Some Theological Concepts in the Book of Deuteronomy

Ralph L. Smith  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 7 - Fall 1964

The presence of the word “concepts” in my assigned subject raises immediately the question of the nature of biblical theology. Is biblical theology propositional and systematic or is it the recital or proclamation of the redemptive acts of God in a particular history?[1]cf. G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts (London: SCM Press, 1952), pp. 13, 57; H. Wheeler Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1946), pp. 159, 281. Deuteronomy is the starting point for those scholars (G. Ernest Wright, G. von Rad) who have insisted that a true biblical theology is not the setting forth of theological propositions about God but a recital of his redemptive acts along with the inferences which have been drawn from them by inspired prophets and leaders of Israel.[2]Wright, pp. 71-72.

Regardless of how one solves the problem of the nature of biblical theology, two things seem evident. One, the Bible does not consist primarily of theological pronouncements, propositions, or abstract “ideas” about God. Two, the Bible does contain the materials or the “building blocks” out of which a theology can be constructed. The Book of Deuteronomy is certainly not a compendium of systematic theology, nor is it a series of old Israelite confessions of faith although some old confessions are incorporated in it (cf. 6:20-24; 26:5-9). It is a series of sermons explaining how Israel is to live within the covenant in the Land of Canaan.[3]G. Ernest Wright, Deuteronomy (“The Interpreter’s Bible,” Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), II, 313. We should not expect to find Israel’s complete theology in this book or in any segment of the Bible. But Deuteronomy does contain the central themes of Israel’s faith, and is the one book in the Old Testament which stresses the practice and perpetuation of that faith in an earnest and an appealing manner.

What are the main theological themes or concepts in the Book of Deuteronomy? One recent writer has said that S. R. Driver’s summary of the religious principles of the book remains basic.[4]Cf. G. Henton Davies, Deuteronomy (“Peake’s Commentary of the Bible,” eds. Matthew Black and H. H. Rowley, London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1962), p. 270. Driver said,

The author wrote, it is evident, under a keen sense of the perils of idolatry; and to guard Israel against this by insisting earnestly on the debt of gratitude and obedience which it owes to its Sovereign Lord, is the fundamental teaching of the book. Accordingly the truths on which he loves to dwell are the sole Godhead of Jehovah, His spirituality (c. 4), His choice of Israel, and the Love and faithfulness which He has shown towards it, by redeeming it from its servitude in Egypt, by leading it safely through the desert, and by planting it in a land abundantly blessed by nature’s bounty; from which are deduced the great practical duties of loyal and loving devotion to Him, an absolute and uncompromising repudiation of all false gods, a cheerful and ready obedience to His will, a warm-hearted and generous attitude towards man in all the various relations of life which the Israelite is likely to be brought into contact with his neighbor.[5]S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy (“The International Critical Commentary), Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1895), pp. xix,xx.

One very noticeable fact about Driver’s summary is that it is primarily a recitation of the redemptive acts of God along with the great practical duties of Israel deduced from these acts. Of course, this is what Deuteronomy is about.

G. Ernest Wright, commenting on the character of the Book of Deuteronomy, said,

The basic questions of the faith are here faced. What is the meaning of God’s great acts in saving and preserving a chosen people who so manifestly do not deserve or merit his gracious consideration? What is the meaning of the covenant and God’s will within it? What are the peculiar temptations of the nation in its land, and wherein lies its true security . . . ? In giving answer to these questions Deuteronomy attains a sober, earnest and moving eloquence which sets the book apart from all other literature in the Bible.[6]Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 311.

