DeuteronomyWritten by Daniel I. Block Reviewed By Paul A. Barker
William Tyndale wrote that Deuteronomy is ‘a book worthy to be read in day and night and never to be out of hands. For it is the most excellent of all the books of Moses. It is easy also and light and a very pure gospel that is, to wete [wit], a preaching of faith and love: deducing the love to God out of faith, and the love of a man’s neighbour out of the love of God’. Daniel Block’s superb commentary echoes such an assessment. He calls Deuteronomy ‘the gospel according to Moses’ (also the title of a collection of Block’s essays on Deuteronomy) and suggests that Deuteronomy is Jesus’ favourite book.
This understanding of Deuteronomy, and the OT in general, is key to this commentary and a welcome corrective to the all-too-common view that OT theology is based on law in contrast to the grace theology of the NT. Block appeals several times to John 1:16–17 arguing that the contrast in these verses is not between law (OT) and grace (NT) but between ‘mediated grace’ through Moses and ‘embodied grace’ in Jesus Christ (e.g., p. 57). While his interpretation of John 1:16–17 is all too brief, Block rightly (in this reviewer’s opinion) seeks to recapture Deuteronomy and its law for the Christian. He disputes the view that many OT laws have no binding authority for Christians, appealing to Jesus’ words about fulfilling the law in Matt 5:17 (p. 588). Block follows Calvin rather than Luther on the uses of the law, arguing that Deuteronomy knows only the so-called third use of the law, namely, ‘to offer believers a guide for life in conformity with the will of God’ (p. 201). I wonder if Block is too dismissive of the first use of the law, to convict of sin, in, say, Deut 27, though it is true the law does not ultimately condemn, and it is true that the function of law in Deuteronomy is overwhelmingly positive. He reads OT law in a principlizing way: the Ten Commandments are described as ‘the principles of covenant relationship’ (p. 159). The principles expressed in the law largely still apply for Christians, though they are sometimes modified in the light of the Christ (e.g., Christians are to ‘understand the permanent values reflected here and find contemporary ways of applying those values’ [p. 532]).
This reading of Deuteronomy also reflects one of the great strengths of this commentary. Unashamedly Christian, Block consistently shows the trajectory of the texts through the OT and into the NT. In the format of the NIVAC series, this is the role of the middle part of each section of the commentary called ‘Bridging Contexts.’ Here Block shows masterful biblical theology based on an overarching unity of the Bible. These sections will save preachers and readers from poor interpretations of Deuteronomy.
The first part of each section, ‘Original Meaning’, summarises Block’s exegetical analysis of the text. He admits that much of his exegetical work is not included in the commentary (Block had to edit this commentary down from over 1,200 pages), so at times I wished he had given more detail in support of his conclusions. For example, while agreeing with Block’s conclusion, discussion of the notorious passage in Deut 32:8–9 could have been expanded to make clearer the debate over interpretation of these verses. The advantage for the reader, however, is that you do not get bogged down in exegetical detail and scholarly opinions. Block only rarely mentions a scholar’s name in the main text of the commentary, so his commentary comes across as lucid, fresh, and succinct. Sufficient footnotes refer to scholarly articles but do not usually rehearse the arguments.
The third part of each section, ‘Contemporary Significance’, provides relevant and helpful suggestions for the application of Deuteronomy. No doubt preachers will find these sections of great benefit. The extended discussion on warfare, for example, is very helpful (pp. 481–86), though some might quibble with the application of the Sabbath to Sundays (pp. 172–74). One caution is that the contemporary significance is overtly American, referring to contemporary issues in American society (e.g., Bernie Madoff [p. 553]). The commentary may feel dated before long. Readers in the developing world will need to be careful in drawing out contemporary significance appropriate for their own contexts.
In the past I have found this series to be wordy, with repetition between the three sections. I expected the same here in a commentary of 880 pages. To my delight, this is never the case. In fact, I frequently wanted more, especially in the first section, ‘Original Meaning’. Block’s style is succinct and easy to read, his argument clear and to the point, and the distinctions between the sections consistent and helpful.
While Block’s Christian reading is a strength, it can also be a weakness. One of the features of his commentary is his frequency of calling Moses a pastor rather than a legislator. While this terminology helpfully aims to capture the sermonic style and rhetorical function of the book, perhaps it is a little anachronistic to imply that Moses’ role is that of pastor-teacher in Eph 4:11 (p. 117). Perhaps also that emphasis seems to sideline Deuteronomy’s own acknowledgement of Moses as prophet. While Block’s demonstration of a grace theology in Deuteronomy is right, his distinctions of ‘affectionate grace’, ‘electing grace’, ‘saving grace’ and ‘redemptive grace’ appear artificial and overly systematized (p. 210). One lovely feature is Block’s Christian adaptation of some parts of Deuteronomy, such as 4:32–40 (pp. 148–49) and 6:20–25 (p. 202).
Block’s analysis of structure in texts is straightforward, sensible, and practical (though I was unconvinced occasionally, such as breaking ch. 28 at verses 19–20 and not 14–15). There are no lengthy, complex chiastic structures or complicated panels to confuse readers. Preachers will find great help here in breaking down the text in a straightforward way that will surely aid sermon structures.
In a very brief section Block summarises a few points regarding the dating of the book, concluding that in addition to the speeches of Moses which reliably originate from him, the rest of the book most likely was produced between the time of Joshua and Elijah (p. 31). Overall Block reads the book synchronically with only minor comments on editorial matters (e.g., p. 646 on chapter 28 originally following chapter 26; p. 786 on the later insertion of chapter 33).
I spotted only a few typographical errors (18:1 should be 28:1 on p. 152n1; minor typos on pp. 244, 568, 603, 632, 741; a wrongly-formatted heading, p. 730; a missing section heading, p. 310).
In conclusion, this is a wonderful commentary that is written deftly with passion and feeling. Knowledge of Hebrew is not required. For details on exegesis, some readers may need to look elsewhere. For preachers and readers of Deuteronomy in general, this commentary is outstanding. The glorious gospel according to Moses shines brightly, expounded by one who is an experienced scholar with a strong pastor-teacher’s heart. I have no hesitation in recommending this commentary.
Paul A. Barker
Paul A. Barker
Malaysian Theological Seminary
Other Articles in this Issue
As Jonathan Edwards’s reputation for defending moderate New Light revivalism grew in the 1740s, others increasingly sought him to preside over the ordination of ministers in nearby churches...