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Deuteronomy--Love the Lord Your God

Today we are looking at the book of Deuteronomy. Jesus quoted often from this book, especially when answering the devil during his forty days in the wilderness. Deuteronomy is the third most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament, after Psalms and Isaiah. Deuteronomy is quoted forty-four times in the New Testament, and if you add to that the allusions to Deuteronomy in the New Testament the count comes to somewhere between 80 and 100 references. So, let’s look at the author, date, theme, and structure of this important book together…




Over the course of the last three Sundays, we have talked about the traditional view that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. I have pointed out that there is no explicit internal claim to Mosaic authorship in any of these books. None of these books begin or end like a letter from Paul that clearly claims to be written by him. In fact, throughout Deuteronomy, Moses is referred to in the third person.


If this is so, then why did some people, traditionally, view Moses as the author of Deuteronomy? The claim is based upon references to Moses’ writing activity. Several references appear in Deuteronomy 31:9,22,24,30. 1 Kings 2:3 refers to the law of Moses and 2 Kings 14:6 talks about the book of the law of Moses. 


However, Deuteronomy was clearly edited and put together in its present form by another editor or editors as evidenced by Deuteronomy 1:1-5 and chapter 34 which recounts Moses’ death. It would be difficult indeed for Moses to write about his death and have the account published here on earth.

The view of modern scholarship, for the past 200 years, is that there were multiple sources for the first five books of the Bible. They designate one of those sources by the letter “J” for Jahwist or Yahwist because that author uses the personal name for God, Yahweh. There is a second source “E” that stands for Elohim because that author uses the more general name for God. And then we have talked about the source “P” that stands for the priestly author. And then, finally, there is the source “D”, so called because it takes up most of the book of Deuteronomy. “D is part of a longer work, known as the Deuteronomistic History (Dtr), which includes the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings.”[1]


As I have said before, this theory of multiple authorship reminds us of something very important about the Bible from the get-go. The Bible is not simply one book by one author. It is a collection of books, a sacred library if you will, containing many voices of faith writing over many centuries. This makes the foundation of our faith richer rather than poorer.




The traditional dating for the book of Deuteronomy goes along with the idea of Moses as author. Thus, the traditional date puts the writing of the first five books of the Bible in the 15th century BC, during the time that the Israelites were wandering in the Sinai desert for forty years. 


The view of modern scholarship puts the date of writing for the first five books much later. Here is what my former professor, Richard Elliott Friedman, says about the date of Deuteronomy…


Dtr contains sources that are as old as J and E or possibly even older, but the formation of the work took place in the reign of King Josiah of Judah, circa 622 BCE. It was later extended into a slightly longer second edition; this took place during the exile that followed the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah by Babylon in 587 BCE.[2]


Once again, if you want to know more about who wrote the first five books of the Bible and when, I highly recommend reading Who Wrote the Bible by my former professor, Richard Elliott Friedman as well as his book entitled The Bible with Sources Revealed.




The word “Deuteronomy” means second law and so sums up what this book is about. Deuteronomy contains Moses’ reminder to Israel of God’s Law right before they enter the Promised Land.


The book ends with Moses’ death. Moses pleads with God to be able to live and cross into the Promised Land, but God says “no”. Moses is not allowed to go into the Promised Land because on one famous occasion he disobeyed God. He was instructed by God to speak to a rock in the desert from which God would send forth water. But Moses struck the rock instead, so he didn’t get to go into the Promised Land. We get the idea that it is important to follow God’s instructions down to the minutest detail. Deuteronomy is all about arelationship between God and his people. It’s a love affair. But like all love affairs, the story also contains tension. It’s not ooey gooey. 


Deuteronomy, in its structure, bears resemblance to the suzerain-vassal treaties of other Near Eastern countries. This structure lends itself to an emphasis on the idea of covenant between the Lord and his people. In a sense, Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal document.




The literary structure of Deuteronomy works out like this…

  1. Moses’ First Address: What God has done for Israel (1:1-4:43)
  2. Moses’ Second Address: Principles for Godly Living (4:44-28:68)
  3. Moses’ Third Address: A Call for Commitment to God (29-30)
  4. Moses’ Last Days: Passing the Baton to Joshua (31-34)


Key Concept—Love the Lord Your God


One of the key concepts of Deuteronomy, and in fact, of all Judaism and Christianity, is enunciated in Deuteronomy 6:4-9…


Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.


This passage in Deuteronomy is known as the Shema, so named for the first Hebrew word in the passage—hear. This is an important word in Deuteronomy, occurring some eighty times. The Shema is recited every day by observant Jews down to this day. The Shema reminds the one who recites it that God is one; there is no other god beside him. Richard Elliott Friedman explains…


In comparing Israel’s monotheism to pagan religion, we must appreciate that the difference between one and many is not the same sort of thing as the difference between two and three or between six and twenty. It is not numerical. It is a different concept of what a god is. A God who is outside of nature, known through acts in history, a creator, unseeable, without a mate, who makes legal covenants with humans, who is one, is a revolution in religious conception.[3]


The passage mentions tying the commandments as symbols on one’s hands and binding them on one’s forehead. This command was probably meant to be taken figuratively. God wanted his people to keep his commands “at hand” and “before their eyes”. But the commandment came to be taken literally, especially by Orthodox Jews to this day. They wear little black leather boxes, known as phylacteries or tefillin, tied to their arms and their foreheads. The phylacteries contain verses in Hebrew from the Torah, including this passage. 


