My Enter The Bible

Create a free account or login now to enjoy the full benefits of Enter the Bible:

  • Make personal notes
  • Track your learning

Old Testament: Deuteronomy

Related Periods:

Summary

Deuteronomy is couched in the form of a farewell discourse delivered by Moses on the plains of Moab (1:1-5). It opens with a review of how God had brought the people to the verge of the Jordan (1:1-4:43). In a second discourse, Moses explains the significance of the covenant (chapters 5-11) and introduces the Deuteronomic Law Code (chapters 12-26), the heart of the book. This is followed by instructions for the renewal of the covenant (chapter 27), a list of blessings and curses (chapter 28), and a final exhortation to observe the covenant (chapters 29-30). The Song of Moses (chapters 31-32), his final blessing of Israel (chapter 33), and the account of his death on Mt. Nebo (chapter 34) bring the book to a close.

So What?

Deuteronomy, more than any other book, has set the tone for subsequent interpretation of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), including its title in Judaism, "Torah." In addition, Deuteronomy became the theological basis for and introduction to the next major section of the Bible: the Former Prophets in Judaism and the Historical Books in Christianity (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), as well as the book of Jeremiah. It is among the most commonly quoted books in the New Testament, with Jesus quoting from Deuteronomy more often than any other book.

Where Do I Find It?

In English Bibles, Deuteronomy is the fifth book in the Old Testament (and the final book of the Pentateuch). It follows Numbers and comes before Joshua.

Who Wrote It?

Ancient tradition identifies Moses as the author of Deuteronomy. Today, many scholars believe that Deuteronomy is the initial part of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-Kings) and that various older traditions have been gathered together and edited by a nameless exilic editor or editors.

When Was It Written?

There is some agreement that the central core of Deuteronomy (chapters 12-26) was the basis for the extensive reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 22-23) in 622/621 B.C.E. Deuteronomy as we know it is the final result of a long process of growth, probably culminating during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E.

What's It About?

Deuteronomy is cast in the form of a series of three sermons delivered by Moses on the plain of Moab just prior to the Israelites' entrance into the land of Canaan (1:6-4:43; 4:44-28:68; 29:1-30:20). Much of the second sermon consists of a long body of legislation (chapters 12-26). Wedged between the second and third sermons are a covenant renewal at Shechem (chapter 27) and a list of blessings and curses (chapter 28). Deuteronomy concludes with the Song of Moses (chapters 31-32); Moses' blessing of the tribes (chapter 33); and the death of Moses on Mt. Nebo (chapter 34).

How Do I Read It?

While Deuteronomy is presented as three sermons delivered by Moses, a careful reading of the book reveals that this is not the case. The concern for worship only at the central sanctuary (chapter 12) and the various legal traditions reflect the social, political, and economic situation of an established community. As the product of a long process of the application of Israel's historic traditions, Deuteronomy seeks to apply those traditions to the contemporary Israelite community whether that community is the audience addressed by Moses, the reforming king Josiah in the seventh century B.C.E., or the exiles in Babylon.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

I. Moses' First Address (1:1-4:43)
Deuteronomy begins with the first of three farewell addresses delivered by Moses before his death and before Israel enters the promised land of Canaan.

A. Historical Retrospective (1:1-3:29)
In this historical retrospective Moses tells the story of Israel's forty-year journey from Mt. Horeb to the plains of Moab east of the Jordan River--touching upon the exodus, the revelation at Mt. Horeb, and Israel's rebellion in the wilderness.

B. The Importance of Obedience (4:1-43)
In this sermon, Moses discusses the importance of observing the law by elaborating upon the significance of the first commandment (the second in Judaism) regarding the exclusive allegiance God demands.

II. Moses' Second Address (4:44-28:68)
In his second of three farewell addresses, Moses discusses what life lived in covenantal relationship with God looks like, focusing on what it means to "love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (6:5).

A. Introduction (4:44-5:33)
Two basic elements of God's will for Israel, the theophany at Mt. Horeb and the Ten Commandments, are presented as divinely revealed.

