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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 31

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Again in this chapter we have a problem with Deuteronomy 31:1, regarding whether it concludes the preceding chapters or looks forward to the next chapters. “The Septuagint (LXX) considered it as the conclusion of what preceded; and the KJV and the RSV (along with our own version, the ASV) believe that Deuteronomy 31:1. refers to what follows. It is difficult to know which is meant.”(F1) We see no valid reason for departing from the ASV.

There are a number of very interesting events recorded in this chapter, quite a few of which might be called “the last actions of Moses.”

These final chapters continue to be Mosaic in their entirety. Nothing has frustrated critics any more than this. As Nicholson said, “The most perplexing difficulty in attempting to analyze the literary growth of Deuteronomy is the remarkable homogeneity in language, style, and ideology which pervades the book.”(F2) To us, such a remark is laughable. What else should the critics have expected of a portion of that larger work called the Pentateuch, which for thousands of years has been universally understood as the writing of Moses? What Nicholson wrote is solid evidence that the old traditions are correct and that Moses indeed wrote the “Five Books.” This “homogeneity” that Nicholson mentioned is no slight thing at all; he confessed that “the differences” in various parts of the writings of Moses “are slight, amounting to no more than a nuance in syntax, or at most a short phrase.”(F3) No wonder Von Rad admitted that this portion of the Pentateuch “confronts the commentator who seeks to analyze it with a thoroughly complicated state of affairs!”(F4) It is no problem for the believer that the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34) was probably added to the Pentateuch by Joshua, and possibly also the song and benediction (Deuteronomy 32-33), although written by Moses might also have been actually included in the book by Joshua. Joshua also was fully inspired, and as Sir Isaac Newton said, “Joshua wrote some things in the book of the Law of God (Joshua 24:26). These were public books and not written without the authority of Moses and Joshua.”(F5) It seems to us that among those things that Joshua wrote in the Law of God, the passages in these final chapters pointed out above were probably included. Of course, there may be some who insist that Moses wrote every word of Deuteronomy. Of such persons, McGarvey said:

“A very small number of persons with extreme views of inspiration, have expressed the opinion that Moses, by inspiration, wrote this account and all those comments at the end of the book; and destructive critics have sometimes cited this fact to discredit that great host of able scholars who believe in the Mosaic authorship of the whole Pentateuch. This is unworthy of men claiming to be critics. We could as well quote many of the silly comments advanced by unskilled advocates of critical positions!”(F6)

Verses 1-8

“And Moses went and spake these words unto all Israel. And he said unto them, I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in: and Jehovah hath said unto me, Thou shalt not go over this Jordan. Jehovah thy God, he will go over before thee; he will destroy these nations from before thee, and thou shalt dispossess them: and Jehovah, he shall go over before thee, as Jehovah hath spoken. And Jehovah will do unto them as he did to Sihon and to Og, the kings of the Amorites, and unto their land, whom he destroyed. And Jehovah will deliver them up before you, and ye shall do unto them according to all the commandment which I commanded you. Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be affrighted at them: for Jehovah thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee. And Moses called unto Joshua, and said unto him in the sight of all Israel, Be strong and of good courage; for thou shalt go with this people into the land which Jehovah hath sworn unto their fathers to give them; and thou shalt cause them to inherit it. And Jehovah, he it is that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee nor forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.”

“And Moses went and spake” (Deuteronomy 31:1). Alexander is correct in the affirmation that “this does not mean that Moses went anywhere!”(F7) A similar passage in the N.T. is, “Jesus went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19); and there also, the meaning is not that Jesus went anywhere. It was merely a redundant way of saying that he preached. If a judge dismisses a criminal with the command, “Go and behave yourself,” the meaning is not that the person is commanded to go anywhere. Many ancient writers used this type of language. Herodotus often wrote: “he spoke, saying,” “speaking, he said,” etc. Barnes compared the expression “he went and preached” to such expressions by Herodotus.(F8) James Macknight also agreed with this.(F9) This O.T. example of this rather unusual type of idiom is valuable in that it sheds light on the many foolish theories based on 1 Peter 3:19, concerning what Jesus did while he was dead and buried! Again from Macknight:

“If Christ is said by Paul to go and do what he did by his apostles (Ephesians 2:17), then the apostle Peter with equal propriety may say that Christ “went and preached” by the hands of Noah.”(F10)

The true meaning here is that the speaking Moses did “was the consequence of his having arranged, disposed, or set himself to speak.”(F11)

“I can no more go out and come in” (Deuteronomy 31:2). It is unfair to contrast these words with what was said of Moses in Deuteronomy 34:7, that his eye was not dim nor his natural strength unabated, as if the two statements were incompatible. Moses was saying here that he was no longer able to lead the people, and, in view of his advanced age, it is remarkable that he had been able to lead them so long. The contradiction that critics are always hunting, nothing else whatever in the Sacred Text being of any interest to them, does NOT exist. Moses did not say here that he was blind and no longer able to move about. What he said was that he was no longer able to “go in and out” as the leader of Israel. The 120 years of Moses’ life were lived as follows: forty years in the courts of Pharaoh, forty years in Midian with Jethro, and forty years leading Israel to the banks of the Jordan. In Deuteronomy 31:2, Moses was not thinking of his abilities as they existed at that moment, but of the strength that future leadership in the wars of Canaan would require. Cook stated that it would be preferable to render the passage, “I shall not longer be able to go out and come in.”(F12)

