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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 4

Verses 1-14

The Call to Exclusive Loyalty to God (4:1-40)

The contents of Deuteronomy are strongly sermonic (see Introduction). The homiletical nature of these materials is particularly clear in 4:1-40, although it has been evident throughout the narration up to this point that a preacher has been interpreting history, showing that obedience to the word of God brought life to some faithful men but that disobedience brought death to almost an entire generation.

The words "And now" (4:1) introduce the final appeal of this first address of the book. Since God is what he is, since he has done what he has done and said what he has said, Israel must bring its attitudes and life into harmony with the will of God if the people are to live and prosper in the world.

The Wisdom of Obedience to the Covenant (4:1-14)

The thrust of the appeal is first of all the wisdom of obedience to the terms of the Covenant entered into at Horeb. The Covenant is here defined somewhat narrowly as the Ten Commandments (4:13), although it is immediately suggested that "statutes and ordinances," taught by Moses, are also included in the Covenant (4:14).

It now appears that the Covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai is closely similar to the suzerainty covenants known from Hittite documents of about 1450-1200 B.C. By these covenants the Hittite kings bound their vassal states to unswerving loyalty to the throne and brought about amicable relationships among the covenanted vassals.

These covenants followed a clear form: a preamble, in which the author of the covenant is named, with his titles, attributes, and genealogy; a historical prologue, describing in "I—thou" language the benevolent acts performed by the Hittite king for the benefit of the vassal; a statement of the detailed obligations imposed upon and accepted by the vassal (such as exclusive loyalty to the king, respect for equality of co-vassals, military support of the king when requested, unlimited trust in the king, and loyalty in word as well as in deed); a provision for the deposit of the covenant document in the temple and its periodic public reading; a list of deities who stand as witnesses to the covenant; and blessings and curses as sanctions of the covenant.

The Covenant at Horeb (Sinai), as reflected in Israel’s historical traditions, contains most of these elements: a preamble—"I am the LORD your God" (Dent, 5:6; Exodus 20:2a); a historical prologue—"who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 5:6b; Exodus 20:2b); the obligations—commandments relating to duties toward God (Deuteronomy 5:7-15; Exodus 20:3-11) and commandments relating to duties toward fellow men (Dent. 5:16-21; Exodus 20:12-17). The deposit of the Covenant document in the Ark is noted (Deuteronomy 10:5; Deuteronomy 31:26) and periodic reading of the Law of Moses is enjoined (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). Blessings and curses as sanctions of the Covenant are said to have been uttered (Deuteronomy 27-28).

The Covenant was conceived as arising out of God’s gracious election of Israel, as an expression of his desire to enter into communion with his Chosen People and to bless them with his presence and gifts. Men could establish no claim on God. But God willed to be gracious to his people and would be so under certain conditions. These conditions were not arbitrary but were set by his character and his purposes. If men accepted these conditions and faithfully observed them, God would fulfill the promises made to them.

The emphasis in the closing section of the first great Deuteronomic sermon is on Israel’s obligation with respect to the requirements of the Covenant made at Horeb. These must be meticulously obeyed, in the form shortly to be set forth in the book. Nothing is to be added to or removed from them (4:2). The memory of that awesome moment when these requirements were delivered to Israel from the burning mountain must be kept alive in the hearts of each successive generation.

Reasons for complete obedience are introduced again and again: "that you may live," and not die as did the men who became involved in the idolatrous worship of the Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-9); that you may "go in and take possession of the land"; that you may enjoy the approbation of other nations when they see your close relationship to God and the essential rightness of your laws.

It may be noted here in passing that Israel’s greatness in the world has in fact resulted from the very presence of God with his people (supremely in the Incarnation) and in the revelation of his will for the life of mankind. It is significant that these, and not wealth or military power or artistic achievement, are pointed out as the measure of Israel’s greatness.

Verses 15-40

The Spirituality and Uniqueness of God (4:15-40)

The preacher has now emphasized Israel’s responsibility for obedience to the terms of the Covenant. For him these terms are summed up in the Ten Commandments. He comments on two of these in order to show specifically how they should be observed.

He takes the second commandment first: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image . . . for I the LORD your God am a jealous God .. ." (5:8-10). This is elaborated and applied in 4:15-31.

The preacher finds evidence of the spirituality of God in the fact that at Horeb the Israelites heard the voice of God but saw no form (4:12, 15, 33, 36). He infers that since they saw no form of God, they are to worship nothing which man can see.

It is a significant fact that in all of the archaeological excavations conducted in Palestine no representations of Israel’s God have ever been found. Images of the human male figure are likewise missing. It is true that the Israelites used Astarte figurines (nude representations of the Canaanite goddess of fertility), perhaps to promote human and animal fertility, but these are obviously intrusions from Canaanite religion and culture and foreign to Israel’s normative faith and life. The evidence is strong that the Covenant with God entered into by Israel at Horeb prohibited the making of images.

Images, of course, seriously limit the worshiper’s concept of the deity being worshiped. Even when the image is conceived only as the abode of the deity, the place of his manifestation to man, the effect is still to limit the conception of the god to the way he has been represented. Ancient peoples around Israel thought of their gods as personifications of the forces of nature, as supermen, who related to one another as men do. By magical practices they could be moved to activities beneficial to their worshipers. When God is conceived as a man writ large, little damage to the God idea will result from the making of images. But when God is conceived as in some respects like man but in other respects wholly other; when he is identified with no force of nature but held to be the Creator of all and the Lord of nature; when it is believed that he cannot be localized; and when his activities are conceived to be the governing of both nature and human history —then images of him appear altogether stultifying and repugnant to his essential nature.

