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Book by Book - Deuteronomy

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

The opening line of John Calvin’s Institutes says, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[1] Calvin makes the point that the most important things we can know are God and ourselves. Furthermore, if we are to know God, we must know ourselves, and if we are to know ourselves we must know God. A true knowledge of the one enables a true knowledge of the other.

If we seek to have a knowledge of God and a knowledge of his people, the book of Deuteronomy is one of the best places to look. It “is the most important book in the Old Testament for writing an Old Testament theology.”[2] J. Gordon McConville says, “It…goes to the heart of the great issues of the relationship between God and human beings.”[3] It is a book that later prophets will turn to for theological content about God. It lays out the contours of the covenantal relationship between God and his people. It is the book most often quoted by Jesus. When he was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the book of Deuteronomy was on his lips. It is referenced fifty times in the New Testament. Only Isaiah and Psalms are quoted more. And yet it is a seldom preached and seldom taught book in most churches. There is a great deal of gold to be mined from the pages of this book.

Deuteronomy was written by Moses. The text of the book makes this claim in several places (1:1, 5; 31:22). Mosaic authorship is also claimed in other places of the Old Testament (2 Kings 14:6) and by the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus considered Moses as the author. Now, this isn’t to say that portions, like the last chapter which details Moses’ death, were not added to the book’s current form. This kind of addendum does nothing to negate the authorship of Moses. This book was likely written on the plains of Moab in 1400BC as the Israelites prepared to enter into the Promised Land.

As the people prepared to enter into the Promised Land, Moses is not going to go with them. This book is a restatement or reiteration of the covenant God had made with the people. It is a covenant renewal before they take the land. This is seen in the very structure of the book of Deuteronomy. A covenant treaty included a few basic parts. The first part is a historical prologue where the nature of the relationship between the two covenant parties is repeated. Then there are stipulations expressed. These are the responsibilities of one party to the other. Finally, there would be a listing of the blessings and curses. This is what happens when the stipulations are not met. This is basic structure of the book of Deuteronomy.

Chapters 1-4 are a historical prologue. Moses recounts for the people how they ended up on the shores of the Jordan looking over into the land. The wilderness years and the defeat of Og and Sihon are repeated. The people are reminded who they are and who God is.

Chapters 4-26 are the stipulations. The Ten Commandments are repeated (ch. 5). The people are called to love the Lord. The Shema declares that the Lord is One. He is simple (i.e. without parts). He is unchangeable. He is without beginning or source. He simply is. And so, Israel is to love God with a single-eyed devotion. Various laws are enumerated to define what this relationship looks like. These are laws to protect the holy name of God and to protect those who bear his image. They are laws about how the people are to love God and love their neighbor.

The third part, chapters 27-30, detail the blessings and curses of the covenant. The Land before them is most closely related to the blessings of the covenant. Their capture and retention of the Land becomes a “theological barometer” of their obedience to the covenant. And unlike most treaty formulations, the Lord provides a process of repentance for Israel’s sins. The Lord’s gracious blessings will overcome the people’s transgressions.

As the people stood on the shores of the Jordan River and cast a wishful eye over to the land, God renewed his covenant with them. He was their God and they were his people. That’s where Deuteronomy gets its English name. Deutero means second and –nomy comes from the Greek word nomos which means law. It is the second giving of the Law, which itself is a pattern of God’s covenantal treaty with the people. The nature and character of God’s holiness and graciousness are repeated to encourage a sinful and yet chosen people. God would magnify himself through his election and blessing of a sinful but redeemed people.

[1]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; vol. 1; The Library of Christian Classics; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 35.

[2] Bruce K Waltke and Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 479.

[3] Quoted in, Waltke and Yu, 479.

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