B. The Importance of Loyalty to God (6:1-11:32)
Here we find a selection of sermon fragments on the first commandment (chapter 6), the danger of assimilation with the Canaanites (chapter 7), the peril of prosperity (chapter 8), the temptation of self-righteousness (9:1-10:11), and obedience as a condition for prosperity in the land (10:12-11:32).

C. The Deuteronomic Code (12:1-26:15)
This long section is the heart of Deuteronomy. It presents the laws themselves, but not in the style of a legal code. Rather, it contains detailed excerpts from ancient law together with theological commentary. Chapters 12:1-16:17 are basically concerned with matters of worship; and 16:18-18:22 are generally concerned with the duties of judges, other officials, the king, the Levites, and the prophets; but chapters 19-26 defy schematization.

D. Covenant Renewal (26:16-28:68)
Moses describes a ceremony for renewing the covenant made at Mt. Horeb. The ceremony is to take place at Mt. Ebal near Shechem after crossing the Jordan River (26:16-27:26). Blessings if Israel complies (28:1-14) and curses if they do not (28:15-68) complete the sermon.

III. Moses' Third Speech (29:1-30:20)
Moses' third speech challenges Israel--whether on the verge of the Jordan, in the days of Josiah, or today--to choose between obedience and life and disobedience and death.

A. Historical Review (29:1-29)
The third speech begins with a historical review of God's covenant loyalty to Israel in the past (29:1-9). In verses 10-29, Moses switches from talking about the past to urging the present assembly to remain loyal.

B. Promise of Restoration (30:1-10)
Moses then reassures the people that, should they fail, restoration will follow if they repent. This appears to be an addition to the text, especially addressed to those in exile in the sixth century B.C.E.

C. Exhortation to "Choose Life!" (30:11-20)
The sermon concludes with an assurance that what the Lord requires is neither too difficult nor too far away (vv. 11-14) and a fervent appeal for the people to "Choose life!"-that is, life lived in covenantal relationship with the Lord (vv. 15-20).

IV. Appendix (31:1-34:12)
Deuteronomy concludes with a number of unrelated passages that provide a measure of closure to Deuteronomy as well as the Pentateuch as a whole.

A. Joshua Appointed as Moses' Successor (31:1-8, 14-15, 23)
The crucial transition from Moses to Joshua begins with Moses speaking of his own death and discussing what lies ahead for Israel. God will lead them into the promised land (vv. 1-6). Then he appoints Joshua as his successor (vv. 7-8), an action repeated by God in verses 14-15, 23.

B. The Torah Is Entrusted to the Levites (31:9-13, 24-29)
After committing the law to writing (v. 9a), Moses entrusts it to the Levitical priests (v. 9b), who are charged with its public reading every seventh year at the Festival of Booths (vv. 10-13).

C. The Song of Moses (31:16-32:47)
The first part of the Song of Moses (32:1-25) is presented as a lawsuit brought by God against Israel, accusing them of unfaithfulness (vv. 2-22) and passing sentence (vv. 23-25). The second part (vv. 26-42) depicts God pondering the consequences of this action (vv. 26-27), turning to accuse the nations of misunderstanding (vv. 28-38), and finally declaring a verdict upon these unnamed nations (vv. 39-42).

D. The Blessing of Moses (33:1-29)
Moses' final words are words of blessing for each of the tribes (except Simeon) reminiscent of Jacob's blessing of his sons, who became the tribes of Israel, at the end of Genesis (Genesis 49:2-27). Thus, the blessing serves as a conclusion to the Pentateuch as well as to Deuteronomy.

E. The Death of Moses (32:48-52; 34:1-12)
The death of Moses has been appended by the final redactor of the Pentateuch reporting that Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land (34:1-8) and assuring readers, once again, that Joshua is Moses' divinely appointed successor (34:9). The redactor's closing eulogy lifts up Moses' vigorous physical strength (v. 7) as well as the strength of the Lord that accompanied his encounter with Pharaoh (vv. 10-12).

