The surprise of Deuteronomy
Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. (Deuteronomy 4:1, NIV)
On first appearance, the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, is a complex and confusing catalogue of laws. As well as the Ten Commandments, there are laws about food, festivals, pilgrimages and courts. We wonder which of these still apply to us.
The answer comes in the pattern of the book. The ten commandments have a special place: they are at the very heart of God’s covenant with His people (Deuteronomy 4:13), written on tablets of stone and re-stated in full in chapter 5. Much of the rest of the book consists of incentives and arrangements to keep those ten commandments.
The incentives are obvious at both ends of the book, which consists of reminders of privilege, promises of blessing and warnings of judgement for disobedience.
Much of the material in between (that is, chapters 12-26), which looks at first sight like a lot of extra law, in fact consists of either examples of how the ten commandments work out in practice (in the area of relating to parents, or preserving human life, for instance), or arrangements to help Israel to stay faithful to those commandments.
Examples of such ‘helping arrangements’ abound. The food laws remind Israel daily of the need to be pure for the LORD, and have the practical effect of reducing interaction with paganism. The requirement of pilgrimage will keep the nation together, and the annual festivals are corporate reminders of a history which should stop Israel wandering to other gods. The laws about justice ensure that the commandments are fairly enforced.
We could even say, then, that in Deuteronomy the law of God is the Ten Commandments, and that the rest of the book is there to ensure that these are kept.
What does all this tell us? First, if God gives all these incentives and arrangements, then He must really want His law to be kept. And, secondly, that we are naturally hard-hearted, and in need of tons of physical arrangements and restrictions to help us stay faithful.
When we get to the end of Deuteronomy, we find that even with all these incentives and arrangements, Israel will disobey God! Deuteronomy is pointing ahead to the need for a new covenant from God, where our sins are decisively forgiven; where God’s people are changed inwardly, by His Spirit, His law written on their hearts, not external arrangements.
This is what Jesus came to do. By His death He paid for our sin; by His risen life He motivates and enables His people to live lives pleasing to God. It should not surprise us, then, that for those who have the privilege of living in this new covenant, those requirements in Deuteronomy which are primarily arrangements to help national Israel stay faithful (like the food laws) are among those which no longer apply.
That doesn’t mean the arrangements in Deuteronomy don’t have something vital to tell us: of the need for righteousness, and the hardness of heart of that part of us that lingers on as “the flesh”, and of the importance of the means of grace God has given us, in our new situation. Above all, this book points us to trust Jesus, and to be so thankful for Him.
We continue looking at Deuteronomy 4 this Sunday at 5pm.
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