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Politics of Scripture

The Withering Away of the Law

Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

Deut. 30:9-14

Deuteronomy requires that all those within the covenant community follow its statutes, ordinances, regulations, and commands forever. The text is replete, even in today’s lectionary passage, with requirements of perpetual obedience to all “the commandments and decrees that are written in this book of law” (30:10). As J.A. Thompson notes, this “book of the law” is not just the Deuteronomic Code (12-26), which contains the majority of the text’s legal material, but every rule found within Deuteronomy. Thus, no one can take away or add laws (4:2), monarchs are subject to its regulations (17:14-2), and all future generations are to be raised⁠ with the knowledge and understanding of the book’s contents (11:19). Those who diligently follow every one of Deuteronomy’s prescriptions and proscriptions receive manifold blessings, while law breakers (or mere ignorers) are cursed with unimaginable horrors (28-29). 

Yet, it is all but impossible for contemporary readers to fulfill Deuteronomy’s stringent requirements. The text emerged from a distinct sociopolitical and historical context that is tremendously different from ours. If we follow the scholarly consensus, Deuteronomy was primarily composed in the 7th-century BCE, written for a social order existing before the invention of light bulbs, democracy, or trial by jury. Over the past two millennia-plus, we have seen changes in technology, social structure and behavior, economic arrangements, religious practice, and ethical posture that make implementing Deuteronomy’s commands deeply challenging. Even if we take Deuteronomy’s commands to be allegorical, metaphorical, or non-literal in whatever way, the conceptual and historical distance of the text is still immense⁠—problematizing any clean employment or application of the material. 

In the face of this predicament, there are several responses. One trajectory, as illustrated in John C. Collins’s analysis of Joshua, one should reject ethically problematic texts as not coming from God but from flawed, morally backward ancients. Some Christians may merely state that the law has been “abolished” (Eph. 2:15) through the mystery of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, even if in tension with Jesus’ own words (Matt. 5:17, cf. 1 John 3:4). Others may simply just ignore Deuteronomy, claiming it to be a past, irrelevant covenant or a dated depiction of God surpassed by future revelation and reason-based speculation. Yet, I find these positions unpersuasive. If we affirm that Deuteronomy is divinely inspired⁠⁠, however that may look, and is a normative standard for faith and practice of a worshiping community, then we should take the text’s decree of ongoing obedience seriously. 

Instead, I argue that Deuteronomy provides both external and internal textual solutions to the continual adherence to the law: it allows for a broad reinterpretation of its ordinances to fit with contemporary realities. While it is easy to point out that this reinterpretation is much too complicated for even highly competent individuals, Deuteronomy 30:9-14 (especially v. 11-14) provides a path to fulfilling the law in a way that is mentally and bodily egalitarian and, more radically, eventually dissociative from any literal connection to the text. By consistently engaging in Deuteronomic reinterpretation, we can become deeply influenced by the predominant values of the text and thus fully live out its commands via ingrained habit rather than citational dictates. 

First, Deuteronomy is itself a document arising from reinterpretation: the result of a Yahwist reformation spearheaded by King Josiah. To legitimate this wide-reaching, historically unprecedented program, Judahite scribes constructing Deuteronomy engaged in a practice of extraordinary textual reinterpretation and rewriting of past Israelite (particularly the Covenant Code, Exod. 20:22-23:19) and ancient Near East legal, religious, and political traditions. Bernard Levinson, in Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, details this interpretive process as innovative, liberal, and guided strongly by the scribe’s commitment to Deuteronomic theological reform: 

Deuteronomy was…a complex hermeneutical work from the beginning; it was the composition of authors who consciously reused and reinterpreted earlier texts to propound and justify their cultic and legal reform, even—or particularly—when those texts conflicted with the authors’ agenda (3-4). 

Mass reinterpretation of older legal material occurred so that “the law” would better fit new modes of social order and prevailing theological beliefs.

Second, within Deuteronomy, the text provides guidelines for resolving complicated and vague legal situations: “If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make…any such matters of dispute in your towns…you shall consult with the Levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case” (17:8-9). The interpretation and implementation of the law begins with the Israelite individual first (or local town juridical bodies, however those may have appeared) before having it brought to a judge and/or Levitical priest. In God and Earthly Power, J. Gordon McConville contends that Israelites, as citizens of the covenant community, are not merely “subject to the law… but [bear] responsibility for its interpretation and practice” (95). Here, then, we have the example of bottom-up deliberation on pressing legal matters that could potentially result in an agreed-upon reinterpretation of statutes and commands to fit unforeseen challenges and contexts. Thus, Deuteronomy is a text from reinterpretation and one that internally allows that process amongst subjects.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 gives assurance that this reinterpretive activity is understandable and doable. The whole of the text’s commandments (v. 10) are intellectually accessible and achievable without strenuous effort (v. 11). When the text remarks that the commandments are “not in heaven,” it indicates that the laws can be grasped⁠—neither inherently incomprehensible (like wisdom, Job 28:12) nor even requiring no extraordinary amount of sophisticated brainpower to understand their contents. There is no need for a specially demarcated “philosopher king” or epic hero (as in ancient Near East quests) to “go up to heaven for us” (v. 12). All people, graduate degree or not, have the potential or ability to approach the law and reinterpret it to fit their present circumstances. Even children learn the meaning of the law. 

