Discovering Deuteronomy

Background

Sometimes we believe the mistaken idea that generations just gradually decline, that the next generation will automatically be less spiritual or godly that the last. The book of Deuteronomy gives us reason to believe otherwise. In fact, it teaches us how to respond to our heavenly father even when our earthly father(s) has set a poor example.

Deuteronomy tells us what Moses said to the second generation of Israelites after their fathers died in the wilderness. The first generation failed to enter the land (and to complete the journey from Egypt) because they continued to complain, criticize, and disobey God.

Moses spoke the words of this book to a new generation at the east side of the Jordan River across from Jericho around 1406 BC (Deut 1:6), then he wrote them down soon afterwards, just before he died (Deut 31:24).

As a new generation prepared to enter the land, Moses called them to break away from their parents’ failures. He urged them to respond to God’s faithful love and care by loving him with all their hearts and serving him faithfully (Deut 10:12; 11:2, 13).

God’s people should respond to his love and faithfulness with total, personal devotion (Deut 6:4-5). This truth applies not only to that second generation of Israelites, but to the generations that would come after them (Deut 29:29).

The Second Law

The name Deuteronomy means “second law” or “second giving of the law.” It describes how the book repeats many of the laws given to the first generation in Exodus at Sinai.

Most notably, Moses repeated the 10 Commandments (Deut 5, cf. Exo 20. He emphasized that God did not give these commands to their fathers alone; he gave them to the children, too (Deut 5:3).

Even so, this book was not just a copy of previous laws. It adapted earlier laws to their new situation as residents of the land who were no longer wandering in the wilderness.

For instance, they would not be permitted to kill and eat meat in their towns, not just at the tabernacle (Deut 12:15). They would also be allowed to store their tithes in their hometowns every third year to provide for local Levites and people in need. This was a change from their orders in the wilderness (Deut 14:28-29; 26:12; cf. Num 18:21-28).

As you read this book, you sense a strong, heartfelt tone. That’s because Moses did more than recite previous laws. He spoke with increased urgency and used a lot of repetition.

He focused less on explaining the laws and more on persuading people to obey. He did not want the next generation of Israelites to fail like their parents, though he knew that they would have similar tendencies.

A Three-Sermon Series

Deuteronomy completes the 5-vol. set (the Pentateuch) written by Moses (Deut 18:15-22). It also previews/foreshadows the messages of future Old Testament (OT) prophets.

Deuteronomy resembles the impassioned style of later prophets. It also resembles later prophets by focusing on the implications of Israel’s obedience/disobedience to God and by previewing things in Israel’s future, such as their future king (17:14-20), their settlement in the land (33:6-29), their removal from and return to the land (28:64-68; 30:1-3).

Altogether, this book is a collection of three sermons given, giving us a basic outline. The first sermon urged people to look back at what God had done for them in the past.

Sermon 1: He reflects on their experiences in the wilderness. (1:1-4:43)
  1. He introduces the sermon. (1:1-5)
  2. He recalls their journey from Horeb to Moab. (1:6-3:29)
  3. He urges them to obey God. (4:1-43)

The second sermon encouraged the people to look up to God as their motivation to obey the laws he had given them.

Sermon 2: He emphasizes crucial themes and principles from the law. (4:44-28:69)
  1. He introduces the sermon. (4:44-49)
  2. He repeats the Ten Commandments. (5:1-33)
  3. He pleads for total devotion to God. (6:1-11:32)
  4. He expounds important details of the law (12:1-26:19)

The third sermon stirred them to look forward to entering the land and living for God.

Sermon 3: He prepares the people to enter the land. (27:1-30:20)
  1. He gives instructions for entering the land. (27:1-10)
  2. He gives a series of potential blessings and curses. (27:11-28:68)
  3. He urges wholehearted commitment to the covenant. (29:1-30:20)

The book (and the entire Pentateuch) ends with final words by and about Moses as he said goodbye to Israel, handed over his role to Joshua, finished his ministry, and died.

The End: Moses finishes his ministry. (31:1-34:12)
  1. He appoints Joshua as his successor. (31:1-30)
  2. He offers a song of praise to God. (32:1-43)
  3. He delivers his final instructions to Israel. (32:44-47)
  4. He dies on Mount Nebo. (32:48-52)

A Special Covenant

In the second half of the 20th century, archeologists made an important discovery that helped us better understand this book. They discovered Hittite treaty artifacts.

