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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Deuteronomy

by Various Authors



The Importance of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is not one of the biblical books most read by contemporary Christians. The first Christians, however, like their Lord before them and the Jews around them, pondered deeply and repeatedly the teachings of this book.

Deuteronomy is one of the four Old Testament books most frequently quoted in the New Testament (the others being Isaiah, Psalms, and Genesis). That Jesus’ mind was well stocked with Deuteronomy’s warmhearted exhortations is evidenced by the stories in Matthew and Luke of his temptation in the wilderness. In response to the voice of the Tempter he is said to have used three passages from Deuteronomy: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God"; "You shall not tempt the Lord your God"; and "You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve" (Matthew 4:4; Matthew 4:7; Matthew 4:10).

The popularity of Deuteronomy in the Judaism of Jesus’ time is apparent in part from the many fragments of the book found in the caves of Qumran by the Dead Sea. Sharing prominence with Deuteronomy among the sectarians who lived at Qumran were the books of Isaiah and the Psalms.

A high regard for Deuteronomy in both Judaism and Christianity is unmistakably attested in their agreement concerning the primary demand of God: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5; compare Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27; and the twice-daily recital of this Deuteronomic passage by Jews).

Deuteronomy is believed by most scholars to have been the first book of the Bible to be regarded as canonical; that is, as containing an authoritative standard for the life of the Covenant people.

It appears that King Josiah, in the year 622 B.C., regarded this book (or a part of it) as setting forth the divine will for the nation and that he sought to bring the attitudes and actions of his people into conformity with its requirements. From this time on, Israel became more and more a people of "the Book," as ever more literary material was recognized as containing the word of God for national and personal life.

The Basic Nature of the Book

The name "Deuteronomy," meaning "second [repeated] law," arose through a misunderstanding of a Hebrew phrase in Deuteronomy 17:18 by the ancient translators of the Old Testament into Greek. The phrase means not "second [repeated] law" but "a copy of this law." The title has persisted because the book has been regarded as containing a second utterance of the Mosaic Law for the benefit of the new generation about to enter the Promised Land. Actually, most of the contents of the book are not so much law as preaching about the Law, in order to enhance its authority in national and personal life. Although chapters 12-26 contain a large body of legal material, a close scrutiny shows that this matter is interspersed with homiletical comment and is represented as belonging to sermons preached by Moses. The book would be better titled, "Preaching of the Covenant."

In the sermons Moses is pictured as recounting the gracious deeds of God for the benefit of a generation of Israelites once re-moved from the events of the Exodus and the Covenant at Horeb (Sinai) and about to enter the Promised Land. On the basis of what God has done, Moses prescribes what Israel must do if it is to participate in the glorious future God has planned for his people.

It is said that the God of the fathers brought the nation into being; redeemed it from bondage; revealed his holy will to it; guided, protected, and disciplined it; and planned for it peace and prosperity in a good land allotted to it. God chose Israel to be his own and showered his love upon it. In view of his gracious attitudes and acts, the worship of any other god or gods would be ingratitude of the basest sort. God’s love should be reciprocated with love, and this love should flow out into obedience to his righteous will in all areas of personal and national life. The meaning of his will is spelled out in detail by a repetition of the terms of the Covenant which God is said to have given Moses at the holy mountain.

The central notes of Deuteronomy are "remember," "obey," "behold": remember God’s gracious attitudes and deeds; obey his words in unswerving loyalty and fidelity; behold what he has in store for you as a people! If you remain faithful to him, "he will set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor" (26:19), but if you turn from him in dis-obedience and ingratitude "you shall be a horror to all the king-doms of the earth" (28:25) and shall be utterly destroyed by famine, pestilence, and the sword. "See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. . . . choose life . ." (30:15-20).

