This is part of a series of articles, describing each of the 66 books of the Bible and how it relates to the one overall story of God’s relationship with man. The story is examined in terms of the five recurring themes below. The series cover page can be reached here.
The book of Deuteronomy is traditionally considered to have been written by Moses, or at least to be a transcript of his words. Most of the book is his last speech to the Israelites before he died.
The literary style of the book is literal, historical narrative. The tone is matter-of-fact, even when describing obvious miracles. People and places are named in real-world context, with nothing “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away”.
This book is a summary of the history of the Israelites from leaving Egypt to their current status on the verge of entering their Promised Land. This land of Canaan was promised to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob nearly 500 years earlier. Moses reminds the people of how God has spectacularly kept His promise. He repeats the rules of the covenant they had agreed to (Ten Commandments, etc) and urges them to keep their word. If they obey and honor God, it will go well for them in their new land. If not, especially if — when — they turn away from God and worship the idols of their neighboring nations, God will turn away from them for a time. They will suffer from natural disasters like drought and disease, and will be conquered by others. When they repent and turn back to Him, He will forgive them and restore their prosperity.
Note that much of the rest of the Old Testament is a history of exactly this happening. The sin/repent/forgiveness cycle that has been happening throughout the journey so far will continue. God knew this ahead of time, predicted it, and planned for it. Both the looking back and the looking forward will show our five themes.
Looking Back: Remember God; Keep His Laws
Chapters 1-3: Moses starts by reminding the people of their wilderness wanderings since leaving Horeb (Mt. Sinai). He describes their failure at their first opportunity to enter Canaan, where they listened to the fear-mongering spies instead of trusting God as Joshua and Caleb recommended. He recounts the victories that God had given them over the attacking kings of Heshbon and Bashan. He summarizes the current disposition, with the tribes of Gad and Reuben already claiming their territory on the near side of the Jordan River (contingent on their promise to help the other tribes with battles for the main territory on the other side of the river). Finally, he says that he himself will not be going into Canaan with them, because God was angry at him (see the incident in Numbers chapter 20).
Chapter 4, verses 1 through 40, are a passionate plea. “Remember God! Remember what He has done for you! Does any other nation have such a wonderful God? Obey Him! Ignore any other little man-made non-gods of wood or stone or gold or silver! When you fail to do so, you’ll be punished. But when you turn back to God, He’ll still be there.”
Chapter 5 repeats the Ten Commandments, and reminds the people of the circumstances when they were first given in Exodus 20: They were written on stone tablets by God Himself while the mountain was engulfed with fire and smoke so that they were terrified to go near it. Moses is reinforcing their memory of God’s majesty, and of their commitment to Him.
Chapter 6 tells the people to keep reinforcing that memory, and to pass it along to the generations:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.Deuteronomy 6:4-9
They are to always keep God’s laws. When asked why, they are to answer, “Because we were slaves in Egypt, and God miraculously brought us out to this land. These laws are what He commanded so that we would prosper here.”
Chapter 7 emphasizes the requirement to STAY COMPLETELY AWAY FROM OTHER GODS!! As the people enter the land and conquer the nations there, they are to destroy all vestiges of idol worship. They are to tear down and burn all the altars and idols; they are not to intermingle with the inhabitants; they are not to copy their way of worshipping; they are to have nothing to do with them. They don’t need to worry about how to win against these nations; God will take care of that as He has ever since Egypt. But they are to NOT to assimilate with them at all.
For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.Deuteronomy 7:6-8
“The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers…
Chapter 8 repeats the theme again: “Remember God; remember what He has done; follow His commandments. Don’t get complacent and think that you are in this land because of any attribute of your own; it’s all Him.”
Chapters 9-10 reiterate that their success in the land will be due to God, not to their own efforts. It also reminds them of their abject failure in the beginning, when they were already worshipping a golden calf idol copied from Egypt before Moses even got down the mountain with the first set of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32). Then it repeats again:
Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it. Yet on your fathers did the LORD set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day.Deuteronomy 10:12-15
Chapter 11 is more of the same: “Remember what God has done for you. Obey Him, and teach your children to do so as well. Obedience will bring continued blessings; disobedience will hurt.” Am I sensing a pattern here? 🙂
God’s Laws for the Israelites
Chapter 12 is the first of the laws: Where and how to worship. God will specify a central place as “His”; all offerings and sacrifices are to be brought there. The current inhabitants have shrines all over the place. The Israelites are not to use those; they are to destroy them and not build any similar local shrines.
When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?’ You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God, for every abominable act which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.Deuteronomy 12:29-31
Chapter 13 is another warning against idolatry. If anyone — prophet, spouse, entire town — recommends “Let’s see what the other folks are doing, and worship like they do”, that person is to be killed (or the town destroyed).
Chapter 14 discusses clean vs. unclean foods, followed by how to determine and contribute their tithes.
Chapter 15 is the Sabbath year when debts are cancelled and slaves are freed. It also describes the dedication of the firstborn male animals to God, to be sacrificed and eaten in a special meal.