Deuteronomy 6 also mentions writing the commands on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Many Jews to this day have a mezuzah on the doorframes of the front doors of their homes. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that mezuzah is the…


… name given to a rectangular piece of parchment inscribed with the passages Deut. vi. 4-9 and xi. 13-21, written in twenty-two lines according to the same rules as those for the Torah and tefillin. The parchment is rolled up and inserted in a wooden or metal case or tube. This is affixed, in a slanting position, to the upper part of the right-hand doorpost, so that the upper part is inward and the lower part outward, and about a handbreadth from the outer edge of the doorpost. On the outer side of the top of the parchment is inscribed the name of God, ; and an opening is left in the case opposite this word, which opening is protected by a piece of glass.[4] 

The Israelites were commanded not only to wear the commandments on their bodies and display them on their doorposts, but they were commanded to talk about the commandments in their homes while going about their everyday activities.


Now let’s move on to examine the commandment itself: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”


The generic Hebrew word for “love” (ahab) is the word used here. We encountered this word in our examination of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.


“The Lord your God” employs the two main words for God that we have been talking about in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The word for God is the generic word “Elohim” and the word translated as “Lord” is the personal name for God, “Yahweh”.


It is important to understand what the usage of the Hebrew word “lebab” (heart) means in this context. Moses is not talking about loving God with one’s physical heart, nor is he talking about loving God merely with one’s emotions. The Hebrews thought of the bowels, not the heart, as the center of the emotions. Moses is using the word heart in this context to refer to the inner person, which includes the mind, will, and affections.


The word for “soul” in Hebrew is “nephesh”. It refers to the living, breathing, person. And the Hebrew word for “strength” (meod) is sometimes translated as “might”. It refers to “force” or even “vehemence”.


The point is clear enough. The Israelites were called by Moses to love the Lord their God with everything they had inside of them.


Christians have always seen this verse in Deuteronomy as applying to themselves as well, because Jesus is recorded as quoting this verse in three Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Let’s look at what Jesus says about this command in Matthew’s Gospel, taking into consideration the context of Jesus’ remarks…


During the last week of his life, Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. The religious leaders asked him by what authority he did this. Then Jesus proceeded to tell various parables as a warning against them. The religious leaders disliked this so much that they immediately set about trying to get Jesus in trouble with his words. In fact, the Pharisees enlisted the help of the hated Herodians, the Jews in league with the Romans. And even the Sadducees, the religious leaders who were responsible for overseeing the Temple worship, and who didn’t agree with the Pharisees in their theology, even they got in on the act. So, the Q&A during the last week of Jesus’ life was not very friendly at all. In fact, it was extremely deadly.


It was in this heated context that Matthew tells us Jesus was asked perhaps the most important question ever. In Matthew 22:34-40 we read…


When the Pharisees heard that he [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


Now, to understand the amazing wisdom of Jesus’ response to this question, we must remember that there were hundreds of commandments in the Torah, the Jewish law, contained in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. How could Jesus pick just one of these commands and exalt that one as the most important? Even out of the Ten Commandments, how could Jesus pick just one and leave aside the others?


When one considers this context, one can see how masterful Jesus’ response really was. He quotes two commandments from the Torah which sum up all the others; he quotes this one from Deuteronomy, and the other from Leviticus. 


Notice that Deuteronomy has the words “heart…soul…strength”. Some manuscripts of the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, add the word “mind” to the text. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus brings all four together: “heart, soul, mind and strength”. Again, the meaning is clear; we are to love God with everything in us. That, says Jesus, is the greatest commandment. And no one could fault Jesus for saying so.


Jesus adds that the second greatest commandment is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That comes from Leviticus 19:18, also part of the Torah. How is this command like the first? When we love our neighbor as our self then we love the image of God in our neighbor. Jesus says that all the Law and the Prophets, in other words—the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures, hang on these two commandments.


However, another important question is: who of us has ever fulfilled either of these commandments? Other commandments in the Scriptures might be fulfilled on our own power, but not these two: for these two require a disposition of the heart, an attitude of love toward God and neighbor, always. At all times we must do what is best for God and our neighbor. 


If asked: “Do you love God?” Many of us would say, “Yes, of course.” But if asked, “Do you love God with everything inside of you 100% of the time in all situations?” we would, if we are honest, have to say, “No.”


None of us have ever loved God like this. And this, I think, shows us our need for a Savior—someone who can rescue us from the sin of not loving God, not loving neighbor, not loving ourselves, someone who can enable us to do these things. And that someone, I believe, is Jesus. Jesus is the only person I know who has loved God with everything inside of him 100% of the time. 

Some people talk about following Jesus as their example. Now, it’s great to have an example. But if your example is so far ahead of you that you find it impossible to copy him, then such an example is nearly useless.


Jesus is much more than an example. I believe he fulfilled the law for us. He did what none of us could do and he did it in our stead. Not only that, but Jesus died on a cross to pay the penalty for all the ways in which we fall short of keeping God’s law.


A few months ago, we heard Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” There is an exchange that happens when we put our trust in Jesus and invite him to live in our lives. Jesus takes our sin and nails it to the cross, and in exchange he gives us his righteousness. And Jesus enables us to begin to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength.


It occurs to me that there are three types of teachers in life. There are teachers like Moses who tell you what to do. There are teachers like Jesus who show you how to do what you are told to do. But then there are also teachers who help you to do what you are told to do and shown how to do. Jesus is not simply the teacher who shows us how to spell the word “love”. Jesus comes and holds our hand and helps us write the word “love” in living deeds.


Let’s pray and ask Jesus to help us to do just that…

[1] Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003, p. 5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, New York: HarperCollins, 2003, p. 586.


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