Moses’ First Address: Journey to the Boundary

Deuteronomy 1—4

The first major section of Deuteronomy moves from beginning to end with a unity of thought and structure that allows it to be heard and interpreted on its own. Most of the primary themes and concerns of the book appear in these chapters. Chapters 1—4, therefore, serve as introduction. They introduce the subject matter and the theological perspective, and they lead the reader into the book. The long speech of Moses in chapters 5—28, composed of exhortation in chapters 5—11 and laws or statutes in chapters 12—28, is the heart of the book. But the stage is set in chapters 1—4. They tell how Israel came to its present place, on the border between wandering in the wilderness and settlement in the promised land. This section presents a historical retrospect reaching back to Horeb (the alternate name for Sinai used by Deuteronomy) and tells of the movement of the people under Moses’ leadership through the wilderness and through the territories of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, as well as the lands of Sihon and Og, which they captured. It concludes with Moses charging and calling the people to obey the statutes and ordinances of God (ch. 4).

Two things should be noted as one looks at this unit. First, the “movement” of the section places the hearers of Moses’ speech on the border, with their goal in sight but not yet reached. The text is explicit about this at several points (1:1—5; 3:23—29; 4:44—49). While the land east of the Jordan has been taken, “the good land beyond the Jordan” (3:25), the heart of the promised land, has not. Moses does not instruct them after the goal is reached, the land taken, the people settled in. The words of Deuteronomy instruct people who find themselves on the boundary—with possibilities, promises, and problems before them. The possibility of crossing the border and fulfilling the promises will be conditioned by how the people receive the divine instruction for life now being given them. The problems they will confront “beyond the Jordan” are going to be manageable only if “these words” are taken to heart. The past of slavery (Egypt) and fear (wilderness) can be transformed into freedom for life only as life is controlled by this law, this word of God that is given for their wisdom (4:6) and their good (4:40—“that it may go well with you”).

This does not mean that the relationship between God and people begins here only or that only from now on will the folk of God enjoy the divine blessings. On the contrary, the relationship reaches into the past, to the people’s beginnings in Abraham, and was established in a full way at Sinai. All along that way, especially in the hazards of the wilderness, God’s care and providence have blessed them. But the long journey is nearly at an end. To move on into the fullness and abundance of life they have been offered, the people must be instructed about what makes that possible. It is for persons on that kind of boundary that these words were set forth. Deuteronomy is given to people who want to move from death to life (30:15—20), from slavery to freedom, from the wilderness fraught with problems to the homeland filled with promise.

The second point to note in this unit is that texts that may have had separate origins have been brought together into a literary and theological whole. Chapter 4 is commonly regarded as being a later composition and as having been added after chapters 1—3 were already in place as the introduction to the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua through Kings). That may be a correct analysis of their literary formation, but the result is a powerful theological statement in which rehearsal of the story of the Lord’s provision and guidance, as well as reminder of the people’s faithfulness, becomes the ground for a call to obedient response to the Lord in the light of God’s gracious care.

The “so now” (nrsv) at the beginning of chapter 4 indicates that what follows is the appropriate implication or consequence of the preceding historical review. This is reinforced by the vocative and imperative, “Israel, give heed.” The past is recalled because it has implications for life in the future. The boundary on which Israel is poised is not purely geographical. It is also the boundary between chapters 1—3 and chapter 4, the border between the experience of a past shaped by the grace of God but distorted by human fearfulness and a future not yet shaped but whose direction is clearly indicated by the past. It should be marked by obedience and trust. The move across the border is a move from grace to faith, from deliverance to obedience, from gospel to response, from theology to ethics.

A theological structure, therefore, is set forth that will be echoed in different forms, from the Shema of 6:4—5 to the offering of firstfruits and credo of chapter 26 (see Introduction). The device, of course, is not purely Deuteronomic or even Old Testament. Paul’s use of “therefore” at Romans 12:1; Ephesians 4:1; and 5:1—or in such places as Philippians 2:12; Colossians 2:16; and 3:5—demonstrates this fact. The gospel of the love of God in Jesus Christ calls those who have received that good news “therefore” to an obedience that is truly the way to life.