Key Biblical Dates
The Bible's Storyline
Revised Common Lectionary
The Book of Deuteronomy:
Introduction and Overview
Outline of the Book
- I. Call to Obedience: History As Basis for Communal Faith
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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.
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:
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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