Any discussion of the theological “concepts” of the Book of Deuteronomy will necessarily be limited by the nature of the material in the book, by the space available, and by the subjective selection of the writer. I have chosen to summarize what I consider the main message of the book and to select the most important themes for further study. The message of the Book of Deuteronomy can be summarized as follows: Yahweh, God of gods and Lord of lords (10:17), possessor of heaven and earth (10:14), called the patriarchs (26:5) and promised on oath (1:8 twenty-three times in all) to give them a land. He chose their descendants (4:37; 10:15) to be his peculiar people (7:6; 14:2; 26:18), and redeemed them (7:8; 13:5) from bondage. He made a covenant with them at Horeb (4:13; 29:1). He was to be their God. Israel was to love, fear, and serve him (6:4, 5, 24; 8:6) exclusively. God gave them laws to guide them in their conduct and worship (5:31-33). He led them through the great and terrible wilderness to humble and test them (8:2, 15, 16). Now on the verge of the fulfillment of the promise to the patriarchs, the possession of the land, an eloquent appeal is made for the people to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, and keep all his commandments. Great and wonderful blessings are promised for the covenant keepers (28:1-14), but a firm yet compassionate warning is given to those who break the covenant and do not keep God’s laws (28:15-68).

From the above summary of the message of the Book of Deuteronomy, perhaps we can select the major theological concepts for further consideration. I think some of these major theological concepts are: some aspects of the character of God; election; the covenant; law; sin; repentance; and eschatology.


Some Aspects of the Character of God

The Old Testament nowhere attempts to describe or define the true essence of God (“what he is like in himself”).[7]George A. F. Knight, A Christian Theology of the Old Testament (London: SCM Press, 1959), p. 19; Cf. Wright, God Who Acts, p. 57. It only tells us what God is like as he meets with, confronts, and reveals himself to his people. Thus Deuteronomy contains no philosophical pronouncements about the nature of God, but it does use a good many terms to describe what God has done and how he has done it. These terms point us to some aspects of God’s character. Five aspects especially prominent in Deuteronomy are: his sovereignty (he is Lord); his solity (he is one); his formlessness; his righteousness; and his love.

One of the basic assumptions of this book which finds positive expression often is that God is sovereign. He controls everything in heaven and on earth.

Behold to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it . . . .

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and terrible God. . . (10:14, 17).

In 4:35-36, 39 God’s deliverance from Egypt is cited as proof of his sovereignty.

Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other beside him . . . . Know therefore this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on earth beneath; there is no other.

The sovereignty of God is implied in the statements that Yahweh allotted to other nations their territories and objects of worship (cf. 2:9, 19; 4:19; 29:26; 32:8). God’s sovereignty is extended to include the giving and withholding of rain (11: 13-17). The sovereignty of God is basic to all of Israel’s theology which centers around the covenant. In order for the covenant to work in a meaningful way the master or ruler must be sovereign. Israel thought of God as the sovereign ruler of the universe who had made a covenant with her.

Very closely related to the idea of the sovereignty of God is the concept of his solity (he is one and only). Lester J. Kuyper has said, “To discuss the theology of Deuteronomy, we need to take our start at its central declaration of faith, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord’ (6:4).”[8]Lester J. Kuyper, “The Book of Deuteronomy,” Interpretation, VI (July 1952), 325. This statement is known as the Shema’, from the first word in the Hebrew text. Jacob Jocz says, “The absolute and incomparable Unity of God forms the core of Judaism.”[9]Jacob Jocz, A Theology of Election (London: SPCK, 1958), p. 40. Every pious Jew begins and ends the day with the affirmation that God is One.[10]Ibid.

Traditionally, Jews have understood the text Deut. 6:4 to mean: Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One. “But gradually it is being acknowledged by Jews that this is not an accurate translation.”[11]Ibid. Montefiore and Loewe have said, “What the exact meaning of the Shema may have been to the original writer is, like its right translation, extremely doubtful.”[12]C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (New York: Neridian Books, n.d.) p. 4. The new Jewish Bible follows the third marginal reading in the Revised Standard Version and translates this verse, “Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

The question arises: was the emphasis to be on God’s oneness or upon the fact that he demanded complete loyalty from Israel? Perhaps Jacob Jocz is right when he says, “It seems to us that ehad, like yahid in the Maimonidean Creed, intends to emphasize the Einzigartigkeit, that is, the uniqueness of God on the one hand and Israel’s unswerving loyalty to him on the other.”[13]Jocz, p. 41. Jocz believes that the undue emphasis on the Unity of God on the part of the Synagogue is the result of the controversy with the Church. “It is a deliberate effort to contradict the Christian doctrine of the Trinity . . . . The effect of the controversy with the Church was to shift the emphasis from an affirmation of loyalty to a philosophical concept of unity.”[14]Ibid. It cannot be doubted that the emphasis in the verses immediately following the Shema’ is upon complete and constant commitment to Yahweh. But regardless of how the Synagogue has chosen to interpret her monotheism, “she remains an unrelenting witness to the One and Only God of Israel. As a bastion against idolatry she has no equals. Her uncompromising attitude on this point raises her to a position of special witness in history.”[15]Ibid. That God is one is one of the great contributions of Israel’s theology, and this concept finds its clearest expression in the Book of Deuteronomy.

