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Well, folks, rounding out the books of the Torah or Pentateuch, let’s look at the fifth book, Deuteronomy, and what scholars say about it. Now first, just like we saw in Numbers, the English title is taken from the Latin and the Latin was taken from the Greek translation of the original Hebrew. That Greek translation is called the Septuagint. And if you want to know why, I’m going to ask you to Google it, because it’s too much to get into for this episode. Anyway, the Septuagint, this Greek translation, is hugely important for various reasons in Biblical studies. But the gist is that once the land of Judea was taken over by Greeks (that’s Alexander the Great around 332 BCE) and then Greek became the dominant language. Well, at that point, it became necessary to translate the Hebrew Bible into a language that people would understand. And by the way that spilled over to the New Testament, which is also a Jewish document written in Greek. Anyway, in the Septuagint the word “deuteronomy” is there and it literally means “second law.” And that word is found in the Greek version at Deuteronomy 17:18. Though there it means more a copy of the law, something the king is supposed to read every day. And we’ll get into that a little bit more later.
But regardless of what it means in Deuteronomy 17:18, “deuteronomy” or “second law” is a great title for this book because that is what is largely going on here. It’s a repeat of the laws given on Mount Sinai 40 years earlier. Now, you may remember the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness now for 40 years as punishment for a rebellion that happened early on in the book of Numbers (and you can listen to that in episode 212 if that interests you). Now, Deuteronomy is basically one big reset, okay? It’s like, “Hey, man, things went horribly. Let’s try this again, and not make the same mistake. And now we’re going to try it with a fresh batch of Israelites.” See, those over 20 years of age who rebelled back at the beginning, 40 years earlier, they died in the desert. And now, this is round two. So Deuteronomy is a second giving of the Law of Sinai.
Though just as a side issue here, I need to throw this in because it will come up later. Deuteronomy refers to Sinai by another name, Horeb, which is a whole thing. We’ll get into that in a second, too. Anyway, all this is to say that this is where the English title comes from, which has nothing to do with the Hebrew title of the book, which is devarim, which means “words” and is taken from the opening line of the book, “These are the words Moses spoke on the other side of the Jordan.” And you may recall that other books of the Torah are similarly titled by taking a word from the first line. Now, so much for the title. Most of Deuteronomy is characterized this way: most of it is one long first-person speech given by Moses. In other words, he’s doing the talking. The book as a whole, however, is bookended by a what’s called a “third person framework.” The book begins and ends not with Moses speaking but with the words of a narrator, who is going to then relay Moses’s words. In other words, someone other than Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy, even though Moses’s words are all over the place. And that someone, whoever he is, seems to have lived at a much later time than the time period of Moses himself. In fact, it seems like a long time has passed.
So with that, let’s get into the question of authorship. And this is a huge issue with Torah as a whole. And with Deuteronomy in particular. Now, I just read the opening line of the book: “These are the words Moses spoke on the other side of the Jordan.” We notice two things here. First, someone other than Moses is speaking, right? I mean, I’m not trying to trick anybody. “These other words Moses spoke on the other side of the Jordan.” Right? This is a third person discourse. And notice where this anonymous narrator is. He’s on the side of the Jordan, opposite to where Moses was. Now, if you remember again, in Numbers, God is upset with Moses for striking a rock. And his punishment is that he will not cross the Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan. He’s gonna die on the other side. And sure enough, at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses dies on the other side. So the narrator of Deuteronomy, right, just picture maybe a map in your mind or something. The narrator of Deuteronomy is in Canaan after the death of Moses and relaying the words Moses spoke on the other side. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but to sum up, someone after Moses died, someone in Canaan recorded these words.
But how long after? Okay, well, that’s a really good question. To get a sense of this, we need to jump to the narrator’s words at the very end of the book. Remember those bookends I talked about? And this is in chapter 34, specifically looking at verses five and six. Let me read them: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab.” Right, Moab is not in Canaan, it’s on the other side of the Jordan River. “But he died there in the land of Moab at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth Peor.” Now listen to this, this is how this passage ends. “But no one knows his burial place to this day.” No one knows his burial place to this day. Now, first of all, I hope at least this much is obvious—that Moses didn’t write about his own death in the past tense and in the third person. Someone else wrote this. Also the location of Moses’s grave is unknown, which is odd if this was written within a relatively short time of Moses’s death. I mean, I can’t imagine people burying him and you know, somebody writing down these words of a couple of weeks later and saying, anybody remember where we put him? We have no idea. Where’s his body? See, this line seems to assume, and in fact, I don’t think it’s trying to hide the fact at all, that a considerable amount of time has passed since Moses’s death, almost the stuff of legend. Way back in the day.
Now, let’s just keep reading here. Just below in verse 10 we read something else that’s relevant here. Here we read, “Never since…” this is, you know, Moses is dead and buried. And the writer says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” See, this line only has force if a lot of time has passed from the perspective of the writer, right? What’s he saying? There has never been a prophet, anything close to Moses. That doesn’t make sense if it happened, you know, 20 years or even 100 years later. So here’s my point. Even though Deuteronomy records the words of Moses, it’s clearly not written by Moses but by someone at a much, much later time. How much later? Can we be more specific? Well, sort of! I think we can be a little more specific. And here we have to look at some clues within Deuteronomy itself. One of those clues is early on in Deuteronomy 2:12. And there we read of Esau, remember Esau, he is the brother of Jacob in Genesis. And the descendants of Esau dispossessed a people called the Horim. And Moses goes on to say here, “destroying them and settling in their place.” In other words, Esau took their land from them, as Israel has done in the land that the Lord gave them as a possession. See, Caanan had already been entered from the point of view of the writer. It’s not future, but it’s a statement of present reality, which is odd since Moses is the one speaking these words. Moses never got there. See, notice that the writer, he doesn’t care that Moses speaking about the possession of a land as a present fact is impossible because Moses never lived to see it. He doesn’t care about that, he sort of puts him there. That’s a really interesting point. We’re gonna get more into this fascinating dimension of Deuteronomy a bit later. But basically this is the point: the writer living long after is making the readers feel as if Moses is right there with them in the land. The past is brought into the present of the audience of Deuteronomy. That’s a big idea, we’re going to dwell on that towards the end of the podcast, don’t worry. But for now, all I’m saying is that the writer of this, who’s not Moses, but the writer of this is living at a time when the land is their possession. And I’m going to say, this seems to even presume a real settledness of the land, and most scholars would say we’re definitely dealing with a monarchic period here at some point, at some point in the history of the monarchy.
