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Introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy

Julian Spriggs M.A.

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Title of the book

The name 'Deuteronomy' comes from the Greek translation in the Septuagint of the phrase in 17:18, where it speaks of a 'copy of the law'. The Septuagint (LXX) rendered this phrase as the 'second law' (Gk = deuteros nomos). This title is misleading, as Deuteronomy repeats much of the law code from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, rather than being a second, or different, law.

The Hebrew Scriptures titles the book, "These are the words", according to the common practice of naming a book after its first words. This title is more accurate, as the book does consist of the words Moses which addressed to Israel immediately before their entry into the Promised Land, calling them to obedience and commitment to God and his covenant. It is the last book of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses.

Background and Historical Setting

It is important to see Deuteronomy in its historical setting. It is the pivotal point between the covenant of God with His people and the outworking of that covenant in the history of Israel.

It is also the basis of the History books, sometimes called the Deuteronomic History, or 'D' history (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings). The history of Israel is always to be referred back to the book of Deuteronomy. It sets the standard. Deuteronomy is the cornerstone of OT Theology. It is the key to understand the OT, and the Gospel.

After the Exodus from Egypt God made a covenant with the first generation of Israelites on Mt. Sinai. Most of this generation died in the wilderness, following their refusal to enter the Promised Land (Num 13-14). By the end of the Book of Numbers, the Israelites had moved from Sinai to the Plains of Moab, east of the Dead Sea, after defeating the kings in the Transjordan.

The book of Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal document. Much of the material in the book is restated, but as it is not a complete covenant, much is left out which was still relevant. It will also be noted that some of the laws are different. Some of the stipulations in Exodus and Leviticus are for a semi nomadic people, whereas in Deuteronomy God was preparing the people to settle in the land and become farmers. For example, in Leviticus, if people wanted to eat meat it needed to be killed at the tent of meeting (Lev 17:1), but in Deuteronomy they were permitted to kill animals away from the central sanctuary, as long as the blood is covered (Deut 12:20-28).

Structure of Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy was written in a very similar structure to a covenant renewal document used by the Hittites of the Ancient Near East. These covenants were made between a suzerain and a vassal. The suzerain was a powerful king who had captured a nation, making it part of his empire. The vassal was the weaker nation captured by the suzerain, and coming under his authority. A Hittite Treaty can be seen in the British Museum.

Deuteronomy records the renewal of covenant made by God with his people Israel in the Plains of Moab, just before they entered the Promised Land. The first covenant was made on Mt. Sinai with the first generation of Israelites, who God brought out of Egypt. Deuteronomy records the renewal of the covenant with the second generation of Israelites, who had become adults during the years in the wilderness.

This is a fitting framework for God to use, as He was indeed the benevolent Suzerain, calling for the covenant faithfulness of His people. In Egypt, the Israelites had been subject to the cruel suzerain authority of Pharaoh. The liberation of the Exodus had taken away the worldly suzerain, and placed Israel under a new suzerain, God himself. He had liberated his people because of his love for them, and called them to love him and be faithful to him in return.

A covenant renewal document normally had the following sections

This identified the mediator of the covenant (the suzerain), basically saying 'I am the boss' (Deut 1:1-5)

Historical prologue
This describes the previous relationship between the suzerain and the vassal, leading up to the treaty, showing the goodness of the suzerain. It can be summarised as, 'I have been good to you' (1:6 - 4:43).

These are obligations laid on the vassal by the suzerain, and particularly a call to loyalty. They are based on the historical prologue, so the word is, 'therefore you will obey me'. These come in two sections: general laws (4:44 - 11:32), and specific stipulation (12:1 - 26:19).

Various deities called to witness the covenant. In Deuteronomy, the witnesses are not pagan gods, but the following: heaven and earth (30:19), Moses' song (31:19, 32:1-43) and the book of the law itself (31:26 )

Blessings and cursings
These are rewards for keeping the covenant, and punishments for breaking it. 'If you obey you will prosper under my protection', but, 'if you disobey there will be penalties' (27:1 - 28:68).

Provision for regular renewal
The document ended with instructions for regular renewal and public reading of the covenant (31:10-13)

In Deuteronomy, the witnesses, and the blessings and cursings are in the reverse order to a historical covenant renewal document.

Occasion of the covenant renewal

Moses probably preached the book of Deuteronomy to the Israelites as a series of three messages. His first speech reminds the Israelites of God's previous dealings with the people, their rebellion in the wilderness and the conquests east of the Jordan (1:1 - 4:43). It is introduced, "These are the words Moses spoke ..." (1:1). His second speech gives a review and explanation of the law, and concludes with the blessings and cursings (4:44 - ch 28). It is introduced, "This is the law that Moses set before the Israelites ..." (4:44). His third and final speech is a strong exhortation to keep the covenant (ch 29-30), introduced, "Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: ..." (29:2). The book concludes with a narrative section (ch 31-33), which describes Joshua being commissioned as leader, Moses' song, blessing and death. It is introduced, "When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them ..." (31:1).

Moses wrote the words of the law down in a book, and commanded that it be placed beside the ark of the covenant (31:24).

