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Replaced by Moses: A Conversation with Daniel I. Block

Daniel I. Block was in the Logos Mobile Ed studio earlier this month filming a course on Judges, and I had the privilege of sitting down with him for an interview. We discussed Deuteronomy, aprons, Sabbath, Chris Wright, and more.

Dr. Block, thank you for taking the time to chat!

Oh, it’s my pleasure.

First of all, Mike Allen told me to ask you this: what is the worst birthday present you’ve ever received?

On my thirteenth birthday my grandmother made an apron for me. But there’s a story to that because I’m number nine of fifteen children. Thirteen survived. One girl, who’s number three, and the rest are all boys. So in our family, some had to be designated “domestic help.” And for some reason or other, I was designated domestic help. They didn’t ask me! My younger brother was out there driving tractor, and I was in the house peeling potatoes and whatever else. And so, for my thirteenth birthday my grandmother made an apron for me. I was so angry. And my mother said “Shame on you. Here she made this for you!” Dear, dear.

On to serious questions! Out of all of your books and commentaries, is there one that you feel the strongest personal connection to, or one into which you’ve poured the most of your energy?

Of course it’s always the one you’re working on last, but the one that has been most formative in my life was Deuteronomy. It should have come earlier . . . I should have done it first because Judges is a deuteronomic book, and there’s influence of Deuteronomy in Ezekiel. But in the providence of God I worked backwards; I did Ezekiel, then Judges, then Ruth, then Deuteronomy.

The Academy knows me as an Ezekiel scholar. And that’s why my Ezekiel friends at SBL, when they discovered there was a festschrift for me—none of my Ezekiel friends were invited to participate—they were shocked that it was on Deuteronomy! They didn’t actually know that I was really seriously involved in Deuteronomy. But that’s because the boundary between evangelical scholarship and non-evangelical scholarship in Ezekiel—I mean, the gulf between the two is relatively small. Whereas in pentateuchal studies it’s huge. I don’t expect non-evangelicals to take my work seriously. I’m shocked that the Ezekiel people did! But in Deuteronomy I for sure don’t expect it at this stage. I know that if I hadn’t done Ezekiel first, no non-evangelical would take my Deuteronomy work seriously. But because I proved my academic integrity in Ezekiel, they now know they can’t disregard my work in Deuteronomy, even though I have very traditional views on it. I’ve been asked to do the essay for the Oxford Encyclopedia on biblical law. I mean, why would they ask me, a “fundie,” to do this? The editor said “there’ll be lots of other opportunities for other people with other perspectives to give their view, but we want you to do this one.”

So, in long-range terms, I think Moses has changed me the most. When I was working on Ezekiel, I lived with him for fifteen years and I felt like Ezekiel. But he’s been replaced by Moses. And I think the reason is that my living with Moses for a dozen years has opened up the gospel in the whole Old Testament in ways that most people don’t understand. People who haven’t sat in on my class for sure don’t understand.

I know Deuteronomy has been most influential in my life. Long-term, I hope that’s what people remember me for.

In your commentary you refer to Deuteronomy as “the gospel according to Moses.” Can you flesh that out a little bit?

Deuteronomy is all gospel. Front and center. Every thing is grounded in gospel. Chapter 4 is classic—he tells Israel’s story backwards. He ends with the rescue from Egypt. In chapter 4:30–40—it’s not hard to find gospel there! Which god has done for his people what the Lord has done for you? Then just before that you have the grace of covenant. Which god has entered relationship with his people like the Lord your God has? And he invited you to his personal presence. Never happens. And then the first eight verses are the grace of law. When people see what I’ve done, I think that’s the one that surprises them most, because since Luther, it’s been the law/gospel kind of dichotomy. I grew up in a dispensationalist world where we had a huge gulf between the Old and New Testaments. The “age of law” and the “age of grace” and all that, which I have come to see as quite nonsensical. It does not reflect the biblical message. Deuteronomy has far more in common with the Gospel of John than with Hammurabi’s Law Code. And if it’s not the Gospel of John, it is the book of Romans in the Old Testament. I think it’s actually a combination of the two. Because like John, he’s had twenty years to reflect on God’s grace. And Moses kept reminding them, “When you cross that river, don’t forget where you’ve come from!”

It’s all grace. Even the Decalogue starts with grace! “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” That’s gospel. And when you have laws—I rarely use that vocabulary for Deuteronomy—when you have these instructions on righteous living, it’s always in response to grace. So, it’s gospel in the beginning, and the book ends with gospel and grace in the end. The judgment will come; apparently rebellion is inevitable, but it’s not because the  law is the problem. It’s not because the old covenant is the problem. It’s because Israel is the problem. And even then, the judgement will not be the last word. Chapter 30 is brilliant gospel. It’s all gospel.

In Jason DeRouchie’s “Making the Ten Count” essay, which he wrote for your festschrift, he draws some fascinating connections between the Decalogue and the image of God. I’m curious what your thoughts would be on the relationship between the two.

