The book of Deuteronomy, in spite of the implications of its Greek title, is not a renewed call to legalism. Rather it is a summons to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”. Moreover, this demand to love is not a precondition for salvation, but is rather a consequence of salvation. It is the people whom God has already rescued with his “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (4:34) who are called to exercise this love for their Saviour.
Deuteronomy is therefore profoundly a gospel book, based on the good news (cf. Gen 12:3; Gal 3:8).
Nevertheless, there is in Deuteronomy, as everywhere in Scripture, a link between obedience to God and blessing: “And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God” (28:2).
This, however, is not a link of causality but rather of congruity. Obedience will not make God bless the people in the future, any more than it made him rescue them in the past. God’s actions have been based on right relationships which he has chosen to enact, not fair exchange prompted by human initiatives (9:5). However, precisely because salvation is a relational concept, it is impossible for blessing by God and disobedience to God to coexist.
And yet the people of Israel are ultimately incapable of obedience because they lack the inward ability to obey. In 10:16, where Moses again calls the people to obedience and reminds them of God’s love, he concludes “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn”.
But this is precisely what the people cannot do. And therefore the book of Deuteronomy contains a note of inevitable judgement. After Moses puts before the people the apparent choice of blessing and curse in chapter 28 and has reviewed their situation in chapter 29, he begins chapter 30 with these fateful words: “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you …”.
From the perspective of the historical present, obedience is an option. From the perspective of the prophetic future, disobedience is an inevitability. The blessings and the curses will come upon Israel, because Israel (in common with all mankind) has an uncircumcised heart and will disobey.
Therefore Deuteronomy, and the entire Pentateuch, closes with a forward look – not only looking to the entry of the people into the land in the short term, not even (though this is itself remarkable) looking to the ejection of the people from the land in the long term, but looking to the salvation act of God which will resolve the problem of sin (30:6).
Deuteronomy sets before God’s people the demand that they should love him with all their heart. Yet in the same breath it tells them they cannot thus love him and therefore that judgement is inevitable. But judgement is not the last word. There is a circumcision available “not made with hands” (Col 2:11).
That this will require an even greater act of divine intervention than even the Exodus is clear by the end of Deuteronomy. The precise nature of that intervention is only clear by the end of the gospels.
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London