What’s in a name?
The name Deuteronomy comes from the Septuagint title Deuteronomion, which means “second law.” The title is apt, since Deuteronomy is a second telling of the law. Much of what it says repeats what is said in the previous four books.
The book begins, “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel” (1:1). The Hebrew title ‘elleh hadebharim means “these are the words.” Toward the end of the 40th and last year of the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness, Moses spoke to them one last time. Deuteronomy consists of “the words Moses spoke to all Israel” at that time.
The book of Deuteronomy plays an important part in the Hebrew canon. The last book of the law or Pentateuch, it summarizes the contents of the first four books (sometimes called the Tetrateuch by scholars) and forms a link between them and the historical books from Joshua through 2 Kings. Deuteronomy is also one of the books most often quoted in the New Testament. For example, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy to refute the devil’s temptations (Matthew 4).
After an introduction (1:1-5), Deuteronomy consists of three addresses by Moses to the children of Israel, followed by an epilogue describing Moses’ last acts. In the first address (1:6 – 4:43), Moses reminds the Israelites how their lack of faith resulted in 40 years of wandering in the desert.
The second address is the longest. It forms the heart of the book (4:44–28:68). Most of this address is a repetition of various stipulations contained in the previous three books (4:44–26:19). It concludes by describing the blessings God would shower upon Israel if the people obeyed him – and the curses that would result from their disobedience (27:1–28:68).
Moses’ third address is essentially a restatement of what the covenant meant (29:1–30:20). This address is closely linked to the last two chapters of the previous address, since both sections present the covenant in terms of blessings and curses.
The epilogue (31:1–34:12) records Joshua’s appointment as Moses’ successor, the song of Moses (which declares God’s greatness), Moses’ blessing on the various tribes of Israel and the account of Moses’ death and burial.
How to read this book
Deuteronomy is a renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. The organization of Deuteronomy follows the usual form of vassal treaties of the time. These treaties were agreements between an overlord, or suzerain (God, in this case), and a lesser lord, or vassal nation (Israel). Deuteronomy, like other ancient treaties, includes
- a preamble identifying the suzerain (1:1-5),
- a historical prologue recounting how the suzerain has helped the vassal (1:6–3:29),
- a list of stipulations for the vassal to do (4:1- 26:19),
- a command to place the treaty in the vassal’s center of worship (31:9, 24-26),
- a call to read the treaty publicly (31:10-13),
- a list of witnesses to the treaty (31:16–32:47) and
- lists of blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it (28:1-68).
By delineating the terms of the treaty so carefully, God made sure the Israelites would be without excuse if they broke the covenant.
On the theological level, Deuteronomy should also be read as the background to the books of Joshua through 2 Kings. Deuteronomy outlines what would happen to the Israelites if they obeyed God, and what would happen if they disobeyed. Generally, the Israelites disobeyed, and experienced unpleasant results. As described in 2 Kings, this eventually led to the Israelites losing the land God had given them.
Learning about God
Deuteronomy 6:4 is the key expression of one of the Bible’s most fundamental truths. Moses declared, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This concept of monotheism, the belief that there is only one God, is foundational to three of the world’s major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This verse begins the passage known to the Jews as the shema’, after its initial word, “Hear.”
The next verse is equally important: “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:5). Jesus acknowledged this verse as the great commandment of the law. It shows that God expects us to put him first in our lives. God is a jealous God (6:15). Deuteronomy particularly warns against the sin of idolatry.
Deuteronomy also teaches us more about the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Moses foretold of another prophet who would be like him (18:15-19). The New Testament identifies Jesus Christ as the prophet of whom Moses spoke. The apostle Peter, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, quotes this prophecy as being fulfilled in Christ (Acts 3:22-23; see also John 1:45; Acts 7:37).
As Moses was the mediator of the old covenant, so Christ was for the new: “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The law of Moses points toward Jesus Christ. Jesus told the Jews of his day, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:46-47).
The Ten Commandments: Moses reminded the Israelites that God had given them the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai (5:1-21). “These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and, the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me” (5:22).
Covenants: Moses explained clearly to the people the terms of their covenant with God and how this covenant would affect their life in the Promised Land. This theme permeates the entire book of Deuteronomy and is summarized in chapters 29–30.
Tithing: Two tithes are mentioned in Deuteronomy. A tithe was used to help everyone rejoice at God’s annual festivals (12:4-22; 14:22-27). In every third agricultural year, a tithe was used to help the needs of Levites, widows, orphans and the poor (14:28-29; 26:12-15). Since the land was allowed to rest every seventh year (Lev. 25:1-7), this tithe would have applied every third and sixth year of a seven-year cycle.
Reminders of holiness: As the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses restated a number of laws that emphasized the people’s need to keep themselves holy. “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people” (7:6). The laws concerned which meats the people could eat (14:3-21), laws regulating ritual cleanliness and proper waste disposal (23:9-14), instructions for segregation of certain diseases (24:8-9) and even laws regarding clothing (22:5, 11-12).
Festivals and holy days: The three festival seasons – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles – are again described and commanded to be observed as joyous celebrations (16:1-17). God also commanded the people to give offerings at these times (16:16-17).
What this book means for you
In Deuteronomy, Moses recalled how God had saved and protected Israel. In light of this, he challenged the Israelites to rededicate their lives to God. Similarly, Christians should remember how God has saved them through his Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16). Just as the Israelites observed festivals that reminded them of their rescue from slavery, so Christians observe memorials of what Jesus did for our salvation.
Moses also reminded this new generation of Israelites of their covenant with God. We, too, need to keep our relationship with God and Christ always fresh in our minds.
God’s covenant required that the people choose the path of obedience to him. Obedience to God would result in blessings; rebellion would bring curses (Deuteronomy 28). Today, obedience to the gospel involves a new, and far greater, covenant relationship with God (Acts 5:32; Hebrews 8:6).
The wide range of laws in Deuteronomy shows that all aspects of life were to be regulated for the good of the people. God is concerned with every area of our lives, too. He wants us to love him and our fellow human beings.
Another of Deuteronomy’s key themes is stated at the beginning: “Go in and take possession of the land that the Lord swore he would give to your fathers…and to their descendants after them” (1:8). Like the Israelites, Christians have a promised land – the kingdom of God. It is God’s good pleasure to give you eternal life (Luke 12:32). In all your pursuits, he wants you to seek first his kingdom (Matthew 6:33). By God’s grace, through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, we enter his kingdom. “The Father…has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:12-13).