When I was a kid, my family took a trip to Washington, DC. Among the thousand touristy things we did on that trip, I got to see the Constitution. Under inches of glass, sits this piece of paper that, ideally, holds the whole government this big and influential nation together. Founding documents shape community. This is why the book of Deuteronomy matters. It shapes community for God’s mission in the world.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel starts Jesus’ ministry with a story of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted, and with each temptation, Jesus quotes lines from Deuteronomy to the devil. Later, when Jesus is quizzed by some Pharisees about the most important commandment, he again quotes Deuteronomy. For the gospel writers, Deuteronomy was quick on the lips of Jesus.
Deuteronomy presents a plan for Humanity 2.0. It’s God, expressing to a new generation, his plan for how human beings are supposed to live and get along in the world. Much of the Old Testament refers back to Deuteronomy. The prophets, especially, sound the alarm when this covenant is being forgotten.
In the Pentateuch, or the books of Moses, Genesis tells of creation and fall and God’s redemptive plan starting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Exodus gives the story of God’s deliverance of this family from the slavery of Egypt, along with the giving of the Law and the building of the tabernacle. Leviticus is a book about how God wants to be worshiped. Numbers is an anthology of stories from the wilderness wanderings of 40 years. Deuteronomy caps off this whole journey. It’s one single sermon, beginning to end, given by Moses remembering all that’s happened prior to entering the Promised Land. Deuteronomy reminds us that God keeps promises.
Deuteronomy as a foundational document
Critical to our understanding of Deuteronomy is our recognition of its pattern as a standard treaty between two parties in the ancient world. Here’s how Sandra Richter describes the standard suzerain/vassal treaty in the ancient near east:
“Here one party was clearly more powerful than the other and therefore had the right to demand submission on the part of his weaker ally. As a result, in this sort of treaty the partners referred to each other either as ‘father and son,’ or as ‘lord and servant.’ Again, the metaphor of family was used to explain the political relationship established.
“In this sort of covenant the suzerain had authority over the land and people of the vassal nation. Although the suzerain typically allowed his vassal to continue to rule his own people (and thereby maintain his own government and traditions), legally the suzerain owned all of the vassal’s land and produce. The responsibilities of a suzerain in this sort of arrangement always involved military protection.
“If the vassal was threatened by a domestic rebellion or foreign assault, the suzerain was expected to step in and defend. It was also common for a suzerain to initiate this relationship by gifting his vassal with land. Hence, often the vassal owed his territory and even his throne to the suzerain. If the vassal broke covenant, he forfeited his land grant.”
The ancient near east several big kingdoms (like Egypt and Assyria) and lots of little kingdoms (like Israel, Edom, Moab, and Ammon). So a big king would make an alliance with a lesser kingdom, offering military protection and land for loyalty. The resources of the big king became the resources of the lesser kingdom. The enemies of the lesser kingdom became the enemies of the big king.
Like the Incarnation, this is God speaking a language humanity understands. This is what Deuteronomy is: God making one of these official treaties with Israel. This is God offering land and protection to Israel in exchange for undivided loyalty.
These ancient treaties had several standard pieces, and we see each of them in Deuteronomy. There’s a preamble or title, where the superior party makes their introduction. We find this at the beginning of the Ten Commandments. Next is a historical prologue that outlines the history of these two parties (Deuteronomy 1–3). Next follows the list of obligations (i.e., laws) the lesser party is asked to follow (Deuteronomy 12–26). There is a provision for the public reading of this treaty, followed by a calling of witnesses and the rewards of obedience (blessings) and the consequences of rebellion (curses).
Deuteronomy and the inner life
Deuteronomy as a book draws us deeper into the heart of God. Simply put, Deuteronomy answers the question: What does God’s design for human beings look like? For the first time, God at Sinai, articulated to a group of fallen human beings how non-fallen beings are supposed to act like. Unbroken humans are loyal to Yahweh. They keep Sabbath. They don’t murder or covet. In Deuteronomy, we find this law code restated and summarized for a new generation.
The series of laws that make up the bulk of Deuteronomy can be grouped into three categories: laws about worship, laws about leadership, and laws about community life. These are the things God cares about, and these are things that human beings tend to really mess up: how we worship God, how we do leadership, and how we live together. Deuteronomy guides us in remedying these.
While there are numerous passages in Deuteronomy leading us into spiritual formation, one stands out above the others. Perhaps the most significant statement is the Shema:
“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
This is a foundational confession of faith, a way of orienting our lives in relationship to who God is. Scot McKnight calls this “the Jesus Creed,” because Jesus quotes this when asked about the greatest commandment. McKnight suggests this passage was used as a daily prayer by spiritually devout in Jesus’ day.
Deuteronomy and the mission life
The wilderness as the physical location of God’s formation of Israel as a community of redemptive agents in the world stands as a significant idea in the Moses stories. If Exodus is the welcome into the wildness, than Deuteronomy is the invitation out of the wilderness. God works in us so that we can go out into our neighborhoods on God’s behalf.
Deuteronomy is for people in liminal spaces—places in-between, not where you’re from but not yet where you’re going. Deuteronomy finds Israel in the borderlands, eyes fixed ahead on the future, something brand new that’s never happened before. God’s formation of a people, whether Israel or you and I in our communities is not an end in itself. It’s for a purpose, a mission: the redemption of the whole world.
The creation account in Genesis 1 tells of God fashioning spaces and then making stewards who inhabit those spaces. In this way, Deuteronomy echoes the creation account. The land, promised to Abraham, with God’s presence in the tabernacle as ground zero, stands in for a new creation with Israel as a new Adam and Eve, regents of God’s kingdom. Idolatry that has saturated the humans living in Canaan has to be eradicated so that something new can begin. Israel is the “something” God is fashioning to inhabit the chaotic, anarchic space of the Promised Land.
The book of Deuteronomy provides the paradigm for what the life of faith looks like. Each of us can find our own selves in narrative movements of Deuteronomy. God has acted on our behalf. We say yes. We say no. We start fashioning God in our own image. We suffer consequences. God continues acting on our behalf. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, remembering these wilderness stories, “These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did.” Deuteronomy is a book crucial for us to understand God’s mission in the world and our place in it.
If you want to go deeper, you should check these out:
The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra Richter
Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone by John Goldingay
Deuteronomy by Walter Brueggemann
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