Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Import of Deuteronomy

Let the twentieth-century man place himself under the sovereignty of God in every area of his life and he will have begun to understand the import of the book of Deuteronomy.
–J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy (Tyndale OT Commentaries), 8.

5 comments:

Mike 7:57 AM  

What exactly is Thompson's point? Without the context of the passage, it almost seems like he is urging Christians to keep the Law, which is troubling at best. Or, perhaps he is asking modern men to consider being under the law, imagining life bound by those rules (many of them seemingly arbitrary), with the goal being to acknowledge God in his rightful place as the only true King, sovereign and just in commanding as he will, regardless of the seemingly trivial nature of the particular statute; that though the Christian is free from the Law, God's sovereign nature is clearly seen therein, and thus Deuteronomy is ripe for reflection. The latter certainly sits better.

Ched,  9:28 AM  

Hey Mike, good to hear from you.

This quotation comes from the preface, so he's making general remarks. I believe he holds to something like your second option (What do you think?).

For instance, the immediately preceding context is:

"The sympathetic reader cannot fail to be challenged by the persistent demands throughout the book that he should acknowledge the complete and sole sovereignty of God in his life. Nor can he fail to be touched by the noble concept of God that underlies the whole book. Even though the great principles of Deuteronomy are expressed in terms which are at times strange to us in the twentieth century AD, we may grasp the principles and give them a present application."

From a different perspective, I would add that I think that part of the purpose of Deuteronomy (and the Pentateuch as a whole) is to show that the people can't keep the requirements of the Law. They need someone to circumcise their hearts.

Part of the "import" of Deuteronomy is both that God is sovereign and holy, and that the people (and readers!) are not able to "worship and obey" like they were designed to do without the help of someone (i.e., the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, and the ruler from the tribe of Judah!). Seen in this light, Deuteronomy sets the stage for the narrative patterns that show up in Joshua-Kings.

Mike 9:17 AM  

Even the preceding context is worrisome. He writes, "…that he should acknowledge the complete and sole sovereignty of God in his life," implying that the Law is binding on 21st century non-Jews. It seems like he is urging his reader to consider the statutes in Deuteronomy as binding decrees from God. Sure, he tries to mitigate the tension between Law and grace by introducing the word "principle," but even that can be problematic. It sounds like he takes an approach to OT interpretation that principlizes the texts in order to extract some contemporary meaning and application. I find this approach not only dangerous in its blatant skirting of Law versus grace line, insofar as Christians must do law X (or principle X) , but further, the principlizing approach runs the very real risk of missing the point of a text altogether.

In the seemingly noble attempt to find application for a text by extracting some timeless principle, the interpreter often misses the purpose and intended meaning of the text. Principlizing, as the goal of OT biblical interpretation, looks at an ancient text, presupposes its antiquated setting and outdated purpose, and seeks to rework the ideas to somehow be applicable to 21st century Christian gentiles living on another continent across the world. While not always the case, principlizing largely ignores authorial intent. Thompson almost admits to these charges in his hope that , "we may grasp the principles and give them a present application." Did Moses intend for the Pentateuch to be handled in such a way? Was this his purpose in writing how and what he did? And what of the divine Author? Was his intent that Christians principlize his narrative and Laws? Does the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy) have a different meaning for the modern reader (through these principles) than it did for its original audience (through direct application)? If so, that casts a shadow of doubt on the eternal nature of the true Author of scripture, and injects a hearty measure of subjectivity into the texts we claim have concrete meaning. What the interpreter brings to the table, his experiences, his prejudices and his current state in life, all contribute to the principles he "sees" in a text. It obscures the objectivity of a text in favor of some modern relevance as seen through a subjective lens.

I like where you go, contrasting man versus his sin. It seems inescapable, both in the text of the Pentateuch, as well as Jewish history from Abraham until Jesus, that the Law shows man's inability to meet God's standards; even his chosen people, blessed to receive the very oracles of God. I wish you had ended your sentence like this, "Part of the 'import' of Deuteronomy is both that God is sovereign and holy, and that the people (and readers!) are not." The tension in scripture is not primarily man's inability to worship and obey without a helper, so much as man's inability (or even unwillingness) to worship and obey, period.

