- 1 Introduction
- 2 Summary and Comment
- 2.1 First Speech: Retrospect and Prospect, 1:1–4:43
- 2.2 Second Speech, Part 1: Preaching the Foundational Commandment, 4:44–11:32
- 2.3 Second Speech, Part 2: Preaching the Moab Covenant, 12:1–28:68
- 2.3.1 The Exclusive Worship of Yahweh (12:1–14:21)
- 2.3.2 Justice in Israel: The Community (14:22–15:18; 21:1-9; 21:22–22:1-3; 22:6-7; 23:1-8, 15-16; 23:19-25; 24:6-22: 25:13-19)
- 2.3.3 Justice in Israel: The Home (21:10-21; 22:8; 22:12-30; 24:1-4; 25:1-12; 25:11-12
- 2.3.4 Festivals (15:19–16:17)
- 2.3.5 Leadership and Judicial Procedures (16:18–19:21)
- 2.3.6 War (20:1-20; 23:9-14; 24:5)
- 2.3.7 Theology through Worship (26:1-19)
- 2.3.8 Covenant Renewal in Shechem (27:1–28:68)
- 2.4 Third Speech: The Covenant in Moab, 29:1–30:20
- 2.5 Transition: Toward a Moses-less People, 31:1–34:12
- 3 Conclusion
- 4 Recommended Essays in the Commentary
- 5 Bibliography
- 6 Invitation to Comment
Deuteronomy—a book full of life, full of the story of God's people, full of vision for walking in the way of God. Sometimes referred to as "The Gospel according to Moses," it celebrates divine grace rivaled only by John's Gospel.
Three times when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he turns to Deuteronomy as a source for his response (Matt 4:1-11). When a lawyer asks him which commandment is the greatest, he again turns to Deuteronomy: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut 6:5; Matt 22:34-40; cf. Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). Indeed, a good case can be made that the logic of Jesus' two commandments are based on Deuteronomy (see Conclusion).
Anabaptists agreed with other Christians in Europe during the sixteenth century that the Shema has a binding claim on Christians. Menno Simons cites the Shema several times with two emphases. First, he equates the love of God charged by the Shema with obedience to the commandments in a manner similar to what Jesus did in his response to the lawyer (Simons: 657; cf. Matt 22:34–40). Second, he focuses on the last half of the Shema, with its emphasis on teaching the faith to our children (388; Deut 6:6-9).
Mennonite confessions also regularly cite the Shema in support of the affirmation of only one God. For example, Dirk Philips writes, "In the first place, we believe and confess that there is one God and Lord Jesus as is basically contained in all Scripture and expressly stated in writing"; Deuteronomy 6:4 is the first verse given in support of this assertion (Philips: 62). It is used similarly in confessions from different geographical wings of the early Anabaptist family (Koop: 52, Swiss/South German; 138, 172, Waterlander; 172, 270, Frisian, Flemish, and High German). In one interesting example it is also used as biblical support for the unity of God (177).
Deuteronomy is quoted in the New Testament more often than any other Old Testament books except Isaiah and Psalms. Within the Old Testament as well Deuteronomy plays a central and crucial role. It serves as the climax of the Pentateuch (the portion of the Old Testament most significant for Jews); it provides the theological yardstick by which kings are evaluated in the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua to 2 Kings); it impacted the writing of the prophets. Deuteronomy effectively articulates the tradition and themes that later Judaism came to recognize as its center and lifeblood. As does the letter to the Romans for the New Testament, Deuteronomy presents the most careful, systematic presentation of Old Testament thought.
We all have a desire to live in a manner that leads to blessing and life, for ourselves, for our family and friends, indeed for the larger community. That is what Deuteronomy is about. This fullness of life can never be grasped or taken by force, but continuously remains a gift of God and is offered to us if we live in a generous, open-handed fashion. Deuteronomy points to clues for such gracious living—it did for Israel, it did for Jesus and the people of his day, and it can for us today as well.
Date, Setting, and Author
Within the world of the text, the setting for Deuteronomy is the border of the Promised Land with Israel preparing to enter the land. A generation ago Israel escaped from Egyptian slavery and entered into a covenant with God at Mount Horeb/Sinai. The first arrival at the Promised Land had been a disaster, with Israel losing faith, leading to forty years of wandering. Now Israel is back at the border where Moses addresses the people, instructing them how to live in the land so that they will be blessed.
