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Deuteronomy, Theology of

Deuteronomy, Theology of

The fifth book of the Pentateuch is not merely a recasting of the Sinai covenant text and all its derivative materials, but a new and fresh statement of Yahweh's covenant purposes to a new generation in a new place with new prospects. The nation with whom the Sinai covenant had been made had died in the wilderness and so was no longer on the scene ( Num 14:26-35 ). Deuteronomy was addressed to their offspring who were poised to enter the land of promise, and needed reassurance of Yahweh's covenant promises in light of the challenge of impending conquest and settlement.

Critical scholarship for nearly 200 years has uprooted Deuteronomy from its traditional Mosaic setting and has located it in the seventh century b.c., identifying it as the document that gave impetus for the reformation of Josiah of Judah ( 2 Kings 22:8-13 ). This view not only denies the book's authorship to Moses but has given rise to modern documentary hypotheses as a whole with their source-critical theories concerning the composition of the Pentateuch. It is now fashionable to speak of Deuteronomy2 Kings as the "Deuteronomistic History, " a massive theological work redacted in the sixth century. Deuteronomy itself is thought to have originated a little earlier, being a reflection of allegedly Mosaic teaching designed to provide a covenant standard by which to assess and judge Israel's actual history (cf. 2 Kings 17 ). The negative tone of the "Deuteronomistic" account is attributed to the antimonarchic traditionists who first had created Deuteronomy as an antimonarchical tractate and then wrote their history to show how the monarchy had, indeed, violated the book's covenant mandates.

More recently, comparisons have been made between the form and content of Deuteronomy and those of ancient Near Eastern treaty texts, especially from the Hittite Empire (ca. 1400-1200 b.c.) and Neo-Assyrian (ca. 700-600) periods. While the debate continues as to which parallels are more exact, the majority of scholars are persuaded of the Old Testament-Hittite analogies and therefore of the antiquity of the structure of Deuteronomy. This is not the place to argue the matter, nor is it important from a theological standpoint to settle the issue one way or the other. What is important is to recognize that Deuteronomy itself witnesses to its Mosaic authorship ( Deuteronomy 1:1 Deuteronomy 1:3 Deuteronomy 1:5 ; 4:44 ; Deuteronomy 31:1 Deuteronomy 31:9 Deuteronomy 31:22 ) and in its canonical form bears all the hallmarks of a covenant document, specifically that of a sovereign-vassal type. In fact, it is the genre of the book as a covenant text that is the key to its proper theological purpose and understanding.

Biblical scholarship has increasingly come to understand that one cannot separate the literary genre of a text from its intended message. The form of a composition, as well as its content, is critical to its meaning. If, then, Deuteronomy is cast in the literary mold of a sovereign-vassal treaty text, its message must be understood accordingly. Moreover, inasmuch as the theology of a text is dependent on the proper exegesis, analysis, and synthesis of that text, it is safe to say that a book's theology is a function of its form.

With this in mind, it is important that Deuteronomy be analyzed as a literary composition before any attempt be made to recover its theology. The following outline represents a fairly widely held consensus of the shape of the book as a covenant document:

  • The preamble, which provides the setting in which the Great King presents the covenant text to the vassal ( 1:1-5 ).
  • The historical prologue, which recounts the past relations between the two contracting parties (1:6-4:49).
  • The general stipulations, which present the basic principles of expectation of behavior that underlie the relationship (5:1-11:32).
  • The specific stipulations, which provide interpretation or amplification of the general stipulations, usually in terms of actual cases or precise requirements (12:1-26:15).
  • The blessings and curses, which spell out the results of faithful adherence to or disobedience of the terms of the covenant (27:1- 28:68).
  • The witnesses, that is, persons or other entities to which appeal can be made as to the legality of the covenant instrument and to the commitments made by the contracting parties ( 30:19 ; 31:19 ; 32:1-43 ).

In light of the indisputable connection between form and function, it is safe to say that the concept of covenant lies at the center of the theology of Deuteronomy. Covenant, in turn, by its very definition demands at least three elementsthe two contracting parties and the document that describes the purpose, nature, and requirements of the relationship. Thus the three major rubrics of the theology of Deuteronomy are Yahweh, the Great King and covenant initiator; Israel, the vassal and covenant recipient; and the book itself, the covenant vehicle, complete with the essentials of standard treaty documents. This means, moreover, that all the revelation of the book must be seen through the prism of covenant and not abstractly removed from the peculiar historical and ideological context in which it originated.

In Deuteronomy (and, indeed, in Scripture generally) God reveals himself in Acts, theophany, and word. The Acts of God, when viewed all together and as part of a pattern, constitute the essence of history. This obviously begins with God as Creator (an aspect lacking in Deuteronomy) and continues, in its peculiar relationship to Israel, with God's self-disclosure as elector, redeemer, and benefactor of his people.

