January 13, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The Book of Deuteronomy

John F. FinkThe Book of Deuteronomy is read as part of the Office of Readings both next week, which is the Second Week in Ordinary Time, and the following week. Next week, the readings are taken from the first 16 chapters.

Deuteronomy—the word means “second law”—is the last of the five books in the Pentateuch, the first five books in the Bible. It is considered extremely important by observant Jews today, and it inspired the evangelists and teachers in the early Church.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” (Dt 6:4) is the Shema—the Hebrew word for “hear”—that observant Jews pray at the beginning and end of each day. The next sentence, “Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,” (Dt 6:5) is what Jesus called the greatest commandment (Mt 22:37-38).

We also recognize the Book of Deuteronomy in the Gospel passages about Jesus’ temptation in the desert after his baptism by John in the Jordan River. For each of Satan’s three temptations, Jesus responds with a quotation from Moses’ reflections on the Israelites’ wilderness experience in The Book of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy is written as a series of eloquent discourses by Moses, sort of his last testament, as the Israelites were preparing to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

However, it was likely written centuries later, probably in the northern kingdom of Israel shortly before that kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. It is surmised that Levite refugees from the north took it to the southern kingdom of Judah. Then it was apparently hidden in the Temple.

Chapter 22 of the Second Book of Kings tells us that, in the 18th year of the reign of King Josiah, the high priest Hilkiah found the book and gave it to the scribe Shaphan.

Shaphan, in turn, read it to King Josiah, who immediately ordered a sweeping religious and cultural reform following the instructions in the book. That would have been in 622 B.C., almost 100 years after it was hidden. Chapter 23 of the Second Book of Kings details those reforms.

It helped, of course, that the book was not only written in the form of a covenant between God and the people, but also as speeches by Moses. In them, Moses reminds the people that God chose Israel as his cherished people, and he did so only because of his love for them and because of his fidelity to their ancestors.

God showed this love by redeeming his people from slavery in Egypt and by giving them the land of Canaan, land that was far superior to that of Egypt. It is particularly special because God will dwell there in the Temple.

In return for that, the people must observe the covenant. They must observe his statutes, decrees and commandments. If they do so, God will bless them and make them prosper. But if they do not, God’s wrath will flare up and he will curse them.

This column will continue this explanation next week. †

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