Chapter 4


Exhortation to Covenant Faithfulness (4:1-40)

Moses Calls Israel to Obey

          • Israel, listen to and obey the statutes and ordinances that I’m teaching you so you may live, and enter and possess these lands that the Lord (the God of your fathers) is giving to you. Don’t add more commands to or remove commands from these instructions that I’m giving you. Just obey what you are given.

            • Guzik writes, “In the larger sense, spiritual life and death depended on Israel’s obedience. Yet also in the more immediate sense, physical life and death depended on their obedience. Israel was about to attack a strong nation and to push them out of the Promised Land – if they didn’t have the blessing of the LORD upon them, they would soon be in a lot of trouble…In fact, Israel’s first military loss in the Promised Land (at Ai, Joshua 7) came specifically because they had disobeyed God. 36 men died at Ai, because one man in Israel (Achan) did not obey the command of the LORD.”

          • On the command not to add to or take away from the laws they are given HCSB notes, “This statement supports the common biblical idea that all Scripture is inspired by God and none of it is of human origin only (Deuteronomy 12:32; Jeremiah 36:28, 32; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). No one, therefore, can add to or delete from it.”

          • Incidentally, failure to adhere to this particular command is precisely what gave rise to the Pharisaical Judaism we see Jesus opposing in the New Testament. Hebrew scholar and Jewish believer, Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum relates this fascinating historical evolution in his article, The Three Sabbath Controversies Between Jesus and the Pharisees. The following are excerpts:

            • When the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian Captivity, the spiritual leaders recognized that the reason for the captivity had been disobedience to the Mosaic Law. Ezra began a school called the School of the Sopherim, or the School of the Scribes. Their plan was to go through each of the 613 commandments God gave to Moses and expound them to the Jewish people. Their thinking was that, by giving them a clear knowledge of what the Law was and how to keep it, they would not bring on another divine discipline like the Babylonian Captivity.”

            • When the first generation of the Sopherim passed away, the second generation took the task more seriously. The second generation said, ‘It is not enough for us to expound the Law; we must build a fence around the Law.’ The fence they would build around the Law would consist of new rules and regulations logically derived from the original 613 commandments. The principle they used was: a sopher may disagree with a sopher, but he may not disagree with the Torah [the first 5 books of the Bible- Genesis through Deuteronomy], which was sacrosanct. Therefore, there was no basis for denying the validity of that Law. In making these new rules and regulations, they could disagree among themselves until they reached a decision by majority vote. Once a decision was reached, it became mandatory for all Jews everywhere in the world to follow. This process of building a fence around the Law began around 450 B.C. and finally ended in 30 B.C.

            • Then came a second school of rabbis called the Tannaim, meaning ‘teachers.’ The Tannaim looked upon the work of the Sopherim and declared, ‘There are still too many holes in this fence.’ They continued the process for a period of two hundred and fifty years, from 30 B.C. until A.D. 220. However, the principle of operation changed. The new principle was: a tanna may disagree with a tanna, but he may not disagree with a sopher. This meant that from 30 B.C. all the thousands of rules and regulations passed down by the Sopherim became sacrosanct and of equal validity with Scripture.”

            • In order to validate to the Jewish audience why the laws of the Sopherim were equal to the laws of Moses, they came up with a teaching that all Orthodox Jews believe and teach to this very day. Their teaching was that what really happened on Mount Sinai was that God gave Moses two laws: the Written Law and the Oral Law. The first law is called the Written Law because it contains the 613 commandments that Moses actually penned in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The second law is called the Oral Law because Moses did not write down those commandments; he memorized them all...The work of the Sopherim and the Tannaim together is now called the Mishnah. It is the Mishnah that became the cause of controversy between Yeshua and the Pharisees. The Pharisaic concept of the Messiah was that He would be a Pharisee; He would be in submission to the laws of the Mishnah; in fact, He would join them in the work of making new laws to plug up the holes in the fence. A Messiah who was not a Pharisee under the Mishnah’s authority could not possibly be the true Messiah. Any time the terms Mishnaic Law, Pharisaic Law, Rabbinic Law, or Oral Law are used, they refer to the body of material now known as the Mishnah.

