The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 4)

This article on Israel as the People of God concludes with a study on the theme as it is expressed in the book of Deuteronomy. The focus in this four-part article has been on the early background of the concept, of the historical traditions as preserved in the writings of the Pentateuch. Later development of the “people of God” theme—such as in the Prophets, Psalms, and Wisdom literature—will be dealt with at subsequent points in this series.

The book of Deuteronomy is of special importance for the purposes of our study, for several reasons: (1) it represents a separate line of early tradition, (2) the entire narrative is rooted in the person of Moses (on the importance of this in the tradition, cf. the discussion in Part 3), and (3) it is related to the wider Prophetic (Deuteronomic) history as expressed in the books of Judges, Samuel, and (most importantly) the books of Kings. The latter point, unfortunately, is wrapped up in complex critical questions regarding the origins and composition of Deuteronomy. For more on this, see the discussion at the conclusion of this article below. From a narrative (and literary) standpoint, the entire book of Deuteronomy is framed as a great speech delivered by Moses to the people at the end of his life—and, correspondingly, at the end of the people’s forty years of ‘wandering’ in the deserts of Sinai. The opening verses establish this quite clearly; cf. in verse 3:

“And it came to be, in (the) fortieth year, in (the) eleventh new (moon), on (the) first day of (the) new (moon), Moshe spoke to (the) sons of Yisrael, according to all (the things) which YHWH charged him (to give) to them…”

The first section of the book (1:6-4:40) is presented as a speech in which Moses summarizes the history of Israel, from the Exodus to the present moment; as such, it corresponds to what is narrated in the books of Exodus and Numbers, but with certain points of difference (a critical discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article). The whole purpose of the historical summary is to set the context for the admonition that the people must remain faithful to the covenant with YHWH. This faithfulness is defined primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of the worship of YHWH alone. According to the first command of the “Ten Words” (Exod 20:2-3; par Deut 5:6-7), which functions as the heart of the Instruction (Torah) given by God to Israel, the people are to acknowledge (and worship) no other deity but YHWH. Transgression of this command (along with the prohibition against making images), was at the root of the Golden Calf episode, which (according to the narrative in the book of Exodus) resulted in the termination of the first covenant and a change in Israel’s identity as God’s people (cf. the discussion in Part 3).

The same theme—warning against worship/veneration of other deities, and of related improper religious practices—is found repeatedly throughout the book of Deuteronomy. It is no coincidence that the main division of the book (chapters 5-28) begins at the point of the first covenant at Sinai/Horeb, and with the “Ten Words” (5:6-18). All the subsequent laws and regulations presented in Deuteronomy—like those in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers—are essentially founded upon the “Ten Words”. And, much as in the so-called “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26, see esp. chapters 19-22), all the regulations are likewise woven around core declarations regarding Israel’s status as a people “set apart” as holy to God (cf. the previous notes on Lev 19:2, et al).

The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9ff)

The key declaration in this regard in Deuteronomy is the Shema (Deut 6:4-5ff), which follows the introductory exhortation in vv. 1-3. It reads as follows:

“You must hear (this), Yisrael: YHWH (is) your Mighty (One), YHWH (the only) One! And you shall love YHWH your Mighty (One) with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all (the force of) your very (being).” (vv. 4-5)

The initial declaration of v. 4 is somewhat problematic in terms of rendering its syntax. Particularly difficult is determining the force of the numeric term dj*a# (“one”). It has typically been understood in the sense of a theological statement—a monotheistic confession of the nature of YHWH; in this case, the phrase dj*a# hwhy would mean something like “YHWH (is) one (God)”. However, based on the overall context of the book of Deuteronomy, as well as other evidence from early Israelite tradition, it seems more likely that the point of emphasis is on YHWH as the only deity Israel is to recognize (and worship). The numeral dj*a# occasionally is used in this way, in the sense of “only, alone” —e.g., 1 Chron 29:1; Josh 22:20, and a few comparable examples of °µd in Ugaritic could be cited as well (cf. Tigay, p. 358). In view of this, the proper rendering of the declaration would seem to be: “YHWH (is) your Mighty (One), YHWH alone”; or, perhaps, the latter phrase translated as “…YHWH (the only) One”, which I adopt above. Much the same thought is expressed in Zech 14:9. On <yh!ýa$ as “Mighty (One)” (literally “Mightiest [One]”), typically translated “God”, cf. the article on the divine name “Elohim”.

