Every Jewish synagogue includes a large cupboard, usually covered with a curtain or a veil. Inside the cupboard are some scrolls wrapped in beautifully embroidered cloth. These scrolls are the law of Moses. They are called the Torah, which means ‘instruction’, and are regarded as foundational to the whole Old Testament. They are read through aloud once a year.
When a scroll was removed from the cupboard, the first part would be unrolled to reveal the opening words. The book became known by these words. The book of Deuteronomy is simply called ‘The Words’, because the first phrase in the Hebrew is ‘These are the words’. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, they had to think of a more appropriate name. ‘Deuteronomy’ comes from two words in the Greek language, deutero, which means ‘second’, and nomos, which means ‘law’.
The name gives us a clue to its content, for in Deuteronomy we find that the Ten Commandments appear again, just as in the book of Exodus.
A second reading
Why is it that the Ten Commandments need to be repeated a second time? Furthermore, there are 613 laws of Moses in total and many are repeated here. Why?
The clue lies in the book of Numbers. Deuteronomy was written 40 years after the book of Exodus. During those 40 years an entire generation died. These consisted of all the adults who came out of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, camped at Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments the first time. By the time of Deuteronomy, they were all dead (with the exception of Moses, Joshua and Caleb). They had broken the law so quickly that God had said they would never get into the Promised Land. Their punishment was to wander around the wilderness for the 40 years until an entire generation had disappeared.
The new generation were only little children when they crossed the Red Sea and camped at Sinai. Most of them, therefore, would barely remember what had happened when their fathers came out of Egypt, and certainly would not recall the reading of the law at Sinai. So Moses read and explained the law a second time. Each generation must renew the covenant with God.
There is another reason for the second reading. This is to do with the timing. They were about to go into the Promised Land. They had been on their own in the wilderness and now they were facing a land that was already occupied by enemies. So the law was read and explained when the people were still on the east side of the River Jordan so that they might know what God required of them.
In addition, their leader Moses was not going to go in with them. He had forfeited his right to go in because he disobeyed God’s Word concerning the provision of water from the rock. God had shown him that he was going to die in just seven days’ time. So Moses wanted to ensure that this new generation were informed about the past and ready to face the future. Indeed, they would see the miracle of the parting of the water all over again, this time with the River Jordan. God wanted them to know his miraculous power, just as the previous generation had done.
It is important that we are clear about the context in which the law was given for the second time. God brought the Israelites through the Red Sea first and then made the covenant at Sinai. He did not tell them how to live until he had saved them. This is a pattern throughout the whole Bible: God first of all shows us his grace by saving us, and then he explains how we should be living.
This new generation were going to see God rescue them and take them through the Jordan, which at that time of year was in flood and impassable. Having seen that miracle, they would go on to their own equivalent of Mount Sinai (Mount Ebal and Gerizim) and hear a repetition of the blessings and curses of the Lord. It was a repeat performance at the end of 40 years for an entirely new generation.
Deuteronomy therefore, the last of the books of Moses, is written and spoken in the Israelites’ camp on the east side of the River Jordan, while Moses is still alive and still leading them.
There are certain key phrases in the book of Deuteronomy. One occurs nearly 40 times. It is ‘the land the LORD your God gives you’. The Israelites are reminded that this land is a gift, an undeserved gift. Psalm 24 states that ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it.’ When we argue about who has the ownership of land, we should remember that ultimately God owns it all. He gives it to whomever he wishes. In Acts 17 Paul, addressing the Athenians on Mars Hill, explained that it is God who decides how much space and how much time a nation has on this earth.
The second phrase which occurs the same number of times is ‘go in and possess the land’. Everything we receive from God is a gift, but we have to take it. Salvation is a free gift from God, but we must ‘go in and possess it’ for it to be ours. God does not force it on us. Possessing the land would be a very costly thing for the Israelites: they would have to fight for it; they would have to struggle for it. Even though God gives everything to us, we have to make an effort to take it.
An important question arising from Deuteronomy concerns the ownership of the land. Was it to be theirs for ever, or was it theirs to keep or lose? There are two conclusions we can draw.
1. UNCONDITIONAL OWNERSHIP
God said he was giving the land to them forever. This did not, however, mean they could necessarily occupy it for ever.
2. CONDITIONAL OCCUPATION
The occupation of the land was conditional. Whether they lived in it and enjoyed it depended on how they lived in it.
The Deuteronomy message is very simple: You can keep the land as long as you keep my law. If you do not keep my law, even though you own the land and I have given it to you, you will not be free to live in it and enjoy it.
There is a difference between ‘unconditional ownership’ and ‘conditional occupation’. This distinction was one about which the prophets of the Old Testament needed to remind the people. The prophets could see that the people’s behavior would mean a forfeiture of their right to keep the land.
To this day the promises of God are conditional. They are gifts, but how we live in those promises determines whether we can enjoy them.