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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 31

Verses 1-6

With the end of chapter 30 the formal addresses of Moses have come to a conclusion. The remaining materials of the book form a historical connecting link with the Book of Joshua and the rest of the Deuteronomic history of Israel. We are told how Joshua, the new leader, was chosen, and how Moses, the old leader, passed from the scene. Moses’ parting words, as contained in his Song and his Blessing, are offered for the warning and encouragement of his people.

The material is loosely put together and can best be treated by grouping similar sections. There is no clearly perceptible subject, but there is a dominant personality: God. The chapters may be viewed without undue forcing as setting forth what Israel may expect in the future under the leadership of God and Joshua.

The Promise of Victorious Conquest (31:1-6)

The aged Moses (the 120 years may be a round figure meaning that his life spanned three generations) now makes known to his people that he will be unable to lead them into the Promised Land. Joshua has been designated by God for this important work. But the real leader will be God himself. This is said repeatedly in verses 3-6. What God did to Sihon and Og (see comment on 2:26-3:11) is a symbol of what he will do to the inhabitants of the land. The land is to be his gift; Israel’s part is to "be strong and of good courage" (vs. 6).

The similarity of this passage to Joshua 1:6-9 is striking. Both passages may come from the same hand.

Verses 7-8

The New Leader (31:7-8)

Moses is said to have summoned Joshua and informed him in the presence of all the people that he was to lead them, under the guidance and empowerment of God, into the Promised Land (vss. 7-8). The formal commissioning by God is placed in the Tent of Meeting (see vss. 14-15, 23). This term is explained in Exodus 25:22; Exodus 29:42; Exodus 30:36 as signifying the place where God met with Moses for the purpose of revealing to him his will. The "Tent of Revelation" would more accurately say what was meant. How the Lord commissioned Joshua in the Tent of Meeting is not indicated; only the commissioning words are given (vs. 23).

In Numbers 27:18-23 another account of Joshua’s commissioning appears. There Joshua is said to have been commissioned by the laying on of Moses’ hands in the presence of the priest Eleazar and of the whole congregation. Since the ceremony took place at the Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle), the involvement of the officiating priest is inherently probable.

Verses 9-15

The Use of the Law Book (31:9-15)

Provisions for the deposit of the book of the Law alongside the Ark of the Covenant (see vs. 26)—only the tablets containing the Ten Commandments were deposited inside the Ark (Exodus 25:16; 1 Kings 8:9)—and for its periodic public reading at the central sanctuary (vss. 9-13) correspond to practices connected with Hittite suzerainty treaties (see the comment on 4:1-14). In Israelite conceptions the deposit of the book of the Law beside the Ark of the Covenant would give to the Law the highest possible sanctity and authority. Since it contained the definitive statement of the will of God for Israel and set forth the consequences contingent upon obedience and disobedience, it would serve as a norm for the measurement of Israel’s conduct and offer testimony in God’s defense if he was forced to punish his people (see vs. 26).

Here (vss. 9-13) the reading of the Law at the central sanctuary in the presence of all Israel every seventh year is prescribed for the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles). In the Hittite suzerainty treaties it was required that the reading of the terms of the treaty in the presence of the vassal king and his subjects be carried out much more frequently, varying from one to four times a year. Some interpreters have thought that there was an annual ceremony of Covenant renewal (including reading of the book of the Law) in Israel from early times, similar to one carried out by the sectarians who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. It now appears that, at least before the Exile, while the Covenant was confirmed at the time of a change in leadership of the nation, it was renewed only on those exceptional occasions when a national repentance was carried out. This usually resulted from a disaster which showed conclusively that the people’s sins had cancelled their right to expect the protection and help of God. The purpose of the periodic reading of the Law is said here to be that all the people of Israel "may hear and learn to fear the LORD . . . and be careful to do all the words of this law" (vs. 12), and that their descendants might likewise know and obey it (vs. 13). This was precisely the purpose of the repeated reading of the Hittite suzerainty treaties.

Verses 16-44

The Song Concerning the Lawsuit of God (31:16-32:44)

Besides the book of the Law, which is to guide the life of God’s vassal-subjects and to defend his character when he punishes his people, there is attributed to Moses here a second "witness" for God against the nation. It is in the form of a song which is to be learned and passed down to subsequent generations (31: 19-21). When Israel callously breaks the Covenant by idolatry and experiences the awesome judgments of God, the song will remind the sufferers of the meaning of their misfortunes and of the justice of God in thus afflicting them. It will point out to them the baseness of their apostasy and show how they may once again experience God’s mercy.

It is widely agreed today that the song contained in chapter 32 is old. It may have been composed as early as the eleventh century B.C. and is hardly later than about the seventh. Thus it had been in use for a considerable time before its incorporation in this section of Deuteronomy.

In form it seems to follow the pattern of the covenant lawsuit, which provided the thought framework for the activity of the great ethical prophets. The covenant lawsuit rests back on the covenant form proper, as seen in the Hittite suzerainty treaties and in the Israelite adaptation of this form. The prophets, seeing that the terms of the Covenant had been broken by Israel’s idolatry, represented God as assembling his heavenly court and arraigning the guilty Israel before the bar of justice (see 1 Kings 22:19; Psalms 82:1). Heaven and earth—apparently meaning the heavenly beings who preside over heaven and earth (Deuteronomy 32:8)—are called upon to bear testimony (or to hear the case) against Israel as violators of the terms of the Covenant (Psalms 50:4; Isaiah 1:2-3; Jeremiah 2:12-13; Micah 6:1-2). Israel, being justly condemned in the court of heaven, is promptly sentenced. It is the role of the prophet, to whom this knowledge is revealed, to go to his people and make known Israel’s guilt before the bar of God and the coming penalty, if immediate repentance is not forth-coming (Isaiah 1:2-20; ch. 6).

The song in Deuteronomy 32 reflects many of the elements of the covenant lawsuit, although it develops them with some freedom. It begins with a summons to the witnesses, heaven and earth (vs. 1). It reviews the gracious attitudes and deeds of God, centering in his choice and loving care of Israel as his special people (vss. 4, 7-14). It proceeds to a formal indictment of the nation for its base ingratitude as manifested in its forsaking God and worshiping idols (vss. 15-18). It records God’s condemnation and sentence, which consists of humiliation at the hands of enemies and affliction by natural calamities (vss. 19-29). It yet sets forth grounds for hope: God will not give his people up to utter destruction; his agents of judgment will themselves be judged when Israel turns away from impotent idols (vss. 30-38). The God who alone is sovereign will manifest his mighty power in the destruction of Israel’s enemies (vss. 39-42). The song concludes with a summons to the nations to praise the God who vindicates his people and who cleanses away the defilement of their land (vs. 43).

There are many beautiful and theologically meaningful passages in the song, especially those which set forth the righteous character and provident care of God. He is the Creator-Father (vs. 6), who cares for his children as the parent eagle watches over the young eaglets. If, in their efforts to fly, their strength fails, the mighty parent bird swoops underneath and bears the fledglings up, until they can take to wing again (vs. 11). The Father is also "the Rock" (vss. 4, 15, 18, 30, 31), the firm support and refuge of his people. His sovereign power is directed by love. His aim is the purgation and establishment of his people (vss. 36-43). He will tolerate no infidelity; he alone is God (vs. 39).

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 31". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-31.html.