Introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy
Table of Contents
- General Info
- Brief Survey
- Key Verses
- Author and Date
- Historical Background (including Timeline)
- Themes, Purpose & Theology
- Interpretation Hints and Challenges
The word “Deuteronomy” derives from the Greek word Deuterononium meaning “second law” or “repetition of the law”. This English title of the book originated from a minor mistranslation in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT a few hundred years before Christ) of a phrase in 17:18. The proper translation of the Hebrew should have been “copy of this law”. Actually, the Book of Deuteronomy does provide a repetition of the law, but we should emphasize that it is a repetition of the original law given at Sinai, and not a new law. Like the other books of the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses), the Hebrew name comes from the first words, namely ‘elleh haddebarim (These are the words), or simply debarim (words).
The Book of Numbers ends with the Israelites camped just across the Jordan River from Canaan, poised to enter the Promised Land, so we would logically expect Deuteronomy to begin with the conquest of that land. Instead, at the end of the book, Israel is still camped in the same location, and the conquest doesn’t begin until the second chapter of Joshua. God, in His providence, pauses for Moses to review the history of the promises, the exodus, the giving of the law, and the lessons of the wilderness wanderings. Moses also renewed and updated the covenant, reminded the people what God required of them when they entered the land, and transitioned his leadership to Joshua. Moses’ mission is thus accomplished and the Israelites were finally ready to enter the Promised Land.
The importance of Deuteronomy lies not only in its summation and drawing together of many of the key subjects of the Pentateuch, but also that it lays a historical and theological foundation for the books of history that follow in the OT canon. In fact, these later books are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Deuteronomistic History”. The renewed covenant in Deuteronomy would form the basis of Josiah’s reforms (2Kg 22-23) and would guide Israel throughout their history as a nation. Deuteronomy is also quoted frequently in the NT, including Jesus’ rebuttals to Satin during the wilderness temptations.
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The book of Deuteronomy can be considered a farewell address from Moses to the people of Israel prior to his death. Most of the original generation had now died and their children were grown, so in the first few chapters (1:1–4:43), Moses gives a historical recounting of some of the events that brought the Israelites to the brink of entry into the Promised Land.
He then restates the general and specific provisions of the law (4:44–26:19) that was given to their parents at Sinai. This dialogue included instructions for proper worship, a call to remain faithful to God and His covenant, and directives on various subjects relating to life, property, business and other matters. Next (27:1–30:20), Moses renews the covenant and sets before Israel the choice of life or death, blessing or curses (the consequences of obedience or disobedience to the covenant), and advises them to “choose life”.
In the closing section of the book (31:1-34:12), we find Moses wrapping up some loose ends in preparing the people to enter the land. He commissions Joshua as his successor and bestows some final blessing on the Israelites. He then climbed Mt Pisgah, where he viewed the Promised Land, and died in the presence of the Lord, still with good eyesight and the vigor of youth. The book concludes with Israel ready to begin the conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua.
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Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you. (4:1-2)
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (6:4-7)
If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God. (8:19-20)
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. (18:18-19)
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. The LORD will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the LORD your God and walk in his ways. However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him. (28:1,9,15,20)
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (29:29)
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (30:19-20)
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their forefathers to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged." (31:7-8)
When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, "Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you--they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess." (32:45-47)
Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land. Then the LORD said to him, "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, 'I will give it to your descendants.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it." And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face… (34:1,4-5,10)
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Author and Date
Like the other books of the Pentateuch, both Jewish and Christian tradition ascribes the Book of Deuteronomy to Moses. It’s possible that a few minor portions were later added by scribes, but internal (1:1, 31:9,24) and external evidence points to Moses as the author of the essential content. The account of Moses’ death may have been added by Joshua, but since Moses already knew of the circumstances surrounding his death (3:23-28; 31:1-7), he could have pre-written an inspired narrative of it. Other books of the Bible (Jsh 1:7-8, 23:6, 1Kg 2:3, 2Chr 25:4, Ezra 3:2, Mal 4:4, Mt 19:7-8, Lk 20:28, Jn 5:46, Rom 10:19 and many more) presuppose the authorship of Moses. Tradition assumes that the first five books of the Bible were written by the same author based upon the books forming a singular literary unit with a similar Hebrew style and other evidences.
Most of the book’s material was probably written at the camp on the Moab Plains in the latter part of the 1400s BC, shortly before the death of Moses and the entry into the Promised Land. Since God had told him when and where he was to die, Moses could have written the details of his death beforehand, but the last chapter was probably added shortly afterward by Joshua or a scribe.
Some modern critical “scholars” deny that Moses wrote Deuteronomy, often claiming the literary structure to be consistent with the Assyrian treaty texts about the time of Josiah’s reign in the seventh century BC. If, as many scholars believe, Deuteronomy was written in covenant form, archaeologists have discovered Hittite treaties from the time of Moses that are similar in form to the book. Others assert that Deuteronomy was the scroll found in the Temple during the time of Josiah, so it must be written about that time. Deuteronomy was probably the found scroll that formed much of the basis for Josiah’s reforms, but the Bible merely states that it was found, not written, during this time (2Kg 22-23). See Introduction to the Pentateuch - Author for more information, including modern challenges to the authorship.
