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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Deuteronomy

by John Dummelow


1. Title and Contents. The title of this book is the English form of a Greek word meaning ’repetition of the law.’ It is found in chapter Deuteronomy 17:18, where it was used by the Greek translators of the OT. (LXX) to represent three Hebrew words more exactly rendered in the English Version ’a copy of this law’ (see note). The Jews call the book by the first two words in the original rendered ’These are the words.’ The LXX title, though based on a mistranslation, is not altogether inappropriate, seeing that much of the legislation given in Deuteronomy is found elsewhere, and the historical portion is largely a résumé of what is narrated in the previous books. The scene of the book is in the Plains of Moab, and the time is the interval between the close of the "Wanderings in the Wilderness and the Crossing of the Jordan. It opens with the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year of the exodus (Deuteronomy 1:3); and, as the Israelites crossed the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month of the following year, after thirty days’ mourning for Moses in the Plains of Moab (see Deuteronomy 34:8; Joshua 4:19), it follows that the period covered by Deuteronomy is not more than forty days.

The greater part of the book is taken up with a series of discourses spoken to the people by Moses before his death. In these discourses Moses reviews the events and experiences of the past forty years, and founds on them repeated exhortations to gratitude, obedience, and loyalty to Jehovah. The divisions of the book are as follows. Part 1. First Discourse, Deuteronomy 1 - Deuteronomy 4:43, comprising a brief survey of the history of Israel from Mt. Sinai to the Jordan (Deuteronomy 1-3), and concluding with an earnest appeal to the people to keep the commandments of Jehovah and remain faithful to His covenant (Deuteronomy 4:1-40). Three vv. of a historical nature (Deuteronomy 4:41-43) are then introduced. Part 2. Second Discourse, chapters Deuteronomy 4:44; Deuteronomy 28, which is mainly legislative. It begins with a repetition of the Decalogue and an exhortation to cleave to Jehovah and abstain from idolatry (Deuteronomy 4:44; Deuteronomy 11), after which follows a series of laws regulating the religious and social life of the people (Deuteronomy 12-26). This section forms the nucleus of the book. Deuteronomy 28 belongs to this section, and contains a sublime declaration of the consequences that will follow the people’s obedience to, or transgression of, the law. Deuteronomy 27, which prescribes the ceremony of the ratification of the law in Canaan, seems to interrupt the discourse. Part 3. Third Discourse, Deuteronomy 29, 30, in which the covenant is renewed and enforced with promises and threatenings. Part 4. Deuteronomy 31-34. These chapters are of the nature of appendices, and comprise Moses’ Charge to Joshua, and Delivery of the Law to the Levitical Priests (Deuteronomy 31:1-13); The Song of Moses, with accompanying historical notices (Deuteronomy 31:14; Deuteronomy 32); The Blessing of Moses, which, like the Song, is in poetical form (33); and, lastly, an account of the Death of Moses (34).