This is preaching of the purest sort. Deuteronomy must be seen more as a book of sermons than as a code of laws. But the book contains more than a collection of sermons enjoining obedience to the Law, as chapters 27 and 31-34 clearly indicate. Portions of these chapters present historical and poetic materials quite different in type and purpose from the sermonic. The acceptance by Israel of the Covenant at Shechem is anticipated in chapter 27. The appointment of Joshua, the writing down of the Law, and the closing events associated with the passing of the old leader are noted (chs. 31-34). These materials suggest that we have here not only a book of sermons but also a book of worship and a kind of historical writing.

It is now believed that the sermons of Deuteronomy must be seen as traditional proclamations delivered in connection with periodic recitations of the Law and renewals of the Covenant relationship with God by the nation. Exhortation, recitation of the terms of the Covenant, commitment to the Covenant, and the announcements of blessings and curses for obedience and non-obedience—these are elements of a great service of worship into which the people of Israel entered. The Book of Deuteronomy thus enshrines a portion of the liturgy of ancient Israel.

Some interpreters believe that Deuteronomy is to be seen as the first member of a long historical work comprising now in our Bible the books of Deuteronomy through Second Kings—a Deuteronomic history of Israel in the land of Palestine, reaching from the period before the conquest of the land to the fall of the nation at the hands of the Babylonians. It was the author’s purpose to evaluate Israel’s national life from the standpoint of certain convictions: principally, its adherence or non-adherence to the worship of one God in one sanctuary by one people. If this view of the Book of Deuteronomy is correct, traditional materials of many kinds (worship, legal, historical, and the like) have been woven into a lengthy historical work, to which Deuteronomy is the introduction.

The Circumstances of Writing

The identity of the Deuteronomic writer or writers and the readers originally intended is not certainly known. Supporters of the traditional position—that Moses himself was both preacher and author of the book (at least in essentially its present form)—are still to be found. Samuel has been suggested as the author. The writing of the central portion of the book (chs. 12-26) has been placed by others in the time immediately before Amos (eighth century B.C.). Since the closing years of the nineteenth century, most interpreters have identified Deuteronomy with the book of the Law found in the Temple in the time of Josiah (2 Kings 22) and have held that it was written in the early days of Josiah’s reign or in the black years of his predecessor Manasseh. Still others have argued that the book could not have been written until after the fall of the Southern Kingdom and the Babylonian Exile.

While no one view has won the field, many are now inclined to look with favor on the position that the bulk of Deuteronomy was written shortly after 701 B.C. by a country Levite who, by the use of traditions reaching back to the great Covenant Festival of the Lord participated in by the federation of tribes at Shechem in the period of the Judges, attempted to turn his contemporaries away from polytheism to the exclusive worship of the Lord.

According to this view three characteristics of the book point to such an origin: a strong interest in old ceremonial materials; a fierce martial spirit expressed in the repeated sanctioning of the institution of "holy war"; and the sermonic cast of the whole writing. This view maintains that only Levites would have access to the old ceremonial traditions preserved in Deuteronomy and would have the ability and inclination to reinterpret them homiletically for the needs of a later situation. Their martial spirit is explained as due in part to the impact of the militaristic spirit of the old tribal traditions, of which the Levites were the custodians, and in part to the special conditions of the period after Sennacherib’s invasion of Israel. Their sermonic and interpretative skill belonged to the essential nature of their calling: they were interpreters and inculcators of the laws of God.

It is evident that this hypothesis will account satisfactorily for the major part of the text of the present Deuteronomy. But it seems equally clear that some parts of the present text are later than others and that additions to the book were made from time to time. It may be, as some have argued, that the central core—and thus the oldest part—of Deuteronomy is contained in 4:44-26:19 and chapter 28 and that this has been expanded by the addition of the materials now contained in 1:1-4:43, chapter 27, and chapters 29-34. As the book now lies, the laws which are to be obeyed (chs. 12-26) are preceded by two lengthy introductions (1:1-4:43 and 4:44-11:32). It may be that the first introduction (1:1-4:43) was intended to introduce the Deuteronomic history of Israel (Deuteronomy through Second Kings) and that it was added to the older core when this core was woven into the history, probably shortly before or after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Chapters 29-34 probably constitute additions to the core also, but when they were made we do not know. The central fact to be kept in mind is that the material which became the present Book of Deuteronomy has a long history. The experiences of a living community lie behind it, and the materials were adapted to the needs of a changing community.

