Sons to Yahweh your God!

This is the third in a series of studies of the Third Word, and especially of Deuteronomy 14.

In 1979 Stephen Kaufman penned a groundbreaking essay on Deuteronomy, arguing that it was a meticulously structured and carefully composed book. In his view, chapters 12 to 26 in particular follow the order of the Ten Words, expounding and applying those laws to ancient Israelite society.[i] The evangelical Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser and Reformed Old Testament scholar James Jordan both followed Kaufmann’s basic approach, though Kaiser follows Kaufmann’s outline almost exactly, while Jordan has revised it considerably. I am persuaded that Jordan’s analysis is superior, especially when it comes to understanding Deuteronomy 14:1-21. In this part of the essay, I attempt to explain why Deuteronomy 14:1-21 should be understood as a sermonic meditation on the Third Word.

Deuteronomy 13 in the Laws of Moses

Kaiser, following Kaufman, understands the laws of Deuteronomy 13 to be included under the Third Word, continuing the section to Deuteronomy 14:27. But he regards this pericope as especially difficult to analyze: “Deuteronomy 13:1 to 14:27 are expansions of the injunction not to take the name of the LORD God in vain. Of all the sections in Deuteronomy 12-25, this one is the most difficult to associate with the Decalogue. Kaufman’s rejoinder to this problem is to acknowledge that on the surface there is some validity to this complaint. But, he argues, instead of regarding Deuteronomic law as a direct commentary or sermon on each commandment in the Decalogue, the case presented here is that Deuteronomy contains ‘statutes’ and ‘judgments’ ‘designed to provide divine authority for the religious and social reforms it proclaims.’”[ii]

Kaufman’s attempted justification for beginning the laws applying the Third Word with chapter 13 is forced at best.[iii] Chapter 13 is evidently concerned with problems of pagan idolatry, the domain of the First and Second Words.[iv] Of course, in so far as idolatry constitutes blasphemy against Yahweh’s name, worshipping idols and tolerating idolatry would amount to a violation of the Third Word as well as the First and Second Words. But the laws of apostasy in chapter 13 obviously concentrate on idolatry as defined by the First and Second Words, setting forth three cases in which the people of Israel are tempted to worship other gods, calling for the death penalty for the seducer in each case.

Deuteronomy 13:2 (13:3 in Hebrew) refers to following other gods with an expression that would be literally translated “walk after other gods.” The exact Hebrew expression “walk after” is used four times in Genesis to describe someone following another person (Genesis 24:5, 8, 61; 32:19). The expression does not appear in Exodus or Leviticus. It occurs once in Numbers to refer to a person following another, as in Genesis (Numbers 16:25). But in Deuteronomy, where the expression occurs five times, it is used exclusively to refer to “walking after” other gods (Deuteronomy 4:3; 8:19; 11:28; 13:2; 28:14). Moreover, 13:2 is the fourth of those five occurrences, so the particular nuance of the expression has been established, especially since the first reference was to a recent incident in Israel’s history in which 24,000 people died of a plague because of “walking after” Baal of Peor (Deuteronomy 4:3).

There is also a similar expression “go and serve” — literally “walk and serve” — which is never used in the Pentateuch before Deuteronomy and only used in Deuteronomy four times — twice in chapter 13 in reference to idolatry (13:6, 13), and twice later in Deuteronomy (17:3; 29:26) clearly referring to idolatry. Outside of Deuteronomy, this expression is used in Deuteronomy-influenced historical books three times, always with reference to idolatry (Joshua 23:16; 1 Kings 9:6; 16:31) and one other time in Chronicles with reference to idolatry (2 Chronicles 7:19).

The language in Deuteronomy 13, therefore, points distinctly to the problem of idolatrous worship. If Moses is treating the Ten Words in order, it seems patently obvious that chapter 13 is part of his sermonic application of the First and Second Words.

The two expressions discussed above belong to the technical language of idolatry in the book of Deuteronomy, but the most obvious expression referring to idolatry in Deuteronomy 13 is “other gods.” The very first time this expression occurs in Scripture is in Exodus 20:3, in the First Word: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Altogether there are 63 verses in the Old Testament that refer to “other gods,” with almost one third of them appearing in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 5:7; 6:14; 7:4; 8:19; 11:16, 28; 13:2, 6, 13; 17:3; 18:20; 28:14, 36, 64; 29:26; 30:17; 31:18, 20). The distribution of this expression is also remarkable. The first instance in Deuteronomy is in the First Word (5:7), which is expressed in language identical with Exodus. It occurs five more times in the section of Deuteronomy that is indisputably concerned with the First and Second Words (6:14; 7:4; 8:19; 11:16, 28). When the expression “other gods” appears in chapter 13, where it is used three times (13:2, 6, 13), it has already been quite certainly established as First and Second Word language.[v]

It seems fair to conclude, therefore, that Deuteronomy 13 is not a Third Word passage, but rather part of the application of the first two commands. I argue, following Jordan’s analysis, that it is not until Deuteronomy chapter 14 that Moses turns to the Third Word.

