Theological Themes in Deuteronomy

Israel and the Nations

One final theological theme in Deuteronomy to be discussed concerns Israel’s relationship with other nations.  The most important point to be made here is that Deuteronomy makes a distinction between the nations living in Canaan and those living elsewhere.  God commands Israel to destroy the seven nations that were occupying the land of Canaan.  He does not command them to destroy any other nations.[52]  Deuteronomy thus takes a very negative attitude to the nations of Canaan, but not to other nations.  For example, the Lord did not permit Israel to attack certain nations on their way to the promised land (2:1-23), and the Book of the Law makes clear distinctions in how Israel should deal with the nations of Canaan and other nations in war (20:10-17).  Israel’s destroying of the Canaanite nations was to be an act of divine punishment for the wickedness that those nations had committed, as well as a way of preventing the Israelites from worshipping these other nations’ gods (20:16-18).  This punishment was not arbitrary; Israel would suffer similar punishment for their idolatry.

 

Deuteronomy in the Torah and Tanak

The author/editor of Deuteronomy makes it clear that his book is directly related to the rest of the Pentateuch by mentioning at the beginning of the book the oath that the Lord swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Deuteronomy 1:8, “Go in and take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring after them.”  This command that Moses gives the Israelites serves to remind them that God’s promise to give them the land is not based in anything they have done, but rather on prior promises made to their forefathers.  The mentioning of the Patriarchs forces Israel “to relate the impending conquest of Canaan under Joshua to the promise of God and not to any feelings of national superiority.”[53]

This reminder also illustrates the interconnectedness of Deuteronomy with the rest of the Pentateuch.  John Sailhamer points out the interconnectedness of the entire Pentateuch, saying, “The meaning of the whole (i.e. Pentateuch) helps us see the importance and meaning of each of the parts…(The Pentateuch is) not randomly gathered bits of written facts.  (The Pentateuch gives) us whole pictures, and the meaning of the whole affects our understanding of the meaning of the parts.”[54]  Thus, the text of Deuteronomy only makes sense in light of the larger context of the Pentateuch.  For example, Deuteronomy 1:8 surely reminded the Israelites gathered on the plains of Moab of the covenant that God made with Abraham back in Genesis 12:1-3, enabling them to begin to see the larger context of God’s work in their short history as a nation.

Deuteronomy also plays an important role in the theology and makeup of the entire Old Testament.  Two important canonical details emerge in Deuteronomy 1-4.  First, “Moses’ review of Israel’s past begins the process of biblical books reflecting on previous material.”[55]  The historical books and the prophets are constantly looking back and reflecting on the Torah, especially the covenant demands found in Deuteronomy.  Second, “Moses begins a canon-long practice of assessing Israel’s history by covenant standards.”[56]  Biblical authors, especially the prophets, interpret historical events based on Israel’s covenant faithfulness or disobedience.  One obvious example is the Former Prophets claims that covenant keeping leads to blessing (cf. Joshua 24:15-27; 1 Kings 8) while covenant breaking brings divine judgment that leads to national collapse (c.f. Judges 1-2; 2 Kings 17).  This cause and effect view of history is seen throughout the Later Prophets as well.  There is, for example, Isaiah’s portrayal of Israel’s covenant breaking as akin to a donkey forgetting its owner (Is. 1:2-9), Jeremiah’s denouncement of Israel’s breaking the Ten Commandments at the temple (Jer. 7:1-8:3), Ezekiel’s recital of Israel’s history as a series of broken promises (Ezek. 20:1-29), Hosea’s comparison of Israel’s unfaithfulness to that of an adulterous spouse (Hos. 1-3), and Malachi’s call for the people to live according to the law.  “Prophetic texts constantly compare Israel’s historical acts to what God expects in the Pentateuch, especially Deuteronomy.”[57]

 

