Now Choose Life by J. Gary Millar

Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy (New Studies in Biblical Theology No. 6) by J. Gary Millar (Leicester: Apollos, 1998)

As with the other titles in this excellent series, this is a scholarly and thorough study of its subject.  Millar is Associate Minister at Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church in Bangor, County Down, and has a doctorate in OT Studies.  Despite well-documented interaction with the interpretations of other scholars and careful study of the Hebrew text, Millar never gets bogged down in detail.  Throughout the book he always has his eye on how Deuteronomy holds together and functions as a literary and theological whole.  From the very first page it is an encouragement to preach Deuteronomy again, providing both the motivation and the interpretive tools to do so.

The introduction orientates the reader both historically and methodologically. Deuteronomy is made a test-case: if a synthesis of the ethics of one book cannot be produced, there can be little hope of producing one for the whole OT.  Although current fashions favour the presupposition of overwhelming diversity in the OT generally and in Deuteronomy in particular, Millar assumes that a holistic reading of the book is possible. Historical questions are not, however, ignored and diversity is not naively smoothed over.  He does, however, criticise what he sees as an unhealthy preoccupation with form, source, and redaction criticism at the expense of the actual content of the book in its literary and theological coherence.

Throughout the book he tests the notion that Deuteronomy is fundamentally a book concerned with decision, splitting it into three parts: ‘Israel at the place of decision’ (ch. 1-11), ‘The decision spelled out’ (12-26) and ‘The outcome of the decision’ (27-34). The ethics of Deuteronomy are then examined under five headings: covenant, journey, law, the nations and human nature.  Millar effectively shows how each theme shapes and sharpens Deuteronomy’s call to decision.  There are some interesting structural insights along the way, which help us to see the book as a coherent whole.  Chapters 27-34 for example, have often been seen as a jumble of unconnected fragments with little or no connection to the rest of the book.  Millar, however, shows that they play an important theological role, particularly when the motif of Israel’s journey is considered. 

The central section of Deuteronomy (chapters 12-26) is examined in detail to see if there is any validity to the idea that it is structured around the Decalogue of chapter 5.  Millar concludes that such ordering can be a little contrived, and is not sufficiently flexible to accommodate all the details, but in the process of doing so he is emphatic that the theological agenda of the book is paramount even here.  The laws serve the message of the book as a whole.  Further on, he deals with the keenly felt problem of how a book like Deuteronomy can be considered ethical in today’s climate considering its stance towards the Canaanites, which he expounds in line with the message of the rest of the book.

All Hebrew words are transliterated, which may annoy those with Hebrew and be of little real benefit to those without.  It is assumed (and it is essential!) that readers have the text of Deuteronomy open beside them throughout.  Footnotes are never too long (unlike those in Ortlund’s volume in the same series) and often simply give a list of pertinent references in Deuteronomy.  Millar specifically avoids the question of applying Deuteronomy to today’s world which is fair enough given the limited aims of the series.  Now that he has so effectively shown us the big picture and opened up the possibilities, I hope he will give us more on that subject in the future.

This review was first published in Churchman 113/3 (1999).

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