In the second movement of Deuteronomy, Moses gives Israel the law … again. But this time, he’s not talking to a nomadic group of people wandering the desert—he’s talking to the next generation preparing to settle in a permanent home for the first time. As they move into the land, their laws and their lives will need to look a little different. But in what way? In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they discuss how the law was always meant to form Israel (and modern readers) into people of wisdom, justice, and righteousness.
The word righteousness is a relational word in biblical Hebrew. It’s doing right by somebody specifically in the context of our relationship. Moses says obeying the wisdom of the laws will be Israel’s righteousness before God and neighbor … And as they do that, the nations will look on and say, “Following that God is pretty awesome because it results in communities that look like this.”
In part one (00:00-19:35), Tim and Jon introduce the second movement of Deuteronomy, where we’ll trace the theme of the law. We’ve spent the last three episodes in the first movement of Deuteronomy (Deut. 1-11), exploring the repeated words listen and love.
In Deuteronomy’s second movement, Moses recounts God’s laws to Israel and explains how those laws will need to look a little different now that they’re going to settle in the land of Canaan.
While there are many laws recounted in the Torah, the Torah is not a law book—it’s a narrative meant to provide wisdom and instruction to God’s people. Israel’s laws are part of the story. (For more on understanding the law, check out our theme video on the law and our series How to Read Biblical Law.)
In part two (19:35-34:39), Tim and Jon discuss how the biblical authors and other ancient peoples viewed laws as adaptable wisdom.
Back in the first movement of Deuteronomy, Moses says something that would suggest the laws are anything but adaptable.
Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it ….
Moses explicitly states that these laws should never be added to or changed in any way. However, this was standard language in ancient law writing (very similar to Egyptian and Babylonian laws from the same time period). So this language didn’t necessarily mean that the people could never make a new law.
Modern readers of the Bible will have a different association with the word “law” than that of ancient Israelites, who understood their laws to be the terms of a covenant agreement with Yahweh. By living in accordance with Yahweh’s laws, Israel was expressing their sole devotion to him as the one who had delivered them from slavery. So in this case, Moses’ instruction to never add to or take away from God’s laws means Israel was prohibited from changing the terms of their covenant with Yahweh. In a way, it’s another way of instructing humans not to do what is right in their own eyes.
Yahweh’s laws were never meant to simply be performed as an end in themselves—they were designed to form Israel into a people with an identity so distinct they would stand out among the nations as people marked by their relationship with Yahweh. This is why the psalmists often refer to God’s laws as producing wisdom; people who followed the law found themselves living differently in the world even when they weren’t consciously trying to.
In part three (34:39-50:46), Tim and Jon discuss two terms Moses associates with the law: judgment/justice and righteousness.
Judgment is the same word in Hebrew as justice (mishpat). In other words, when God brings judgment or justice upon someone, he is holding them accountable to a system of just relationships. Judgment carries some negative connotations with it in English, so remembering its association with justice can be helpful.
Righteousness (tzedekah) literally means “right relationship,” so it’s a quality that varies based on context. For example, righteousness between a boss and employee will look different than righteousness between a mother and child—the relationships are different. So choices that would be seen as wrong or against the law in some settings can be seen as righteous in others.
This is why Judah calls Tamar righteous in Genesis 38:26. After the death of two different husbands (Judah’s two oldest sons), Judah had an obligation to provide Tamar with another husband, his youngest son. When he failed to keep his obligation to her, she dressed up like a prostitute, slept with Judah, and became pregnant with his son. While sex outside the covenant of marriage was condemned by the law, Tamar was called righteous because she had obtained justice for herself and carried on the family lineage.
The law is meant to form wise humans who will carry out acts of justice that ensure righteousness for the oppressed and vulnerable.
In part four (50:46-1:13:08), the guys explore how a reader of the Torah might practically utilize wisdom from the law to bring about righteousness within a community.
In Deuteronomy 1, Moses makes it clear that there will be situations where the Israelites won’t be able to “look up” the answers in the law. In fact, the law was never meant to be a reference book for someone to consult in isolation. Instead, Moses instructs Israel to preserve the system in which leaders with proven wisdom and experience oversaw different groups of people. Meditating on God’s law makes a person wise, and then that person can be trusted to lead others and use their wisdom to carry out justice and righteousness within a community.
Jesus was a person who had meditated on the law and had obtained wisdom from it—so much so that he was able to teach others the core of the law. Jesus taught his followers that Yahweh cares about the motives of the heart, not just external actions.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.
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