Not only does the Book of Deuteronomy give expression to the concept of the unity of God, but it furnishes us with a clear statement about the formlessness of God. Twice Israel is told that “the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire, you heard the sound of words but saw no form” (4:12, 15). S. R. Driver sees in this passage the teaching of the spirituality of God.

Jehovah is, moreover, a spiritual Being, dissimilar in kind to any and every material form: hence no sensible representation can be framed of Him; still less should Israel worship any other material object, whether some representation of human or animal form or even of the host of heaven (4:12,15-24).[16]Driver, p. xx.

Since the word “spirit” is not used in this context, the idea of the mystery of the character of God probably should be emphasized rather than his spirituality. G. Ernest Wright, speaking of the idea of the formlessness of God, comments, “Such a thing was unheard of in other religions of that day, among them a god could be met face to face because he was present in his image or his idol. Yet the God of Israel preserved his mystery.”[17]Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 354.

Even though Israel was not to make a graven image in the likeness of male or female (man or woman, 4:16), she did make great use of anthropomorphisms. We read often in Deuteronomy about God speaking. His mouth is mentioned in 8:3. He has a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 11:2; 26:8). He writes the tables of stone with “the finger of God” (9:10). He walks through the war camp to inspect it (23:14). He has eyes that are always on the land (11:12). He rides through the heavens on a cloud (33:26). All of these expressions are used not to describe his appearance but his conduct. They serve to give form to his mystery and formlessness. God’s formlessness is  safeguard against turning him into something he is not. Yet his formlessness does not mean that he is a diffuse, indefinite, or unfocused object. He is a definite Being, but since nothing in heaven or on earth may be used to picture God, the only possible image of him is the mental image of a person. The anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament indicate God’s personal relation to history, and make room for one who, being in the form of God, took the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7) . The anthropomorphisms of the Bible are indispensable. “To assume that we can dispense with [them J as belonging to a primitive stage of our religious development is to separate ourselves not only from the Bible, but from the Biblical conception of the true meaning of history.”[18]Wright, God Who Acts, pp. 49-50. God is Lord of history even though he is invisible.

A fourth aspect of the character of God as seen in the Book of Deuteronomy is his righteousness. Although God’s righteousness is not often explicitly stated it is one of the most basic and important presuppositions of the book. One cannot hope to understand this book, particularly the matters regarding election and holy war, without keeping in mind constantly this basic assumption that God is good. Two passages do set out very clearly that God is righteous.

The Rock, his work is perfect;

for all his ways are justice.

A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,

just and right is he (32:4).

One of the greatest passages in the book (10:12-22) states that God “is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (10:17b-18). A reflection of God’s righteousness can be seen in the righteous laws which he gave to Israel (4:8).

God’s righteousness has been called into question on many occasions because of two concepts which are prominent in Deuteronomy. These two concepts are election (God’s choice of Israel from among all the peoples of the earth, 7:6) and holy war. The idea of election will be dealt with below. Perhaps the most difficult problem to reconcile with the righteousness of God is the problem of the conquest of Canaan and the command in the name of Yahweh to destroy all the inhabitants of the land (20: 16-18). God himself is represented as going over before them (1:30; 31:3), fighting for Israel (3:22), driving out (4:38), thrusting out (6:19), clearing away (7:22) the nations, destroying them (31:3; 2:15) before Israel.

