“Deuteronomy: A Covenant of Love,” Ensign, Apr. 1990, 55–59
When Jesus was asked, “Which is the first commandment of all?” he responded by quoting from Deuteronomy: “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.” (Mark 12:28–30; see Matt. 22:37; Luke 10:27; Deut. 6:4–5.)
While this is probably the most well-known citation from Deuteronomy in the New Testament, it is by no means the only one. In fact, that testament cites only the Psalms, Isaiah, and Exodus more frequently. The New Testament contains more than eighty references to or quotations from Deuteronomy, and all but four of its books cite it. The interest New Testament writers had in the book is not surprising, since Deuteronomy is “a testimony to the primacy of love in God’s dealing with men.”1
In his first epistle, John wrote, “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 Jn. 4:19.) In his great sermon to his disciples, Christ said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) No book of the Old Testament better reflects the spirit of these verses than Deuteronomy. God demonstrated his love toward the Israelites by choosing them (see Deut. 7:6–8; Deut. 10:15; Deut. 14:2), liberating them from bondage in Egypt, revealing himself to them at Sinai (see Deut. 1:6), and nurturing them in the wilderness on the way to the promised land. The Israelites, as the children of God and the recipients of his blessings (see Deut. 1:31; Deut. 8:2–6; Deut. 14:2), are expected to return his love. Love (Hebrew ‘ahab) and reverence (Hebrew yare’), translated in the King James Version as fear, are to be the motivating factors in Israel’s relationship with God. (See Deut. 10:12; Deut. 11:1; Deut. 13:3–4; Deut. 19:9; Deut. 30:20.)
Moses defines that relationship this way: “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear [reverence] the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul.” (Deut. 10:12.)
The words of the greatest commandment that Jesus cited from Deuteronomy are so important that God commanded the Israelites to “teach them diligently unto thy children, and [thou] shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” (Deut. 6:7; see Deut. 4:9; Deut. 16:20; Deut. 28:8.)
Deuteronomy also reflects a pattern future prophets would follow and foreshadows the coming of the greatest of all prophets. According to Deuteronomy 34:10–12 [Deut. 34:10–12], Moses, considered one of the greatest of the prophets of Israel, told the Israelites, “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken.” (Deut. 18:15.)
During the New Testament era, the Jews were still looking toward the coming of “that prophet.” When John the Baptist was asked whether he was the Messiah, he responded that he was not. He was further asked, “What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.” (John 1:19–21; italics added. See John 6:14; John 7:40.)
In his great discourse at the temple following the Day of Pentecost, Peter identified that prophet as Jesus Christ: “For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you.
“And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people. …
“Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.” (Acts 3:22–23, 26.)
Deuteronomy is a book about covenant-making. Its setting is the east side of the Jordan River as the second generation of the Israelites who came out of Egypt is about to enter the promised land. Years of experience in the wilderness had chastened them and trained them to keep their covenants. (See Deut. 1:1–5.) The book also coincides with the end of Moses’ tenure as leader of Israel. Many of the people had been very young when all of Israel last covenanted to obey the Lord at Mt. Sinai. Frequently at such moments of transition to new leadership, the outgoing leader would bring all the people under covenant again to obey God. Such seems to be the case as Moses passed the mantle of leadership to Joshua.
Thus, the whole book of Deuteronomy seems to have the structure of a covenant ceremony. Throughout history, especially among ancient peoples, such covenant-making and covenant renewal were regular and consistent. They included an introduction of the parties involved in making the covenant, a review of history up to the initiation of the covenant, individual commandments, a recounting of blessings and curses, a witness and oaths of acceptance, and a reading of the covenant and the deposit of the text. These elements can be seen in the covenant assemblies recorded in Exodus 19, Exodus 20–24, Joshua 24 [Ex. 19; Ex. 20–24; Josh. 24], Mosiah 1–6, and the sacrament prayers (see D&C 20:77, 79; Moro. 4:3; Moro. 5:2), which are connected with the renewal of covenants.2
Introduction of the covenant parties. The covenant assemblies in the scriptures begin with the introduction of the parties making or renewing the covenant. Either God is identified as the maker of the covenant—“God spake all these words, saying …” (Ex. 20:1)—or the prophet, acting as the spokesman for God, is introduced—“Joshua said unto all the people, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel. …” (Josh. 24:2.) In Deuteronomy 1:1–5 [Deut. 1:1–5], where the covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai is being renewed, Moses again serves as the spokesman for God.
Review of history. Following the introduction, the assembly hears a retelling of God’s mighty acts performed in behalf of his people, Israel. This provides a reason for the commandments God will require them to obey. Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the Israelites to “remember” that they were bondsmen “in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.” (Deut. 15:15; see Deut. 16:12; Deut. 24:18.) Deuteronomy contains by far the longest historical review of any scriptural covenant passage. The review (see Deut. 1:6–3:29) recounts God’s acts and Moses’ deeds for Israel from the time Israel left Sinai (referred to as “Horeb” in Deut. 1:1–2, 6), where the previous covenant assembly had taken place.
At Mount Sinai, God chose the Israelites and liberated them from bondage so that they would become a free people who could worship him without fear or hindrance. (See Ex. 3:12.) There, God made them “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), and revealed to them his glory (see Ex. 16:7). Although the Israelites refused to live so as to see God face-to-face, they continued to enjoy his presence and protection and Moses’ leadership through the remainder of their wilderness wanderings.
