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Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy, which means “Second Law” in Greek, overlaps the events that end Numbers, starting when Sihon, king of the Amorites, was defeated by Israel. In its form, Deuteronomy is styled closely to that of the Hittite suzerain treaty, which makes sense since it deals primarily with the covenant between God and Israel.

As stated earlier, a suzerain was a powerful king or ruler who had several vassals (weak, lesser kings) under his control. The suzerain and the vassal would come into a covenantal agreement, whereby the powerful king would promise certain protections in exchange for obedience from the vassal. A rough structure of this form is:
1) Preamble. This would identify the suzerain and the vassals, and often listed the powerful things that the suzerain had already done for the vassals as a reminder to them of their debt of fealty.

2) Stipulation. These would be the things that the vassals would be required to do, as well as the protections guaranteed by the suzerain.

3) Consequences. This section would detail the consequences that would happen if either side broke the treaty, as well as the benefits of obedience. In Scripture, these come about as the curses for disobedience and the blessings of obedience that God gives to His people.

4) Publication. Finally, there would be a public proclamation of the treaty and it would be spread far and wide so all the people in the kingdom would know the results of the treaty. At this point, there were often sacrifices made to the various gods worshiped throughout the kingdom, as ways of solidifying the agreement. Naturally, in the Bible this is replaced with sacrifices directed to YHWH only.
This rough format can be seen in Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 1:1 – 4:49 functions as the introduction section. Then, 5:1-26:19 functions as the stipulations. The consequences (blessing and curses) are found in 27:1-30:20. Finally, arrangements on how it is to be published and spread through all generations are found from 31:1-34:12.

Additionally, however, one can also find individual aspects within the various chapters. For example, chapter 8, by itself, reflects all the main aspects (excluding publication). We have an introduction in verse 1-4, which identifies God as the one giving the commands and historical evidence of what He has provided for Israel. Verse 5-18 give stipulations that the people should follow, and verse 19-20 give the consequences.

So it is not quite accurate to say that the book of Deuteronomy literally is a suzerain treaty, but it was certainly influenced by such treaties. This brings to mind the question: why is it that God would pattern His covenant after that of the Hittites? To speculate on that for just one moment (and bear in mind this is pure speculation, and thus is one of my weakest held beliefs), I think that God spoke this way because Moses, having grown up in Pharaoh’s court, would have been familiar with the language of Hittite treaties. Egypt was a global power at the time and the courts would have been quite adept at all sorts of legal transactions. Thus, because Moses was familiar with this method, God chose to reveal His covenant in this method.

This means that the fact the Deuteronomy is structured the way it is…yes, is another aspect of compatibilism. God did not just dictate verbatim everything that He desired, but He also used the skills Moses had learned to shape the text. The suzerain treaty format was exactly the type of format needed for the Covenant, and for that reason God ensured that Moses would have the skills needed by having him get rescued by the princess when he was hidden in the Nile River, so that he would grow up in the Egyptian courts. Therefore, all of this worked perfectly together so that everything that God wanted said was said in exactly the way God intended, yet at the same time no violence was done to Moses’s own will.

Now that we have examined the structure of Deuteronomy, it is time to look at the content. In this present work, I will not go into great detail on the events that we have already covered in Numbers, nor shall I go into great detail on the aspects of the Law that we have also already covered in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. I will highlight the new content, however, and will make other remarks as needed.

Deuteronomy begins “In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month” (Deuteronomy 1:3a), meaning that it begins after the wandering in the wilderness is complete since forty years had passed since they left Egypt. After briefly mentioning how they had conquered King Sihon of the Amorites, and King Og of Bashan, Moses then does a review of all that had happened. He pointed out that God had originally commanded them to take the land of Canaan forty years earlier, but the people had rebelled and, as a result, God swore that “Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh...[and] Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter” (Deuteronomy 1:35-36a, 38).

