First, notice the importance of the book of Deuteronomy in the whole Bible. All of the books of the Bible are God’s word; all of them have a unique importance in Yahweh’s revelation of Himself to humankind. But among them, some have a greater impact than others. Deuteronomy is one of the most influential books in the entire Bible. Its concept of history will govern all the historical books of the Old Testament. Its identification of a true prophet will govern all of the prophetic books. Of all the books of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy is the one most often quoted by Jesus Christ. And in the rest of the New Testament, only the Psalms and Isaiah are quoted more frequently. In other words, if a reader of the Bible today does not understand the book of Deuteronomy, he will have great difficulty understanding the rest of the Bible. On the other hand, if he understands it well, he has a good foundation to grow in his understanding all of the rest.
Second, it would be very difficult if not impossible to understand Deuteronomy if we forget everything that we learned about the Mosaic covenant between Yahweh and Israel from the book of Exodus to the end of Numbers. Deuteronomy is a pause on the way to the Promised Land to collect, explain and confirm Yahweh’s covenant with a new generation that by faith is on the point of entering into its promised inheritance.
Third, to understand Deuteronomy, it is necessary to recognize its presentation of sacred history. The observations of Peter Craigie (The Book of Deuteronomy, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdmans, 1976) about history in the book of Deuteronomy are very helpful; therefore I am going to quote an extended portion of them:
"History, then, in ancient Israel, was not a scientific discipline; nor was it a search for the past provoked by antiquarian interests, or even a philosophical quest for self-understanding in the context of past events. History revealed what God had done for his people; it intimated his will. The role of history in Deuteronomy is related to this central point. First, history was utilized to evoke memory; second, history served to produce vision and anticipation. That is to say, history embraces both the past and the future, but is only critical for the present; memory of God’s past course of action and anticipation of his future course of action provide the framework for the present commitment to God in the renewal of the covenant. History is thus one dimension of a continuing relationship between God and his people. The past portrays the faithfulness of God within the relationship and holds the promise for the continuation of the relationship. Conversely, the past may remind people of their unfaithfulness, or the unfaithfulness of their predecessors, and it may therefore press upon them more urgently the need for present commitment in order that the future of the relationship might be secured. This sense of history creates an air of immediacy and contingency which permeates the whole book of Deuteronomy" (Cragie, pg. 40).
For example, notice in today’s reading that Moses retells the previous generation’s unbelief that we read about in Numbers 14 (now described in Deuteronomy 1:26-33). And when he spends so much time talking about the travels around Edom, Moab and Ammon in Deuteronomy 2:1-23, he’s not doing it by accident or because he likes geography. He’s pointing out to the Israelites that these people with no covenant with Yahweh… they have received their land directly through His benevolence! “I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession… I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession… I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession” (Deuteronomy 2:5, 9, 19). That is one point Moses wants to underline for the Israelites in recounting this part of their travels: if Yahweh has given great blessings in the lands to these pagan relatives, how can He possibly not give even greater blessings to His chosen people, a holy nation? The purpose of telling them the past is to motivate and encourage them in their present relationship with Yahweh, to prepare them for the near-future fulfillment of His promises.
Did you notice that Moses told them how these nations received their land inheritances through military conquest… even against giants? “The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim… the people of Esau dispossessed them and destroyed them from before them and settled in their place… Rephaim formerly lived there – but the Ammonites call them Zamzummin – a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim; but the LORD destroyed them before the Ammonites, and they dispossessed them and settled in their place” (Deuteronomy 2:10, 12, 20-21). If Yahweh worked like that with their relatives, whom will His chosen people fear? Yahweh has given them victory over a giant already: “For only Og the king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. Behold, his bed was a bed of iron. Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonites? Nine cubits was its length, and four cubits its breadth, according to the common cubit” (Deuteronomy 3:11; approximately 4 meters by 1.8 meters or 13.5 feet by 6 feet).
Therefore, history in Deuteronomy portrays the past with a view toward the future, to motivate and bring urgency to the present commitment to the Mosaic covenant. But it does more, too. History tells the glory of the dominion of God who exists above time but who enters time, the God who invades time to carry out His plan of salvation by grace for His chosen ones. The Israelites act, but always in relation to Yahweh’s just, merciful and saving dominion: “O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours?” (Deuteronomy 3:24). History in Deuteronomy launches the souls of His servants into worship.
And this historical perspective, anchored in Yahweh’s glorious dominion, portraying the past to motivate the present toward the future fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant, will resonate not only in Deuteronomy but in the narrative of all the historical books of the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. It is going to inform the Christian historical perspective on the New Covenant through Jesus Christ. And even today it grinds the lenses through which many Christians examine our personal histories, our national histories and even global events in relation to the New Covenant with God through Jesus Christ.