Scholars searching for the world behind the text generally do not consider the book to have been written by Moses. Despite the tradition, Deuteronomy itself does not claim Mosaic authorship, even if Moses is the primary spokesperson in the book, and at various points speaks of Moses in the third person. As is the case for most Old Testament books, it is doubtful that one person wrote Deuteronomy, but rather, the book is the end-product of a lengthy history. This history likely includes traditions going back to Moses, but it is very possible that the significant writing took place in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, incorporating traditions from both the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Significant resonances with the book of Hosea fit this context. And yet parts of the book appear to be later than that, exilic or following.
More helpful than either of these worlds for understanding and using Deuteronomy is the way Deuteronomy intersects with and relates to other parts of the Bible. Deuteronomy comes to us today as part of the canon, a volume of books through which the church hears and experiences God. As such, the canon becomes the crucial context within which Deuteronomy is approached in this article.
Form, Rhetoric and Structure
Deuteronomy is generally regarded as law. Deuteronomy speaks of itself as torah, a term commonly translated as law. And admittedly, it has many passages that at first glance come across as law, or at least, as clear directives. Yet "law" misrepresents the spirit of Deuteronomy. A more appropriate category within which to approach Deuteronomy is that of sermon.
This becomes especially clear when the connotations of "law" are considered. Unlike contemporary law, Deuteronomy is not presented in a dispassionate manner with the view that it will be enforced by "police" and "judges," but rather it continuously works at persuasion, at coaxing people that walking in the way presented is in their best interests. Exhortations are addressed directly to the audience, with incessant repetition, speaking to their emotions, stimulating their memory, always with the goal of rousing people to live their lives consistent with the vision of Deuteronomy. This is the nature of sermon, always inviting the response in the present moment of those who are addressed. It is a sermon for today, the "today" of Deuteronomy's day, the "today" of Israel hearing its words throughout its history, and the "today" of our day.
Consistent with this nature, Deuteronomy is structured as three addresses (chs. 1–4; 5–28; 29–30), plus an appendix (chs. 31–34) that looks forward to the time when Moses will no longer be with them.
Summary and Comment
First Speech: Retrospect and Prospect, 1:1–4:43
Deuteronomy sets the stage for the book by recounting a few select episodes from the past. Each account is artfully constructed so as to intimate challenges and agenda the people will face in the land.
After providing the geographical and chronological setting for the sermon (1:1-5), the first narrative relates the appointment of judges (1:6-18). Israel has multiplied as promised to the point where Moses can no longer handle it alone. Once they enter the land, godly, wise, impartial judges and leaders will be needed (cf. 16:18–19:21 on leadership), especially as Moses will no longer be with them.
Next comes the account of Israel's first arrival at the Promised Land (1:19–2:1). The critical question here, and in the future, is: Will Israel trust God? Despite Moses' assurance that the God who delivered them from Egypt is now giving them this land, the people become afraid when they hear the spies' report that the land's inhabitants are too strong for them. Punishment for this lack of faith is a return to the desert where a whole generation will pass away. The land can only be received (and retained) through faith.
After wandering in the desert during which their dependence upon God is obvious (they "lacked nothing," 2:7), Israel now is back at the border. Five encounters with local peoples follow (2:2–3:29), falling into two distinct groups. God directs Israel to avoid conflict with the peoples of Edom, Moab, and Ammon (2:1-23). Each may be a distant relative, but more importantly, each is identified as also having been given their land by God. The God who is about to give Israel its land is not only the God of Israel, but also the God who gives land to other peoples.
The next two encounters are more difficult, especially for those with Anabaptist sensitivities. With language reminiscent of the defeat of Pharaoh, Deuteronomy narrates the destruction of Kings Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, along with their people. Two and half tribes receive this Transjordan region as a first installment of the gift of land. Suggestively, the three peoples whom God gave land were historic enemies of Israel; the two kings are otherwise unknown but become mythic symbols within Israelite and Jewish tradition. Whether the defeats of the two kings were originally understood literally can be debated, but the implication is clear: faith leads to the gift of land; lack of faith leads to loss.
