Lesson 6 of 6
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Bible in the World – Deuteronomy

“Love” or Love! Covenantal Faithfulness or Emotion? (Deuteronomy 6:5, 7:9, 10:12)

How much, or how little emotion humans should have in their faith in God is a perennial debate. Mystics have been emotionally and bodily overwhelmed by desire for God. In meditating on God’s presence, St. John of the Cross proclaimed, “This immensity is indescribable and because of it the soul is dying of love” (Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom, Stanza 7). On the other hand, theologians have warned about too much “enthusiasm” and instead counseled a fear and reverence, rather than emotional attachment to an “angry God” who is barely tolerating sinners. 

The command in Deuteronomy to love God has been interpreted many different ways. Probably the best way to think about love, as discussed in the passage of Deuteronomy 6 is to perform covenantal faithfulness (as in Exodus 20:6). A vassal “loves” a king by doing what the king asks him to do. 

But, covenantal faithfulness is nowhere close to the semantic limit of the Hebrew root ahav. God knows that Abraham loves his son Isaac, and will be resistant to sacrificing him (Genesis 22:2). Jacob served Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days because of how much Jacob loved her (Genesis 29:20). Leah longed to be loved by Jacob (Genesis 29:32). In the famous command of Leviticus 19:18 to love the neighbor as a person loves themselves (Jesus will say that this is the second most important commandment after Deuteronomy 6:5), one cannot speak of covenantal faithfulness to others, because there is no requirement of covenantal faithfulness to oneself. 

As with many arguments between differing interpretations, probably the best answer is to hold onto multiple ideas at once. In the commandments to love the LORD, covenantal love/faithfulness, mostly demonstrated through obedience, is certainly in view. However, we should also reflect on the many ways humans are to love God: with all our heart, soul and strength (Jesus will add “mind” Matthew 22:37). God’s desire for love probably goes beyond  just obeying commandments, and includes a personal affection and turning toward the object of love. 

So, as the Body of Christ, emotional “holy rollers” and cerebral “frozen chosen” can both teach and learn something about what it means to love God with our whole selves. 


A picture containing building, outdoor, sculpture

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Michelangelo’s “Moses” in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, in Rome. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Deuteronomy 4:12-19 (along with Exodus 20:4) are totalizing commandments, preventing the carving/forming of any image of any living thing. Further, humans are not to worship the images that they have created, but those seem like separate commandments in addition to the prohibition of producing figurative art. What are Christians to make of these commandments? 

Certainly, there has been a reluctance (but not total refusal) to make figurative art in many eras of Jewish history – aside from the instructions for making the tabernacle furniture. Islam has taken this instruction to heart in most, but again, not all, circumstances. Iconoclastic movements have sprung up within Christianity across its history. It seems that for the first couple hundred years of Christianity, especially before imperial toleration, but also for some time afterward, the creation of figurative art was discouraged by most of the church fathers and mothers. But for most of Christian history, the production of icons and religious statues has been common and widespread. 

Major periods of refuting the creation of images in Christianity occurred in the eighth to ninth century C.E. (the so-called “Iconoclasm Controversy”) in the Byzantine Empire, and then again in the 16th century among Protestant Reformers. Still, religious art, depicting humans and other living creatures, continues to flourish. 

Figurative art may certainly support faith practices. But art may also become a distraction, and an idol in its own right. The story of the Nehushtan is instructive here. After a corporate sin in the wilderness wanderings, God sent flaming serpents to attack recalcitrant Israelites (Numbers 21:6). God instructed Moses to build a bronze serpent, as a representative image of the plague upon the Israelites, in order that all who looked upon the serpent would be saved from death. Hundreds of years later, the Israelites had started to worship the bronze serpent (the Nehushtan) as an idol, so King Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4). That which was originally meant to turn the hearts of the people back to God and serve as a means of mercy from God was turned into an idol when the statue itself became an object of devotion. Jesus compared himself and his salvific work to the Nehushtan in John 3. But ironically, for much of church history, bronze or metallic figures of Jesus on crucifixes have become objects that are prayed toward, rather than the invisible God. The story of the Nehushtan is helpful in that it points to a permissibility that also is a slippery slope. Art can aid in devotion to God. Art can also inspire devotion to the object instead of God. As with many issues, careful reflection and examining of self is necessary, rather than blanket prohibitions.


Christians of many different sensibilities have differing thoughts about God’s continued activity in the world. Pentecostals look for signs and wonders as in days of old. Many Christians, especially in the majority world, engage in spiritual warfare similar to depictions in the New Testament. Other Christians expect fewer demonstrable outward signs, but still look for God’s Spirit moving inside of them to heal and promote spiritual maturity. These different understandings largely focus on the same question: Does God still act among people like God used to? 

Deuteronomy seeks to argue that, yes, God is still active. This appeal to God’s continuing actions was especially important when considering that some of the first groups to (re)receive a form of Deuteronomy were probably priests around Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 22:8), and then returning exiles from Babylon. The need to demonstrate that God was still active for these communities in perilous times was paramount. 

