“Beware Lest Thou Forget the Lord”
by Dr. Jan J. Martin
Deuteronomy. It is the last book of the Jewish “Torah.” The word Deuteronomy itself may be enough to intimidate all but the most determined and dedicated students of the scriptures. In Hebrew, “eleh ha-devarim,” means “these are the words.” In ancient Greek, “Deuteronómion” means a “copy” or a “repetition” of the law. After diligently wading through the first four books of the Old Testament, the repetitiousness of the fifth book can feel very much like a brutal exercise in intellectual torture because we feel like we’ve read it all before. Why study it again? And if we do study it again, how can we get meaning out of it? Here are five helpful suggestions.
- Remember that Deuteronomy contains Moses’ final words to a new generation of Israelites as they prepare to enter the long-awaited promised land.
If you approach the book as a farewell speech to a group of people who had not experienced Egyptian slavery, who had not experienced deliverance from Egypt, and who had not been at Mt. Sinai when the law of Moses was given, you will no longer see the book as a boring repeat of everything you’ve read before. The first generation of Israelites, the generation that Moses freed from Egyptian bondage, had all died during the forty years in the wilderness. Therefore, the repetition in Deuteronomy has legitimate purposes for the present generation of Israelites. It reminds, it instructs, it encourages, and it invites.
Upon learning that Deuteronomy was a farewell speech, one man humorously remarked that it had to be “the longest farewell speech in the history of the world.” Though it may feel like that, good speeches, no matter their length, have an organizational structure that can help us navigate them. Moses’ farewell speech is actually comprised of three separate discourses that can be broken down into a simple organizational format as follows:
- Chapters 1-4: Introduction
- Chapters 5-26: Behavioral Expectations
- 5-11: Ten Commandments
- 12-26: Code of Laws
- Chapters 27-30: Covenant Renewal
- Chapters 31-34: Appendices
As we utilize this basic structure, we can make sense of the speech and get past what feels like monotonous review. And, if we are willing to stop and consider why Moses included the information he did, we will find more meaning. President Brigham Young’s wise counsel can be easily applied to our study of Deuteronomy. He said, “Do you read [the scriptures] as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so.” If we ask, “Why did Moses include this as part of his final speech?” then we will find a lot more to enjoy.
- Though Deuteronomy is a farewell speech, it is presented in the form of ancient Near Eastern suzerainty-vassal treaties of the second millennium B.C. Understanding the treaty structure helps us see that Deuteronomy is not just a speech, but also a covenant-renewal document.
Through modern revelation, we learn that God accomplishes his work to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39) through eternal covenants. An eternal covenant is an agreement between an individual and God in which God sets the terms. Through eternal covenants, God becomes an active partner who promises to “sustain, sanctify, and exalt” those who actively strive “to serve him and keep his commandments.” The scriptures indicate that God made covenants with Adam and Eve (see Moses 5:4–8, 6:64–68) and scholars have demonstrated that “the new and everlasting covenant [God] made with [them] is the same covenant that [he] made with Abraham and Sarah and renewed with Israel at Mount Sinai.”
A type of covenant that was common in the Middle East at the time of Moses was suzerainty-vassal treaties. In these types of treaties, a dominant party, the suzerain (God/Jehovah), set the terms of an agreement with a subordinate party, the vassal (Israel). As the weaker member, vassals had no power to negotiate or change the terms of the treaty. They could only agree to accept or reject whatever the suzerain offered. A suzerainty-vassal treaty was entered into at Mt. Sinai with the first generation of Israelites. Then, forty years later, as the next generation of Israelites finally prepared to enter the promised land, they needed to renew the treaty or covenant. The following structural outline helps us recognize Deuteronomy as a covenant treaty document and it helps us to see the events in Deuteronomy as a renewal of the covenant between God/Jehovah and the present generation of Israelites.
- Preamble (Deut. 1:1-5)
- The preamble identified the parties making the covenant and indicated the time and place where the covenant or covenant renewal was made.
- Historical Prologue (Deut. 1:6—4:43)
- The prologue reviewed the past relationship between the suzerain (God/Jehovah) and the vassal (Israel), emphasizing the benevolent actions of the former and any rebellious behaviors from the latter.
- Stipulations of the Covenant (Deut. 4:44—26:19)
- The terms established the reciprocal responsibilities for each party in the treaty.
