Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Introduction to Deuteronomy

The title of Deuteronomy is derived from the Septuagint – the translation of the Old Testament made some two hundred years before Christ. The Greek word used means “the second law”. This is somewhat of a misnomer, for it is not a second law, but the same covenantal instructions revealed at Sinai to a second generation of Israelites. According to the claims of both the Old and New Testament, it was written by Moses himself, with the probably exception of the section describing Moses’ death.

Deuteronomy contains three addresses by Moses to the Israelites poised to enter the Promised Land of Canaan after 40 years tin the desert. Since Moses would not be going in with them, he wanted them to be prepared to live in their inheritance. The orations and songs found in Deuteronomy constitute his farewell to the children of Israel; the entire book of Deuteronomy covers only about two months, including the thirty days of mourning after Moses’ death.

Moses himself stood on the divide between his earthly and heavenly life as he gave what amounts to his last will and testimony, urging the Israelites to reflect upon their past history with God: his deliverance from Egypt, his faithfulness to bless them and his holiness to judge their disobedience.

Throughout his messages, Moses emphasizes the covenant that the Israelites have with God. Obeying the covenant would bring great blessing; rebelling against it would bring certain cursing. In fact, Deuteronomy as a whole reflects the pattern of an ancient Middle Eastern covenant treaty made between a powerful Lord (sometimes called a “Suzerain”) and a lesser servant (sometimes called a “vassal”). The typical pattern of a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty with its corresponding sections in Deuteronomy is as follows:

1. A Preamble or Introduction (1:1-5)

2. A review of the past relationship between the parties (1:6-4:49)

3. Basic stipulations that ensured fidelity to the treaty (5:1-26:19)

4. Sanctions in the form of blessings and curses (27:1-30:20)

5. Witness to the treaty (32:1)

6. A provision for the storage and reading of the treaty (31:1-34:12)

Incidentally, this is evidence for Deuteronomy being of a very early date, as this form of covenant treaty fits with the form of treaties used during Moses' era, but not of later eras.

Just as the Israelites desperately needed God to deliver them from the bondage of Egypt, and to preserve them in the desert, they would likewise never be able to take their inheritance without the power of their covenant-keeping God. They would have to cross the Jordan River and conquer walled cities and hostile inhabitants. Without God’s direction and power, their task would be impossible.

In Moses’ first address (Deut. 1-4), he looks back over the history of Israel: their unbelief as well as the victories God wrought on their behalf, with a concluding appeal for them to walk in obedience. The sober fact was that only Joshua and Caleb remained of the generation that came out of Egypt: all the rest were dead because of their unbelief.

In his second address (Deut. 5-26), Moses looks up to God and lays out the Israelites responsibility as God’s special covenantal people – they were to represent Him and His ways in the earth. They are to obey Him in things great and small.

In his third address (Deut. 27-33), Moses looks out to warn the Israelites of the consequences of disobedience:

“I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendents may live, that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days” (Deut. 30:19, 20).

Moses exhorted the Israelites to be faithful to the covenant and receive God’s intended blessings and instructed the Israelites to renew their covenant once they entered the Promised Land in a special ceremony upon two mountains. The Levites were to recite on the barren peak of Mount Ebal the curses awaiting disobedience to God’s law, and on the lush slopes of Mount Gerizim the wonderful blessings ensured to those obeying God’s law.

Finally, this grand old man of God, now one hundred and twenty years old, departed from the stage of history. He sang a song for Israel (Deut. 32), climbed Mount Nebo, viewed the Promised Land, and died on the edge of the land he had labored to bring the Israelites to. There God buried him; where, no one knows.

Yet hundreds of years later, Moses’ feet finally did rest on Israel’s soil.

Deuteronomy was one of Jesus’ favorite Bible books; Jesus often quoted from it and used it to fend off the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4). And He appeared in glory with its author on the slopes of Mount Hermon north of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 17:1-3).

By God’s grace, Moses had finally entered the Promised Land.

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