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Are we at The Gospel Coalition a little too excited—-misguided, even—-about Christ in the Old Testament? Do we tend to champion typological readings at the cost of exegetical care?

Daniel Block, a respected evangelical Old Testament scholar whose new commentary on Deuteronomy will be a valuable addition to any believer’s shelf, wonders if some evangelicals today have fumbled the ball when it comes to handling the Old Testament. He certainly raises an important question. How should followers of the risen Christ read the Old Testament Scriptures in a properly anticipatory (cf. Luke 24:27, 44) yet hermeneutically responsible manner?

I corresponded with Block, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College outside Chicago, about why he thinks Deuteronomy may be more like John than Romans, whether Jesus is a new Moses, whether TGC’s Preaching Christ in the Old Testament section is beneficial, and more.

What do you perceive to be the most significant misunderstanding about Deuteronomy in evangelical circles today? 

People too often believe Moses’ role in the book is primarily one of a lawgiver, and so the book is classified generically as “law” rather than pastoral preaching. The translators of the Septuagint set the history of interpretation on a wrong course when they named the book deutero-nomos, meaning “second law,” and consistently translated the word torah in the book as “law.” This word means “teaching, instruction.” As used in the book, it has exactly the same semantic range as Greek’s didaskalia or didachē. I wonder what our disposition toward the book would be had the translators called it by one of these names or simply translated the Hebrew title, ­’ēlleh hadděbārîm (“These Are the Words”).

It’s widely recognized that Deuteronomy is a series of sermons delivered to the Israelite congregation on the Plains of Moab. Why is Moses’ uniquely pastoral role in this book significant?

If the book is so widely recognized as Mosaic preaching, why do we continue to refer to its contents as “law”? Both Moses and the narrator of his death use only one professional title for Moses: “prophet” (Deut. 18:18; 34:10). Indeed, the principle verbs used to characterize his verbal activity in the book are “to speak” (āmar, 1:5; 5:1) and “to teach” (limmēd, 4:1, 5, etc.). Moses is in no position to legislate; only YHWH, the divine king, has that authority.

This pastor-teacher role is reinforced by the historical context of the addresses. Moses, the congregation’s shepherd/pastor (Num. 27:17), is about to die. What we have are the sermons Moses delivered at the time, a closing hymn [national anthem] he taught the people (Deut. 32), and his final benediction (Deut. 33). Unless we rediscover Deuteronomy’s pastoral dimension, we’ll misconstrue Moses’ function within the document, obscure the nature of its contents, and muffle its repeated declarations of the gospel (once Israel was a slave to Pharaoh, but through YHWH’s gracious acts she’s been rescued and declared by covenant to be his “son” [14:1-2]).

Why doesn’t it surprise you that Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy more often than from any other biblical book?

There are probably three reasons. The first two relate to two of the fundamental convictions of the New Testament (NT) regarding Jesus. First, the NT is emphatic that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah. Jesus views himself as the fulfillment and the embodiment of the covenant righteousness called for in Deuteronomy (cf. Matt. 5:17). He’s the ultimate king, chosen by YHWH from among his people Israel, whose heart and mind are filled with the Torah, who doesn’t depart from it to the right or to the left, whose head isn’t lifted above his countrymen, and who, because of his faithfulness, is granted eternal kingship (Deut. 17:14-20). In short, he’s the fulfillment of Israel’s royal messianic hope.

Second, Jesus is YHWH (John 1:23; Rom. 10:13, etc.). Therefore, he’s not merely a Moses figure, but the one in whose name Moses spoke throughout Deuteronomy and who inspired all his utterances (cf. “as YHWH commanded him,” 1:4; “as YHWH commanded me,” 4:5, 14; 6:1). Should we be surprised Jesus is so familiar with Deuteronomy?

Third, Jesus seeks to recapture and recover the spirit of Deuteronomy. Both Jesus and Paul were opposed by representatives of forms of Judaism that had lost the heart of the gospel as promulgated by Moses on the Plains of Moab. By reducing the commandments to a single statement (“You shall demonstrate love for YHWH your God totally and for your neighbor as you do for yourself”), Jesus captured the essence of covenantal relationship—-the opposite of what he saw among the self-serving Pharisees. By accusing them of keeping the minutest tithing regulations but neglecting the “weightier matters of Torah” (Matt. 23:23), he called his followers back to the spirit of the Torah and the covenant as espoused in Deuteronomy.

