By Mary Jane Chaignot

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch. Literally speaking, its English name is derived from a suspected translation error. It says in Deut 17:18 that "when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom [the king, that is], that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book..." Early Hebrew exegetes understood this to mean "a second law," something different from that which Moses had already given. The LXX and the Vulgate in following their lead named the book Deuteronomion, or "Second Law." Despite the error, the name stuck. Its title in the Hebrew Bible, like the previous books of the Pentateuch, comes from its opening words. In this case, "these are the words" or just "the words." That is a very apt description since practically the whole book is comprised of the "words" of Moses (meaning there is very little action). Moses' words are mostly a reflection of what has already transpired. If we will recall from the end of Numbers, the people of Israel were camped just outside the Promised Land. Moses had already been told that he would not be accompanying them. So, in a sense, these are his final words to them, his final message, his final shot at getting them to heed God's commandments. These are words spoken to the second generation, words for everyone to hear, words meant to sustain them as they begin their new lives, and words that they are to obey.

That the Hebrew people took these words to heart and tried to live them is evidenced by the fact that Jesus often quoted from this book. On each of his three temptations in the wilderness, he rebuffed the tempter with a quote from Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:16; 6:13). The "first and greatest commandment" is also found within its pages (6:5; 10:12; 30:6). Nor was Paul a stranger to this book. Some scholars think Paul's mission to the Gentiles was derived from his understanding of the words of Deuteronomy. He believed that Israel's election was not for itself but for the sake of other nations. Hence he saw no conflict between identifying himself as the "apostle to the nations" and limiting his missionary work to "the Jew first." When the Jews did not respond, Paul was eager to take his message to the Gentiles, but always with the hope that the Jews would also participate in the word of salvation.

Perhaps the most significant impact of Deuteronomy, however, dates back to the reign of Josiah in the seventh century BCE. At that point the Assyrians had already conquered the northern kingdom. No doubt many devout and pious individuals had escaped to the south, taking their traditions with them. (Scholars think these would have included the Deuteronomic materials.) Hezekiah was king of the southern kingdom at this time and did much to institute reforms (See 2 Kings 18ff). However, in 697 he was succeeded by his son, Manasseh, who "did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord." (See 2 Kings 21:2) Things deteriorated for many decades until Josiah assumed the throne. At this point it is thought that the Deuteronomic school saw their opportunity, since Josiah was only eight years old when he came into power. Under their influence, Josiah began to institute some reforms. Then, quite by accident, in the process of cleaning the temple in 621BCE, someone "found" a copy of what is believed to be the book of Deuteronomy. When its contents were read to the king, he was greatly concerned and revved up the reforms. Not only did he renew the covenant, but he also took drastic action to put into practice the requirements of Deuteronomy.

An uncanny correspondence between his reforms and the words of Deuteronomy gives us a glimpse of some of the problems they were dealing with at that time:1


Scriptural Passage


Break down their altars, pillars, carved images Deut 7:5; 12:3 2 Kgs 23:4,6,7,14
Prohibit the worship of "the host of heaven" Deut 17:3 2 Kgs 23:4, 5
Destroy the high places and pagan shrines Deut 12:2 2 Kgs 23:13
Prohibit the worship of sun and moon Deut 17:3 2 Kgs 23:5, 11
Prohibit cultic prostitution Deut 23:17 2 Kgs 23:7
Prohibit the worship of Molech Deut 12:31; 18:10 2 Kgs 23:10
Prohibit the worship of foreign gods, goddesses Deut 12:29-30 2 Kgs 23:13
Prohibit calling up the dead Deut 18:11 2 Kgs 23:24
Celebrate Passover at a single location Deut 16:1-8 2 Kgs 23:21-23
Curses of God on covenant violations Deut 27:15-26 2 Kgs 22:11-13, 17

The parallel list of commands and actions taken lends weight to the belief that this was the book they found. However, this has led some scholars to wonder whether the book of Deuteronomy might actually have been written around 621BCE for the very purpose of being "discovered" during Josiah's reign. This theory is given added weight if one recognizes the distinct progression of thought between the earlier book of the covenant and the ideas expressed in Deuteronomy. However, most scholars admit the book contains a great deal of earlier material, notwithstanding the fact that Moses is purported to have written this as his "last will and testament." Like the previous books of the Pentateuch there is much ancient material, but it was probably shaped and edited right down to the sixth century. Following this discovery, however, the book of Deuteronomy was the first book to be considered canon in 621 BCE. It was the beginning of our Bible!