“And Joshua, he shall go over before thee, as Jehovah hath spoken” (Deuteronomy 31:3). These words, spoken publicly and formally before all Israel, constituted Moses’ resignation of the leadership of Israel and the appointment of Joshua as his successor. Joshua was a mighty man of war, having won a great victory over the Amalekites shortly after the Exodus, but it should be remembered that Joshua was some forty-two years younger than Moses. At the time of his appointment to succeed Moses, “Joshua was 78 years of age; he died 32 years later at age 110 (Joshua 24:29).”(F13) God had already approved this transfer of authority in Numbers 27:17, but here the formal transfer occurs.

“Be strong and of good courage” (Deuteronomy 31:6-7). This commandment, delivered first to the people and a moment later to Joshua, has been the marching order for God’s people in all ages. “Paul seems to have borrowed this in 1 Corinthians 16:13, where we have, `Stand firm in the faith, play the man, be vigorous,’ - act like heroes.”(F14)

Verses 9-13

“And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, that bare the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, and unto all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before Jehovah thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and thy sojourner that is within thy gates, that thou may hear, and that they may learn, and fear Jehovah your God, and observe to do all the words of this law; and that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear Jehovah your God, as long as ye live in the land whither ye go over the Jordan to possess it.”

“And Moses wrote this law” (Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:11; Deuteronomy 31:13). This law in these passages, and throughout the O.T., is not a reference to Deuteronomy or any part of Deuteronomy in any exclusive sense. Dummelow parroted the arrogant assignment of this expression to such a restricted meaning, as follows: “`This law’ means the Deuteronomic law, especially Deuteronomy 12-26.”(F15) There is no way that such a limited definition of “this law” can be accepted. Sir Isaac Newton stated that the copy of “the law” discovered in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign over Israel was none other than “The Pentateuch,” the same volume owned by the Samaritans, the Torah, as it is called today. “Since the Pentateuch was received as `the book of the Law’ both by the Two Tribes and the Ten Tribes, it follows that they received it before they became divided into two kingdoms… Therefore The Pentateuch was the Book of the Law in the days of David and Solomon.”(F16) Of course, Sir Isaac Newton had not consulted Dummelow! He arrived at that conclusion by attention to what the Word of God says; and that Word of God still says what it always has said, that the first five books of our O.T. are “this law.”

As Keil also discerned, “Ezra did not regard the Book of Deuteronomy as the true national law-book, like the critics of our day.”(F17) We might add that “nobody” for thousands of years, ever heard of such a limitation as the current school of unbelieving critics have vainly sought to impose upon sacred terminology.

How, it may be asked, do enemies of God’s Word attempt to establish their dogmatic rejection of the whole Pentateuch as “this law” so frequently mentioned in the O.T.? Their principal argument, and usually admitted by them to be their main argument, is that the “reading of the book of the law” discovered in the reign of Josiah is represented as having taken place in a single day or so. This is merely imagination at work. There is not a line in the Bible that indicates “how long” the various readings mentioned in that connection required, and we may be certain that the time-argument in that context is worthless. Also, the various commandments throughout the Bible regarding reading of the “the Law,” were probably never anything very much beyond “symbolical readings.” The Holy Bible teaches this. For example, Paul declared in Acts 13:15 that both “the law and the prophets” were read at a single sabbath day service! And in Acts 13:27, indicated that this was done “every sabbath.” It merely means that selected passages from “the law” and the prophets were read every sabbath; and it is definitely not an affirmation that the entire O.T. (or a major part of it) were read publicly every week. Cook therefore was correct when he declared that, “This reading every seven years was evidently a symbolical transaction.”(F18) When a man today says, `They read the Bible every Sunday at church,” he means merely that they “read from the Bible.” In this light, not only from every-day language, but from the Bible itself, how worthless are those silly arguments based upon how long some scheming critic thinks it might have taken to read `Deuteronomy?

Note also in Deuteronomy 31:9 that Moses gave a copy of “this Law” to all of the elders of Israel, indicating as Phillips pointed out, that, “both clerical and lay leaders were entrusted with the care of the written law.”(F19)

It is merely a quibble that Moses could not actually have written such large volumes, but it should be remembered that Moses’ authority was hardly less than that of an absolute monarch, and, at his disposal, were countless men who had the ability to write. And, as far as the physical possibility of it is concerned, the Jewish tradition that Moses wrote twelve copies of the whole Pentateuch and gave a copy to the leader of each of the Twelve Tribes, is in no way unreasonable. The only reason for obscuring or ignoring this obvious truth is that doing so makes it easier to postulate the “total loss” of God’s law prior to that discovery of Deuteronomy in the reign of Josiah.