Deuteronomy 14:1-2

Should we regard Deuteronomy 14:1 as the beginning of a new section? Part of the answer to that question is to be found in the way Deuteronomy 13 concludes. The final verse of Deuteronomy 13 closes the instruction about being seduced to worship false gods in language that appears elsewhere in Deuteronomy either in introductions or conclusions to a pericope: “hearken to the voice of Yahweh.”[vi] In this case, it is clearly the conclusion to chapter 13, not the introduction to a new section.

The first words of Deuteronomy 14 confirm the view that the last words of Deuteronomy 13 are a conclusion to a pericope, for Deuteronomy 14 begins abruptly with an extraordinary expression. Its exact wording is unprecedented and never repeated verbatim in all the rest of the Old Testament: “Sons you [are] to Yahweh your God!”

The unexpected declaration provokes questions: Why all of a sudden this unusual language, referring to individual Israelites as sons of Yahweh? Why such a brief and startling transition? The simplest answer to these and similar questions is that Moses uses an unusual expression to signal the introduction to new section. The immediate shift of language breaks off the application of the First and Second Words, alerting the reader to the fact that a new topic will follow. That this proposed answer is correct is confirmed in three ways — by the literary allusions in the first two verses, the content of the section as a whole, and the inclusio in verses 1-2 and verse 21.

Before we investigate this threefold confirmation, we need to consider briefly the first words of Deuteronomy 14:1. Though the exact language of 14:1 does not appear anywhere else in Scripture, there are close expressions (Deuteronomy 32:5, 19-20) and one passage in particular that Moses seems to be alluding to: “And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith Yahweh, Israel is my son, my first-born: and I have said unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and thou hast refused to let him go: behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born” (Exodus 4:22-23).

While Exodus 4:22-23 refers to the nation in the singular as Yahweh’s son, Deuteronomy 14:1 refers to the individual Israelites as Yahweh’s sons. However, the importance of the declaration in Exodus 4:22-23 and its prominent place in the story of Israel’s redemption are such that it is hard to imagine Moses is not intentionally pointing back to the famous declaration calling for Pharaoh to release Yahweh’s firstborn son. Also, shifting from singular to plural is a common phenomenon in the Hebrew Bible, appearing in 14:1-2 as well (note the shift from the plural “ye” in verse 1 to the singular “thou” in verse 2, and from the plural “Yahweh your God” in verse 1 to “Yahweh thy God” in verse 2). In Deuteronomy, for example, both the expressions “Yahweh thy God”[vii] and “Yahweh your God”[viii] appear frequently and Moses shifts from singular to plural in the same context without obvious reasons for doing so.[ix] Though the emphasis changes, it seems likely that references in the singular and plural to Israel as God’s son are related and should be seen as teaching a single truth that God is the Father to His people.

In Deuteronomy 14:1, what would the significance be of a reference to the people of Israel as Yahweh’s sons?[x] Again, the simplest and most obvious idea would seem to be the best explanation. The declaration that the people of Israel are the sons of Yahweh says in no uncertain terms that they are His special people, different from all other peoples in the world. Or, to put it in other language, in calling them His sons, Yahweh identifies Himself with the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 28:9-10 seems to confirm this reasoning by alluding back to the theme of a “holy people” which appears repeatedly in Deuteronomy, including 14:1-2,[xi] and affirming that the nation shall be called by the name of Yahweh. In other words, in 14:1-2, the “holy people” are the sons of Yahweh, which 28:9-10 translates into the people “called by the name of Yahweh”: “Yahweh will establish thee for a holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee; if thou shalt keep the commandments of Yahweh thy God, and walk in his ways. And all the peoples of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of Yahweh; and they shall be afraid of thee” (Deuteronomy 28:9-10).

The nation of Israel is called by the name of Yahweh because they are His sons. His name is in them. These allusions suggest clearly that the abrupt declaration in 14:1 that the Israelites are the sons of Yahweh serves as an introduction to the Third Word. No other explanation for this remarkable proclamation at this particular place in Deuteronomy fits so well with the context. Furthermore, the idea that we have an introduction to a new section here is borne out, as I said above, by the inclusio in verses 1-21, the literary allusions in the first three verses, and the distinct content of the section, especially as compared with what follows.

