The Law of Love (On Deuteronomy 1-30)

Moses receiving the tablets of the law, by  Arnold Friberg  (1950s)

Moses receiving the tablets of the law, by Arnold Friberg (1950s)

In the story of the Israelites wandering the wilderness, Deuteronomy stands as the closing chapter, the final words of Moses to the people before they go on to the promised land. Moses is speaking on the plains of Moab (where Numbers had concluded), preparing the people for their new life together once they cross the Jordan, and Moses’ words are doubly poignant because in the end he will not go with the people. Deuteronomy 31-34 record the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua, the concluding song and blessing of Moses, and Moses’ death on Mount Nebo.

Enclosed within this drama of the final days of Moses, is a highly technical legal code, the form of which is illuminated by some key points of context. This code, outlined in Deuteronomy 1-30, deliberately mirrors a convention in the Ancient Near East called the “Suzerain-Vassal Treaty,” which was a form for legal relationships between a ruler and his subjects. In both “Suzerain-Vassal Treaties” and in Deuteronomy, a historical overview of the relationship between the parties precedes the details of the legal code, and then after the legal code there is an enumeration of what will happen if the code is followed - or not. This structure, then, helps to explain the historical overview that we read in Deuteronomy 1-4, and the section on blessings and curses that we read in Deuteronomy 27-28. The legal code proper is found in chapters 5-26.

The legal code begins with the 10 Commandments, a second telling of the story from Exodus 20. Some scholars have seen the remainder of the code as an expansion of and commentary upon the major themes of the 10 Commandments, with the following structure (this outline is copied from the ESV Archaeology Study Bible, page 248).

  1. Deuteronomy 6-11 (Monotheism)

  2. Deuteronomy 12 (Eradication of Pagan Cults)

  3. Deuteronomy 13 - 14:21 (False Prophecy & Vows)

  4. Deuteronomy 14:22 - 16:17 (Sabbath & Calendar)

  5. Deuteronomy 16:18 - 18 (Authority Structures)

  6. Deuteronomy 19 - 22:8 (Homicide & Warfare)

  7. Deuteronomy 22:9 - 23:14 (Illicit Sexual Relations)

  8. Deuteronomy 23:15 - 24:7 (Property Violations)

  9. Deuteronomy 24:8-16 (Pledges)

  10. Deuteronomy 24:17 - 26 (Violations of Rights of Others)

In comparison to other “Suzerain-Vassal Treaties” from the Ancient Near East, the Deuteronomic code stands out not only in the particularities of its rules, but also in the form of the relationship that it establishes. Instead of a relationship between a political king (Suzerain) and his subjects (Vassals), Deuteronomy governs the relationship between God and his people. And where the typical “Suzerain-Vassal Treaty” obligates the subjects to serve their king, Deuteronomy obligates the people of God, not only to serve God, but also to love Him. The famous command to love, called the “Shema,” appears at the beginning of the code in Deuteronomy 6:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

Jesus later cites the shema as the “first and greatest commandment.” Both in the Deuteronomic code, and for Jesus, the love of God is the foundation for love of neighbor and for all ethical living. Indeed, Jesus describes the second commandment, to “love neighbor as yourself,” as “like unto” the first. This may seem at first to be counter-intuitive, especially when we consider the practical differences between religious worship and everyday service to others. But perhaps the point is not so much the comparison between worship and service in their external details, but rather the comparison between the two in their internal motivations. In other words, the similarity between love of God and love of neighbor is found in the love.

What is so striking about Deuteronomy, then, is that at its core it presents a law of love. For this reason, Moses instructs the people to put the law “on your hearts” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Of course, in Deuteronomy, this idea of the law on the heart is a metaphor, one meant to convey the importance of dwelling in the teaching, from an early age and in all modes of life. And yet in Christ the concept becomes more than a metaphor; for Christ sends upon his people his Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who inspired the prophets and in whose power the Word of God became flesh. That same Holy Spirit comes to Christians to live in their hearts, to write the Word of God on their hearts, and to give them the love of God that will love and change the world.

Peter Johnston