How can one reconcile such acts of God with his righteousness? To do so one must learn to look at the conquest of Canaan through the eyes of ancient Israel. They were convinced both that God was good (righteous) and that he was lord of history. They believed that God was working out his purposes in history and even “holy war” with the extermination of whole nations was to be secured within the context of God’s righteousness.[19]Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 391. This institution of holy war, which was a common concept in the ancient world,[20]George Adam Smith, Deuteronomy (“The Cambridge Bible:, Cambridge: The University Press 1918), p. 42. is one of the most offensive and fanatical elements in the Old Testament to us. “Yet one cannot dismiss it lightly as nothing more than fanaticism if he would retain the essentials of the biblical viewpoint regarding God’s direction of history.”[21]Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 327. Here is a perfect example of how God was able to use sinful human agents and sinful human means to accomplish his purpose.

Wars exist because of human sin; yet even in war man can hope for salvation because God is actively and righteously at work in it. In the ruthless, militaristic expansion of Assyrian and Babylonian empires, the prophets searched for meaning in the terrifying events. . . . They proclaimed both the Assyrian and Babylonian to be God’s tools, “the rod of mine anger, and the staff [of] mine indignation” against rebellious Israel (Isa. 10:5).[22]Ibid., p. 391.

If we are to understand the conquest of Canaan we must remember that it was a part of the promise and purpose of God to give the nation a land; yet this gif t involved a conquest. The expulsion of the nations was not a reward for Israel’s righteousness (9:5), but it was due primarily to the wickedness of the nations (9:5; Gen. 15:12). Israel was the human instrument chosen to execute the judgment. God was using human agents and methods to fulfill his redemptive purpose. Perhaps at this point a word of caution is in order. G. Ernest Wright says,

To say this, however, does not mean that the institution of holy war is to be emulated in modern times or that it ceases completely to be a problem for the Christian. To us the ferocity of the destruction borders on fanaticism, and theologically the institution must be evaluated in keeping with what it was possible for God to accomplish with the people as they existed at that time. God is at work in history and does not remove his servants from it into a sinless vacuum. Hence the war of Israel took place among sinful participants on both sides, and the sin of the war is not to be charged against God’s goodness.[23]Ibid., p. 392.

The fifth aspect of God’s character as seen in the Book of Deuteronomy is his love. Nowhere else in the Pentateuch is the love of God specifically mentioned.[24]Smith, pp. xxvi ff. In Deuteronomy it is the love of God for the patriarchs that led to their election to be his chosen people (4:37; 10:15). Israel and the stranger are the objects of God’s love in 7:8, 13; and 10:18 respectively. It is impossible to define the term, love, but unquestioningly this idea of warmth, tenderness, and affection describes the relation­ ship Israel is to have with Yahweh. The love God has for Israel is free and spontaneous (7:7, 8) and unmerited on Israel’s part. Yet there is no weakness, sentimentality or quiesence in it. “It has strength and sternness behind it. It cannot be presumed upon or trifled with. God is a righteous and jealous God, a consuming fire to those who set themselves at enmity with him.”[25]Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 326 The love of God issued in his redemptive act of the election of Israel.


The Election of Israel

One of the basic assumptions and explicit teachings of the Book of Deuteronomy is that Israel is a chosen people.

Because he loved your fathers and chose their descendants after them, and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power (4:37).
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth (7:6 RSV).
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon 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 which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage (7:6-8b).

The Old Testament doctrine of election, which is expounded most clearly in the Book of Deuteronomy, is one of the chief clues in understanding the nature and meaning of biblical revelation. We are not to understand the “concept” as a projection of Israel’s national egoism or the over-compensation of her inferiority complex as Celsus would have us believe.[26]G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament Against Its Environment (London: SCM Press, 1950), p. 47. Election begins with God. “With a dynamic, persistent, and independent energy, he set his course and that of his people for his own name’s sake.”[27]Ibid., p. 48.

It is easy to confuse “election” and “electness,” however. Vriezen points out that it is necessary to differentiate “election” from “electness”; “God’s election remains but ‘electness’ has no place.”[28]Th. C. Vriezen, Die Erwahlung Israels nach dem Alten Testament (1953), p. 109, as cited by B. W. Anderson, The Old Testament and Christian Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 239. Election refers to God’s action in forming a people for himself and in involving himself in the life of this people in order to accomplish his possibilities for them and for the work.[29]Cf. Ibid.

