Deuteronomy is a very difficult book. It is made up of 34 chapters and it comes at the end of the Pentateuch, after four other long books. How do we read and understand Deuteronomy, and why should we even try? Do we need to read Israel being given the law a second time? Is it possible to write a short book on such a long and difficult book of the Bible? In the Lexham Press’ Transformative Word Series (edited by Craig Bartholonew and David Beldman), A. J. Culp, lecturer in Old Testament and biblical languages at Malyon Theological College, wrote this book so that when you read Deuteronomy you can be sure that you are learning to know God better. One look at the Table of Contents shows us this:
- A Lens for Reading
- Introducing Deuteronomy
- Deuteronomy 1–4: Memory as a Means of Knowing God
- Deuteronomy 5–11: Worship as a Means of Knowing God
- Deuteronomy 12–26: Law as a Means of Knowing God
- Deuteronomy 27–34: Covenant as a Means of Knowing God
- Jesus and Deuteronomy: Grace as a Means of Knowing God
Culp asked himself one question while writing this book: “What is the one thing I want to convey to people about Deuteronomy?” Deuteronomy is about “knowing God.” This helped him to be able to write a short and succinct book on one of the (if not the) main messages of Deuteronomy.
Chapter one takes us through a look at how the Ghost of Christmas Present Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol interacted with Ebenezer Scrooge. Culp writes, “Left unchanged, the mistakes of [Scrooge’s] past become the shackles of the future, but if action is taken, that future can be brighter” (3). Scrooge has a decision to make. Will he choose the path of life and flourishing or of doom? Deuteronomy invites us to know God. It surveys the good and bad of the past so that its audience will choose life now, “a life of goodness and flourishing” (3).
Chapter Two introduces Deuteronomy to you. Instead of being a book of law, Deuteronomy is a sermon reminding Israel to love and remain faithful to “Yahweh, Israel’s covenant Lord, who delivered Israel from slavery and bound himself in relationship to his people at Mount Sinai” (7). Deuteronomy retells Israel of God’s goodness so that they will live in a certain way, that of living faithfully. Deuteronomy has the same structure as a vassal treaty. This was a treaty made between two parties: a more powerful party (the suzerain/overlord) and the less powerful party (the vassal/slave). This treaty was usually based on fear, using “terror to motivate people’s obedience” (11). Deuteronomy, on the other hand, reminds Israel that their relationship with Yahweh is built on love. He reached out and saved them not because they were beautiful or good, but because he loved them.
Chapter Three recounts Israel’s history in Deuteronomy 1–4. It’s not that the people need a history lesson. Rather, the new generation needs to be drawn into the journey (18). Moses leads his people through different “moments of decision,” moments that left a big impact on Israel’s future (21). Sometimes they made the right choice and things turned out very well, other times Israel chose wrongly and things turned out poorly. Through daily habits, song, story, and ritual, Israel would reenact their historical exodus journey, being reminded of the sorrows of Egypt up through the joys of the promised land.
Chapter Four looks at worship. We become what we worship, according to Greg Beale. If we worship things other than God, we become deaf and blind like those things. The worshiper as God’s image-bearer becomes corrupted. The Ten Commandments give “a set of foundational principles to organize the life of the community” (31). The Ten Commandments “move from worship (1–4) to ethics (5–9) to desire (10)” (32). If we worship the wrong thing, how do we know we will have the right desires?
Chapter Five covers the law. Does the law constrain and suffocate, or is it actually more like scaffolding that helps us organize and frame our lives so that we can worship God rightly? We know through doing. We know “through performing activities over and over until our bodies, rather than our minds, have mastered its knowledge” (44). Imagine learning a bass guitar. Knowing the notes to a song is different than actually playing it. You need to play the song repeatedly, feeling the music, the groove, the tempo, the beat and its changes. After playing the song many times, your fingers know the song (this goes for riding a bike, doing chores, etc.). And so after acting out loving God by loving our neighbor, we can say we know the law and, thus, God. One could explain how to play a song, write cursive, or ride a bike all day long, but you’ll never learn until you physically try. The law teaches holiness by requiring “people to practice habits and observe rituals, over and over, in order to engrain in them certain values and attitudes” (45).
Chapter Six looks at how we know God through the covenant. A covenant might sounds boring and restricting, but think about the marriage covenant. It is a promise to remain faithful and love one another. “In making a promise, we create for someone else a safe place in an unsafe world,” and we must try to keep that safe place safe (57). When we bind ourselves to each other through a promise, we “can enter relationships where we’re free to be ourselves” (58). It gave Israel a space to know their loving and faithful God.
Chapter Seven looks at grace by looking at Jesus and Deuteronomy. Christ’s death inaugurated the new covenant, by which we can know God as our eternal Father forever. We can’t even know grace until we’ve tried and failed and seen our need for Christ and his perfection “in all circumstances, everywhere, at all times” (76). We can admit our sin to God knowing that he will cleanse us. He has put his Spirit into us and given us new hearts.
This is a good book for a group discussion on Deuteronomy, and a great primer on understanding it’s theological message. Deuteronomy is a massive and complex book, so it might seem strange to read that this book could help you understand much of it at all. But Culp clearly explains the foundation and structure so well that when you either return to Deuteronomy or read it alongside this book, you will understand it even better than you thought you could.
- Series: Transformative Word Series
- Author: A. J. Culp
- Publisher: Lexham Press (January 8, 2020)
- Paperback: 69 pages
- Interviews: Understanding Deuteronomy
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Disclosure: I received this book free from Lexham Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.