation of Israelites. In the historical context the children of Israel are standing on the border of the promised land waiting to make entrace. Moses stands up in front of them and begins to summarize their journey, the work of God through deliverance, and the law which came from God and was given to Moses on two tablets (Deuteronomy 4:13).
Many bible scholars believe that the book of Deuteronomy was not written down until after the exile of Israel several hundred years later. Whether or not this is true has little concern for me in the grand scheme of things. I am mostly interested in the context in which the story takes place and the message embedded in that story.
There are several things to observe. First, while the notion of God establishing a covenant with Israel and their descendents (going back to Abraham) is sure and established, the actual word “covenant” is used (by my observation, not actual count) more times than throughout all of the Torah up to this point.
The second point worth observing is a “Heaven” and “Earth” motif in these early chapters. I first noticed the phrase together in Deuteronomy 4:26 where Moses calls “heaven and earth as witnesses” against Israel – two witnesses (humm?). Soon I realized a pattern of appealing to heaven and earth in some way: “The Lord is God in heaven above and on earth below. There is no other God” [Deuteronomy 4:39; cf. Deut 5:8-9 et cetera].
A third point to observe is that here we are introduced to the famous “Shema” for the first time [Deut 6:4]. In case you are unaware, the “Shema” is basically the Jewish foundational “statement of faith”: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one“. No prayer or creedal statement was more important within Judaism then this one line. It is fascinating how Paul adopts the Jewish Shema – declaration of One God – and applies it to Jesus [1 Corinthians 8:6].
A fourth observation – a connection I somehow missed before – is that Jesus’ summary of the whole Law is tied up in the Shema statement of faith! When Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” [Matthew 22:36-38]. Jesus quotes from the verse immediately following the Shema:
“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” – Deuteronomy 6:4-5
The final observation I’d like to make today is how God’s covenant with Israel is explicitly conditional based on Israel’s obedience to that covenant! Notice the clarity with which these words are declared:
“If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers…” – Deuteronomy 7:12
Find a highlighter, a pen, something, and mark that passage, paying careful attention to the “if“, the “then“, and “covenant of love“. People have so abused and misunderstood God’s calling to Abraham and Israel that they have made it into some arbitrary and unconditional covenantal election which clearly renders asunder the scriptures repeated until little if any continuity remains. I am thinking first of that naive biblicism known as “Left Behind Theology” (i.e. Dispensationalism) on the one hand, and perhaps a bit of Calvinism and the like, on the other. Without going into great detail here, I’ll just state it the way I see it: God’s covenant of love is both unconditional (“all Israel will be saved”) and conditional (“not all Israel are Israel”). That divide can be seen in many ways, not least in Genesis 15 where God’s covenant with Abraham is unconditional – God alone passes through the blood – and Genesis 17 where it is explicitly made conditional – those in the family of Abraham who remain uncircumcised which, as we learned recently, was an outward act of an inward state, will be removed from the covenant people. In other words, God will see to it that the “elect” will be saved in the end, that much is unconditional. But those individuals who make up the elect are those who remain in, or faithful to, the covenant of love.
Why people struggle with this concept is beyond me. In either case, it is for this reason that the book of Deuteronomy is often called Israel’s “Covenant Charter”. It is the book of the Torah which states the conditions by which Israel will remain in God’s covenant. If they are faithful, they will remain in the land, be blessed and live! If they are unfaithful they will be removed from the land, into the curse, and die. And, it is utterly crucial to take note: we have the story of Adam all over again!
Deuteronomy is Israel’s Covenant Charter.
Selected Readings: Deuteronomy 4:23-31; Deuteronomy 4:39; Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 7:16.