As the God who transcends history, Yahweh also reveals himself in the awe-inspiring splendor of theophany. In Deuteronomy this otherness of God finds expression typically in the brilliance of light, especially fire, and in its opposite, darkness. This polarity is suggestive of his immanence, his accessibility to his creation, but also of his transcendent remoteness. He is the Great King who desires to communicate with and to receive the homage of his people but who reminds them constantly that he is above and beyond them in unapproachable glory. It is precisely at the point of his making covenant with them that the theophanic disclosure is most emphatic.

The most intelligible and therefore least ambiguous mode of revelation is the prophetic word. That word of God in Deuteronomy is, of course, the book itself expressed in its uniquely covenant form. But Deuteronomy is a covenant text in a broader than normal sense inasmuch as it contains not only the sine qua non of standard documents of that genre but also itineraries, narratives, hymns, and homilies, all designed to provide both a covenant document as well as a historical, existential, and eschatological context in which to interpret it. Thus there are the solemn and formal pronouncements of covenant initiation ( 1:6b-8 ; 2:4b-7 ; 4:12-13 ; Deuteronomy 5:4 Deuteronomy 5:6-22 ) as well as constant enjoinders to be faithful to its stipulations.

The subject of divine self-disclosure, that is, the content of Yahweh's revelation about himself, must also be seen in terms of the covenant purposes of the Book of Deuteronomy. It is therefore not surprising that the covenant name "Yahweh" is by far the most commonly attested to, occurring about 221 times. By this name he encountered Moses at Sinai and it is in this name that he constantly commands his people to keep the covenant made there. The rare occurrences of Elohim (23 times) and other names and epithets (about 18 times) reinforce the covenant character of the book and its almost exclusive attention to Israel, for these names, especially Elohim and its byforms, occur most regularly in contexts describing God's more cosmic or universal interests in creation and history.

The revelation of God's person in Deuteronomy follows rather typical biblical patterns. In highly anthropomorphic terms he is said to possess hands ( 2:15 ; 3:24 ; 4:34 ), an arm ( 4:34 ; 5:15 ), a mouth ( 8:3 ), a face ( 5:4 ; 31:18 ; 34:10 ), a finger ( 9:10 ), and eyes ( 11:12 ; 12:28 ); he walks ( 23:14 ), writes ( 10:4 ), and rides ( 33:26 ). He is both immanent ( Deuteronomy 4:7 Deuteronomy 4:39 ; 31:8 ) and transcendent ( Deuteronomy 4:12 Deuteronomy 4:35-36 ; Deuteronomy 5:4 Deuteronomy 5:22-26 ), unique ( 3:24 ; 5:7 ; Deuteronomy 6:4 Deuteronomy 6:15 ) and without material form ( Deuteronomy 4:12 Deuteronomy 4:15 ).

In terms of his character and attributes Yahweh is gracious ( 5:10 ; Deuteronomy 7:9 Deuteronomy 7:12 ), loving ( 1:31 ; Deuteronomy 7:7-8 Deuteronomy 7:13 ), righteous or just ( 4:8 ; 10:17-18 ), merciful ( 4:31 ; 13:17 ), powerful ( Deuteronomy 4:34 Deuteronomy 4:37 ; 6:21-22 ), holy ( 5:11 ), glorious ( 5:24-26 ), faithful or loyal ( Deuteronomy 7:9 Deuteronomy 7:12 ), and upright ( 32:4 ). But he is also an angry God ( 1:37 ; 3:26 ; 9:18-20 ), and zealous for his own honor ( 4:24 ; 13:2-10 ; 29:20 ).

The second major theme of the theology of Deuteronomythat pertaining to the recipient of the covenant initiated by Yahwehconsists primarily of references to the single nation or people Israel. Israel serves a functional role in Deuteronomy, one in line with the formal nature of the book, which portrays her as a servant of Yahweh whose mission is one of modeling the kingdom of God on earth and pressing its claims on the alienated nations so in need of God's salvation.

There is little concern with humankind apart from their constitution as nations, particularly the nation Israel. The typical terms goy [y/G] and am [h;Mua] are used, the latter with more of an ethnic rather than nationalistic sense. Both Israel and the pagan nations are called goy [y/G], usually with the emphasis on Israel as a national unit called from among the others and charged with a specific mission as a nation ( Deuteronomy 4:6-8 Deuteronomy 4:34 ). That Israel is an ethnic entity as well, however, is clear from 27:9, where she is told that "you have now become the people [am [h;Mua]] of the Lord your God." There is more to Israel, then, than a national organization of tribes. Israel is an ethnic people, a kinfolk who can trace their origins back to a common ancestor whom God promised to make a great nation.

