Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 – The Law as the Source of Israel’s Life and Wisdom


Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9


Moses urges the people to observe God’s commandments as the condition for inheriting the Promised Land.


The opening verses of chapter 4 will govern the narrative portions of Deuteronomy as well as the following books of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-Kings). Briefly stated, there are two aspects to this seminal speech: God’s promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham is about to be fulfilled; and Israel’s occupation of the land is dependent upon their obedience. The juxtaposition of God’s free gift of the land and the conditional nature of Israel’s continuing occupation will push and pull at each other throughout the historical books. The tension should not be relieved.

Several terms of importance for the rest of Deuteronomy appear in this seminal passage as well. Among these are four terms for the law. While the following differentiations are important and useful, it should be remembered that Deuteronomy itself uses these terms, and others, somewhat interchangeably:

  • “Statute” (hoq) is a necessary law, probably best understood as a binding custom. The root from which this word comes is technically something inscribed or chiseled into stone. Statutes often establish death penalties and include curses uttered against the wicked. Together with the “commandments” (see below), they are designated “apodictic law” or absolute pronouncements. Symbolically speaking, the permanency of the law may be inferred.
  • “Ordinance” (mishpat, vv. 1, 8) is the decision rendered by a judge (shofet) in regard to a dispute. Such decisions were remembered and eventually gathered into a body of law that effectively set precedent for similar cases. Legal codes, such as that found in the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33), probably originated in this way. Often designated “casuistic” or case law, these laws frequently begin by stating a case (“If…”) and then prescribe the decision required (“then…”). They have close parallels with the law codes of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, and Assyrians.
  • “Law”–Torah, (v. 8) is usually translated as “law.” This is appropriate, though “teaching,” “instruction,” even “revelation” captures the nuance of this pervasive Old Testament term that expresses the moral and social teaching of God’s revelation to the covenant people. In Deuteronomy, torah often signifies the body of legislation known as the Deuteronomic Code found in chapters 12-26 (4:8; 30:10; 32:46), thus pointing to its character as “law.” After Deuteronomy, the entire Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) with its law codes and the story of God’s dealings with Israel came to be called “The Torah,” thus pointing to its character as “teaching” or “revelation.”
  • “Commandment” (mitzvah; not used in this passage) is self-explanatory and refers to a negative or positive command, usually stated in the second person singular (“you”), with no specific penalty prescribed. Together with the “statutes” (see above), they comprise the “apodictic law” of absolute pronouncements.

The promise of “life” is also a key concept in Deuteronomy (for example, 5:29, 33; 6:24; 30:19-20; 32:47). This is to be distinguished from a number of related concepts:

  • “Eternal life” is a New Testament concept. The “life” envisioned in Deuteronomy is “length of days,” that is, a long lifetime.
  • But simple longevity is also not in view. Life lived in relationship with God–a meaningful, purposeful existence–is closer to the mark.
  • “Mere existence” is too bland an understanding of life.
  • “Death” is its polar opposite. Life is to be chosen over both the last two in Deuteronomy (30:6, 15, 19, 20).

NRSV’s rendering of yarash as “occupy” in 4:1 and throughout Deuteronomy is unfortunate. Other translations suggest “take possession,” but the more literal reading, “inherit” the land, is to be preferred, since the Deuteronomic tradition considers both the land and Israel to be “the inheritance (nahalah) of the Lord.” Israel “occupies” the land of Canaan by “driving out” the Canaanites; but since it is God’s people (Israel) who inherit God’s land when God causes the Canaanites to “hand over the inheritance” (dispossess), the nature of the land as gift is stressed.