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In Genesis, we witnessed God’s election of Abraham to be the ancestor of the nation of Israel, and their subsequent preservation in Egypt. After about 400 years in Egypt, God used Moses to rescue them from slavery, deliver the law at Mt Sinai, and to build the tabernacle (aka Tent of the Meeting) for the dwelling of His glory among His people as recorded in Exodus. Leviticus provided God’s instructions at Sinai for proper worship and holy living. In numbers, the Israelites left Sinai to wander in the wilderness for about 40 years, finally camping on the Plains at Moab.
Deuteronomy opens with Israel still camped in Moab, just across the Jordan River from the Promised Land. Moses is about to die, so he will use his final days reminding the new generation of their history, renewing the covenant with God and transferring leadership to Joshua. Thus Deuteronomy is primarily a historical review and a restatement of the covenant laws. In contrast to the straightforward narratives of Leviticus and Numbers, Moses personalized much of the laws to correspond to the current situations. This restating of the laws is consistent with the delivery of the later prophets. There were essentially no new laws given in the OT after the Moses era. The prophets merely adapted and emphasized those laws most appropriate for the present circumstances, without altering the original intended meaning.
See Intro to the Pentateuch for the timeline chart.
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Themes, Purpose and Theology
Moses’ primary purpose in writing Deuteronomy is to prepare the new generation of Israelites to enter the Promised Land. He reviewed Israel’s history from a theological viewpoint in an attempt to avoid a repetition of the same errors made by the exodus generation. He renewed and updated the covenant, encouraging the people to recommit themselves to God, and taught them how they were to live as God’s representatives once they were settled in the land.
The principle theme in Deuteronomy (like much of the OT) is the covenant. The covenant itself was part of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham of a great nation from his descendants. The covenant was the means chosen by God to establish and maintain a relationship between Himself and His chosen people in order to achieve His redemptive purposes to the Jew first, then to all other nations. The laws of the covenant addressed all aspects of individual and corporate life such as family, business, worship, relationships, property, and other civil, social, moral and ethical issues. Jesus later summarized the law as loving God and loving your neighbor.
Along with the amazing honor and privilege of being God’s chosen nation came great responsibility, as seen in the covenant’s blessings and curses, consequences which depended on Israel’s obedience or disobedience to the various stipulations which spelled out His expectations in detail. The curses also underscored the seriousness of sin, but even though the nation would often disregard or rebel against the covenant, we see the faithfulness of God to His promises as he restores their position and fellowship upon their repentance.
Another major theme filtering throughout the book of Deuteronomy is the Sovereignty of God, particularly obvious in His election of the nation of Israel and His providence over their future occupation of the land. This theme, along with that of the covenant with its blessing and curses, will continue to permeate throughout the remainder of the OT, especially in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah and Jeremiah.
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Interpretation Hints and Challenges
There is some disagreement among scholars on several issues relating to the interpretation of Deuteronomy. The primary challenges are the book’s relationship to the other books of Moses, its structure, and its application to us today. We’ll therefore examine these issues as well as a few other matters.
Like the remainder of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy is a historic epic, although its sermonic style sets it apart somewhat from his other books. Most of the material is delivered in a combination of narratives and laws via the speeches of Moses, which also contain instructions, promises and warnings. Since the balance of Scripture consistently views the five books of Moses as a unit, and assumes the reader is familiar with the preceding books, Deuteronomy should be interpreted in context within the Pentateuch. Thus, all events and instructions should be interpreted in the context of God’s covenant promises to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). In particular, we observe God’s faithfulness to His promises in spite of the Israel’s disobedience. At the same time, we should also note that there are definite consequences to the people’s actions.
The second issue involves the formal structure of Deuteronomy. Many respected scholars assert that Moses based the outline of the book upon the secular treaties of his day, noting the similarities with the treaty forms of the mid-second millennium BC. This group typically finds the book approximating a treaty’s basic arrangement, such as preamble (1:1-5), prologue (1:6-4:49), stipulations (5:1-26:15), blessings and curses (26:16-29:1), review (29:2-30:20), reading (31:1-29) and witnesses, oaths and ratification (31:30-32:43). The covenant form is alleged to underscore the seriousness of the promises and consequences for disobedience. There is general concurrence among these scholars on the preamble, prologue, and blessing and curses, but much disagreement as to how the remainder of the book fits the pattern. It is our opinion that it’s probably best to understand the structure of Deuteronomy according to its plain composition, organized around the speeches of Moses. This in no way diminishes the seriousness or importance of the contents.