Unfortunately, Josiah's reforms were not long lasting. As a result, the southern kingdom fell to Babylon in 586BCE.

So what themes can be identified? It helps to know a bit about the structure of the book. First of all, there are four main speeches given by Moses.

  • The first is like a memoir, covering chapters 1:1-4:43. His primary purpose is to introduce the book, giving it a place and time.
  • The second speech covers chapters 4:44-28:68. This is the "law" part of the book, the rules that set out God's will for His people. This section is comprised of many statutes, ordinances, and testimonies.
  • The third speech covers 29:1-30:20. It focuses on the covenant and probably describes a ceremony in which the covenant is renewed, forty years after the fact.
  • Moses' last speech, extending from 31:1-34:12, isn't really a speech since it includes word of his death. First, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor and writes down the law, giving it to the priests and elders with the understanding that it should be read and reviewed every seven years. He then writes a song (upon God's command) and teaches it to the Israelites. Following his final blessing is the report of his death.

While this is helpful, recently scholars have noticed a somewhat different structure comparable to that found in covenant language. Just as the Ten Commandments followed a covenant formula, so does this entire book! The covenant formula is as follows:2

Preamble Deut. 1:1-6a; 5:6a
Historical Prologue Deut. 1:6b-3:29; 5; 9:7-10:11
Basic stipulation of allegiance Deut. 4:1-23; 6:4-7:20; 10:12-22
Covenant Clauses Deut. 12-26
Invocation of witnesses Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28
Blessings and Curses Deut. 28
Oath imprecation Deut. 29:9-28
Deposit of document Deut. 10:1-5; 31:24-26
Periodic reading Deut. 31:9-13
Duplicates and copies Deut. 17:18-19; 31:25-26

In short, then, this entire book has the makings of a political treaty. No wonder all the people stood and listened (both to Moses and later in the times of Josiah). It deals with issues of authority, the blending of life between the religious and the secular, and questions of loyalty and devotion. It is a clear explication of Israel's status as God's children. There is no mention here of why this all happened, as though somehow Israel merited this gift of grace from God. They didn't. But it stands as a confession of faith, an acknowledgement of what God has done and will do for them, along with the expected response of faithfulness and love. It gives perspective to what matters most, both to God and to His people. In that sense it can also speak to us, showing us how to live with God as His children, embraced in His continuing covenant.

1:1-4:43 -- Moses' first Speech -- A Historical Review

  • 1:1-5
    • Preface to the speech
    • Provides geographical and chronological information
  • 1:6-4:40
    • The speech
      • 1:6-8 
        • Time to break camp and move into Promised Land
      • 1:9-18 
        • Appointment of leaders, instruction concerning administration of justice
      • 1:19-33 
        • Historical review Example of first attempt to cross into Promised Land Sent spies to check things out, afraid to enter despite God's presence
      • 1:34-40
        • Punishment was that none of first generation would enter Land
      • 1:41-46 
        • Tried to invade against the Amorites; were resoundingly defeated
      • 2:1-8 
        • Account of traveling through Edomite territory
      • 2:9-25 
        • Account of traveling through Moabite territory
      • 2:26-37
        • A request to pass through Sihon was refused. Won the resulting war.
      • 3:1-7 
        • Battle and victory against Og.
      • 3:8-20
        •  Division of conquered territory east of Jordan given to Reuben, Gad and Manasseh.
      • 3:21-29 
        • Appointment of Joshua as Moses' successor
      • 4:1-40 
        • Encourages Israel to keep God's law
        • 4:1-8 
          • God expects obedience
        • 4:9-29
          • Warning against idolatry, images, making of idols
        • 4:30-31 
          • God will be faithful to his covenant with them
        • 4:32-40 
          • Reminder of what God has done for Israel
      • 4:41-43
        • Establishment of cities of refuge east of the Jordan