Three interesting effects of God’s choice of Israel are seen in the Book of Deuteronomy. In the first place Israel is declared to be a holy people (7:6; 14:2, 21). The basic concept of holy, qadosh is separateness. The people of God are to be set apart from the evil environment and dedicated to the service of God. They are not to indulge in heathen rites nor participate in immoral customs (7:6f; 14:2f). Another effect of God’s choice of Israel was that Israel was to be God’s inheritance, nahala (4:20; 9:26, 29; 32:9). In other references this word is used to describe the Land of Canaan which the Lord was giving Israel to be their inheritance (4:21; 12:9, 10). The third effect of God’s choice of Israel is to be seen in the expression “peculiar people,” ‘am segulla (7:6; 12:2; 26:18), a people especially prized and treasured by Yahweh.[30]Driver, p. 100. “Peculiar” must be under­ stood here in its basic Latin sense derived from peculium, a technical term denoting the private possession of a child or slave.[31]Kuyper, p. 331. The Hebrew term, segulla, is used for the private treasure of kings in I Chronicles 29:3 and Ecclesiastes 2:8.


The Covenant

The doctrine of election found its concrete expression in the Old Testament in the language of covenant. Scholars have not always agreed about the relationship of election and covenant. Some Old Testament theologians would subordinate the doctrine of election to that of the covenant. Eichrodt reconstructs and presents the whole theology of the Old Testament around the idea of the covenant.[32]Cf. Robinson, pp. 153f. However it should always be remembered that election was prior to covenant. The two concepts go together as grace and law. Covenant was a common term in the ancient Near East. Only recently, however, has the importance of the covenant form in the ancient world been understood. George Mendenhall has pointed out that “References to international covenants occur already in old Sumerian texts of the third millennium B.C.”[33]George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenants in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: The Biblical Colloquium, 1955), pp. 26, 27. A special type of these international treaties or covenants has been found among the ancient Hittite tablets dating from about 1450-1200 B.C. These covenants, known as suzerainty treaties, describe the relationship between the emperor and the vassal. According to Mendenhall, these treaties are very similar in form to that of the decalogue and Joshua 24.[34]Ibid. Meredith Kline thinks that the whole Book of Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal document similar to the suzerainty treaties.[35]Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963), p. 20.

There can be no question about the importance of the covenant in the Book of Deuteronomy. The word, berit, occurs twenty-seven times (more than in any other book in the Bible). The covenant at Horeb is referred to in 4:23; 5:2, 3; 17:2; 29: 1b; 31:16, 20. The covenant with Abraham is spoken of in 4:31; 7:12; 8:18. The Ten Commandments are called the covenant in 4:13. The tables of stone are called the tables of the covenant in 9:9, 11, 15. Israel is warned about breaking the covenant in 29:24; 31:16, 24. Thus although election was prior in time to the covenant, and the covenant was entered into voluntarily by the Lord and Israel, the covenant is a central concept in Deuteronomy.[36]For a fuller discussion of the covenant in the Old Testament see Walter Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 36-69; Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation, pp. 148-159; Wright, The Old Testament Against Its Environment, pp. 54-76.


The Law

Law has a very prominent place in the Book of Deuteronomy. There is a sense in which the whole book could be considered law. The name of the book in the Septuagint, Latin and English versions, means, “second law.” The purpose of the book is set out in 1:5 as an effort “to explain this law (torah).” The expression “this book of the law” occurs four times (29:21; 30:10; 31:26; cf. 26:61). Six different terms are used to refer to the law (torah, statute, ordinance, covenant, commandment, and charge).[37]For an excellent discussion of these various terms for law see C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935), pp. 25ff. Chapters 12-26 are made up of the exposition of more than seventy separate laws.

