The book’s dramatic, unified presentation makes it especially memorable. Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy at length. In fact, his first Scripture quotations were three passages from Deuteronomy (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). The New Testament refers to Deuteronomy more than fifty times, a number exceeded only by Psalms and Isaiah. And Deuteronomy contains the first formulation of the Great Commandment, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5).
Underlying all the themes in Deuteronomy is Israel’s covenant with the one true God. Everything in the book flows from the keystone of the covenant, “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me” (Deut. 5:6-7). When people worship the Lord alone, good governance, productive work, ethical commerce, civic good, and fair treatment for all will generally result. When people put other motivations, values, and concerns ahead of God, work and life come to grief.
Deuteronomy covers the same material as the other books of the law—Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers—but heightens the attention paid to work, most notably in the Ten Commandments. It seems as if in retelling the events and teachings of the other books, Moses feels a need to emphasize the importance of work in the life of God’s people. Perhaps in some sense this foreshadows the growing attention that Christians are giving work in the present day. Looking at Scripture with fresh eyes, we discover that work is more important to God than we realized before, and that God’s word gives more direction to our work than we thought.
Deuteronomy begins with a speech by Moses recounting the major events in Israel’s recent history. Moses draws lessons from these events and exhorts Israel to respond to God’s faithfulness by obeying him in trust (Deut. 4:40). Two sections—about violating trust in God by rebellion and complacency, respectively—are particularly important to the theology of work.
In the wilderness, the people's fear leads to a failure to trust God. As a result they rebel against God’s plan for them to enter the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 1:7-8). God had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, given the law at Mt. Horeb (Sinai), and brought the people swiftly to the borders of the promised land (Deut. 1:19-20). According to the book of Numbers, God asks Moses to send out spies to survey the land he is giving to the Israelites, and Moses obeys (Numbers 13:1-3). But other Israelites use this reconnaissance mission as a chance to disobey God. They ask Moses to send out spies so they can stall the military action that God commanded. When the spies return with a favorable report, the Israelites still refuse to go (Deuteronomy 1:26). "The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven," they tell Moses, adding that "our hearts melt" (Deut. 1:28). Even though Moses assures the people that God will fight for them just as he did in Egypt, they do not trust God to fulfill his promises (Deut. 1:29-33). Fear leads to disobedience which leads to severe punishment.
Because of this disobedience, the Israelites living at the time are barred from entering the promised land. "Not one of these - not one of this evil generation - shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors" (Deut. 1:35). The only exceptions are Caleb and Joshua, the only members of the scouting expedition who encouraged the Israelites to obey God's command (Numbers 13:30). Moses himself is barred from entering the land due to a different act of disobedience. In Numbers 20:2-12 Moses pleads to God for a water source, and God tells Moses to command a rock to become a spring. Instead Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff. Had Moses spoken to the rock, as God commanded, the resulting miracle might have satisfied both the Israelite's physical thirst as well as their need to believe that God was taking care of them. Instead, when Moses strikes the rock as if to break it open, the opportune moment passes. Like the Israelites in Deuteronomy 1:19-45, Moses is punished for his lack of faith which underlines his disobedience. "Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites," says God, "therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them" (Numbers 20:12).
When the Israelites realize that they have condemned themselves to a lifetime of eking out an existence in the desert instead of enjoying the "good land" (Deuteronomy 1:25) God had prepared for them, they make their own plans to attack the Amorites. But God declares, "Do not go up and do not fight, for I am not in the midst of you; otherwise you will be defeated by your enemies" (Deut. 1:42). A lack of trust in God's promises leads Israel to miss the blessings he had in store for them.
When we know what is right, but are tempted to violate it, trust in God is all we have to keep us in God’s ways. This is not a matter of moral fiber. If even Moses failed to trust God completely, can we really imagine that we will succeed? Instead, it is a matter of God’s grace. We can pray for God’s Spirit to strengthen us when we stand for what is right, and we can ask for God’s forgiveness when we fall. Like Moses and the people of Israel, failure to trust God can have serious consequences in life, but our failure is ultimately redeemed by God’s grace.