4:44-28:68 -- Moses' Second Speech -- Review of the Law

  • 4:44-49
    • Setting for the second speech
  • 5:1-5
    • Introduction to the second speech
  • 5:6-22
    • Repetition of "the Ten Words" given at Mount Sinai
  • 5:23-33
    • Review of his role as mediator
  • 6:1-9
    • Further explication of the first commandment
    • Great Shema: "Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone."
  • 6:10-19
    • Prosperity must not make them complacent
  • 6:20-25
    • Teaching the children in the Law
  • 7:1-8
    • Avoid mixing with the Canaanites; must remain separate, holy
  • 7:9-16
    • Stay right with God
  • 7:17-26
    • Do not be intimidated by Canaanites; destroy their idols
  • 8:1-6
    • Keep the commandments (adds reminder of wilderness journey)
  • 8:7-20
    • Do not forget God when all is well
  • 9:1-10:11
    • Recollection of the story of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai
      • 9:1-7
        • Land is God's gift; they have not "earned" it
      • 9:8-2 
        • Recounting the golden calf and the breaking of the first tablets
      • 9:22-24
        • Remembering the refusal to enter the Promised Land - spy problem
      • 9:25-10:5 
        • Back to Mt. Sinai and Moses' intercession and second tablets
      • 10:6-9 
        • Death of Aaron and setting aside of Levites to be holy
      • 10:10-11 
        • God reaffirms Moses' position as leader
  • 10:12-22
    • Exhorts them to fear and love God
  • 11:1-7
    • Tells them to keep the Commandments; God is mighty
  • 11:8-25
    • If they keep God's Commandments, they will prosper in Canaan
  • 11:26-32
    • They can choose: Blessings for faithfulness or cursings for unfaithfulness
  • 12:1-26:19
    • Presentation of Specific Laws
      • 12:1-16:17
        • Laws mostly re: cultic issues and ceremonial events
          • 12:1-28
            • There should be only one place to worship
          • 12:29-32 
            • Do not ever worship other gods
          • 13:1-5 
            • Beware of false prophets
          • 13:6-11 
            • Be watchful of faithless family members
          • 13:13-18
            • Be wary of the idolatrous city
          • 14:1-2 
            • Shun pagan mourning practices
          • 14:3-21 
            • Listing of clean and unclean animals: those that can be eaten or not!
          • 14:22-29 
            • The practice of tithing; it's a sign of thanksgiving
          • 15:1-18
            • The sabbatical year -- all debts are canceled
          • 15:19-23 
            • Offering the firstborn animal for sacrifice
          • 16:1-17 
            • Regulations re: the three major feasts
              • 1-8 
                • Passover
              • 9-12 
                • Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)
              • 13-15 
                • Feast of Tabernacles (Booths)
              • 15-17 
                • Obligation to attend feasts, offerings to bring to them
      • 16:18-26:19 
        • Laws of a civil nature
          • 16:18-20
            • Appointment of judges, exhortation for impartial justice
          • 16:21-17:7
            • Warning against desecration of the altar and idolatry
          • 17:8-13
            • High court (priests who are Levites) should handle difficult cases
          • 17:13-20
            • If a king is needed, listen for God's direction
          • 18:1-8
            • Regulations concerning income for the priests
          • 18:9-14
            • Avoid pagan practices (divination, passing a child through fire, etc.)
          • 18:13-22
            • Respect for God's spokesperson -- the prophet
          • 19:1-13 
            • Rules re cities of refuge: No blood revenge, but elders should mete justice
          • 19:14 
            • Respect for property rights, cannot just move someone's property markers
          • 19:15-21 
            • Need for two witnesses, for accusations or proof
          • 20:1-9 
            • How to prepare for holy war; do not fear, the Lord is with you
          • 20:10-20
            • Treatment of enemies (kill); treatment of land (save the fruit trees)
          • 21:1-9 
            • People as a whole must atone for an unsolved murder; all bear guilt
          • 21:10-14 
            • Permission to marry a captive woman
          • 21:15-17
            •  Inheritance rights of firstborn sons remain even if husband does not love that son's mother
          • 21:18-21 
            • Rebellious children cannot destroy family unit
          • 21:22-23
            • Even criminals must be buried "Anyone who hangs on a tree is under God's curse."
          • 22:1-4 
            • Caring for lost or injured animals (even those not your own)
          • 22:5
            • Proper dress for men and women
          • 22:6-7 
            • Protecting and caring for birds
          • 22:8 
            • Proper roof construction will prevent accidents from someone falling off
          • 22:9-11 
            • Lord makes everything for a purpose; do not mix things together
          • 22:12 
            • Wear tassels as a visual reminder of the Commandments
          • 22:13-30 
            • Regulations re: divorce and sexual relationships Men can have more than one wife; women can have only one husband. More protections for women in cases of rape
          • 23:1-8 
            • Those who need to be excluded from the assembly of the Lord
          • 23:9-14
            • The purity of the camp must be maintained; the Lord is holy
          • 23:15-25 
            • Random laws regulating relationships with slaves, neighbors
          • 24:1-5 
            • Rules re: certificate of divorce
          • 24:6-7
            • Forbidden acts: stealing millstones, kidnapping
          • 24:8-9 
            • Regulations re: leprosy
          • 24:10-15 
            • Care for needy with respect and dignity
          • 24:16
            •  Individuals are each responsible; fathers cannot suffer for children, vice versa
          • 24:17-22 
            • Caring for the less fortunate, provision for gleaning in fields
          • 25:1-3
            • Flogging is limited to 40 lashes; more is considered degrading!
          • 25:4 
            • Humane treatment for working animals
          • 25:5-10 
            • Provision for levirate marriages Man's widow must marry his nearest male relative
          • 25:11-12
            • Provision for sexual impropriety
          • 25:13-16 
            • Do not use two sets of weights, one for buying, the other for selling
          • 25:17-19 
            • Treatment of the Amalekites
          • 26:1-11 
            • Liturgy for bringing in the firstfruits
          • 26:12-15 
            • Liturgy for the triennial tithe
          • 26:16-19 
            • Concluding words -- exhortations to keep all these laws
  • 27:1-8
    • Instructions for building an altar on Mount Ebal
  • 27: 9-10
    • Another exhortation to keep the law
  • 27:11-26
    • Proclamation of blessings and cursings on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal
  • 28:1-14
    • Obedience leads to blessings, six are listed, plus a commentary
  • 28:15-68
    • Disobedience leads to cursings, six are listed, plus a commentary