The third rubric of the theology of Deuteronomy is that of the covenant itself, both its form and its content. As has been noted, modern scholarship has drawn attention to the remarkable correspondence between Old Testament covenant form and pattern and that of Late Bronze Age Hittite vassal treaties. But of greater theological importance than the structure of the book is its content, one so inextricably linked to its covenant context that the theology of Deuteronomy should be viewed continually as a statement of relationshipthat of Yahweh the Great King with his elect and commissioned people Israel.

More particularly, Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal document and not an initial statement of covenant establishment. This is clear from the frequent references to the original Sinai (or Horeb) covenant setting ( 1:6 ; Deuteronomy 4:1-2 Deuteronomy 4:5 Deuteronomy 4:10 Deuteronomy 4:15 Deuteronomy 4:23 Deuteronomy 4:33-40 ) and the change in language in Deuteronomy vis-a-vis Exodus due to the changed circumstances ( 5:12-15 ; cf. Exod 20:8-11 ; 7:1-5 ; cf. Exod 23:32-33 ; 12:5 ; cf. Exod 20:24 ; 15:12-18 ; cf. Exod 21:2-6 ). Moreover, Deuteronomy is a greatly expanded and more detailed rendition of the covenant text, for the complexities of life and expectation in the land of promise raise issues that were of little or no consequence in the wilderness of Sinai.

After tracing the course of events from Sinai (1:6-3:29) to the present site of covenant renewal in Moab, Moses urged the people to obedience as a precondition to blessing ( Deuteronomy 4:1 Deuteronomy 4:6 Deuteronomy 4:40 ). He pointed out that the document of covenant was inviolable ( 4:2 ), that it must be taught to future generations ( Deuteronomy 4:9-10 Deuteronomy 4:40 ), and that its infraction would result in divine chastisement ( 4:26-28 ).

Moses next introduced the general stipulations of the covenant in a passage that clearly establishes the technical nature of the relationship ( 4:44-49 ). The "law" (or, better, "instruction"), he said, would consist of "stipulations, " "decrees, " "laws, " terms associated with such treaties.

The form of the Decalogue here ( 5:6-21 ) is virtually identical to the one in Exodus although there are slight differences because of the new historical and environmental circumstances awaiting this new generation of Israel. Also like its model in Exodus, the Deuteronomic Decalogue provides a platform of principles upon which the remainder of the general stipulations must rest and, indeed, of which they are a detailed interpretation and elaboration (5:22-11:32).

These stipulations are described as commands, decrees, and laws ( 6:1 ; cf. 5:31 ). They are adumbrated in the Shema of 6:4-5, the confessional fulcrum of Old Testament faith that defines Yahweh as the unique Sovereign and reduces Israel's obligation to him to one of exclusive love, that is, obedience. The whole purpose of the collection of stipulations is, in fact, to set forth application of the principles of the Ten Words and the Shema ( 6:6 ; cf. 5:22 ) as an expression of the fundamental duty of the servant people.

The basic stipulations (7:1-11:32) require the dispossession of nonvassals who must be utterly destroyed because they will cause Israel to become disloyal. Moreover, the land belongs to Yahweh and since Israel is the vassal of Yahweh only she has legitimate claim to tenancy. They also insist that Israel recognize Yahweh as the only source of blessing and life in the land. He who supplied manna in the desert could and would provide all his people's needs in Canaan. The principles of the covenant stipulations go on, however, to emphasize that all blessings, past and future, are attributable to Yahweh's grace. Possession of the land is not just an accident of history but an outworking of Yahweh's irrefragable promises to the fathers and of his sovereign pleasure.

The specific stipulations (12:1-26:15), based squarely on the principles of the foregoing section, serve at least two major theological purposes. First, they further elucidate the fundamental covenant theme of Deuteronomy 4:40-11:32. That is, they function in a real sense as a case-by-case commentary on that section. Second, they define precisely the terms of the covenant relative to cultic, ethical, and societal/interpersonal/interethnic relationships. That is, they make practical application of what was more or less theoretical propositions. All the themes in this section find their center in Yahweh, his people, and the covenant that binds them together.

