Deuteronomy: Theological High Points

DeuteronomyThe word Deuteronomy means “repetition of the law”. However, Deuteronomy does not give a “second law” but instead, provides an important summary of the history of the wilderness and organization of the legal material. The structure of the book of Deuteronomy mirrors the structure of a vassal treaty. Scholars have been able to date the book, comparing its structure to the various ANE treaty structures, confidently dating it to the time of Moses. Deuteronomy is an official document ratifying a formal relationship between the Lord and Israel, with the Lord as suzerain and Israel as vassal. The book represents the theological capstone of Moses’ teachings on the law and the covenant.

The structure and organization of Deuteronomy coincide with the Ten Commandments. Thus, for one to truly understand the stipulations in chapters 4-26, one must understand that there are four general issues dealt with in this section: authority, dignity, commitment and rights and privileges. The Decalogue is ‘expanded’ in Deuteronomy, presenting detailed examples of how to obey each commandment.  Yahweh has kept his promises and will continue to do so; rendering Him worthy of the respect and status He demands. God draws key distinctions between himself and the pagan gods of the ANE, such as the fact that God cannot be mediated by an image and that he will not hold those guiltless who do not take Him seriously.

deutScholars have debated the balance of grace and the law present in the Old Testament. However, this would have puzzled the ancient Israelites for whom there was hardly any greater display of God’s grace than that demonstrated in His giving of the law. God’s grace is evidenced in the fact that he chose to reveal Himself and establish expectations for His people. The Israelites were to be a people set apart, righteous in the eyes of God. Thus, the Hebrews did not view the law as burdensome, but instead attempted to achieve all standards set before them.

One of the major theological implications of the book of Deuteronomy is the fact that Yahweh establishes guidelines for a king. The Lord said that a king should be an Israelite, one who does not multiply horses for himself, one who does not multiply wives, or one who is obsessed with silver and gold. Chariots were the major military weapon of the time, meaning that a king should not be concerned about building military might because the Lord will fight on behalf of the Israelites. It was commonplace for kings to exchange women as a sign of their loyalty to one another, thus a king should be focused more on God than he is about obtaining women and many wives. One last major stipulation established by Yahweh is found in Deuteronomy 17:18-20 “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left.” A king should know the Torah, reflect on the nature of God daily, and ensure that his heart says set in the ways of the Lord.

Chart of DeuteronomyThe book of Deuteronomy, in chapters 5-11 set out the basic rules for possessing the Promised Land. The primary threat to the Israelites is the overwhelming paganism present in the ANE. The Hebrew people are to remain exclusive in their loyalty to Yahweh, instructing their children to do the same. Moses recounts the history of the Hebrew people, reiterating the fact that they are called to bear the image of God, possess the promise land, and trust Yahweh. The Lord refines the faith and trust of His chosen people, humbling them to identify what is in their hearts and whether or not they will keep His commandments. Ultimately, the book of Deuteronomy, much like the book of Romans in the New Testament, is one of the most influential theological books in the Bible.

A modern reader of Deuteronomy should focus their study on the covenant form of the text. Adhering to the traditional format of an ANE vassal treaty, even the structure of the book serves to reinforce the idea of God’s covenant with His chosen people. The book recounts and expands on the Decalogue, making it clear that the law was never intended to be a mechanical list of inflexible rules. Rather, it provides entry into the whole matter of true piety and true morality. Deuteronomy is the book that Jesus quoted the most during his ministry. Thus, one can infer that it carries the most relevant theological emphasis for today’s society. God renewed his covenant with His people in preparation of their entering the Promise Land. Likewise, the Lord fulfilled the law by sending His Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. Therefore, like the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord has established a new covenant with humanity, offering His gift of salvation to not only the Hebrews, but gentiles as well. Ultimately, one should remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:37, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself”, which directly stems from Deuteronomy 6:4,”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.” If one truly loves the Lord, they will have an intrinsic desire to obey all that He commands.

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