The Announcement of Life: Reflecting on Deuteronomy 30
The Law has been largely misunderstood throughout the history of the church. Keeping with the roots of the Reformation, there have been Protestants that have essentially ostracized the Law sections of the Torah, suggesting that even to spend time reading or studying them wreaks of works righteousness. It is not uncommon to hear criticism of the Adventist movement for their high view and respect of the Law and willingness to submit to dietary rules. We dismiss issues of regulations against tattoos on the basis of these laws being a part of the Old Testament and choose to see the tithe in loose ways that require little actual obedience from us, and mostly just a supposed willingness to give what the Spirit asks us in our hearts. All the while we use the same sections of scripture to condemn those outside of the church and teach the Ten Commandments to our children as a moral guide. Our picture of the Law’s place in Christianity is inconsistent at best.
Much of this inconsistency arises from the age old heresy that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are somehow different. While the New Testament God is seen as love, as the one who offers himself up for his creation, as the patient judge who relents for the hope that all might come to receive salvation; the Old Testament God is perceived as an angry, distant, and immovable God who demands that arbitrary regulations be followed and is hasty to destroy if they are disobeyed. While the glory of God in the New Testament flows from his kenosis, we perceive his glory in the Old as the apathetic sovereignty of a disinterested monarch—and we, his peasants, are seen as little more than toys for entertainment in a third-grader’s war games. Though there are few of us who would outright admit such an understanding, we are betrayed by our talk concerning the Law, which we set up as the pivotal matter in this distinction.
But we couldn’t be more wrong. Far from being the arbitrary commands of a disinterested king established for his own arrogant power mongering, the Law is the pinnacle of intimacy, both in the Old and the New Testaments. At the end of Deuteronomy 30, shortly before Moses’ death, he delivers a word on the Law that beautifully redefines it, compelling us to abandon our old notions of its purpose, and framing it instead in the marks of creation where God dwelt with his people.
He begins by describing the Law as an act of intimacy akin to the creation of Adam. The delivering of the Law is a deep act of the self-revelation and self-offering of God. The Holy One, who is entirely separate from his creation has chosen to give over knowledge of himself to his creation. In this way, the Law is like a precursor to the incarnation: God has placed himself “in [our] mouth and in [our] heart”–breathing life into our nostrils so to speak—and by doing so has gifted his people with his presence. He has not remained far off, but has come to dwell with his people through the giving of the Law.
We are then taken back to the garden where placed before us is the choice of life or death. But again, just as in the garden, the distinction is not arbitrary. God has reached into chaos and has separated it into goodness and shalom. As he had separated the light and the dark, the sky and the water, the land and the sea, the man and the woman; he has also separated the Israelites from the nations surrounding them, and has provided markers for their boundaries that they might not be mingled with what they were separated out of. Like the sea, they were told as far as they may go. To go further would be to deny shalom, to choose chaos and death.
The choice of the Law would lead to blessing, for to partake in the Law is to partake in the life that God created people for. But upon crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land, if they were to choose against the Law, becoming like the nations around them, they would perish. For what likeness is there between the land and the sea? The land has a place and the sea has a place, and when these boundaries are crossed, chaos ensues. The man and the woman were free to eat of every tree in the garden, including the tree of life, but they stepped out of the office God had put them in and chose to eat from the one tree they were not gifted with, that they were not created to consume.
The Law, then cannot be considered the arbitrary demands of an angry God, but rather the blessing of an intimate God to lead humanity into shalom, painting a picture for them both of who God is as the holy creator, and who they are as holy creatures. It defines the office of the human, and thus is a picture of the recreated, resurrected, or redeemed life that would soon be made possible.
Turning back to the beginning of Deuteronomy we are given a beautiful picture of the life that God makes available. In the ancient Near East, the titles of books came from their first line of text. (As an aside, if we were to presently name books this way, C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew would be called This is a Story About Something, and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be called These Two Very Old People.) By this system, Deuteronomy was given the incredible name These are the Words.
‘The Words’ for an Israelite would not mean simply units of speech, but would be directly linked to the Law. The Ten Commandments given to Moses on Sinai are the Ten Words. Commandment and Word were inseparable to a Hebrew mind. The Word formed the basis for all of Jewish life, but far beyond being simply a source of cultural norms, the Word would be understood as the tangible picture of shalom. The Word described a holy creator and what it looked like to be a holy creation. This would suggest that the Law is not contained within the specific commands we look on with scepticism, but is rather the peace and rightness of creation which these commands witness to.
This image is picked up much later in scripture when discussing another recreation story. Much discussion has been devoted to John’s designation of Christ as the ‘Logos,’ but sadly much of it has centred on the Greek understanding of the word. While John certainly adopts a Greek category to help his readers understand who Christ is, we must take into account that John is a very Jewish writer: he is a Jew, he demonstrates thorough understanding of Jewish culture and life, and he expects that his readers have a thorough understanding of Judaism as well (note that he does not describe Jewish customs as Mark does). This would suggest that Christ’s designation as the Logos caries with it the Jewish significance was well. Not only was Christ the Logos, the ordering principle of the universe, he was also the ‘Debarim,’ the Words of Deuteronomy, the embodiment of the Law and shalom.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The God who offered himself in describing through the Law what shalom looked like also came to fulfill that very image. He has offered himself again to us in choosing to dwell as the one, true, unbroken human in a world marked by chaos. This picture again draws on the creation images of Genesis and Deuteronomy, but pulls them forward showing that shalom has come into chaos and in this incarnation is once again separating the light from the darkness, not just through description but by giving the opportunity for all of creation to look upon God and be redeemed.
His presence does not make the Law obsolete, nor does it, as Christ himself testifies, remove any part of it. The Law is good. It is so good that God himself in becoming flesh took on the substance of the Law, affirming the Law and defying the understanding proposed by the Pharisees—and also by many of us today. He took the Law back to its roots, reinterpreting it as the picture of shalom into which God will bring all of broken creation. Christ fulfills this, bringing near the Law, bringing near shalom, bringing near God himself, as Moses’ discourse in Deuteronomy 30 suggests.
Reading the Law through this lens informs us that to understand the Law as the arbitrary rules of an angry and disinterested God is to speak volumes against the picture of God and the Law painted throughout the whole of scripture. To disregard the Law as irrelevant because of the new covenant, or to challenge those who hold it in high regard is to ignore the very words of Christ. To despise the Law as a voice against grace is to despise Christ himself who, in embodying the Law in human flesh brought what Moses could not, grace and truth. The Law, through Christ, announces life and places before us the choice of life or death. Choose life. Choose the God who is so intimate in creation that he has provided us the opportunity to participate in his own life, inviting us in through embodying the shalom he described in the Law.
Pentateuch students, what challenges would you give to my understanding of the Law and its relevance for today? If we affirm, alongside Paul, that the Law is good, how should we live in light of that? Do you think that deriving principles from the Law leads to a proper understanding of its meaning? Or that it should be followed more directly? Or that it should be ignored? Or some other response? Give a rationale for why you chose the understanding you did. What other questions arise when you think about the Law?
Image © Jorge Royan