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

The material we know as Deuteronomy is the final product of a long process. There is little consensus as to its history, but a common description of this process indicates that an initial ordering of older traditions took place in the northern kingdom before 722 B.C.E. Following the fall of the north to Assyria in 722/721 B.C.E., Levitical priests brought the corpus to Jerusalem where it inspired the reforms of Hezekiah in 727/715-698/687 (the dates are uncertain). Its rediscovery during the repair of the temple (2 Kings 22:3-20) spurred the reforms instituted by Josiah in 622/621 (2 Kings 23). It received its final form in the exile where it introduces and forms the theological basis of the Deuteronomistic History, which addresses the questions of those who had experienced the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar II in 587/586 B.C.E., the destruction of the temple, the end of Davidic rule, and deportation to Babylon: Had God abandoned them? Why was Israel's history a history of failure? Especially important in this regard was Deuteronomy's explanation that both the fall of the north and the Babylonian exile were due to Israel and Judah's covenantal violations.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

Canonical setting. Traditionally, Deuteronomy has been seen as the concluding scroll of the Torah or Pentateuch, the so-called five books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Its legal materials (chapters 12-26) and narratives about the final days of Moses provide some justification for this view. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, scholars, following the lead of Martin Noth, have tended to see Deuteronomy as the theological introduction to the historical books of the Old Testament, the Deuteronomistic ("Deuteronomy-like") History that stretches from Joshua through 2 Kings.

Covenantal shaping. For over fifty years, scholars of both liberal and conservative persuasions have noticed the strong similarity between Deuteronomy and international treaties pervasive in the Hittite culture of the second millennium B.C.E. Such treaties established the relationship between the conquering Hittites and their vassals with this general structure:

1. preamble identifying the two parties

2. historical prologue relating their past relationship

3. stipulations agreed to by the vassal including loyalty and tribute

4. curses and blessings, including sanctions for noncompliance

5. invocation of the gods as witnesses to the treaty

6. provision for public reading of the document

This framework was then applied to the book of Deuteronomy:

1. preamble identifying the two parties (1:1-5)

2. historical prologue relating their past relationship (1:6-3:29)

3. stipulations agreed to by the vassal, including loyalty and tribute (chapters 4-26)

  • general (4:1-11:32)
  • specific (12:1-26:19)

4. curses and blessings, including sanctions for noncompliance (chapters 27-30)

5. invocation of the gods as witnesses to the treaty (31:28)

6. provision for public reading of the document (31:9-13)

The current debate centers on the different character of the Neo-Assyrian treaties of the first millennium B.C.E., which lack the historical prologue, only put forth curses for noncompliance, and lack the requirement of the depositing of the treaty in the sanctuaries of both suzerain and vassals. Conservatives tend to favor the second-millennium form and use this as an argument for Mosaic authorship. Liberals tend toward the Neo-Assyrian format. At least the origins of Israel's covenantal theology have been discovered, though what particular form that concept has taken is far from clear.

Farewell speeches in the Deuteronomistic History. The book of Deuteronomy was probably conceived as a treaty document based upon either the Hittite treaties of the second millennium or the Neo-Assyrian treaties of the first millennium B.C.E. Upon its incorporation into the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH), however, a secondary shaping of the material was imposed upon the text. The different "books" of the DtrH familiar to us (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) were originally divided by means of significant speeches, prayers, theological reflections of the editors, or farewell addresses of the major character of the period at the end of their era:

  • Moses' first speech: Deuteronomy 1:1-4:40
  • Moses' second speech: Deuteronomy 5:1-28:68
  • Moses' third speech: Deuteronomy 29:1-31:13
  • Joshua's farewell address at the settlement of the land: Joshua 23
  • Theological reflection on the period of the Judges: Judges 2:11-23
  • Samuel's farewell address at the establishment of the monarchy: 1 Samuel 12
  • Nathan's dynastic oracle and David's prayer: 2 Samuel 7
    David's farewell address: 1 Kings 2
  • Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the temple: 1 Kings 8:22-53
  • Theological reflection on the fall of Samaria to Assyria: 2 Kings 17:7-23
  • Theological reflection on the fall of Judah to Babylon: 2 Kings 25:1-7