- Curses and Blessings (Deut. 27—30)
- Blessings provided incentives for the vassal to keep the terms of the covenant.
- Cursings graphically described the consequences for breaking the covenant.
- Identification of Witnesses (Deut. 27:2-3; 32:1)
- Witnesses could be objects, Gods, or people, including the individuals making the covenant. Witnesses were essential because they demonstrated that the suzerain was trustworthy and didn’t act in secret.
- Preserving & Remembering the Covenant (Deut. 31:9-13)
- Since agency is an essential element in all covenants, preserving and remembering the suzerainty treaty were critical activities because each member of the family in each generation would come to know God/Jehovah only as he or she made a personal decision to engage with him individually in that covenant.
- Because Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal document, it contains covenant language, or language that has specific legal meanings that differ from their every-day use.
Knowing the legal terminology helps us avoid misunderstanding the text when we erroneously define legal terms with every-day definitions. Misunderstanding the legal terminology is a problem because it can sometimes lead readers to be afraid of the God depicted in the Old Testament. A few significant legal words to look out for are:
- Hate/rebel. These terms refer to breaking the terms of the covenant. For example, if the vassal “hates” the suzerain or “rebels” against the suzerain’s commands it means the vassal has broken the covenant. See Deut. 5:9, 7:10, 15 for examples of hate and see Deut. 1:26, 43; 9:7, 23-24 for examples of rebel.
- Love/doing good. These terms refer to keeping the terms of the covenant. See Deut. 4:37, 5:10; 6:5; 7:7-9, 13; 10:12 for examples of covenantal love. See Deut. 1:14, 2:4; 4:15; 6:18; 12:28 for examples of doing good.
- To know. In covenant language, to know means to be loyal to the legitimate suzerain and to acknowledge the terms of the covenant as binding. See Deut. 4:35, 39; 7:9; 8:2; 9:24; 11:28; 13:2 for examples of know in the covenantal context.
- Mercy. God’s response to the loyalty of his vassals is represented by the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is often translated into English as mercy, though there is no adequate English word that conveys the deep loving-kindness and unfailing, action-centered love, benevolence and grace that accompanies hesed. See Deut. 5:10; 7:9; 13:17 for examples of mercy.
Understanding the covenant terminology helps us see that Deuteronomy is not a boring or repetitious overview of God’s laws, nor is it a book that should lead us to fear God. Rather, it is a heart-felt plea from a trustworthy God for his children to remain faithful to him in every generation.
- Because Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal document, we can consider the purpose of covenants as we study it, and we can remember that God’s covenants are designed to bring us back into God’s presence, but this process should inspire reverential awe in us.
Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson explained, “Think of it! God invites us to come out of our worldly sphere and to enter His sphere through covenants.” Though Sister Oscarson is right, I’m not always sure that modern people understand what it means to come into God’s presence. Studying the Old Testament in general, and Deuteronomy in particular, reminds me that “bringing corruptible, consumable flesh into the presence of a being whose very essence is infinite glory, perfection, and holiness is imbued with danger.” The danger is there because God is holy, omnipotent, and omniscient.
Therefore, one of the important theological words we should look for in Deuteronomy is fear. There are 34 instances of fear in the text which represent the Hebrew tira and yare. Both of the Hebrew words can be defined as, “to be afraid” but these terms also have connotations of awe, reverence, and recognition of grandeur. Thus, the translators of the King James Bible utilized the English fear as they translated tira and yare, but they understood fear to be “a holy awe or reverence of God and his laws.” This “holy awe” comes from a “just view and real love of the divine character, leading the subjects of it to hate and shun everything that can offend such a holy being.”
Therefore, I don’t believe that God wants us to be afraid of him, in the sense of being terrified or distrusting. Elder David A. Bednar explained, “Unlike worldly fear that creates alarm and anxiety, godly fear is a source of peace, assurance, and confidence . . . Godly fear grows out of a correct understanding of the divine nature and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ . . . My beloved brothers and sisters, godly fear dispels mortal fears . . . Godly fear is loving and trusting in Him.” Like Elder Bednar, I do believe that God wants us to approach him with “holy awe,” or with a humble recognition that “he can pierce [us], and with one glance of his eye he can smite [us] to the dust!” (Jacob 2:15) and with the meek recognition that “no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven” (Alma 11:37). Elder Neal A. Maxwell expressed it best when he said, “any assessment of where we stand in relation to [God] tells us that we do not stand at all! We kneel!”