2. Origin and Composition. The book of Deuteronomy was certainly in existence in the year 621 b.c. The ’Book of the Law,’ discovered in the Temple at Jerusalem in that year by Hilkiah the priest, is generally agreed to have included, if it was not identical with, our Deuteronomy. See 2 Kings 22:8-20 and notes there. There is no reason to believe that this was not a genuine discovery of a lost work, and its identification with at least the main part of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 5-26, 28) is inferred from the fact that the reformations instituted by Josiah are such as the law of Deuteronomy would require, e.g. the prohibition of the worship of heavenly bodies (cp. 2 Kings 23:4-5, 2 Kings 23:11 with Deuteronomy 17:3), and of other superstitious and idolatrous practices (cp. 2 Kings 23:6, 2 Kings 23:18, 2 Kings 23:14 with Deuteronomy 12:2-3); and the centralisation of worship at Jerusalem (cp. 2 Kings 23:8, 2 Kings 23:21-23 with Deuteronomy 12:4-28; Deuteronomy 16:5-7. Cp. also 2 Kings 23:7 with Deuteronomy 23:17-18, 2 Kings 23:24 with Deuteronomy 18:10-11, 2 Kings 23:8-9 with Deuteronomy 18:6-8, and the language in which Josiah’s reformation is spoken of in 2 Kings 23:2-3 with the general style of Deuteronomy, e.g. Deuteronomy 29:1, Deuteronomy 29:9, Deuteronomy 29:25; Deuteronomy 30:10; Deuteronomy 31:24), Assuming the practical identity of the book found by Hilkiah with our Deuteronomy, the question remains how old the book was at the time of its discovery. Like the rest of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy professes to set forth the words and laws of Moses, and is ascribed by tradition to him. This tradition is not lightly to be set aside. It cannot any longer be denied that the art of writing was practised in the time of Moses, and recent discoveries have shown that writing was employed in Palestine even before his day. That Moses himself left written works is not only in itself likely, but is expressly asserted in several places: see e.g. Exodus 17:14; Exodus 24:4, Exodus 24:7; Exodus 34:27; Numbers 33:2, and especially Deuteronomy 31:9, Deuteronomy 31:26, where he is said to have written the Law, and delivered it to the custody of the priests. That in view of his approaching death the great Leader and Lawgiver of Israel should have addressed to the people such exhortations and warnings as are found in this book is also what might be expected. On the other hand, many biblical scholars are persuaded, from a careful study of the book, that it could not have been written by Moses, at least in its present form. It is marked by a distinctive literary style, apparent even to a reader of the English Version, who cannot fail to be struck with the frequent recurrence of characteristic phrases and with the general richness of its rhetorical passages, unlike what is found elsewhere in the Pentateuch. Deuteronomy also contains indications that the writer, or compiler, lived subsequently to the time of Moses and the conquest of Canaan. See e.g. the account of the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34, and cp. notes on Deuteronomy 2:12; Deuteronomy 3:14; Deuteronomy 33:4; Deuteronomy 34:10-12. The use of the phrase ’beyond Jordan’ suggests that the writer lived in Western Palestine, which Moses never did (see note on Deuteronomy 1:1). The ’law of the Kingdom’ in chapter Deuteronomy 17:14-20, it is said, could not have been composed before Solomon and other kings gave examples of the hurtful luxury here described, and other parts of the legislation of Deuteronomy, notably that relating to the centralisation of worship at Jerusalem (see Deuteronomy 12:4-28), are at variance with what is prescribed elsewhere (cp. Exodus 20:24), and do not seem to have been recognised in the earlier history of the nation. See also notes on Deuteronomy 14:22; Deuteronomy 15:19, Deuteronomy 15:20. In this connexion, however, we must reckon with the possibihty of laws being promulgated but remaining a dead letter for a long period. It has to be kept in view, moreover, that the book itself professes to be a ’repetition of the law.’ In view of the conflict of critical opinion it seems best to regard it as a reformulation of the laws of Moses, designed to meet the changing needs and circumstances of a time subsequent to its original publication.

3. Religious Value. Whatever difference of opinion may exist as to the date of Deuteronomy, there can be none as to its surpassing religious value. It is one of the most beautiful books of the Bible, furnishing some of the finest examples of Hebrew sacred eloquence, and breathing in every chapter an intensely devout and religious spirit. Its aim is professedly practical and hortatory, viz. to enforce upon Israel the unique claim of Jehovah to their gratitude, obedience, love and loyalty. In this respect the teaching of Deuteronomy resembles that of the ’prophets,’ in its insistence, viz. by means of exhortation and warning, upon Israel’s duty of maintaining the covenant relationship between the people and Jehovah. The people are ’holy to Jehovah,’ who has chosen them to be a special people to Himself (Deuteronomy 7:6), and they ought to cling to Him alone. Over and over again they are reminded of the great things He has done for them, of His free grace in their election and redemption, and of their unbroken experience of His providential care and kindness towards them. His grace is always adduced as the prime reason and motive why they should cleave to Him with wholehearted devotion and keep His commandments and beware of the seducing influences of their own prosperity and their neighbours’ idolatry. The argument is always the same, the evangelical argument, ’We love Him because He first loved us’; ’I beseech you by the mercies of God.’ See e.g. Deuteronomy 4:7-9, Deuteronomy 4:32-40; Deuteronomy 6:20-25; Deuteronomy 7:7-11; Deuteronomy 29:2-17, etc. The same motive of gratitude for undeserved mercies underlies the repeated exhortations to humanity and kindly consideration of the poor, the afflicted, strangers, and even the lower animals. See e.g. Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Deuteronomy 16:10-17; Deuteronomy 23:17-18, Deuteronomy 23:22; Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The love of God to Israel, calling forth a responsive love to God and to humanity, that is the theme of this most profoundly religious and ethical book; and nowhere else is the blessedness of an obedience which is rooted in love and gratitude set forth more eloquently or persuasively.

The book of Deuteronomy seems to have been an especial favourite of our Lord. He resisted the threefold assault of the Tempter in the wilderness with quotations from this book (see Matthew 4 and Deuteronomy 8:3; Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 10:20 and notes); and He answered the question as to the ’first and greatest commandment’ in the Law by referring to Deuteronomy 6:4, Deuteronomy 6:5. The Jews selected Deuteronomy 6:4-9 for daily recitation as their creed, finding in these words the highest expression of the unity and spirituality of God, and of the whole duty of man to his Maker, Preserver and Redeemer.

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