The language of Deuteronomy insists repeatedly that God performed the redemption from slavery in Egypt among the hearers (5:2-4; 6:10-25; 11:1-7; 29:14-21, 29). God said, back in Numbers 14:22-29 that all those who saw the miracles in Egypt, and yet refused to enter the land, would die in the wilderness, apparently all those over the age of 20 at the time. So, according to the internal chronology of Deuteronomy, 59-year-olds could definitely have recalled seeing signs and wonders in Egypt, but anyone from around 44 and younger did not see God’s actions, or remember them. So, how can God insist that the Israelites Moses addresses in Deuteronomy saw God’s actions, and made a covenant with them, not their parents (Deuteronomy 5:3)?

The point of Deuteronomy’s generation-bending is that God’s covenants and interactions with God’s people are omni-relevant. Each person in the covenant, of every generation, is to be regarded as if they fled Egypt and stood at Sinai. 

How might Christians helpfully apply this thinking to our own experiences without veering into supercessionism? St. Ignatius of Loyola suggested that Christians could contemplate the stories of Jesus in the gospels best by imaginatively inserting themselves into the stories. If we had been there to see the roof tiles removed and witness the man who was paralyzed lowered down by his friends into Jesus’ presence, what might we experience, learn and become through our intimacy with God’s actions and miracles? 

Most of the Israelites whom Moses was reported to talk with would have been, again, according to internal chronology, not present at Sinai. And yet, God treated them as if they were the main covenantal partners. Christians may bring new life and understanding to Scripture by taking on God’s perspective and seeing ourselves in the stories of old. 


Throughout its history, Christianity has had a mostly antagonistic relationship with other spiritual technologies. Wizardry, witchcraft, spell-casting, appeals to familiar spirits, and necromancy have been mostly off-limits for Christians. Why, and where does this prohibition come from? 

One of the central prohibitions of spiritualism comes from Deuteronomy 18:9-14. In it, child sacrifice, divination, soothsaying, omen-reading, sorcery, magic, spirit-contact, and necromancy are all prohibited. Crucially, Deuteronomy does not try to argue that these practices are ineffective or do not work, only that they are prohibited for followers of the one true God. Indeed, King Saul will hire a witch (more properly a necromancer) to enquire of the deceased prophet, Samuel, what he should do (1 Sameul 28). 

This prohibition on mixing faith in God with other spiritual technologies carried through the New Testament. In Acts 8:9-24, Peter condemned in strongest terms a Samaritan sorcerer who wished to pay Peter to add Holy Spirit baptism to his other practices. While Simon the Magician saw the Holy Spirit as only one of several contactable spirits, he had “neither part nor lot” in the Jesus movement. Later in Acts, Paul would free a woman who earned money for her enslaver by receiving oracles from a Python spirit (Acts 16:16-18). The work of the Holy Spirit was and is incompatible with other spirits.

In modern days, in a desire to decolonize predominantly Eurocentric forms of Christianity, some leaders seek to practice syncretism with other spiritual systems, including spiritual yoga, Santeria, alchemy, angelology, Trinidad Orisha, Spiritualism and Druidism, among many, many others. The position of Deuteronomy is that these are powerful spiritual practices, but incompatible with following the one God.   


Deuteronomy 6:4 (when prayed, 6:5-9; 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41 are added, in addition to other blessings), known as the Shema (from the first word, meaning “hear”) has been, among other things, the central organizing affirmation of Judaism for centuries. When asked what the greatest commandment was, in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus recited Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (adding “mind”) (Mark 12:29-30; cf. Matthew 22:34-40). 

For Christians, the Shema may be found in confirmation curricula, Christian home décor, and even tattoos. But how does an affirmation of God’s essential oneness fit with Trinitarian Christianity? The importance of the Shema for Christians is twofold. The first importance is to remind us that we follow One God, in three persons. The great debates at the ecumenical councils in early Christianity focused on how to understand Jesus as the co-divine Word and Son of God. The essential commitment of these councils was to preserve God’s unity, and not to give in to polytheism. Trinity can never mean “3” and must always mean “3-in-1.”

The second importance of the Shema for Christians is as a reminder of reciprocity of relationship with God. God moves with grace toward humans and accomplishes salvific work without help or contribution from humans. But that is not the end of the story. As a response to God’s grace, humans then respond with love. As discussed elsewhere in this section, that love should be understood as faithfulness to God, but also has connotations of genuine warmth and affection. It is not enough for Christians to be saved; we must also love the One doing the saving. 


Deuteronomy tolerates the institution of slavery but seeks to limit its practice and presence. Israelite slavery is limited to six years, at the maximum (Deuteronomy 15:12), and slave-holders are instructed to be empathetic to those whom they hold in bondage because of the national experience of slavery in Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (15:15). In fact, any ear that hears the proclamation of freedom at the end of six years and chooses against freedom was to be violently and publicly pierced (15:16-17). 

Further, capturing or kidnapping an Israelite with the intention of selling her or him into slavery was a capital offense (24:7). 

Finally, if any person escaped from slavery – the text does not limit this law to Israelites only, as elsewhere – then the people of God were to receive that person and provide for her or him a place to stay in their towns. The Israelites were prohibited from returning a formerly enslaved person to a condition of slavery (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

The Bible has been used and quoted by abolitionists and enslavers for centuries to justify each position. The spirit of the text here seems to want to limit slavery, at least among Israelites, and to reward and welcome every action of freedom and liberation.