Law, Land, and Loyalty: A Study of Deuteronomy 4:1-8
And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord did at Baal-peor, for the Lord your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. But you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today. See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:1-8)
The book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches by Moses given before the people enter the land of Canaan (Deut. 1:5). As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “It is impossible to overstate the importance of the book of Deuteronomy for the shape and substance of Israel’s faith in the Old Testament.” Sadly, many church members today are unfamiliar with this final book in the Torah. Modern readers have classified Deuteronomy as law and left it at that. Few people are excited about reading law, but if ever a modern reader would give due diligence to this Biblical masterpiece they would discover a rich treasure. Many of the main themes of Deuteronomy are applicable to modern Christians. The author of Deuteronomy expounds upon the ideas of covenant and faithfulness. Deuteronomy 4:1-8 presents a small picture of larger themes found within the book. Sometimes Christians find it difficult to wrap their minds around the promises of God that go unfulfilled. Deuteronomy 4:1-8 helps Christians to better understand unfulfilled promises by presenting the relationship between promises, covenant, and faithfulness.
Deuteronomy 4:1-8 is found at the conclusion of Moses’ first speech. Scholars have debated whether or not to place chapter 4 with chapters 1-3 or with chapters 5-11. Walter Brueggemann sums up the issue and states, “While this chapter is rhetorically a continuation of chapters 1-3, most scholars believe it is a distinct and later piece governed by the urgency of ‘so now’” Christopher J. H. Wright sees this chapter as a “natural conclusion” to the first speech, but also states, “Deuteronomy 4 is in itself a remarkably well-constructed sermon with a quite clear concentric structure.” One should understand that this chapter is connected with the previous three, but is also unique and can stand on its own. Although this chapter had an original audience, those standing on the Jordan about to cross over to the promised land, it is also a chapter that is important to all of God’s people. It serves as a reminder of the covenant God made with his people, and the people’s responsibility to remain faithful to Yahweh and not to turn to idols.
Verses 1-8 serve as an introduction to this important transition chapter. Although verses 1-8 should be viewed as one pericope, these verses can be broken down even further. Verses 1-2 is a call for Israel to remember the laws associated with the covenant of God and to keep them. Verses 3-4 is an example of what happens when the people do not follow God’s law. Verses 5-8 is an explanation of why the law is special and should be followed. These three mini-sections combine to make up one pericope which focuses on the relationship between covenant, law, and land.
Verse 1 begins with the transitional statement “And now” or “So now” signaling a connection with the previous chapters, while also introducing something new. The mention of the “statues and ordinances” looks forward to the law found in Deut. 5-26. Peter C. Craigie notes that it is the “law (statutes and ordinances) which forms the basis of the covenant relationship.” Even though the law will not be presented until later, this section begins to explain the intent of the law. The law given by Moses is more than a legal code. It is a way of life with rewards and consequences. One of the purposes of the law is “so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” There is a relationship between law and life. Christopher J. H. Wright points out that the phrase “so that you may live” is found throughout Deuteronomy and that the theme of law and life is found throughout Scripture including in the New Testament (Matt. 19:16ff.). The law is not something to be frowned upon, nor is it a burden. The law is life.
Brueggemann believes these first two verses are not only “the thesis of the chapter,” but also “the thesis of the historical narrative to follow after the book of Deuteronomy in Joshua-Kings.” His reasoning is because of the ties between the land and the law. For Brueggemann understanding this relationship is essential to understanding a good portion of the Old Testament. He states,
Thus verse 1 deftly holds together the free gift of land and the conditions of commandment for receiving the land. The juxtaposition is definitional for all that follows; the verse brings together the Genesis memories of promise and the Sinai announcement of commandments. Thus the land is characteristically understood in connection to obedience.
Why does Israel never fully occupy the land of promise? This important question is answered in these two verses which explain the relationship between the land and the law. The land is a gift, but the people of Israel must keep their part of the covenant in order to occupy and live in the land. When Israel is faithful to the covenant they will occupy the land, but when they turn to idolatry they will be defeated and the land will be taken from them.
The primary purpose of verse 2 is to remind the hearers of the importance of the law they are about to receive. This is not an ordinary document, or even an ordinary law code. It is to be handled with care and treated with respect. The law is not God, but it comes from God and it should be treated as such.
Verses 3-4 are sandwiched in between the other verses in this pericope, and serve as an illustration for what is being discussed. The story that is referenced in these verses concerning the “Baal of Peor” is found in Numbers 25:1-5. The sins committed by the Israelites were fornication with Moabite women and idolatry (Num. 25:1-3). The sin of idolatry specifically led to the death of certain Israelites (Num. 25:5). In the previous verses it is stated that following the law will result in life, but now the hearers are reminded of a time when disobeying the law led to death. The emphasis in the next section (vv. 5-8) is on how the law makes Israel distinct. In this story Israel refused to show their wisdom by following the law. Instead, they adopted the religious and ethical practices of a foreign nation, a pattern Israel will continue to repeat.
Verses 5-8 introduce a new element concerning the law. The law is not only for Israel, but if followed is an example for all the other nations. Brueggemann states, “What is proposed is the ordering of a ‘contrast society,’ quite unlike the other nations, a contrast that is lived out in ways that are inimical to the watching nations.” The example Israel would become would be unlike the example of other nations. Other nations would not become impressed with Israel’s military strength or form of government, but would be impressed with their “wisdom and discernment.” This is further explained in verses 7-8. Other nations would be impressed with Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. Yahweh would be close to them in a way unlike other nations had ever experienced with their pagan deities. Yahweh will hear them when they call out to him and he will answer. Although there are many examples of this in the history of Israel, perhaps the most famous one is found in 1 Kings 18:20-40. In this story Baal does not answer when the prophets cry out to him, but Yahweh responds when Elijah prays, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel.” The other nations would also be impressed by the justness of the Torah. If Israel would follow the Torah, then they would treat people justly, especially the weakest among them. They would be known for their treatment of the widow, orphan, and foreigner. Christensen explains, “It is ready access to God through his ‘righteous’ Torah that makes Israel unique among the nations.”
There is much to learn from this small pericope in Deuteronomy 4. It helps students of Scripture understand why the borders of Israel were constantly changing, and why Israel never fully possessed the land. It also looks forward to the giving of the law, specifically the first two commandments (Deut. 5:7-10). The sin that is the author’s main concern in this pericope is idolatry. This will continue to be an issue for Israel for years to come. Israel is expected to follow God’s just instruction and be an example to the nations around them, but far too often they will make the same mistakes the Israelites in verses 3-4 made. Israel is given a great responsibility. It is important that they keep the Torah, not just for themselves, but also for the other nations. By keeping the covenant and following the Torah, Israel will lead others to God.
It is a shame many Christians dismiss much of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy because it has been given the designation law. Some Christians even hold a negative view of the law because of a misinterpretation of some things Paul wrote. Throughout much of the history of God’s people the law has been viewed as a blessing, not a curse. According to the author of Deuteronomy the law is life and anyone who follows it is “wise and discerning.” The wisdom of Torah did not disappear with the birth of Jesus. There is still much for people to learn from these ancient texts, and Christians are still expected to remain faithful to their covenant with God, refrain from idolatry, and be an example to those around them by following the instructions of God.
1. Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 17.
2. Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1-11 (Dallas: Word, 1991), 71.
3. Brueggemann, 50.
4. Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 45.
5. Christensen, 79.
6. Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 129.
8. Wright, 45-46.
9. Brueggemann, 51.
11. Brueggemann, 52.
12. Craigie, 131.
13. Christensen, 80.