Tuesday 17 March 2009

J. Gary Millar on Deuteronomy

J. Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, New Studies in Biblical Theology 6 (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 216pp.

[The following book review was first published on London School of Theology’s website in July 1998.]

Another volume in the ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’ series, edited by D.A. Carson. The series attempts ‘do’ the crucial task of biblical theology, whether in discussing its relationship to other disciplines (e.g., systematic theology), or working out a theme across Scripture as a whole, or (as here) expounding the contribution of a particular book to the canon. This one takes an extended look at Deuteronomy and, apart from anything else, provides a good introduction to the literary and theological shape of the book.

After an introduction surveying the current state of research in Old Testament ethics, Millar deals with the ethics and theology of Deuteronomy in relation to five themes: covenant, journey, law, the nations, and human nature.

According to Millar Deuteronomy is not itself a treaty document, though it clearly draws on the covenant metaphor in speaking of Israel’s relationship to the Lord God. In particular, the book presents the covenant as a relationship with ethical consequences. The ‘journey’ motif in the framework of Deuteronomy (chs. 1-11 and 27-34) makes it clear that following the Lord means living obediently in changing circumstances. The laws in the middle of the book (chs. 12-26) are profoundly theological, related especially to worship, the land, and human relationships. And all of these are consequences of the great founding event of the nation – the Exodus.

‘The nation has been redeemed, and now belongs to God. As his unique people, they must submit to him in worship. He has redeemed them from Egypt to enjoy a relationship with him, and to do so in his land. In the light of his redemption, they cannot treat one another in a way which is incompatible with the way he has treated them.’

As well as calling the people of God to be different from the surrounding nations, Deuteronomy recognises that human beings are intrinsically flawed. Final hope is in the hands of the covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. Millar is thus not embarrassed to show how the various themes relate to the New Testament’s articulation of theology and ethics. On the question of law and grace, for instance, Deuteronomy is quite clear on the priority of God in initiating and sustaining the relationship with Israel; but it is equally clear on the place of the law in facilitating that relationship.

Perhaps most important of all, Deuteronomy provides not so much an ethical textbook, as a demonstration of ethics in operation. The theology of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai are picked up and applied to what lies ahead for the people of God in the land. Without denying the possibility of constructing an ‘Old Testament ethics’, Millar places a healthy emphasis on the dynamic in operation in Deuteronomy. Such ‘ethics’ result from applying theology to changing situations. The biblical text reflects the ongoing ethical challenge of engaging with basic questions which are fundamental to the existence of men and women, as individuals and in community, in our relationship with the Lord.

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