But why have interpreters so largely abandoned the traditional position that Moses himself was the author of Deuteronomy, especially in view of the explicit statements in 31:9, 22, 24 that Moses "wrote this law" and "wrote this song"? Only a partial answer can be attempted here.

1. Mosaic authorship for the book as a whole is not claimed in 31:9, 22, 24. For obvious reasons, even the most conservative students do not hold that Moses wrote the account of his death (ch. 34). Furthermore, "this law" (31:9, 24) may refer only to a portion of the preceding material (possibly to the "statutes and ordinances" of chapters 12-26). In 27:3 "all the words of this law," which were to be written on plastered stones, can hardly refer to the lengthy contents of Deuteronomy but only to some portion thereof. Mosaic authorship of the book as we now have it is clearly not claimed in the text.

2.    The impressive, flowing, oratorical style of Deuteronomy is quite unlike the earliest known pieces of Israelite literary material but is strikingly similar to the prose sermons of Jeremiah and even to certain aspects of the style of some nonbiblical correspondence of the same period—the Lachish letters of about 588 B.C.

3.    The theology of Deuteronomy reflects the convictions of the great ethical prophets of Israel, long after the time of Moses. The teaching concerning God’s love for Israel and Israel’s love for God is reminiscent of the insights of Hosea. The emphasis in Deuteronomy on justice and mercy toward fellow men (the so-called "humanitarianism" of this book) seems to presuppose the teachings of Amos, Micah, and other prophets.

4.    The situation in the life of Israel in which Deuteronomy best fits is the late monarchic, rather than the Mosaic, period. Nostalgia for the past was a widespread phenomenon in the lands of the Near East (including Palestine) in the seventh century B.C. Old orders were crumbling; old securities were being shaken. In Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Phoenicia, men were seeking inspiration and direction from the ancient days. "Remember the days of old" (Deuteronomy 32:7) was a common injunction in this tired and fearful age.

Deuteronomy exhibits a marked nostalgia for the past—for the glorious days when God chose Israel for his own and by mighty deeds gave evidence of his presence with his people. It is the fervent wish of the author that the glory of those days should return to Israel, that the nation should organize its life after the pattern revealed in the days of old. The call to remembrance, therefore, reverberates throughout the book.

Deuteronomy fits the general spirit of the world of the seventh century; it would also speak cogently to the situation of that time in Palestine. During the long reign of Manasseh (about 687-642 B.C.) the country lay under the heel of Assyria, paying tribute as the price of vassalage and recognizing the gods of Assyria (see 2 Kings 21:1-16). Altars to Assyrian astral deities were erected in the Temple of the Lord. Pagan fertility rites (including sacred prostitution) were practiced in the Temple and at local sanctuaries. Divination and magic, highly popular in Assyria, flourished in Jerusalem. The ancient practice of the sacrifice of first-born children was revived. Injustice, oppression, and violence abounded. Reforming prophets of the time of Hezekiah (about 715-687 B.C.) and their sympathizers were executed or driven underground.

It is probable that Manasseh and his associates argued that God’s claim on the life of his people had not been infringed. Had it not always been affirmed that the God of Israel was surrounded by a heavenly host? Were not the Assyrian astral deities members of his heavenly court and thus entitled to veneration alongside the worship of the supreme God? But for all Manasseh’s possible rationalizations, sincere or otherwise, the hard fact was that the nation had fallen into polytheism of the crassest sort, with dire consequences in personal and national life.

