Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker


Book Overview - Deuteronomy

by Joseph Parker


Deuteronomy, or the repetition of the law, is a book extending to thirty-four chapters. In the beginning of the book Moses is in the fortieth year of his leadership, and at the close of the book he is succeeded by Joshua. Moses speaks clearly of God"s promise, and strengthens himself by its quotation in view of the great work which was yet to be accomplished. He then proceeds to instruct the people in the appointment of officers, and directs the sending of the spies, pointing out with his accustomed severity God"s anger at unbelief and disobedience, and restrains the people from meddling with the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Amorites. The venerable leader desires to enter the Land of Promise, and is permitted but a prospect of it from a distance. His memory dwells with grateful delight upon all the wonderful disclosures of the divine presence and government as beheld within the compass of his personal leadership. The old story of Horeb and the ten commandments is told with a glow of thankfulness. Moses still persists in the recital of all details connected with foreign alliances and the taint of idolatry, assuring the people all the while that their enemies will be conquered, yet mingling the glad recital with recollections of Israel"s rebellion; thus chastening an expectation which might grow into an unholy presumption. As Moses becomes older he seems to become even graver in his moral tone, constantly recommending obedience, showing how God is worthy of it because of his work amongst the children of Israel and because of the promise of blessing which he has attached to all willing service, not forgetting that threatenings are associated with disobedience: thus the great exhortation of Moses may be taken as the pattern of a truly evangelical sermon; knowing the fear of the Lord, he endeavours to persuade Israel: when persuasion would seem to be carried to a point tempting almost to laxity of discipline, Moses suddenly turns round and reminds his hearers that God presides over the tabernacles of lightning and thunder and storm, and that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Singularly, with an evident intent towards broader issues, comparatively little things are forbidden along with things that are manifestly important; as, for example, the use of blood is forbidden in food, and holy things must be eaten in the holy place; these would seem to be but matters of detail, yet along with them idolatry is not so much as to be inquired after, and enticers to idolatry are to be avoided and destroyed by stoning, however near and dear they may be. Then again there is an elaborate statement of what may be eaten of beasts, of fishes, and of fowls. Yet these comparative trifles are also associated with distinct instructions to destroy cities which are given to idolatry. Special attention is devoted to the question of tithes in the fourteenth chapter, and instructions so minute are given that there can be no possible misconception as to their range and purpose; yet amidst all this rule and enactment the sabbatical year of release dawns like a summer above the snows of winter, and sounds of jubilee are heard throughout the ranks of Israel. We even hear of the voluntary slave in the fifteenth chapter—a name which would seem to involve a contradiction of terms, yet the gracious anomaly is reconciled by the very spirit which conceived it. It is most instructive to notice the alternation of subjects which are indicated as from the seventeenth chapter onward: thus things that were sacrificed were to be sound, and yet idolaters were to be slain,—where is the line of connection between points so remote? Then the election and duty of a king are set forth specifically, and whilst the local sovereign is to be respected and honoured a mysterious prophecy is announced concerning a Great Prophet who is to be heard and obeyed as the representative of God ( Deuteronomy 18:15-19). In the nineteenth chapter the matter of detailed obedience is kept up in all its vigour: the landmark is not to be removed; two witnesses at the least must testify in a disputed case: the false witness is to be punished; and then, quickly following these instructions, it is shown that "trees for meat" are to be preserved in siege; the sex is to be distinguished by apparel; the dam is not to be taken with her young ones; the house must be built with battlements; and attention must be paid to the fringes upon the vesture. Rapidly succeeding these comparatively trivial matters are found instructions regarding physical uncleanness and moral perversion of the most loathsome kind; then suddenly attention is directed towards usury, and vows, and the exemption of a newly-married man from war; stripes are not to exceed forty; the ox is not to be muzzled; and every weight is to be just. What a system of law was that in which Israel was trained! On every side was to be found prescription, authority, limitation, and all the apparatus of personal and social drill! Now and again we hear of the sabbatical year of release, and of the treatment of slaves at given periods, and in the twenty-fourth chapter we even read of charity; but the general tone of the book is that of legal restriction, criticism, and penalty. Hastily reading the whole book, it may be described as a book of law and little else; yet reading it more attentively, it will be found that even in Deuteronomy there are evangelical lines full of the very love and tenderness of God. The cities of refuge may be described as gospel cities; the protection of the birthright is an interposition of mercy; the very battlement upon the house is the law respecting the neighbour exemplified rather than merely uttered in words; the protection of the dam ( Deuteronomy 22:6-7) is full of evangelical suggestion; and the measuring of stripes so as not to exceed forty shows that the law itself was restrained by wisdom and mercy. Unquestionably the curses pronounced upon disobedience in the twenty-eighth chapter are like a very storm poured down from the heights of heaven; but in the same chapter the blessings pronounced upon obedience show that high above all law there reigns the spirit of love and pity. In the thirty-first and following chapters Moses prepares to give up his leadership, and in doing so he tenderly encourages the people to persevere, and in paternal tones cheers the heart of Joshua in view of the tremendous task about to be assigned to him. Then Moses begins to sing, and soon after is sent up to Mount Nebo, whence he views the land. There Moses died and was buried, and no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day. This is a bird"s-eye outline of the marvellous book of Deuteronomy. Let us now turn and consider the whole book chapter by chapter.

Selected Note

"We find that in the guidance of the human race, from the earliest ages downwards, more especially in the lives of the three patriarchs, God prepared the way by revelations for the covenant which he made at Sinai with the people of Israel. But in these preparations we can discover no sign of any legendary and unhistorical transference of later circumstances and institutions, either Mosaic or post-Mosaic, to the patriarchal age; and they are sufficiently justified by the facts themselves, since the Mosaic economy cannot possibly have been brought into the world, like a deus ex machina, without the slightest previous preparation. The natural simplicity of the patriarchal life, which shines out in every narrative, is another thing that produces on every unprejudiced reader the impression of a genuine historical tradition, This tradition, therefore, even though for the most part transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth alone, has every title to credibility, since it was perpetuated within the patriarchal family, "in which, according to divine command ( Genesis 18:19), the manifestations of God in the lives of our fathers were handed down as an heirloom, and that with all the greater ease, in proportion to the longevity of the patriarchs, the simplicity of their life, and the closeness of their seclusion from foreign and discordant influences. Such a tradition would undoubtedly be guarded with the greatest care. It was the foundation of the very existence of the chosen family, the bond of its unity, the mirror of its duties, the pledge of its future history, and therefore its dearest inheritance" (Delitzsch). But we are by no means to suppose that all the accounts and incidents in the book of Genesis were dependent upon oral tradition; on the contrary, there is much which was simply copied from written documents handed down from the earliest times. Not only the ancient genealogies, which may be distinguished at once from the historical narratives by their antique style, with its repetitions of almost stereotyped formularies, and by the peculiar forms of the names which they contain, but certain historical sections—such, for example, as the account of the war in Gen. xiv, with its superabundance of genuine and exact accounts of a primitive age, both historical and geographical, and its old words, which had disappeared from the living language before the time of Moses, as well as many others—were unquestionably copied by Moses from ancient documents."