Deuteronomy in the New Testament

As mentioned earlier, Deuteronomy is one of the most quoted books in the New Testament, with only Psalms and Isaiah being referred to more often.[58]  Much of the early church’s doctrine and practice was based on the teaching of Deuteronomy.  This does not mean that there was no distinction made between Deuteronomy as a covenant-legal text for the theocratic nation of Israel and Deuteronomy as a basic expression of the character and purposes of God as they are revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.[59]  The writers of the New Testament perceived the ongoing theological importance of Deuteronomy for all believers, without making a one-to-one connection between the church and Israel.  E. R. Clendenen said, “Life in its fullness for Israel as for the church required the recognition that it was an undeserved gift of an awesome and loving God, and consisted in gratefully living in the presence of and according to the character of that God.”[60]  Thus, there are basic theological principles (e.g. the mercy of God) that were taught in Deuteronomy that still apply to the people of God today.

Alexander notes that even when Deuteronomy is not quoted directly in the New Testament, its influence is still apparent.  An example of this is Jesus’ insistence that his followers be single-minded in their commitment to God: “No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24).  This principle is also highlighted in Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30).  The parables of Jesus, especially the ones that involve a master/servant relationship (Matt. 18:23-35; 24:45-51; 25:14-30; Luke 12:42-48; 19:12-27), also emphasize the principle of loyalty and faithfulness.[61]

Another theme of Deuteronomy that is developed in the New Testament is that of curses.  In Galatians, Paul says, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Gal. 3:10, quoting Deut. 27:26).  According to Paul, then, everyone is cursed because no one can keep the law fully.  However, this is not the end of the story for Paul.  In Galatians 3:13, he confidently affirms that Christ has “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (quoting Deut. 21:23).

In Romans, Paul uses the “circumcision of the heart” imagery that is first used in Deuteronomy.  Romans 2:28-29, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”  Paul is arguing that without the circumcision of the heart, which implies complete obedience to God, outward circumcision is of no benefit.  Paul’s opponents stressed the importance of circumcision and keeping the law, but Paul argues that they are mistaken to think that these things make them more righteous than others.  Romans 3:20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”  Paul then argues that there is a righteousness that comes from God apart from the law, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:22).  Paul’s focus on this “righteousness from God” reflects “the outlook of Deuteronomy that without a divinely given circumcision of the heart it would be impossible for the Israelites to keep the covenant.”[62]  In Deuteronomy, as well as Romans, it is made clear that the circumcision of the heart (i.e. righteousness) comes from God.  Deuteronomy 30:6, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring.”  Paul, therefore, is thoroughly Deuteronomistic in his theology of salvation.  He simply carries forward the teaching of Deuteronomy that salvation is from the Lord, apart from the Law, based on inward rather than outward transformation, and available to all nations.

 

Conclusion

This paper has sought to outline several of the primary theological themes found in Deuteronomy.  It has also sought to describe briefly the influence that Deuteronomy had in the Pentateuch and the Tanak as a whole, as well as it’s use and influence on the New Testament.  Deuteronomy contains several theological themes, such as revelation, history, covenant, election, responsibility, the nations, and many others.  These themes all contribute, however, to the one overarching plot line of the Pentateuch, which starts in Genesis, and runs through to the end of Deuteronomy.  This plot line centers on God’s calling out and blessing of Abraham, and his establishing a royal line through the descendants of Abraham from which the Messiah will come.  This royal line is not mentioned directly in Deuteronomy, but the parameters for the future kings of Israel are laid out in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.  Though the carrying forward of the royal line from which the Messiah will come is the larger context into which Deuteronomy easily fits, the emphasis in Deuteronomy is on how Israel, Abraham’s descendants, will live in the land that God has promised them.  Gary Millar provides a good summary of the general characteristics of Deuteronomy.  He says that Deuteronomy “is characterized by an emphasis on the exodus as the formative event in the life of the nation, and the belief that Yahweh is now Israel’s absolute ruler who must be obeyed in every detail of life, and that he has given Israel a land in which to enjoy relationship with him together.”[63]  Deuteronomy is therefore more concerned to outline and order the lives of those who will be ruled by the coming King, rather than describe in detail who this King is or what He will be like.[64]

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