by Rev. Julian Duckworth
Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Bible and it is the last of the five books of the Torah or the Law of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Along with the previous four books it is said to have been written by Moses and this is implied in the opening words, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel” and also elsewhere in the book(1). The opening phrase is the Hebrew title of the book, ‘Devarim’ or ‘The Words’ but the title we have, Deuteronomy, means ‘the second law’. Moses speaks in the first person four times in the book(2), and later references in the Old Testament sometimes refer to Moses as the author of Deuteronomy. Jesus also spoke of Moses as its author(3) as do later New Testament writers. Words from Deuteronomy are quoted ninety times in the New Testament, and perhaps most significantly, Jesus quoted from this one book three times in answering the Devil during his own temptations in the wilderness(4).
The period of time covered by Deuteronomy is about two months; it is set in the time just before the children of Israel cross over the River Jordan to go into the land of Canaan. The first part of the book is a review of the journey through the wilderness and of the Lord’s guidance over Israel up to this point of their arrival at the Jordan. The middle part of the book is a call to the people to obey the Lord their God and to observe all that He has commanded them when they eventually go into the land. The last part of the book is a re-presentation of the laws that were first given at Mount Sinai, although earlier on it includes the Ten Commandments which are given again in chapter 5 as they are also in Exodus chapter 20. These re-stated laws in the last part of the book, though, are not simply a repetition but an enlargement, and they now have a very humane and tolerant quality in Deuteronomy. There is a tradition that the scroll of the law that was found during the renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22) was in fact the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy. The final chapters are very moving; Moses is told by God to go up Mount Nebo where he is shown the whole of the land which the children of Israel will enter. But because he had doubted God at an earlier point and struck the rock twice at Kadesh, God told Moses that he himself would not enter the land but would die before they crossed the Jordan. Moses then blesses each of the twelve tribes of Israel by name before he dies and is buried on the east side of the Jordan.
Person to Person
What gives this book such an appeal – and also makes it my own favourite book of the Bible – is that a sizeable portion of it (chapters 6-11) is so powerfully intimate, almost as if the Lord is speaking to us person to person. Wonderfully clear reminders and instructions follow on the heels of each other, as though a father is speaking gently and encouragingly to his own child about the plan, the future, the hopes, the need for careful obedience. You can read through these particular six chapters for yourself, and I believe you will be deeply touched by their directness. I will simply quote two passages, and add a third from later in Deuteronomy.
“For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because he would keep the oath which he swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Therefore know that the Lord you God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love him and keep his commandments.” (Deuteronomy 7.6-9)
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10.17-19)
and from chapter 32.10-12:
“He found him in a desert land and in the wasteland, a howling wilderness; he encircled him, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up his nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them, carrying them on its wings, so the Lord alone led him, and there was no foreign god with him.”
Each of those readings, and so many others in these particular chapters, brings home to us how purposeful the Lord is and how important each of us is to him. When we say things like “The Lord loves us as if he only had each one of us to love” or, “The Lord knows us more than we will ever know ourselves”, we are trying to express almost inexpressible things. Deuteronomy seems to be written on that very level.
The Many Laws
Another wonderful characteristic in Deuteronomy is the great number of life-related laws. These come from around chapters 14 or 15 to chapters 25 and 26. Laws on specific situations such as warfare, sexual behaviour, unsolved murder, and a whole set of miscellaneous general laws, many of which are echoed later in the Old Testament and even more so in the Gospels. Here’s one which the Lord refers specifically to in the gospels: “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray, and hide yourself from them; you shall certainly bring them back to your brother.” (Deuteronomy 22.1; see Luke 14.5) As an example of the humanitarian nature of some of these laws, here are just two consecutive ones, from Deuteronomy 24:5 and 24.6. “When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home one year, and bring happiness to his wife whom he has taken.” “No man shall take the lower or the upper millstone in pledge, for he takes one’s living (livelihood) in pledge.” Such laws as these are amazing for the times in which they were given by the Lord. No doubt within each of them are levels of deeper meaning using the various symbols and correspondences, but that apart, even the literal commandment as it stands shows great compassion and a feeling for human need.