In any case, there can be no doubt of the fundamental point that YHWH is Israel’s God, and He alone is to be worshiped. The point is so important, so vital to the religious identity of Israel, that the people are commanded to keep the Instruction close to them at all times, teaching and reciting it to the children, inscribing it on the doorposts of one’s house, and so forth (vv. 6-9). All of the regulations and requirements of the Instruction (Torah) are built upon the “Ten Words”, the foremost of which is the declaration that YHWH alone is to be recognized (and worshiped) as God. This is especially important for the people of Israel as they settle among the other Canaanite peoples, each of whom have their own established religious practices, worshiping deities other than YHWH. The warning against syncretism—of adopting foreign religious practices and beliefs, including the worship of other deities alongside of YHWH—is driven home repeatedly in the book of Deuteronomy (cf. below), and is the focus of the Instruction that follows immediately in vv. 10-15ff.

The Instruction (Torah) represents the terms of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, as I have noted previously, and violation of the terms meaning violating (and invalidating) the covenant itself. According to the tradition(s) as recorded in Exodus 32-34 (cf. the discussion in Part 3), this occurred with the episode of the Golden Calf; only through the intercession of Moses, was a new covenant put in place, though with certain changes that qualified Israel’s identity as God’s people. In Deuteronomy, the focus is not on the past, but on the future—that is to say, on how the people of Israel will conduct themselves once they have settled in the land of Canaan. The principle of the people’s holiness (vd#q)), that they have been “set apart” as a people belonging to God, and holy to Him, informs nearly every aspect of the Instruction. This is stated explicitly in Deut 7:6, echoing other passages in the Pentateuch (such as Leviticus 19:2, discussed in prior notes):

“For you are a people (set apart as) holy to YHWH your Mighty (One). In you YHWH your Mighty (One) made a selection, for (you) to be a people prized to Him, from (out of) all (the) peoples that (are) upon (the) face of the ground [i.e. the earth]” (7:6, cp. 14:2)

The point is further made that Israel was chosen by God, not because of their own characteristics or merit as a people, but through a special favor shown to them. This favor extends back to the covenant made with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel; in freeing the people from bondage in Egypt, and guiding them to the promised land, YHWH was fulfilling His obligation in that earlier agreement (vv. 7-8). YHWH’s current covenant with the people (mediated through Moses) is an extension of the former agreement, which God, for His part, faithfully observes. The question is whether the people will fulfill their obligation and faithfully observe the terms of the agreement—namely, the regulations and requirements as given to them in the Instruction (Torah), vv. 9-11.

The Covenant Preserved through Ritual (Deut 21:8-9, etc)

The ceremonial or ritual side of the Instruction was absolutely fundamental to preserving the covenant, and, with it, Israel’s identity as the people of God. It is hard for Christians to appreciate the importance of this ritual aspect, especially since nearly all of it was abandoned by (most) believers at a very early period, and, with each passing generation, people today are increasingly further removed from the ancient religious mindset which formed the basis of the various rituals in the Torah. However, much of the corpus of regulations in the Torah is related to maintaining the purity of the sanctuary—as the sacred space where people encounter God—and, with it, the apparatus of the sacrificial ritual.

The other side of this emphasis on purity has to do with the idea of Israel as a holy people, set apart as sacred to God (cf. above). If the sanctuary space and apparatus must be kept pure (being consecrated as it is to God), then so also must the people themselves be made (i.e. kept) holy and pure. Certain of the rituals and sacrificial offerings were formulated especially for this purpose; chief among these was the “Day of Atonement” ritual, presented in detail in Leviticus 16.

The Instruction in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 lays out regulations to deal with the situation when a dead body (of a person who has been slain) is found in the open, and the person guilty of the murder/manslaughter is unknown. This particular situation involves two aspects of communal holiness and purity: (1) the ritual cleansing required due to the presence of a dead body, and (2) the social/moral guilt from the crime itself. The ritual outlined in vv. 2-8 deals with both aspects; the wording in verse 8 is significant as it relates to the idea of Israel as God’s holy people:

“‘(May) you wipe away (the stain) for your people Yisrael, whom you ransomed, YHWH, and may you not give (this) blood of a clean [i.e. innocent] (one) (to remain) in (the) midst of your people Yisrael’. And (so) the blood shall be wiped away for them.”

Many other regulations have the same thought in mind, even if the specific language regarding Israel as God’s people is not used.

