Book Reviews

Book Review: The Triumph of Grace in Deuteronomy (Daniel Block)

Daniel Block is a master of Deuteronomy. Not only did he write the NIVAC volume on Deuteronomy (900 pp.), but he written at least three monographs on Deuteronomy: this volume (530 pp.), The Gospel According to Moses (400 pp.), and How I Love Your Torah, O Lord! (240 pp.). Including the endnotes and all that, that’s over 2,000 pages. There was a rumor out there that Block had a three-volume commentary of Deuteronomy in the works, but I’m not quite sure what became of that. But Block marinated himself in Deuteronomy for over twenty years, and it shows in his quality writings on Deuteronomy. Some of these chapters were either presented at various conferences and then extended for the book, others have appeared as articles or chapters in other books. Yet they fit well together here. 

The Law—A Curse or Sign of God’s Grace?

Romans 6:14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Romans 7:5–6For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Galatians 3:10–11For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

When many Christians think of the law, they often remember these verses such as these written by Paul, while forgetting his positive statements about the God’s law. Because of that, it’s easy to downplay the importance of the Pentateuch, especially Leviticus through Deuteronomy, books full of laws (and rebellion in Numbers). And Moses, murder-turned-leader, was just a man used by God to lead Israel out of Egypt, and he gave them a bunch of laws that they couldn’t keep. But is that really all Moses was?

In this volume, Block gives 18 chapters of literary and theological studies on important themes in Deuteronomy. He covers a wide range of topics from the genre of Deuteronomy, reading Scripture, the “riddle” of Deuteronomy 27, the gift of the Sabbath, the vision for families, prayer, divine violence, Proverbs, and more. Below are some comments on a few chapters.

Covenants

Chapter 4 provides a whole Bible look at the importance of covenants (a good summary of his new book Covenant). He believes that the “the categories of conditional and unconditional covenants are best abandoned” because “God’s covenants are all irrevocable and the effectiveness of all depends upon the fidelity of the human covenant partner (the divine Suzerain is always faithful to his covenant commitments)”(62–63). Block sees three types of covenants: 

  1. the cosmic covenant (Gen 9),
  2. the Israelite covenant (Abrahamic, Israelite, New [Renewed]),
  3. and administrative (royal) covenants (Noachian, Davidic).

Seeing as though God made and declared the world to be “very good” (Gen 1:31), in Block’s view Adam and Eve didn’t need a covenant before the fall—”the relationship between Creator and the world was established by the act of creation” (rather than through a covenant, p. 64). The biblical narrative doesn’t use covenantal language before Genesis 6:18, so we shouldn’t impose a covenant on Genesis 1–2. Though Block does leave open the possibility that “I will establish my covenant with you” in Genesis 6:18 may refer to an earlier covenant with Adam and Eve.

In one of his figures, the evolution of the Israelite covenant is that the covenant was made with Abraham, established with Israel at Sinai, renewed with Israel in Deuteronomy, and realized in Christ (as prophesied in Jeremiah 31). Block goes through the covenants, ties them together, and shows how they are fulfilled in Christ.

Deuteronomic Law, Patriarchs, and Levites

In chapter 5, we see that Deuteronomy views the law as a divine gift. It was—like their rescue from Egypt—a gracious divine act. Nations envied Israel because they possessed the Torah, the wisdom of God, “because it symbolizes the deity’s nearness and because of its uniquely righteous character (4:5–8)” (p. 96). Israel was a community not because of God’s law, but because of the covenant he made with them. The Deuteronomic Law was meant for the the creation of a righteous society, seen in Deuteronomy 16:20: “Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue.” Deuteronomic Law was especially concerned to protect those who were “economically and socially vulnerable from abuse at the hands of those with economic and social power” (97). 

Chapter 6 shows numerous connections between Deuteronomy and the patriarchal narratives, links between words, phrases, actions, concepts, and shared theological motifs. While John Sailhamer has argued that “Abraham embodied the divinely approved pattern of a life of faith, while Moses demonstrated the inevitable failure of a life driven by law” (p. 121), but Block shows thirteen ways in which actions Abraham took are exemplified in Deuteronomy. 

In chapter 9, Block explores the socio-religious functions of Levitical town and the implications of the role of Levitical priests within ancient Israelite society. With the Levitical towns being spread throughout the land, they promoted the religious well-being of the country. An Israelites’ faith wasn’t deepened only by the “annual pilgrimages to the central sanctuary but in everyday life, and it is in their daily experiences that people need spiritual mentoring and care” (197).

Paul, Moses, and Galatians

In chapter 18, Block looks at Paul as a second and seconding Moses in Galatians. Block, having lived with Moses for three decades, wonders what Moses would think of the “old” and “new” perspectives, particularly how they say Paul viewed the law. According to Block, proponents of the “old” perspective tend to interpret the OT according to the NT, especially in regards to the law. Yet while the OT seems to speak of the law as a gracious gift, Paul, with some exceptions, doesn’t seem to agree. Yet Block believes that Moses would have affirmed much of what Paul wrote in Galatians.

After looking at how Paul is a prophet like Moses, Block notes that physical circumcision was not the main identity marker of the covenant people. But if not circumcision, then what? Through reading Deuteronomy we see “true Israelites claimed the Shema as the fundamental declaration of Israelite identity.” They trusted Yahweh because, as Deuteronomy shows us, Yahweh is a completely trustworthy God who is utterly gracious.

One way Paul resembles Moses is that his passion is for the gospel and his people. When he defends himself, it is for his people. While the Galatian agitators added the external markers of Judaism—circumcision, observing kosher dietary laws, and celebrating Jewish festivals—to gentile Christians, they should have listened to Moses. Looking at Deuteronomy 14:1–21, Moses gives his own summary of what was required for table fellowship in the presence of Yahweh:

  1. being adopted as God’s sons and daughters;
  2. being sanctified by God;
  3. being engaged with God in covenant relationship;
  4. being chosen by God from all the peoples on earth;
  5. and being treasured by YHWH as his crown jewel (401–402). 

Fellowship with YHWH is a gift, one that he offers to the whole world through Jesus Christ. The new covenant community is made up of people from all the nations “invited to fellowship and to celebrate in the presence of God. And this characterizes Paul’s vision for the churches of Galatia” (402).

Recommended?

Block has offered a magnificent book on Deuteronomy. It is an academic work, and a necessary one at that. Block pushes against critical scholars and their speculative readings, while also being humble enough to acknowledge his own idiosyncrasies. Block is able to connect the dots in Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch, and throughout the Old Testament. If you’re going to read someone on Deuteronomy, pick up Block’s works. He will provide a thick reading, a gracious reading, and one that should cause you to marvel over our gracious God in Deuteronomy.

Lagniappe

    • Author: Daniel Block
    • Paperback: 532 pages
    • Publisher: Cascade Books (November 6, 2017)
    • Preview the book

Buy it on Amazon or from Cascade Books!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Cascade Books. 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.

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