Concluding the first speech is a summarizing challenge for the future (4:1-43). If Israel heeds the direction it is receiving, it will be blessed and recognized as a wise and unique people; if it disregards this direction, loss of land and scattering will follow. And yet there is a caveat—the God who loved their ancestors and delivered them people from Egypt is a merciful God who will not abandon them or forget the covenant (4:31).
Second Speech, Part 1: Preaching the Foundational Commandment, 4:44–11:32
The second speech consists of two distinct parts; the first presents the content of the Horeb covenant, along with preaching focused especially on the first commandment (chs. 5–11); the second preaches through numerous detailed regulations comprising the Moab covenant (chs., 12–28).
Chapter 5 opens the second speech with a key Deuteronomic emphasis: although the Horeb covenant was made with the previous generation, that past is collapsed into the present, with those "who are alive today" always the covenant partners. Deuteronomy's interest in the past, as well as the rest of its preaching, is always directed toward making decisions today, the "first day of the rest of your life." The Decalogue (5:6-21) is the content of that Horeb covenant.
Chapter 6 reminds the listeners/readers once again that heeding the teaching of the sermon is decisive for a long, good life in the land of milk and honey they are about to receive (6:1-3). Then comes Deuteronomy's most important affirmation and call: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (6:4-5). This affirmation about God (cf. first commandment), along with the consequent call to love God, must be central to their life, everywhere, all the time. All else is a working out of this (see Conclusion).
The subsequent chapters then employ a range of arguments in support of this central thrust. Foundational to all is their status as God's treasured people. The story of God redeeming them from Egyptian slavery, along with the gift of land, gives meaning to the directives of Deuteronomy (6:20-25).
Chapter 7 explores the background to this elect status, as well as spells out a consequence. Israel should never understand its covenant status as deserved—Israel is chosen simply because God loved it (7:7-10). The love and absolute loyalty that Israel is invited to give God has a previous model in God's love for Israel. God's covenant with the ancestor reflects that love.
But this exclusive relationship also has a corollary: Israel is to remain separate from the nations of the land. Israel is prohibited from making a covenant with them, or intermarrying with them. Indeed, God will clear away the seven nations of the land, with Israel directed to "utterly destroy" them. Israel's position as a holy nation, as a treasured possession of God, will be at risk if these nations are allowed to lead them away from their God of the exodus. Scholarly debate struggles with the best understanding of the Hebrew word ḥerem, translated in 7:2 as "utterly destroy" by the NRSV. Some argue that the whole passage was originally understood metaphorically as an exhortation to remember their identity as a distinct people of God. One recent proposal urges that the term means "remove from human use" or "destroy the identity of," noting that not all individuals or groups of people who experience ḥerem are physically destroyed, e.g., the Gibeonites (Josh 9:22-27; Walton and Walton: 169-229). The seven nations then stand for all that is opposed to the relationship God desires with Israel. Interspersed among these arguments is this constant refrain: Follow (obey) these teachings! For it is only then that they will experience the fullness of the land.
Central to all of Deuteronomy is the land of milk and honey, a land that is understood as already given, a land that Israel has already started to possess (chs. 2–3), a land that it will fully possess when it crosses the Jordan. But then comes a warning. The land is a good land, a land where they "may eat bread without scarcity," where they "will lack nothing" (8:8). But this very land, God's gift to Israel, at the same time becomes a source of temptation. For once in the land, when they harvest crops they have planted, they will begin to think that the power and might of their own hand has given them that wealth (8:17). When that happens, they will forget God. Chapter 8 becomes a sermon calling on Israel to remember God, warning against forgetting God, since only remembering their God will protect them from perishing off the land.
The remainder of chapters 5–11 continues the sermon, largely picking up themes raised previously. God is about to give you the land—remember, this is not because of your righteousness, as you are a stubborn people (9:1-7). This was already evident at Horeb when Israel worshiped the golden calf even as Moses was receiving the Decalogue (9:8–10:11). In light of this, Deuteronomy asks: "So now, O Israel, what does the LORD require of you?" Deuteronomy's response is given through five words or phrases, each used repeatedly, with largely interchangeable meaning: "fear the LORD your God," "walk in all his ways," "love him," "serve the LORD your God," and "keep the commandments of the LORD your God" (10:12–11:31). If Israel heeds this instruction, it will be blessed; if it ignores it, curse will be the consequence.