Deuteronomy is not simply a law code, as in other Eastern law codes. Rather, Moses is preaching his heart out to the new generation who will enter the land. Moses exhorts the people to remain faithful and obey God. He is not just giving the law, but seeking to motivate them to obey. The covenant structure declares the God has made a covenant with Israel, God is their sovereign king, so they have a duty to obey him.

They are told to 'hear' fifty times and to 'do', 'keep', and 'obey' 177 times. Moses often tells them to remember and not forget, so that they can do the things God has commanded them (1:23; 4:9; 5:15; 6:12; 8:11,14,19; 15:15).

Moses reminded people of God's actions, and called them to obey God, to maintain purity in their devotion to him. This also guarded against legalism, they were called to obey out of a heart of love for God, as he as loved them, because of what God had already done for them. Moses was preparing the people for a new situation, to encourage obedience and faithfulness in the land. Their worship was a tool to remember God's faithfulness - the feasts and offerings.

The atmosphere is more personal than Exodus. The appeal to obey was based on relationship and love. Moses's sermons were to encourage obedience, as he explained the purpose of the laws. Each generation needed to re-commit themselves to God.

His purpose was to encourage Israel to live as God's people in God's promised land, and thereby know God's blessing. If they disobeyed, they would loose the land, and ultimately lose the right to be God's people, as they were driven from his presence. To remain God's people Israel, they must remember both their salvation, the deliverance from Egypt, as well as their responsibility, the law & covenant on Sinai.

A change of leader / mediator

Deuteronomy also describes the process of Moses passing the leadership to Joshua. Moses was now 120 years old, and had been forbidden by God to enter the promised land, so his death was drawing near. Joshua was to take up the responsibilities of leading the people in the conquest of the land. Although, the true leader of the covenant people was God himself. There was to be a change of human leader and mediator.

There is a sadness in Moses' prayer, as he pleaded with God to be allowed to enter the land, but was only permitted to see it at a distance (3:23-28). His acceptance of this, and surrender to God is seen in the account of his death (ch 34). Moses addressed the people as their leader who would be with them no longer, and who exhorts them to obedience. He urges them to transfer their allegiance to Joshua, as the new divinely appointed leader, who is appointed to his new role in (31:7-8).

Just before the conquest

The covenant at Sinai was made soon after the great victory of God over Egypt (Ex 15:1-18). The renewal of the covenant is just before the entry into the promised land. In Exodus, the people learnt that their God was a warrior who intervened in human history to bring about the fulfilment of the promises. Now they need to remember that the outcome of their future battles depended on the power of God and their wholehearted obedience and commitment to him, rather in their military prowess. In the renewal of the covenant the people recognised the impossibility of the conquest, but with God it would be possible, if they obeyed him.

A ceremonial occasion

Deuteronomy records the words of Moses spoken to the congregation of Israel on the Plains of Moab, as he led them in a renewal of the covenant. "These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan ..." (Deut 1:1). The repeated theme of, "The commands I give you today" (32 times), or "this very day" show us that the original setting was a particular ceremonial occasion. You stand assembled today (29:10), to enter into covenant today (29:12). The people formally declared their allegiance by affirming the LORD was their God today (26:16-17). Today God has obtained their agreement. Instructions were given for the next renewal of the covenant, based on the fact that, "This very day you have become the people of the LORD your God, therefore obey ..." (27:9-11).

Joshua was appointed as the successor to Moses, both in a public ceremony (31:7-8, 34:9), as well as privately at the tent of meeting (31:14-23). The priests were instructed to keep the text of the covenant by the ark of the covenant (31:9, 25-26). Instructions were given for the regular renewal of the covenant (31:10-13). Moses wrote down the 'Song of witness' (ch 32), and taught it to the people (31:22,28). The singing of the song may have marked the formal conclusion of the renewal ceremony: "that very day Moses wrote this song" (31:22), and, "that very day Moses was allowed to see the land" (32:48).

It is likely that Deuteronomy was given as Moses's farewell speech, urging the people to obey the law and keep the covenant on the very day he died (ch 34).

A second ceremonial occasion

It may be that the final written form of the book is associated with the covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem (Josh 8:30-35). In Deuteronomy, Moses gave instructions to renew the covenant once they had entered the land (11:29-30, 27:1-13). This was to take place near Shechem, between Mount Ebal to the north, and Mount Gerizim to the south. This is the same location that Jacob had erected an altar, and called it 'El-Elohe-Israel', meaning God, the God of Israel (Gen 33:18-20).

The place of Deuteronomy in the rest of OT history and prophecy

The covenant, especially in Deuteronomy, became the foundation of all the rest of Israel's history until God took the nation away from them (Matt 21:43). We see the blessings and curses worked out through Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. These historical accounts are selective, showing God's dealings with His people on the basis of Deut 28-29. This is often called Deuteronomic history.

The prophets were God's spokesmen who restated the covenant, promising that God keeps covenant, both blessings and curses, and calling the people to repentance and obedience to the covenant.

Related articles

How to interpret OT Narratives How to interpret OT law
Covenants in the OT Names of God in the OT
Sacrifices and offerings Jewish feasts and festivals
Tithing Jewish calendar and religious festivals
Hittite Suzerainty Treaty