      • You’ve seen for yourselves what transpired at Baal-peor when the Lord destroyed everyone who worshiped Baal. Those of you that are here today remained faithful to the Lord. I have taught you these commands and ordinances that the Lord instructed me to teach you so that you may obey them when you enter and occupy this land. If you obey these commands diligently it will be a demonstration of your wisdom and intelligence to all the nations that surround you. When they hear these laws they’ll say to themselves, “The people of this great nation are wise and understanding indeed!” What other great nation exists that has a god who is near to them and responds to them when they call like our God when we call out to Him? What other great nation exists that has laws that are as righteous and fair as the laws that I am giving to you today?

        • It is true that other nations of this period also had law codes that were in some ways similar to the Law of Moses. However, it is the differences that truly set the Law of Moses apart. NLT Illustrated Study Bible provides one such example- the Code of Hammurabi:

          • Hammurabi, the last great king of the first Babylonian dynasty (ca 1790-1750 BC), devised his law code to safeguard the rights and define the responsibilities of Babylonian citizens. The laws were inscribed on stelae, which were usually erected in marketplaces or near temples for all to see. There are many similarities with the law of Moses, but Hammurabi’s code was basically pragmatic in nature; although it was promulgated under the authority of the Babylonian god of justice, the legislation took little notice of ethical and spiritual principles. By contrast, the Law of Moses was designed to teach Israel the holy character, nature, and will of God.”

Code of Hammurabi
A side view of the stele “fingertip” via Wikipedia
      • Don’t let your guard down. Watch yourselves diligently and be sure you never forget the things you’ve seen. Don’t let these memories be forgotten for as long as you live and pass them on to your children and grandchildren! Always remember the day you stood in front of the Lord at Mount Sinai (Horeb) when the Lord told me gather you together to hear His words for yourselves so that you would learn to fear Him and so that you could teach your children to fear Him. All of you gathered at the base of the mountain and saw the fire blazing up from it into the sky. The mountain was enveloped in a thick, black cloud and the Lord spoke to you from the fire. You could hear His voice and His words, but couldn’t see a form. Here, He declared His covenant to you. He commanded you to obey the Ten Commandments which He wrote on two stone tablets. At this same time, He commanded me to teach you the rest of the statutes and ordinances for you to follow in this land that you are about to enter and possess.

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “The covenant is the key theological idea of Deuteronomy and perhaps of the entire OT. A covenant was a legal arrangement involving two or more parties who entered into agreements with mutually binding obligations. The covenant at Sinai (Exodus 20-23) codified this relationship between the Lord and Israel; in Deuteronomy, Moses interpreted and expanded the covenant for the new generation that was about to conquer and occupy the Promised Land. The Ten Commandments (literally the ten words, ‘decalogue’) are so much at the heart of the covenant text and its requirements as to be equated with the covenant.”

          • Some individuals or groups teach that the Ten Commandments are somehow separate from the entirety of the Law given by Moses. However, Scripture does not support a separation of the Ten Commandments from the remainder of the Law of Moses (the other 603 laws). The following passages unequivocally establish the unity of the Law of Moses as a whole- including the Ten Commandments:

          • James 2:10– “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

          • Matthew 5:17-20– 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Worshiping the True God

      • Be very careful! You didn’t see any form when God spoke to you from the fire at Mount Sinai, so don’t corrupt yourselves by making an idol in any form to worship- not the form of a man or woman; or any animal on earth, or bird that flies, or small animal that scurries on the ground, or fish that swims in the waters; nor in the form of anything you see when you look up into the heavens- the sun, moon, or stars. The Lord has given these things for everyone on earth. But remember that you are the people that the Lord chose for His inheritance- his special possession. It was for this purpose that God rescued you from the iron smelting furnace of Egypt.

