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Good news in a book of law?

25 October 2013

Anthony Phillips on Deuteronomy as grist to the preacher's mill


"John woken by the Angel on Patmos": on page 1 of The Douce Apocalypse, Bodl. Douce MS180 (c.1270), is one of the eight colour plates in Ian Boxall's Patmos in the Reception History of the Apocalypse, in the series Oxford Theology & Religion Monographs (OUP, £65 (£58.50); 978-0-19-967420-6). The author, who teaches at St Stephen's House, Oxford, embraces a broad understanding of biblical interpretation, including sermons, liturgy, and the visual arts, in discussing the significance accorded by interpreters to St John's island, and Revelation 1.9

"John woken by the Angel on Patmos": on page 1 of The Douce Apocalypse, Bodl. Douce MS180 (c.1270), is one of the eight colour plates in Ian Boxall'...

Honey from the Rock: Deuteronomy for the People of God
James Robson
Apollos £14.99
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JAMES ROBSON describes his study as written for "those interested in understanding Deuteronomy's role within a Christian biblical theology". He eschews any critical reading of the text, but takes it as it stands. This inevitably means that he does not consider any possible development of theological ideas within the book itself.

In part 1, Robson examines the narrative of Deuteronomy and considers how it forms part of the wider biblical story in both Old and New Testaments. He recognises Yahweh's desire for his people is that they enjoy life in all its fullness and that obedience to the Torah is the means to obtain it. While disobedience may bring curse, the law itself is seen as a blessing.

Although he never considers the inadequacy of covenant theology exposed by the exile, which forms the bedrock of Deuteronomy, and is used by the Deuteronomists to judge Israel's subsequent history set out in Joshua-2 Kings, he rightly argues that the Deuteronomists came to recognise that in fact Yahweh could not abandon his people. So the command to Israel to circumcise the heart (Deuteronomy 10.16) in the end has to be fulfilled by Yahweh himself (Deuteronomy 30.6). Her future existence depended on grace, not law, a theology fully worked out in Ezekiel, Second Isaiah (40-55), and the Priestly Writer.

Robson holds that the relationship between Deuteronomy and the wider biblical story is not straightforward. Israel is, though, the means whereby God wills to redeem the whole creation. As the age of the New Testament dawns, Robson sees strong parallels between Israel's position then and in "the final provenance of Deuteronomy".

In part 2, Robson describes Deuteronomy's vision for Israel as a redeemed community; a loved people; a chosen people; a holy-to-Yahweh people; a brotherhood. All demand Israel's response. He then considers both negatively and positively how Deuteronomic laws should be interpreted. While he analyses the social, cultural, theological, and ethical discontinuities, he emphasises that the Church and the individual Christian need to appropriate Deuteronomy's laws, even though the unchanging words of scripture need interpretation in ever changing circumstances.

How this is done Robson addresses in his final chapter, admitting the differences between the ideal and the real and the consequent limits formed by what is practical. God has to put up with much less than he deserves. As an example, Robson discusses in depth the law relating to the release of debts and the exhortation to be generous in lending to the poor even when the year of release is near (Deuteronomy 15.1-11). Here he is able to allude briefly to contemporary economic issues such as the conduct of the banks and the distasteful categorisation of the poor into deserving and undeserving. Whether all other laws could be so positively analysed for the Christian is perhaps more doubtful. Further, one wonders whether his example law does not justify itself without recourse to any Christian perspective.

This is a useful work that deserves careful study. Robson's hope is that it will encourage clergy to preach from Deuteronomy. Perhaps no part of scripture challenges our humanitarian and economic responsibilities more than Deuteronomy. But Deuteronomy's greatest importance lies in the persistent warning to Israel that when she enjoys the affluence of Canaan, she should not in her self-sufficiency forget her God. To do so could only lead to chaos, as man exploited man for his own self-gratification. I feel a sermon coming on.

Canon Phillips is a former headmaster of the King's School, Canterbury.

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