Second Speech, Part 2: Preaching the Moab Covenant, 12:1–28:68
The majority of the second part of the second speech consists of regulations. Or more accurately, it consists of preaching via regulation-sounding passages. Despite their being called "statutes" and "ordinances" (e.g., 12:1), these are not laws that local judges were expected to "apply" in specific situations. This is made clear by their general nature (i.e., they are too vague, with limited attention to spelling out specific consequences), and by the emphasis placed on persuasion. Using literary techniques like repetition, example, emotional language, and considering long-term consequences, Deuteronomy paints a picture of what a life faithful to their God looks like.
There is no consensus on how the material of chapters 12–26 is arranged. Some scholars suggest it follows the narrative of the Pentateuch; some that the Decalogue provides the organizational principle; others propose that the current arrangement is a consequence of various Hebrew literary techniques (e.g., word association, thematic connections). In the final analysis, it is best to concede that if there is a logic to the way the material is arranged, it remains hidden to us today. Perhaps this is consistent with viewing the whole section as intended to give a poignant painting of faithful life rather than a systematic presentation of rules for such a life. The following will treat the material as related to a number of thematic centers. Given the many specific regulations, they cannot all be touched on below.
The Exclusive Worship of Yahweh (12:1–14:21)
The opening chapters of the section continue the emphasis on the first commandment, and the related Shema (6:4-9). Exclusive worship of Yahweh, the God of the exodus, requires that worshiping that God through sacrifice take place at only one location (12:1-32). This is the most unusual or distinctive teaching of Deuteronomy. Samuel and Kings evaluate all kings using this teaching of Deuteronomy as a yardstick, and even today, the Jewish sacrificial system is on hold since the Jews do not have control of "The Place," understood to be the temple mount in Jerusalem. People are allowed to eat meat in their communities, but sacrifice can only take place at "The Place."
Since Israel's long-term life on the land is dependent on the people giving God this exclusive loyalty, apostasy or leading people astray is treated in the harshest manner (13:1-18). Three cases of being led astray to worship other gods are presented, with the consequences in each case death. Chapter 14 continues this theme, even if in a different manner. Through its exclusive relationship to its God, Israel is a holy people, distinct from other peoples. This means that Israel should not adopt the practices of its neighbors (e.g., lacerate or shave their forelocks for the dead, 14:1-2). Some unusual later prohibitions probably also reflect a rejection of practices used by other nations in the worship of their other gods (e.g., 22:5, 9-11; 23:17-18).
The dietary regulations (14:3-21) fit here as well. Scholars have long searched for pragmatic reasons for the prohibitions (e.g., eating pork as a health risk), but perhaps they are missing the point—the food regulations teach that they are a holy people, God's special possession, and only the God who chose them and delivered them from Egypt has authority over life.
Justice in Israel: The Community (14:22–15:18; 21:1-9; 21:22–22:1-3; 22:6-7; 23:1-8, 15-16; 23:19-25; 24:6-22: 25:13-19)
Living faithfully in the land requires justice in the larger community and justice in the home (see next section). The significance of this expectation is reflected in general exhortations (e.g., "Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you," 16:20), and numerous specific regulations. Of special concern are the weak and powerless, repeatedly represented by the widow, the orphan, the alien and the Levite.
Tithes, generally used in support of the cult, become a tool for assisting the poor, with both annual and every third year tithe earmarked for the whole community, especially the widow, orphan, alien and Levite (14:22-28). Debts and slaves are to be released every seventh year (15:1-18). The non-legalistic nature of this expectation is reflected in the urging to "give liberally and ungrudgingly" (15:10) when doing this as God will then bless them. Slaves who have escaped are not to be returned to their previous owners (23:15-16). Interest is not to be charged on loans to fellow-community members since they need such loans to survive (23:19-20). Weights are to be honest (25:13-16) and boundary markers not to be moved (19:14). Wages are to be paid daily because the livelihood of the poor depends on this (24:14-15). Farmers are to leave some grain and olives in the fields for the gleaners (24:19-22).
