Deuteronomy is Moses's swan song. It is his speech to the nation of Israel at the border of the long-awaited promised land. If you've ever experienced the blessing of being on a team with a coach who knew how to give a good pep talk, you will recognize Deuteronomy. Celebrated longtime coach Moses gives a locker room pep talk to his most talented young team ever right before they start their state championship game. This is Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy tells Israel who it is and what the LORD expects them to be. Their covenant relationship with the LORD is the centerpiece to this self-understanding. That relationship should exist like that of a child to a parent in a virtuous cycle of love, obedience, and blessing. More than any other book in the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy assumes that the reader is familiar with each of the other four books to make sense of this covenant relationship.
Deuteronomy is structured in three sections. The first section from chapters 1 through 11 is all about listening to the LORD and responding to the LORD in obedience, because of the loving covenantal relationship you have with Him. The middle section, from chapter 12 through 26, is like a second book of law, which is what the name Deuteronomy means, because it has a whole bunch of commands. The final section from chapter 27 through 34 covers the choice between life and death setup by the first two sections.
The opening section begins with their immediate history of rebellion and wilderness wandering. Moses uses this history to challenge and encourage them to move beyond their immediate past and grasp with expectant hope and faith the plan that the LORD has called them to live out. The Israelites in Moses's audience are the children of the grumbling rebels who died in the wilderness. They know all about the downside to scorning the covenant. So, Moses calls them to covenant obedience and elaborates on the blessings of the covenant relationship.
This relationship works in a virtuous circle of love, obedience, and blessing. You cannot be in a covenant relationship with the LORD without either love or obedience, because each leads to the other. We contemporary Christians tend to imagine that these two are really not only separate but very different and almost opposites. In Deuteronomy, the whole Bible, and historic Christianity, these are deeply intertwined. If we reflect on them in our personal lives, instead of thinking abstractly about them, we see this relationship when we think about relationships like that between a parent and a child. Love leads to obedience, which leads to blessing that leads to more love.
Moses reminds them of the ten commandments. He does this not to be didactic, but to explicitly tell them what it looks like to be holy. This is immediately followed with the famous Shema that succinctly and completely tells Israel its self-identity. “Hear O Israel.” Israel is called by the LORD to be holy as He is holy. They are to be completely dedicated. “The LORD our God is one.” There is no lukewarm or half-way with the LORD, and neither should there be any among His people. Be singleminded and complete. Israel is in a real loving relationship with the LORD. “Love the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” What is Israel? Israel is the LORD's chosen beloved people, completely dedicated to the LORD in every aspect of life, because Israel loves the LORD.
The middle section of law and commands is an echo of the earlier law given back at Mount Sinai. For this new generation, Moses is reminding, expanding, and elaborating on the law that their parents and grandparents first heard. Like a great teacher, Moses is helping another generation to understand what the LORD requires of them.
The structure of this law section begins and ends with worship laws. In between these worship laws are laws about leaders and social justice. Immediately after this law section, Moses elaborates on the consequences of obeying or disobeying these laws. This is the blessing and curse section of the middle part. If they operate their lives within this virtuous circle of love and obedience, there will be blessing in their lives and from their lives to the rest of the world. If they do not, they will face curses like exile from the land.
One small example of this pattern is actually within the social justice piece of this section in chapter 15. The chapter begins with a command that says that every seven years there will be forgiveness of debt. Moses expands on this and also tells them even though everyone knows this release from debt will happen, people should still lend to their neighbor in need. The blessing then follows the command. The LORD will bless you. There will be no poor among you if you will only obey this command. Moses, knowing that the people will not “strictly obey the the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today” (v5), announces that the curse of poverty will result in a never ending need for Israel to give to the poor (v11).
We also see in this middle section why it is so important when reading Old Testament law to recognize that the law provides us with examples and guidance but not exhaustive and comprehensive rules. Keeping the spirit of the law requires a person to recognize that the principle underlying a command implies something broader and more encompassing than what the command specifically elaborates. We can remember the example of Jesus who in Matthew 5:28 said “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The Pharisees concocted all manner of lines in the sand to delineate exactly what did and did not constitute violations of specific commands based purely on the letter of these laws. We can recognize from what Moses himself did that the Pharisees' approach is illegitimate.
This closing section presents Israel with the central choice of life. Follow the LORD in faith and live. Disobey the LORD and walk in death. Moses, however, is no mere salesperson with a sales script that leads his audience to a final choice. He has lived with them for far too long. He knows them too well. He knows himself all too well. He knows that they will disobey. He predicts their eventual exile from the promised land.
They will disobey, Moses knows, because their self-centered hearts are not capable of giving their lives completely over to the LORD. Human hearts going back to Adam and Eve have not been able to do this. We are too overwhelmed by ourselves. Our hearts are too hardened to walk within the virtuous cycle of love and obedience. Ever since Adam and Eve, we have brought about curse and death instead of blessing and life. Nevertheless, not only does Moses prophecy the eventual exile of Israel, he also foretells the day when the LORD will radically change the landscape of the human heart so that we will listen to and love the LORD.
The closing section ends with Moses passing the baton to his successor Jacob. Jacob is the new leader of Israel. Moses's final acts are to put the law within the ark of the covenant, bless Israel, and ascend Mount Nebo. He dies looking out to the promised land that he will never enter.
The Pentateuch is a difficult part of the Bible for contemporary Christians. We often find ourselves deeply uncomfortable with its exacting demands. We might balk at one family and one people being chosen and especially called by the LORD. We might struggle to make sense of arcane customs and strange geographies.
This is okay. We are where we are. If we are to recover some capacity to understand and maybe even to love this part of the Bible, we must read. We need to read the Pentateuch for the first time and for the hundredth time. We need this part of the Bible.