But what is the meaning and purpose of the law in Deuteronomy? What is its relationship to the covenant and the exhortation to “love God with all one’s heart”? It is very difficult to get a true picture of the place of the law in Deuteronomy because of the compassionate appeal of the preacher to his hearers to keep the law, along with the promises of blessings for those who keep it and the warning that curses will come to those who disobey. The question arises, then, is Israel to be redeemed and “live” by keeping the law or by the grace of God that was manifested in her election and redemption from Egypt? The answer is, both are true. Election and covenant, grace and law, go together. God’s grace should call forth from Israel a love for him which would result in her wanting to follow the rules he has given to guide her in the way to live. Gerhard von Rad says,

Deuteronomy does not demand that Israel earn its salvation by obedience. On the contrary, the election, the laying claim to Israel, has taken place before Israel had a chance to prove itself before God; only then does the demand that the commandments be kept follow. It is also significant that Deuteronomy derives the obedience of Israel from gratitude (ch. 8). Especially characteristic for the sequence election-obedience is 27:9-10: “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes.”[38]Gerhard von Rad, “Deuteronomy,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), I, 837-838.

Another key passage showing the proper relationship of love and law is 10:12-13. Israel is required to love God and serve him, which provides the basis and motivation for keeping the law and commandments. G. Ernest Wright comments on this point,

Worship and life are inseparable; love without reverence to God is impossible; and close attachment to God is meaningless unless his laws are willingly kept. However, law is not a divine imposition or burden; its gift is the fruit of grace for your good. It provides the order of society without which the society cannot exist. To live means to obey the law, but to obey the law requires a reverent love for the lawgiver (cf. 11:1-25).[39]Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 399.

Deuteronomy, itself, avoids two extreme views of the law: (1) that of making the law of no importance; and (2) that of making the law all important. Deuteronomy should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the law must be obeyed. Fearful and terrible judgments await those who disobey (cf. 28: 15-68). But Deuteronomy is not legalistic or Pharisaical. It is not a juridical book prepared for the use of administrators of justice. It is a gospel of the redeeming God who has saved a people from slavery and has bound them to himself in a covenant; who has given them a law or “teaching” to guide them in daily relationship with himself and their fellowman. Life and salvation were not the result of keeping the law. Keeping the law was to be the expression of life and salvation. Failure to understand this relationship leads to Pharisaism. A. B. Davidson, speaking about the mere formal fulfillment of the law, said, “Pharisaism and Deuteronomy came into the world the same day.”[40]Cf. Smith, Deuteronomy, p. 61. Perhaps it would be truer to say that Pharisaism and a misunderstanding of Deuteronomy go together.



The concept of sin in the Book of Deuteronomy, like all other concepts, is determined by the subject or theme of the book. If the theme of the book is the life of God’s people within the covenant in Canaan, then anything said about sin must be viewed in the light of the covenant relationship. In fact, this is precisely what we find when we turn to the book; namely, that sin is seen as the worship of other gods, or failure to trust Yahweh, or social injustices and immoralities which would jeopardize the covenant.[41]Kuyper, p. 335. Cf. Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 329. Idolatry is the chief sin in Deuteronomy, because it violates the first commandment (6:4-5). Israel is viewed as being in great danger of forgetting the God who brought her out of the house of bondage, and in danger of worshiping the gods of other nations, the gods of nature and culture (4:16ff ; 7:4ff; 12:29-31). Von Rad says that Deuteronomy never for a moment loses sight of its religious opponent, the Canaanite natural religion. Idolatry was considered such a threat to the community or congregation, that the death penalty was assessed to anyone (prophet, layman, relative, or city) who enticed others to idolatry (13:5, 10, 15; 17:7). To’ebah is one of the chief words for sin in Deuteronomy and is usually translated “abomination.” This is the strongest word which the Old Testament possesses for that which is impure, unclean, lacking in holiness (cf. 7:25,26; 12:31; 14:3; 17:1, 4; 18:9, 12; 20:18; 22:5; 27:15).

Not only was the worship of other gods considered sin by the Deuteronomist, but so was the failure to trust God. God is the Lord of all life and history. In 1:19-46 the story of the spies is recited, and it is said that when the spies came back with the fruit of the land which the Lord “our God is giving [active participle] us” (1:2 5), Moses said, “Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God” (1:26). “Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God” (1:32). To doubt God’s promises and failure to obey his commands is sin, and results in failure to enter the land.