Deuteronomy 2 then goes over the wilderness years. Deuteronomy reiterates that while they were in the wilderness, the Israelites were commanded not to attack anyone, because God was not giving them the land of Edom or Moab. They stayed there thirty-eight years before all the men of war had perished (verse 14). Chapter 2 then ends with the defeat of Sihon, and Chapter 3 describes the defeat of Og. At the end of that chapter, Moses says:
“And I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, ‘O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan. But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land that you shall see’” (Deuteronomy 3:23-28).
While I have speculated in the previous chapter that perhaps Moses was barred from entering the Promised Land because of the typological reference to the Law being unable to bring someone to salvation, I do acknowledge that is just speculation. In the end, all we know for sure is that God is sovereign over whom He will have mercy upon and is never forced to be merciful to anyone who has sinned. The result here is that Moses was forbidden yet again to enter into the Promised Land, because of when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it when they needed water.

With this as the prelude, Moses begins in chapter 4: “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (Deuteronomy 4:1). Note that Moses calls the commands things that he had taught, even though ultimately they are directly from God. Again, this is because both Moses and the LORD have equal right to claim authorship of the commands, given the nature of inspiration in compatibilism.

In speaking of the Law, Moses is clear: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). He then references the destruction of the camp due to the fiery serpents because of the Baal worship at Peor, pointing out “But you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today” (verse 4).

Moses gives another reason for Israel to be obedient: because the law “will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (verse 6). In other words, obedience to the law helps affirm amongst the nations the greatness of God. And those who do the law are considered wise and understanding.

Moses then commands the people not to make idols, saying: “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (verse 23-24).

Now when we hear of jealousy, it is universally considered to be a bad thing. But the reason jealousy is immoral for men and women is because we are jealous over things that we have no right to be jealous about. For instance, we may feel jealous because another person can run faster, or has a more attractive spouse, or has more money. But none of these things are things that we are owed to us, so our jealousy is more spiteful than legitimate. When God is jealous, on the other hand, it is because He deserves all things. He is not jealous over something that is not His. Indeed, He freely gives up so much that is His that there are only a few things remaining that He actually insists on invoking due to His divine rights. One of those aspects is in the area of worship.

God wants to be worshiped the way that He wants to be worshiped. And He is jealous in this area, so we had best heed His word lest we see the consuming fire of His wrath.

As Moses continued in chapter 4, he declared the things God had done and said: “To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him” (verse 35). Furthermore, we read: “And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power...know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (verse 37, 39).

And with this we gain quite a bit of insight into God. Up until this point, we may have been wondering why God acted the way He did by rescuing Israel from Egypt. Obviously, before we had heard about His covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and clearly the fact that He keeps His word was important, so that functioned as a bit of a reason for why He acted. But why did He make the original covenant in the first place? It was “because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them.” God’s motivation in doing all this was love.

The love of God has not been spoken of very much yet in the Old Testament. In many ways, it can sometimes be difficult to see how God loved, for instance, Job, or how He could be considered loving when He destroyed the whole Earth with a flood, or sent so many plagues and disasters to Israel. His harshness toward the sins of people can sometimes make us lose sight of the fact that even in the Old Testament, His motivation was love. While I have more to say on this, I also want us to genuinely struggle with trying to reconcile these aspects. Again, God wanted us to know about His holiness and His wrath toward evil, and this was what He put forward first. If we ignore this, we do so at the great risk of never learning some critical truths about who He is.

But there is another aspect we can learn here. God is unique. He is the only real God, because there is no other god at all. The idea of monotheism was fairly unique in the ANE as virtually all (if not all) cultures believed in polytheism up until this point. The gods were, by and large, tribal deities that functioned sort of as “supermen” instead of what we would consider today as genuinely divine entities. As such, many cultures would recognize Israel’s God as a strong local god, all while believing their own gods had power too. But YHWH here points out that he alone is God, and there is none beside Him. All other gods are false gods with no power at all.

Thus we are introduced to the Ten Commandments a second time. The list is nearly identical to what we found in Exodus. The only real difference is that the command to observe the Sabbath is rooted in the exodus from Egypt in Deuteronomy, whereas in the book of Exodus it made reference to the Creation week.

We may wonder why there should be any difference at all if God is the one who is inspiring the text. This introduces us to the important distinction of just what is inspired when God inspired the Bible. Is it the actual words that are written? If so, then Christians would be in a similar position to Muslims today, in that Muslims insist that the only inspired versions of the Quran are in Arabic. But Christianity has always held to the inspiration of the ideas behind the words, in that translations have always been equally viewed as the authentic Word of God. Even the Apostles and Jesus would at times quote from the Septuagint, a Greek translation, instead of the Hebrew texts in the New Testament.

