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It is daunting to start reading (and writing on) the Book of Deuteronomy. But let’s have a go; if it gets too hard we’ll shift to Ecclesiastes. (That’s meant to be a joke, but it may well happen …) The first section of the book is Chapters 1-4, which is Moses’ first of three speeches in Deuteronomy. One commentator calls this the ‘historical prologue’, which outlines the journey from Sinai/Horeb to this point.
The first five verses introduce the context of the whole book: All Israel is encamped beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness (or desert), in the Arabah, in Moab. The precise location is mysterious, because some of the places named in verse 1 are not easily identified. But we do know they have travelled from Horeb (= Mount Sinai), via the Mount Seir road, to Kadesh-Barnea. This journey should take eleven days, but the Israelites have been traveling forty years, a shocking fact that is remarkably brushed over here, but which Moses will explain in the verses that follow. During this forty years, they defeated the kings of the Amorites and of Bashan. There is a map below if you would like to visualize it. If you are unfamiliar with the story, don’t worry that we have rushed through it here in summary fashion, as Moses is going to take his listeners and us back and go through it step by step.
Right now, the author wants us to hear that we are about to listen to what the LORD (Yahweh), God of Israel, has commanded Moses to say to the Israelites. His speech is further described as “beginning to explain this law”. We often think of ‘law’ as rules governing behavior. However, it is used quite differently here. The Hebrew word torah also means ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’. In fact, this book of the Bible is called (by the original translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek) ‘Second-Law’, as it is a repetition of what was already heard in Exodus-Leviticus, but also a rehearsal of the history recorded in the Book of Numbers.
God does not teach his people only a list of rules and regulations, he teaches by story, and by history. And like a good teacher, he repeats it. It is clear from the narrative of scripture, as well as science, that it takes several repetitions for a student to grasp a truth. The Israelites needed to be told over and over and over again – and they still didn’t always get it. But I am not so very different. I have been a follower of Jesus for many years, but there are truths that I need to be taught regularly because I forget – or at least I live as though I have forgotten – so frequently. I forget that God is on the throne, I forget that my sins have been forgiven, I forget that my life is hid with Christ in God, I forget to cast all my burdens on him, and thus I lose my peace. You’d think I would be able to remember those basic ideas. And yet I need to be taught in stories and in doctrinal statements, again and again. What do you need to be taught once more?
Prayer: Lord God, thank you that your nature is grace, that you are patient to teach me over and over. Forgive me for my forgetfulness and for my wanderings. Help me to keep your word in my heart and to live it out daily.