Reviewed by Marcus Leman
If commentaries are exegetical conversation partners, then this work by Dr. Daniel I. Block is a valuable companion indeed. Dr. Block, Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, proves not only to be a sound interpreter but also an insightful guide into contemporary issues and applications. His interpretive rigor applied to this cornerstone theological book opens channels to more expansive vistas of study in biblical theology, Christian ethics, and twenty-first century discipleship.
The NIVAC series is intended for a wide range of Bible interpreters who seek to both understand the world of the text and begin building bridges to the modern day context. The commentary begins with a brief but helpful introduction and is followed by a graphic which overviews the structure of Deuteronomy. A detailed outline provides a survey of each natural textual unit. The commentary portion begins each textual unit with the NIV (1984) text, though the exegesis is not limited to the English text (e.g. Deut 26:19). Hebrew and Greek terms are transliterated for those with limited original language skills and technical terminology is minimized. Each unit of text includes commentary in three distinct areas: original meaning, bridging contexts, and contemporary significance. The contents conclude with an extensive scripture index to assist in finding related passages throughout this volume.
“The Torah was Moses’ inspired commentary on the covenant . . . (1:3)” (33). This authoritative commentary is made up of a collection of the last prophetic sermons of Moses to a new generation of Israelites about to enter the promised land and see the covenant fully established. Thus, Dr. Block emphasizes repeatedly Moses’ role as teacher and its impact on the character of the book (117). Nevertheless, he also argues that Deuteronomy’s final form bears similarities to the structure of other ancient Near Eastern treaties, especially second millennium Hittite suzerainty treaties (36). This set of sermons forged into a covenantal mold is intended to serve as a foundational charter for the people about to enter the land so that by hearing its words they might learn to fear Yahweh and obey him, which leads to life (35).
An all-consuming theme in Deuteronomy studies is the nature of law. These sentences are indicative of Dr. Block’s outlook on the importance of Deuteronomy and a biblical theology of law and grace: “if there is a second Moses in the New Testament, that person is Paul” (34–35); “Paul was in perfect step with Moses: obedience to the law was not a means for gaining salvation but a willing and grateful response to salvation already received” (26); “obedience to the law offers visible proof of righteousness” (40).
Righteousness is further defined as “adherence to an objective norm, demonstrated in concrete acts that seek the interests of others and results in perfect harmony between them and their Ruler” (119). Harkening back to the suzerain-vassal format of Deuteronomy, the commandment-keeping of the vassal is a visible demonstration of love to the covenant lord and a display of the blessings of salvation (123). Dr. Block concludes that this finds its new covenant parallel in Jesus’ words in John 14:15, “If you love me you will obey my commands” (123).
Another example of Dr. Block’s interpretive work can be seen in his comments on Israel’s mission. He summarizes the whole of Deuteronomy stating, “The function of the book of Deuteronomy is to call every generation of Israelites to faithful covenant love for Yahweh in response to his gracious salvation and his revelation of himself (cf. 6:20–25) and in acceptance of the missional role to which he has called them (26:19)” (38). Israel stands in the line of the Abrahamic mission through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Their mission was fundamentally a centripetal mission (i.e. drawing in) to stand as a righteous light among the nations (618). “Like Aaron, Israel is to fulfill a priestly role, declaring to the nations the glory of her God and drawing the nations to him” (617).
New covenant believers, however, live under a different administration and our mission has assumed a centrifugal aspect (i.e. sending out). Yet, Dr. Block points to 1 Peter 2:9–10 as a related New Testament example of this centripetal paradigm still functioning as part of our centrifugal mission (619). Righteousness based on right teaching of God’s word is still to be foundational in the covenant communities that spread throughout the earth (739).
In this commentary Dr. Block seeks to move readers from the original meaning of the text all the way through the interpretive process up to modern day application. He has done an excellent job in allowing the best of his exegesis to shine through in the limited space of this commentary. Due to the format of the NIVAC series, and its emphasis on application, much of the exegetical legwork has unfortunately been omitted. More developed examples of Dr. Block’s exegesis can be seen in his two monographs that were published just before this commentary: How I Love Your Torah, O Lord (Wipf & Stock, 2011), and The Gospel According to Moses (Wipf & Stock, 2012).
Further, the nature of the exegetical comments in the NIVAC text is decidedly less technical. Compared to another recent commentary, like Gordon McConville’s work in the Apollos series (2002), Dr. Block’s comments are neatly trimmed and focused on developing the main point of each textual unit. While a reader with original language capacity may find the array of technical comments in the Apollos volume more satisfying, they will not be starved in reading through this NIVAC contribution. Any palpable lack of detail is more than surpassed by the help that Dr. Block provides in fore-fronting the theological principles inherent in the text.
These theological principles are the foundation of making modern day application. “Moses’ role in Deuteronomy is not that of a lawgiver but a pastor” (37). The pastoral nature of Moses’ writings comes out in the pastoral nature of Dr. Block’s application. He proves very adept at moving from the text of Deuteronomy into related New Testament passages. This approach offers a clear path to Christological application and brings the Old Testament text one step closer to contemporary readers and teachers.
Dr. Block’s analysis of the main theme(s) from each text unit are clearly connected to both the immediate context and related themes in the rest of Deuteronomy. This contextual reading proves especially helpful in pointing readers to other portions of his commentary, and hence Deuteronomy, that they may not have thought to consult when studying a specific passage. All in all, this set of cross-contextual readings, distillation of main themes, and direct applications via New Testament realities gives even the most uncertain interpreter of the Old Testament solid exegetical footing.
Marcus Leman is a PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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Deuteronomy (NIV Application Commentary)