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “No image could capture the transcendent glory and power of the invisible God (Nehemiah 9:20; Isaiah 63:10-14; Zechariah 4:6; John 4:24). Any form of the Lord could become an object of worship in lieu of worshiping God himself…Israel was not to make idols in the form of any of his creatures. Idols and images could lead to worship of the creature rather than the Creator (Deuteronomy 5:8-9; Romans 1:23-25).

          • On the “iron smelting furnace” the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “Iron heated beyond 1100* C (2012* F) becomes soft and spongy, able to be forged. Carbon from the charcoal fuel assists the chemical process. While the furnace can be used as a symbol of oppression, here it is a creative force. As the smelting furnace transforms malleable ore into a hardened, usable product, so the exodus transformed Israel into a covenant people.”

          • Guzik adds, “Because God has delivered us, He has rights over us. He did not deliver us so we could do our own thing, but so we could do His thing.”

      • The Lord was angry with me because of you and vowed that I will not cross the Jordan into the land He’s giving you, so I will not be going with you. Instead, I will die here in this land. When you take possession of this land, be sure that you don’t forget the covenant you made with the Lord or make idols in any form, which He has forbidden you to do. The Lord your God is a jealous God, a consuming fire.

        • Guzik writes, “It was for the sake of Israel that God disciplined Moses, not allowing him to enter the Promised Land. Israel needed to see that no man, not even Moses was above the Law. They also had to understand that it was indeed better that Joshua lead them into the Promised Land instead of Moses.”

          • Some individuals have trouble understanding and accepting the description of God as “jealous.” In fact, many view this as a petty emotion not befitting God and in contradiction to how Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament. This has led some to hypothesize that this OT description of God (as a consuming fire) is derived from the archaic concept of ancient pagan dieties. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible does an excellent job of explaining the reasoning behind this claim as well as offering a sound rebuttal:

          • This designation of God indicates his propensity to consume that which is dross or unholy in his presence or to consume his enemies, as the phrase ‘like a fire consuming’ is used in a ninth century BC Phoenician text…Ancient Near Eastern gods were believed to rain down fire on earth just as Yahweh had at Sodom and Gomorrah. The goddess Inanna destroyed covenant breakers during the time of Sargon I (2329-2274 BC)…In Akkadian texts, Assur sends biting flames, and a burning flame comes from Elil…In English, the adjective ‘jealous’ usually indicates a petty form of envy…and, in the context of a relationship, usually connotes paranoia and overbearing possessiveness. As such, some are inclined to think that this description contrasts with the Lord’s character as merciful and compassionate. However, the covenantal ceremonies have features of marriage celebration, and the covenant itself entails an exclusive relationship reminiscent of marriage. The ‘jealous’ attribute of Yahweh reflects a desire to protect and preserve that relationship. No similar description of other gods in the ancient Near East has been found. This makes sense because gods in the ancient Near East were not thought to establish the same sorts of relationships with people.”

      • If after you have been living in the Promised Land for a long time (having children and grandchildren) and you begin to act corruptly by making idols and doing what the Lord considers evil, you will provoke Him to anger. Today I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you, that if you break this covenant, you will not live in this Promised Land for long. Instead, the Lord will destroy you and scatter you among the nations. You’ll be reduced to a few survivors driven into the lands belonging to other nations. In these foreign lands you’ll worship man-made idols that have no capability to hear, see, eat, or smell. In the future, when you have suffered through all these things, you’ll begin to search for the Lord your God again. If you seek Him with all of your heart and soul, you will find Him. Then you will obey Him. He will not leave you, destroy you, or forget the covenant that He made with your ancestors because He is a merciful God.

        • HCSB notes, “To call heaven and earth as witnesses is not to suggest that they somehow represent living and sentient beings. This is a literary device (an ‘apostrophe’) the purpose of which is to provide an element in covenant making, namely, witnesses to the mutual pledges made by each party. God is here swearing to act upon the decisions Israel is required to make. In treaties outside Israel, the ‘gods’ of the partners are invoked as witnesses. Since there is only one true God, He invokes His creation (‘the heavens and the earth,’ Genesis 2:1) as His two witnesses.”