Individual commandments. The central part of a covenant assembly contains the commandments that God placed his people under obligation to observe. An example is in Exodus 20–23 [Ex. 20–23], where God enumerates the Ten Commandments (see Ex. 20:3–17), then gives more detailed statutes. Deuteronomy similarly concerns itself with reciting the commandments.
The title of the book in English means second law. It is taken from a mistranslation of Deuteronomy 17:18 [Deut. 17:18] in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures). The Septuagint incorrectly renders the verse as “he shall write for him a repetition of the law.” The King James Version, however, correctly renders this passage according to the Hebrew meaning as “he shall write him a copy of this law.” Though the title is based on the Septuagint mistranslation, it is still appropriate because the book represents a repetition of the law and a renewal of the covenant at Mount Sinai.
The strength of Deuteronomy is that the whole book is designed as an exhortation to obey God out of love and reverence. Motivated by their love for God, Israelites are expected to walk before God in holiness. (See Deut. 11:1.) Israel’s love toward God is to be shown in how they treat their less-fortunate neighbors—the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Even the non-Israelites who would live within their borders are to be treated with kindness, since the Israelites themselves had been “strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19; see Deut. 24:17–22; Deut. 26:12.) God expected the Israelites to be equally kind in their treatment of animals. Thus, he commanded them not to “muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn.” (Deut. 25:4; see Deut. 22:6.)
The laws and precepts outlined in Deuteronomy cover all aspects of life in ancient Israel. They include regulations concerning idolatry (see Deut. 13; Deut. 17:2–7; clean and unclean animals (see Deut. 14:3–21); tithes and tithe-paying (see Deut. 14:22–29); offerings (Deut. 15:19–23); vows (Deut. 23:21–23); festivals (Deut. 16:1–17); the duties of judges (Deut. 16:18–20; Deut. 17:8–13), kings (Deut. 17:14–20), and priests (Deut. 18:1–8); cities of refuge (Deut. 19:1–14; Deut. 24:7); laws of war (Deut. 20:1–18); the expiation of murder (Deut. 21:1–9); and a host of other matters.
God chose the Israelites to be his people and freed them from slavery in Egypt to become a nation. They were to respond with a life-style distinct from that of the people around them. Moses told them to keep these commandments, “for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
“For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?” (Deut. 4:6–7.)
Blessings and curses. To emphasize the seriousness of the covenant, the Lord recounts the blessings and curses that would come through obedience or disobedience. Deuteronomy, in fact, contains the longest series of covenant curses (Deut. 27:14–26; Deut. 28:15–68) and blessings (Deut. 28:1–14) recorded in the Bible.
The curses follow a set pattern: “Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the Lord, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place. And all the people shall answer and say, Amen.
“Cursed be he that setteth light by [esteems lightly] his father or his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deut. 27:15–16.)
The blessings are patterned likewise: “Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field.
“Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep.” (Deut. 28:3–4.)
Joshua later warned the people, “If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good.” (Josh. 24:20.)
Witness and oaths of acceptance. As a witness that the Israelites are willing to obey God’s commandments, they swear vocally or in writing that they agree to the stipulations of the covenant. They either witness against themselves—“Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the Lord, to serve him” (Josh. 24:22)—or they appeal directly to God’s words: “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8). In Mosiah 5:5, following King Benjamin’s address, the people express their desire “to enter into a covenant with [their] God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments.” They further demonstrate their willingness to obey by allowing their names to be included among those who had “entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments.” (Mosiah 6:1.)
In Deuteronomy, however, God commands Moses to write a song recalling God’s relationship with his people (see Deut. 31:19–22; Deut. 31:30–32:45), which Moses is to teach to “the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel” (Deut. 31:19). Should the Israelites recite the song but fail to heed its message, they would do so to their condemnation, since the reciting of the song represents their willingness to keep God’s commandments.
Reading of the covenant and the deposit of the text. At the covenant assembly, the leader recites the text of the covenant and arranged for its deposit in the sanctuary. This was done so that the Israelites will not forget. Exodus 24:7 mentions the recital: Moses “took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people.” The book of Joshua also mentions the writing and deposit of the text: “Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.” (Josh. 24:26.) The book of Mosiah possibly records a similar process. It recounts that King Benjamin’s words were sent out among the people, enabling them to understand the proceedings of the assembly and creating a permanent record of the event. (See Mosiah 2:8–9.)
Deuteronomy records that “Moses went and spake these words unto all Israel.” (Deut. 31:1.) He then “wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and unto all the elders of Israel.” (Deut. 31:9.) Later, he instructed the Levites to “take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.” (Deut. 31:25–26.)
From the time that the children of Israel had become a people, their need for unity had never been greater. They stood just east of the promised land, ready to enter and inherit it, by force if necessary. There was no more effective way to impress upon the people the need for unity than through a covenant assembly, in which the Israelites committed themselves to love and obey the Lord and follow his leaders. The success of the covenant in Deuteronomy is reflected in the Israelites’ solidarity and strength as they began to possess the promised land. That contrasts sharply with the disunity and sin into which they had fallen soon after the previous covenant assembly at Mount Sinai.
But what makes Deuteronomy important to us? First, it teaches the central importance of obedience through love, a principle that is as much a part of our dispensation as it was in the Mosaic dispensation. Second, it teaches us the significance of making covenants in our own lives. Finally, while reflecting on the greatness of Moses as a prophet in Israel, Deuteronomy looks forward to Christ, to that prophet who was to fulfill all things and to whom the people were commanded to listen.
Introduction of the covenant parties
Review of history
Blessings and curses
Witness and oaths of acceptance
Reading of the covenant and deposit of the text