In the wilderness, Israel's abandon of trust in God arises not only from fear, but also from success. At this point in his first speech, Moses is describing the prosperity that awaits the new generation about to enter the Promised Land. Moses points out that success is likely to breed a spiritual complacency far more dangerous than failure. “When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything…you will soon utterly perish from the land” (Deut. 4:25-26). We will come to idolatry, per se, in Deuteronomy 5:8, but the point here is the spiritual danger caused by complacency. In the wake of success, people cease fearing God and begin to believe success is a birthright. Instead of gratitude, we forge a sense of entitlement. The success for which we strive is not wrong, but it is a moral danger. The truth is that the success we achieve is mixed from a pinch of skill and hard work, combined with a heaping of fortunate circumstances and the common grace of God. We cannot actually provide for our own wants, desires, and security. Success is not permanent. It does not truly satisfy. A dramatic illustration of this truth is found in the life of King Uzziah in 2 Chronicles. “He was marvelously helped [by God] until he became strong. But when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction” (2 Chr. 26:15-16). Only in God can we find true security and satisfaction (Ps. 17:15).
It may be surprising that the result of complacency is not atheism but idolatry. Moses foresees that if the people abandon the Lord, they will not become spiritual free agents. They will bind themselves to “objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell” (Deut. 4:28). Perhaps in Moses’ day the idea of religionless existence did not occur to anyone. But in our day it does. A growing tide of secularism attempts to throw off what it sees—sometimes quite correctly—as shackles of domination by corrupt religious institutions, belief, and practices. But does this result in a true freedom, or is the worship of God necessarily replaced by the worship of human-made fabrications?
Although this question sounds abstract, it has tangible effects on work and workplaces. For example, prior to the last half of the twentieth century, questions about business ethics were generally settled by reference to the Scriptures. This practice was far from perfect, but it did give serious standing to those on the losing side of power struggles related to work. The most dramatic case was probably the religiously-based opposition to slavery in England and the United States of America, which ultimately succeeded in abolishing both the slave trade and slavery itself. In secularized institutions, there is no moral authority to which one can appeal. Instead, ethical decisions must be based on law and “ethical custom,” as Milton Friedman put it. Law and ethical custom being human constructs, business ethics becomes reduced to rule by the powerful and the popular. No one wants a workplace dominated by religious elite, but does a fully secularized workplace simply open the door for a different kind of exploitation? It is certainly possible for believers to bring the blessings of God’s faithfulness to their workplaces without trying to reimpose special privileges for themselves.
All this is not to say that success must necessarily lead to complacency. If we can remember that God’s grace, God’s word, and God’s guidance are at the root of whatever success we have, then we can be grateful, not complacent. The success we experience could then honor God and bring us joy. The caution is simply that over the course of history success seems to be spiritually more dangerous than adversity. Moses further warns Israel about the dangers of prosperity in Deuteronomy 8:11-20.
Deuteronomy continues with a second speech containing the main body of the book. This section centers on God’s covenant with Israel, especially the law, or principles and rules by which Israel should live. After a narrative introduction (Deut. 4:44-49), the speech itself consists of three parts. In the first part, Moses expounds the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:1-11:33). In the second part, he describes in detail the “statutes and ordinances” that Israel is to follow (Deut. 12:1-26:19). In the third part, Moses describes the blessings Israel will experience if they keep the covenant, and the curses that will destroy them if they do not (Deut. 27:1-28:68). The second speech thus has the pattern of first giving the larger, governing principles (Deut. 5:1-11:32), then the specific rules (Deut. 12:1-26:19), and then the consequences for obedience or disobedience (Deut. 27:1-28:68).
The Ten Commandments are great contributors to the theology of work. They describe the essential requirements of Israel’s covenant with God and are the core principles that govern the nation and the work of its people. Moses’ exposition begins with the most memorable statement of the book, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). As Jesus pointed out centuries later, this is the greatest commandment of the entire Bible. Then Jesus added a quotation from Leviticus 19:18, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-40). Although the “second” greatest commandment is not stated explicitly in Deuteronomy, we will see that the Ten Commandments do indeed point us to love of both God and neighbor.
The passage is virtually identical to Exodus 20:1-17—grammatical variations aside—except for some differences in the fourth (keeping the Sabbath), fifth (honoring mother and father), and tenth (coveting) commandments. Intriguingly, the variations in these commandments specifically address work. We will repeat the commentary from Exodus and Work here, with additions exploring the variations between the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts.