Foundational to this concern is the overarching conviction that just as God redeemed Israel when weak and in slavery, so Israel shall now treat the weak and underprivileged in a like manner (cf. 24:17-18).
Justice in Israel: The Home (21:10-21; 22:8; 22:12-30; 24:1-4; 25:1-12; 25:11-12
Whereas the regulations promoting justice in the community may transfer relatively well to today, the huge gap between the cultural world of Old Testament Israel and today makes interpreting passages dealing with life in the home a much more difficult task. We are understandably offended when Deuteronomy speaks of men being required to marry war captives they desire, without the possibility of divorce, but the concern here was probably to protect these women from being used and then discarded (21:10-14). Again, it may be hard to understand the regulation speaking of how a man must treat the sons of two wives (21:15-17), or the one about parents and the rebellious son (21:18-21), but in both cases Deuteronomy limits the potentially autocratic authority of the head of the household. The regulation about the man accusing his new wife of not being a virgin (22:13-21) may very well be intended to protect her against false accusation.
At the risk of over generalization, like the regulations around justice in the community, those speaking about the home also serve to protect the weaker one(s) in the relationship, even if they may sound strange or even offensive to us.
Ancient religion placed heavy emphasis on cult, the ritual aspect of religion. Deuteronomy also addresses this aspect of their life in the land, but its emphases are unusual, even for the Old Testament. It is concerned that all sacrifice happens at "The Place" God will choose (see Exclusive Worship of Yahweh), but beyond that its interest is les on detailed correct observance than on what cult does for the community.
After noting that eating the consecrated first born of the herd and flock shall happen at "The Place" (15:19-23) it turns its attention to the festival calendar. Similar to Exodus, it names three major festivals: Passover and Unleavened Bread, Festival of Weeks and Festival of Booths (16:1-17). Consistent with Deuteronomy's centralization thrust, each requires pilgrimage to The Place. Rather than focusing on cultic detail, Deuteronomy emphasizes that these festivals are to be inclusive, including all in them, even the alien, and that these are times of rejoicing and celebration. One might suggest that as in Anabaptism, cult and ritual is less important than community and an ethic that is concerned for the weak.
Leadership and Judicial Procedures (16:18–19:21)
Deuteronomy repeatedly reminds the people that Moses will not be allowed to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land (3:23-28; 4:21-22; 31:1-6; 32:48-52; 34:1-8). The people themselves will have greater responsibility. But this also means that new leadership will be important.
In this section, the king, priests, and prophets all receive attention. Judges are important for maintaining justice in the land. The principle of requiring more than one witness to convict a person (17:6; 19:15), severe punishment for witnessing falsely (19:16-21); and cities of refuge (19:1-13) protect against the abuse of justice. Since priests do not inherit land, special provisions are made for them (18:1-18). God will raise up prophets, but false prophets or prophets following the practices of the land are a danger (18:9-22).
The passage on the king very much reflects Deuteronomy's distinctive approach (17:14-20). Israel does receive permission to have a king, but the role of the king is quite unlike that of a typical ancient Near Eastern king. Israel's king is not to exalt himself above the people through wealth or wives, nor is the king to build up standing armies. Rather, the king's primary responsibility is to study Torah as a member of the covenant community. Such a king will best serve the people in the land.
War (20:1-20; 23:9-14; 24:5)
Not only does Deuteronomy contain passages about Israel "taking" the Promised Land (or is it, "receiving" the land?), it also includes instructions for going to war. Israel knew and understood war as an ever-present reality and threat. As one of the small, weak peoples in the larger ancient Near East, war generally meant a superpower overwhelming them.
The themes already signaled in the narrative of Israel entering the land now receive more explicit attention. First comes the exhortation not to be afraid, but to trust God. Then comes the radical shocking provision that all those building a house, planting a vineyard, recently engaged to be married (i.e., those young men most likely to make up an army) are to be exempted. Even those afraid are exempted. Under these terms, war as a strategic endeavor becomes extremely hard, if not impossible.
