Third Discourse (27:1–34:12) Future
The third and last discourse given by Moses is in two parts.
1. Covenant affirmed (27:1–30:20)
In the first part he tells the Israelites that they are to ratify the law for themselves. After crossing the Jordan they are to stand below Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. The mountains are directly next to each other and form an amphitheater with the valley in between. The leaders are to shout the blessings from Mount Gerizim and the curses from Mount Ebal. After each sentence they are to respond with an ‘amen’ – i.e. ‘this is certain!’ These curses and blessings are all included in Deuteronomy 28 (and, incidentally, in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, to be recited every Lent).
Words are powerful. The rest of the history of the Old Testament hinges on Israel’s response to these blessings and curses. When we read Deuteronomy 28, it is like reading the whole history of Israel for the last 4,000 years.
2. Continuity assured (31:1–34:12)
Joshua is appointed as Moses’ successor at the age of 80. Moses then gives the written law to priests, who place it beside the ark. He commands that the whole law be recited every seven years.
Moses finishes his message with a song. Like many prophets he was also a musician. His sister Miriam sang following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and now Moses recites the words of a song before his death. The song details the faithfulness of God and his just dealings with Israel. He is a rock, utterly dependable, unchangeable, totally reliable. After the song is finished, Moses blesses the 12 tribes and includes prophetic glimpses into the future.
Finally comes the death and burial of Moses – the only part of the five books of Moses that he did not write! Presumably Joshua added the details. Moses died alone, with his back against the rock on the top of Mount Nebo, looking across the Jordan to the land that had been promised, but in which he would never set foot.
Centuries later, we read in the Gospels that Moses spoke with Jesus on top of one of the mountains, but he never entered Canaan in his earthly life. He was also buried on Mount Nebo, though not by his fellow people. In the New Testament Jude tells us that an angel came to bury him. When the angel got to Moses, the devil was standing on the other side of him. The devil pointed out that this man was his because he had murdered an Egyptian. But the archangel Michael said to the devil, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ and so Moses was buried by the angel. It was an amazing end to an amazing life. The people mourned him for one month before preparing to cross the River Jordan.
The importance of Deuteronomy
Deuteronomy is the key to the whole history of Israel. Unable and unwilling to expel the Canaanites from the land when they first arrived, very soon they had intermarried and were involved in the same evil practices as the pagans. In fact it took them a thousand years, from the time of Abraham to the time of David, finally to inhabit the land promised to them. In the following 500 years they lost it all, as we shall see in the book of Kings. The whole history of Israel can be summarized in just two sentences. Obedience and righteousness brought them blessing. Disobedience and wickedness brought them curses. All this is made abundantly clear in the book of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy plays a huge part in the New Testament too. It is quoted 80 times in just 27 books.
- Jesus was the prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy.
- Jesus knew Deuteronomy very well. When he was tempted in the wilderness he used the Scriptures to defend himself, and each time he quoted from Deuteronomy.
- In the Sermon on the Mount we are told that not ‘one jot or tittle’ will pass from the law.
- When Jesus was asked to summarize the law of Moses, he summarized it in words from Deuteronomy: ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,’ and Leviticus: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
- Paul used Deuteronomy when he wrote about the importance of our hearts being changed.
- He used Jesus’ death as an example of one who was cursed.
- He quotes the law about muzzling the ox as a principle to be applied when supporting preachers.
Christians and Moses’ law
How, then, should Christians today read the law of Moses?
We are not under the law of Moses, but under the law of Christ. We need to find out, therefore, whether each Old Testament law is repeated or reinterpreted in the New Testament.
For example, out of the Ten Commandments, only the Fourth concerning the Sabbath is not repeated in the New Testament. And tithes are not enforced in the New Testament either, although we are encouraged to give generously, cheerfully and liberally. Laws about clean and unclean food are abolished.
We are saved for righteousness not by righteousness. This is an important concept to grasp. The need ‘to do’ is just as common in the New Testament as in the Old, but the motivation is also all-important now. Our righteousness must ‘exceed that of the Pharisees and the scribes’, but now our righteousness is inward as well as outward. Now we have the Spirit to enable us. Thus we are justified by faith, but judged by works.
It is worth noting, too, that Deuteronomy is a warning against syncretism. We can easily incorporate pagan practices into our lives without realizing it. Halloween and Christmas, for instance, were originally both pagan festivals, which the Church sought to ‘make Christian’ when they should have avoided them altogether.
Deuteronomy is a crucial book within Israel’s history, and not just because it was one of the five books of Moses. It reminds people of the past, teaches them how to live in the present, and urges them to look ahead to the future. It reflects Moses’ concern that his people should not go astray. At the same time it states God’s desire that his people, by honouring and respecting him, should be worthy of the land he was giving them.