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 - John Wesley

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The Book of Deuteronomy:
Introduction and Overview

Dennis Bratcher

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 Community (6-11)
A. One God, one loyalty (6:1-9)
B. Remembering for the future (6:10-8:10)
C. Dangers of pride and arrogance (8:11-10:11)
D. First priorities (10:12-11:32)
IV. Torah: A Community Under God (12-26)
A. Communal worship: where and to whom (12:1-13:8)
B. Being a holy people (14:1-15:23)
C. Communal worship: when (16:1-17)
D. Issues of justice and worship (16:18-19:21)
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: The 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," i.e., 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 toward Canaan.

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.

Literary History

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 (e.g., 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, e.g., 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 (Heb:  torah) in how to live intentionally as God's people in response to His love and mercy (e.g., 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 (e.g., 30:11-14), and a subsequent emphasis on motive and intention also advocated by the prophets (e.g., 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. Eerdmans, 1992.

This is a slightly modified version of the article, "Deuteronomy," in Harper's Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed, 1995.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2003, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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