October 22, 2020

The Past, Present, and Future of God’s People

Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law, Chagall

Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law, Chagall

“…one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

– Deuteronomy 8:3, NRSV

“Apart from the liturgy, Deuteronomy is the source of the idea that religious life should be based on a sacred book, and hence of the obligation of all Jews, not only an elite class, to learn the Torah and teach it to their children (5:1; 6:7).”

– Jeffrey Tigay
Deuteronomy (JPS Torah Commentary)

* * *

Few books of the Bible are more significant than Deuteronomy, the book that completes the Torah. It is the full statement of First Testament religion in sermon form. Its contents reflect back on Israel’s formative events. They also anticipate Israel’s life in the Promised Land and subsequent exile, and point to the restoration of her blessing in “the latter days.”

Its various titles tell its story. This is “the book of words” (its Hebrew title) that exalts the Word of God and led to Israel becoming a people of the book. Deuteronomy is “the book of instruction” (a traditional Jewish designation) that highlights its use as a book that urges and gives rationale and motivation for a life of obedience to God’s teaching. The title we know sets this book forth as “the second law” — the commandments and regulations of Sinai presented in new forms for new generations. This fact reminds us that Israel’s “law” was not a static, unchanging thing, but a matter of continual reinterpretation and application within the context of a living, evolving community. One can see this even in Deuteronomy’s presentation of the Ten Commandments, which differ from the version recorded in Exodus.

The understandings to which scholars have come of the composition and development of Deuteronomy are fascinating. In the classic critical perspective, the book is largely the product of the “Deuteronomist” school, but there have been a variety of efforts to identify who and what that school represented.

Traditionally, Deuteronomy has been linked to the scroll Hilkiah found in the temple during the days of Josiah (2Kings 22), which led to his reforms. Similarities between the book and passages in Hosea, as well as its general “de-sacralization” of worship and heightened concern for justice for the oppressed have led many to think that parts of Deuteronomy were produced or shaped by prophetic groups in the days of Assyria. In this regard, one might also note the influence Deuteronomy had on the book of Jeremiah. Others have posited participation by Levitical and priestly groups in shaping parts of the book, perhaps at earlier stages of composition because of the inclusion of older ritual and legal materials in the book. Finally, the book exhibits the characteristics of later Wisdom literature, and may have been influenced and edited by later scribes. “These three major proposals have arisen because each reflects some dimension of the book” (Patrick Miller).

Chagall moses-receiving-the-tablets-of-law-1966Patrick Miller’s Interpretation commentary gives us a good and simple way to think through the overall structure and message of Deuteronomy.

First, there is a literary structure to the book — it is presented as a series of speeches by Moses.

  • 1:1-5 — These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond Jordan.
  • 4:44 — This is the Torah which Moses set before the children of Israel.
  • 29:1 — These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab.
  • 33:1 — This is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.

The book is thus shaped as being the authoritative message of Moses through preaching — a word of instruction, covenant, and blessing. “It is divine instruction — laid on the heart, encouraged, motivated, and explained” (Miller).

Second, there is a covenantal structure to the book — it is in the form of a covenant agreement.

  • Many of the characteristics of Ancient Near Eastern treaties between kings and their vassals are seen in the structure and contents of Deuteronomy. It thus promotes a “covenant theology” highlighting God’s election and grace in choosing Israel, and her responsibility to show loyalty and obedience in the light of God’s gracious choice.
  • In his JPS commentary, Jeffrey Tigay makes a keen observation: The Torah ends before Israel takes possession of the Promised Land. Therefore God’s covenant with Israel was predicated on the Exodus not the gift of the land. The covenant was enacted in the wilderness and Israel was responsible to abide by its terms wherever she found herself. This has had great significance for Israel ever since. “It may not be too much to say that the survival of Judaism owes much to the perception that that the promised land is ahead of us, but our duties to God are now.”

Third, there is a theological orientation to the book — around the Shema (6:4-5), and the Ten Words (ch. 5)

  • The Shema is a call to faith (“Hear O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD”) and love (“and you shall love the LORD your God…). Deuteronomy is the Bible’s fundamental statement of monotheism and its application in the life of God’s people.
  • The Ten Words form the fundamental outline by which the vast central section of laws in Deuteronomy (ch. 12-26) is shaped.

Finally, I would add that there is a strong eschatological character to the final form of Deuteronomy. It looks insistently to the future, specifically to “the latter days” as the time when Israel will receive the gift of inner transformation and restored blessing. Many have noted the similarities and parallels between Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, the prophet of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). One of Moses’ final speeches in Deuteronomy anticipates the weeping prophet’s word of promise:

Moses, Chagall

Moses, Chagall

When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors.

Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your 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. The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you. Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

– Deut. 30:1-10, NRSV

It is this word of Gospel that is the last word in Deuteronomy, the word that feeds us when mere bread cannot (Deut. 8:3).


  1. Mary Anne Dutton says

    Thank you for illuminating instruction that further imbues me with reverence for Elohim.

  2. “Few books of the Bible are more significant than Deuteronomy”

    As Dr. Tim Laniak (Gordon-Conwell) stresses, if there is only one OT book you are going to read, it should be Deut. It is the “hinge” of the OT.