If you were asked to choose one book within the Hebrew Bible that exemplifies its theological center, which book would you choose? The book of Deuteronomy would certainly be among the top candidates. And if you were asked to select one of the most important biblical interpreters on the scene today, what name would come to mind? Within the cloud of witnesses, the name of Walter Brueggemann would likely rise to the surface. As a seasoned Old Testament scholar, Brueggemann has made a small industry of writing commentaries on biblical books—Genesis, Exodus, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to name a few. This foremost commentator has now brought his sustained attention and interpretive insight to bear on the book of Deuteronomy, a book which Brueggemann in another setting once called the “theological center of the Old Testament.”
Brueggemann’s Deuteronomy is the first installment of a new Old Testament commentary series published by Abingdon Press. These compact, critical commentaries are designed for theological students and pastors. Their primary goal is to help the reader engage the present form of the text through three sections that accompany each passage of a biblical book: 1) a brief literary analysis of the section’s genre and structure, 2) an exegetical analysis of leading concepts, problematic words, significant expressions, and cultural backgrounds, and 3) theological and ethical analysis which helps the reader to begin to explore the contemporary implications of the biblical text for life, faith and society. The commentary does not proceed verse-by-verse but rather section by section (for example, “The Threat of Amnesia,” Deuteronomy 6:1–25). This main commentary section of the book is preceded by an eight-page introduction which summarizes issues related to the book as a whole: genre, structure, central themes, and social and historical contexts. The commentary is not meant to offer bold, new scholarly proposals or engage in detailed academic debates but rather offer the best of recent critical scholarship to a wider audience.
Brueggemann describes the main structure of Deuteronomy as consisting of three speeches (Deut 1:1–4:40; 4:44–29:1; 29:2–32:47) presented by Moses to a new generation of Israelites who are about to enter the promised land of Canaan. He sees the book as shaped by the contributions of at least three different traditions or groups—Levitical priests, a prophetic movement, and a scribal tradition with a wisdom focus. This diverse shaping occurred over the course of at least two or three centuries, from the eighth and seventh century era dominated by Assyrian imperial rule to the sixth century and the Babylonian exile. Deuteronomy represents “a hard-fought consensus in Israel about the key claims of Yahwistic faith” which converged in a “YHWH alone” perspective that insisted “that this single covenantal loyalty should be decisive in every aspect of Israel’s social relationships” (p. 21). Hence, the legal core of the book with the statues and ordinances of chapters 12–25 extended the implications of this covenantal loyalty into the many aspects of Israel’s public life: worship, economics, public leadership, politics, war, family life, and relations with other nations and peoples.
Brueggemann is a reliable guide through the rich and detailed resources of this premier theological document of ancient Israel. His strength is his ability to lift up the larger implications of a text which often challenge what he sees as dominant cultural maladies in our own day: global consumerist capitalism, the ideology of privatization and autonomous individualism, and the absence of public policy shaped by gratitude to God, love of neighbor or concern for the poor. Brueggemann repeatedly emphasizes the material groundedness of Deuteronomy’s concern for the larger public good: “The book of Deuteronomy is about land, land promises, land temptations, land reception, land management, and ultimately land loss” (p. 288). Brueggemann is properly attentive throughout the commentary to the tensive dialogical polarities by which Deuteronomy does its theological reflection: a recurring tension between a generous mutuality and a harsh authoritarianism (p. 21), conditional covenant and unmerited mercy (p. 200), resistance to legalism and yet the need for visible and distinctive disciplines in the community of faith (p. 159), communal exclusion and inclusion (p. 229), the simplicity and yet complex ambiguity of living obediently (p. 271), or the tension between ecumenical oneness and enduring pluralism (p. 287). While largely appreciative of Deuteronomy’s theological witness, Brueggemann resists some of the book’s claims that seem overly harsh (the requirement to stone to death an idolatrous family member—Deut 13), overly exclusionary (no Ammonite or Moabite can enter the worship sanctuary—Deut 23), overly violent (the holy war annihilation of Canaanites—Deut 20), or overly patriarchal (family and sex laws—Deut 22). In the face of such biblical claims that seem unacceptable to modern minds, Brueggemann notes that Deuteronomy understands itself as part of a dynamic and ongoing tradition of reinterpretation of earlier laws and materials (pp. 23, 79). Thus, Deuteronomy itself implicitly authorizes “a continuing interpretive practice that moves always between traditional inheritances and faithful innovation of a covenant kind” (p. 227).
Professor Brueggemann is to be commended for yet another masterful interpretation of a biblical book, an interpretation which is both true to the important theological tradition of Deuteronomy and faithful in extrapolating its meaning for our own day and context.