Possibly the Very Best Chapter
I’ve already mentioned that Deuteronomy ranks as my personal favourite book of the Bible. And there is also one chapter in it that ranks as my favourite chapter – Deuteronomy chapter 8.
I like it because it deals with possibly the most important realisation we can ever have: that the Lord is always leading us towards a life that He intends for us and wishes us to have and enjoy, and secondly the warning against us becoming forgetful of the Lord, taking things for granted, and becoming too dependent on ourselves. This is the great theme or two themes of Chapter 8 which I can just read over and over again. It falls into two neat halves: verses 1-10 and verses 11-20. It is also from this chapter that the Lord drew his answer to the Devil in the wilderness, when he was commanded to turn these stones into bread. Jesus quoted verse 3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” and thereby rendered the invidious temptation to abuse his power for external proof and evidence to no effect. Powerful stuff!
And in the second part of the chapter, I really appreciate the writing which brings out so cleverly what happens as we lose sight of the Lord and become increasingly self-mindful. Look at verse 11: “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments…. Lest ….” and then there are five long verses giving an outline of all the abundance that is ours as we look at what we have achieved, and a whole catalogue of what the Lord in fact has done for us, but by now it is of little account because we’ve forgotten it all in the process of seeing what we’ve been able to build and increase …. before the end of the sentence and the end of the warning comes with a bang in verse 17, “then you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.”” That’s a wonderful piece of narrative which brings its point home magnificently.
Etcetera ad infinitum I could keep drawing your attention to more and more in this great book. Here though are just a few morsels to make you stop what you are doing, take your Bible and sit down and read through the whole of Deuteronomy with hopefully new eyes.
Look at chapter 6 verses 4 and 5, and you find the first of the Two Great Commandments, “Hear O Israel” immediately followed by the command to teach these laws diligently to your children (do we do anything like that these days?) and talk about them and have them written where you will keep on seeing them again and again. They say that affirmations (totally positive statements such as “I am always being blessed unceasingly”) work best if they are said over and over again, and that to have them written on your bathroom mirror and fridge and cheque book keeps them before you. The precedent for that is right there in these verses 6-9. Being ever-mindful of true life.
Then go to chapters 27 and 28 for a great contrast. Half the tribes were to go and stand on Mount Gerizim and the other half of the twelve tribes were to go and stand on Mount Ebal, and there listen to the pronouncement of both curses and blessings: cursings that will inevitably come from a life of disobedience to the Lord’s ways and a life of blessings that will inevitably come from a life of obedience to the voice of the Lord. And very powerfully, after each curse, all the people shall say, “Amen.”
Or go to chapter 30 verses 11-14 for a personal reminder that the commandment of God is not a long way away, not over there, nor up high, up in heaven, over the sea, but is as close to home as possible, “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
And a good place to end on perhaps is from chapter 31, where Moses, now a hundred and twenty years old today – his birthday! – calls Joshua to him and commissions him to be the leader of the people as they go over the Jordan to take possession of the land. And with words that echo the beginning of the book of Joshua (the next book), Moses says, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid; for the Lord your God, he is the one who goes with you. He will be with you, he will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.”
Some references were given as numbers in the first paragraph. Here are the passages concerned.
(1) 1.1; 31.9; 31.22; 31.24-27
(2) 1.16; 1.18; 3.21; 29.5
(3) Matthew 19.7-9 (see Deut. 24.1-4); John 5.45-47 (see Deut. 18.15)
(4) Luke 4: see Deut. 8.3; 6.13; 6.16
Helpful books from a New Church consideration include
The Book of Deuteronomy Explained – Maclagan
A Study of Deuteronomy – A. Payne
Sermons on The Israelites – Clowes
Journey of the Israelites – Howard
From Egypt to Canaan Bayley – Julian Duckworth