When I adopt the reverential understanding of fear and read verses in Deuteronomy where it is present, I gain much more out of them. For example: The first line of Deuteronomy 6:2 states, “That thou mightest fear the Lord thy God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments.” If I read this with “holy awe” in mind, I will understand “That thou mightest [have holy awe or a reverence which springs from a just view and real love of] the Lord thy God, to keep all his statues and his commandments.” With this perspective, I no longer need to be quaking in my boots at the thought of God. Instead, I can humbly and submissively kneel before him in recognition of both his superiority and my need for his help.
- We may appreciate Deuteronomy more when we recognize that it is quoted in the New Testament 86 times.
Deuteronomy passages are utilized by New Testament authors for many reasons, including condemning idolatry, providing a foundation for Christ’s teachings, exposing human nature, and providing an outline for how to enter into God’s kingdom. Because Deuteronomy is used so frequently in the New Testament, some scholars have described Deuteronomy as the heart and pulse of the Old Testament. Some examples of New Testament quotations are:
- Deut. 4:24 quoted in Heb. 12:29
- Deut. 4:35 quoted in Mark 12:32
- Deut. 5:16 quoted in Matt. 15:4; Mark 7:10; Eph. 6:2
- Deut. 9:3 quoted inn Heb. 12:29
- Deut. 9:4 quoted in Rom. 10:6
- Deut. 19:4 quoted in Rom. 11:8
- Deut. 31:6 quoted in Heb. 13:5
My favorite quotations of Deuteronomy are found in the fourth chapter of Matthew where Jesus Christ utilized Deuteronomy as he was resisting Satan’s temptations in the wilderness before he began his formal ministry. Here we have Jesus in a desert where he is spiritually preparing to start a mission that he had covenanted to perform in pre-mortality (see Abraham 3:27). The Savior resisted Satan’s temptations to abandon his mission by quoting Moses, his prophet who originally spoke the quoted words in a desert while spiritually preparing his people to keep their covenants. It is a powerful connection, one that we should not miss.
After Satan tempted Jesus to make stones into bread (Matt. 3:3), the Savior responded by quoting Deut. 8:3. After Satan tempted Jesus to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus quoted Deut. 6:16. And after Satan tempted Jesus with worldly kingdoms and glory, Jesus quoted Deut. 6:13. This important experience reminds us to value Deuteronomy and to look for powerful passages in its text that might help us keep our covenants.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
 Encyclopedia Britannica, “Deuteronomy,” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Deuteronomy.
 Brigham Young, “Progress in Knowledge,” in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints Book Depot, 1881), 7:333.
 Bonnie L. Oscarson, “Covenants Are an Exchange of Love Between God and Us,” BYU Women’s Conference Address (30 May 2015), 3, https://womensconference.byu.edu/transcripts#2015.
 D. Todd Christofferson, “The Power of Covenants,” Ensign (May 2009), https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2009/05/the-power-of-covenants?lang=eng.
 Kerry Muhlestein, Joshua M. Sears, and Avram R. Shannon, “New and Everlasting: The Relationship between Gospel Covenants in History,” Religious Educator vol. 21, no. 2 (2020), 35.
 George E. Mendenhall, Ancient Israel’s Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context, ed. Gary H. Herion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 57–69; Amy Blake Hardison “Being a Covenant People,” in Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament, (ed.) Victor L. Ludlow (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 2001), 19–20.
 Amy Blake Hardison, “Theophany on Sinai,” in Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament (2013 Sperry Symposium), ed. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Matthew J. Grey, and David Rolph Seely (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 218–31.
 Webster’s Dictionary 1828, “fear,” https://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/fear.
 David A. Bednar, “Therefore They Hushed Their Fears,” General Conference Address, April 2015, www.churchofjesuschrist.org.
 Neal A. Maxwell, “O Divine Redeemer, General Conference Address, October 1981, www.churchofjesuschrist.org.
Jan J. Martin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. She researches Sixteenth-century English Bible Translation and studies the development of the language of English Theology in the early English Bible translations of the 1500s.