Reading Deuteronomy as a Catholic

Deuteronomy is not usually included in a list of the best books in the Bible. It is a second retelling of the Mosaic Law. Most of the teachings no longer seem relevant to Christians. So why as a Catholic did I decide to read Deuteronomy?

Last week, I suddenly got the urge to revisit the Torah (a.k.a. the first five books of the Old Testament). I have always been interested in Jewish history. But even I find the Law hard to read. God commands fathers to stone wayward children, forbids Israel from sparing anyone in the lands it conquers, and seems to have a complicated relationship with pork (unclean in the OT but permitted in the NT). So why did I suddenly decide to read Deuteronomy? Why should any of us revisit the Law and the Prophets?

As you may know, I am interested in late medieval religious literature. Late medieval Catholicism doesn’t have a great reputation. Heretics were executed, popes went to war, and bishops lived in palaces. But the Catholic Church always exists in an ever-changing world. Negotiating with this world is both challenging and necessary. If Pope Innocent III found a way to justify the eradication of the Albigensians without undermining “just war” Thomas Aquinas engaged with contemporary scholarship and found a way to communicate an ancient faith to a 13th century world. In both cases, negotiations and compromises were made. Some were good, and some were well…

The Catholic Church, on pilgrimage to the City of God, exists in the City of Man. Catholics, like Jews, have had to wrestle with the laws of their surrounding cultures.

A tribal nation like Israel cannot survive without waging war with surrounding nations. Some of the laws are no longer applicable even for Jews (at least, not literally). They also tend to be quite specific. The laws were given, after all, to Jews living in a particular socio-historical context. When God commands “eye for an eye” He condemns “head for an eye”. When God commands the Israelites to attempt peace with surrounding nations before going to war with them, God condemns war for the sake of war. Once I considered the historical context of Deuteronomy I felt more comfortable reading the Law. I was impressed by God’s justice toward widows, orphans, and strangers. Throughout history the Jewish people have had to adapt their interpretations of the Law to address contemporary concerns. Catholics have had to do the same.

Finally, reading Deuteronomy has me a greater appreciation for Christ’s teachings. I noticed how Jesus adapted certain laws to address the Jews of his day. Here is an example from Deuteronomy 20.

When you go out to war against your enemies and you see horses and chariots and an army greater than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD, your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, will be with you. When you are drawing near to battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the army, and say to them, “Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies. Do not be weakhearted or afraid, alarmed or frightened by them. For it is the LORD, your God, who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies and give you victory.”Then the officials shall speak to the army: “Is there anyone who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard and not yet plucked its fruit? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another pluck its fruit. Is there anyone who has betrothed a woman and not yet married her? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.” The officials shall continue to speak to the army: “Is there anyone who is afraid and weakhearted? Let him return home, or else he might make the hearts of his fellows melt as his does.” When the officials have finished speaking to the army, military commanders shall be appointed over them.
When you draw near a city to attack it, offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to your terms of peace and lets you in, all the people to be found in it shall serve you in forced labor. But if it refuses to make peace with you and instead joins battle with you, lay siege to it, and when the LORD, your God, delivers it into your power, put every male in it to the sword; but the women and children and livestock and anything else in the city—all its spoil—you may take as plunder for yourselves, and you may enjoy this spoil of your enemies, which the LORD, your God, has given you.

Sound familiar?

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “[Lord,] let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.* But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” [To him] Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62).

and

Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it, and stay there until you leave. As you enter a house, wish it peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you.Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (Matthew 10:11-15).

It was so exciting to notice that connection, but I am still thinking about what these passages in Deuteronomy can teach us about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Reading Deuteronomy as a Catholic has reminded me of the Jewishness of my faith. It has encouraged me to revisit those “hard books” in the Bible and discover the dynamic nature of God’s revelation to the world. It has reminded me that we are always engaging with the wider world, trying to discern God’s word to us today. I plan to read more of the Old Testament.

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