Daniel I. Block. The Triumph of Grace: Literary and Theological Studies in Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Themes. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017.
It is common among Christians to understand law and grace as distinct epochs of salvation history. While once we were under the law, now we are under grace. While the Old Testament demanded a strict and burdensome ethic of the Israelites, the New Testament offers freedom in Christ. It is this false dichotomy that Daniel Block sets out to destroy in his latest work The Triumph of Grace: Literary and Theological Studies in Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Themes.
For Block, the Old (or, as he states, First) and New Testaments do not represent two distinct epochs. Rather, "the contrast between ancient Israel's experience and that which the New Testament makes available was not between law and grace, but between mediated grace and embodied grace" (xiv, emphasis original). As someone who has marinated in Moses' words for the past thirty years, Block is convinced that the message of Deuteronomy is not burdensome and oppressive. Rather, for Block, the message of Deuteronomy is Gospel, for God has decided to be God for Israel and give them life.
As The Triumph of Grace is not a book with a cohesive narrative, or a commentary in the traditional sense, but rather a collection of essays which spans a variety of topics, reviewing the entirety of the book would be a difficult, lengthy, and tedious task. Rather, in what follows, I want to briefly examine two of the book's exceptional essays in an attempt to put on display how Block understands and communicates grace in the book of Deuteronomy. My selection of these essays was not simply the two that I enjoyed reading the most (although I did enjoy the essays I examine), but also took into account themes that Christians may not typically understand to be grace-full. The first essay I will examine is chapter 5: Deuteronomic Law. The typical Christian understanding of Deuteronomic is that law is the antithesis of grace or Gospel. Second, I will examine chapter 10: "O Day of Rest and Gladness: Rediscovering the Gift of Sabbath. More and more, western Christians seem to be discarding this divine gift, a gift that was given for our sake.
In chapter 5: Deuteronomic Law, Block identifies the laws contained in the book of Deuteronomy as one of Israel's four constitutional documents (the others being Exod 20:2-17; Exod 20:22-23:19; Lev 17-26). Deuteronomy is one of Israel's constitutional documents because the book defines "the boundaries of Israel's conduct before the deity (YHWH), each other, and the outside world" (89).
Block identifies a variety of recent critical interpretations of Deuteronomic Law that have dominated the scholarship: (1) some have focused on the forms of the laws; (2) many scholars focused on searching for the origins of the laws; (3) some have focused on the relationship between the Deuteronomic Law and nonbiblical texts; (4) some have tried to identify layers of text within the Deuteronomic Law until they arrive at an original core; and (5) many explore how the Deuteronomic Law relates to other constitutional texts, especially of the Covenant and the Holiness Codes (92-96).
While Block's identification of these varying streams of interpretation illustrate his attention to critical scholarship, he ultimately dismisses them as speculative. Rather, for Block "the best clues to the laws' significance reside in the ordinances and the contexts in which they occur" (96). Block is much more interested in the theological significance of the Deuteronomic Law than the critical issues that scholars have recently brought to the table. Because of this, Block devotes the majority of his essay to identifying six theological postulates of the Deuteronomic Law: (1) Deuteronomy views the law as a divine gift; (2) Deuteronomy envisions a community based upon covenant rather than on law; (3) the primary objective of Deuteronomic Law is the creation of a righteous society; (4) Deuteronomic Law is especially concerned to protect those who are economically and socially vulnerable from abuse at the hands of those with economic and social power; (5) Deuteronomic Law reflects a profoundly democratic impulse; and (6) Deuteronomic Law demands exclusive and unqualified allegiance to YHWH (96-103).
When viewed as a whole, these six postulates of Deuteronomic Law begin to present the reader with a vision of communal and covenantal life with YHWH and neighbor, rather than a life of burden and oppression under a divine tyrant. The law itself becomes a means of grace insofar as it presents a vision of human flourishing alongside YHWH and neighbor.
Turning to chapter 10: "O Day of Rest and Gladness: Rediscovering the Gift of Sabbath, Block argues that "in evangelical circles today, there is a strong push to get rid of the Sabbath as an unwelcome and quite unnecessary vestige of Old Covenant and Puritanical (or in my context, Anabaptist/Mennonite) legalism" (199). Block contrasts the ritual of his years growing up in rural Saskatchewan with the dominant rituals of today. While his growing up years were spent slowing down on Sundays, today Christians are so distracted that we find it difficult to slow down one day a week. Because of this, Block's task in this chapter is to address the question "What is the theological significance of rest and Sabbath-keeping?" (200).
Much like his chapter on Deuteronomic Law, in this chapter Block develops five theses on First testament teaching the Sabbath: (1) The vocabulary associated with the seventh-day Sabbath highlights its primary significance as a cessation of the daily creative work involved in administering the world as God's vice regents and in maintaining the life of the family and community; (2) Israel's seventh-day Sabbath was a sacred institution; (3) Israel's Sabbath was a humanitarian, rather than a cultic institution; (4) Israel's seventh-day Sabbath was a fundamentally covenantal observance; (5) Israel's seventh-day Sabbath was to be received as a gift that made Israel the envy of the world (201-19).
These theses are paralleled in five theological and practical reflections: (1) the seventh-day Sabbath served a humanitarian agenda, offering Israelite workers an opportunity to catch their breath and be refreshed for the work required in the week to follow; (2) the Exodus version of the Decalogue presents the Sabbath as an opportunity for Israelites to declare their fundamentally theological perspective on life; (3) keeping the Sabbath was an act of faith; (4) if Israel's seventh-day Sabbath was a fundamentally covenantal observance, it was the sigh to YHWH and the world that those in this quiet and tranquil household belonged to YHWH, and they were celebrating that relationship by demonstrating their trust in him to take care of them not only the seventh day, but throughout the year; (5) the Sabbath both reminded Israelites of the shalom of Eden past and symbolized the Edenic future that awaits the cosmos as a whole (219-23).
In the New Testament, we read of Jesus' declaration that “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath" (Mark 2:26, NRSV). Block's vision of Sabbath, developed through a careful examination of the First Testament, parallels Jesus' declaration. Sabbath is a gift from God for humankind, a gift that eases the burden of life and reminds the Israelite's of God's role as creator and sustainer.
Albeit briefly, above I have explicated two of the essays contained within The Triumph of Grace in an attempt to display how Block understands grace to be embedded in the First Testament. Ultimately, God acting in history to claim the nation of Israel as his people was an act of grace out of which more grace flows as Israelites live into their calling as God's people
My understanding of what makes a good secondary source is that it ignites a passion in the reader that drives them to read and engage the source being examined. Similarly, Block's hope in publishing this collection of essays is as follows: "I pray that my delight in the grace of God as revealed and recounted in the Torah of Moses will be contagious, and that readers will grasp the life-giving and life-transforming Torah of YHWH" (xvi). As such, The Triumph of Grace is an overwhelming success as in reading it, the reader is grabbed by the message of Deuteronomy in such a way that they have no option but to engage the text for themselves. Thus, the strength of Block's work is the way in which the message is not about Block, but about the way in which YHWH worked in the lives of Israel and continues to work today in the lives of his covenant people. Deuteronomy is a book for the church today, and in our reading of it, the church learns how to better live in fellowship with both God and neighbor. Therefore, The Triumph of Grace is essential reading for all who are trying to understand the message of Deuteronomy today.