After having given the Ten Commandments in chapter 5, chapter 6 describes the greatest commandment of all. This section is called the shema, and it is recited diligently by orthodox Jews even to this day: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

The one-ness of God is manifest once again here. This aspect of monotheism was critical to get right. Of course, Christians believe that God is also a Trinity. We will discuss that in more detail once we get to the New Testament, but for now recognize that the unity of God was vastly important in a land of polytheism.

But why is this commandment so important? If one loves the LORD with all of one’s heart and soul and might, then one will be motivated to do what pleases God in all things. If one genuinely has that love for God, then one will want to know Him so fully that he or she will know what God wants and will seek to do it at all times. Truly, if one could obey this command fully, then one would need no other commands from God, because we would already be doing everything He desires. To use Martin Luther’s comment on it: “Love God and do what you want.” If you have the first part down then what you want will be what He wants and you will therefore do good in all things.

We can also flip this on its head for a moment. If the greatest commandment is to love God with everything we have, then the greatest sin must be when we break the greatest commandment. But can we ever say that we truly love God with all our heart? With all our strength? With all our soul? Are there not times—literally any time, when you think about it—when we could not “dig deeper” and find more love for Him?

If it is the case that breaking the greatest commandment would be the greatest sin, then all of us are guilty of the greatest sin every single moment of our lives, for as much as we might love God none of us ever love Him with 100% of our heart, soul, and strength. We always hold back because of the sin that is within us.

This is not to make anyone feel guilty, but rather to put this in stark measurement. The fact that the greatest commandment given is impossible for us to obey shows the problem inherent in the law. The law can never save; it can only kill.

Deuteronomy 7 begins with a stark command:
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you...and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:1-4a).
Again, this is hard to reconcile with most of our views of the love of God. It is all the more striking given the fact that the people whom God was saving were not much different from the surrounding nations, as we saw with their constant grumbling and turning toward false gods (such as with the golden calf Aaron crafted). So the Israelites were commanded to show no mercy toward people while they, themselves, were receiving mercy. What is the distinction between the other nations and Israel?
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6-10).
God did not choose Israel because of how awesome they were. He chose Israel because He loved Israel and of His own oath.

It would be far too easy to skip over this point, so let me emphasize it. The passage says that it is not because of anything that would make Israel superior that the LORD loved Israel. Rather, “it is because the LORD loves you” that God does what He does. What does this imply?

If God acts the way He does because He loves Israel, and He is acting uniquely toward Israel, then does this imply that God does not love the other nations? It is definitely a possibility, given this wording.

But surely God loves Israel because Israel was more righteous than the other lands, right? But no, we read just a few chapters later:
“Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

“Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD” (Deuteronomy 9:4-7).
From this, we learn two important things. First, Israel was in constant rebellion against God and was certainly not righteous, therefore Israel did not take over the land because of how good they were. On the other hand, we see that the other nations were wicked, and the other nations lost the land due to their wickedness.

Secondly, Israel was wicked too, as Moses points out (he continues through the history of Israel’s fall in exquisite detail all the way through the middle of chapter 10). The difference between Israel and the rest of the people was the God had promised Abraham the land, and God would make good on His promises.

What we can glean from this is something that I believe is profound. In essence, we are seeing here a microcosm of salvation as a whole. That is to say, we can never be righteous enough to earn salvation, but we can be wicked enough to be treated without mercy. Nevertheless, God is faithful to His promises, and His promises depend on Him, not on us. God chooses to love whom He wants to love. And on the basis of that love, God chooses His people in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with their own behavior, character, or righteousness. His choices are not conditioned upon anything in us; they are conditioned upon Him and His own choices.

Moses ends Deuteronomy 10 by saying:
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).
Let me interrupt for one second here and point out a simple fact. When you read the list of what God requires, if your first thought is not, “That’s impossible”, then you haven’t understood the list of what is required. Perfect obedience. How is it possible for us to ever hope to meet that standard? Thankfully, Moses continues:
“Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:14-16).
God is the one who “set his heart in love” upon the people and made promises. Therefore, even though the list of commands is impossible for us to attain perfectly, it is possible for us be saved. For that reason, Moses commands Israel to circumcise their heart.

