Book Review: Interpreting Deuteronomy



Published Date: 04 Mar 2013

Presentation Date: 04 Mar 2013

Ed David G. Firth And Philip S. Johnston, Nottingham: Apollos, 2012.

This is the third volume on interpreting specific OT books (after Psalms and Isaiah) which have emerged from annual meetings of the Tyndale Old Testament Study Group in Cambridge. Why should we be interested in such a book?

First, Deuteronomy is such a foundational book for reading the OT. For example, it rounds off the Pentateuch by applying the covenant laws to the new situation Israel will face in the land, distilling the essence of the law. However, Deuteronomy also provides the theological principles which shape the understanding of history in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Reading Deuteronomy will help you to understand the history of God’s covenant dealings with His people. Secondly, evangelical scholarship on Deuteronomy has been quite thin, with many scholars (including some evangelicals) buying in to a late dating of the book in the time of Josiah and reflecting that period rather than the time of Moses. Sensible evangelical studies of the book are needed. Thirdly, Deuteronomy is such a great book to shape you so that you will live as God’s person in His world. When I began to introduce OT preaching to a church not used to it, I started with Deuteronomy because it is accessible, challenging and lifechanging.

But what about this book on Deuteronomy? It is a scholarly book, not in the sense of being obscure, but showing rigorous thinking and engagement with other views. It is intended for serious readers who want to be stretched. I expect that its primary market will be evangelical scholars, theological students, and ministers/Bible study leaders who are preparing a series of studies on Deuteronomy.

How good a job does it do? The outstanding contributions to the book are the two surveys by James Robson (Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) and Paul Barker (formerly of Melbourne, now an itinerant lecturer in Asia). Robson deals with the composition of the book (authorship, dating, unity, relationship to other OT books etc), and gives a clear and coherent argument to take seriously both the book’s own assertions and the observations of modern scholars. He doesn’t trim the evidence to suit his view, but argues that it has a substantial Mosaic core (the analogy with Gray’s Anatomy is useful) and that it should be read against this setting as well as the later setting in exile. Barker surveys theological studies of Deuteronomy since 1995, which is very useful if your theological study was completed some time ago. He covers mission, election, war, politics, community, God, grace and covenant. His study is thorough, balanced and wisely critiqued. These chapters alone are worth the price of the book.

The second part covers specific issues in Deuteronomy: the Decalogue structure of the book (John Walton); centralisation (Peter Vogt); civil leadership (Philip Johnston); passing on the faith (David Firth); and life and death (Heath Thomas). These are good chapters written by leading evangelical scholars.

The third part of the book, Reading Deuteronomy, is perhaps the least useful with one exception. These are mainly papers by recent or current PhD students on areas of their theses which intersect with Deuteronomy. They include studies on intermarriage in the time of EzraNehemiah (Csilla Saysell), the alien (Jenny Corcoran), and Christian interpretations of genocide (Christian Hofreiter). My reservation here is not about the quality of the scholarship, but rather about whether they are useful in a book which evangelical OT lecturers might consider adopting as a reading supplement for a course on Deuteronomy. They are a little specialised and ‘boutique’ in their focus. The one exception is the contribution by Greg Goswell (formerly of PTC Melbourne and recently appointed lecturer in Old Testament at PTC Sydney) on The Paratext Of Deuteronomy. Despite the unappealing title (at least for me), and some quite technical detail, this contains an important, wellresearched discussion of what I would call canonical issues in the book. Do not tread lightly through this book and miss this essay.

Overall, this is an important and much needed study of Deuteronomy from a range of evangelical perspectives. There is so much in it that is very worthwhile, even if no one will agree with all of it. While my criticisms largely come from disappointment that it might have been even more useful, it does fill a gap that will be very helpful for serious readers of Deuteronomy. If you are studying or preaching on Deuteronomy, buy it. If you are not, then buy one anyway and give it to your minister in the hope that they might preach on Deuteronomy sometime soon.

This article was first published in New Life, Vol 75, No 13 (15 February 2013)

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