“More than any other book in the Old Testament (if not the Bible as a whole),” you contend, “Deuteronomy concretizes the life of faith in real life.” How should “real life” under the old covenant law influence believers on a daily basis today?

Chris Wright helpfully speaks of Israel’s constitutional texts (my expression for what most call law codes) as presenting a picture of righteous living that’s “paradigmatic” for God’s people in all contexts for all time. Let me concretize the issue with a specific example: In Deuteronomy 22:8 Moses says, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” When people ask me whether Christians need to keep this command, I explain this is the wrong question. The question for me as a Christian is not, “Do I have to keep this law?” but rather, “How does God, my Redeemer and covenant Lord, expect me to keep this law?”

When we realize this isn’t a mandate for a certain style of architecture but an opportunity to display covenant righteousness, the answer is obvious. This command assumes the head of a household is responsible for the welfare of everyone who enters his house, that he’ll take all steps necessary to protect their well-being. In Chicago this means I “fulfill righteousness” if I shovel the sidewalk in front of my house after a snow so that all who pass by are safe. Not all commands are this straightforward, but the question, “How does God expect me to fulfill this command” is generally more helpful than, “Do I have to keep this law?”

Admittedly, the regulations of Deuteronomy are culturally conditioned, but we must accept as normative God’s revelation communicated through these contextualized regulations. After peeling away the cultural husks of the laws in Deuteronomy, modern Christian interpreters must accept as normative the ethical and theological principles they communicate. In cases where the work of Christ has brought an end to a given practice (e.g., food regulations), the theological principles underlying those regulations remain relevant.

Deuteronomy’s theological placement in the OT has been compared to that of Romans in the New, but you suggest the more appropriate comparison may be with John—-even wondering if the Pentateuchal location of Deuteronomy influenced the canonical location of John. What’s the nature of the parallel you have in mind?

I’m not against comparing Deuteronomy to Romans, though I’d prefer we do the reverse—-interpret Romans as a NT counterpart to Deuteronomy. This epistle offers the most systematic presentation of the theology arising out of YHWH’s/Jesus Christ’s saving acts. The impulse to compare Deuteronomy with John’s Gospel, however, arises from four observations.

First, unlike Romans but like John, Deuteronomy narrates significant events in the story of redemption. Second, more than the synoptics and like John, Deuteronomy casts those events in profoundly theological forms. Moses doesn’t merely narrate events; he declares their theological significance (e.g., 4:32-40).

Third, just as John focuses on the love (covenant commitment) of God for humanity demonstrated in redemption (John 3:16) and calls for our response of love (covenant commitment) demonstrated in obedience to Jesus (John 14:15, 21-24; 15:10-11), so Deuteronomy focuses on the love (covenant commitment) of God for Israel demonstrated in redemption (4:32-40) and calls for their response of love (covenant commitment) demonstrated in obedience to his will (Deut. 6:5; 10:12-11:1). Indeed the parable of the vine and the branches in John 15 functions as the equivalent of Moses’ declaration of the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28.

Fourth, there’s simply the curious chronological observation that, just as John arises out of decades of reflection on the incarnation and passion of Christ, so Deuteronomy arises from 40 years of reflection on the significance of YHWH’s great acts of redemption and covenant.

You remark, “We need to abandon the low Christology that sees Moses as a type of Christ, or Christ as a second Moses in the Gospels.” But isn’t Jesus cast as a new Moses throughout Matthew (e.g., infancy narratives, mountain appearances, etc.) and elsewhere (e.g., Acts 3:17-26; Heb. 3:1-6)?

My thoughts on the role of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount were triggered by a conversation several of us had with a group of rabbis. At the end of one rabbi’s 10-minute Jewish interpretation of the Sermon, he asked a disturbing question: “Who does the one speaking think he is?” His own answer to the question was, “It’s not Moses. As he spoke, Jesus posed as God, and that’s why we reject him. This is blasphemy.” I don’t deny Jesus performed some “Mosaic” actions (verbal or nonverbal); he also performed Abrahamic and Davidic and Solomonic and Isaianic action.