First, consider the inclusio. Beginning and ending a portion of Scripture with the same or similar language is a frequently occurring literary device, defining the boundaries of a particular literary discourse. That Moses in Deuteronomy should uses such a device is no surprise. In the words of Jack R. Lundbum, “The book of Deuteronomy is widely acknowledged to be the rhetorical book of the Hebrew Bible.”[xii] Recognizing structural devices like chiasmus and inclusio are essential to an analysis of its literary composition. In the case of Deuteronomy 14:1-21, at one level the inclusio is patently clear:

“For you are a holy people to the Yahweh your God” (14:2).

“. . . for you are a holy people to Yahweh your God” (14:21).

The inclusio may also include the reference to the dead in verse 1 and animals which die of themselves in verse 21, as well as a possible connection between the Israelites being the sons of Yahweh (14:1) and being forbidden to boil a child/young goat in its mother’s milk (14:21). If the two less clear cases are also intended as literary markers, the case for 14:1-21 as a literary unit is even more apparent.

Second, consider the literary allusions in the first three verses and their relationship to the content that follows in verses 4 to 21. I will argue for the allusions more fully in the next section of this essay. For now, I will simply point them out. There are allusions to two of the Bible’s greatest stories, as well as to laws in Deuteronomy about being separate from the nations and laws in Leviticus about priesthood and food. The abundance of literary allusions in the compact space of a few verses connecting a clearly distinguished pericope with other stories and laws characterizes these verses as an introduction to the pericope as a whole. By introducing the Third Word with such a rich web of allusions, Moses alerts his readers that he is taking up a new commandment and that he expects the reader to consider the commandment in the light of the other passages he alludes to.

Third, the content of Deuteronomy 14:1-21 is distinct both from what precedes and from what follows. In contrast with 12-13, there is no more mention of idolatry, though there is allusion to the idolatrous nations. Immediately after 14:1-21, Fourth Word concerns appear when Deuteronomy 14:22 — again abruptly changing the subject — offers a command about tithing which is continued with instruction about festivals (14:23 ff.). Thus, beginning in Deuteronomy 14:22, Moses is unquestionably applying the Fourth Word.


I believe I have presented adequate evidence for taking Deuteronomy 14:1-21 as a distinct unit. Since it follows a unit that treats the First and Second Words and is itself followed by a unit that treats the Fourth Word, it is not difficult to conclude that it must be concerned with the Third Word, even though the content of this section may not seem to bear an obvious relationship to the Third Word. The introduction to the laws in Deuteronomy 14:1-21 suggest the same, since it claims that the children of Israel are the sons of Yahweh. Among other things, that would mean that they bear His name, as Deuteronomy 28:10 explicitly states.

There is one other matter to be mentioned. Jordan takes the final expression in Deuteronomy 14:21 to be the introduction to the Fourth Word. The identical command in Hebrew appears two other times in the laws of Moses, both times in the book of Exodus and both times in connection with bringing offerings to Yahweh:[xiii]

The first of the first-fruits of thy ground thou shalt bring into the house of Yahweh thy God. Thou shalt not boil a kid in it mother’s milk. (Exodus 23:19)

The first of the first-fruits of thy ground thou shalt bring unto the house of Yahweh thy God. Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (Exodus 34:26)

These two references seem to connect the command forbidding boiling a kid in its mother’s milk with Fourth Word concerns about offering and rest in the land. Since the language in Deuteronomy 14:21c is identical to the two previous passages, it would appear to be an introduction to the Fourth Word in language that is almost a code.

I believe that Jordan is correct that it is an introduction to the next section, but it may also be a conclusion to the Third Word as well. In other words, the command about boiling the kid in its mother’s milk may function as a hinge or hook, connecting both with 14:1 — where the Israelites are said to be the sons of Yahweh — as an inclusio, and also with verses 22 ff. as an introduction to the section on the Fourth Word. As such, this seemingly odd command, which is repeated three times in the law of Moses, would be both a striking conclusion to the food laws and a transition to the concerns of the Fourth Word which immediately follow. Its place here in Deuteronomy further confirms Jordan’s analysis of Deuteronomy 14:1-21 as a Third Word section.

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

[i] Stephen A. Kaufman, ‘The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law,’ Maarav 1 (1979) 105–58.

[ii] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983) 132.

[iii] See Kaiser, Old Testament Ethic, 132-33. I do not think it is worth reproducing the argument in detail here. Suffice it to say that I agree with Kaufman that there are allusions to First and Second Word passages in 14:1-21, but the point of those allusions is not to identify which commandment is being treated, but to define Third Word obedience as making Israel distinct among nations which practice idolatry. For Israel to bear the name of Yahweh, they must not be like the nations around them. Chapter 13, on the other hand, is clearly devoted to First and Second Word issues.

