The Book of Deuteronomy:
Introduction and Overview
Outline of the Book
I. Call to Obedience: History As Basis for
Communal Faith (1-4)
A. Introduction and setting (1:1-5)
B. Historical review (1:6-3:29)
C. Call for response (4:1-40)
D. Cities of refuge (4:41-43)
II. The Ten Words: Foundational Principles
of Community (4:44-5:33)
A. Introduction and setting (4:44-49)
B. The Commandments at Sinai (5:1-33)
III. Memory and Heritage: The Shaping of
A. One God, one loyalty (6:1-9)
B. Remembering for the future (6:10-8:10)
C. Dangers of pride and arrogance
D. First priorities (10:12-11:32)
IV. Torah: A Community Under God (12-26)
A. Communal worship: where and to whom
B. Being a holy people (14:1-15:23)
C. Communal worship: when (16:1-17)
D. Issues of justice and worship
E. Rules for holy war (20)
F. Obligations in community (21:1-25:19)
G. Communal worship: thankfulness (26:1-15)
H. Concluding exhortation (26:16-19)
V. Covenant Making and Keeping: Boundaries of Community (27-33)
A. Covenant of obedience (27:1-30:20)
B. Words of encouragement (31:1-8)
C. Concerns for the future (31:9-29)
D. Song and Blessing of Moses (31:30-33:29)
VI. Epilogue: Moses' death (34)
The Book and Its Content
The English title of the book, Deuteronomy,
comes from the word deuteronomion used as the title of the book in
the Septuagint, the second-century BC translation of the Hebrew Scriptures
into Greek. This title, meaning "second law," arose from a misunderstanding
of the term in 17:18, where it actually means "a copy of the law."
Its Jewish name, Debarim (Heb.,
"words"), comes from the opening phrase: "These are the words. . . .").
This is actually a much more appropriate title for the book since the
"words" of Moses and God are a central feature of the book. This book
is the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch (Gk: "five books," Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the Torah (Heb:
"instruction") as it is known in Jewish tradition.
Deuteronomy is organized as a series of three discourses by Moses
(1:6-4:40, chs. 5-28, chs. 29-30), with a concluding addendum (chs. 31-34),
his final "words" given to the Hebrews as they prepare to enter the land of
Canaan. These "words" recall the past activities of God in order to build
identity for the present community. The people are then called to continued
faithfulness in the future based on that communal identity.
This teaching dimension and the resulting theological linking of the
community past, present, and future form the literary and theological
dynamic of the entire book.
1. The first discourse (1:6-4:40) summarizes the events between the
encounter with God at Sinai and the encampment in Moab, followed by an
urgent appeal for faithfulness to God.
2. The second discourse (5-28) recounts the giving of the Ten Words
(Commandments) at Sinai. This is followed by an explanation of the first
commandment centered around the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9; Heb: "hear"), and an
extended appeal to remain faithful to God in spite of the temptations that
will come in the new land. Specific instruction in communal life begins in
chapter 12, concluding with a covenant ceremony and homily focusing on
their responsibilities to God and each other.
3. The third discourse (29-30) encapsulates the first two, with a
historical review, covenant renewal, admonitions to faithfulness, and
warnings of the consequences of disobedience.
4. The conclusion (31-34) includes instructions concerning Moses'
successor, final instructions and liturgies, the Song and Blessing of
Moses, and his death.
Literary and Theological Context
The opening verses (1:1-5) are connected directly with the closing verses
of Numbers, and establish a setting for the entire book in the Plains of
Moab after the Hebrews' sojourn in the Wilderness. The commissioning of
Joshua (31:1-8) and the account of Moses' death (ch. 34) lead directly into
the first chapter of the book of Joshua, resuming the people's movement
These features leave Deuteronomy conspicuous as an historical,
geographical, and literary parenthesis in the story line flowing from
Numbers to Joshua. The book's close connection to its context combined with
its detachment from the surrounding story line testify to a careful shaping
of these Mosaic traditions as theological confession. Thus, Deuteronomy
provides both the literary and theological interface between the grace of
God manifested in the exodus, Sinai, and wilderness traditions, and the
ensuing failure of the people to remain faithful to God seen in the
traditions relating to the settlement in the land. The community understood
the importance of these "words" in calling the people to obedience at such
specific pivotal junctures in Israel's history. At the same time, the
"words" functioned dynamically in addressing the ongoing need of the people
for religious, social, and cultural identity.
