51. Nitzavim Vayelech (You are Standing, And he Went) Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

Did Paul Misunderstand the Tenach?

Torah Portion for week 51: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

נִצָּבִים, וַיֵּלֶךְ

Nitzavim Vayelech (You are Standing, And he Went)

This week we are looking at two Torah portions from Deuteronomy 29 –31. In Romans 10:4-10, Paul is quoting a passage from our parasha, Deuteronomy 30:12-14. Paul is using this passage to make his point that the Messiah Yeshua is the very purpose and goal of the Torah. That is, that the theology of the Torah itself, the Sinai covenant, and the whole of the Old Testament have been written with the purpose to point us to the Messiah. Many have criticized Paul and claimed that he misunderstood the passage in Deuteronomy, or even abused it. We will take a closer look at Deuteronomy 30 and see whether or not this is the case. Romans 10:6-8 reads:

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring the Messiah[1] down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring the Messiah[2] up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim).

The book of Deuteronomy has two parallel chapters, chapters 4 and 30, which form two important pillars in the book. The main theme of these chapters is two-fold: first, God promises to bring Israel out of exile and back to the land following a national repentance; and second, God promises to circumcise their hearts, that is, to give them a new heart. Interestingly, Deuteronomy 4:30 tells us when these events will happen: “When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice” (emphasis added). As the Talmud correctly observed, the expression “the latter days” is talking about the times of the Messiah.

The key to understanding the significance of Deuteronomy 4 and 30 is to see how other Old Testament prophets understood and interpreted these chapters. Remarkably there are many strong parallels between Jeremiah’s prophecies in Jeremiah 29 – 33 and Deuteronomy 4 and 30, a fact which was also observed by the ancient rabbis in the Jerusalemite Talmud. The two key themes of Jeremiah 29 – 33, like Deuteronomy 4 and 30, are the national gathering and repentance of Israel and the provision of a new heart that loves and seeks God. Consider for example Jeremiah 29:13-14, a passage describing the repentance and re-gathering of Israel to the land, words taken directly from Deuteronomy 4:29 and 30:1-3: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

And just as Deuteronomy 30:6 speaks of a circumcision of the heart, likewise, Jeremiah 31:31-33 promises that God will provide his people with a new heart:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” (emphasis added)

Jeremiah’s clear references to Deuteronomy 4 and 30 in the context of his prophecies about Israel’s glorious future mean that Jeremiah the Prophet, like the Apostle Paul centuries later, understood and interpreted Deuteronomy 30 as a prophecy concerning the giving of a new and better covenant.

Paul did not misinterpret Deuteronomy 30:12-14! Through the Holy Spirit, he applied this passage exactly as Jeremiah the prophet, led by the Spirit, applied this passage on the eve of the Babylonian exile. And both the prophet and the apostle correctly understood the goal of the Torah: the giving of the new covenant and the coming of the Messiah! As Paul says in Romans 10:9-11, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”

[1] ESV reads “Christ.”

[2] ESV reads “Christ.”

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