Friday, July 08, 2011

Law in Deuteronomy

Not long after I was baptised, my Pastor at the time advised me to get stuck in to the book of Deuteronomy, on the grounds that this book is the key to the OT.  Great advice.  Since then I've spent a lot of time in this foundational charter of the life of Israel.  This covenant document explains the history of Israel and underpins the prophetic critiques and warnings of Israel's national life.  So what does Deuteronomy have to say about the Law?

1.  The relationship between Yahweh and Israel is not fundamentally based on Law.  The historical preamble to the covenant (chapters 1 to 3) makes it clear that if this were the case Israel would be doomed - it is a sorry history of rebellion, focussed on the idolatry committed at the very foot of Horeb.  That Israel's entry into covenant with Yahweh is in fact based on a unilateral elective action of God is made clear in, for example, Deut 7:6-11 and Deut 9:4-12.  This is good news for Israel, because it extends hope for restoration after the prophesied exile which will follow their neglect of the Law - Deut 30:1-10.

2.  The Law which is given to Israel is good for them.  In Deut 8:1-10, for example, a description of the blessing which Yahweh has showered on Israel in the wilderness, and which he will multiply to them in the land, is intermingled with the a description of the Law.  The Law will be the foundation of Israel's reputation for greatness and wisdom amongst the nations - Deut 4:6-8.  Moreover, the keeping of the Law is repeatedly associated with rejoicing, for example the giving of the tithe.

3.  Israel can keep the Law.  When Moses says 'What does Yahweh require of you..?' and proceeds to list a series of things including keeping all the statutes and commandments of the Law (Deut 10:12-13), it is clear from the context that we are meant to think that this is only the minimum which ought to follow from the goodness of God which has been recounted in previous chapters.  By the time we get to chapter 30, Moses is able to say "this commandment is not too hard for you".  Nothing too difficult has been asked of Israel.  They can keep this Law, and moreover it makes no sense for them not to do so - it flows logically from the grace they have been shown in the past, and carries with it promises of future blessing.

4.  Israel will not keep the Law.  Moses' last recorded words are a blessing on the tribes of Israel; but before this he has seen into their future, and given them a song which predicts their future apostasy.  Indeed, Moses knows that after his death Israel "will do what is evil in the sight of Yahweh" (Deut 31:24-29).  Why?  Not because the Law is too hard for them, but because their hearts are not right - they have not yet been given a heart to obey (Deut 29:4).  This is a promise for the future (Deut 30:6), after the exile.  A time is envisaged when Israel will be changed and will keep the Law.

As well as helping us to understand the OT, isn't this important for our understanding of the NT?


  1. I like and agree with all of that. I too had it impressed upon me to spend time in Deuteronomy when I was a young Christian. Think I remember being told Jesus quotes it more often than any other book (maybe after Psalms...)

    Anyway, only thing I'd add is that the law in Deuteronomy shows that it's purpose is to kill/curse by the extensive list of curses at the end of the book, coupled with the expectation you mention in pt.4. So I think it is a little more negative about the people than the overall feel of your post.
    Through that death (exile), God will give the new life (restoration) that we receive in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Of course there is a lot of Gospel in Deut too, and I don't want to put it all in the category of 'law'!

  2. I really liked the post as well but maybe for opposite reasons to Dave. I liked the positive slant on the role of law. I think its important to look back when understanding the law. When you look at the bits of Deut. 4 & 8 that Dan quoted in light of the creation account you get a picture of a new Eden where God's people will again image God to the world. So for me the law is partly a mandate for re-creation, for what Israel are able to be (see Deut. 30:11-14).

    I'm not sure if this is where Dan is going but if you start seeing the law as good and its role as a blueprint for re-creation I wonder if the Law/ Gospel distinction starts breaking down.

    Just a thought...

    Dan really enjoying this stuff do keep it coming.

  3. Thanks for kinds comments, and apologies for keeping you waiting for a response.

    Dave, I do think Deuteronomy is pretty negative about the people, but there are flashes of light - they are praised for their fear of God when he speaks to them from Horeb, for example. On the curses, could one not equally well argue that the purpose is to give life, on the basis of the long list of blessings mentioned?

    Tom, I think seeing things with creation in the background is really helpful - and yes, I do think it begins to break down the law/gospel dichotomy. More on this to come.

  4. Hi Dan,

    Sorry to have been away for a little bit.

    It is an interesting exercise to count up the number of blessings and compare them to the number of curses.

    The flashes of light are mere flashes. In Moses' summary of the last 40yrs in Deut 29 he says "to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear". It is the curses that he predicts will come (29:27) and Exile seems to be a certainty in Deut 30. Pretty bleak about the law, even if there God himself offers them hope that the law with its blessings and curses earned does not.