Another point of disagreement involves the covenant made in Moab in chapter 29. Was this a simple restatement and renewal of the covenant given to the previous generation at Sinai 40 years before (the majority opinion), or did it entail something more, such as guaranteeing the possession of the land (a minority view)? We would rule out the land theory (sometimes called the "Palestinian covenant"), since the new covenant doesn’t appear to offer any new promises that weren’t already given before. We must also however, acknowledge that this was more than a simple restatement of the original covenant since verse 29:1 (28:68 in the Hebrew text) states that the new covenant is “in addition to” or “besides” the previous covenant. We’ve already mentioned that Moses updated the covenant (without changing the original intent) to reflect the current and future circumstances of the new generation. In addition, we also see before (29:4) and after (30:6) comments stressing a change of state in the heart of the people. Thus it is quite possible, and maybe even probable, that Moses was looking forward to the new covenant prophesized by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34) and Ezekiel (36:25-31) which would be inaugurated with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.
A final point of disagreement is, to what extent, if at all, is the moral and ethical application of the laws given in Deuteronomy and indeed, the entire OT still binding on us today? It’s not possible to give a full treatment of the subject here, but we can say that all the OT laws were given as an example and for our instruction (Rom 15:4, 1Cor 10:11). The requirement to follow the various laws should be handled on a case-by-case basis (not to be confused with situational ethics advocated by liberal instructors). Some of the principles of various laws have been modified in the NT while others have been re-confirmed or even strengthened, so we are obviously bound to keep these in order to maintain fellowship with God. Some have been fulfilled (ie the Sacrificial System), but are still useful (sometimes even critical) for our understanding of NT doctrine. Civil and judicial laws were put in primarily to set apart Israel as a theocracy, but a few have provided a foundation for modern law (prohibition against murder, theft etc). Deuteronomy also stipulates that justice should be administered impartially to rich and poor alike. Finally, most of the OT laws reflect the nature and character of God, so we should strive to keep the spirit of these commandments.
A special case within the ethical sphere is that of war, especially God commanding Israel to annihilate her enemies. How can the invasion and conquest of Canaan be justified? While the campaign to settle in the Promised Land may seem immoral from a human perspective, we must remember that the war was led by God against a wicked people whose sin had reached their full extent, so in effect, Israel became God’s instrument to carry out His justice. We’ll have a fuller treatment on this subject in our introduction to Joshua, but we should remember that this authorized war was strictly limited to this OT setting, and should never be used to justify (for or against) war in modern times. Each military campaign must be justified based upon its own merits.
Types (or Foreshadows) in Deuteronomy
In theology, a “type” (Gk typos – see Rom 5:14) is a special picture or symbol which God designs and places at a certain time in history which points forward to a larger or ultimate fulfillment at a later time in history. In relationship to our present time, this later time could now be in the past or still in the future.
We find many types in Deuteronomy which foreshadows persons and events in the NT. The foremost type (in common with the other Books of Moses) is the necessity, yet impossibility of perfectly keeping the law, which required the repeated atoning sacrifices for the sins of the people. This, of course, points forward to the once-for-all atoning sacrifice by Jesus the Christ at the cross (Heb 1:1-18).
To give a few more examples, God’s selection of Israel to be His chosen people foreshadows His election of the NT believers (1Pe 2:9-10). Moses’ intercession for the people (9:19) prefigures Christ’s intercession for us (Heb 7:23-25). The decree establishing a single location for worship in Jerusalem (12:5) foreshadows our only access to God being through Jesus alone (Jn 14:6). The release of debtors during the Jubilee Year (15:2), points to our release from sin through the work of Christ (LK 4:18-19). The raising up of the new prophet (18:18) anticipates the coming of Jesus as the final prophet (Ac 3:22-26).
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The book of Deuteronomy can be divided into four major sections: the three speeches of Moses and the leadership change. Moses’ first speech (1:1–4:43) reviews the historical events which led to Israel’s’ current situation. His second speech recounts the general (4:44–11:32) and specific (12:1–26:19) stipulations of the covenant. His third speech (27:1–28:68) covers the blessings and curses, and ratification of the covenant. The final section records Moses’ blessing, his death and the succession of Joshua.
|1:1 – 4:43
|4:44: - 6:25
|Introduction to the law; Ten Commandments; The Greatest Commandment
|7:1 – 11:32
|A New Call of Commitment to God; The Golden Calf and New Stone Tablets
|12:1 – 16:17
|Rules for Proper Worship; The Sabbatical Year; Jewish Festivals
|16:18 – 18:14
|Leaders, Priests and Levites
|18:15 – 18:22
|A New Prophet Like Moses Foretold
|19:1 – 26:19
|Cities of Refuge; Various Laws on Life, Property, Marriage, Business, and Worship
|27:1 – 28:68
|Blessings and Curses
|29:1 – 30:20
|The Covenant Renewed at Moab; Choice of life and Death
|31:1 – 31:29
|Joshua Commissioned to Succeed Moses
|31:30 – 33:29
|Song of Moses; Moses’ Final Blessing to Israel
|34:1 – 34:12
|The Death of Moses and Succession of Joshua
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