May 23, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Laws in the Book of Deuteronomy

John F. Fink(Twentieth in a series of columns)

Chapter 22 of the Second Book of Kings reports that, in 622 B.C., the high priest Hilkiah found “the book of the law” (2 Kgs 22:8) in the Temple. He gave it to the scribe Shaphan who read it to King Josiah. The king then commanded the Israelites to observe the ordinances in that book, which they clearly had not been doing.

That book had to have been the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book in the Old Testament and the Jewish Torah. “Deuteronomy” means “second law,” and much of it contains dire warnings of what would happen if the Israelites didn’t follow the laws proclaimed on Mount Sinai, as we saw in our discussions of the Books of Exodus and Leviticus.

Deuteronomy is presented as a lengthy farewell sermon by Moses in the plains of Moab as the Israelites were preparing to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. That would have been about 1250 B.C., but the book was likely written about 100 years before Josiah’s reign.

By the time of Jesus, Deuteronomy and Psalms were probably the most important books for the Jews and the early Christians. During Jesus’ temptation in the desert, Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 4:1-11) has Jesus resisting the devil’s three temptations by quoting three passages from Deuteronomy (Dt 8:3, Dt 6:16 and Dt 6:13).

Also, when Jesus is asked which commandment in the law is the greatest (Mt 22:36, Mk 12:28), he quotes Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt 6:4-5). This remains today the daily prayer and confession of faith of observant Jews.

In his farewell sermon, Moses began with a historical review, from the time the Israelites left Mount Horeb (it’s called Horeb rather than Sinai in this book). He repeated the accounts of the defeats of Sihon and the giant Og and the allotment of conquered lands that we saw in the Book of Numbers.

In Chapter 5, he began to proclaim the ordinances, statutes and decrees that were part of the covenant with God, beginning with the Ten Commandments. You will notice a few differences between the commandments listed here and those in Chapter 20 of Exodus, mainly in listing “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex 20:17) as a separate commandment, as the Catholic Church does. Exodus included the neighbor’s wife with his house, slave, ox or ass.

I invite you to read, or at least skim, the laws in this book because many of them come up in later books or in the New Testament. The marriage laws in Chapter 24 are interesting, and levirate marriage is prescribed in Chapter 25. One has to wonder, though, how often the situation described in Dt 26:11-12 occurred among the Israelites.

Moses’ final words included curses and blessings. He commissioned Joshua to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land and blessed the 12 tribes. Then he climbed Mount Nebo, where he died and was buried at age 120. †

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