Blessings and Curses of the Covenant (Deut 26:16-28:68)

Within the literary framework of the book of Deuteronomy, as Moses’ speech (and the accompanying Instruction) comes to a close, and Israel is about to enter into the promised land, instruction is given for a reaffirmation of the covenant. This begins in 26:16-19, following the climactic word of prayer (by Moses) in v. 15:

“(May) you look out from (the) covered (dwelling) of your holiness, from the heavens, and (may) you bless your people Yisrael, and the soil that you have given to us, according to that which you (swore) sevenfold to our fathers, a land flowing (with) milk and honey.”

The point in vv. 16-19 is that, if the people faithfully observe the terms of the covenant (the Torah), then they will confirm that they truly are God’s people, a people set apart as holy and belonging to Him. As a result, they will continue to receive God’s protection and blessing, which includes the fruitfulness of the land promised to them. Instructions are given for a solemn ceremony, to be performed (it would seem) on the slopes between mount Ebal and Gerizim (near Shechem), in which the covenant is ratified and affirmed by the people.

Unlike the ceremony ratifying the initial Sinai covenant (Exod 24:1-11), YHWH is not a direct participant; instead, it is the people who are to affirm the covenant from their side, accepting the terms of the covenant as laid out by YHWH. According to the conventions of the ancient Near Eastern covenant format, blessings and curses—tied to the fulfillment and violation, respectively, of the terms of the agreement—are formally recited. A set of curses is given in 27:14-26, followed by a corresponding set of blessings in 28:1-14, and still further curses (in graphic detail) variously throughout 28:15-68. On the relation of these latter curses to the wider Deuteronomic history, cf. the note below.

The “Song of Moses” (Deuteronomy 32)

The book of Deuteronomy reaches its climax with the great “Song of Moses” in chapter 32. By all accounts, this is an ancient poem, to be dated (on objective grounds) to at least the 10th or 11th century B.C. Most critical commentators would maintain that the poem was composed, and originally circulated separately, prior to being included as part of the book of Deuteronomy. However that may be, in the book as we have it, the poem is clearly integrated with the narrative in chapter 31, as well as the following narration in 32:44ff. I have discussed the poem at considerable length in prior studies, and will be presenting a series of daily notes on it here as well. The theme of Israel as God’s people occurs at various points in the Song, even as the poem draws upon the early traditions regarding the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel. The Song itself is not so pointed as the narrative in chap. 31, but it does still contain a strong exhortation for the people to remain faithful to the covenant.

Note on the Deuteronomic History

The so-called “Deuteronomic History” is a scholarly construct that refers to a certain unifying set of themes and points of emphasis that occur throughout the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These thematic and stylistic points seem to reflect much of the thought expressed in the book of Deuteronomy, though the precise relationship between Deuteronomy and the wider History remains much debated by commentators. One view of the theory posits that an older version (or core) of Deuteronomy served as the inspiration for the History, often believed to date from the time of Josiah (see above), and updated to cover the period ending in the Exile of Judah. This critical theory was effectively introduced and popularized in the mid-20th century by German scholar Martin Noth, whose work is best accessed (in English) as The Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Supplement (Sheffield Academic Press: 1981 [subsequent editions 1991, 2002]). F. M. Cross has a valuable summary, along with his own modification of the theory, in the now-classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 274-89. For a good moderate critical treatment of the book of Deuteronomy, and the Song of Moses in particular, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society: 1996), pp. xix-xxviii, 508-18.

It is in the books of Kings that we find perhaps the strongest Deuteronomic influence, which would not be at all surprising if the reforms of Josiah essentially serve as the background of both works. In particular, the reigns of the various kings are evaluated almost exclusively in terms of the extent to which they avoided (and eliminated) foreign and aberrant religious practices, serving as an example for the people to do the same. The polemic against Canaanite (syncretistic) religious influence, along with the emphasis on preserving a single central sanctuary for worship (in Jerusalem), so important to the message of the books of Kings, is very much found in the book of Deuteronomy as well.

The failure of the Israelite/Judean rulers to remain faithful to the covenant leads directly to the suffering and misfortune of the people. In this regard, the covenant curses in Deuteronomy 27-28 (especially those in 28:15-68) very accurately summarize what would occur in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—with terrible punishments culminating in conquest, destruction, and exile. In the mid-6th century B.C., in the Exilic period, the theme of Israel as the people of God would be resurrected and given a new meaning and significance; however, in the Prophetic writings and history up to that point, it is the Deuteronomic framework of covenant faithfulness—with its associated blessings and curses—which dominates the tradition.

The next articles in this series will deal with the concept of the covenant, in the Old Testament and Israelite tradition. As we have seen, the idea of a binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel was central to the idea of Israel as God’s people.


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