The Book of Deuteronomy, as a result of its origin as both a work of history and divine inspiration, serves to give its reader a meaningful and coherent worldview that goes beyond its contemporaries and any other competition. It is meant to be the lens through which the ancient Hebrew, and even those in subsequent generations, would interact with both the world and the God who made it.
It is easy for us, as moderns, to simply dismiss what is found in the contents as “primitive” or “backwards”, but that is because we begin at the wrong starting point. The proper starting point is that of the ancient Hebrew. Such a position may seem repulsive to our thinking, but to do so deepens our understanding of the text, its contents, and our appreciation of the effort to pass its message through time. So, what starting points are the wrong ones?
We often begin with the wrong theological starting point. We think of the ancient Hebrews as having a rigid monotheism. Monotheism, historically, is a term used to describe general beliefs, however it often leads to an oversimplification which often descends into misunderstanding because of historical misunderstandings.
The history of religions, however, indicates many phenomena and concepts that should warn against oversimplification in this matter. There is no valid reason to assume, for example, that monotheism is a later development in the history of religions than polytheism. There exists no historical material to prove that one system of belief is older than the other, although many scholars hold that monotheism is a higher form of religion and therefore must be a later development, assuming that what is higher came later. Moreover, it is not the oneness of God that counts in monotheism but his uniqueness; one god is not affirmed as the logical opposite of many gods but as an expression of divine might and power. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
It is this misunderstanding of Hebrew divine conception that leads to the rise of historically heretical beliefs about the nature of God that manifests itself in Arianism, Sabellianism, or even tritheism.
John Anthony Dunne writes in regard of the Old Testament conception of monotheism in his entry in The Lexham Bible Dictionary,
Although Israel worshiped idols at various stages throughout biblical history (e.g., Exod 32), the official teaching of the Old Testament was that there is only one God. The Shema asserts that Yahweh is one (Deut 6:4). Likewise, the consistent refrain throughout Isaiah 40–48 is that there is only one God.
The closest parallel to Israel’s (and therefore the OT’s) conception of the assembly of the heavenly host under the authority of Yahweh is the divine council of Ugarit. Practitioners of Ugaritic religion organized the unseen divine world into three (or possibly four) tiers. In the top tier dwelled El and his wife Athirat (Asherah). The second tier was the domain of their royal family (“sons of El”; “princes”). One member of this second tier, Baal, served as the coregent of El; despite Baal being under El’s authority, worshipers gave him the title “most high.” The third tier was for “craftsman deities,” and (perhaps) the fourth and lowest tier was reserved for the messengers (mal’akhim), essentially servants or staff.
He continues later, fleshing out the council concept,
The OT in fact describes Yahweh with titles and abilities that Canaanite literature attributes to both El and Baal. Israelites thus fused El and Baal in their worship of Yahweh—a literary and theological strategy that asserted Yahweh’s superiority over the two main divine authority figures in wider Canaanite religion. Within Israelite religion, Yahweh’s occupation of both of the two highest tiers resulted conceptually in two Yahwehs—one invisible, the other visible.
Further on, he explains, dealing with the “angel of the LORD”,
The relationship between Yahweh and the Angel of Yahweh (“Angel of the Lord”) provides the most familiar example of “two Yahwehs.” The OT writers at times deliberately make the Angel of Yahweh indistinguishable from Yahweh (e.g., Exod 3:1–14). For instance, according to Exod 23, the Angel has Yahweh’s “Name” in him (Exod 23:20–23). This passage gives a glimpse of the Hebrew Bible’s “Name theology,” in which reference to “the Name” actually refers to Yahweh Himself. Thus, in Exod 23, Yahweh indicates that He is in the Angel. And yet, in other passages, Yahweh and the Angel can be simultaneously—but separately—present (Judg 6).
These facts often cause confusion because they are often taken without necessity of explanation in the text. Without the proper context, one can either import foreign concepts into the text (such as oneness theology) or misunderstand the concepts entirely. Concepts expressed in texts such as the Shema where it is proclaimed,
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (6:5, ESV)
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (6:6)
can become proof texts and traps that can cause confusion if not placed in the proper worldview context.
Christians freely recognize that there are multiple supernatural forces, but often we conflate these into one type or category when the biblical text operates on the assumption that there are multiple categories of being. Perhaps one of the most particularly significant areas where moderns make such misunderstandings is in the area is in the command to “love the LORD”.
We moderns often attach a large amount of emotional significance to the term “love”, often failing to distinguish even between the categories that we know and will acknowledge in regular conversation. However, when it comes to handling the biblical material, we will often shut off such distinctions and force a singular interpretation onto the text. For the uninitiated, this is called eisegesis. This is not to say that there isn’t some type of emotion that is tied to the term as much as what we have to be mindful of when interacting with the text that what it means to “love the LORD” in its fullest sense, “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” has to do with undivided loyalty.
The worldview of Deuteronomy recognizes, as well as eludes to, the reality of a highly complex supernatural realm that has an effect in this world. Deuteronomy even takes time to give us insight into the origins of such a worldview and it’s explanatory power for the existence of multiple pagan religions and why Yahweh demands total allegiance.
A meaningful study of Deuteronomy should ultimately give one a whole new worldview.