Okay, another passage which may help is in Chapter 4, verses 37 to 38. And again, here, this is Moses speaking. And he says, “And because he” (this is God) “loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them.” And that’s the Israelites. “He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence” (past tense, right?) “by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves to bring you in, giving you their land for possession.” See, this is again talking about the land. And Moses is talking about it as if it’s right there. Not something in the future, but it’s something that has already happened. Right? We have to read the rest of that verse, “driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves to bring you in, giving you their land for possession, as it is still today.” This is really odd. But again, this presumes a gifting of the land where the people are settled. So I think we’re not just talking five minutes after Moses’s death here, we’re talking about a considerable length of time. How considerable? Well, this may help. Now this, one more passage I just want to sneak a peek at here, is Deuteronomy 29 verses 14 to 19. It’s a long passage, I just want to mention it. It’s part of the curses Yahweh pronounces on the Israelites should they at some point in the future break the covenant. And here Deuteronomy goes on to describe, with some clarity, being uprooted from the land—which is exile. And you can read this in two ways. This is either a prophetic prediction of something that will not happen until about the year 600 BCE, which is 600-700 years removed from the setting of Deuteronomy, which is the end of Moses’s life, it could be that. Or what I will say frankly, most scholars have concluded for a variety of reasons, this is an indication that Deuteronomy was written at a time when the exile was at least imminent. It was at least in front of them. So sometime before the 6th century. That’s when the exile happened: 586-516 roughly.
Deuteronomy does have a “long past the time of Moses” feel to it. That’s what I’m getting at. And critical biblical scholars, basically biblical scholars who aren’t inerrantist, they think that the second option makes the most sense. At least it has to biblical Scholars over the past 200+ years. Deuteronomy was written at a time when the exile was at least imminent. And getting to the heart of things, the widely accepted scholarly theory is that the bulk of Deuteronomy was written in the late 7th century, sort of within a generation or so of the Babylonian invasion and then the Babylonian exile, and then it was edited once or twice, depending on who you talk to maybe even more, but it was edited later in the wake of the exile. There are a lot of moving parts with Deuteronomy, folks. And you know, when you get to authorship, which I think you have to, a lot of stuff starts bubbling to the surface.
So what we have here is, in scholarly points of view, we have a text that has its origin sometime in the seventh century, probably the late seventh century, and reflecting back on a previous time. But why do scholars say the seventh century? Well, this is one of those academic topics that has, again, I say this, too many moving parts for us to get into. But I think being aware of the gist of it is good enough, and really eye opening. And so here’s the deal. For quite a long time, scholars have noted how the central biblical concept of a covenant, right, a covenant—that’s a pretty common term [for] people who read the Bible—how the covenant between Yahweh and Israel resembles the kinds of treaties we know about from the Ancient Near Eastern world. And these are treaties that go back to what’s called the Late Bronze period, which started around 1550 BCE, and it continued to about 1200 BCE. That’s an archaeological designation. The point is that this is pre-Moses. That’s the point.
And we have two important examples of these treaties. And one is the dozens of treaties between the mighty Hittites and the smaller surrounding nations. These are Hittite treaties. And the Hittites lived in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey, basically, and they were very powerful in the late second millennium BCE. And you know, they sort of threw their weight around and what they did, the gist of these treaties that they made was basically this: You know, we the Hittites are powerful, and you’re going to be subject to us. We’re going to protect you, but in return, you lesser nations, you owe your complete fealty, your complete devotion, your complete love to me the Hittite overlord, and this overlord is usually called a suzerain (a fancy word that just really means overlord). But a suzerain, that’s what it’s called in the academic literature. And so as long as these conquered nations who are in this treaty, as long as they obey, as long as they’re devoted and show unwavering devotion, and obedience to the overlord, there will be peace and no retaliation by the overlord king. But should they rebel, well, they will be dealt with harshly. So we have those kinds of treaties, and we’re gonna get to the relevance of them in a second, just bear with me. I want to get to the other example, which most scholars think is probably more relevant for Deuteronomy. And it is the very similar Assyrian, not Hittite, but Assyrian treaties of the seventh century. This is called the Neo-Assyrian period. And here we have an example of a treaty from the Assyrian king Esarhaddon. Yes, Esarhaddon. And he ruled like around 680, 670, 660, around there. So seventh century. And this was discovered in 1956. And there are some striking parallels between this treaty of Esarhaddon and the book of Deuteronomy. And people write books about this, do dissertations about it. It’s really fascinating.
That doesn’t mean necessarily, for example, that Deuteronomy had like a copy of the Esarhaddon treaty in front of him, though some scholars do definitely think that. They think that Deuteronomy is directly dependent on Esarhaddon’s treaty, and there are reasons for making that argument because of the similarities. But it might also just simply be that these types of treaties were suzerains and vassals. You know, the underlings were suzerains and vassals. You know, those treaties were just in the air at the time, actually, for hundreds of years since the Hittite period. So it’s a common way of making treaties. But the parallels between Esarhaddon and Deuteronomy as I said, including like certain vocabulary, has led, I think, many, maybe even most scholars to suggest that Deuteronomy is really breathing the seventh century air of these Assyrian treaties. Though the Hittite treaties are still relevant at least as an indication of how long established this treaty, former treaty genre was.
