Dealing with Deuteronomy

Dealing with Deuteronomy

Bradley Trout, GWC ERF (Evangelical Research Fellowship) PhD student


“Amazingly… I do not recall hearing one sermon on [Deuteronomy] over my seventy years of attending church services.”

That from American Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke. It doesn’t seem to be an isolated instance either. I’ve spent half the time Waltke has in church and have also never heard a sermon on Deuteronomy. I recently did a talk on this book for a group of Bible study leaders. When I asked them who had received teaching on Deuteronomy, only one raised her hand. Why is this book so neglected?

There are many reasons why Deuteronomy is ignored, but perhaps foremost among them is antipathy to what we consider old laws. This antipathy (perhaps subconsciously) extends to the Old Testament in general. “It’s basically law,” someone might say, “the New Testament is about grace.” “That stuff is done away with,” someone else might say. Whether you would say this or not, there is no denying that in practice the Old Testament – and Deuteronomy in particular – is neglected. And, as I hope to show below, this is a shame.

Here’s another staggering quote from Waltke:

“Deuteronomy has had greater consequences for human history than any other single book. Its continuing influence is one of the major forces shaping the future of humanity.”

Read that again. Greater consequences than any other single book? Surely that’s an overstatement? Or maybe not. Consider the following:

  • It is the first place where what Jesus calls “the greatest command” is laid out (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
  • The rest of the Old Testament story (Joshua to 2 Kings) takes Deuteronomy as its point of departure. Put differently, the rest of the story looks back on Deuteronomy as the explanation for why things went the way they did for Israel.
  • Likewise, when the Old Testament prophets (e.g. Jeremiah) look back on Israel’s dreadful history, it’s through the lense of Deuteronomy that they do so.
  • Consider how important the concept of the constitution has become in modern democracy. We now have a standard by which leaders should be held to account. Is there any earlier instance of rulers being held to a standard higher than themselves than in Deuteronomy 17:14-20?
  • Jesus and the New Testament make frequent reference to Deuteronomy. In fact, it is directly quoted more than 50 times in the New Testament. Also, because it played such a role in Jesus’ ministry (e.g. in the temptation story), failure to understand it will mean failure to fully understand Jesus.

Those are some weighty considerations. They come down to this: if you don’t grasp Deuteronomy, you will struggle to grasp the Bible. Because we all want to know the Bible better (and thereby God better), it is critical that we better grasp Deuteronomy. So what is Deuteronomy about?

It’s important to see that Deuteronomy is the continuation of a story. Since Genesis 3, the question is: what will God do to restore this world? A big part of the answer comes with the founding of a people, beginning with Abraham. God promises Abraham that he will bless his descendants; there will be many of them living peacefully in a land he will give them. But there are setbacks – like landing up slaves in Egypt. God, however, continues to act powerfully for his people to fulfil his promise, rescuing them from slavery in Egypt and bringing them into a land of their own.

Deuteronomy is the story of the second generation of Israelites after the Exodus. Here they are about to enter that very land. So it’s a massive moment in Israel’s history. Moses, who has led them all this way, gives them a series of addresses – sermons – about what God has done, how he brought them to this point, and what they should do if they want to flourish in the land. Moses is not going to enter with them, and so this comes across as a series of ‘final pleas.’ Everything in Deuteronomy should be read in light of this part of God’s story.

The book covers some very important subjects in the Bible: God’s supremacy over other gods, God’s revelation of himself, God’s election of and covenant with his people, God’s law – what he wants from his people, and so on. Each of these themes can be picked up in their embryotic stage here in Deuteronomy and traced through the story of Scripture to see how that theme finds its climatic expression in Jesus.

Importantly, Deuteronomy builds on the concept of covenant in Scripture. It is a “covenant renewal document.” God is the King of this people and Deuteronomy lays out the terms of this arrangement between the King and his subjects. Deuteronomy spells out how God’s people show they are his people during that period of history. The gist of it though is given in 6:4-5:

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.

The rest of the book unpacks how his people are to demonstrate their allegiance to him – how they are to love him. The rest of the Old Testament story shows that God’s people did a poor job of covenant-keeping, but that God would do something amazing anyway in order to fulfil his promises to Abraham and his descendants.

The message of the New Testament is basically that God has done that through Jesus, who inaugurates the new covenant based on his faithfulness on his people’s behalf. Now the people of God gather around Jesus for the fullest expression yet of God’s will.

Here’s a basic summary of Deuteronomy’s message:

Because God loved you (he made a covenant with Abraham’s children and redeemed them from Egypt), you must love him (acknowledge Yahweh is Lord and obey his word as revealed Moses); then you will prosper in the land (as the people of Palestine).

For the Christian standing on this side of the New Testament story, that message is similar but with important differences (compare with previous paragraph):

Because God loved you (he inaugurated a new covenant with Abraham’s children by faith and redeemed them from sin and death), you must love him (acknowledge Jesus is Lord and obey his word as revealed by Jesus himself); then you will prosper in the land (as the people of the new creation).

Deuteronomy, then, when understood as it progresses through history until its climax in the story of Jesus, has much to say to God’s people today. In a future blog, we will look at how we apply Deuteronomy’s laws in the modern world. In the meantime – maybe for the first time? – give Deuteronomy a read.