David G. McDowell
IT501: Biblical Hermeneutics
Historical Components of Deuteronomy 4:1-31
The theme of this passage is obedience to the law of the Lord, the fruition of the covenant given to the people of Israel for inheritance of the Promised Land and, because of the gift of the law and covenant, the abstinence from idol worship. In the context of its chapter, it is the first half of a transitional passage from the history mentioned in the first three chapters of Deuteronomy to the reiteration and exposition of the law given after it.
The author of this passage appears to be Moses, writing at the end of his life to the Israelites before they take possession of the Promised Land. This is evidenced according to the reference in Deuteronomy 4:21-22 where Moses laments that he will not be allowed in the Promised Land. The books of 1 Kings and 2 Kings also attests to the authorship of Moses as well as the very words of Jesus in the gospels . However, controversy exists on the exact meaning of the word “Moses” and if it refers to authorship or simply a reference to the law in general. Uncertainty also exists in regards to how the book may have been edited in later dates. Scholars range the authorship of the book as early as during the life of Moses to as far away as the 7th century B.C. However, it is clear that the majority of the material found in the book of Deuteronomy did come from the mouth or the pen of Moses, even if was compiled at the latest of dates.
On the solemn occasion of Moses not being allowed into the Promised Land, he seems to use this book as his last will and testament. In the chapter before this, the book speaks of Moses on top of a mountain looking in all directions. It must have been a bittersweet moment for Moses, looking behind at the lands that they had conquered, which were highlighted in the first three chapters, and looking forward to the Promised Land that, because of his sin, he would not be able to enter. In Numbers 20, Moses was commanded by God to speak to a rock in order to produce water for the Israelites to drink. Instead, Moses struck the rock and according to Numbers 20:12, Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land because he “did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites.” It is important to note here that this passage is often misquoted as Moses striking the rock given as the reason that Moses is not allowed in the Promised Land. The banning of Moses from the Promised Land goes beyond mere disobedience. Moses was a leader, and as a leader, and as one who had conversed with God, he had a responsibility to represent God and his holiness. When Moses struck the rock in anger, he did much more than merely lose his temper; he misrepresented God, and as such, was banned from entering the Promised Land.
He gives a brief history and reminds the Israelites of God’s faithfulness as he expounds the law and the covenant. It is apparent that Moses has high regard for the law because it comes straight from God and he cautions the Israelites not to subtract from it (vs. 2). It strikes this writer as very interesting that the verse only says “subtract.” Was not adding to the law the problem in Jesus’ time? Yet, that is not mentioned here. One could glean from this passage that God may have stricter standards for those who subtract or ignore laws rather than those who add to it.
There is a reference to Baal Peor in verse three that is also referenced in 3:29. This reference in chapter four refers to a situation recorded in Numbers 25 where men began having sex with the women of Moab. In the Moabite culture, sex was linked with idol worship. According to Numbers 25, the men were even going to the sacrificial rituals associated with pagan idol worship to have sex with these women, eat with them and bow down to their gods as part of their worship. God demanded that Moses use the leaders of the people and kill those who did this. According to this passage, twenty-four thousand men died as a result of this sin. The importance of this is the reinforcement to the children of Israel, and this writer would even say to God’s covenant children today, that God, as revealed in his law and covenant, does not tolerate idol worship.
Another reference to a historical and geographical place is in verse ten when Moses refers to Horeb. For all practical purposes, Horeb is synonymous with Mt. Sinai. This is the place where Moses gave the Ten Commandments. This place is of great significance because it is a geographic reminder to the people of Israel that their law was given directly to them by God and a reminder to them, according to verse nine, that they should pass these laws down to their children.
It is important in this passage to understand the historical significance of this moment. Without a proper understanding of the meaning of Horeb, one might lose the significance of the symbolism it has with the law. Without an understanding of the events at Baal-Peor, one may miss the importance that God places on having no other gods before him. Without this background, it would be increasingly hard to understand the intricate roles that the law and the covenant play in our rich Judeo/Christian history as well as the importance of passing those down to future generations.
Howard Marshal ed. et al. New Bible Dictionary 3rd ed. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1996) , 275.
David Noel Freedman, ed, The Anchor Bible Dictionary vol 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992, 553.
George Arthur Buttrick, ed, Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible vol. 4, 21st ed. ( Nashville: Abingen Press, 1990), 377
The Holy Bible. New International Version