Israeli Education for the Church: Historical Context

After analyzing the text, it is important to situate it in its historical context. The surrounding events and this teaching did not happen in a vacuum; they happened in a context in response to events which formed their identity and prepared them for the next steps.

This passage occurs right before Moses’ death and Israel’s entering of the promised land.[1] It is mostly a series of speeches from Moses that prepares the people for the promised land by renewing the covenant.[2] Historically, Egypt subjected Israel for about 430 years.[3] As Exod. attests, Israel gained its freedom and crossed the Red Sea; they successfully fled Egypt’s oppression. Egypt had a harsh control over much of the land, and that included where Israel would end up dwelling.[4] Israel gained their freedom because of the plagues that devastated Egypt and, as an indirect result, their clutch on the Promised Land was also loosened.[5] As Israel traveled out of Egypt, they dwelt for a time at Mount Sinai. At this place, Yahweh revealed himself to his people through Moses and gave them his law. However, after they set out from Mount Sinai to Egypt, they repeatedly sinned against God and broke his law. As a result of their perpetual covenantal disobedience, Yahweh cursed Israel and forbade that generation from entering the Promised Land—their children would inherit what they longed to see. The spies lied at Kadesh Barnea after they surveyed the land and before Israel’s fate was sealed (Num. 13:25-14:11; 14:26-38).[6] As a result, they wandered 40 years through the desert until that disobedient generation died off (except Moses, who would lead Israel up to the Promised Land, but not go into it himself). This period is where Deut. finds itself situated. As the new generation prepares to take over their land, they are re-receiving instruction from Yahweh. This re-instruction is why Moses commands the people to “hear” or “listen” in 6:4: the truths have not changed, but the new generation need not to repeat the same mistakes.[7]

When it comes to 6:4, sometimes Bible readers wonder why Moses had to declare that Yahweh is one. The context is somewhat unclear. However, it could be that Moses was making an affirmation of a particular type of monotheism.Essentially, there are four categories of monotheism: philosophical, henotheism, monolatry, and practical.[8]Philosophical monotheism claims that “there has only ever been one God in existence.”[9] Henotheism argues that other gods exist, but there is one God who reigns supreme overall.[10] Monolatry monotheism argues that a person or group of people resolves to worship only one god, no matter if other gods exist or not.[11] Practical monotheism worships other gods, but hyper focuses on one god.[12] Monolatry monotheism seems to make the most sense in this situation. While Yahweh reigns supreme over all things, there is recognition in the Bible that there are spiritual forces at play (Eph. 6:12). These spiritual beings may indeed be gods or acting as if they are gods. Either way, whether other gods exist or not, Israel is to worship the one true God: Yahweh.

In the ancient near east, people would wear symbols on their forehands or their hands to ward off evil spirits.[13]Not only that, but at times they would show allegiance to a particular god.[14] Scripture does not testify as to whether Israel actually adopted this practice as they entered their new land, nor is there any external evidence indicating otherwise.[15] What Moses could be communicating here is just as these other nations would ward off spirits or show allegiance through these signs, Yahweh’s law should be so deeply entrenched in them, that they would ward off evil (sin) by being obedient to Yahweh and thus showing their allegiance—they reverse the meaning of the pagan sign (cf. Exod. 13:9, 16; Deut. 11:18).[16]

  1. Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 18; Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 23–4; T. Desmond Alexander and Brian Rosner, eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 159.
  2. Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 104.
  3. Merrill, Deut (NAC), 4:24.
  4. Merrill, Deut (NAC), 4:25.
  5. Merrill, Deut (NAC), 4:25.
  6. Alexander and Rosner, NDBT, 160.
  7. Alexander and Rosner, NDBT, 161.
  8. John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 177. Tigay notes that 6:4 is less about monotheism and moreso that Yahweh is to occupy the number one place in their life together. This is an intriguing take that nuances the same understanding differently and emphasizes the importance of covenantal relationship. However, after reviewing HALOT, it seems unlikely Israel would have understood אֶחָד as an ordinal number to mean supremacy. Koehler et al., HALOT, 29-30; Tigay, Deut (JPS), 76.
  9. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 177.
  10. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 177.
  11. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 177.
  12. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 177.
  13. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 177.
  14. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 177.
  15. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 177.
  16. Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 177–8.

This post was originally part of an academic paper submitted to Dr. Justin Young in Pentateuch at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.

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