However, to see Jesus as a second Moses is demeaning. He isn’t Moses, he’s YHWH! Moses wasn’t Israel’s Redeemer; YHWH was. With respect to Acts 3:17-26, I know my interpretation isn’t widely accepted—-the standard line has deep and ancient roots—-but as I’ve written elsewhere, in my view Peter isn’t presenting Jesus as a prophet like Moses but as “the Servant” God raised up. Jesus is the one of whom Moses and the prophets after him spoke. Through Christ, the blessing they promised is realized.

As for Hebrews 3:1-6, the author is emphatic Jesus is greater than Moses. To be sure, the faithfulness of Jesus is compared with the faithfulness of Moses, but his status and roles are fundamentally different. As the Son of the builder of the house, he’s identified with God rather than Moses.

“While many Christian interpreters see in Jesus a second Moses . . . the New Testament presents Jesus as Yahweh incarnate,” you write. “If there is a second Moses in the New Testament, that person is Paul.” Might this be a false dichotomy, though, since Jesus is both Yahweh incarnate and the one to whom the entire Old Testament ultimately and deliberately points?

It seems to me that by trying to establish typological connections, we may actually undermine the weightier message of OT texts. The Book of Joshua isn’t about Joshua as a type of Christ, but about YHWH (later incarnate in Christ) who, through the agency of Joshua, fulfills the ancient promise to deliver the land into the hands of the Israelites. I don’t deny Jesus performed verbal and nonverbal actions analogous to those of Moses or Joshua, or any other human figure. However, unlike Moses but like YHWH, Jesus is indeed the principal actor in our redemption. The following diagram illustrates my view of the relationship between YHWH and Jesus vis à vis Moses and Paul:

Identity of the Divine Redeemer YHWH Jesus
Interpreter of the great acts of redemption Moses Paul

Is TGC mistaken to devote an entire section of our website—-Preaching Christ in the Old Testament—-to equipping pastors and Bible teachers to more faithfully trace, in books like Deuteronomy, the growing theme of a coming Redeemer that blossoms into messianic expectation of the sort Jesus fulfills?

By no means is TGC mistaken in this, though several OT scholars I know have expressed surprise that your panel at last year’s national conference devoted to “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament” didn’t involve a single OT scholar. Are we really not interested in the subject or incapable of addressing such a gathering? We must indeed preach Christ from all the Scriptures, even as we recognize that a book like Deuteronomy, for example, has precious little to say about the coming Messiah.

Perhaps we need to distinguish between “Christological preaching” and a “Christological hermeneutic,” as if under the latter we expect to find Christ in every verse of the Bible. While it’s not difficult to identify overtly Messianic texts (Psalm 2; 110; Isaiah 53; Micah 5:1-5; etc.), technically the OT rarely speaks of ho Christos, the anointed Messiah. Unless we overload that expression beyond what it actually bears in the OT, I don’t find “the Messiah” on every page. Still, YHWH is everywhere, and when I preach YHWH, I’m preaching Jesus, Immanuel, the Redeemer of Israel incarnate in human flesh. When I read Exodus 34:6-7, I see a description of the One whom John characterizes as glorious, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Actually, we’d improve our hermeneutic if we interpreted the OT Christotelically rather than Christocentrically. While it’s hermeneutically irresponsible to say all OT texts have a Christocentric meaning or point to Christ, it’s true that all play a significant role in God’s great redemptive plan, which leads to and climaxes in Christ. This means that as a Christian interpreter my wrestling with an OT text must begin with trying to grasp the sense the original readers/hearers should have gotten, and authoritative preaching of that text depends on having grasped that intended sense.

However, my work as a Christian interpreter doesn’t end there. I must ask several additional questions:

  1. Where does this event or institution fit in the grand scheme of redemption, whose goal and climax are in Christ?
  2. What lexical and conceptual vocabulary does this text contribute to later interpretation of the mission and ministry of Christ?
  3. What view of God that we later find embodied in Christ is presented here?
  4. How was YHWH’s redemption and calling of Israel analogous to our redemption and his calling of us in Christ?