The Deuteronomic Code and the Decalogue. There is a long history of interpretation that sees the Deuteronomic Code in chapters 12-26 as an explication of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Philo, a Jewish philosopher in the first century C.E., may have been the first to suggest this, but he was not the last. Both Luther and Calvin in the sixteenth century and several modern interpreters have attempted to find the elusive structure of the laws in Deuteronomy 12-26 by following this intriguing proposition. A common result of their investigations, based upon the Catholic/Lutheran numbering of the commandments, follows:

  • First Commandment: No other gods, 12:2-13:18
  • Second Commandment: Misuse of God's name, 14:1-21
  • Third Commandment: Observe the Sabbath, 14:22-16:17
  • Fourth Commandment: Honor father and mother, 16:18-18:22
  • Fifth Commandment: Do not murder, 19:1-22:8
  • Sixth Commandment: Do not commit adultery, 22:9-23:18
  • Seventh Commandment: Do not steal, 23:19-24:7
  • Eighth Commandment: Do not bear false witness, 24:8-25:4
  • Ninth Commandment: Do not covet neighbor's wife, 25:5-12
  • Tenth Commandment: Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor, 25:13-26:15

There is much to commend this approach. It is certainly logical and provides much needed order to a somewhat jumbled grouping of the legal materials. As the chart makes clear, the specific stipulations can be shown to be elaborations or applications of the statements rather flatly made in the Ten Commandments themselves; these elaborations follow the order of the Decalogue. There are difficulties in the details, however. It seems best to acknowledge that Deuteronomy 12-26 is essentially a more detailed exposition of the general principles of relationship addressed in 5:1-11:32.

Parallels with other law codes. Scholars have long recognized that much of the legal material in Deuteronomy also appears in the Covenant Code (also called the Book of the Covenant) in Exodus 20:22-23:33 and the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-26. It is well established that the Book of the Covenant is older than Deuteronomy. The Book of the Covenant reflects an agrarian setting, while the code in Deuteronomy is clearly more urbanized. Deuteronomy adopted the decisive features that made the Book of the Covenant unique from other ancient Near Eastern law codes, expanded them, and couched them as the command of Israel's God to the covenant people.

Laws unique to Deuteronomy. Comparison of the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26) with the Book of the Covenant or Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33) and the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26, see above) indicates that only five topics are unique to Deuteronomy: centralization of worship (12:1-32; and elsewhere); apostate towns (13:12-16); kingship (17:14-20); war (20:1-20); and murder by unknown persons (21:1-9).

This is surprisingly few, given the extensive legal materials assembled. The material in chapters 12, 17, and 20 is all germane to the Deuteronomic setting and is the most important. The concern with kingship points to the period of the monarchy as at least one moment in the redactional history of the book. Observations such as these are often used to deny Mosaic authorship.

Moses as the author of Deuteronomy? Traditionally, Moses has been seen as the author of Deuteronomy, indeed, of the Pentateuch as a whole. Despite references to Moses "writing down in a book the words of this law" (Deuteronomy 31:24; see also 31:9), there are several indications that this is not the case:

  1. References to territories east of the Jordan River as "beyond the Jordan" (Deuteronomy 1:1, 5; 3:8; 4:46) presuppose a vantage point on the west side of the river, but Moses was never on the west side of the river (34:4).
  2. The language of Deuteronomy is very different from the rest of the Pentateuch, yet similar to the seventh-century language of Jeremiah.
  3. The settlement of Canaan is viewed as an accomplished fact (Deuteronomy 2:12).
  4. Chapter 34, the account of the death of Moses, cannot have been written by him.
  5. The argument in Deuteronomy 12 for one central sanctuary is more restrictive than Exodus 20:24-25, which allows multiple altars, yet the central sanctuary is assumed in Leviticus, suggesting an intermediate chronological setting for Deuteronomy that is clearly long after the time of Moses.
  6. The concern for monarchy and regulations concerning the king are from a time long past Moses (for example, Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
  7. The setting of the laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22-23:33) is essentially agrarian, while that of the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26) is more urban.

Textual matters. The Masoretic Hebrew Text (approximately 1008 C.E.) of Deuteronomy is excellent. Roughly eighty passages from Deuteronomy of varying length are found in fragments of thirty-two of the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, the most significant being 4QDeuteronomy (about 200 B.C.E.-60 C.E.). These attest to the popularity of Deuteronomy among that community. The Nash Papyrus (second century B.C.E.) provides us with the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-21) and the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) in a version similar to that of the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament (about 300 B.C.E.).