But can one obey these commands, even if reinterpreted? Think of how hard it is for us to fulfill our most fundamental moral beliefs or personal goals (the oft-failed “New Year’s Resolution,” for example). Here, fulfilling the commandments is a matter of life and death (v. 15) rather than a mere letdown, indicating that we should not slack in obedience. Deuteronomy 30 remarks that practicing the law is very easy. The law is not “beyond the sea” because it does not take great effort to fulfill its commands. The commandments are highly doable to anyone’s physical, mental, or socioeconomic condition. No one should worry that superhuman strength, mental acuity, or willpower is necessary to reflect and obey Yahweh’s commands. All people can participate in this creative, reinterpretive obedience to make the law fresh, relevant, and applicable. Deuteronomy thus promotes an unprecedented egalitarianism: there is not the slightest division in who is covered by the law (sans special priestly offices).

Verse 14 indicates the closeness of the law, in continuation with the preceding two verses. Yahweh’s commands are neither vertically nor horizontally distant but are in “your mouth and in your heart for you to observe,” idiomatically indicating they are as close to a person as possible. In ancient Israel and Judah, not only was access to the scrolls of the Torah cumbersome for any non-religious personage, but literacy⁠ was a skill reserved for the highest echelon of society (even if some argue it was more widespread than in neighboring cultures). To know the content of Deuteronomy, even for centuries after its completion, one had to memorize it and orally pass it down to one’s children. When verse 14 thus speaks of the law in one’s mouth and heart, this is both descriptive and prescriptive. It indicates knowledge of the law was not dependent on textual citation but embodied, consistently remembered, (re)meditated upon, and perpetually passed down frequently independent of any “book” (cf. Josh. 1:8). One does not memorize these commandments through mere non-reflexive digestion but via a deep internal grafting of the law upon one’s innermost being⁠—his heart⁠—and that will spill forth⁠—from his lips⁠—when needed. 

As individuals and communities read, reflect, and reinterpret Deuteronomy, and especially live out such obedience, then the law will be so near in one’s body that it becomes fully habituated⁠. In other words, living the spirit of Deuteronomy will be equivalent to riding a bike or tying shoes: impossible to unlearn and performed with (relative) ease. In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Walter Brueggemann writes of an evangelical Christian community who performed remarkable bravery in hiding Jews from Nazi terror during World War II. When some questioned the members why they did such a risky endeavor, “they only shrugged their shoulders and indicated that it seemed obvious from their faith. They had no dramatic explanations or theological interpretations to offer him. It was rather a ‘habit’ of neighborliness that was at the center of their embrace of the gospel” (270). The more we focus on making Deuteronomy’s commands into life-giving practices and embody them with faithful, justice-oriented obedience, the more we are habituated to patterns and behaviors that define the text’s core, prevailing virtues.  

We have the ability to interpret the numerous commands of the text that would be practical and life-giving in the present age. But one may ask, by what standard is this interpretation done? As both early rabbinic readers and Jesus himself indicated, one can reduce the whole of the law to only a few commands which express the spirit of the entire corpus (cf. Mark 12:28-31). When examining the themes that consistently arise in Deuteronomy, we see an unwavering commitment to justice, love and obedience to Yahweh, deep care for the needy and displaced, and radical, selfless neighborliness. These prevailing concepts guide faithful, generative readings and applications that do not (in)advertently lead to behaviors contrary to Deuteronomy’s spirit. 

One may claim I am being inconsistent in my contention that the law will wither away. Did I not just indicate that we need to value Deuteronomy against arguments that it is problematic, abolished, or irrelevant? I would respond by saying that only through the most radically affirmative internalization of Deuteronomy are we truly being obedient to its commands. The more we live out the (re)commands of Deuteronomy⁠, the more we actualize Yahweh’s will of justice, love, neighborliness, and care for all. 

One thought on “The Withering Away of the Law

  1. Thanks. Make great sense. Love of neighbor. Neighbor as rope who one crosses paths with. Everyone, each differently, per their needs

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