These treaties were formal, legal covenants that explained the relationship between a suzerain (a powerful ruler or overlord) and their vassals (the people who were being ruled over or conquered). They laid out the terms for how the overlord would treat the people he had conquered based upon how they would respond to him.

These treaties typically featured the following elements:

  • Historical Background
  • Terms and Conditions
  • Witnesses
  • Curses/Blessings

Remarkably, the book of Deuteronomy features similar elements as follows:

  • Historical Background (1-4)
  • Terms and Conditions (5-26)
  • Blessings/Curses (27-30)
  • Witnesses (31-34)

Deuteronomy differs from a typical Hittite treaty in several notable ways.

  • It switches the order of the curses and blessings and places the witnesses at the end rather than the middle.
  • It is given to the people by Moses on behalf of God (rather than by God or the ruler himself, Deut 1:1).
  • It presents God – not some earthly overlord – as the supreme ruler.
  • It invokes different kinds of witnesses.

Ancient treaties invoked a list of false gods as witnesses, hoping people would honor the treaty out of respect for the gods. Since Israel worshiped the one true God, a different set of witnesses was required. These included:

  1. The song of Moses (31:19)
  2. The “book of the law” (a written copy of Deuteronomy which was to be read publicly every seven years at the Feast of Booths, 31:26, cf. 31:10-11)
  3. “Heaven and earth” (30:19; 31:28; 32:1)

By presenting Deuteronomy as a modified suzerain treaty, Moses presented God as the rightful ruler over the people of Israel who in turn owed their complete allegiance to him.

The LORD had proven himself to be more than the God who had conquered them and therefore deserved their allegiance. He had also proven his love to them by rescuing them from bondage and meeting all their needs. This kind of God deserved their total devotion.

Relevance for Today

Though written to the second generation of the nation of Israel centuries ago, this book remains very relevant for believers today.

The New Testament (NT) quotes from this book about 80 times, more than any OT book besides Isaiah and Psalms. References appear in every NT book except John, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, and 1-2 Peter (for a total of 21 books).

The key passage of Deuteronomy is found in 6:4-9, which Jews and Christians call the shema, which is the Hebrew word for “hear!”

  • It undergirds the basic tenets of orthodox theology and faith – that the LORD is the one, supreme God  (John 17:3; Eph 4:6; 1 Cor. 8:4, 6).
  • It encapsulates the essence of not only the Mosaic law, but also the teaching ministry of Christ (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27). He called it the greatest command.
  • Moses’ appeal for wholehearted devotion to God and repudiation of all other rivals emerges throughout the NT in various statements by the apostles (cf. Rom 12:1-2; Jam 1:27; 1 John 2:15-17, et al.). This stands to reason after all because if there is only one God and he is wholly devoted to your salvation and your care, then you should be wholly devoted to him in return.
  • The shema also has implications for Christian discipleship, at home (Eph 6:4; 2 Tim 3:15) and beyond (Matt 28:20; 2 Tim 2:2). This approach remains relevant today.

The NT quote statements from Deuteronomy as timeless principles with application for today, such as, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain” as a principle for churches (1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim 5:18, cf. Deut 25:4) and, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” as a principle for relationships (Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30, cf. Deut 32:35).

Deuteronomy presents Moses as the greatest, most exemplary OT prophet (34:10-12). More importantly, however, it foretells of another prophet who would come from the nation of Israel in the future. This unnamed prophet would be similar and superior to Moses (Acts 3:20-22; Heb 3:1-6; cf. Deut 18:15-19). He is Jesus, and to this prophet – who unlike Moses is God himself – we owe our total devotion today.

Questions for Personal Application

  • Have you accepted Jesus as the greatest prophet of all time? More importantly, have you believed on him as your God and Savior?
  • Are you totally devoted to the LORD? Or are you being pulled away from him by the weaknesses and failures of your parents or of the pagan, godless world around you?
  • Are you passionately, faithfully, and regularly teaching God’s Word to your children? What about to the people whom God has placed into your life?

The LORD is not just a God of yesterday. He is the God of today who deserves your total devotion. When you respond to him this way, you’ll experience his blessing. When you refuse, you’ll experience the difficulties that follow. Which will you choose?

Don’t let the failure of your fathers prevent you from making the right decision. The church today needs believers who are wholly devoted to the LORD regardless of whether their fathers provided them a good example. Will you follow God in this way?

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