Title. The Septuagint's (LXX) mistranslation of Deuteronomy 17:18-19, which instructs the king to make "a copy of this law" (that is, the legislation in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers) is the most likely source of "Deuteronomy." The Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) translated this phrase as "this second law," suggesting a different body of legislation. The Hebrew title, "these are the words" (that Moses spoke to Israel before entering the promised land), is a more accurate representation of the contents of Deuteronomy.

"Today." Deuteronomy frequently employs the term "the day" (hayyom), meaning "this day" or "today," as a way of making these sermons from Moses liturgically present for every hearer/reader (for example, 4:4; 5:1, 3; 11:32). Its most impressive rhetorical occurrence is in the sevenfold repetition found in 26:16, 17, 18; 27:1, 4, 9, and 10.

Torah. This definitive Hebrew concept is usually translated as "law." This is appropriate, though "teaching," "instruction," or even "revelation" often better capture the nuances of this pervasive Old Testament term that expresses the moral and social teaching of God's revelation to the covenant people. In Deuteronomy, torah often signifies the body of legislation known as the Deuteronomic Code found in chapters 12-26 (4:8; 30:10; 32:46), thus pointing to its character as "law." After Deuteronomy, the entire Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), with its law codes and the story of God's dealings with Israel, came to be called "The Torah," thus pointing to its character as "teaching" or "revelation."

"You," singular and plural. The material that frames the law code in chapters 12-26 (1:1-11:32; 26:16-34:12) occasionally shifts back and forth between singular and plural forms of "you." While this is evident in the Hebrew text (and the King James Version) the failure of modern English to distinguish between these forms means this strange occurrence goes unnoticed when one reads the NRSV. In the past, scholarship attributed this variation to different traditions in the history of the growth of the text. These days, while not denying the considerable editorial expansion in these chapters, the variations are usually seen as a feature of Deuteronomy's rhetorical style. For example, by couching the Ten Commandments in the second person singular "you," the Deuteronomist addresses each individual Israelite with the claim of each commandment upon one's life.

What kind of book is Deuteronomy? Presented as a series of sermons, Deuteronomy differs from the other legal collections of the Pentateuch. Those other traditions are cast in the form of a long speech from God to Moses, which comprises the bulk of the Sinai covenant found in Exodus 21-Numbers 10. Deuteronomy, in contrast, is cast as Moses' speech to the people of Israel before they enter the land of Canaan.

Many see Deuteronomy as a "covenantal document" based upon the pervasive treaties of the ancient Near East in the second millennium. This structuring of the book has been discussed elsewhere in this section.

Others see the basic shape as the "constitution" of Israel, due to its distinctive character as a treaty document with features of a law code. As such, Deuteronomy seeks to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population.

To date, no agreement exists between the suggestions of sermon, covenant document, and constitution. Deuteronomy seems to partake of all these elements.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

The ark. Whereas the traditions found in Exodus depict the ark as the place where the tablets of the covenant are housed and, more important, as a symbol of God's presence--since it is God's footstool, and the cherubim above the ark are described as God's throne from which God speaks to Moses (Exodus 25)--Deuteronomy describes the ark only as a chest that houses the tablets (Deuteronomy 10:1-5; 31:26). Further indications of Deuteronomy's rejection of the ark as a symbol of God's presence are its omission of the ark from those texts in Numbers that depict God traveling above the ark in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 1:33, 42; Numbers 10:33-36). Deuteronomy's refusal to limit God's presence to objects such as the ark helps to explain its similar rejection of the temple as God's house and the use of the divine name as indicative of God's presence.

Ban. The Hebrew word herem ("ban" or "dedicated/devoted" object) refers to anything set apart as belonging to God and therefore disqualified from other use. In the priestly materials it usually has reference to things set apart for use in the cult, and therefore holy. In the Deuteronomic tradition, however, the ban has to do with war. Any spoils or booty attained in military encounters were understood to be devoted to God and therefore not to be used by Israel. In fact, following a victory, everything must be "utterly destroyed" (the verbal root of "ban"; Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 7:2, 13:15, 17; 20:17). The point of this is not to advocate violence, but that Israel is not to profit by means of warfare.

