The Message of Deuteronomy: Not By Bread Alone (Bible Speaks Today)

Written by Raymond Brown Reviewed By Paul A. Barker

Whenever I preach or lead a Bible study, I am as grateful for this series of commentaries as for any other. The strengths of this series have been its combination of careful scholarship with model exposition, faithfully relating God’s word to contemporary life. This new addition to the series continues in that tradition.

The riches of Deuteronomy are too little known in modern Christianity. It is a book of immense value and excitement. Raymond Brown captures that in this commentary. A brief introduction adequately orientates the reader to the book and its main issues and points of scholarly debate. Brown accepts ‘the reliability of the biblical claim concerning its Mosaic origin’ (p. 18). Throughout, critical issues are kept to a bare minimum.

The pattern of the book follows that of the series. Deuteronomy is treated in paragraphs rather than verse by verse. This strength generally helps the reader to grasp the flow of the book better. Having said that, I wonder whether more could have been made of the function of Deuteronomy 1–3. These chapters are what is often called the historical prologue to Deuteronomy. Brown’s comments on these chapters are throughout helpful and relevant. His comments about the morality and relevance of the instructions for war and destruction of other nations are particularly thoughtful (pp. 49–53). Yet it seems to me that the major thrust of these chapters sets the theological agenda for the rest of Deuteronomy, in particular commending the faithfulness of God to a faithless Israel. This sense of the overall direction of the book is not so clear here.

Brown’s discussion on the centralization of worship in Deuteronomy 12 (pp. 143–149) focuses on the real purpose of this law, namely its prohibition against syncretism and Baal worship. He does not raise any of the contested issues about the location of the central place and whether a sole sanctuary was in mind. One of the strengths of this book is its application for Christians. Where the NT reinforces the laws of Deuteronomy is made clear; so too where, in the light of the NT, things are changed. Brown models good hermeneutical methods which the reader will benefit from noticing. He recognizes the need to identify the theological principles underlying the explicit practice. These principles are then applied through the NT to modern practices. So from chapter 12, the central sanctuary for Christians is seen to be Jesus and the throne of God. For Christians, worship is personal and not geographical. The prohibition against Baal worship is also relevant in a modern pluralist society. The food laws of Deuteronomy 14 are interpreted through Mark 7 and Acts 10 where all foods are declared clean. Yet the principles of the food laws, namely health, avoidance of other religious practices and the difference of Israel from other peoples, are retained and reapplied. On the law dealing with a woman who intervenes in a fight between her husband and an attacker and who grasps the attacker’s private parts (25:11–12), Brown shows a vital key of biblical ethics, that the end never justifies the means (p. 246).

A hallmark of this commentary is the demonstration of the relevance of Deuteronomy for today. Deuteronomy is wide-ranging in its concerns and issues. At every step, Brown is careful to show the contemporary value of the book for forming Christian thinking and action. He combines a sound theological appreciation, an active social concern and a pastoral heart with his own experience as a teacher and pastor. This commentary continues and enhances the high standard of the series.

Paul A. Barker

Paul A. Barker
Malaysian Theological Seminary
Seremban, Malaysia