Deuteronomy Overview

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

Deuteronomy 34

We will not see his like again. The funeral cliche. But of Moses it was true. The amazing leader, the one who spoke face to face with God. Humbly, from the inevitable mountable top, he views the land he will never reach, and it’s buried in a grave that is lost. They morn for 30 days and, with Joshua as leader, move on.

Jesus said the last shall be first in his kingdom. Moses, the rescued baby, the exiled killer, the reluctant spokesman, who pleaded with God for his faithless people over and over in the desert. The most humble the most unlikely, he left no physical memorial to his own greatness, he was all about God.


Deuteronomy 33

Tribes are great, families are better.

Moses’ song in the last chapter had a lot of bleak elements, but his final blessings to each tribe and all of Israel here are affectionate, strong and optimistic.

It starts majestically with Gods coming compared to the dawn reaching the tops of the mountains where they met him. They ascended the holy mountains, God descended to meet them. Israel would sing songs about that as they climbed to the temple.

Moses addresses each tribe like the person they are named for. We learn what God wants for them, what he values in them, and how he will help them.

Judah is the defender, he promises help.  God loves Levi’s single minded dedication, he will help them teach and guide the people.

Benjamin’s blessing recalls that he was a favourite child of Jacob, and anticipates that their land will include the temple. They are protected and protectors.

Joseph is greatly blessed, recalling the dreams he had of sun and moon bowing to him, and will bless greatly.

And so on, the characters of the tribal founders are linked to the land their tribes will inherit, and strength and abundance are wished for them.

Then the strengths and blessings of each are extended to all, the one nation has all the blessings of its parts, like a family. “Who is like you” Moses asks finally “a people saved by the lord?”

We are, Christians are like them.

We spend so much time disagreeing.  It’s not that there is never a good reason to disagree, but it needs to be in context as the smaller part of our relationship.

When I meet another Christian, I should focus on the blessing God has given to them, their blessing is the blessing of us all.

Deuteronomy 32

Moses’ song. Like the book it contains beauty and terror. 

The greatness of God is contrasted with the lousiness of the Israelites. It’s not a sentimental song. 

Their history is one of letting him down. Their future is being given great victories over the enemies God will judge, and then being judged themselves for squandering God’s grace by following other Gods. 

It ends by predicting that God will always stay faithful to a remnant of Israel. 

The song is not really a summary of the law, it’s a picture of God’s judgment and grace. These characteristics of God sit uncomfortably together. But understanding them is vital to get the significance of Jesus. 

Then sadly, Moses climbs a mountain to glimpse the land he will not inhabit because of his own sin. Few biblical characters have more grace, yet his judgment is unblinkingly recorded.

Grace costs. God is not a softy, who papers over evil, he looks at it, and recognises is destructive power. He fixes it, absorbs it, painfully.

Deuteronomy 31

Of course having told the Israelites to choose life in the last chapter, Moses goes straight on to prepare to die.

He writes a book of the law. He creates a public ritual/celebration every 7 years to read the law. He writes a song of the law. I think he wants them to remember the law.

But more than that, he knows they will fail, through bitter experience, and it’s poignant because he loves them. He calls the law a witness to them. It’s so like a parent’s mixed emotions, torn between knowing they must journey on without him, and wanting to protect them forever, leaving only words behind.

He appoints Joshua to follow him, and tells him to be “strong and courageous”.  Courageous is one of my wife Kelly’s favourite words. It is not only a powerful idea, the act of saying the word seems to make it real, to create a space for courage.

Deuteronomy 30

Choose life. 

Moses’ sermon is reaching a climax and that phrase could be a two word summary of the book. 

I love his description of the law not being hard to reach, it is on their lips, in their hearts and in their choices. For me this describes the experience of positive Christian living, what you say and do reflecting your heart and vice versa.

Their consequences are clear, blessings and curses. They are to choose life. 

I’m going to try it out as a phrase to reach for when I need wisdom or guidance. Choose life.

Deuteronomy 29

The responsibility of knowledge. As Jesus died in the cross he said of three Roman soldiers who carried out the execution ” forgive them father they don’t know what they are doing”.

Israel has been given God’s mind and his blessing. They know what he is doing. 

This chapter is about the covenant, the deal between God and his people.  It means so much more if they turn their back on God.

And I, I know so much more again. I have the spirit in me. Jesus said there is only one unforgivable sin, denying the holy spirit. I’ve always understood that as him as saying the unforgivable sin is refusing to be forgiven. 

Or as spiderman night put it, with great knowledge comes great responsibility. I can only pray for wisdom and courage.

Deuteronomy 28

Blessings and curses. If the Israelites stay true to God, they will prosper, and if they don’t they will be cursed.

The nation would know both, they prospered under kings David and Solomon. But they abandoned God every which way, and knew all the curses as well, even the degradation of canabalism, which must have seemed like an absurdly theoretical curse as they came into the promised land, came true during a seize of Jerusalem in kings 2.

In their poetry and philosophy they would increasingly question the connection between blessing and behaviour. A regular refrain in the psalms is “hey God, why are the evil people prospering?”

By the time Jesus pronounces blessings and curses he talks about hypocrisy and arrogance versus sincere and humble seeking of God.

Turns out the rules were never about being good enough to earn God’s favour, they were about understanding God and the nature of his love, and our need for it.

Showing people God’s love at some point means them understanding their need for it.

Deuteronomy 27

New section. We’ve had all the rules now committing to them and the transition of leadership to settle the holy land.

They take a moment of silence and the priests declare them to be God’s people. 

First thing they will do is climb two mountains. Mountains equal meeting God.

One will be for curses, one for blessings.

The curse mountain has all the law written on some of its stones, and an altar for sacrifice also piled up of its uncarved stones.

They’ll do a fellowship offering, ie: one that celebrates God’s presence rather than removing sin. And they will formally declare that rejecting God, being greedy, unfair, uncaring to the vulnerable or sexually immoral will bring God’s curse.

It is a marker, a baseline, a resolution they will be able to look back on and test their society against. When they are deep in an argument about tribal boundaries, they will look back on this moment and remember declaring before God as a nation that they would be cursed if they ever did this.

I don’t remember becoming a Christian, I don’t have a moment of dedication of my life to God. Like the Israelites who would be born in the promised land, I have the choice to accept or forget every day the faith I was handed down by my parents. I pray for my children, and my witness to them. 

Deuteronomy 26

When the Israelites come to the promised land there is to be a year of tithe. 

The harvest after 3 years is the first fruits, 10% is to be collected before anything else and given to God, recognising that the land, their freedom, came from him. 

Then Moses reminds the people to follow all the rules with all their heart and soul to be blessed in high honour by God.

The have been so many rules over the last 10 or so chapters, some are more beautiful than we can manage today, in terms of the way they would demolish the effects of inequality in society. Others seem completly crazy today.

But this message:  acknowledge God as the source of all we have, love him and receive his love. This lives. 

It feels like the moment for an amen.