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by Donald C. Fleming
After receiving the law at Mount Sinai, Israel spent about forty years in the wilderness region between Sinai and Canaan. During this time those who were adults when Israel left Sinai died and a new generation grew up (Numbers 14:28-35). Moses therefore repeated and explained the law for the people of this new generation before they entered Canaan. This instruction was given during the last two weeks of Moses’ life, while Israel was camped on the plains of Moab making preparations to conquer Canaan (Numbers 22:1; Numbers 35:1; Deuteronomy 1:1-5).
Because this instruction involved a repetition of the law given at Sinai, the book that records it is known as Deuteronomy (from two Greek words, deuteros, meaning ‘second’, and nomos, meaning ‘law’). This was not the original title, but was given by the translators of the Septuagint, the first Greek version of the Old Testament. Also Deuteronomy was not originally an individual book, but was part of one long book that has for convenience been divided into five parts, together known as the Pentateuch. (Concerning the Pentateuch and the Septuagint see introductory notes to Genesis.)
Restating the law; renewing the covenant
The book of Deuteronomy is, however, much more than a mere repetition of the law; it is also an exposition. It restates the commandments of the law but with a different emphasis. The laws recorded in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers gave the clearcut legal requirements; Deuteronomy, though it does not lessen those requirements, adds that Israel’s religion must have more than legal correctness. It must have spiritual warmth.
Deuteronomy’s style is that of the preacher rather than the lawgiver, and its audience the people as a whole rather than the priests and judges (Deuteronomy 8:5-6; Deuteronomy 10:12-13). Its emphasis is that the people should keep God’s law because they want to know and love him better, not merely because they are required to do so by the covenant (Deuteronomy 6:3,Deuteronomy 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 7:7-8,Deuteronomy 7:11).
The covenant is the basis of Deuteronomy, but the relationship between God and his people within that covenant should be one of love. The sovereign love of God towards his people should produce a response of obedient love towards him (Deuteronomy 5:6-7; Deuteronomy 6:1-3). (For the meaning of the word ‘covenant’ see notes on Genesis 9:8-17. For the specific meaning of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel see notes on Exodus 19:1-9.)
In his grace God chose Israel to be his people and promised to give them Canaan as their national homeland (Deuteronomy 7:6-7; Deuteronomy 8:1; Deuteronomy 9:4-5). But if the people were to enjoy the blessings of the covenant in loving fellowship with God, they had to know his law and keep it. The previous generation swore covenant loyalty to God at Sinai (Exodus 24:7-8), but failed him badly. Now that the new generation was about to enter Canaan, the covenant was renewed. Moses repeated the law and the people gave a fresh pledge of obedience (Deuteronomy 26:17-18).
Ancient covenant documents
The form of Deuteronomy is similar to that of the usual covenant document of the ancient Near East, by which a sovereign overlord made a covenant, or treaty, with his subject peoples. Such a treaty was not a negotiated agreement, but a statement by the overlord declaring his sovereignty over the people and laying down the order of life he required of them. The people had no alternative but to accept the overlord’s terms.
Usually the document began with an historical introduction where the overlord announced himself and recounted all he had done for his people. Then followed a list of covenant obligations that he placed on the people. Their underlying duty at all times was to be loyal to him and not to act treacherously by forming alliances with foreign powers. After the basic requirements came detailed laws that dealt with specific local issues.
The treaty usually named witnesses. It also contained details of the benefits that would follow the people’s obedience and the punishments that would follow their disobedience. The document was then lodged for safekeeping in the sanctuary of the subject people. It provided, however, for periodic public readings and for updating of the details from time to time. It may have concluded with a summary of the covenant’s main requirements or a guarantee to continue the covenant as long as the people remained faithful to their obligations.
In relation to the covenant between God and Israel, most of these features can be seen in the accounts given in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Joshua. In the case of Deuteronomy, not only are the above features obvious, but the entire book seems to have been written in the form of a treaty document.
Basic requirements of the covenant
Conditions of the covenant
Moses’ last days
the Fifth Week after Easter