Psalm 119:97 proclaims: "Oh, how I love your law!"
This statement may seem strange to many Christians, especially those of us for whom the law has been contrasted with grace and described as something negative, oppressive, or obsolete. We cannot hear "law" without hearing "legalism," and we throw them both out indiscriminately.
Through a study of Deuteronomy, we discover this mindset to be mistaken and perilous. Christians would do well to re-capture the awe with which the Israelites approach God's law. The word torah, often narrowly translated and understood as "law," includes a fuller definition of "instruction" or "teaching." A Jewish blessing connectstorah with eternal life, saying, "Blessed is our God, who has...separated us from them that go astray, and has given us the Torah and planted everlasting life in our midst."1 Such an understanding of torah is what we find in the lectionary text in Deuteronomy. The "law" itself is a sign of God's presence, and even shares his attributes: life-giving power, wisdom, and understanding. Approaching the law in this way, Christians can better appreciate what it means for Jesus to be the incarnate word (John 1:1), the final "nearness" of God, the embodiment of wisdom and understanding (Colossians 1:15 ff.), and the fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5: 17).
The book of Deuteronomy (from the Greek deuteronomos, literally, "second law") consists of a series of speeches given by Moses to the generation of Israelites who are about to enter into the Promised Land. In many ways, the lectionary text for today may be understood as a microcosm of the entire book of Deuteronomy, as it consists of injunctions to follow the law, as well as motivations for doing so.
The theological center of the passage appears in verses seven and eight. Note the parallel structure in the following rhetorical questions:
The answer to these questions, of course, is "none!" The Israelite nation is incomparably great because it is so closely connected to its God. God is in the midst of the people (verse 7). The nation is also incomparably great, because it is so closely connected to its torah. The righteous law is also in the midst of the people (verse 9). The parallel syntax suggests that God's nearness and righteousness are closely connected to the law's nearness and righteousness. Patrick Miller sees this idea confirmed in Deuteronomy 30:11-14, where the language of nearness reoccurs. In that passage, "It is the commandment that is near, not God. What is happening is that the commandment, the law, is almost a surrogate for God. The righteous laws being written on the heart and being kept are in some sense a manifestation of the presence of God. God draws near in the law that God gives."2
If God draws near in the law that God gives, then we can expect the law to produce the same things that God produces. According to our Deuteronomy text, it does. As God gives life, so the law gives life. In verse 1, Moses urges the Israelites to listen to the statutes and ordinances he is teaching them. Why? "In order that you may live and go and inherit the land." In verse 2, Moses explains that nothing is to be added to, or taken away from these commands. The law shares God's attribute of completeness and wholeness.
What is missing in the lectionary pericope is verses 3-5, which recount the Israel's history at Baal Peor, where the Israelites yoked themselves to foreign women and the gods of Moab (cf. Numbers 25:1-13). Moses explains, "The Lord your God destroyed from among you everyone who went after the Baal of Peor, while those of you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today" (verses 3-4). While this may not be a very palatable text, it makes the point strongly that there is death to those who do not follow God, and life for those who hold fast to God. Note how easily, then, the author switches between talking about the life-giving law and the life-giving God.
Verse 6, where our text picks up again, explains that keeping the statutes and ordinances will demonstrate the Israelites' wisdom and understanding to other nations. The wisdom and understanding of God will be evident to the other nations as the Israelites obey the law. Verse 8 tells us that the statutes and ordinances referred to in verse 1 are equated with the torah, which is described with the adjective, "righteous," probably referring to the social righteousness of these laws.3
The final verse of the passage, verse 9, ends with Moses urging the Israelites to be watchful and keep the commandments. They must not forget but must make them known to subsequent generations. Christians, who are the spiritual descendents of the Israelites, have access to the righteous torah: it has been made known to us. Moreover, this passage encourages us that the commandments are not secondarily important, but "the righteous commandments and the keeping of them is the way that God is somehow known and found in the midst of the community."4
Christians must decide whether we too are heirs of this command. Jesus was called "Rabbi" by his disciples, who were students of his interpretation of the law. It is therefore highly unlikely that Jesus calls us to dismiss the law's life-giving power, wisdom and understanding. Far more likely is that if we study Deuteronomy and learn more about the law, it will bear witness to those around us (the other nations) and we will learn to love Jesus more.
1The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 696.
2Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy. (Louisville: John Knox Press, date?), 56.