Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Deuteronomy 1



This brief section places the events that follow in their geographical and chronological setting. It introduces the occasion for the covenant, the parties involved, and other information necessary to identify the document and the peculiarities of its composition.

"The time was the last month of the fortieth year after the Exodus ( 1:3f> a), when the men of war of that generation had all perished ( 2:16f>), the conquest of Trans-Jordan was accomplished ( 1:4f>; 2:24f> ff.), and the time of Moses’ death was at hand. It was especially this last circumstance that occasioned the renewal of the covenant. God secured the continuity of the mediatorial dynasty by requiring of Israel a pledge of obedience to his new appointee, Joshua (cf. 31:3f>; 34:9f>), and a new vow of consecration to himself." [Note: Ibid., pp. 156-57.]

"The preamble thus forms a bridge between the original covenant and its renewal to the new generation." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology of the Pentateuch," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 74.]

The Arabah ( 1:1f>) is the depression that runs from north of the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee) all the way to the Red Sea (Gulf of Aqabah). Israel’s location in this plain was just northeast of the point at which the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, directly east of Jericho.

The reference to the duration of a normal journey from Horeb (the range of mountains in which Mt. Sinai stood) to Kadesh-Barnea as being 11 days ( 1:2f>), about 150 miles, is not just historical. This was the part of Israel’s journey that took her from the place God gave His covenant to the border of the Promised Land. From there the Israelites could have and should have entered Canaan. This reference points out a contrast between the short distance and the long time it took Israel to make the trip due to her unbelief. It took Israel 40 years to travel from Egypt to the plains of Moab ( 1:3f>). This is the only exact date that Moses specified in Deuteronomy. The spiritual failure at the root of this lengthened sojourn provided the reason for much of what Moses said and did that follows in Deuteronomy.

The name Yahweh appears for the first time in 1:3f> in Deuteronomy, and it occurs more than 220 times. This name is most expressive of God’s covenant role with Israel. Its frequent appearance helps the reader remember that Deuteronomy presents God in His role as sovereign suzerain and covenant keeper. In contrast, the name Elohim occurs only 38 times in this book.

Moses probably referred to God’s defeat of Sihon and Og here ( 1:4f>) to give the Israelites hope as well as to date his words more specifically.

The nature of Deuteronomy as a whole is an exposition (explanation) of all that God had commanded ( 1:5f>; cf. 1:3f>). The Hebrew word translated "expound" (be’er) means to make something absolutely clear or plain (cf. 27:8f>). We might say that Deuteronomy is a commentary on earlier passages in the Pentateuch. Moses’ second address (chs. 5-26) particularly concentrated on this exposition.

The English term "law" has negative connotations, but the Hebrew torah, (lit. instruction) used here ( 1:5f>), is positive. The Torah is more instruction than prohibition. Here the whole of Deuteronomy is in view.

"What the man and woman lost in the Garden is now restored to them in the Torah, namely, God’s plan for their good." [Note: John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 424.]

Four superscriptions signal the beginnings of Moses’ speeches in Deuteronomy ( 1:1-5f>; 4:44-49f>; 29:1f>; 33:1f>).


Moses called Mt. Sinai "Horeb" almost exclusively in this book, ". . . in keeping with the rhetorical style of the book." [Note: C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 3:284.] The events in this section of verses took place before Israel left Horeb. The references to "the river Euphrates" ( 1:7f>) and "the stars of heaven for multitude" ( 1:10f>) hark back to God’s promises to Abraham.

"Virtually all of Palestine and Syria are included in these terms [in 1:7f>], an area larger than Israel ever possessed in fact, even during the reigns of David and Solomon." [Note: Craigie, p. 95.]

"The Lord’s gift of Canaan to Israel ( 1:8f>) and his command to them to enter and to possess the land began here and was reiterated and emphasized repeatedly in the speeches of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy. They are cardinal elements of the teaching of the book and show that, as Baly has said, ’Palestine was, in fact, the Chosen Land for the Chosen People; not, it should be noticed, chosen by them, but chosen for them’ (p. 303)." [Note: Kalland, p. 22. The quotation is from Dennis Baly, The Geography of the Bible.]

God had already multiplied the Israelites, and He was ready to give them the land. However the "strife" ( 1:12f>) of the people would prove to be their undoing. God appointed judges ( 1:16f>) to help Moses carry the burden of legal decisions that resulted from the giving of the Law. It was very important, therefore, that these men judge fairly ( 1:17f>).


A. God’s past dealings with Israel 1:6-3:29

Moses began this first "sermon" by reviewing God’s faithfulness to Israel. God had been faithful in bringing the nation from Sinai to her present location, and by giving her victory over her Transjordanian enemies. He also reminded the people of the future blessings that she could anticipate.



". . . an explicit literary structure to the book is expressed in the sermons or speeches of Moses; a substructure is discernible in the covenantal character of the book; and a theological structure is revealed in its theme of the exclusive worship of the Lord as found in the Ten Commandments, particularly in the First Commandment and its positive expression in the Shema ( 6:4-5f>)." [Note: Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, p. 10.]

The writer set forth God’s acts for Israel as the basis on which he appealed to the new generation of Israelites to renew the Mosaic Covenant with Him.

". . . it is not an overstatement to propose that covenant is the theological center of Deuteronomy. . . .

