The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy (Week 21, Part 2/7) Deuteronomy | May 16-22 – powered by Happy Scribe
If the Book of Deuteronomy feels difficult to get into, you’re not alone. It can feel repetitive and tedious, but I think we can find beauty and even temporal significance in the Book of Deuteronomy. If we take a step back and admire it from a broader view, we get bogged down in the legal minutiae of this book. We may be missing some of the forests for the trees, for the entire Book of Deuteronomy is structured after the pattern of ancient binding and sacred covenants. And the same ancient pattern of Covenant making found in Deuteronomy is the same pattern behind modern Latter day Saint temple covenants today.
Covenants in the ancient world frequently included the following elements a preamble historical prologue, stipulations, formal witness, blessings and cursing, and a deposition. Now that’s a mouthful, but I will explain it all in a minute. We can trace these elements of Covenant making throughout the Book of Deuteronomy. This Covenant treaty pattern is also found in the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis twelve to 17, and even in the Book of Mormon when King Benjamin established a new Covenant with the Nephites in Mosaic chapters one six. Identifying this pattern can help us better understand what the Book of Deuteronomy is trying to accomplish.
Deuteronomy is formally setting the House of Israel on the Covenant path. God is forging a Covenant bond with Israel that will bring about their Salvation and exaltation if they keep God’s Commandments. This Covenant pattern can also help us understand why we make Covenant so formulaic and ritually in Latterday Saint temples today. The first element of this ancient Covenant treaty pattern is the preamble. A preamble is just an introduction.
Like the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, it will often identify the parties by name or title, much like we do in legal contracts today. The first few verses in the Book of Deuteronomy establishes who’s making the Covenant when and where Moses, God, and Israel made this Covenant across the Jordan in the 40th year of their wanderings. The historical prologue provides some background between the parties. Moses spent chapters one through three recounting the story of the Exodus. Now, without this Covenant context, these chapters might feel repetitive, but what it’s doing is reminding Israel of their sacred history with God before they formally Covenant with Him.
The stipulations are the meat of the Covenant. They are the terms and conditions the formal requirements of the Covenant. The bulk of the Book of Deuteronomy is spent laying out these stipulations in chapters four through 26, and this is where the Book of Deuteronomy can get understandably dry, but it’s important to recognize their role in the larger picture of Israel’s Covenant with the Lord. The formal witness might be the oath swearing or ceremony part of the Covenant. It’s when the parties formalize the relationship by actually agreeing to the terms.
The witness might also include a list of other parties witnessing the Covenant, such as heaven and Earth. God Angels or other people present in Deuteronomy chapter 27, the Lord commanded the Israelites to build an altar on Mount Ebal as part of the formal Covenant making ceremony. They were to write down God’s Covenant and then pronounce the blessings and cursing. The blessings and cursing is a declaration of fortune or consequences for obedience or disobedience to the terms of the Covenant. In Deuteronomy 27 to 28, the Lord commanded that the Israelites stand on top of Mount Gervaisim and Mount Abal and shout curses on those who disobeyed the Lord’s commands and blessings on those who obeyed the Lord’s commands.
And while the idea of cursing may sound harsh, you’re probably already familiar with them. If you ever made a Pinky promise on the playground as a kid, you may have accompanied it with something like, Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. And as a kid you’re not taking those cursing literally, but you are trying to impress upon your friend just how seriously you’re taking that Pinky promise. The final component of the ancient Covenant making is the deposition. The deposition documents how the Covenant will be remembered, memorialized and renewed.
Sometimes this deposition consisted of writing down the Covenant or building a monument. In other situations it might consist of an oral reciting or a festival celebration to memorialize it. Deuteronomy 29 to 31 explains how the Israelites were to renew their Covenant by reciting the sacred law every seven years during the Feast of Tabernacles. Knowing the technicalities of ancient Covenant structures may sound tedious and unnecessary, but I think they help us put the Book of Deuteronomy and the Temple endowment into better context. I would encourage you to attend the temple and see if you can identify some of these components in the covenants of the initiatory endowment and ceiling ordinances.
The way we do things in the temple is highly ritual and highly symbolic. It’s very different from how we interact with the mundane world. But it’s important to know that this ritual format is both ancient and sacred. God covenanted with Abraham and with ancient Israel in the same pattern that he covenants with you today. By covenanting with God in the temple, we forge a new relationship with Him as his sons and daughters, just like Israel did anciently we, like Israel before us, can set ourselves firmly on the Covenant path and by doing so, eventually gain eternal life.