Deuteronomy (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) -- Review

DEUTERONOMY (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible).  By Deanna A. Thompson.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xvii + 270 pages.

Reading biblical commentaries is a necessary but often daunting task for a preacher or bible teacher.  This can be especially true if the focus is on textual or historical intricacies. This work is essential, but for the non-specialist a trip down such methodologies can mean getting lost in the weeds.  When the biblical book under review is a book like Deuteronomy, which seem so distant from our own world, getting lost in the weeds can keep us from finding anything of true value.  For the preacher and teacher, what is needed most are commentaries that show understanding of the theology and practices contained within those books, so that we might hear something of value for own time.  The Belief Commentary series, edited by the late William Placher and Amy Plantinga Pauw offers us just such trove of riches.  Deanna Thompson's contribution to this series, focusing on Deuteronomy, is a splendid example of what can happen when a scholar engages a text with exegetical rigor but also theological sensitivity.

Thompson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She is Lutheran by confession. Yes, she does bring in Luther and acknowledges her indebtedness to her tradition, even as she is not captive to it.   She is an excellent and thoughtful writer, making her commentary a joy to read.  Yes, this is a commentary on a book we rarely read that is a joy to read.  Understanding the narrative ark and the theological issues present, Thompson tales is on a journey into a world very different from our own, revealing to us ways in which to receive from this text of scripture a word for today.   

While the commentary is rooted in Thompson’s own exegetical work, she focuses her attention on theology of this concluding chapter of the Pentateuch.  Here we find Moses’ final testament and a summation and restating of the Law.  We find definitions of the covenant obligations imposed on Israel along with both blessings and curses. 

Encased within this book is a book within a book.  In chapters twelve to twenty six, a section that is by most accounts the oldest part of Deuteronomy, and perhaps of the entire Hebrew Bible, we find the core definitions of the Law. She notes there is some evidence that his section of Deuteronomy could be the Book of the Law that was discovered during Josiah’s renovation of the Temple, a book that reconnected Judah to its foundations. Surrounding this core of the Law is a series of addresses by Moses, given as Israel is on the verge of leaving the Sinai for the Promised Land. Here we find the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith in the one God that continues to define Jewish experience.  Yet, despite the riches present here, the lectionary rarely visits.

Why should we pay attention to this book? Thompson notes that there are many barriers.  First is the emphasis on Law, something that Protestants especially find off-putting, but we also encounter descriptions of a rather warrior like God. She asks: “What, then, are Christians to do with such a book, where most of the laws are seen as irrelevant to our contemporary context and m any of its images of God make us squirm?” (p. 2).  In other words, how do we hear the Word of God in this text?  To start with, it’s important not to place law and gospel in opposition, so that the law has no word of instruction for us.  The focus here is on covenant, and it is in the exploration of covenant that we will find that word we seek.  More specifically, Thompson notes that Deuteronomy is the only book in the Pentateuch with a strict monotheism, as opposed to a monolotrous vision in which Israel worships Yahweh alone among the gods.  This God, whom they serve and worship, is defined by the act of liberation from slavery.  In Deuteronomy we learn what it means for Israel to be chosen by the God who liberates. 

As the narrative proceeds, Thompson discerns three major speeches.  Chapters 1-4 have Moses retelling the story of Israel. In the second speech that runs from chapter five through chapter eleven and then picks up again chapter 27 and runs through chapter 28, the focus is the role that the rules/law play in the life of the people. Encapsulated within this speech is that older section of Law, which Thompson entitles “A New Vision for a New Land:  Comprehensive Covenantal Living.” The chapters that follow the explication of the rules (chapters 27-28) record both blessings and curses, along with the choice between a direction that leads to blessing or that to being cursed (and there are fifty-three verses of curses).  In the third address, the Covenant is reiterated on the Plains of Moab.  This appears to be another covenant beyond the one made at Horeb in the Sinai.  While this covenant is mentioned nowhere else it contains three elements:  first it recalls God’s faithfulness to Israel, speaks to Israel’s ability to obey the commands, and third it offers “a glimpse of God’s future activity to overcome Israel’s very human limitations” (p. 205).  The book of Deuteronomy concludes with the passing of the torch of leadership to a new generation (Joshua) and Moses’ death in Moab.  God gives Moses the opportunity to see the Promised Land, but Moses will not cross the river. Moses is honored as a great prophet, one who has no equal, and yet he cannot cross to the other side.  Rather he dies and is buried in Moab by God in an unmarked grave.              

In her commentary Thompson helps us wrestle with texts that speak of divine wrath and even divine calls for genocide. She speaks to the sense of exclusiveness present in the text.  These are, she reminds us, expressions of an expectation of holiness.  She writes that “God’s anger and jealousy over Israel’s straying from its relationship with God bespeaks a passion and a zeal for God’s beloved people and a fervent desire on God’s part to be in right relationship with Israel” (p. 44).  The writer of Deuteronomy many cast God in anthropomorphic fashion, but in doing so reminds us that God is engaged and concerned and not distant.  We might find the anger off-putting, but as she notes, Liberation Theologians have taught us that a God without wrath probably won’t do much liberating.

Topics such as wrath, jealousy, warrior images for God, exclusivity, economic justice, sin, and more are dealt with in strategically placed "Further Reflections."  These sections, which appear in a separate font, take us deeper into issues of importance not only to understanding the text but bringing that understanding into the present.  In addition to these “interruptions” in the text one will find side-bars containing excerpts/quotes both from Scripture and from multiple authors from Luther to Edward Said.  Each of these tidbits add to our ability to engage the text theologically so we can hear a word from God from this oft avoided book, a book that likely emerged out of the exile.   

Again, this commentary was a joy to read.  It is thoughtful, provocative, and well-written.  While it is written with Christians in mind, it does so in dialogue with Jewish readers and interpreters.  With volumes like this, it is clear that the Belief series is a keeper -- especially for preachers who want to get at the theological heart of the text.


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