Now, well, that’s background. Let’s keep going here, okay? As far back as the eighth century, the Assyrians had been a pain in the butt to the Israelites. They’ve been a wrecking ball in the Ancient Near East. And they managed already to take into exile permanently the northern kingdom of Israel. This happened around 722 BCE, that’s the eighth century, and now in the seventh century they have their sights on the southern kingdom of Judah. That’s the only part of the old nation of Israel that remains, and the Judahites are understandably concerned. The idea of becoming an Assyrian vassal state was actually tempting, right? To make a treaty with the sovereign king of Assyria, who can’t be stopped, right? To be subject to the sovereign, to be devoted to him as a lesser nation, what that meant was peace and protection—basically, not getting wiped out and dying. See, this is the context for many scholars of the book of Deuteronomy. And this is where the writer of Deuteronomy and the community that backed him sort of drew the line. And they said, no, the children of Abraham whom Yahweh brought out of Egypt with His mighty hand and outstretched arm will not share his people with anyone. That’s, in fact, that’s even the motivation for the Exodus itself. Right? The issue is: To whom to the Israelites belong? Well, they belong to Yahweh alone. It’s very important that Yahweh’s people belong to him. He doesn’t share them with other gods or other nations. So faced with this real existential Assyrian threat, and the temptation to pledge allegiance to the Assyrian war machine, the author of Deuteronomy says no—I have another idea. Instead of making a treaty with the Assyrians, he offers an alternate treaty, a pledge of fidelity to their true souzerin Yahweh and not to Assyria. So the message is don’t give in, don’t lose heart. And the writer of Deuteronomy makes the case by mimicking this suzerain treaty format.
By the way, side issue here, just because it comes to mind—when you’re reading the Hebrew Bible, whenever you come to the word “covenant,” just for fun, replace it with the word “treaty” to get really the maybe more of a historical feel for it. See, let me put this another way. What’s happening in Deuteronomy? Deuteronomy is an argument to follow Yahweh in the midst of a true Assyrian threat. You know, another sidebar, Deuteronomy reminds me of the book of Revelation in that respect, which is also an argument for following the slain Lamb of God rather than caving into worshiping the Roman economic warmachine. “Don’t rely on earthly politics, but rely on the Lord.” That’s the message of Revelation. And that’s very, very similar to what Deuteronomy is saying. He’s saying, “Don’t make a treaty with the Assyrians. I don’t care how powerful they are, I don’t care how good it sounds, don’t do it. Make the treaty rather with Yahweh.” Or better, perhaps, “remember that you are already in a treaty with Yahweh. It is to your Sovereign King, Yahweh, that you show your allegiance, your fealty, your devotion, your love.” By the way, another aside here. I just gotta say this, because it’s, you know, it might come up later, I don’t know. But love is a treaty word in the Hebrew Bible that refers to total devotion, not really warm, fuzzy feelings. So to love the Lord with all your heart, in the Hebrew Bible, is treaty language, it’s covenant language, it means to be utterly obedient to Yahweh no matter what. And I know that sort of takes the buzz out of some worship songs, but there you have it. Love is a contractual, almost technical piece of vocabulary not only in the Bible, but even outside of the Bible. So to love God really just means to be obedient.
The takeaway point here is that the theology of Deuteronomy, you know, what the writer is trying to get across, is tied to how Deuteronomy mimics these suzerain vassal treaties. And to get a better sense of this because again, it’s important to understand the theology of Deuteronomy. It’s—this is why we’re even looking at this. But there are agreed upon six main elements of this treaty form, and each of which we will see in Deuteronomy. So but let’s just do like a 30,000 foot flyover to see the big picture. Okay. The first two elements are the identification of the suzerain, and a reminder of the nature of the relationship between the suzerain and the vassals, the conquered people. One example in Deuteronomy that might ring a bell is the preamble to the Ten Commandments where it says, “I am the Lord your God,” right? So that’s the identification. “This is the one who’s speaking to you. I am the Lord your God, this is me, I’m Yahweh your God. Remember? Okay, good.” “I am the Lord your God” (identification) “who brought you out of Egypt out of the house of slavery.” See, that’s the reminder of what the suzerain has done: delivered them. Now the third element is the stipulations of the treaty, the laws which, by the way we see in the Ten Commandments. After the preamble, we launch right into the stipulations. What’s the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me, worship me alone.” You see, the first two elements are connected to the third by a big therefore: “I am the Lord your God. What did I do? I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, that’s what I did. Therefore, here’s what you do, here’s your end of the bargain.” And this includes not just the Ten Commandments, but actually the entire legal code that follows in Deuteronomy.
Now the other elements, four, five, and six, just to mention them briefly. One is, number four, rather, is the depositing of copies of the treaty in the temple, and then brought out for occasional public reading. And this happens also, we see this in, in portions of the Hebrew Bible. Fifth is, parties are present to bear witness to the treaty itself. And that can be, for example, the gods of other nations are looking on or in the Bible, its creation itself is bearing witness to what God is laying out here for his people. And six, and we’re going to get into this later, is a list of blessings and curses for obedience or disobedience. In other words, rewards and punishments for either obeying or disobeying this treaty. Now, we find these elements in Deuteronomy, not always in strict order, but they’re there nonetheless. And the overall structure of Deuteronomy, not just elements here or there. But the overall structure of Deuteronomy also resembles this treaty form. So for example, the first four chapters are a review of Israel’s history from Mount Sinai to this moment 40 years later. It says here’s where we’ve been, right, here’s the review of the past. Chapter 6 to 11 are all about showing fidelity and loyalty to Yahweh, your suzerain, your overlord, who’s making this treaty with you. By the way, you don’t have a choice in the treaty. It’s a treaty that he’s making with—you can not accept it, but you don’t want to do that. But this is, this is the treaty. And then the stipulations themselves are covered in chapters 12 through 25. And then at the end, right, you have the blessings and curses. And this is like in chapters, you know, 27, 28, 29.
