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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 1

Verses 1-5

Introduction (1:1-5)

The Book of Deuteronomy begins with a general introduction which is meant to orient the reader with respect to its contents. They are characterized as "words that Moses spoke to all Israel" (1:1). These words are not represented as utterances of God through the lips of Moses but as Moses’ attempt "to explain this law" (1:5), that is, the law embodied in the Book of Deuteronomy.

Only rarely in Deuteronomy is God represented as speaking in the first person to Israel (7:4; 11:13-15; 17:3; 28:20; 29:6). The book is thus not represented as a code of laws delivered directly by God to his people but as an exposition by Moses of previously given law.

Where the exposition is regarded as having occurred is not altogether clear from this introduction. The opening verse seems to place it in the great wilderness somewhere south of the Dead Sea. By "the Arabah" apparently is meant here the deep rift lying between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqabah. Paran and Hazeroth lie in the southern portion of the Sinai peninsula, and Tophel probably was located in Edom. In 1:5 the locale is said to be "the land of Moab," considerably farther north. It appears that two traditions concerning the place of the Deuteronomic exposition of the Law have been combined in this introduction.

Verses 6-18

The "Mighty Acts" Between Horeb and Beth-peor (1:6-3:29)

The deeds of God are presented in Deuteronomy as the ground of his requirements. Everywhere the mighty hand of God is in view or in the background. It is the writer’s intention that the readers shall exclaim with Moses: "What god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as thine?" (3:24).

At Horeb (1:6-18)

The Deuteronomist begins his story at the holy mountain, called by him "Horeb" ("drought," or "desert"), but more frequently in the Old Testament "Sinai." Here God had revealed his glory and his will to Israel and made the new nation peculiarly his own in the solemn ceremony of a blood covenant (Exodus 24). Israel had accepted the responsibilities of the Covenant with the words, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient" (Exodus 24:7).

At length the time of revelation and vision came to an end, and the hard task of realizing the promises inherent in the Covenant lay before the young nation. But the promises were God’s, and the strength to bring them to pass would be supplied by him.

Specifically, the promise centered in the land which God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and to their descendants (vs. 8). This land lay between the Euphrates River on the north-east and the territory of Egypt on the southwest. Among its inhabitants are said here to be the Amorites and the Canaanites, the former being the Deuteronomist’s name for the pre-Israelite occupants of the hill country on both sides of the Jordan River and the latter being his term for the dwellers on the seacoast of northern Palestine. The Negeb is the southland, the Beer-sheba and Kadesh-barnea area.

What is a nation without a habitable land? The inhospitable desert in which Israel had been wandering for a generation might sustain wandering bands of relatively few people and animals but hardly a nation as numberless as the stars (Genesis 15:5). The realization of the promise depended absolutely on the availability of suitable territory.

Israel was not the only people to cast envious eyes on the "Fertile Crescent" which stretched from the Euphrates to Egypt. Especially in times of drought and famine, nomads from the deserts to the east and south attempted to overrun this good land. To guard against this, the cities were highly fortified and their defenders skilled in the art of war. But Israel’s determination was nurtured on its faith that God had destined this land for his people. Though there were reverses and many heartaches, the land ultimately fell before their intrepid feet. On them then devolved the task of defending it against other claimants, which task they discharged with all the fanatical zeal they had exhibited in conquering it. Few nations have loved their land as intensely as Israel.

In addition to the challenge concerning the land set before Israel at Horeb, the Deuteronomist notes the organization of the people there under tribal leaders or judges (1:9-18). According to the Book of Exodus (Exodus 18:13-27), Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, initially suggested the appointing of tribal leaders to assist Moses in the heavy judicial work. Here this detail is passed over and the credit given to Moses himself, who, of course, was ultimately responsible for the action.

It is not altogether clear why this incident from the Horeb experience is introduced at this point, unless it is to highlight Moses’ authority as the divinely appointed leader and head over all subordinate authorities and to illustrate the alternation between obedience and disobedience in the life of Israel. The focal verses here seem to be: "And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do" (1:18); and "The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do" (1:14). Deuteronomy, like the other books of the Old Testament, is the story of the coming of the word of God to his people and the people’s alternation between obedience and disobedience.

Verses 19-46

From Horeb to Kadesh-barnea (1:19-46)

This section provides a shortened form of the narrative in Numbers 13-14 concerning the spies. There the appointing of the spies arises from a command of the Lord (Numbers 13:1-2) but here from the wishes of the people (1:22-23). The Deuteronomic writer seems to want to put the people’s unbelief in as strong a light as possible: even the sending of spies was an act of mistrust of the God who promises and lavishly fulfills what he promises, provided only that his people trust him implicitly. Spies are sent to determine whether men are able, not whether God is able!

The sentiments of the people, as here presented, run through five stages: trusting hope, hesitation, unbelief, presumption, and despair. They set out from Horeb with some enthusiasm, traversing "that great and terrible wilderness" in obedience to the commands of God (1:19) and arriving at length at the oasis of Kadesh-barnea, the southern doorway of the Promised Land. Here Moses bids them enter and take possession of the land promised by the God of their fathers.

But fear sets in. Is God really adequate for what lies ahead? Ought not one to know what the opposition is like, what the odds are? Why not spy out the land to see whether it actually can be taken? Moses acquiesces, and spies are appointed. But the report of the spies simply deepens the people’s fears. They hear that the land is a goodly one but that its defenses and defenders are formidable. The "sons of the Anakim" (in Hebrew folklore, a race of giants; vs. 28; see 2:10, 21; Numbers 13:22; Numbers 13:28; Numbers 13:33) live there, and who can possibly prevail against such monsters?

Hesitation then turns to unbelief. The people sit disconsolately in their tents and murmur against God. They accuse him of hating them and bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness at the hands of their enemies. Moses’ efforts to move them to remembrance of God’s gracious acts in their behalf in Egypt and in the wilderness prove unavailing. They refuse to believe that God has been bearing them in his arms as a father bears his young son (vs. 31). As they read the facts of the moment, it seems evident that God has abandoned them to the fury of their enemies.

Moses’ stinging rebuke and the revelation of God’s bitter judgment on their stubborn rebellion finally shock the people awake: their heritage is now to be the inhospitable wilderness; Caleb, Joshua, and the next generation are to inherit the Promised Land. Such a prospect becomes unbearable. Have they not borne the heat of the days and the terrors of the way? They are determined not to die in the wilderness while others enter the land and gorge themselves on the fruit of Eshcol (1:24-25). Now, too late, in self-willed desperation, and in defiance of God’s warning, they throw themselves against the securely entrenched inhabitants of the goodly land. But, alas, God is not with them! Their enemies chase them, as bees do, into the wilderness, in a disastrous rout. There they weep bitterly and sit alone in their despair.

The story is true to human nature and experience. Unwavering trust in God and unswerving loyalty to his will are both man’s privilege and his obligation. God’s call to the life of trust and obedience is backed by the record of his gracious dealings with men—collectively and individually. But in the presence of mountainous difficulties we quail, in spite of God’s blessed assurances. At times we fall into downright unbelief—not that God is, but that he is actively concerned about us and will see us through. Then we seek to force our will on the future, rather than to find and do his. And the consequences are the same: we find ourselves shattered, lost, and licking our wounds in the desert of our infidelity and unbelief. The promises belong to those who wholly follow the Lord (1:36).

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-1.html.