Deuteronomy—the Creator’s covenant
Throughout history, God has revealed Himself in various ways (compare Hebrews 1:1–2). First, He is revealed as the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Then He revealed Himself as the covenant-keeping God of Israel. And the culmination of his self-revelation was in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, God the Son who took on human nature to save all who would believe in Him. Believers today have access to this revelation (which we did not directly witness) through the inspired record of Scripture.
Unfortunately, many Christians today confine their studies to the New Testament, so they do not see the grand sweep of salvation history that preceded Christ’s coming and explains its significance. But when we look at the Old Testament documents carefully, we see the Gospel prefigured in many ways. The book of Deuteronomy provides a particularly striking example.
The second giving of the Law is placed in a very clear geographical and historical context. Israel was at the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert, a judgment for Israel’s failure to trust God to give them the land which He had promised them. This giving of the Law was clearly linked to the command for Israel to “Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring after them” (Deuteronomy 1:8).
Because the Law had a historical context and a clear intended audience, it would be inappropriate for Christians today to read it as if all of its commands, intended for ancient national Israel, applied directly in the exact same way to us. Yet even though this is not our covenant, this is our God.
Yahweh our God
A prominent feature of the book of Deuteronomy is how often Yahweh is called “your God” or “our God” in relation to Israel. He is also called the God of their fathers, or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, emphasizing the covenant’s beginning with the patriarchs. God gave the Law to Israel because of the covenant He established with their forefathers, which would continue with their descendants. Yahweh is not only God, but He is Israel’s God.
This covenant is why He is bringing Israel into the land, giving them a law, and driving out the nations before them. The special covenant is also why Israel is commanded to obey God and worship Him alone, so that they will prosper and be blessed in their nation. There is also a negative side to this covenant—if they rebel and serve other gods, Yahweh will bring curses upon them and their land, ultimately culminating in Israel being dispossessed like the nations that they will drive out. Unlike the other nations, however, Yahweh will restore them to their land because of His own faithfulness.
Because of its ubiquitous presence throughout the book, the absence of “LORD our God” in chapter 28 where the curses for idolatry are presented makes it all the more disconcerting. Yahweh is presented as the sovereign spurned Lord, judging His rebellious people who have rejected His good law and good rule over them despite all the blessings He has poured out on them.
Yahweh the sovereign God
Throughout Deuteronomy, God is presented as in control not only of Israel’s affairs, but those of the nations around them also. God can drive nations out in front of Israel, but also promises not to give Israel land that He has designated for Edom, Ammon, and Moab (Deuteronomy 2:5, 9, 19). And when Israel is exiled for their idolatry, His power in bringing them back is not limited—He is able to bring them back from the farthest parts of the earth: “If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you” (30:4).
Unlike the false gods, Yahweh’s actions are not alleged to have taken place in a misty pre-history inaccessible to His people, but are grounded in time and space. They experienced these events. Today, we have Scripture which testifies to these events, and so preserves the chronological and historical context in which they took place.
The Word of Yahweh
Yahweh reveals Himself and His will through His Word, whether spoken out of the fire at Horeb, delivered through the prophets, or written on stone tablets or in the book of the Law. As such, no physical form from creation can do justice to Him.
This is one of the primary reasons idolatry is forbidden: “Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:15b–18).
Yahweh the good God
The theme of the goodness of Yahweh and His provision for Israel recurs throughout the book. The land He is taking them to is described as a good, fertile, well-watered land (almost Eden-like). The Law is described as a good and wise Law which is not too onerous for Israel. The generosity of Yahweh’s provision for His people is emphasized.
Israel will be cursed if they abandon their God, not only because God will punish them, but also because God is the only source of goodness and blessing. If they rebel from the source of blessing, how can they reap anything but disaster?
Yet God promises to be merciful, meaning that He manifests His goodness not only to those who merit it, but also to those who have already demonstrated that they deserve His wrath through prior disobedience. God emphasizes that it is not because of the goodness of Israel that He is giving them the land, so underscoring His sovereign grace.
Yahweh the only God
Yahweh declares his supremacy over all other gods, which are not gods at all. Israel is commanded repeatedly in the most exhaustive terms not to go after any other god fashioned out of anything in creation, and not to imitate the way the Canaanites worshipped their gods. Israel is called to faithfulness. Interestingly, Deuteronomy has the first statement that the other gods are demons (32:17).
Reading Deuteronomy in the light of the New Covenant
Today, Christians are bound by the commands in the New Testament, which mirror closely the sorts of commands found in Deuteronomy. But we are not bound to, for instance, the dietary laws and the priestly ritual system. So how can Christians today learn and benefit from Deuteronomy?
First, we can see Christ prefigured in the covenant of Deuteronomy. God predicts Israel’s failure to keep the covenant—it’s not a covenant that will change hearts. But Moses predicts a mysterious prophet like himself and exhorts Israel to listen to him when he comes. We clearly see Christ as the fulfillment of this prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:15–18).
Furthermore, because God is the same in the Old Testament and the New Testament, many themes carry over. The concern for holiness, exhortations to care for the poor and disenfranchised, and calls for justice and mercy among the people of God are just some of the things that carry over from Deuteronomy into the New Covenant.
Only the Creator could make the covenant of Deuteronomy
Yahweh asserts the right to demand absolute obedience and trust from Israel, and repeatedly calls Israel to remember His mighty acts which culminated in their escape from Egypt. But He claims prerogatives and powers that only the Creator could have. Only the Creator owns the earth and has the right to draw the border lines of nations, and give and take away land as He pleases. Only the Creator is powerful enough to inspire absolute trust in the face of hostile nations and their idols.
This shows that it is false to assume that where creation isn’t explicitly mentioned, it isn’t affecting Scripture’s storyline. The Creator God is the sovereign Lord who shapes the course of history and the fates of nations to bring about His desired ends.