Reading Deuteronomy: An interview with Stephen Cook
Reading Deuteronomy: An interview with Stephen Cook

Reading Deuteronomy cover

Key Resources‘s Kyle Oliver recently interviewed Stephen Cook, VTS professor of Old Testament and author of Reading Deuteronomy.

Kyle Oliver: What have you learned about teaching the Bible in parishes?

Stephen Cook: Let me say that I’ve been honored and delighted to be regularly invited to teach and preach in churches, doing adult forums, Lenten series, and many other such programs and events. People are generally very welcoming and their questions are usually fascinating, challenging, and fun.

My presentations tend to be highly interactive with plenty of give and take and usually involve a lot of virtual reality, audio, and visual. I also tend to use a lot of humor, which I am usually surprised to find that people do not expect, but enjoy.

So, one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s important for leaders in the parish to help people loosen up and enjoy the Bible and enjoy church.

A second challenge is to help people in the pews develop an ear for hearing the Bible theologically. Our contemporary culture and the spirit of the age has people very much thinking in terms of politics, ideology, and history in reading the Bible. We have great skills at reading Scripture “suspiciously.” People’s questions therefore are often about duplicitous motives and hidden agendas behind the Scriptures.

What’s missing are ears tuned to what the Spirit is saying through the texts. We need to focus on God’s word for Christian theology, discipleship, and ministry.

That’s where my new book is strongly oriented. It does not at all neglect history and ancient society, but the focus is on the Bible’s theological and spiritual witness.

The book also focuses on the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. That’s a third huge challenge in the parishes today. We have got to do all we can to help the church remember that we have two testaments in the Bible, and that the Old Testament is crucial for us in the contemporary world.

Many people in the parishes, including even many clergy leaders, actually disparage a wonderful book like Deuteronomy. They speak of it as if it were somehow sub-Christian, or at best, pre-Christian. That’s a crying shame! My book pushes back against this trend full steam.

KO: How would you recommend formation leaders adapt biblical scholarship for congregational study? If we’d like to use Reading Deuteronomy in our parish, what are some ways we might proceed?

SC: I was hoping that you would ask me that! The books in this series are specifically designed for congregational study. They are written to be read and enjoyed, both by group leaders and by group participants.

Unlike traditional commentaries, they do not proceed verse by verse through the biblical books. Instead, they engage with large sections and the theology and spirituality in those section. One does not get lost in minutia and tangential asides.

Thus, these books are so much easier to enjoy than traditional commentaries. As our seminary dean and president put it, the book is “not disturbed by intrusive academic discussion.”

Parishes are trying a number of really cool and creative ways of using Reading Deuteronomy in study groups and forums. Many leaders start their planning by considering how many sessions their series will have, for example, a quick two-week series, a five-week Lenten series, or an extended ten-week series.

For a four or five week series, it is nice that Deuteronomy is divided into four great sections, three sermons of Moses plus an epilogue. A parish study could do an introductory session on background, and then a week on each of the book’s major sections.

For a ten-week series, it is nice that Deuteronomy organizes itself around the ten commandments. A parish study could take the commandments one by one, and look at how Deuteronomy makes them urgent and relevant for today’s world.

Another type of parish study might organize itself around “hard” theology in the Bible, with one or two challenging topics per week:

  • Why does God command Moses (and Jesus) to die in Scripture?
  • Is God a moral monster, commanding genocide in Deuteronomy?
  • Isn’t Deuteronomy a book of strict legalism, which is now superseded and nailed to the cross by Jesus?
  • Doesn’t Deuteronomy wrongly claim that human suffering is caused by sin, thus “blaming the victims” of the world?

You can see just by these sample questions that many Christians (and their priests) have serious confusion and misunderstanding about Deuteronomy. My book directly confronts and corrects these serious misapprehensions and objections that swirl around the book. I was very conscious that I had to push back hard against a lot of wrong thinking in the church.

KO: What does every Christian need to know about Deuteronomy?

Essentially, Christians need to know that Deuteronomy is not optional in their growth in the faith. We are not talking about icing on the cake, but about the cake itself.

The book of Deuteronomy is really central in both Judaism and Christianity. It has loomed large at pivotal moments of God’s work on Earth that Jews and Christians remember and celebrate.

When the prophet Jeremiah, suffering and weeping, guided Judah through destruction and exile, he did so with the wind of Deuteronomy in his sail. When Jesus of Nazareth wrestled to inaugurate the reign of God, his thinking and teaching often came straight from Deuteronomy.

Yet, Deuteronomy today is often neglected or disparaged. Most people of faith do not know about its centrality in the Bible and the nature of its powerful theology and spirituality. My new book tries very hard to set this right.

KO: What does Deuteronomy have to say about the forming of faith?

SC: Forming faith is not a topic within Deuteronomy but actually the purpose of the entire book!  Moses’s role in Deuteronomy is not to impose a deadening conformity to a strict set of rules but patiently to teach God’s people a path of human formation that lives into God’s freely offered salvation.

Deuteronomy is about the formation of renewed persons, newly graced with abundant, God-directed life. The lifestyle advocated in Deuteronomy molds people so that they embody God’s ways. Its rhythms constantly turn people to God’s purposes.

Deuteronomy understands that shaping individuals and communities truly to embody God’s teaching means encouraging changes in overt behavior but also transforming inner lives. Thus, on nearly every page, Deuteronomy’s literary style aims at the later goal.

Because of its spiritual power, reading the book of Deuteronomy is truly life changing for the Christian. Please, do not deprive yourself of the experience or even consider putting it off until a good time comes!

Stephen Cook (@DrStephenLCook) is an author and professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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