Continuing in this series in the study of Deuteronomy, continuing from the initial call to obedience (part 1 and part 2), we set the stage for what is the primary focus of Deuteronomy: the covenant relationship. (For important background on the nature of covenant, see this post.)
Scripture and summary
The author has Moses pause in this transition passage and set apart 3 cities in the eastern portion of the already conquered part of Canaan (see Numbers 35:1-8 for the relevance of these cities). These cities are set apart for the instance where if a person is accidentally or unintentionally killed by another, that person will have a place to go to in order that he can make his case.
Nothing in this passage is to be ignored, every name, every location has a key point in their recording. The author(s) is making a clear effort to anchor everything that comes after in a definite historical context, in a specific place, at a specific time, establishing the reason why the people of Israel are meeting in this place, and why they have rights to it (see Numbers 21 for the defeat of the Amorites).
There is a hearkening back to the first statement of God’s intentions toward the people of Israel, made known at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. This point, once again, is a historical anchor for the reader. Most importantly is the use of the word covenant and what it implies both at the time that it is given and at the time that the record of it is read in the work known as Deuteronomy.
From where the children of Israel stood on the eastern bank of the Jordan, they could see their future to the West, but that future and its blessings were contingent upon a continuing relationship with the LORD their God. They had already had a taste of what was coming with their encounters with the Amorites on the far side of the Jordan River. They had, with the LORD’s help taken key strongholds of the pagans who had painted the land of Canaan red with debauchery and human sacrifice. As they prepared to go forward and fulfill the command of God, a command that they had neglected some 40 years earlier that had sent them wandering the wastelands, weeding out a rebellious generation, they stood waiting for the pronouncement of the covenant with their God.
“The opening words of [Moses’] second message might have aroused expectation that [he] was ready for his main presentation…But the emphasis on the past continues to chapter 11. When Moses spoke of the future it was in the context of the past. (p49)
“The covenant made between God and Israel at Sinai was unique. It was not a treaty between conquerer and conquered. Neither was it based, as was the covenant with Abraham, on unconditional promises. On the contrary, the Sinaitic covenant was based on what God had already done…(p.51)”
Deuteronomy, like the good news of the gospel, was a covenant based upon a finished work: the covenant of Deuteronomy was built upon the rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, the covenant of the gospel on the rescue of a people from their slavery to sin.
Quotations from Studies in Deuteronomy by Donald F. Ackland, Convention Press, 1964.