Cover Image: Now Choose Life

Now Choose Life:
Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy (NSBT)

J. Gary Millar (IVP, 1998)

Blurb Review by Rev. Dominic Smart

Review by Rev. Dominic Smart

With Now Choose Life, Gary Millar makes a cogent and stimulating contribution to the overdue resurgence of Old Testament ethics.

The book is part of IVP's 'New Studies in Biblical Theology' series. It has five major parts, covering the ethical dimension to major themes within Deuteronomy: Covenant, Journey, Law, the Nations and Human Nature. The opening bracket to the main content is an Introduction in which Millar surveys the history of Old Testament Ethics and describes the scope of his own agenda. The rationale for limiting the study to this one book is that if Deuteronomy can be regarded as, inter alia, an ethics text, then notwithstanding setbacks in the history of Old Testament ethics, there is hope that such an approach can be taken to the larger text of the whole OT. (If you can tackle the North Face of the Eiger, you might want to think of climbing Everest.) It is here that Millar also briefly lays out his methodological principle: detailed analysis of relevant texts by way of careful exegesis, then synthesis of the material that emerges. Thus the shortcomings of much previous work in OT ethics are intended to be overcome - failing on the one hand to do justice to the textual details of varying strands and strata of OT material or, on the other, to achieve the coherence that the term Old Testament ethics implies. Millar restrains himself from extending the work to the third stage of application, despite seeing the ethical message of Deuteronomy as being 'unmatched in its relevance for the affluent western church of today' (p.11). This is a wise move, since it leaves non-specialist readers free to take up the stimulating material that emerges and run with it themselves. 'Ethics and Covenant' discusses the ethical nature of key covenantal ideas: covenant form, covenant language (including a nicely nuanced vignette of the Hebrew terms used to articulate the response to divine command), 'covenantal history' and the fulfilment of covenant promises. The discussion necessarily ranges over such topics as the Ancient Near Eastern context of Deuteronomy, the land, the singular-plural variation, and the shape of Deuteronomy. Millar concludes that the principal consequence of the covenantal relationship is in fact ethical, and it is an ethic of decision: the decision to obey. 'Yahweh has instigated a relationship; Israel must respond in obedience.' (p.65)

In Ethics and Journey, Miller explains how the call to decision is further sharpened by language of journey, since Israel is called to obedience as a nation 'on the move'. The discussion covers chapters 1-11 and 27-34, arguing for unity between 1-3 and the rest of the book as well as the integrity of 27 in the flow of 26-28. It marks significant places of failure and success and their role in the shaping of Israel's self-understanding. Millar highlights the enormous significance in Deuteronomy of the 'laws and statutes' of God, and briefly discusses Joshua's succession of Moses and the implications of continuing the journey into the land without the law-giver. Israel's formative history as a people who are 'strangers and pilgrims' lends a particular focus the covenantal call to obey: they must listen continually to the word that must be obeyed in circumstances that obedience itself will change.

The word that must be obeyed is the law, enclosed between the journey narratives, in chapters 12-26. The next section reasonably turns to this topic. Before Millar gives an exegesis of these chapters, he considers two vexed methodological questions: the relationship of the laws to the history and the relationship of the laws in Deuteronomy to similar collections elsewhere. These two issues are crucial, and the discussion of them is extremely helpful: the conclusions pave the way for the exegesis, and establish confidence in both a theological reading and the ethical function of these passages in the wider biblical context. The two main areas of legislation are worship, (inter alia purging the land of shrines, central worship at the 'place of the name', listening, holiness, festivals), and justice (covering such areas as sovereignty, families and marriage, sexual conduct, matters of war and asylum, debt and loans and protection of the vulnerable - sound contemporary?). The exegesis provides a useful resource for anyone preaching through Deuteronomy, not least because within Deuteronomy itself the concluding section clearly presses the laws into the service of preaching. Millar's argument is that by the reiteration of the Decalogue and the book of the covenant given at Horeb, these journeying people are given a theological ethic for worship, for the land and for human relationships, to which they must constantly attend.

In 'Ethics and the Nations', the traditionally problematic relationship between Israel and the goyim and ammim is carefully rescued from either caricature or over-simplification. The role of witness to the watching nations is clarified, as is God's choice being the basis for Israel's privileges. Moreover, Millar points out that God himself is concerned for the nations and has blessings for them also. As to the ethical dilemma of obedience to God's word requiring that Israel dispossess and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan by what nowadays looks like genocide, Millar emphasises the nature of the book as a whole. Deuteronomy stands as a theologically and ethically motivated sermon. Intense concern about the spiritual seduction of the people of God lies at the heart of the extreme separatism which Moses preaches. Moses is not assuming that absolutely everyone will be destroyed; else there would be no need for laws against intermarriage. The ethical imperative is for 'the repudiation of all things Canaanite' (p.160) for the sake of the distinctive people of God.

In 'Ethics and Human Nature' the discussion finally turns to perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the problem of Deuteronomy being read as ethics: If Deuteronomy itself presents obedience as being impossible, what planet are we on reading the book this way? (Not Millar's terms, but they convey the gist of the problem.) The section surveys the four main parts of Deuteronomy with the question 'Can Israel obey the laws?' in mind. It is this section that most clearly paves the way for reading Deuteronomy in the context of the whole Bible, for the view of human nature is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. A profound realism threads its way through the book; Yahweh knows what human nature is like. He calls to Israel to obedience, warns her against disobedience, teaches her about her own sinfulness, is already prepared for her failure, and promises a new covenant. The theology is one of realism about the people (including Moses himself) - thus a clear theology of sin - and about Yahweh - thus also a clear theology of hope.

The closing bracket to these main sections is a short conclusion. Deuteronomy does not give us the last word on the ethics of Israel; she is, after all, a nation on the move. But we are given the ethical implications of both the sovereignty of the electing and covenant-forming God and of the progress into the Promised Land. We are also given the pointer to a future grace when Yahweh will intervene to overcome his own people's sin. The closing remark points to the need to 'choose life' as we embrace the God who has chosen us in Christ.' (p.183) This is a good book. It will help preachers to come to grips with serious scholarship and so avoid rushing in where angels fear to tread. You don't need Hebrew either. For those interested in developing a biblical theology that is intelligently informed by detailed exegesis rather than cobbled together on the back of vague and unsubstantiated generalisations, this book is extremely valuable. Theology Students should be investing in this series as a matter of course. Whatever you do, don't stop with Now Choose Life. The next few months look like being exciting times in this field, so also look out for Paul Barker's book The Triumph of Grace in Deuteronomy and Hetty Lalleman's Celebrating the Law: Rethinking Old Testament Ethics (both from Paternoster), Robin Parry's Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics (from the same publisher) and, from IVP, Chris Wright's Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, which includes a re-working of his earlier benchmark book, Living as the People of God.

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