Deuteronomy is the whole exodus story and the law again in microcosm, with a special focus on going forward to the promised land, which the Israelites spend the book right on the border of, listening to Moses’ last blessings and warnings before he dies.
Its a bit of a happy hunting ground for cynics and atheists looking to make arguments that God doesn’t make sense. Some of the individual rules are ridiculous. But the sweep of it does reveal the God I believe in, though its challenging as all get out too.
There are 3 speeches by Moses to the people. He’s spent a lot of time with God, and knowing his time is ending, he is driven to keep returning, sometimes passionately, to certain urgent truths.
In the first speech, Moses reviews the highs and lows of the exodus trip, and argues for the difficult obedience that the Israelites will need to occupy the promised land according to God’s plan.
He reminds them of the times where they all witnessed God’s greatness and his love for them, to encourage them to seize the chance to be blessed.
He reminds them of the failures, to warn them not to rebel and be cursed.
He reminds them of how God judged yet didn’t abandon them, how God reset his relationship with them with second chances, to explain that God will use the nation for his saving plan either with or without the blessings they could have by obeying him.
The second, largest, section describes how the law will apply to life in Canaan. The law reveals God’s mind. His mind is confronting in its kindness and its cosmic priorities.
By “confronting kindness” I mean its a vision of a society which is subversively more kind and fair than our own – even though its culturally far removed. The people are to live in contentment, gratitude and generosity. The weak are cared for. The cast offs of other nations are to be welcomed.
Society is structured to regularly reset inequality and unfairness. They are to celebrate and treasure God’s blessings of life and nurture. The extent of it is confronting to our greedy, self aggrandising, disposable society. Imagine if all our debts were cancelled every 50 years. This theme could be called the lesson of all having been slaves: empathy.
Alongside empathy are God’s confronting cosmic priorities. He is a lot less obsessed than we are with the length of our span of years on earth, and how they will end. God has bigger fish to fry than the cessation of our days – he is working out his plan to avoid our destruction. Unfortunately both fates can be called “death” but they aren’t the same at all.
The people are to bring God’s judgment by destroying the current occupiers of Canaan. They are to end each other’s lives rather than tolerate many, many infringement’s of God’s plan. I peeked ahead (seems Moses did too). They don’t manage it.
Neither they, nor we, can no matter how hard we try, really keep the vital importance of God’s plan at front of mind. Moses knows they will fail, at times he seems torn apart by the frustration of having to leave them to it.
But Moses also knows God plan won’t fail. Beyond all the confronting messages of harsh judgment, he has seen a larger love and salvation at work. Reading it, even in the light of the gospels, I can still only take it on faith from Moses that God’s judgment is fair, not fully understand.
The last speech brings all the themes home, which is that all this law is about knowing God, looking in the mirror and realising your need for his grace. Choosing life is the response, obedience is the response, not the entry fee. God is not depending on our obedience, its an opportunity to take the ride with God. Moses blesses them all and dies a humble death.
Judgment? I don’t want it to be real for those I love who hate God. But I should live like it is. Give me wisdom!
Section 1: Lessons from the trip
1 In which Moses starts a multi chapter recap of the events so far … & I summon patience
2 Israel are vehicles of God’s judgment rewrite this!
3 Israelite’s battles were that rarest of things, a genuinely holy war rewrite this!
4 Spoiler alert for the rest of the OT: Israel won’t stay faithful to God
5 Lesson of the 10 commandments: God revealed himself and won Israel’s awe and respect
6 Lesson of the greatest commandment, loving God will involve hard stuff to obey
7 Lesson of the Exodus victories: they must now destroy the Canaanites. (I compare God to a gardener, come to terms with being a plant)
8 Warning to stay true to God, if not they will go the way of the Canaanites
9 Lesson of the Golden Calf: our disobedience won’t stop God’s plans
10 Lesson of the second set of 10 Commandments: our God is a God of second chances
11 Canaan is their chance to use the lessons to start afresh on God’s plan, it can bring blessings or curses
Section 2: Rules for real
12 Now we recap the rules, many similar to Leviticus & Numbers, with extra significance because they will go to the promised land soon. Here temple & sacrifice.
13 Idolatry punishable by death. Confronting, but Jesus’ words are not so very different.
14 Rules about kosher and tithes… a vision of a caring, careful society
15 A society that actively, practically fights inequality. Puts us to shame
16 The festivals – simple gratitude, which I regret going out of fashion
17 More capital offences, but also a humble king and a fair legal system
18 Supporting the priesthood, and advantages of being priests with a actual God
19 Justice: refuge cities de-escalating tribal disputes, and a fair legal system
20 Rules of military engagement, they are relatively humane when defending Israel, but merciless when claiming the land, which is the execution of God’s judgement.
21 Very misc practical rules. I’m relieved the law has been fulfilled
22 More misc rules about property, marriage, staying separate. Israel is like family.
23 Laws of generosity, freeing slaves, sharing produce, not charging interest
24 More rules with a strong theme of Social justice, of caring for the weak. Deeply caring.
25 Final grab-bag of rules, fairness between locals & visitors, punishment for enemies
26 Moses wraps up the section with some encouragement to keep the rules. I see it as acknowledging that God is the source of all we have.
Section 3: What comes next…
27 Two mountains, one for blessings one for curses, representing the Israelite’s life choices
28 The blessings and curses are not about earning God’s grace, but understanding it
29 The implications of the covenant, with promises comes responsibility to respond
30 Choose life – the law makes the choice clear, life or destruction
31 Moses prepares to die, appoints Joshua to lead, tells them to be “strong and courageous”
32 Moses’s song of judgment and grace, predicting failure of all but a remnant of Israel
33 Blessings for each of the tribes, the lands the will occupy matched to their character, the blessing of each parts is also a blessing of the whole nation, 12 in 1.
34 Moses’ death, a model of the humility and honesty he lived by