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The Book of Deuteronomy

On the plains of Moab, God charges Moses—now close to death—once more to proclaim the Law which he received through the revelation on Mount Sinai. This proclamation is contained in the fifth and last book of the Pentateuch, called in Hebrew had-debharim (= the words) and by the Septuagint deuteronomion (= second law). Moses is addressing a new generation of Israelites, all those who would have been under twenty when the Exodus began. By having the Law read again Yahweh is saying that his covenant with Israel is made with all generations (29:13), both present and future, it is an everlasting covenant.

Life for Moses means serving God and leading his people to the promised land. Here, with characteristic humility and patience, he repeats the precepts and directives given him by God. He wants to engrave them on the minds and hearts of his people, to keep them loyal to the commitment their parents made to the covenant. The kings and judges who will rule over them (17:18) must, like other members of the people, stay true to the Law if they want to attain salvation (27:1). As a permanent reminder for future generations, when they cross the Jordan they must write the Law on stone (27:2-3), to symbolize their fidelity to Yahweh. From then on the Law is to be read out to the people every seven years to ensure that they obey it. These commandments of God can be understood and kept, Augustine says, when man is aided by grace. The Law of Moses was unable itself to cause grace, it could do so only by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, to which it pointed in an obscure way; in the New Law the Lord enables us to have a deep understanding of the mysteries of God and his commandments, which in turn leads us to love them and practice them.

Deuteronomy is structured in the form of three discourses or exhortations, the second of which, particularly, contains the laws proper.

The first discourse (1-4:43) acts as a kind of introduction to the book. It stresses what the book–and the entire Bible–are all about; it is telling us that God in his providence is constantly watching over his people–over every single man and woman–as can be seen from the prodigies he worked during the long years the Jews spent in the wilderness. But it also emphasizes another basic fact: Yahweh requires of Israel strict fidelity to the covenant–that was what Israel committed itself to in Sinai, to adore the one true God.

The second discourse takes up the center of the book (4:44-28:69). From chapter 5 to chapter 11 Moses promulgates the Decalogue and spells out what the first commandment of the Law entails: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (6:4-9).

In this text we can see the two basic principles in Deuteronomy: (1) monotheism–Israel has to believe in the one true God, and (2) it must love him above all else. This prayer, called the Shema, is a summary of true religion. No other book in the Old Testament puts such stress on the love man gives God. Jesus Christ quotes this text when he promulgates the law of love of God (Matt. 22:37). Because God is the only origin of all creation, he is to be adored and loved above all things.

God’s choice of Israel, a grace which must imbue its lifestyle forever more, is a pure act of love on his part. chapters 12 to 28 give a whole series of liturgical, civil, and criminal laws all deriving from the fact that Israel is the people chosen by God to carry out his promises.

The third discourse, which is by way of epilogue, is a vigorous exhortation to obedience to Yahweh. What God hid from their parents is now being revealed to them and their descendants (29:28), to all their descendants, which includes us. Their love of God should be inspired not by fear of punishment but by appreciation for all the gifts he has given. True wisdom consists in this–not in exploring the hidden mysteries of God out of curiosity, but in knowing his commandments and practicing them faithfully (4:6). The book ends with an account of the last days of Moses’ life and of his death, mourned for thirty days by the children of Israel on the plains of Moab.

Deuteronomy marks the high point of Old Testament religion. The whole history of Israel, from Egypt to Canaan, is described in terms of Yahweh’s love for his people and of the love they owe him in return. No other Old Testament book breathes forth an atmosphere of such generous devotion to God and of such magnanimous divine benevolence toward men; nowhere else are man’s duties so tenderly, so eloquently and so persuasively expressed, or the principles to do with service of neighbor given with such wealth of detail.

Deuteronomy can be said to be the last will and testament of Moses. It is imbued with his feelings of affection and understanding for his people and also with sincere recognition of God’s goodness and mercy. Chosen as he is to guide his people, Moses is not content with simply dictating laws. He acts like a true father, seeking the salvation of all Israel. He tirelessly exhorts them and encourages them not be deflected by any obstacles they meet on their way to the promised land. But he also warns them of the serious consequences that will follow if they allow themselves to stray into the idolatry practiced by their new neighbors.

Deuteronomy contains many prophecies about the New Covenant of the future, of which the following is the most outstanding: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren–him you shall heed–just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They have rightly said all that they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.'” (Deut. 18:15-18).

This is, among other things, a prophecy concerning Christ. Just as Moses was the legislator of the Old Law, Augustine says, Jesus Christ will be that of the New, for which all the Old Testament prophets are preparing the way. From this point onward, the people of Israel will live in hope of the Messiah announced from the beginning (Gen. 3:15).

Deuteronomy also contains passages of great doctrinal depth, especially those to do with love of one’s neighbor, which is inseparable from love of God; passages speaking about mercy and compassion toward people who are suffering deprivation of any kind; passages defending the family, women, and public and private morality. Deuteronomy is one of the Old Testament books which comes closest to the teaching of the Gospel and in fact it can be best understood in the light of the Gospel.

When we read this book we should remember that its blessings are addressed to us as well, when we do what Jesus Christ, the Messiah, has commanded us. Its threats also apply to us if we act in a way which conflicts with his teaching. The Israelites’ hardness of heart prefigures our own blindness, our own rebellion against God’s goodness and mercy. Today, as then, he “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

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