Hey, say it again, Moses – the book of Deuteronomy

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The name Deuteronomy in Greek means second law: it catches something about the nature of the book. It is a retelling of the story of the previous three books, Exodus through to Numbers. It is, in that sense, a republication of the law – a second edition. It takes the stylised form of a very long farewell address by Moses at the end of his life, looking forward to what he will not see: the final entry of the people into the promised land.

It serves also as a pivot in the Bible, looking back to the other books of the law, and forward to the history which will follow, Joshua through to Second Kings. That history has clearly been edited by someone (or some people) who wanted to draw attention to some of the themes of Deuteronomy. Key to those themes is a presentation of two ways: a way of life and a way of death. The idea of constructing moral instruction around two ways is a common theme of the ancient world.

Two ways: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” Deut 30:15

For the writers and editors of Deuteronomy and the history which follows, the covenant with God provides the way of life. Turning from the covenant, disobeying God’s law, and worshipping other deities, these things make up the way of death. Meditating on the law is a key means of holding to the way of life. This is made clear by the most repeated text in Jewish tradition, which Jesus also cites as the first commandment.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

Deuteronomy 6:4-7 NRSV

Deuteronomy has a rather straightforward, even simplistic view of the life of faith. Obey God, and you will prosper: your crops will grow, your children will multiply, your riches will increase. Forget God, and what you owe to his grace, and it will all go horribly wrong. It, and the history that follows, are first and foremost written to explain why it did all, indeed, go horribly wrong.

The book as we have it now, and the history which follows, are shaped by the experience of the disaster we know as the exile, although there was almost certainly an edition that existed beforehand. This period, about which we shall think some more on other occasions, saw the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire, and at least the leading families, aristocracy, priesthood and intelligentsia, uprooted and taken into exile in Babylon. In other words, rather than focussing primarily on prosperity, it is concerned to explain this disaster, and why it is not about God’s weakness. On the contrary it is God’s strength that he judges the immorality and faithlessness of the nation. Exile is the consequence of God keeping his word and bringing disaster on those who broke theirs.

The readings which are used in the lectionary are some of the key places where these themes are affirmed. The whole book is a summons to obedience and faithfulness, to walk in the paths that lead to life. It was particularly popular in the time of Jesus: it is, for example, the third most quoted book in the New Testament (after Psalms and Isaiah). Psalms and Deuteronomy are also the most common books in the Dead Sea Scrolls collection from Qumran.

The message of Deuteronomy’s two ways continues on into early Christianity. The earliest Christian book we have outside the Bible (and almost certainly written earlier than some of the books in it) begins like this:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways. Now this is the way of life: First, you shall love God, who made you. Second you shall love your neighbour as yourself; but whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another.1

Didache 1:1-3

This central message of Deuteronomy, transposed into a Christian key, became a fundamental staple of the early church’s essential teaching about behaviour. Choose life!


Notes

  1. Cited from Michael W. Holmes The Apostolic Fathers (3rd edition) Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007.
    This book, the Didache (a Greek word meaning teaching) is subtitled “The teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the twelve apostles”. Its combination of scripture, Jewish tradition and Jesus’ teaching is obvious from this beginning. It could have been written anytime between about AD 50 and 150, although most people think it belongs in the first century. Its Christian content sounds quite like that in St Matthew’s gospel.

3 thoughts on “Hey, say it again, Moses – the book of Deuteronomy

  1. Pingback: You think you know what history is? – Liturgica

  2. Pingback: Too many cooks make light work – looking at Proverbs – Liturgica

  3. Pingback: A radical faith in a faithful Messiah: some themes in Paul's letters – Liturgica

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