Blessings and curses. Deuteronomy 28:1-14 describes the blessings that Israel will receive for faithful obedience:

  • victory in war (vv. 1, 7, 10)
  • prosperity (vv. 3-6, 8, 11-12)
  • becoming God's holy people (v. 9)
  • finding themselves only "the head," "at the top" (vv. 13-14, meaning obscure)

God brought about all of this in the occupation of the land.
Deuteronomy 28:15-68, however, describes the curses that Israel would receive for apostasy:

  • no prosperity (vv. 17-19)
  • affliction (vv. 20-22, 27-28, 58-61)
  • drought (vv. 23-24)
  • defeat by their enemies (vv. 25, 31-33, 47-57)
  • population reduction (vv. 62-63)
  • exile (vv. 32, 36-37, 41-44, 63-68)

God brought about all of these "curses" for Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 722/721 B.C.E. (2 Kings 17:1-41) and for Judah at the hands of the Babylonians in 587/586 B.C.E. (2 Kings 24:1-25:21).

Centralized worship. Deuteronomy 12 is important for the later Deuteronomistic editors because of its insistence upon the centralization of worship. When Jeroboam revolted and established the northern kingdom of Israel, he needed to set up shrines in Bethel and Dan as rival sanctuaries to the Jerusalem temple. This became the primary sin that brought condemnation upon all the northern kings in the judgment of the Deuteronomistic editors. The relevant items in Deuteronomy 12 include:

  • Canaanite places of worship need to be destroyed (vv. 1-4)
  • after Israel enters the land, God would choose one place to dwell instead of the tabernacle that functioned as a portable shrine in the wilderness (v. 5)
  • sacrifices, offerings, and gifts may only be brought to this place (vv. 6-7)
  • sacrifice can only be offered to God here (vv. 10-14)

Within Deuteronomy the emphasis on centralized worship forms the background for the following passages:

  • the tithe (14:22-29)
  • the first-born belongs to God (15:19-23)
  • the festival calendar (16:1-17)
  • the central court (17:8-13)
  • the rights of the Levitical priests (18:1-8)
  • the cities of refuge (19:1-13)

It is important to recognize that no specific city is named in the chapter. If these traditions arose in the north, it is likely that Shechem, the most important shrine in Israel, was meant. When the traditions came south, after the fall of the North (722/721 B.C.E.), the chosen place was identified with Jerusalem.

Election. Election, God's free choice, is an important aspect of the theology of Deuteronomy. Most important, Israel was regarded as an elect nation, chosen by God (4:37; 7:6-7; 10:15; 14:2). This means that Israel owed its very existence to the gracious initiative of God's prior choice, simply because God loved them, apart from any merit on Israel's part (7:7-8). Besides Israel, God has also freely chosen the king (17:15), the priests (18:5, 21:5), and the place of worship (12:11; 14:24; 16:6; 18:6).

This understanding of God's prior establishment of the relationship militates against the common notion that Deuteronomy is a "legalistic" work in which God rewards Israel for its compliance with the commandments. On the contrary, God chose Israel before Israel had a chance to obey. Israel's response follows God's election and flows out of gratitude (chapter 8). This order is especially clear in Deuteronomy 27:9-10: "O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the LORD your God. Therefore obey the LORD your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today" (emphasis added).

High places, pillars, and poles. Due to their affinity with the religion of the Canaanites, these three cultic items were especially abhorrent to the Deuteronomistic editors.