". . . any attempt to deal with Deuteronomy theologically must do so with complete and appropriate attention to its form and its dominant covenant theme. This means that God’s revelation of Himself and of other matters must be understood within a covenant context because it is His purpose in the document to represent Himself in a particularized role-Sovereign, Redeemer, covenant-maker, and benefactor." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 62. See also idem, "Deuteronomy," in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 131-32.]

"The preamble in the international suzerainty treaties was followed by a historical survey of the relationship of lord and vassal. It was written in an I-thou style, and it sought to establish the historical justification for the lord’s continuing reign. Benefits allegedly conferred upon the vassal by the lord were cited, with a view to grounding the vassal’s allegiance in a sense of gratitude complementary to the sense of fear which the preamble’s awe-inspiring identification of the suzerain was calculated to produce. When treaties were renewed, the historical prologue was brought up to date. All these formal features characterize 1:6f> to 4:49f>." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 157.]

Moses pointed out Israel’s unfaithfulness to emphasize God’s faithfulness.


1. God’s guidance from Sinai to Kadesh 1:6-46

Moses began his recital of Israel’s history at Horeb (Sinai) because this is where Yahweh adopted the nation by making the Mosaic Covenant with her. The trip from Egypt to Sinai was only preparation for the giving of the covenant. The Mosaic Covenant is central in Deuteronomy.

"The importance of history has two focal points: (a) there is the covenant tradition of promise, from Abraham to Moses; (b) there is the experience of God in history working out in deed the content of the promise. Thus, for the renewal of the covenant described in Deuteronomy, the prologue recalls not only the covenant’s history, but also the ability of the Lord of the covenant to fulfill his promise. What God had done in the past, he could continue to do in the future. There is thus a presentation of a faithful God, whose demand was for a faithful people." [Note: Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, p. 94.]

Moses reflected on the past mainly as Israel’s history stands revealed in the earlier books of the Pentateuch. He did not assume knowledge of Israel’s history that is independent of the biblical account nor did he recount events previously unrecorded. Occasionally in Deuteronomy he supplemented what he had written earlier with other explanatory material. This indicates that Moses assumed that those who read Deuteronomy would have prior knowledge of his preceding four books. He did not just write Deuteronomy for the generation of Israelites about to enter the Promised Land but for later generations as well, including our generation.


These verses deal with Israel’s failure at Kadesh-Barnea, its causes and its consequences.

The Hebrew word translated "take possession" ( 1:21f>), referring to the Promised Land, occurs over 50 times in Deuteronomy. God’s great desire for His people had been that they possess what He had promised them. Unfortunately the older generation would not because of fearful unbelief.

The sending of the spies was the people’s idea ( 1:22f>; cf. 13:1-3f>). Moses agreed to it, as did the Lord, because it was not wrong in itself. It had the potential of being helpful to the Israelites. Nevertheless God had not commanded this strategy. He knew that the sight of the threatening people and fortified cities ( 1:28f>) would discourage them.

The people’s sin in failing to enter the land was not just underestimating God’s power. They could have blamed themselves for their weak faith. Instead they blamed God and imputed to Him the worst of motives toward them. God loved them, but they claimed He hated them ( 1:27f>). In covenant terminology to love means to choose, and to hate means to reject (cf. 25:23f>; 1:2-3f>; 9:10-13f>). [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 77; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 388-89.] The Israelites doubted God’s goodness, denied His word, and disobeyed His will (cf. Genesis 3).

"The most subtle danger for Israel was the possibility that they might doubt the gracious guidance of God and His willingness to fulfill His promises. It was to become the besetting sin of Israel that they doubted the active and providential sovereignty of Yahweh in every crisis." [Note: J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy, p. 88.]

"Such familial language was common in ancient Near Eastern treaty texts where the maker of the covenant would be ’father’ and the receiver ’son.’" [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 79. Cf. D. J. McCarthy, "Notes on the Love of God in Deuteronomy and the Father-Son Relationship between Yahweh and Israel," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 27 (1965):144-47.]

The Book of Deuteronomy reveals the wrath of God ( 1:34f>) as well as His love.

The account of Moses’ sin ( 1:37f>) is out of chronological order. Moses’ purpose in this narrative was not to relate Israel’s experiences in sequence but to emphasize spiritual lessons. He was exhorting the Israelites to action more than teaching them history.

"Moses . . . looked behind his own failure and referred to the cause of his action, which was the people’s criticism of the Lord’s provision of food." [Note: Kalland, pp. 27-28.]

God’s provision of a new leader who would take the nation into the land followed Moses’ failure ( 1:38f>). The point is that God provided for the Israelites even when they failed. Moses did not try to hide his own guilt.

Moses connected entering the Promised Land with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The new generation of Israelites was in a position similar to the one in which their original parents found themselves. They had "no knowledge of good or evil" and so had to depend on God to "give it to them" as a gracious father ( 1:39f>; cf. 32:6f>). The instruction (Torah) that Moses gave the people was the means that God would use to provide for their good (cf. 30:15-16f>).

The former generation tried to salvage an opportunity lost at Kadesh through unbelief ( 1:41f>). This is not always possible, and it was not in this instance. [Note: See Sailhamer, pp. 428-30, for four different ways of explaining the unclear sequence of events during the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness.]

". . . chapter 1 sets up what Deuteronomy is about. It will echo and anticipate disobedience and unwillingness to live by promise and instruction. Further, the chapter gives us clues about the purpose and context of Deuteronomy. It is a word of instruction about how to live in the land, addressed to a people whose history reflects persistent faithlessness and disobedience . . ." [Note: Miller, p. 36.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 1". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.