Deuteronomy contains a powerful antidote for the poison at work in Israel. This antidote was administered by King Josiah in 622 B.C. The break-up of Assyria that followed on the death of Asshurbanipal (about 633 B.C.) gave Josiah an opportunity to strike for freedom and to re-establish the authority of the Davidic line of kings over the entire country. Religious sanction for his sweeping reforms seems to have come from the Book of Deuteronomy, for it apparently was this book, perhaps in a somewhat shorter form, that was found in the Temple by the priest Hilkiah (2 Kings 22). So powerful an impression did it make on Josiah when it was read to him, that he immediately set into operation its prescriptions for the life of the nation.

Specific contacts between admonitions of the Book of Deuteronomy and the reforms of Josiah are not far to seek. The most important are Josiah’s attempts to root out polytheism and to re-establish the exclusive worship of the God of Israel in the life of the nation (2 Kings 23)—also the central concern of Deuteronomy. As a means to this end, Josiah destroyed the local sanctuaries and caused worship to be centralized in one sanctuary at Jerusalem (2 Kings 23)—a requirement apparently laid down in Deuteronomy 12 (see comment). Pagan practices opposed both in Deuteronomy and by Josiah are: child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 23:10); sacred prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17-18; 2 Kings 23:7); and the practice of divination and magic (Deuteronomy 18:11; 2 Kings 23:24). The provision of Deuteronomy 18:1-8, by which the Levites were to be allowed full priestly rights at the central sanctuary, was apparently guaranteed to them by Josiah but not made use of (2 Kings 23:9). Josiah’s vigorous advocacy of reform seems to have been stimulated by the blessings and the curses of Deuteronomy 28, to judge by the reaction attributed to him when the book of the Law found by Hilkiah was read in his presence (2 Kings 22:11-13).

Josiah’s break from Assyria and the destruction of the paraphernalia of foreign religions were certainly under way before the discovery of the core of our present Deuteronomy in 622 B.C. Clear evidence of this is the fact that the Temple of the Lord was being repaired when the book was found. The book added tremendous impetus to the reform movement and gave it direction. It was now seen that the whole Mosaic tradition—the ancestral law of Israel—demanded reform of the most radical character. The Deuteronomic core of preached law, as assembled by a northern Levite and brought to Jerusalem at some time before 622 B.C., was admirably designed to stimulate and direct the reform.

This view of the origin of the Book of Deuteronomy recognizes the antiquity of much of its material. It holds that the book enshrines the Levitical preaching of the Covenant in the days since its formal ratification at Shechem. This preaching may indeed contain reminiscences of actual words of Moses. We may say that Deuteronomy is to the historical teaching of Moses what the Gospel of John is to the historical teaching of Jesus. Authentic notes of each teacher are undoubtedly preserved in each writing, but both bodies of teaching have been transposed into a different key and made applicable to new situations. Moses stands behind Deuteronomy, even as Jesus stands behind the Fourth Gospel.


First Address of Moses: What God Has Done. Deuteronomy (1:1-4:43)

Introduction (1:1-5)

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

The Call to Exclusive Loyalty to God (4:1-40)

Appendix: The Cities of Refuge (4:41-43)

Second Address of Moses: What God Requires. Deuteronomy (4:44-28:68)

Introduction (4:44-49)

The Meaning and Obligation of the Covenant Relationship (5:1-11:32)

The Specific Terms of the Covenant Relationship (12:1-26:19)

The Publication and Enforcement of the Terms of the Covenant (27:1-28:68)

Third Address of Moses: What God Proposes. Deuteronomy (29:1-30:20)

A Covenant in Perpetuity with Israel (29:1-15)

A Covenant Involving Total Obedience (29:16-29)

A Covenant Including the Possibility of a Second Chance (30:1-10)

A Covenant Requiring Radical Decision (30:11-20)

Connecting Narrative: The Change in Leadership. Deuteronomy (31:1-34:12)

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

The New Leader (31:7-8)

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

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

The Passing of the Old Leader (32:45-34:12)

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