Deuteronomy as Narrative-Law

This series of essays will address the food laws in Deuteronomy 14:1-21. To some, this may seem like a work of supererogation. After all, why should a Christian be interested in outdated “laws” from the book of Deuteronomy? I hope to show that meditation on this portion of Scripture is profoundly edifying, both for its own teaching and for the help it offers in understanding the law of Moses as a whole.

By way of introduction, I need to say a word about the word “Torah.” Or, rather, I need to let Gordon Wenham say a word: “The English term ‘law’ covers a much narrower range of literature than the Hebrew term torah, or the Greek nomos, which are conventionally translated ‘law.’ Hebrew torah would be better translated ‘instruction’, and the torah comprises the whole of the Pentateuch, Genesis to Deuteronomy, despite the fact that these books contain a fair amount of narrative. Psalm 1:2, inviting the reader to meditate on the torah day and night, seems to envisage the book of Psalms as well as the Pentateuch being the torah.”[i]

Perhaps David saw the Psalms also as included in Torah. However that may be, it is certain that Torah included the whole of the Pentateuch, a considerably large portion of which is not at all what modern Christians would regard as “law.” What I argue here is that the commandments and statutes given to Israel are given in the context of the story, as the many allusions to the covenant narrative make clear. Meditation on the Torah, therefore, also means considering the relationship between the narrative and the commandments.

As our study of Deuteronomy 14:1-21 will make clear, there is a fundamental narrative thread in the Torah — the story of the gift of the covenant. This is the story of Yahweh as Father redeeming His son, Israel, as part of Yahweh the Creator’s project of redeeming His world. The Father/son relationship of love and grace is the basic framework for the whole of the Pentateuch and therefore for the whole Old Testament. There is nothing in the Torah that smacks of “law” in the way most modern Christians think of “law” in contrast with grace. Loving Fatherly instruction in righteousness and wisdom included commandments and rules for life in the land, but obedience to Yahweh’s ordinances was never put in the context of a merit system. Yahweh loved His son and called for His son to respond to His love with love. Of course, as the Creator of the world, Yahweh “imposes” His love on His son, Israel. Israel does not really have the choice to say yes or no to Yahweh’s gift.

As the story of the fall and its consequences shows, however, when men reject the love of God, they reject all love and create for themselves a world of bondage and oppression, a world dominated by fear, hatred, and revenge. Cain, Lamech and others who rejected God’s love and grace made a choice that was murderous and oppressive precisely because it was self-destructive. They ruined themselves spiritually and psychologically by turning away from their Creator and His love. As a result, they marred all around them. Thus, Israel did not have a choice between Yahweh’s love and some other love, for apart from the Creator, there is no other. Israel had a choice between the way of Abel and the way of Cain.

The story of creation and fall, the story of the flood, the story of Babel, and especially the stories of the Patriarchs and the Exodus underlie the instruction in Deuteronomy, which constantly alludes to the covenant narrative. To repeat, then, I will argue that through abundant allusions, the food-law passage in Deuteronomy 14:1-21 gives commandments in the context of a covenant story about Yahweh’s love for His son Israel.

Not only is the narrative flow of the books of Genesis through Numbers essential to our understanding of Deuteronomy, we must remember that the book of Deuteronomy itself is a sort of narrative as well. We may think of it as a book of laws, but in itself it constitutes a kind of story, as its very first verse shows: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Dizahab. (Deuteronomy 1:1)

Just as Jacob gathered his sons around him to speak a final word of blessing to them (Genesis 49), Moses gathers the people of Israel so that he can offer them his last words of instruction and blessing. In other words, within the context of the larger stories of the Creator’s love for mankind and Yahweh’s love for His chosen son, Israel, we also have the story of Moses’ love for the people of Israel. Deuteronomy is his last gift to the people he sacrificed his life for.

Within Deuteronomy also, there are many stories connected to the instruction. Moses retells stories of events that were already recorded in different words with different nuance or emphasis. Perhaps most prominently, the story of the gift of the Ten Commandments, or, more properly, the Ten Words repeats the basic emphasis, though the narrative itself is different.

Consider: beyond the allusion to the Exodus story in the preface (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6), both Exodus and Deuteronomy provide a specific narrative context for the giving of the commands. In the book of Exodus, the most immediate context is provided by the story of the Israelites arriving at Sinai in Exodus 19. The narrative is continued in Exodus 20:18-21, before the detailed laws are given in Exodus 20:22-23:33, and then is completed in Exodus 24. The structure of the story of the gift of the Ten Words in Exodus shows that the law is grounded in the covenant narrative.[ii]

A. Narrative: The Covenant Offered (Exodus 19:3-25)

B. Laws (general): The Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17)

C. Narrative: The people’s fear (Exodus 20:18-21)

B.’ Laws (specific): The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22-23:33)

A.’ Narrative: The Covenant Accepted (Exodus 24:1-11)

In Deuteronomy, the Ten Words are introduced by a narrative reminding the children of Israel of Horeb and their fear of the great fire and mountain (5:2-5). Then, after the giving of the commandments, Moses recounts the fear of the children of Israel at the mountain (5:22-33), essentially the same story as recorded in Exodus 20:18-26, but with modifications and additions. In both cases, there is emphasis on the Israelites fear of Yahweh. In Deuteronomy, Yahweh even expresses His wish that they would truly fear Him (Deuteronomy 5:28-29).

A. Narrative: Introduction to the Ten Words (5:1-5) (people’s fear, vs. 5)

B. Law: the Ten Words (5:6-21)

A.’ Narrative: Conclusion to the Ten Words (5:22-33) (people’s fear, vs. 24-29)

Finally, as I emphasized previously, the Ten Words — which expresses the heart of all of Israel’s laws — can only be understood in the light of the whole covenant story, beginning with Genesis 1:1. The most superficial reading of the Second Word makes this clear, though, of course, creation is relevant for all ten. In Exodus, the Fourth Word specifically alludes to the creation story, which is the source of the whole idea of Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). Obviously, too, no explanation of the Sixth Word would be adequate if it neglected the story of creation. It is because man is God’s image that his life is sacred. Without taking the time to discuss each one, suffice it to say that the rest of the Ten Words rest equally on the creation story. The conclusion of the matter is that in the Bible there is a world-story that puts Deuteronomy in the context of creation by a personal God who loves the world He created and His image, mankind. Torah is an expression of His character and a revelation of His name no less than instruction in His will.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.



[i] Gordon Wenham, “Law in the Old Testament” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies, ed. by J. W. Rogerson and Judith M. Lieu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 351.

[ii] The simple outline above is from Joe M. Sprinkle in Biblical Law and its Relevance: A Christian Understanding and Ethical Application for Today of the Mosaic Regulations (Landham, MD: University Press of America, 2006) 57.