[iv] It seems to me that in Deuteronomy 6-13, there is no strong division between the first two commandments. Jordan understands 6-11 to be application of the First Word and 12-13 to be application of the Second Word. I believe his analysis is basically correct, but it also seems to me that the two commandments overlap in so far as the idolatry being forbidden in 12-13 is the worship of other gods. The distinction between the First and Second Words is seen more clearly in the positive thrust of the teaching in 6-11 and 12-13. The First Word section (6-11) is especially concerned with loving and trusting Yahweh. The Second Word section (12-13) is about worshipping Yahweh at the place He choses.

[v] It is also noteworthy that the expression “other gods” does not appear in any of the other laws except 17:3 and 18:20, both passages belonging to the application of the Fifth Word, significant because Deuteronomy constantly portrays Yahweh as Israel’s Father. Otherwise, references to “other gods” appear in the last sections of Deuteronomy where Moses pronounces blessings and curses and warns the Israelites about their future. Within the exposition of the Ten Words in chapters 6-26, references to “other gods” are almost exclusively confined to chapters 6-13.

[vi] The expression “hearken to the voice of Yahweh” occurs only 29 times in the entire Old Testament, 11 times in the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 13:18; 15:5; 26:14; 27:10; 28:1–2, 15, 45, 62; 30:8, 10). In Deuteronomy 27:10, the phrase is part of a conclusion to a section, as it is in Deuteronomy 13:18. In chapter 28 the phrase appears five times, twice in the introduction to the blessings (28:1-2) and three times in the section on the curses — at the beginning (28:15), near the middle (28:45), and near the end (28:62). In chapter 30:8, 10, the phrase again appears in a conclusion.

[vii] “Yahweh thy God” is much more common (Deuteronomy 1:21, 31; 2:7, 30; 4:3, 10, 19, 21, 23–25, 29–31, 40; 5:6, 9, 11–12, 14–16; 6:2, 5, 10, 13, 15; 7:1–2, 6, 9, 12, 16, 18–23, 25; 8:2, 5–7, 10–11, 14, 18–19; 9:3–7; 10:9, 12, 14, 20, 22–11:1; 11:12, 29; 12:7, 9, 15, 18, 20–21, 27–29, 31; 13:5, 10, 12, 16, 18; 14:2, 21, 23–26, 29; 15:4–7, 10, 14–15, 18–21; 16:1–2, 5–8, 10–11, 15–18, 20–17:2; 17:8, 12, 14–15; 18:5, 9, 12–16; 19:1–3, 8–10, 14; 20:1, 13–14, 16–17; 21:1, 5, 10, 23; 22:5; 23:5, 14, 18, 20–21, 23; 24:4, 9, 13, 18–19; 25:15–16, 19–26:5; 26:10–11, 13, 16, 19; 27:2–3, 5–7, 9–10; 28:1–2, 8–9, 13, 15, 45, 47, 52–53, 58, 62; 29:12; 30:1–7, 9–10, 16, 20; 31:3, 6, 11).

[viii] “Yahweh your God” with the plural for “you” occurs less often (Deuteronomy 1:10, 26, 30, 32; 3:18, 20–22; 4:2, 4, 23, 34; 5:32–6:1; 6:16–17; 8:20; 9:16, 23; 10:17; 11:2, 13, 22, 25, 27–28, 31; 12:4–5, 7, 10–12; 13:3–5; 14:1; 20:4, 18; 29:6, 10; 31:12–13, 26).

[ix] Note the shift back and forth in Deuteronomy chapter 1, for example. 1:10, “your God;” 1:21, “thy God;” 1:26, “your God;” 1:30, “your God;” 1:31, “thy God;” 1:32, “your God.”

[x] Driver’s comment is noteworthy: “[Sons are ye to Jehovah your God] what is affirmed in Ex. 4:22f. (JE) of Israel as a nation (‘Israel is my son, my firstborn’) is here transferred to the individual Israelites: they are Jehovah’s children; and while on the one hand they are the objects of His paternal care and regard (1:31 8:5), they owe to Him on the other hand filial love and obedience, they should conform their character to His, and do nothing that is unworthy of the close and intimate relation in which they stand towards Him.”

[xi] The Hebrew expression occurs only 7 times in the Old Testament, five of which are in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9; Hosea 11:12; Daniel 8:24).

[xii] “Inclusio and other Framing Devices in Deuteronomy I-XXVIII,” Vetus Testamentum, 46 (1996) 296-315.

[xiii] The Hebrew of the two verses in Exodus is identical, but for some reason the LXX translates them differently.