Alright. One more point about all this treaty business, in case you’re getting tired of it. I hesitate to raise it actually, because this may be TMI, but it’s The Bible for Normal People, we’re gonna talk about scholarship, here you go. Okay. I want to mention it because everyone mentions it. So I suppose we should look at it too. The books of Joshua through Second Kings—so Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, are referred to in biblical scholarship as the Deuteronomistic History. And it’s those books are called that because the laws of Deuteronomy seem to be very much on the mind of this writer as he’s writing the history, basically, of David and Solomon and then the divided kingdom. So there is an agreed upon connection among biblical scholars between the authorship of this Deuteronomistic history and the book of Deuteronomy. Okay, that’s just, I’m laying that out there. Okay? There’s a connection between Deuteronomy and Deuteronomistic history in terms of vocabulary and themes and things like that.
Now, in 2 Kings, right, outside of Deuteronomy here—in 2 Kings 22-23 we read about the King Josiah, who is the only king in 1 and 2 Kings who gets an A+ rating. All the others have either a fatal flaw somewhere or they’re just plain evil, right? Hang with me. In 2 Kings, in that story of Josiah, a discovery is made in the temple. The high priest Hilkiah, during the reign of Josiah, says that he found—found—the book of the law in the temple. And many scholars think that this book of the law, it’s not Torah as a whole, it’s not Genesis through Deuteronomy—it’s Deuteronomy itself. Or at least some early version of it, some core bit of it. And this story describes, the story in 2 Kings, it describes not so much the discovery of the law as it does the law’s origin itself. Now that may seem a little bit deceptive. But this is part of the genre of an—genres of antiquity. You just, you tell stories to get a point across that you want to get across. So Deuteronomy is considered, you know, this is a clue, 2 Kings 22 to 23, about this finding of the law. It’s a clue that Deuteronomy is a seventh century law code under, during the reign of Josiah.
Now, I have to say that this actually does make a lot of sense to me. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and you know, I’m not here really to defend that or to make you think it necessarily but only to communicate the kinds of things scholars talk about. Bottom line, Deuteronomy got its start in the seventh century, probably during the time of Josiah, which is why Josiah is so praised in the Deuteronomistic history, the only one who gets an A+ rating. And this is a position that scholars broadly accept, apart from some more conservative Christian scholars (and I think that’s a fair statement). So just letting you know where people come out with that. Okay. I do hope that this little rummaging through Assyrian treaties and whatnot was helpful to you at least know that if you’re confused or overwhelmed, that’s par for the course. Deuteronomy is a lot. And it’s a lot to wrap our heads around. But let’s, let’s move away now from that. Let’s take a break from this authorship issue and setting issue, and let’s look at the structure of the book as a whole. And I think this is a lot more straightforward. And I like structure! If you know me, you’ve listened to these podcasts before, I actually like thinking in terms of structures of books, because it gives me a big picture to hang things on, I don’t get lost in the minutia as easily. I sort of know, okay, here’s where I am in the book, here’s what’s going on. And you know, it just helps me from just getting confused.
Okay, so basically, here’s the structure: Deuteronomy is made up of three speeches of Moses. And those three speeches are framed by a third-person prologue, as it might be called, that’s Chapter 1:1-5, and then a concluding section or an epilogue. And this is usually considered to be like between 31 and 34, the last, the last four chapters of the book, right? Even though there’s stuff from Moses in there, we’ll get to that. But that’s, that’s basically the first part and the last part as a framework. So in other words, you have five main sections in all, and I just want to look at each one with you briefly, and then come back to some highlights. Okay?
So, okay, we looked at the first already, which is the prologue. And we looked at the first verse, at least, you know, but the rest of it, it just says that Moses, you know, was here and all this is happening in the 11th month of the 40th year. In other words, one month is the timespan for the book of Deuteronomy itself, since the 40 years end when they enter Canaan in the book of Joshua. So all of Deuteronomy takes about a month. That’s where you get that from in these opening verses. Now, the next section is Moses’s first speech, which runs from 1:6 to 4:43. And we glimpsed at this too, already. This is a review of where they’ve been from the time they left Sinai, and it ends with an exhortation to the people to be obedient to the covenant. Again, remember here, the suzerain vassal treaty form that we just looked at—this is this historical retrospective stuff. Okay, then we transition to Moses a second speech. And this is a long one, it runs from 4:44 all the way to the end of chapter 28. And it’s clearly the heart of the book. It covers the Ten Commandments, we see that in chapter 5, the exhortation to be loyal to Yahweh, that’s in chapter 6-11, the actual Deuteronomic laws 12-26, and then the blessings and curses of the treaty 27-28. A lot happening here, it’s a long section. That’s his main speech.
Next is Moses’s third speech, and this is in 29-30. And this is sort of like a concluding exhortation to be faithful to God by obeying the terms of the treaty. See, Deuteronomy is really big on being obedient to the treaty of Yahweh. Now, the fifth and the final section is chapters 31-34, which I think really could be broken up into two sections, but most won’t do that, and so neither will I. But basically, this is all about preparing for a future without Moses. So here’s where Moses’s mantle is passed to Joshua. And Moses recites a lengthy song about Israel’s apostasy, but it ends on a good note. Now that’s chapter 32. And then chapter 33 is Moses’s final blessing on Israel going tribe by tribe, and then he dies in chapter 34 as we’ve seen, after having been given a glimpse of the land that the Israelites would soon enter. Okay, so that’s the structure of the book. And again, I think it’s really just pedagogically important. With my students, we always look at the big picture and then try to focus in on smaller parts within that big picture. Because having a sense of the whole structure just helps make sense of the parts. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of verses and stories that have no connection, no meaning, okay? So hopefully this helps. And, in fact, you know, I would suggest if you get around to reading Deuteronomy, more or less, according to these five sections. So I say chapters 1-5, 6-11, 12-28. Feel free to break that up as much as you want to. 29-30 and then 31-34.
