The Gospel according to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy
Like a many-jeweled necklace, this collection of essays previously published or orally delivered elsewhere, is by its very nature lacking in coherence or thematic continuity (as the author admits, p. xiii), but it reflects the value and beauty of Deuteronomy, Moses’ most sublime work. Block is without question one of today’s leading Old Testament scholars, a judgment supported by both the depth of thought and the clarity of expression exhibited by this endeavor. Serious work on Deuteronomy cannot ignore it along with its earlier companion volume How I Love Your Torah, O LORD (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011). Not all readers will benefit equally from all nine of the essays, but each is important in its own right. Because of the need for brevity, this review focuses on chapters 1 (“Deuteronomy: A Theological Introduction”), chapter 2 (“Recovering the Voice of Moses: The Genesis of Deuteronomy”), chapter 4 (“Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians”), and chapter 9 (“ ‘In Spirit and in Truth’: The Mosaic Vision of Worship”).
Block correctly identifies Deuteronomy as “the most systematic presentation of theological truth in the entire Old Testament” (p. 1). He then explores briefly the history of interpretation of the book, its message, its place in the canon, and its theology. He rejects the common critical notion that Deuteronomy originated in connection with Josiah’s reform but then raises what appear to be doubts as to authorship and composition. Block avers that “we can only speculate when the individual speeches of Moses were combined, arranged, and linked with their present narrative stitching” (pp. 6–7). Why could they not have been arranged by Moses in his lifetime (with the exception of such obvious examples as the epitaphic ending of the book that speaks of Moses’ death and burial)? The same may be said of Block’s overreaching in terms of assigning “different voices” to the book, namely, those of Yahweh, Moses, and the narrator, the last of these not to be confused with Moses but as “the person responsible for producing the book of Deuteronomy” (pp. 28–30, 50). No objective evidence exists for the assumption of later hands at work to bring the book to its present stage. At the same time, in another essay (chap. 3) the author opposes Bill Arnold’s proposal that an ipsissima vox approach avoids exegetical problems caused by an ipsissima verba view. Block maintains that “the dilemmas are heightened for those who refuse to let the text say what it wants to say and prefer much more complex and multi-layered speculation about the evolution of the text” (p. 76).
Block is at his very best as a devout Old Testament pastor-teacher in his essay on preaching the Old Testament in the New Testament church. He is right on target with his feeling of despair about the neglect of the Old Testament as relevant and timely Christian Scripture. The Marcionite view of an Old Testament God who is not the God of the New Testament coupled with extreme Lutheranism’s dichotomy between law and grace has infected the pulpit to the point of virtually de-canonizing the Old Testament. Block provides in this chapter biblically and theologically sound ways of integrating the Old Testament into the mainstream of evangelical thought and performance without drifting into legalism on the one hand or antinomianism on the other.
Block’s strong appeal for the Christian use of the Old Testament rests largely, however, on his thesis that Deuteronomy is not “legal” literature but paraenetic or hortatory. While this cannot be gainsaid as an overarching rhetorical feature, the virtual denial (or at least minimizing) of obligatory or statutory prescription in the book runs against the imperatival grain of its contents (which the author softens in places by a modal switch from command to exhortation or instruction; pp. 78–82, 92–94, 99–101). Moreover, the very nature of Deuteronomy as a covenant document akin to Hittite so-called suzerain-vassal treaties (to which Block subscribes) necessitates that it be seen as more than mere encouragement or suggestion; indeed, the covenant relationship demanded obedience of the vassal in every respect if the vassal were to escape the inevitable punishment that followed infraction.
The essay on worship (“In Spirit and in Truth”) should be mandatory reading in all seminaries in America. With great sensitivity, passion, spiritual depth, and keen exegetical and theological insight Block deftly walks the tightrope between the importation of Mosaic temple liturgy and ritual into Christian worship and the unstructured “feel good” narcissism of the modern evangelical church. Thus he parts company with scholars such as D. A. Carson and John Piper who, in his view, are guilty on two counts: (1) They “underestimate the liturgical nature of worship in the New Testament,” and (2) “they misrepresent the shape of true worship as it is presented in the Old Testament” (pp. 274–75). His conclusion is that “the time has come for a new generation of biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors to begin focusing on the continuities between Old and New; Israel’s faith and Christian faith; and most significantly YHWH the God of Israel, and Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church” (p. 298).
The preceding critiques are not intended to cast doubt on the worthiness of this publication. Quite the contrary. The reviewer has spent years in the study of Deuteronomy but has come away from Block’s volume greatly informed, educated, and, above all, blessed.
In an otherwise meticulously proofread book, the following trivia may be of benefit to future editions: p. 121, “eighteenth” not “nineteenth” century; p. 217, n. 43, “mighty” not “might”; p. 240, l. 7, no space between lamedh and shin; p. 268, l. 11, “their” not “his”; bibliography, many places where Hendrickson appears, the state should be listed as MA, not ME (pp. 308, 311, 313, 318, 327).