Traditionally, the entire book of Deuteronomy has been attributed to
Moses. However, some features, including the account of Moses' death, have
led scholars to conclude that parts of it come from a later time. While
there is little consensus as to its precise history, there is general
agreement that the book reflects a long process of compilation as the
community reapplied the Mosaic traditions in later situations, as indeed the
book itself suggests (for example, 30:1-5, cf. 6:20-25).
However, this does not preclude the possibility that some core of the
book, perhaps large portions of it, does come from Moses. It is generally
believed that Josiah used an early form of the book of Deuteronomy to guide
his sweeping reforms (ca. 621 BC; 2 Kings 22:1-7; 2 Chron. 34:1-7; see
Josiah and Religious Reforms). There is also some evidence that portions
of the book reflect the crisis of Babylonian exile (587-539 BC, for example,
29:28; cf. 29:29-30:5, 28:49-57, 64-68). The present form of the book
reflects the application, reuse, and reinterpretation of the older Mosaic
instructions in new and changing historical circumstances.
Features and Theology
Deuteronomy is not a book of laws; it is a book of the heart, instruction
torah) in how to live intentionally as God's people in response to
His love and mercy (for example, 4:29, 6:4, 32-40, 11:1). One of the most important
features of the book is its homiletical style. The commandments are not
presented in legal format, but are cast in the style of a sermon, interwoven
with pleas and exhortations to obedience, all grounded in the prevenient
(initiating) grace of God.
Also, the concept of covenant around which the book revolves is not
primarily a legal concept, but a cultural way of expressing relationship
between Yahweh and His people. The call to obedience throughout the book is
an appeal to order all of life in relation to the One who had revealed
Himself in their history as the true and living God. It is not just the
imposition of law; it is a call to choose God (30:15-20, cf. Josh 24:14-15),
which worked out in practical instructions.
The emphasis on intentional and joyful obedience of the heart as the
proper response to God's grace moves toward more responsibility for the
individual (for example, 30:11-14), and a subsequent emphasis on motive and
intention also advocated by the prophets (for example, Jer 7:21-23). Other
characteristics of the book are closely related to this emphasis. Total
loyalty to God was crucial, which meant rejecting the worship of any other
gods (6:13-15, 8:19, 9:7-12, 30:15-20). There is concern with justice,
especially toward the weaker members of the community (10:18-19, 14:28-29,
15:1-18, 24:14-15). God's love for His people and a desire for a mutual
loving relationship are also prominent (6:5, 7:13-14, 23:5, 30:6, 19-20).
The book develops the idea that obedience brings blessing and life, and
disobedience brings curses and death (11:26-28, 30:15-20), a way of
affirming the positive results of life properly ordered under God. While
that view would later be distorted, Deuteronomy itself stresses obedience on
the level of proper love (10:12-15, cf. Mic 6:8). There is concern expressed
throughout the book that the people will fail, perhaps reflecting a later
time when Israel had already failed. This leads to two emphases held in
tension: the people should be diligent to follow God and not forfeit the
benefits of the land (28:47-68), yet God would be merciful in the midst of
their failures and bring them (again) into the land (30:1-10).
The influence of Deuteronomy can hardly be exaggerated. It provided the
criteria by which Israel examined and judged itself. The authors of the
books of Joshua through 2 Kings weigh Israel's history against the
background of Deuteronomy's instructions. With its strict warnings not to
add or delete anything from it (4:2, 12:32), Deuteronomy also represents one
of the first steps in forming a canon of written Scripture.
Deuteronomy is one of the books most often quoted in the NT. Jesus quoted
part of the Shema (6:4-9) as the summary of both legal (priestly) and
prophetic teachings (Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30, cf. Luke 10:27), underscoring
the obligations of people under God in community. The Gospels also record
that Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy in facing the three temptations (Matt.
4:1-10, Luke 4:1-13, from Deut. 8:3, 6:13, 16).
For further reading:
Patrick Miller, Jr. Deuteronomy.
Interpretation Commentary. J. Knox Press, 1990.
Ian Cairns. Word and Presence: A Commentary on
the Book of Deuteronomy. International Theological Commentary. W.B.
This is an edited version of the article, "Deuteronomy," in Harper's Bible Dictionary,
2nd ed, 1995, by Dennis Bratcher