Okay, let’s switch gears here a little bit. I want to look briefly at 10 passages in Deuteronomy, in the order in which they appear, that I think are either revealing from an academic point of view, like the kinds of things scholars talk about, or at least in some way are familiar to people who, you know, maybe are a little bit familiar with the Bible itself. Ten passages we’ll look at, or 10 ideas. The first, I already mentioned briefly, is Deuteronomy is use of Horeb instead of Sinai. And along with other distinctive vocabulary that we find in this book. So just know that Deuteronomy is considered an independent witness to the Moses tradition, and its laws don’t always line up. In fact, sometimes they’re in great conflict with the laws that we read in Leviticus and Exodus. So the lesson here is that Torah, right, the five books, right? The Torah does not contain one seamless law, but actually several law codes or law traditions that were all brought together by an editor or editors, who knows, living no earlier than the exhilic period, sixth century, and probably long after that. So as you read the Torah, it might help to expect to see differences and variations, in fact, go looking for them. Right? The writers aren’t trying to hide them, they probably even assume that you’ll pick up on these things and it’s not a big deal. And, you know, while we’re speaking of these laws, let me toss into the mix something that I just, I find fascinating, that again, is sort of a window onto Deuteronomy as a book. I want to toss into the mix here Genesis 26:5. Yes, Genesis, way back in Genesis. And this is what we read there: “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” This is God talking about Abraham. Now those four words: charge, commandments, statutes, laws—are classic Deuteronomy language that refer to the book of the law, again, which is Deuteronomy. But it’s interesting, isn’t it? Here we find that Abraham is a, he’s a Deuteronomic lawkeeper. Right? You see that? This seems to suggest, at least to many scholars, that under Deuteronomic influence in the editing process of the Torah, some of these older stories were sort of updated to reflect later concerns or interests. So Abraham is portrayed, ancient Abraham is portrayed as a keeper of a law code that didn’t exist in Abraham’s day.
You know, you study the Bible and at some point you just start seeing things. And people have been seeing things like this for a very long time. But it just suggests the complexity of the composition of Deuteronomy, and of Torah as a whole. This isn’t children’s literature, it’s not supposed to make perfect sense, you have to do a lot of thinking, a lot of pausing when you read this stuff.
Second, let’s talk about the Ten Commandments. Full lists of the Ten Commandments appear in two places: Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, but they differ in minor ways, which is not a big deal, but also in some not so minor ways. Specifically, the fourth commandment, keeping the Sabbath. The two places where the Ten Commandments appear, well, they say this law differently. And specifically, the two (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5) they differ in what’s called their motive clauses. A motive clause is the reason for the law, the rationale behind the law. In Exodus, the reason for the Sabbath command is to rest as God rested on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 1). In Deuteronomy, the reason is the memory of having been enslaved in Egypt, where the Israelites had no rest. And so you know, everyone should have a day of rest—animals, slaves, everybody—not because God rested on the seventh day, but because “treat them more humanitarily, you were slaves in Egypt as well.” And I think it should make a stop for a moment to see that of all things, the Ten Commandments exist in different versions. And this is especially striking if, you know, we accept the context of Deuteronomy, sort of the implied context that Moses is simply repeating the older law code, just saying it a second time for the benefit of the new generation. But he clearly isn’t! He isn’t just repeating it. It’s different.
And the reason often given for this difference in Deuteronomy is that it is its own tradition, its own legal tradition, rather than simply repeating Exodus. And if you’re a frequent listener to this podcast, you know that embracing multiple traditions is quite a common phenomenon in the Hebrew Bible. And Deuteronomy’s motive clause has a more humanitarian slant than Exodus. And that is a common explanation among biblical scholars at least. And there are other reasons in Deuteronomy for saying so which we won’t get into. But the context of Deuteronomy and Exodus is what seems to drive the wording of the laws differently, and I just think that is a huge lesson, people, for any Bible reader to think about—that the Bible itself takes into account situational changes and differences, for how even God’s word from Mount Sinai is being articulated. By the way, just a side issue here, if you are interested in that issue specifically—way back, I think it was in season one, maybe season two, my good friend Ben Sommer, brilliant Old Testament scholar, look for his episode on the podcast where we talk about these differences in the laws and how Jewish theology handles them. I think it’s fascinating. Okay, anyway, that was the second point.
Now the third thing to think about is chapter 6:4-9. And there we have one of the better known passages in the Hebrew Bible. It’s called the Shema. And Shema is the first word of this passage, and it means “hear.” So you might be familiar with this. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Right, pretty well known passage. Two things here. First, there is some difference of opinion about how to handle the Hebrew phrase, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” which is how the New Revised Standard Version has it. It could also be, “the Lord is one.” That suggests a slightly different understanding of what this means, which again, I don’t want to get into it too much here because it would take us far afield. But we did have, by the way, a second podcast with Ben Sommer, where he talks about this very passage, and how this has to, it’s connected to the use of idols and idol worship and things like that. But just know that, you know, “the Lord alone”, it might be “the Lord is one.” And that’s a slightly different meaning. And also remember, this happens in chapters 6-11, right? That’s all about impressing on the people the importance of being faithful to the treaty. And this is how it begins. And it begins with, you know, loving the Lord your God. Again, that’s, that’s not just emotional language. It is, it’s treaty language of obedience. And it’s really, really driving it home. Tell it to your children, recite it, bind it on your hand, fix it on your forehead, write them on the doorposts, etc., which are still Jewish traditions today, at least in some Jewish circles. So this is, this is all about covenant or treaty obedience and fidelity. And the word love is used, which is a treaty word.