  • high places (bamoth): sites of Canaanite worship
  • pillars (masseboth): standing stones, possibly phallic, that symbolized Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility
  • sacred poles (asheroth): trees that represented the goddess Asherah

Josiah's reform. Since early-nineteenth century, Josiah's extensive reform of the cult in 621 B.C.E. has been linked to the book of Deuteronomy. Comparison with 2 Kings 23 yields the following verbal correspondences; in most cases, the Deuteronomic citation is representative of terminology that frequently appears:

  • "keeping his commandments, and his decrees, and his statutes" (2 Kings 23:3; compare Deuteronomy 6:17)
  • "with all his heart and with all his soul" (2 Kings 23:3; compare Deuteronomy 6:5)
  • destruction of the Asherah (2 Kings 23:4, 6, 15; compare Deuteronomy 7:5)
  • "the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of heaven" (2 Kings 23:5; compare Deuteronomy 4:19)
  • "would make a son or daughter to pass through fire" (2 Kings 23:10; compare Deuteronomy 18:10)
  • "broke the pillars in pieces" (2 Kings 23:14; compare Deuteronomy 12:3)
  • "provoking the LORD to anger" (2 Kings 23:19; compare Deuteronomy 4:25)
  • "mediums, wizards" (2 Kings 23:24; compare Deuteronomy 18:11)
  • "idols, and all the abominations" (2 Kings 23:24; compare Deuteronomy 29:17)
  • "My [the LORD's] name shall be there" (2 Kings 23:27; compare Deuteronomy 12:5, 11, 21)

The correspondence between Deuteronomic prohibitions and Josiah's reforms is even more striking:

  • Against worship of heavenly host (Deuteronomy 17:3; compare 2 Kings 23:4, 5)
  • Against worship of sun and moon (Deuteronomy 17:3; compare 2 Kings 23:5, 11)
  • Destroy cultic vessels (altar, pillars, idols, etc.) (Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; compare 2 Kings 23:4, 6, 7, 14)
  • Against cult prostitutes (Deuteronomy 23:17; compare 2 Kings 23:7)
  • Against worship of Molech/child immolation (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10; compare 2 Kings 23:10)
  • Against worship of Astarte, Chemosh, Milcom (Deuteronomy 12:29-30; compare 2 Kings 23:13)
  • Destroy high places and shrines (Deuteronomy 12:2; compare 2 Kings 23:13)
  • Celebrate Passover at the central sanctuary (Deuteronomy 16:6; compare 2 Kings 23:21-23)
  • Against discernment of the future through the occult (Deuteronomy 18:11; compare 2 Kings 23:24)

Kingship. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 provides the blueprint for what kingship should look like:

  • Verses 16-17 regularly appear in the descriptions of Solomon's reign: 1 Kings 4:26; 9:19; 10:14-28; 11:3.
  • The king is to be faithfully obedient to the prescriptions of the Mosaic legislation (vv. 18-19). Most of the kings of Judah and all of the kings of Israel failed in this regard. Josiah, however, literally complied by ruling according to the precepts of the book of the law discovered in the temple (2 Kings 22:8-23:25).
  • The continuation of the monarchy as well as the dynastic succession is tied to the king's faithful obedience (v. 20).

Monotheism. Deuteronomy is often seen as the Bible's charter document for monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. This fundamental belief at the root of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, however, is not quite present in Deuteronomy, since it fails to deny the existence of other gods. Deuteronomy 5:7, "You shall have no other gods before me," implies that there are other gods; the point of the commandment is that they are not to be worshiped alongside or in addition to the Lord.

The name of God. Deuteronomy's frequent reference to the name of God in phrases like "the name of the LORD your God," "his name," "the name of the LORD," and others, has often been thought to be the means by which God is revealed. But the occurrence of this terminology in Deuteronomy may be an implicit critique of earlier, less sophisticated theological beliefs that God was actually present in Israel's places of worship (see Exodus 25:8, 22; 29:45-46; 40:34-35). Following the division of the kingdom, which denied the northern tribes--where Deuteronomy probably originated--access to the ark, the authors of Deuteronomy intended to show that no earthly structure can "contain" God (see 1 Kings 8:27); what is present is not "God," who dwells in heaven (Deuteronomy 26:15), but God's "name" (12:5).

The people as one. Deuteronomy never urges the people to become one, because this state of affairs was assumed by the covenantal nature of their relationship to God. A further indication of Israel's assumed unity is the unusual habit of referring to members of the community as "brothers"-a term variously translated in the NRSV (see 1:16; 3:18, 20; 10:9; 15:3, 7, 9, 11; 17:20; 18:15, 18). By so doing, Deuteronomy effectively minimized the tribal differences that had divided the people in the past and fostered a perception among them of a united entity. The emphasis on the "oneness" of God, the unity of the people, and the prescription to worship only in Jerusalem has led to the oft-repeated Deuteronomic dictum of "one people worshiping one God at one central sanctuary."