29:1-30:20 -- Moses' Third Speech -- Renewing the Covenant

  • 29:1-8
    • Reflection on what the Lord has done for them 29:10-29 Renewal of the Covenant
  • 30:1-10
    • Conditions for blessings
  • 30:11-20
    • Final exhortation -- make good choices
    • "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life...."

31:1-34:12 -- Final Speech, Farewell Address, and Moses' Death

  • 31:1-13
    • Moses wraps up loose ends; appoints Joshua, writes laws and gives to elders
  • 31:14-15
    • Official commissioning of Joshua
  • 31:16-22
    • The Lord teaches Moses a song to share with Israel - to help them remember
  • 31:23
    • Final charge to Joshua
  • 31:24-29
    • More details of the covenant ceremony
  • 31:30-32:47
    • The actual song of Moses
    • Song gives historical perspective; contains main themes of prophecy
      • 32:1-3 
        • Give ear O heavens!
      • 32:4-6
        • Indictment of Israel
      • 32:7-14 
        • The Lord is still faithful in His care for Israel
      • 32:15-18 
        • And Israel was still ungrateful
      • 32:19-27 
        • The Lord had every reason for righteous anger
      • 32:28-33 
        • Israel still had higher thought than neighbors
      • 32:34-43
        • Vengeance belongs to the Lord; the Lord's people will be vindicated
      • 32:44-47 
        • Moses actually sings (recites) his song to the people
  • 32:48-52
    • Moses climbs Mount Nebo and views Canaan -- from a distance
  • 33:1-29
    • Moses' final farewell and blessing for the people
      • 33:1-5
        • Introduction
      • 33:6-25 
        • Blessing of each tribe, except for Simeon, which had already disappeared
      • 33:26-29 
        • Conclusion, blessings for the future. Other nations will be jealous of Israel's good fortune and awesome God.
  • 34:1-12
    • Moses' death
      • 34:1 
        • Moses climbs up Mount Nebo
      • 34:2-4 
        • Looks over the whole land
      • 34:5-8 
        • Moses died in the Moab, but no one knows where he was buried Moses was 120 years old, "yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone."
        • The people mourned for 30 days, until the time of weeping was over
      • 34:9
        • Joshua was filled with the spirit of wisdom
      • 34:10-12 
        • Moses was one of a kind
        • "Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face...."

Next month we will continue our overview of the Old Testament with a look at Joshua. This book appears to be a straightforward account of how Israel entered the Promised Land and within a short time conquered the entire country. The land was then divvied up among the twelve tribes, culminating in a huge ceremony during which they all pledged themselves to God. Of course, there might be more to it than that.....


Craigie, Peter. The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1976.

McGrath, Allister. NIV Bible Commentary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Ridderbos, J. Deuteronomy, Bible Student's Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984.

Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy, The New International Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996.