        • Guzik writes, “God gave Israel the Promised Land, but not unconditionally. If they persisted in idol worship, God would remove them from the land and scatter them among the nations…This is exactly what happened some 550 years later, at the time of the Babylonian Exile of Judah…If Israel was exiled, they would then get their fill of idols. God would put them in a land filled with idols…Often, God’s chastisement on us is to give us what our sinful hearts long for. If Israel wanted idols, God would give them idols..God would not totally abandon Israel in exile. When they were ready to turn back to the LORD, He would be ready to receive them…However, if Israel was to find the LORD, they had to seek Him with all their heart and all their soul…In this context, to seek God with the heart has the idea of passionately seeking Him, seeking Him because you really want to love the LORD. Seeking God with the soul has the idea of seeking God with our mind, will, and emotions; with giving all of ourselves to Him…This shows that when we seek God with all our heart and all our soul, it will show itself in obedience.”

There is Only One God

      • Search all of history, from the day God created man on earth until now and from one end of the heavens all the way to the other and ask: Has anything like what you have experienced ever occurred before? Has any other people group heard the voice of God speaking to them from fire as God has spoken to you? Has any other god endeavored to take a nation of people for himself out of another nation by means of trials, miraculous signs and wonders, war, by his strong hand and powerful arm, and terrifying acts as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt? You saw this with your own eyes. The Lord showed you these things so that you would know that He is the only God- there is no other. He let you hear His voice coming from His great fire on earth giving you instructions. He did this because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants, bringing them out of Egypt with His great display of His presence and power. He drove nations out of this land that are much greater and stronger than you in order to give you this land to possess as your inheritance. Remember this today and keep it firmly in your mind: The Lord is God both in heaven and on earth- there is no other. Obey His statutes and commands that I am giving you today so that you and your children will have long and prosperous livesin this land that the Lord is giving you for all time.

        • On God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt by His “strong hand and powerful arm” NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “Describing divine qualities in human terms is called anthropomorphism. Here it represents God’s sovereign power in delivering Israel from bondage in Egypt.”

        • HCSB writes, “God’s selection of Israel as a special people to the exclusion of all others can be explained only on the basis of His grace and hidden purposes. There was nothing in Israel, or even the nation’s founding ancestor Abraham, that commended them to the Lord. Merit or deserving qualities have nothing to do with God’s sovereign choice of nations and individuals, out of all the options available to Him (Deuteronomy 7:6-9; Exodus 19:5-6). The vessel has no right to ask the potter why he has shaped them thus (Romans 9:14-26).”

        • Guzik adds, “Israel heard God’s audible voice from heaven; they saw His holy fire and benefited from His divine choice. They could know this from all God had done for them… In light of who God is, and all He did for Israel, obedience to His commands made perfect sense. It was simply what should be done. We are fools to disobey such a God of love and power.”

Narrative Interlude (4:41-49)

Eastern Cities of Refuge

      • Then Moses set aside 3 cities of refuge east of the Jordan River- Bezer, located in the wilderness on the plateau which belonged to the Reubenites; Ramoth in Gilead which belonged to the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan which belonged to the Manassites. These cities were sanctuaries where individuals who had accidentally killed someone could flee for their safety.

Introduction to Moses’ Second Address

      • The following is the body of instructions that Moses gave to the Israelites after they had left Egypt and as they were camped in the valley facing Beth-peor east of the Jordan River. This land had previously belonged to the Amorites ruled by King Sihon who lived in Heshbon. Moses and the Israelites had defeated him and took possession of his land as well as the land of King Og of Bashan. These were the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan. So, Israel conquered the area from Aroer on the edge of the Arnon Valley all the way to Mount Sion (also called Mount Hermon), as well as the eastern bank of the Jordan River as far south as the Dead Sea below the slopes of Pisgah.

        • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes that the Hebrew term for “body of instruction” (in verse 44) is torah. “The Hebrew noun is derived from the verb yarah, ‘to teach’; its basic meaning is instruction. The Greek OT understands the term to mean ‘law.’ In this context, the term introduces the body of instruction in the remainder of Deuteronomy.”