The Story of the Torah, part 5—Deuteronomy
Moses challenged the next generation to be more faithful to God than their parents were.
- The only thing that can make Israel successful is something completely beyond their power—obeying God’s covenant.
- The human heart is so broken that we can only choose evil instead of good.
- The only hope is for a new and transformed heart that can one day truly listen and love.
The Book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches from Moses, giving final words of wisdom and warning before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, challenging the next generation to be faithful to their God. This next generation is the audience for the entire book of the Torah. First Moses reviewed their story in chapters 1–11. Then he clarified and expanded the laws they had received from God in chapters 12–26. And finally Moses issued a warning and an ultimatum before his death in chapters 27–34.
Part I (ch. 1–11): summarizing the story so far and calling for faithfulness
In the first three chapters, Moses summarized the story so far, highlighting how rebellious the previous generation was in contrast to God’s constant provision and grace in the wilderness. God had brought justice, but did not abandon his covenant promises.
Then Moses gave a series of passionate sermons calling the new generation to be different from their parents and be faithful to the covenant. He reminded them of the basics of that covenant in the Ten Commandments (ch. 5) and said, “Listen, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (6:4–5). ‘Listen’ is more than just ‘hearing,’ it includes the idea of responding to what is heard. For Israel, this means responding to God’s grace by obeying the laws of the covenant. ‘Listen’ is followed by ‘love.’ Love is more than just an emotion, it involves the mind and the will as well as the heart. Love is the true motivation for obeying the laws.
Listen = hear + respond = obey
Love = emotion + decision = devote
If Israel does listen and love, they will be unique among the nations. They will fulfill their original calling as the family of Abraham to show all the nations the wisdom and justice of God (4:6) as a kingdom of priests, and so become a blessing to them.
Part II (ch. 12–26): a large collection of laws
In the center of the book is a large collection of laws. Moses explained and clarified the laws given on Mt. Sinai. He repeated some and expanded others, making them relevant to this new generation. He began with Israel’s worship of their God. Israel was to have one central temple (12:5), where the one God was worshiped (13:4). In addition, they were to worship God through their care of the poor. They were taxed 10% per year to give to the temple and 10% every third year to give to the poor (14:29). Many of these laws put Israel on the cutting edge of justice in comparison to their ancient neighbors, which was all part of showing God’s image to the nations.
Israel’s leaders were all placed under the authority of the covenant laws (17:20), which God would enforce by sending prophets to keep them accountable. In contrast to the neighboring nations, Israel’s leaders were subordinate to the law rather than thinking themselves divine and defining the laws for themselves.
Moses also reviewed laws regarding Israel’s civil life, covering issues of marriage and family, business and the legal system, and community justice. Israel was to pay special attention to the difficult circumstances of widows, orphans, and immigrants. These laws are from a different time and culture. They were given to set Israel apart from the surrounding nations. Comparing biblical laws to contemporaneous laws from Babylon or Assyria reveals God pushing Israel to a higher level of justice than was ever known before.
Part III (ch. 27–34): a warning and ultimatum
If Israel listened to and obeyed their God, things would go well. If they didn’t listen and rebelled, they would suffer from famine, plague, devastation, and ultimately exile from the land of promise. So Moses asked for a decision: “Today I set before you life or death, good or evil (30:15), just as Adam and Eve were presented those choices in the Garden of Eden. They are forced to make the same choice every human being is forced to make.
However, Moses hadn’t forgotten the last forty years with these people. He didn’t have high hopes for their ability to obey and said, “I know that after I die, you’re going to rebel, turn away from God, and end up in exile” (30:1). But is that the end of the story with our God? What’s at stake here is not just Israel, but the blessing of all the nations rides on the fate of this people.
Even when Israel was to find themselves in exile, at any point they could turn back to their God (30:2). In response, God would “circumcise their hearts, so that they may love him with their hearts and souls and live” (30:6). Moses knew something was fundamentally wrong with Israel’s heart—it was stubborn and hard, the same thing that’s wrong with all humanity. All the way from the beginning of the story in Genesis, humanity rebelled, seizing autonomy to define good and evil for themselves. They ruined themselves and God’s good world. But God is going to do something to transform the hearts of his people, so that after his work they can actually listen to and love God from the heart and discover true life.
Moses concluded his speeches with poems of warning and blessing, and then walked up onto a mountain to die.
The Torah ends right here at the climax! Will Israel obey the laws and live faithfully in the land or not?! All the major plot tensions generated in the Torah are left unresolved.
- When is the descendant of the woman going to come and defeat evil (Genesis 3)?
- How is God going to rescue his world and restore blessing to all nations through Abraham’s family (Genesis 12)?
- How can God’s holiness be reconciled with continuously rebellious people (Exodus–Numbers)?
- How will God transform the hearts of his people (Deuteronomy)?
The story of the Torah is creating the need for Jesus. All of these needs and problems come to blossom in the death of Jesus, in his resurrection and power over death, and his ability to give his life and Spirit to his believers so he can change and transform hearts.
Jewish rabbis have a saying, “The Torah is like a diamond. Turn it, turn it, turn it again, because everything is in it.”
The biblical story has just gotten started.