Chapter 16 tells the three main “pilgrimage” festivals — Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles — where all the men are to gather at God’s designated city to celebrate together. It also requires that judges be appointed in each town, and that those judges be fair and impartial when settling disputes.
Chapter 17 gives one of the main cases the judges are to hear: Accusations of idolatry. If the accused is found guilty, on the testimony of more than just a single witness, they are to be killed.
...Behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed to your gates, that is, the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death. On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.Deuteronomy 17:4-7
Chapter 17 also describes the hierarchy above these judges. The priests and Levites are to settle matters that are too difficult for the judges. This chapter also predicts that the people will one day want a king to rule over them. When that happens, the king is to remain humble: He is to be one of the people, not a foreigner; he is not to acquire great riches or many wives; he is to write out his own personal copy of the law and study it regularly; he is not to consider himself to be above his fellow Israelites.
Chapter 18 provides for the Levites to be supported, since they are dedicated to the tabernacle service and do not have lands of their own. Then it forbids the occult practices common in the land: divination, sorcery, witchcraft, mediums, spiritists who contact the dead, etc. Rather, God will provide prophets who pass along His words as Moses has done. Specifically, verse 15 foretells a specific prophet “like Moses”, a prophecy which Jesus fulfilled. If what a prophet says comes to pass, he is truly speaking for God and must be obeyed. If not, he is presuming and speaking on his own, and is to be put to death.
Chapter 19 provides for cities of refuge as places of safety for anyone who accidentally causes a death, until the case can be judged fairly. Deliberate, malicious murderers are to be extradited from the refuge and sent back to their home town for judgment. The requirement for multiple witnesses is repeated. Also, witnesses are required to give honest testimony. If they lie, “do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 19:19)
Chapter 20 gives the rules for warfare. The cities specific to the Promised Land and most known for their evil idolatry — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — are to be completely destroyed and everyone killed. Others are to be given an offer of peace in exchange for labor, besieged if they refuse, and captives and plunder are allowed.
Chapters 21-26 are a series of laws regulating personal interactions:
- Atonement for a unsolved murder
- Marrying a captive woman
- Inheritance rights of the firstborn son
- Punishment for a rebellious son
- Dealing with another’s lost property
- Practical laws: Parapets on houses for safety; planting without cross-contamination
- Marriage, and violations thereof such as infidelity or rape
- Limits on foreigners who can be allowed to assimilate and be included in the “assembly of the Lord”
- Fair treatment of slaves
- No prostitution
- No charging interest on loans to fellow Israelites (OK for others)
- Keeping of vows
- Respecting others’ property rights
- Divorce and remarriage
- Fair treatment of the poor, and when giving loans
- Settling disputes in court, with punishment limited and not excessive
- Marriage to a brother’s widow in order to carry on his family name
- Ethical business practices like honest weights
Chapter 26 ends with instructions for firstfruits offerings and tithes, and with the admonition to faithfully obey all these laws.
Looking Forward: Blessings and Curses
Chapters 27 and 28 give instructions for a ceremony to be conducted once the people have crossed the Jordan River. They are to set up large stones on Mount Ebal, covered with plaster and with the words of the Law written on them. They are also to build an altar and “sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, and rejoice before the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 27:7). Half of the tribes are to stand on one side to pronounce blessings for obeying the law, and the other half across from them to pronounce curses for disobedience. Chapter 27 has the Levites calling out specific sins to be cursed, and the people answering “Amen” (“So be it.”) Chapter 28 lists the blessings to be expected, and also the consequences related to the curses.
Chapter 29 is a renewal of the covenant, another reminder to keep their word, and an anticipation that they will not do so. They will fall into idolatry despite all the warnings, and…
All the nations will say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?’ Then men will say, ‘Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they have not known and whom He had not allotted to them.Deuteronomy 29:24-26
Chapter 30 says that when these curses come to pass, and when the people return to God, then “the LORD your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.” (Deuteronomy 30:3) Then Moses issues his famous, ringing challenge:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants…Deuteronomy 30:19
Chapter 31 is the succession of Joshua to follow Moses, the public reading of all the Law, and another prediction that Israel will fail to keep it.
Chapter 32 is the “Song of Moses”, a poetic way of re-stating the importance of obedience. It begins by telling how tenderly God nurtured His fledgling nation, then turns as if the future has already happened:
You neglected the Rock who begot you,Deuteronomy 32:18
And forgot the God who gave you birth.
When Moses finished his song, he gave one last warning:
When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to your heart all the words with which I am warning you today, which you shall command your sons to observe carefully, even all the words of this law. For it is not an idle word for you; indeed it is your life.Deuteronomy 32:45-47
The chapter ends with God telling Moses to go up to Mount Nebo to view from a distance the Promised Land that he cannot enter, and that he will die on that mountain.
Chapter 33 is Moses’ individual blessings on each of twelve tribes.
Chapter 34 is Moses’ death, the people’s grief over him, and Joshua taking up leadership.
Continue to Joshua.