As a church we’re spending time in the Old Testament book Deuteronomy at the moment. Though written thousands of years ago, the book of Deuteronomy is nearly unmatched in its relevance for the affluent Western church of today living in a wealthy, ‘smorgasbord-of-things-to-worship’ world. At its heart, Deuteronomy records the covenantal relationship between God and His people. Perched on the edge of the Promised land Moses words to Israel emphatically point to how in Christ God chooses us so that we can choose Him and so “choose life” (Deut. 30:19).
To aid our ‘listening’ to Deuteronomy in e-news we’re including successive excerpts from an essay Gary Millar has written on Deuteronomy.
The Nature of Obedient Response
Deuteronomy contains many general descriptions of the response sought by Yahweh from his people (see e.g. 10:12–13), but it is in the collection of laws in chapters 12–26 that the specifics of obedience are defined. The laws present Israel with the opportunity to keep moving forward in obedience to God, even after they have settled in the land. At some points the theological dimension of this legal material is extremely clear, while at others it is well hidden in what appears to be a jumble of very specific case law (e.g. 25:11–12). Overall, however, these chapters provide clear evidence of how the Deuteronomic theology of covenant and journey shapes the ethics of God’s people. The ethical demands of these chapters can be summarized under three broad headings.
Obedience and worship. The laws consistently declare that the primary responsibility of Israel in Canaan is to worship Yahweh, and to worship him at the place and in the way that he chooses (see ch. 12). This worship is regulated by divine revelation; the place and the manner of worship are both determined by God’s sovereign choice. Israel must constantly listen to the divine word, allowing it to shape their worship, and must keep on the move, regularly going to the place chosen by God to enjoy his presence. Conversely, Israel must repudiate the ways of Canaan. As God’s chosen people, their whole life must reflect the distinctiveness which God requires. This is the only way to live obediently in the land.
Obedience and the land. In Deuteronomy, worship is inseparably connected to land, for the land is pre-eminently the place where God is encountered. Yahweh brings Israel out of Egypt and gives them the land, first that they should enjoy its bounty, but ultimately that his people should enjoy his company (12:7; 16:1, 13–14). This is why the nation is called to the place of Yahweh’s choice; there, at the heart of the land, they can enjoy the presence of the Lord. Enjoyment of the milk and honey of Canaan, won in the dark night of the Passover, is intimately linked to enjoyment of a relationship with Yahweh himself. It is vital, then, that nothing is done to defile this land; such defilement must inevitably affect the people’s relationship with the owner of the land.
Obedience and human relationships. Not only defilement of the land interrupts Israel’s relationship with God, but also the breakdown of relationships among the people. They are one people serving one God in one land, they must do everything in their power to maintain justice and right relationships, equality and equity, so that the relationship for which they have been set apart can be enjoyed in all its fullness.
These three simple distinctives are all direct theological consequences of the Exodus event. The nation has been redeemed, and now belongs to God. As his unique people, they must submit to him in worship. He has redeemed them from Egypt to enjoy a relationship with him, and to do so in his land. They must not treat one another in a way which is incompatible with how he has treated them in redeeming them. Now that they have become an Exodus people, a people of journey, they are destined to keep moving forward with Yahweh, their redeemer God.
In the Exodus, Israel experiences God’s grace. At Horeb, God explains that experience and begins to describe what it means to be his people. In Moab, Moses, God’s spokesman, applies the theology of the [p. 163] Exodus and the laws of Horeb to the new life facing Israel in Canaan. Israel must respond to the ethical demands which these laws place upon them.
This reading of the laws is supported by the content of chapter 26 with which it is concluded. 26:1–11 describes a paradigmatic response not only to the grace of Yahweh, but also to the declaration of his laws. At the place God has chosen, Israel is to make their response to God. The basic affirmation to be made by the worshipper (v. 3) is that the land is the gift of Yahweh. The longer credal statement (vv. 5b–10a) is focused on the starting point and destination of Israel’s journey. The transition from landless rabble to landed nation is, in one sense, complete; Israel now has a new land and a ‘new’ law. ‘Lawcode’ is an inadequate title for Deuteronomy 12–26, which is not a list of legal statutes, but law pressed into the service of theological preaching, law set in the context of a response to grace. In this respect Deuteronomy is the prototype of all the Bible’s subsequent ethical teaching.
The all-embracing obedient response to grace envisaged here is reflected in much of the NT. Paul in Romans 12:1–2 declares that an obedient response to God consists of worship, but this worship is expressed in the details of life (rather than in temple rituals). Whilst in Christ the land is no longer the locus of God’s relationship with his people, the integrity and purity of their relationship with Christ, which is conceived in personal terms, must be guarded carefully (e.g. 1 Pet. 1:14–16; 2:9–11), not least for evangelistic reasons. The third dimension of the obedient response (human relationships) is the most prominent in the NT. In view of the mercy God has shown to his people, they are to love one another (e.g. John 15:12–17; 1 Cor. 12–13; 1 John 3:16–20). Thus the theological-ethical content of Deuteronomy makes an important contribution to the theology of the whole Bible.
J. G. Millar, “Deuteronomy,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, InterVarsity Press
Downers Grove, 2000, 159-165.