Okay, fourth, this is getting into the issue of the circumcision of the heart, which is in 10:16 where we read, you know, “Circumcise then the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” And this can sometimes be understood, and really, I don’t know how you can get this—but it’s understood by some Christians to mean that Deuteronomy doesn’t care about male circumcision. It certainly does. Like, “we’re all over that” [but] we’re not. Rather, this is just a graphic reminder of the depth of commitment needed to remain faithful to the treaty. And remember too that, you know, loving the Lord with all your heart or having your heart circumcised—remember that the heart is not primarily about the emotions in the Hebrew Bible, but it covers things like thoughts, intentions, volition, or will. It’s an all encompassing word, it almost means the self. So you know, instead of seeing “circumcise your heart,” it could be “circumcise your whole self.” This is an all-in kind of proposition. I think that’s what this is saying.
Okay, five. I think some of these are a bit briefer, I hope so anyway, for your sake. Five—in chapter 7:1-11 and chapter 20:10-20, we see the rhetoric of violence concerning the Canaanites and the need to exterminate them. The reason given is so that the Israelites would not be led astray to worship false gods, the gods of Canaan. So again, the fidelity to the treaty is underscored. That’s the point. The motive for the annihilation of the Canaanites is not a theological mystery in Deuteronomy. You know, we’re sometimes puzzled by it, in fact, because you know, we might not like it very much. I don’t like it very much. I don’t like it at all. But we might be puzzled by it, and say, wow, why does God do this? It’s all in the mystery of God, blah, blah, blah. No, the reason is very, very clear. “Kill them to prevent the Israelites from being tempted to worship other gods, and therefore break the treaty.” Now other parts of the Hebrew Bible like the priestly writer in Leviticus, they stress another angle: that the Canaanites are an impure entity that pollute the land and have to be vomited out. Which by the way, I touched upon this a little bit in Episode 204 and Leviticus. But the reason in Deuteronomy and in the Deuteronomistic history is all about preventing false worship. They can’t be here. If they’re here, you can’t be faithful to this treaty.
Six. So in addition to the big theme that we’ve been talking about, of covenant fidelity or treaty fidelity, the other core theme of Deuteronomy is the centralization of worship. You can see that in chapter 12, where the emphasis is on worshiping in “the place where the Lord your God will choose to put his name.” You can see that in 12:21, for example, and that phrase is just code in Deuteronomy for the Jerusalem temple. The reason why the books of 1 and 2 Kings and others are referred to as the Deuteronomistic history is because of the presence of these two themes, right? Covenant fidelity and centralization of worship. They’re prominent in the evaluation of the kings of Israel and Judah. See, if you ever are up for reading those books, keep an eye out for how often the kings are chided for breaking the treaty by worshipping other gods and two, setting up high places all over the land instead of worshipping only in the temple. Now, this is, I don’t want to open up a whole can of worms here. But I just gotta mention that a common academic conclusion is that the Deuteronomistic history is really keen on controlling the worship of God. And it’s not uncommon for some scholars to add that this is not a good thing in Israel’s history, but more of like a hyper bureaucratization—I think that’s a word, hyper bureaucratization—of Israelite worship, that tried to rein in the people and make them submit to the state, something like that. That’s a huge issue. And it could be a podcast all to itself, maybe we’ll get to that at some point. But it’s not pure motives that are attributed to the Deuteronomistic historian to emphasize centrality of worship. When you know, back in Abraham’s day, people were also sacrificing on altars someplace else, right? So people are still doing that in Israel. And now it’s a problem.
So, okay, seven. Related to all this is the king’s obligation to keep the law and to read it regularly. That’s Deuteronomy 17:14-20. The king in that same section is also not to acquire many horses, many wives, or much silver and gold. Now, just so happens that this list of offenses describes exactly what led to Solomon’s downfall in 1 Kings 10-11. So perhaps, you know, the whole narrative of Solomon of basically flaunting the law that kings are supposed to follow in Deuteronomy 17, that may be a way of justifying—in the mind of the author—that may be a way of justifying how Solomon’s career ended (not well). He was doing so great until the end, he married all these foreign wives, he’s got all these horses, and he’s got tons of silver and gold. And you know, that’s how his career ended. And then the nation was split into two right after his death. So this is considered to be another example of the Deuteronomistic outlook of 1 and 2 Kings, how the kings are evaluated. Even Solomon is tied into the law code of Deuteronomy.
Okay, number eight. Now, many readers of Deuteronomy are bothered by the list of blessings and curses in chapters 26-28. And one reason is that God is portrayed here as really, really transactional. Like, I’ll reward you if you’re good, but punish you if you’re bad. And people have asked, and this is a question that’s bound to come up. It’s not a bad question. But where’s the grace? God seems like well, a suzerain. He seems like an overlord if you just hack him off, it’s curtains. Right? And that’s a good question. But just remember, this is very, very important to me personally, as I read Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is modeled after the suzerain treaty formula of the Assyrians of the seventh century, and the curses are rather gruesome. They’re in fact, I think, over the top, especially if you start reading in 28, around verse 15 to the end of the chapter, you’ve got about what, 54 verses, that I don’t recommend reading doing your quiet time or for the Old Testament reading in church. Right? Because the curses include things like watching other men lie with your women, taking captive your children into slavery as you watch them being taken away, and starving so badly that you’ll eat your own children.
So, let me let me say it here, and I’ll be very, very direct, very clear. For me, it is theologically and spiritually vital to understand these curses as employing the treaty rhetoric of the Assyrians. This rhetoric performed a function for these ancient Israelites and I want to understand and respect what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. But this is my opinion, I do not for one second think this is a literal description of what God is like. It is a depiction of God in this time and place and for a specific purpose. And I am horrified and very concerned when I hear it implied by people, especially people in some authority, spiritual authority over others, to employ this Deuteronomic rhetoric in the lives of people who are maybe struggling with things. “If you obey, you’ll be fine. If you disobey, you’re going to be cursed.” That is the rhetoric of Deuteronomy, it is not meant to be cut and pasted into every situation. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t even cut it into every situation, the New Testament doesn’t cut it into every situation. Right? So just, we got to be circumspect, I think, frankly, adult about reading a book like Deuteronomy and thinking it just sort of applies to our time and place. It takes a lot of theology, a lot of energy, a lot of hermeneutics, a lot of thought, you know, to understand what to do with Deuteronomy. Okay, thank you.