It is true that Israel did not and could not altogether escape anthropomorphisms (the representing of God in human terms). God is said to see, speak, hear, smell, laugh; he is represented as having eyes, ears, hands, feet, arms, and the like. He feels joy, jealousy, disgust. He even repents of this or that course of action. If God is to be thought of as in any way personal, it is inevitable that certain qualities which men possess will be predicated of him. It is the glory of Israel’s faith that neither his likeness to men nor his difference from them was sacrificed. Both were held in creative tension. Israel made selective and discriminating use of anthropomorphisms, decisively rejecting some and employing others.

Thus in this passage the voice of God out of the midst of the fire at Horeb is an anthropomorphism acceptable to the writer. Voice suggests presence, command, will. Israel is to be concerned not about God’s form but about his acts and his purposes for its life. He is the "living" God, the creative, vitalizing, and purposive Power behind and in all. The essential for man’s life and salvation is not a picture of God but understanding of his activity and his will.

The second part of the appeal (4:32-40) stresses the importance of the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me" (5:7). It is clear that the phrase "before me" really means "besides me," or "apart from me" (5:7; see margin). Allied to this are the statements found in 4:35 and 39: "the LORD is God; there is no other besides him"; and "the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other."

Israel is to have no other god because there is actually no other God than he! Is this the meaning here? The surprising statement in 4:19-20 to the effect that God has ordained the worship of sun, moon, stars, and all the host of heaven for other nations but that he has redeemed Israel "to be a people of his own possession" seems to fall much nearer to henotheism or monolatry (both terms meaning essentially the worship of one god by one people, without denying that other gods exist) than to monotheism (which holds that there is only one God; others are alleged to exist but the claim is false).

The nature of Israel’s "monotheism" and the time of its emergence in the life of Israel have been much discussed. Though reputable interpreters are not in complete agreement, the conviction is growing that Israel’s faith from the time of the Horeb experience may in a broad sense be termed monotheistic. Though the existence of other gods than Israel’s was not flatly denied (see, for example, Judges 11:24; 1 Samuel 26:19; 2 Chronicles 2:5; Psalms 95:3; Psalms 97:9), the power of these gods was. Israel’s God alone was Creator and Ruler of the world and history; at best other gods were subordinate to him, members of his heavenly court and council (Job 1:6-12; Job 2:1-6; Psalms 82:1) and of the heavenly hosts around his throne (Deuteronomy 33:2; Nehemiah 9:6; Psalms 29:1). Israel was forbidden to worship these lesser beings, although the nations, because of their lack of knowledge, might be allowed to do so (thus perhaps we may understand Deuteronomy 4:19). The realm of God’s authority was universal, but his unique revelation was given to the people of Israel. Here only, among his Chosen People, were his true nature and purposes known. The gods of the nations were no gods in any proper sense of that term, and the idols of these nations were creations of the hands of men. This is at least "practical," if not "theoretical," monotheism. Even in Christianity, angels and demons are granted existence under the sovereignty of God.

The meaning here is not so much that Israel is to have no other God because there is no other God than he, but that Israel is to have no other God because this God, who is the God of all the earth, came to Israel and in the Covenant made Israel "his own possession"; because he revealed himself to his people in his mighty and compassionate works; and because he seeks in love to discipline his people (4:36) and to show mercy to them forever. The God of Israel is no passive God, who theoretically exists behind and in all things, but the active God of redemption, whose claim on Israel’s loyalty is absolute and inescapable.

Verses 41-43

It is likely that the original Book of Deuteronomy began at 4:44 and that the material preceding this point was written at a somewhat later date as an introduction to a history of Israel in Palestine from the Deuteronomic point of view covered in Deuteronomy through Second Kings (see Introduction). Thus when 1:1-4:43 was added to the original Book of Deuteronomy, two introductions to the laws of Moses were included: 1:1-4:43 and 4:44-11:32. There is a good deal of overlapping between these two introductions. Each is complete without the other. There are, however, differences in emphasis.

Chapters 5-11 are nearer in contents and general point of view to 4:1-40 than to chapters 1-3. In the latter, the deeds of God in the wilderness experience of Israel are elaborated; in 4:140 the people are urgently exhorted, in view of what God has done, to accept wholeheartedly his will for their life as disclosed in the revelation given them at Horeb. Chapters 5-11 stress this theme, particularly obedience to the first commandment, and point out the importance of such obedience for the future of the nation in the land into which it is soon to come.

Verses 44-49

Introduction (4:44-49)

Four terms are used here to characterize the content of the legislation delivered to the people by Moses just prior to their entrance into the land: "law," "testimonies," "statutes," and "ordinances." Although there is in the Old Testament some distinction in the usage and meaning of the Hebrew words thus translated, in Deuteronomy the terms appear to be synonymous, as the occurrence of three of them in 4:8 seems to show. All refer to the divinely revealed will for the life of man on its many sides, as detailed in the Book of Deuteronomy. They include man’s relationship to God in its inner, spiritual aspects as well as its outward forms, and his relation to his fellow men in all areas of his life.

The Meaning and Obligation of the Covenant

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 4". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-4.html.