Prophecy. Deuteronomy is the only law code that addresses the role and function of prophecy. Contemporary notions of the prediction of future events are especially denounced in 18:9-14 where divination, soothsaying, augury, sorcery, the casting of spells, the consultation of ghosts or spirits, and the seeking of oracles from the dead are declared to be abhorrent practices. Notice that the possibility of such practices is not denied; Saul will later consult a medium who successfully conjures up the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28). Rather, Deuteronomy prohibits such practices. In Deuteronomy the role of the prophet is modeled upon the role of Moses who, at the time the torah was given on Mt. Horeb, was designated as mediator, that is, as the one to explain and apply the torah to the lives of the people. The prophets are Moses' successors in this regard. They are subservient to the regulation of the torah; if their message or behavior should deviate from its prescriptions or lead the people astray, they must forfeit their lives (13:1-5). In addition they are also enjoined to be attentive to new revelations from God (18:18-20).

Social Justice. One has the feeling that eighth-century prophets like Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah of Jerusalem would have been delighted with the book of Deuteronomy. In both traditions there is a clear emphasis on the necessity for social justice, particularly with regard to those on the margins of society, debtors, indentured servants, escaped slaves, Levites, the poor, widows, orphans, women, foreigners, even animals and convicted criminals. This is especially clear in the following passages:

  • care for the Levite (12:18-19;14:28-29)
  • the sabbatical year with its release of debts (15:1-18)
  • care for Levites, sojourners, orphans, and widows (16:11, 14)
  • exemption from military service for various reasons (20:5-8)
  • moral duties toward the neighbor (22:1-4; 23:24-25)
  • care for animals (22:6-7, 10)
  • asylum for escaped slaves; restrictions on prostitution (23:15-18)
  • financial ethics (24:10-22)
  • corporal punishment; humane treatment of animals (25:1-4)

Such extensive humanitarian activity on behalf of those in need is based on Israel's own past experience (10:19; 15:15). All this is to be implemented through fair and impartial judges and a legal system designed to uphold the social fabric of the community (16:19-20).

True prophecy. The importance of the Deuteronomic test of true prophecy (18:15-22) for the Deuteronomistic editors lies in its conformity to the facts of real life and history. The exiles wondered if God was reliable in the face of the apparent failure of God's promise to David. The book of Kings, especially, seeks to reassure the people that God remains true to God's word. The exile was not a failure on God's part, but rather a parade example that God would do what God had said: "The LORD sent against him bands of the Chaldeans, bands of the Arameans, bands of the Moabites, and bands of the Ammonites; he sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by his servants the prophets" (2 Kings 24:2, emphasis added). Numerous other places could be cited in support of the fulfillment of prophecy in these terms, including 1 Kings 13:1-2, 5, 21-22, 26, 32; 15:29; 2 Kings 1:17; 7:1; 9:26, 36; 10:17.

Why did the Canaanites have to be exterminated? Deuteronomy's call for the extermination of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:17) troubles readers. The logic of this position is as follows:

  • since God promised the land of Canaan to Israel (1:8, 35; 6:10), and
  • since Canaanite sin means they have lost all claim to the land (9:5), and
  • since the odds are very good that Israel will fall into apostasy (4:3-4), and
  • since the golden thread running through Deuteronomy is a demand for total loyalty to God and God alone, rejecting other gods (5:7; 17:2-7),
  • therefore, the fear of Israel falling away from God into apostasy is the driving force behind the injunction to exterminate the Canaanites.

But the injunctions may be idealized preaching rather than historical reminiscence. It makes no sense to have commands forbidding intermarriage and making treaties with the Canaanites (7:2b-5) following the demand to "utterly destroy them" (7:2a). Historically, the Canaanites were, in fact, never exterminated.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

Print page Email page
Add to My Books & Notes

Resources

Related Periods

External Resources