(part 1)

Mike 9:19 AM  

Man was created in the image of God, to bear and propagate that image throughout all creation, ruling and subduing the wild world around him as he brings order to a chaotic wilderness (much as God did in creating the cosmos). Instead, man listened to the voice of his woman, the voice of the serpent, rather than the voice of God, agreeing with her/him that the fruit of the tree was indeed good for food and for obtaining wisdom. Man rejects the word of God and decides for himself good and evil, thus bringing condemnation and death upon himself for claiming the sole right of God, for his unbelief. And thus death spread to all men.

I would say that is the primary import of all of Scripture, including Deuteronomy, namely that man is under penalty of death, but that God passes over that death sentence, at least for a time, because of his promise in Genesis 3:15. Is God just in ignoring the sins of men, allowing them to live even though they sin, even though he promised death in the very day of their sin? God is under indictment by his own word, bound to be faithful to himself. The accuser comes and constantly brings this charge against God and us. But God made a promise in response to man's sin and the serpent's lie, the promise that he would send one to fix the problem. Not that man does not worship and obey, at least not directly, but that man is now under death. God passed over their sin and did not kill them (and by extension us) on the spot on account of his promise, as Paul writes, "to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." The conflict of the story is not man's sin, at least not directly. The conflict of the story is that God said men who sin will in that day surely die. The tension is created because this does not seem to be the case, as God passes over the ever-increasing sins of men, and so the ever-increasing tally that proves him a liar because he lets sin go unpunished, so too does his response have to be all the more spectacular and demonstrative. Yes, he passes over sin, but he does not do so arbitrarily, but with respect to his promise, the promise of the seed of the woman.

The Pentateuch is setting the stage for the appearance of the promised seed (Genesis 3:15, 4:25, 9:9, 12:1-3, 13:15-16, 15:5-18, 17:7-19, 22:17, …, 49:10) which you rightly observe. I wholly agree with you that Deuteronomy is setting the stage for the rest of the narrative. The only thing I would offer is that the story, Genesis through Malachi, is about Jesus, insofar as the narrative creates the expectation of the promised seed. As we track the promise, learning more and more about it as God progressively reveals his plan, we evaluate each of the candidates (Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Caleb, David, Solomon, etc…) and we see they are not the promised seed; they do not bear the image of God. That even God's chosen people do not love God or one another. I am a firm believer that the OT is actually about Jesus, not the least of which because Jesus seems to think so. "Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures." (Luke 24:27) And, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me." (John 5:39)

(part 2)

Mike 9:21 AM  

I suppose if I were pressed, I would have to say that the import of Deuteronomy, as you put it, "sets the stage for the narrative patterns that show up in Joshua-Kings," insofar as it shows that the sons men, even the sons of Israel, are not the promised seed. They are not the ones who will fix the problem and resolve the conflict of the story, namely that man is under death and that God is obligated to oblige them. The statutes of the Law reveal man's true heart of disobedience and require man to acknowledge his inability to fix the problem, but to look in hope to the promised seed, the true son of God, who would be struck down by the serpent (Genesis 3:15), but who would not stay dead (Genesis 3:20, Genesis 22:5): Jesus. This was the original intent of both the author and the Author, and it is equally valid today as it was when it was written. The only principle that the Author intends in the Law, as I see it, is to point to Jesus as the keeper of that Law and the holder of the righteousness required by God (Leviticus 11:44, Deuteronomy 18:13-15, Matthew 5:48) for life; Him, not us. If this is the principle that Thompson advocates, I offer a resounding Amen! If any study of an OT passage, and the principles gleaned therein, would fit just as easily in a Jewish Synagogue, I'd say the task of Christian interpretation has failed.

(part 3)

Sorry for so many comments, character limitation got me. And I do tend to go on...

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