In many churches across North America, the Old Testament is generally considered to be irrelevant to life in the 21st century. Many Christians today, steeped in modern and independent religious habits, consider the commands and laws of the Old Testament to be restrictive in purpose. Many would believe that the laws were put in place to set tight boundaries to produce fear of God, cultic pursuit of holiness, and even to frustrate personal spiritual freedoms. The end result, in the minds of many Christians today, is that the Old Testament laws actually served to distance people from an intimate relationship with a Holy, Jealous God. A lopsided emphasis on a Pauline correlation between the Old Testament law and judgment [e.g. “the law was added so trespass might increase” (Rom 5:20) or “because law brings wrath” (Rom 4:15)] has been reinforced from North American pulpits. In this vain, evangelical traditions in North America have often tended to paint the requirements of God in the Old Testament as antiquated standards of a demanding religion now buried in the onslaught of grace in Jesus Christ. And so, as a result, many sincere Christians today believe that the word “love” is not descriptive of the Old Testament. Of course, some of the Old Testament laws, such as honoring parents and not murdering, are respected in Christian circles because they are deemed socially positive guidelines in virtually any era or culture. But it is completely likely that many Christians would concur that “God is love” is a New Testament idea which is not descriptive of the Old Testament portrait of God.
The book of Deuteronomy, however, proves otherwise. Throughout this poetic, sermonic volume, God’s love for his people is put on display. And this love is not portrayed as a one-sided affection, a crush from afar, but rather as the Almighty’s yearning desire for reciprocation and imitation. Deuteronomy depicts a God who longs to love and to be loved. And from this relationship, God wants to see the objects of his love reflect his character by becoming subjects of love towards others as well. In what would be surprising to many North American Christians, the New Testament actually reverberates with the same loving action of God that is so embedded within the words of Deuteronomy. That is why Paul said, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! We uphold the law” (Rom 3:31). That is why Paul concluded, “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rom 7:12). That is why Paul also said, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law” (Rom 7:22). This is how Paul could say that “the entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:9). It is the oft-overlooked, over-arching themes of Deuteronomy that Paul reflects when he says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law… [for] love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:8,10: cf. Deut 15:1-18). Of course, no Christian could deny Jesus’ affirmation of the emphasis of love declared in the words of Deuteronomy: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets are summed up in these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40; Mk 12:29-34; Lk 10:27; cf. also Jam 2:8).
Jeffrey Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary effectively sums up the astonishing revelation of the intimate and personal nature of God’s love for his people as depicted in Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy emphasizes that the bond between God and Israel is not merely legal, but spiritual and emotional as well. It reminds Israel of God’s love for her and calls on her to love and revere him with all her heart, soul, and might, devoting her entire being to Him. It conceives of a relationship so intense that it can be described in terms normally used of romantic love: God was ‘drawn in His love for Israel’s ancestors’ (10:15) and Israel is to ‘hold fast’ to Him (4:4; 10:20; 11:22).**
*(From the hymn “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship” by George Atkins
with these alternate words by Bryan Jeffery Leech, ©1976 Fred Bock
** Tigay, Jeffrey H. The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: PA, 1996, xv.