Moses definitely understood what circumcision was, since he had given us Genesis where the covenant was formed with Abraham and circumcision was the sign of that promise. And do you remember what we learned about Abraham at the moment circumcision was first given? “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Therefore, Moses knew what he was talking about when he pointed out here that it was our heart that matters, not the outward cutting of the flesh. Our hearts must be attuned to God if we are to be saved, for outward works could never accomplish it.

There is a movement in Christianity that seeks to emphasize the difference between the Old and the New Testaments, but here there is literally nothing at all presented that is not identical to how salvation occurs in the New Testament. And if Moses’s words seem like premonition of the New Testament so far, he only ups the ante further in Deuteronomy 18:15. There he says, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.”

Now we haven’t discussed much before this the role of prophets before Moses. The reality is that the Bible doesn’t really treat those before Moses the same way as prophets after Moses. Even though Abraham received the word from God, and even though Job talked with Him, and even though Joseph had dreams, there is still something fundamentally different between the way Scripture treats those patriarchs and the way that Moses is treated.

Moses was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. As the LORD testified when rebuking Mariam and Aaron, He spoke to Moses like He spoke to no one else.

Now this is just speculation on my part, but I believe that part of the reason why Moses was a higher prophet than even someone like Joseph was due to the fact that what was revealed to Moses was written down. God certainly has talked to many believers before and since Moses, but individual words that only affect a specific aspect of an individual’s life are far different in scope and character than words that would become Scripture. Part of the blessing of Moses was that his prophecies (and remember, not all prophecies are about predicting future events—they are just statements from God, and include Moses giving the law) were written down for the benefit of all believers universally.

Yet, as great a prophet as Moses was, he tells us that there will be another prophet. This passage would be used to look for the coming Messiah, promised clear back in Genesis as the one who would crush Satan’s head. Not only would there be another prophet, Moses tells us “it is to him you shall listen.”

Ultimately, Moses is signaling with this that he has some sort of understanding of the temporal nature of the law he has been given. For he does not say, “Listen to us” but “Listen to him”, thereby informing the people that when this promised Messiah would arrive, His work would be superior to that of the Law.

Granted, this is not something that would have been grasped by the original audience, and it really makes sense only in light of the book of Hebrews. (We shall look at it in more detail when we get to that book.)

In the next several chapters, Moses goes over a great deal of the law. We’ve looked at some of it before, and much of it is something we do not need to go into great detail on for this present section. But one key section is found in Deuteronomy 21:22-23a, which reads: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” Those who already are quite familiar with the New Testament will understand the reference to Christ’s death here. Naturally, it is doubtful that Moses knew why God gave this decree, yet he was faithful to record it, nevertheless.

After this, we get more of the law until we get to chapter 28. There, we see the blessings for obedience to the Law, followed by the curses for disobedience. The covenant was then renewed in chapter 29. What is most striking about this covenant is that it’s almost as if it’s predicated on the assumption that Israel will fail. While mentioning both the blessings and curses, chapter 30 goes on to state, “[When you] return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3).

But Moses ends this with a plea: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (verse 19). We have talked throughout this work of God’s sovereignty, and I’ve also pointed out that man’s choices are still real choices. Here is a passage that shows that choices are real. Thus, both prongs of the fork of compatibilism are established by Scripture: God is sovereign, and our choices are real choices.

After this, Moses summoned Joshua to have him continue as leader. Then, he gave the law to the priests and had a public reading of the law before the people. At the end of chapter 32, we are then given the LORD’s command: “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people” (Deuteronomy 32:49-50). It is difficult to imagine hearing the command to go die! Yet, because of Moses’s sin, he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, and it was time for Israel to enter. Therefore, Moses’s time on Earth was up too.

Moses thus gave Israel a final blessing, to each tribe, reminiscent of Jacob blessing his sons on his deathbed. Finally, in chapter 34, we read Moses going up the mountain and dying. We are told: “Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). And in verse 9, “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him.” A worthy replacement was on the scene.

The final verses of Deuteronomy give a fitting eulogy for Moses: “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).

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