Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Heart of the Matter: Reading Deuteronomy Missionally

The book of Deuteronomy articulates cogently the whole being response that God desires from God’s people. Israel’s life responds to God’s saving actions with faithful obedience. The book of Deuteronomy functions to shape a missional people by concluding the Torah with a cogent call to faithful obedience and a strong warning against disobedience. The Shema captures the essence of Israel’s response to God: “Hear O Israel. The  LORD is our God, the LORD Alone. You will love the LORD your God with the whole volitional center of your being, with all that you are as a person, and with everything else.”[1] The Shema calls God’s people to establish allegiance to the LORD as the grounds for a life with God. The Shema calls people into a whole being relationship of total devotion. The Shema’s tripartite call is not about uniting three aspects of the human person (mind, soul, body) but about a commitment best described by the sports cliché of giving 110%.  Allegiance to the LORD involves recognizing that the LORD alone is one’s god. But this is not a mere intellectual achievement is involves a reordering one’s life and priorities under the lordship of the God who delivered God’s people from Egyptian bondage. All competing claims to divinity and lordship must become subservient under the absolute claims of the LORD.[2]
Thus, faithful obedience involves turning away from idols and fully (re)aligning with character and ethos of the creator of the world and liberator of God’s people. Deuteronomy 5–11 serves as a retelling of the Ten Commandments as the foundation for an exhortation to obedience. Olson suggests that 6­–11 offers warnings again three broad categories of idolatry: trust in the gods, trust in militarism, and trust in one’s standing with God apart from faithfulness. Deuteronomy 12–26 unpacks this ethos in more specific terms for God’s people as they prepare for life in the land of Canaan.[3]
A missional reading gravitates to at least three elements within Deuteronomy:
First, Deuteronomy uses a recurring series of relational verbs to describe the life of faithful obedience. These cluster in Deut 10:12-13 – “So now Israel, what is the LORD your God asking of you? But only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all of his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with your entire volitional center and all that you are, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and his statutes which I am commanding you today for your good.” Elsewhere Moses also exhorts God’s people to cling/hold fast to the LORD your God (10:20 et al). The force of these verbs is to remind God’s people that the Torah is about its life with God and not the grounds for creating a relationship. This is a vital distinction. God has acted for Israel by delivering God’s people from Egypt (Deut 5:6 et al). Israel’s life with God is thus a response to his prior grace. God’s people practice and embody faithfulness on a moment-by-moment basis as the means to serving as a holy people before a watching world.
Second, Deuteronomy reminds us that the call to holiness is a summons to the good life.[4] In Deuteronomy, God offers a “good” land to God’s people (1:25 et al). Moses’ closing exhortation to God’s people in which he calls on them to make a decision centers on the good that God desires to work. Moses’ exhortation to engage fully with God reaches its zenith in 30:15-20 – “Look. I have set before you today life and goodness, and death and evil...Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (30:15, 20b). We must resist the human temptation to read God’s promises through a prosperity hermeneutic but nevertheless it is vital to recognize that God’s call to God’s people has good as its end. This was hinted at in Genesis 1:1–2:3 in the movement of creation from chaos to Sabbath. The lesson of the Scripture is that God can be trusted and that the God of the Bible has our ultimate and best interests at heart. Part of the witness of Deuteronomy is an emphatic affirmation of this. But it must be noted that this comes on God’s terms and not on ours.
Last, Deuteronomy proclaims its call to faithful obedience with a sense of urgency and immediacy. Faithful obedience to the LORD is not a theoretical proposition. It is a way of life to be embraced today.[5] Moses concluding call discussed above includes the word today (30:15). This rhetorical device functions to make every contemporary generation the one addressed by Moses while at the same time pushing the hearers/readers of Deuteronomy to recognize the urgent necessity of realigning with God daily on a moment-by-moment basis. Every day is the today of Deuteronomy.
In its essence, the Torah concludes with a call to total devotion and allegiance to the LORD alone. This involves a whole being commitment to the mission of God. This contrasts with the portrait of humanity that we discovered in our engagement with Genesis 3–11. Devotion and allegiance to the LORD alone involves turning from all competing claims of divinity including devotion to self and allegiance to any of the “gods” of the nations.
© 2011 Brian D. Russell

[1]This dynamic translation attempts to capture the meaning of the Hebrew words: lebab (“heart”), nephesh (“soul”), and mo’ed (“strength”). In each case, these words have been misunderstood historically because they were not translated culturally. For a masterful discussion of translation issues, see S. Dean McBride, Jr., “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4­–5” Int  ___
[2]Hirsch and Hirsch Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship (Baker: 2011).
[3]For a terse but sublime discussion of this material see S. Dean McBride, Jr., “Polity of the Covenant People: The Book of Deuteronomy” Int 229-44.
[4]Hebrew tov recurs 29x in Deuteronomy.
[5]Heb hayyom. Literally “this day” = today. See  1:10, 1:39, et al.
[6]Torah = law. The traditional translation “law” is retained in order to capture the authoritative and normative connotations of the word.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoying a day of Sabbath after the "chaos" of the week, and came across your new blog. Reading it made me feel like I was in exegesis of Pentateuch again . . . a very good thing. Continuing to pray for the ongoing redemption and restoration of God in all of our lives, Brian. Praise God, we are not alone on the journey!