I haven’t worked much with that, but it’s very intriguing. Here’s how I would work with it: Israel was intended to be a microcosm of humanity. Canaan, the land, was supposed to be a microcosm of the world. And in as much as Israel is called to be God’s vassal, governing this environment, they are actually microcosmic of humankind’s place in the world. We are not in our own land; we’re tenants. We are endowed with the status of “image” for the sake of the world, not for our sake. I have written a few things on that. But this is a triangle with God in relationship to his people and his world. And Israel is to embody before the whole world what responsible stewardship of the world is—what humankind was supposed to be from the beginning. And when they do that, shalom reigns.

Let’s talk a little bit about Sabbath in Deuteronomy.  Can you address common misconceptions in Evangelicalism today, or some helpful application that you’ve drawn out of your studies?

In my book on worship, coming out soon—I need to do a course with you guys on a biblical theology of worship!—I have a whole chapter on the drama of worship, in which I talk about the rhythm of life, the 6+1 or 1+6 pattern. The biggest misconception—and I keep finding this among scholars—the biggest misconception is that the seventh-day Sabbath is one of the cultic laws. That couldn’t be further from the truth! The Israelites were keeping the ordinances of the Sabbath long before there was a tabernacle and long before they had formalized Levitical Aaronic sacrifices. It’s in chapter 16 of Exodus, and by the time you get to 20 they’re already practicing it. And when God says “the manna will be six days and the seventh is the Sabbath,” nobody asks “what’s that?” It’s assumed.

The second thing is, if you tried to figure out what people did on the seventh-day Sabbath in the Old Testament—you can’t do it! There is nothing cultic about it. It isn’t tied to the tabernacle; it’s not tied to sacrifices. Now, there are “Sabbaths,” plural. Those are all tied to Israel’s experience of redemption and to the tabernacle. The Sabbaths: new moons, Passover, whatever. That’s a totally differing thing from the Sabbath.

That distinction is incredibly helpful for intertextuality of the Sabbath and New Testament Church application.

Absolutely! But few people pick that up. So you know in Romans when Paul says “some people keep one day, some another,” he uses the plural “Sabbaths” there. We’re not talking about seventh-day Sabbath, he’s talking about festival days. They’re liturgical. But the seventh-day Sabbath has only one function. It has several foundations, but it has one function, and that is stop. Stop your work. Trust God. You don’t have to work seven days! God has given this to you as a gift, and he said he’ll take care of you. And so, it becomes in Deuteronomy, in the Decalogue, a celebration that we’re no longer in Egypt where we worked seven days a week without rest. Don’t go back there! You were slaves in Egypt; now you’re free. But the other thing is, it becomes a day when we celebrate and declare our theological perspective on life. God made the world! We get to live according to the paradigm set by God.

I don’t think the Sabbath is something we have to keep; it’s something we get to keep. It’s an invitation to sabbath, not a command. We have all of that stuff twisted upside down. And I think that’s a huge misconception.

So when it comes to the Sabbath, we’re asking the wrong questions. It’s not “do we have to keep this,” but “do we get to”?

It’s a thing we get to keep, and like all the other laws in Deuteronomy, we shouldn’t be asking “do we have to keep this.” We should be asking “how does the Lord invite us to observe this in our context?” And you know, that’s a totally different issue. With the Sabbath, it’s commonly viewed that for the Christian every day is holy and in Israel one day was holy. Wrong! Every day in Israel was holy for an Israelite! One day is set apart as sanctified in a particular form. It’s not uniquely holy, but its holy-function is unique. I think that’s an important distinction.

Last question: What were the last two books you read, and would you recommend them to anyone else?

Oh my goodness, I’m so utilitarian . . . I read what I have to for the work that I’m having fun with. Are you thinking literature, or . . . ?

Anything: commentary, novel . . .

Chris Wright. Almost anything by Chris Wright is good. I have my students read Knowing Jesus from the Old Testament—the best thing out. Such a wonderful antidote to a lot of stuff that I think is questionable. His Mission of God is fabulous. Almost anything from Chris Wright is fun for me. While we’d have our differences in the fine points of biblical theology, in terms of the spirit of how we read the Old Testament, he’s the closest person out there to where I am.

So your recommendation is not John Grisham?

See, I don’t have time to read John Grisham! I’m having too much fun, I don’t need diversions! My work is my diversion.

Thank you for the interview, Dr. Block. It’s been wonderful getting to know you.

Likewise, we’ll have to do this again next time I film for Mobile Ed!

Get Daniel I. Block’s Commentaries in Logos

Dr. Block has written some of the most renowned commentaries on several books of the Old Testament, for such esteemed sets as the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, the NIV Application Commentary, and the New American Commentary series.

Learn More about Mobile Ed

Daniel I. Block is one of many world-class professors we’ve brought in to film courses for Logos Mobile Education. Learn more about Mobile Ed, or see the list of all the Mobile Ed faculty. With other professors such as Craig Evans, Douglas Moo, John Walton, Lynn Cohick, Dan Doriani, and Darrell Bock, this is an unparalleled theological education right in your software. See all the available Mobile Ed courses now.

 

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Written by
Jonathan Watson

Jon Watson is a minister in training with St. Columbia's Free Church in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Written by Jonathan Watson