Just as the failure to maintain the right relationship to God was viewed as sin in the Book of Deuteronomy, so also was the failure to treat one’s fellowmen “right.” In chapters 12-26 more than seventy separate laws are given to guide or regulate the conduct of the Israelites with one another. The humanitarian nature of these laws has often been pointed out. The poor and the weak of the community must be treated with generosity and the laws protecting them must be gladly and freely kept (15:1-18; 24:17-18). Justice without respect for persons and truthful testimony on the part of witnesses are enjoined so that the people may follow “that which is altogether just” (16:18-20; 19:15-21). Revenge must not be a factor in dealing with crime (19:1-13). Sexual purity is an absolute necessity and any violations are to be dealt with according to the law: “So shalt thou put away the evil from among you” (22:13-30).

Although these laws are humanitarian in nature they are the result of a theological orientation. The Israelite was not to treat his neighbor right simply because this was the best for himself and his neighbor. Utilitarianism was not the motive for keeping the law in Israel. If that had been true then breaking the law would have been crime; but in Israel law breaking was called sin; it was a violation of God’s commandments which disrupted the proper relationship between the offender and God, and threatened to bring God’s judgment on the whole community. Therefore, drastic measures were to be taken to root out anything which threatened the covenant with Yahweh.[42]Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 329.



We have just seen that punishment for some of the offenses against the law was very severe. Was there no way of escape? Was there no grace, no forgiveness? Very little is said in the law about what would happen if the offender were to repent. However, there may be some instances in which the well-being of society demands the execution of punishment of the off ender even though he repents and the people are sympathetic with him. But practically all of the explicit references to repentance in the Book of Deuteronomy refer to the nation repenting after having broken the covenant with the Lord. In 4:25-30 Moses warns the people that idolatry will cause God to scatter them among the nations where they will become thoroughly dissatisfied with the worship of gods who can give no help. Then they shall seek the Lord their God and will find him when they search for him “with all their heart and soul.” Superficial repentance resulted in defeat (1:41-46), but the genuine repentance of the heart will be honored by the Lord for he is merciful and has regard for his covenant (4:31).

Israel’s repentance is not without its divine counterpart. Israel does not return simply on its own initiative. In another context we are told that “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord thy God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you might live” (30:7). To be sure, we read that Israel must circumcise their own heart and not be stiff-necked (10:16), which points out man’s responsibility in his turning to God, “for it is only in the spirit of humility and contrition that repentance can be genuine. Yet it can never be a man-made return; it is God who circumcises the heart, that is, breaks open the hard heart, so that there may follow a sincere love for God and the will to obey his law.”[43]Kuyper, p. 337.

It is very interesting to note that at the close of this moving discourse on Israel’s need for repentance an earnest invitation is given. Israel is to choose between life and death, good and evil (30:15). Israel must choose. The word (of the covenant) is not too hard or too far away. The choice is clear. Grace is extended. All necessary preparations have been made (“You can do it” 30:14). “Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him, for that means life to you and length of days . . .” (30:19b-20a).



Deuteronomy is not an eschatological work, concerned with the intention of God to create a new heaven and a new earth from the wreckage of a sin-laden world. Instead it presents the manner of life within the covenant which is the condition of God’s blessing in the land given it. If this life is not chosen, then the nation may expect a curse or judgment of God and hardship or even loss of the land.[44]Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 313.

Therefore, in the light of this purpose, we should not expect to find a “full blown” Christian doctrine of personal eschatology as some seem to think.[45]Cf. H. Cunliffe-Jones, Deuteronomy (“Torch Bible Commentaries”; London: SCM Press, 1951), p. 23; Smith, Deuteronomy, p. xxxix. However, although the book is concerned primarily with life as it should be lived in the “here and now,” it is also acutely conscious of the “not yet” state of affairs. Israel has not as yet witnessed the fulfillment of the promises. Gerhard von Rad says that the Israel here is still between the promise and fulfillment.[46]Von Rad, p. 838. There is hope in the book that “in the latter days” (4:29-30) the ideal promises would be fulfilled, and Israel would have the spirit to keep the covenant with her God (30:1-10). It is not revealed in this book that many centuries would come and go before One came to make a new covenant and to write his laws on men’s hearts.


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