The last part of the chapter once again returns to the theme of the peoples of the land. The call for Israel to "annihilate" them may never have been understood literally even by Israel, but may be a metaphoric way of highlighting the importance of exclusive loyalty to the God of the exodus. The chapter concludes by warning Israel not to destroy food-producing trees, thereby reminding everyone that war can never be absolute, but must always remain limited.
Theology through Worship (26:1-19)
Chapter 26 presents a fascinating "Thanksgiving Service," consisting of three distinct parts. First, once in the land, the people are directed to bring their first fruits to The Place. Second, they present to the priest a recital of who they are—someone whom God has delivered from Egyptian slavery and given land. Strikingly, this confession of faith in God via historical survey incorporates the individual into the community through its use of pronouns. It bounces back and forth between singular and plural, emphasizing the importance of both the individual and the community.
Third, after giving the first fruits to the "Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows" (26:12, i.e., the poor), the individual affirms that they have been obedient with what God has given them, especially with regard to the poor (26:13-15).
Covenant Renewal in Shechem (27:1–28:68)
Chapters 27–28 call for a future covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem (cf. Joshua 8:30-35). In Deuteronomy, covenant is the primary metaphor for God's relationship to Israel. Once in Shechem, they are to build an altar and inscribe on it the words of Torah Moses has given them. Typical of ancient Near Eastern treaties or covenants, this is reinforced with the people pronouncing blessings and curses, blessings if they obey, curses if they don't. Whether this is imagined as an annual event (likely) or a one-time occurrence is not spelled out. But the role of the ceremony is clear—to be a reminder to Israel that it has a covenantal relationship with the God who brought them out of Egypt and gave them the Promised Land, a relationship that requires that the people live in a manner consistent with the vision of Deuteronomy.
Third Speech: The Covenant in Moab, 29:1–30:20
After looking forward to a covenant renewal ceremony in Shechem (in the land), Deuteronomy returns to the setting in the Plains of Moab. All has been building toward a covenant renewal service there. Deuteronomy speaks of two types of covenant. Foundational is the ancestral covenant of Genesis, essentially a unilateral promise of God. Israel as a people, however, is formed by a series of conditional covenants. The initial covenant between God and Israel happens at Mount Horeb (Mount Sinai), with the Decalogue indicating the conditions of this covenant. The teaching of Deuteronomy then forms the content of the first major renewal of this covenant to take place on the Plains of Moab. The Shechem renewal, whether understood as a one-time event or annual, then becomes a later renewal of the relationship and commitment.
With the people standing in front of him, Moses prepares them for this covenant renewal with another brief review of what has happened. Through this renewal ceremony they will once again be established as "his people" (29:13). Consistent with earlier inclusive emphases, leaders and others are included, men and women are included, adults and children are included, even those not actually present are included. Perhaps most interestingly, there is even reference to the alien. In other words, through this covenant outsiders become insiders within the people of God.
The sermon builds to a climax with a passionate "altar call"—"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity" (30:15). If they will obey and love God, they will live and thrive; if they turn away from God, they will perish from the land. "Choose life," Moses pleads, "so that you and your descendants will live" (30:19).
Transition: Toward a Moses-less People, 31:1–34:12
After formalizing the Moab covenant, Deuteronomy begins the transition to a Moses-less future. Moses has been the center of the book, just as he has been the all-encompassing leader from Egypt to the Promised Land. But now, he is about to die (ch. 34), no doubt leading to anxiety and fear among the people. The last four chapters of Deuteronomy prepare the people for that future, assuring them that despite his death, God will continue to be and go with the people (31:6)
First, Joshua, a spy who did not lose faith when Israel initially arrived at the land, succeeds Moses as the overall leader of Israel. He is the one who will lead the people into the land (31:1-8, 16-23). Second, the Torah God has given the people through Moses is to be recorded, permanently safeguarded, and regularly read to the people (31:9-13, 24-29).
Third, Moses leaves a Song and a Blessing with the people. The Song (ch. 32) indicts Israel for its inevitable inclination to forsake God. And yet that is not its last word, for it is placed within a hymn of praise to a God who, despite the corruption of the people, remains the fully sovereign God who cares for his people. In a sense, all of Deuteronomy is Moses' last testament, but the Blessing of Moses (ch. 33) represents his last words most particularly. As Moses prepares to die, he gives a final blessing to each of the tribes, as their "father" and as a prophet with a view into the future.