Two more, right? Number nine. The Song of Moses, this is in chapter 32, part of the section where you’re preparing for life without Moses. And the Song of Moses contains a line that is quite revealing for historians. And it’s verses eight to nine, which refer to the Most High and the Hebrew is Elyon. And you would not be faulted for thinking, just reading along in your Bible, that this was a reference to Israel’s God Yahweh, the Most High. He’s called the Most High in Psalm 95, for example, right? So we read that the Most High, what does he do? He set up the nations and divided humankind among them, and each people group living in different places, each one has its own deity, its own God to rule over them. Okay, well, that doesn’t sound too good to me. It doesn’t sound too Orthodox, but we’re not done yet. There’s more. One of those divisions, one of those portions, one of those people groups was given to Yahweh. He was given Jacob, which is another way of saying Israel. See, not only do you have a high god dividing out the people in the nations to the lesser gods to each take your portion, each take your territory—in this scenario, Yahweh isn’t even the Most High God, he is one of the lower deities as a member of the Pantheon. Now for students of the ancient world, this passage sounds very ancient Near Eastern-y like. Par for the course. You have a high God, in this case, Elyon, who, by the way, is the ancient Canaanite chief deity, and he has other gods under him. It just happens that Yahweh is one of those underling gods in this verse.
Of course, if you’re freaking out or a little bit, “what’s he talking about?” It’s a little bit disturbing. And it has been disturbing for a very, very long time. See, there is an ancient tradition where this passage has been edited to make it be not so troublesome. No need to get into the details here. You can see how some of this stuff was done. But just consult a good study Bible, where there are footnotes about this specific passage and some of the options and what people have done with it, what the Greek translation has done with it, what early Judaism did with it, okay? So, look in a good study Bible, and by the way, if your Bible, if your study Bible doesn’t address this, it is not a good study Bible. So the oldest biblical manuscripts we have are from the Dead Sea Scrolls, they’re pre-Christian, they contain this reading. And scholars agree that this, right, where Yahweh is one of the underling gods, this is the oldest reading we have. So here’s how this is explained. Chapter 32 seems to be a very old poem that reflects an earlier stage in ancient Israelite religion when the Israelites worship their god as other nations worship theirs. And we’ve talked about this in other episodes, this is called monolatry. You accept and assume the existence of many gods, but you only worship one God. That’s that was Israel’s theology. And we sort of see that here too. We see throughout the Hebrew Bible, just glance at Psalm 82, or Psalm 95. Right? So we seem to have here evidence of an earlier time, this is the academic explanation, we seem to have evidence here, almost like you’re digging beneath the surface, you’re finding this archaeological gem here in this one passage. We have evidence here of an earlier time, where Israelite views of their god were not all that distinct from the nations around them, before Israelite religion developed into a monotheistic religion which came later. That is the standard scholarly explanation. Things can be debated, I’m not suggesting they can’t be, but this is the standard explanation. And I have to say it does make a lot of sense to me.
Okay, last of these ten passages is chapter 33, the next chapter down, this is the blessing of Moses. And in verse two we read this: “The LORD came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran. With him were myriads of holy ones; at his right, a host of his own.” See, here’s why this is important to scholars. Here Yahweh’s move to Canaan is depicted as a northward journey that includes going through this place called Seir. Now, I only mention this passage, again, because it’s of interest for scholars who ask how and where, from a historical point of view, the worship of Yahweh began. They’re interested in the origins of the Yahwistic religion. And it seems according to this passage that Yahweh’s home base is in the south, right? The Lord come from Sinai. Oh, by the way, just note, this is the only place in Deuteronomy where Sinai is used instead of Horeb, which suggests again, that chapter 33 is an independent and likely much older tradition than Deuteronomy, and the editor just simply incorporated it. Okay, that’s, this is not a problem. Anyway, Sinai’s location is associated with Seir, which is the region where Esau settled. It’s also known as Edom, and that and this reference to Mount Paran suggest, at least for this tradition, that Sinai is located somewhere in the south, maybe far south of the land of Canaan. Habakkuk 3:3 bears witness to the same tradition. So Yahweh’s home base is in the south, not near Canaan, but he marches up there with his myriad of holy ones at his right, which is a heavenly army. Right? So you have this picture of the warrior God and his heavenly army marching up from the south to go take over Canaan. See, locating Sinai then in this region, someplace in the south, fits somewhat with Exodus—where Moses meets God on Mount Sinai while he is, where is he? He’s sojourning in Midian, which is likewise to the south. And then Paul, even Paul, he makes a passing comment in Galatians 4 about Mount Sinai being in Arabia, which would be the same general region, and not at all the misnamed Sinai Peninsula, where tradition has placed Mount Sinai. So it’s not there. Okay. So one last thing.
For the remainder of the episode, I want to talk about a theological theme in Deuteronomy that I think is just amazing. And I would even argue central to why Deuteronomy was even written in the first place, perhaps. This is my opinion, and that’s why I left it for last. Because I think it’s really important. It’s also the most applicable element of Deuteronomy for any generation reading it. And I like to call this theme “the presence of the past.” And that’s a term I learned from my doctoral advisor 30 years ago, James Kugel, who’s been on this podcast a couple of times. And it means that the past is not simply the past, the past is actually very much present for you. It’s a present reality for you. And we see this laid out in the first five chapters of Deuteronomy. And I just want to poke there with you just to see this. And I think it’s really, really enlightening.