The first commandment reminds us that everything in the Torah flows from the love we have for God, which is a response to the love he has for us. This love was demonstrated by God’s deliverance of Israel “out of the house of slavery” in Egypt (Deut. 5:6). Nothing else in life should concern us more than our desire to love and be loved by God. If we do have some other concern stronger to us than our love for God, it is not so much that we are breaking God’s rules, but that we are not really in relationship with God. The other concern—be it money, power, security, recognition, sex, or anything else—has become our god. This false god will have its own commandments at odds with God’s, and we will inevitably violate the Torah as we comply with this god’s requirements. Observing the Ten Commandments is conceivable only for those who start by worshipping no other god than the Lord.
In the realm of work, this means that we are not to let work or its requirements and fruits displace God as our most important concern in life. “Never allow anyone or anything to threaten God’s central place in your life,” as David Gill puts it.
Because many people work primarily to make money, an inordinate desire for money is probably the most common work-related danger to the first commandment. Jesus warned of exactly this danger: “No one can serve two masters….You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). But almost anything related to work can become twisted in our desires to the point that it interferes with our love for God. How many careers come to a tragic end because the means to accomplish things for the love of God--such as political power, financial sustainability, commitment to the job, status among peers, or superior performance—become ends in themselves? When, for example, recognition on the job becomes more important than character on the job, is this not a sign that reputation is displacing the love of God as the ultimate concern?
The second commandment raises the issue of idolatry. Idols are gods of our own creation, gods that we feel will give us what we want. In ancient times, idolatry often took the form of worshiping physical objects. But the issue is really one of trust and devotion. On what do we ultimately pin our hope of well-being and success? Anything that is not capable of fulfilling our hope—that is, anything other than God—is an idol, whether or not it is a physical object. The story of a family forging an idol with the intent to manipulate God, and the disastrous personal, social and economic consequences that follow, are memorably told in Judges 17-21.
In the world of work, it is common to speak of money, fame, and power as potential idols, and rightly so. They are not idols, per se, and in fact may be necessary for us to accomplish our roles in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. Yet when we imagine that by achieving them our safety and prosperity will be secured, we have begun to fall into idolatry. Idolatry begins when we place our trust and hope in these things more than in God. The same may occur with virtually every other element of success, including preparation, hard work, creativity, risk, wealth and other resources, and even chance. Are we able to recognize when we begin to idolize these things? By God’s grace, we can overcome the temptation to worship them in God’s place.
The third commandment literally prohibits God’s people from making “wrongful use” of the name of God. This need not be restricted to the name “YHWH” (Deut. 5:11), but includes “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and so forth. But what is wrongful use? It includes, of course, disrespectful use in cursing, slandering, and blaspheming. But more significantly, it includes falsely attributing human designs to God. This prohibits us from claiming God’s authority for our own actions and decisions. Regrettably, some Christians seem to believe that following God at work consists primarily of speaking for God on the basis of their individual understanding, rather than working respectfully with others or taking responsibility for their actions. “It is God’s will that…,” or “God is punishing you for…,” are dangerous things to say, and almost never valid when spoken by an individual without the discernment of the community of faith (1 Thess. 5:20-21). In this light, perhaps the traditional Jewish reticence to utter even the English translation “God”—let alone the divine name itself—demonstrates a wisdom Christians often lack. If we were a little more careful about bandying the word God about, perhaps we would be more judicious in claiming to know God’s will, especially as it applies to other people.
The third commandment also reminds us that respecting human names is important to God. The Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3), while warning us that if you call another person “you fool,” then “you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22). Keeping this in mind, we shouldn’t make wrongful use of other people’s names or call them by disrespectful epithets. We use people’s names wrongfully when we use them to curse, humiliate, oppress, exclude, and defraud. We use people’s names well when we use them to encourage, thank, create solidarity, and welcome. Simply to learn and say someone’s name is a blessing, especially if he or she is often treated as nameless, invisible, or insignificant. Do you know the name of the person who empties your trash can, answers your customer service call, or drives your bus? People’s names are not the very name of the Lord, but they are the names of those made in his image.