With his work complete, Moses ascends Mount Nebo there to die (ch. 34). But before he dies, he views the Promised Land, symbolically taking possession of it. The future is now up to the people and their new leader, Joshua.
When Jesus is asked which commandment is greatest, he identifies loving God with one's total being, but then adds a second, namely to love the neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34). For the first, Jesus cites from the Shema in Deuteronomy (6:4-9); for the second Jesus turns to the words of Leviticus (Lev 19:18). But when he does so, he may very well have been impacted by the logic of Deuteronomy as a whole.
Deuteronomy uses the conditional covenant metaphor as the primary way of speaking of the God-Israel relationship. The starting point for this covenant is God's unilateral, unmerited action: God loved Israel, chose it, redeemed it from slavery, and now is giving it the Promised Land. The Mount Horeb covenant, the Moab covenant, and the future covenant renewal at Shechem all have this logic. These covenants are called conditional: although they begin with God's undeserved action, their continuation is dependent upon Israel's response. Deuteronomy builds to a climax with the final verses of chapter 30 with the appeal, "loving the LORD your God, obeying him . . . so that you will live."
The content of the required response fits well with Jesus' response to the question of the greatest commandment. As in Jesus' response, loving God is first and foundational. It is reflected in the Shema, in the first commandments of the Decalogue, in the first part of the second speech (4:44–11:32), and even in the opening chapters of the second part of the second speech (12:1–14:21). The God of Israel is a jealous God (e.g., 5:9; 6:15); the relationship between God and Israel requires absolute and exclusive loyalty. Similarly, Jesus identifies loving God with our total being as the first commandment, reminding his followers that "no one can serve two masters" (Matt 6:24; Luke 16:13).
But this love of God is made concrete or incarnated, both for Jesus and Deuteronomy, in how we treat the neighbor. Most of the regulations in the latter half of Deuteronomy give examples of what this means for everyday life in ancient Israel. Significantly, like Jesus, Deuteronomy, pays special attention to those less able to protect themselves—the widow, the orphan, the alien. Even the cult, or festivals, are transformed so as to include and provide for those who might be easily neglected. Jesus may very well have been quoting from Leviticus when naming the second commandment, but his response is entirely consistent with the logic of Deuteronomy.
There is, however, one important caveat, or perhaps tension to all of this. Even as Deuteronomy pleads with Israel to obey and choose life, it at the same time acknowledges Israel as a stubborn people (9:6; 9:13; 31:27), a people that will inevitably forget God and perish from the land (4:27-28; 29:18-29). But this is not the last word. Whereas in chapter 10 Deuteronomy calls on Israel to circumcise the foreskin of their heart (10:16) so as to obey, the book concludes with the promise that God will circumcise their heart and that of their descendants, "so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul in order that you may live" (30:6). In the end, the conditional nature of the covenant seems to break down. God's initial love, reflected in the ancestral covenant, remains powerful. The jealous God of the devouring fire (4:24) morphs into the merciful God who "will neither abandon you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors" (4:31).
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
Christians and Old Testament (as) Law (in Deuteronomy)
Holy, Holiness (in Deuteronomy)
Yahweh War (in Deuteronomy)
- Block, Daniel. The Gospel according to Moses. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012.
- Brueggemann, Walter. Deuteronomy. Abingdon Bible Commentary. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2001.
- ______. The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith. 2nd edition. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002.
- Creach, Jerome F. D. Violence in Scripture. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville, KY: Fortress, 2013.
- Koop, Karl. Anabaptist-Mennonite Confessions of Faith: The Development of a Tradition. Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2004.
- McConville, J. G. Law and Theology in Deuteronomy. JSOT Supplement Series. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984.
- Miller, Patrick. Deuteronomy. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1990.
- Olson, Dennis. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1994.
- Philips, Dirk. The Writings of Dirk Philips, 1504–1568. Translated and edited by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1992.
- Simons, Menno. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496–1561. Translated by Leonard Verduin. Edited by J. C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1956.
- Tigay, Jeffrey H. Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society. 1996.
- Walton, John H and Walton, J. Harvey. The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017.
Invitation to Comment
To recommend improvements to this article, click here.