The exclusiveness of Yahweh is underscored by the insistence that worship be centralized in one place, the place where Yahweh would choose to "put his Name" ( Deuteronomy 12:5 Deuteronomy 12:11 ). There and only there could tribute offered to the Sovereignespecially that of the blood of sacrificed animalsbe presented to him. This is in opposition to the notion of the multiplicity of pagan gods and their respective shrines, all of which must be eradicated, including the prophets who promote these competing (if nonexistent) deities ( Deuteronomy 13:5 Deuteronomy 13:9-10 ). Another mark of the distinction between the purity of Yahwistic faith and the corruption of paganism is the line of demarcation drawn between the clean and unclean animals ( 14:1-3 ). The arbitrary definition of a clean animal suggests the sovereign election by Yahweh of a people whom he alone declares to be holy. Finally, Yahweh's exclusiveness is celebrated by the tribute paid him by his vassal people Israel. This takes the form of the tithe ( 14:22-29 ); the release of bond-slaves who symbolize Israel as a liberated slave people; the dedication of the firstborn to Yahweh in recognition of his having spared the firstborn in the tenth plague; and annual pilgrimages to the central sanctuary, journeys whose purpose is to proclaim the lordship of Yahweh to whom his loyal subjects come in submissive presentation of tribute.

The chasm between the ineffable Lord and his theocratic citizens is bridged in part by officials appointed by him to represent him to them and them to him. Thus there are judges and "officials" ( 16:18 ), kings, levitical priests, and prophets, all of whom bear the awesome privilege and heavy responsibilities incumbent on those who would serve the King. For them to fail is to invite divine displeasure and judgment.

Israel's role as a theocratic community did not remove her from the ordinary definition of a nation. Therefore she had to know how to deal with all the exigencies of national life although, as the vassal people of Yahweh, in such a way as to draw attention to that unique role. This would influence the way the nation dealt with homicide, boundary disputes, due process, war, the just treatment of wives, children, and criminals, and moveable goods.

Purity laws, which deal directly or indirectly with forms of separation, testified to the need for Israel to maintain covenant purity and separation. They concerned such matters as clothing ( 22:5 ), mother birds ( 22:6-7 ), freedom from liability ( 22:8 ), mixed seed, animals, and cloth ( 22:9-11 ), and a variety of other cases whose significance with respect to the principle of purity is not always easy to determine. What binds them together theologically is the recognition of the fact that Yahweh himself is among his people and that his holiness demands their best efforts at holiness ( 23:14 ).

The theological importance of proper behavior of covenant members toward each other is reemphasized by another set of stipulations (23:20- 25:19), similar in some respects to those already addressed (especially 21:10-22:4), but with greater business and economic interests in view. Because all members of the theocratic community are equal before God, they must be absolutely evenhanded and scrupulously honest and fair in their dealings with one another. If the heart of covenant confession is the requirement of loving the Lord his God with all heart, soul, and strength ( 6:5 ), the corollary, loving neighbors as ourselves ( Lev 19:18 ), is equally obligatory.

The sixth area of concern in the specific stipulation section is that of regular and consistent recognition by vassals of their indebtedness to a beneficent God for all his redemptive and restorative Acts of grace. This must find expression particularly at the time of harvest festival when worshipers, with offering in hand, recite the sacred history of their people, dedicate themselves anew to the task of covenant-keeping, and give evidence of that commitment by the presentation of a special tithe to God's dependent ministers ( 26:1-15 ). It is fitting that this pledge of covenant fidelity be made at precisely the place mentioned at the beginning of the special stipulation section, that is, at "the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name" ( 26:2 ; cf. 12:5 ).

The permanency of the covenant relationship is implied by the command that Israel, once in the land of promise, should undertake covenant renewal at Mount Ebal, a ceremony centered on the very words of the covenant text being composed by Moses ( 27:1-7 ). The solemnity of what they would do there would be apparent in the curses that would result from their disobedience to the aforementioned stipulations ( 27:11-26 ; 28:15-68 ) and the blessings that would ensue the pursuit of obedience ( 28:1-14 ). Such curses and blessings had already attended Israel's pilgrimage to that point, and were a guarantee that Yahweh's dealings with his people in the present and future would be no different. Therefore, Moses said, the present generation, as well as those to come, must commit and recommit themselves to covenant faithfulness ( 30:11-20 ).

Since the covenant was articulated in the Mosaic writings themselves, specifically in Deuteronomy ( 31:9 ), future commitment to its principles presupposed its preservation in a place that was both safe and accessible. The document was thus entrusted to the levitical priests and the elders of Israel who, upon stated occasions, would release it for public reading. As a reminder of the pledge the people had undertaken to keep covenant they would also regularly sing a song whose very content was a recitation of God's redemptive work on behalf of Israel ( 32:1-43 ). Finally, in affirmation of the steadfastness of Yahweh's commitment to the nation, Moses offered a promissory blessing in which the tribes are prophetically described as recipients of divine favor.

Eugene H. Merrill

See also Clean, Unclean; Covenant; Israel; Law; Moses

Bibliography. R. E. Clements, God's Chosen People: A Theological Interpretation of the Book of Deuteronomy; J. G. McConville, Law and Theology in Deuteronomy; Eugene H. Merrill, A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament; Samuel J. Schultz, Deuteronomy: The Gospel of Love.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Deuteronomy, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.