Verses 14-23

“And Jehovah said unto Moses, Behold, thy days approach that thou must die: call Joshua, and present yourselves at the tent of meeting, that I may give him a charge. And Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting. And Jehovah appeared in the Tent in a pillar of cloud: and the pillar of cloud stood over the door of the Tent. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and play the harlot after the strange gods of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them. Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide my face in that day for all the evil that they shall have wrought, in that they are turned to other gods. Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel. For when I shall have brought them into the land which I sware unto their fathers, flowing with milk and honey, and they shall have eaten and filled themselves and waxed fat; then will they turn to other gods, and serve them, and despise me, and break my covenant. And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: for I know their imagination which they frame this day, before I have brought them into the land which I sware. So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel. And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, Be strong and of good courage; for thou shalt bring the children of Israel into the land which I sware unto them: and I will be with thee.”

The great Theophany here is the major part of this paragraph. God Himself appeared to Moses and Joshua in the Tent, the same being the tabernacle, erected upon the express command of God to Moses, as recorded earlier in the Pentateuch. The pillar of cloud which had been a prominent accompaniment of their wilderness journeys appears here one more time, and the terrible prophecy about the future of Israel which was uttered by the Lord must have been a source of great grief to Moses and Joshua alike.

“The tent of meeting here is the tabernacle.”(F20) The repeated commands in this chapter that Moses should “write,” first the law, then this song (in the next chapter), are proof, “That there is absolutely no question whatever as to the contemporary nature of this record, and thus of the basic Mosaicity of Deuteronomy.”(F21) Furthermore, this certainty is by no means restricted to Deuteronomy. Moses did not write one book, but five! And no writer is supposed to sign every page of a letter. The fact of Moses’ name being affixed so surely at this point constitutes a signature to the whole Pentateuch.

The remarkable event here, in which God Himself appeared to the departing and incoming commanders of Israel “may be viewed as the solemn inauguration of Joshua.”(F22)

“Play the harlot after the strange gods in the land” (Deuteronomy 31:16) In the KJV, this is “go a-whoring after strange gods,” and, as Scott said, “It may be taken in a literal sense,”(F23) due to the licentious orgies that were a cardinal feature of the worship of Canaanite gods.

Why should the Lord have chosen this dramatic moment to reveal in such blunt language the future apostasy and ruin of Israel? Cook thought it was done as a warning for Joshua, that “he should be fully aware of the dangers and strive to avert them.”(F24) Joshua was successful, for “Israel served Jehovah all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, and had known all the work of Jehovah, that he had wrought for Israel (Joshua 24:31).” Nevertheless, near the end of Joshua’s ministry, “He repeated the very same warnings and predictions found in this paragraph.”(F25)

It is of interest to note that “even before Israel entered Canaan (Deuteronomy 31:21),” “They were already making plans for various practices in which they could participate as soon as they crossed over the Jordan, and nearly the whole Book of Judges chronicles the historical accuracy of this prediction.”(F26)

“Write this song” (Deuteronomy 31:19) was addressed to both Moses and Joshua, “since the verb is plural.”(F27) This, of course, might indicate that Joshua “wrote” it in the sense of copying into the Book of the Law, after Moses had composed and written it down. “This song” is a reference to the song recorded in the next chapter.

“He gave Joshua…a charge” (Deuteronomy 31:23). The subject here is “God.” It was God, not Moses, who gave Joshua the charge.(F28)

Verses 24-30

“And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, that bare the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, saying, Take this book of the law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of Jehovah your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee. For I have known thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against Jehovah; and how much more after my death? Assemble unto me all the elders of your tribes, and your officers, that I may speak these words in your ears, and call heaven and earth to witness against them. For I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days; because ye will do that which is evil in the sight of Jehovah, to provoke him to anger through the work of your hands. “And Moses spake in the ears of all the assembly of Israel the words of this song, until they were finished.”

Moses’ writing is mentioned again in Deuteronomy 31:24. “The first command for Moses to write occurs in Exodus 17:14, and this is the last mention of his doing so. From early times Jewish tradition has included the whole Pentateuch in `the Book of the Law.’“(F29) We might add that there is no authority and no evidence at all effectively refuting that tradition. “Your law,” as mentioned by Jesus in John 10:34 was a reference to the whole Pentateuch. Despite our conviction that Joshua added certain writings to this book, it should also be noted that:

“It is quite possible, however, that Moses himself, ere he laid down the pen, may have recorded what he said when delivering the Book of the Law to the priests, and there is nothing in the manner or style of the record to render it probable that it was written by another.(F30)

“The `book’ here spoken of would be the whole Pentateuch up to this point, and be `the Book of Moses,’ called generally by the Jews, `the Law.’ (Matthew 22:40, and Galatians 4:21).”(F31) “With these words, Moses handed over the complete Book of the Law to the priests.”(F32)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 31". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-31.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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