Deuteronomy

The English title Deuteronomy comes from the Greek Deuteronomium, which means ‘second law’. This title usefully points to Deuteronomy’s relationship to the rest of the Pentateuch. Deuteronomy is an authoritative repetition of the law described in the previous books. The law was first given at Mount Sinai to the Israelites who had experienced the exodus from Egypt. Deuteronomy is delivered forty years later to their children. A close comparison of the earlier laws – especially those in Exodus 21–23 – with Deuteronomy reveals a number of similarities. The laws in Deuteronomy have been revised, often by giving them new emphases.

The heart of Deuteronomy is the law-code which is found in Deuteronomy 12–26. These laws cover a number of issues relating to Israel’s subsequent life in the Promised Land, including sacrificial worship (chapter 12), loyalty to Israel’s God (chapter 13), festivals (chapter 16), officials (chapters 16–18), warfare (chapter 20), marriage and sexual intercourse, purity, loans, theft, and property (chapters 21–25).

The surrounding chapters form a framework around the law, which consists of stories, appeals, and poetry. These seek to motivate the Israelites to obey the laws. In particular, they describe the law-code as the terms of a covenant, or agreement, between God and Israel. Israel will enjoy a special relationship with God, but it is obliged to obey the law which God has given. If they obey, they will enjoy God’s blessing, but if they disobey they will suffer his curse (Deuteronomy 27–28).

Deuteronomy can be viewed as a series of four speeches by Moses. Each speech is introduced by a short-title in the form ‘This is…’ or ‘These are’:

  • ‘These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel.’ (1:1)
  • ‘This is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites.’ (4:44)
  • ‘These are the words of the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses.’ (28:69 [29:1])
  • ‘This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites.’ (33:1)

The first speech (1:1–4:40) rehearses Israel’s history from Mount Sinai to the day when Moses speaks, concluding with a sermon that draws some lessons from the Israelites’ experiences. The second speech (4:44–28:68) begins with a lengthy sermon insisting on Israel’s loyalty to the one God (5:1–11:31) and followed by the law-code with its blessings and curses (12:1–28:68). The third speech (29:1–32:52) includes an exhortation to obey the law. It begins to look to the future after Moses’ death and makes arrangements for how Moses will be replaced. The fourth speech is a blessing on the individual tribes (33:1–29). The book concludes with Moses ascending Mount Nebo, where he views the Promised Land before dying (34:1–12).

Date and authorship

The book is narrated by an anonymous individual, but most of the words of the book are set on Moses’ lips. Traditionally, then, the book was attributed to Moses, with the recognition that the final chapter must have been composed by someone else, perhaps Joshua. The book’s narrative setting places it early in the history of the Israelite people, shortly after the exodus from Egypt, but before the times of the Judges and the monarchy. Thus, the Bible’s own chronology would place the book in the 5th century BCE.

Deuteronomy claims to be an authoritative instruction about Israel’s conduct in the land. However, it appears to be unknown at many points in Israel’s history, and even unfamiliar to the prophets. It only comes to prominence in Israel’s history in Josiah’s reign (622 BCE) when a ‘book of the law’ is discovered in the temple. The subsequent reform, described in 2 Kings 22–23, has a number of similarities with Deuteronomy’s teaching. In 1805, Wilhelm M. L. de Wette famously suggested that Deuteronomy was not re-discovered, but written in order to be discovered. In other words, Deuteronomy or something like it originated in the 7th century BCE.

The majority of critical scholars hold that the first version of Deuteronomy originated in the 7th century BCE, but there are some who have argued that the book comes from the exilic or early post-exilic period. Advocates of this later dating often point to the subdued role of the monarchy in Deuteronomy. There have also always been conservative scholars who advocate an earlier dating, such as in the time of the Judges. Whenever the first edition of Deuteronomy was written, many scholars hold that the book was subsequently edited and expanded.

Interpretation

The book of Deuteronomy has a distinctive theology. Particularly notable is its emphasis on worship at a single place that God himself will choose. This seems to contrast with the perspective on worship seen in Israel’s history and in Exodus 20:22–26. They allow for multiple shrines. Was Deuteronomy intended to be a replacement of the law in Exodus 20–23, using its vocabulary but radically shifting its ideas? How are Exodus and Deuteronomy to be read and interpreted together as part of one Torah?

Another central idea in Deuteronomy is covenant: the relationship of loyalty between God and Israel. There is no agreement on whether this important metaphor originated with Deuteronomy, but the idea is certainly worked out in detail in Deuteronomy. From here it has influenced many other parts of the Old Testament. The idea of covenant is derived from the world of diplomacy and international relations. Indeed, we could translate ‘covenant’ as ‘treaty’, and Deuteronomy shows many similarities with ancient treaties, especially those known from 7th-century BCE Assyria. How did it happen that a treaty between a foreign potentate and subject nations was taken over with God as the main treaty partner? Is the book of Deuteronomy to be viewed as a subversion of Assyrian treaties, such that loyalty is to be shown to Israel’s God rather than the Assyrian overlord?

Reception history

Deuteronomy’s theology is not only distinctive, but also influential. Its perspective has influenced the retelling of Israel’s history in the books from Joshua to 2 Kings, as well as prophetic books like Jeremiah or Malachi. In the New Testament Deuteronomy is one of the most cited books with a noticeable influence in Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s epistles. The confession “Hear O Israel, the LORD, our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your strength” (6:4–5) is a key component of Jewish daily prayer and is identified as the “greatest commandment” by Jesus. The idea of covenant has been particularly influential within Protestant thought and Reformed theology.

Further reading

Clements, R. E. Deuteronomy. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT, 1989.
Nelson, Richard D. Deuteronomy. OTL. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002.