Now remember, just backing up for ten seconds here. Remember the setting of Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy is happening during the last month of the 40 years of wilderness wandering. That is the literary sort of logical context of the book, even though it was in fact written much later in the seventh century and later. That’s the implied, you know, audience of the book. So it’s 40 years after they left Sinai. Now, in chapters one to five, we have Moses recounting the events of those 40 years. Things that happened at the very beginning, like the initial rebellion that sparked the 40 years to begin with, to some things that happened more recently, like the battles mentioned in Numbers 21 which are only a couple years or so earlier, at least according to the timeline of the story. Okay, well, so what? Here’s the so what. There are places in this section, chapters one to five, where Moses keeps talking about the past as something that is happening to “us” or to “you” rather than to them. But you don’t need to get a notepad or a calculator out here. I think, let me read these passages and you’ll see what I mean.
The first words out of Moses’s mouth, this is chapter 1:6, are the following: “The LORD our God spoke to US at Horeb, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain . . . ‘” The command to leave Horeb, remember this is Deuteronomy’s word for Sinai, the command to leave Horeb was given to “us”—the people Moses is addressing now, 40 years after they left Sinai. Forty years after Sinai happened. Does that make sense? Of course not. By definition, they weren’t there. The whole point of the 40 years of wandering is so that those at Horeb would now be dead, and the new generation would take their place. And this is the new generation, they weren’t there. But Moses says that God spoke to this generation, this generation of the book, the second generation, he spoke to “us.” And you know, you see this you/we thing repeated throughout the section. For example, you can just skim this yourself, we don’t have to look at this. But in 2:9, and then 2:18,19—see, this generation in Deuteronomy was by definition not present at Horeb 40 years earlier. But the writer nevertheless includes them as if they were. This theme comes to a crescendo in chapter five, where Moses introduces the Ten Commandments, and this is in verses one to five. And it’s really hard to miss folks, let me read these five verses. Change your life. Ready?
“Moses convened all Israel and said to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently.’” Right, so he’s going to repeat the Ten Commandments, so far, so good, not a problem. Verse 2: “The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.” Just like he says, in chapter one, verse six, this is not a slip of the pen. But look at verse 3: “Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” It’s like he’s trying to make a point. It’s not just a it’s a deliberate tying of this generation together with the past. And he’s doing it in rhetorically powerful way you were there. It’s not even with the ancestors, God made this covenant with you, with all of you here who are alive today. You were there. Verse 4: “The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. 5 At that time I was standing between the LORD and you to declare to you the words of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And then he said: I am the LORD your God” and he continues on with the Ten Commandments. See, the writer is going out of his way to make the reader see the point. You can’t miss it.
See in Judaism still today, the Passover Seder is celebrated because, as it is said, every generation is the Exodus generation. And that is exactly the theological point that Deuteronomy is driving home. This is powerful, not only for the literary setting of the book, where the people present are 40 years removed from Sinai, but it’s powerful moreso for the actual audience of the book—those of the late seventh century, hundreds of years removed from this epic past. For them, the past is not past, it’s present. YOU were there. The implication is that God is with you too, even today, God’s mighty presence is not something we claim about the past. It is what we experience here in the present. If it helps to you Christians out there, if I haven’t lost your attention so far, this was a lot to go through, I know. But we see something similar in John’s gospel, for example, in John 17, just before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prays for his disciples for the courage that they will need to go out and spread the word amid opposition. And Jesus also throws in something here about future generations.
So this is what he says, he’s praying to the Father. “I ask, not on behalf of these” (his disciples) “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” In other words, for future ones, I pray for them to that they may be one. Right? “As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Who is the they? The future ones. “So that world may believe that you have sent me the glory that you’ve given me, I’ve given to them, so that they may be one as we are one.” They, the future ones, right? “I in them and you in me that they may be completely one so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them, even as you love me.” It’s crucial in John’s gospel that the future ones are connected to the Jesus event. And in that connection, the world can see that this is real. I think that’s, I’m trying to summarize here John 17.
And this is a similar notion, isn’t it, to what we just saw in Deuteronomy? Future generations will be as intimate with the Father and Son, as are the disciples who follow Jesus around the countryside. Future generations will not look back to the days of old and reminisce for something they never saw or experienced, but they will be participating in it in their time in place. It’s sort of mystical, folks. It really is. And I’m dwelling on this not only because it’s central to Deuteronomy, but you know, isn’t the whole point of any religious faith to experience God here and now rather than through a rearview mirror? I think so, it is for me, that’s for sure.
And just, you know, while we’re on this, just one more quick angle on this. This is 4:30-39, which we looked at already. This is where Moses speaks of the conquest of the land as a present tense thing, but you know, like he’s there, right? And of course, Moses never sees the promised land. But this isn’t a slip of the pen either or a historical blunder by the writer. It’s not an error, right? It is theology, a very intentional piece of theology, for the readers of Deuteronomy back in the seventh century, during a difficult time when the Assyrian war machine is knocking at their door about to break it down. The message of Deuteronomy is far more than simply look back and remember the God of the past, what the God of Moses has done, but rather, the God of Moses is with you still. Moses is even present with you in the land. That’s how we can speak about it in the present tense. I think that’s powerful stuff. I think I have two hours of material left. Now we’re just going to stop there.
Okay, enough Deuteronomy for one day, are we agreed? Right. I personally get a lot out of Deuteronomy, not by thinking of it as a historically accurate snapshot of something, a record of what you would see more or less if you had a video recorder with you—I get out of it what I get out of it, which is a lot, by embracing the seventh century historical setting of the book, where the question at hand is, “How can we be faithful today to a tradition that is so very old?” And the question, I think that question, is central for a lot of people of faith that I know. And I think the answer is still the same: you connect to it because it’s still here. You’re a part of this every bit as much as past generations. Okay, folks, well, thanks for listening and see you next time.
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