THE BOOK OF DEUTERONOMY
The title of Deuteronomy in Hebrew is Debarim, “words,” from its opening phrase. The English title comes from the Septuagint of 17:18, deuteronomion, “copy of the law”; this title is appropriate because the book replicates much of the legal content of the previous books, serving as a “second law.” It brings to a close the five books of the Torah or Pentateuch with a retrospective account of Israel’s past—the exodus, the Sinai covenant, and the wilderness wanderings—and a look into Israel’s future as they stand poised to enter the land of Canaan and begin their life as a people there.
The book consists of three long addresses by Moses. Each of these contains narrative, law, and exhortation, in varying proportions. In an expansion of the first commandment of the decalogue (Ex 20:5–6; Dt 5:9–10), Moses tells the Israelites how to make a success of their life as a people once they are settled in the land. The choice presented to Israel is to love the Lord and keep his commandments, or to serve “other gods.” That choice will determine what kind of life they will make for themselves in the land. Whichever choice they make as a people carries consequences, which Deuteronomy terms “blessing” and “curse.” Thus the book can be seen as a kind of survival manual for Israel in their life as a people: how to live and what to avoid. This gives the book its hortatory style and tone of life-or-death urgency.
One defining concern of the book is centralization of worship. As Israel’s God is one (6:4–5), so its worship must be focused in one place, which the Lord “will choose from among your tribes”; there the Lord will “make his name dwell” (see note on 12:5). Thus the privileged status of the Jerusalem Temple is asserted; all other places and all other modes of worship of the God of Israel (the local shrines, the “high places,” “under every green tree”) are proscribed.
The book was probably composed over the course of three centuries, from the eighth century to the exile and beyond. It bears some relation to “the Book of the Law” discovered in the Jerusalem Temple around 622 B.C. during the reign of King Josiah (2 Kgs 22:8–13). It gives evidence of later editing: cf. the references to exile in 4:1–40; 28:63–68; 29:21–28; 30:1–10.
Over the book looms the disaster of 722/721, the fall of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. The detailed description of siege (28:49–57) especially echoes the fate the North suffered at the hands of the Assyrian invader. The book draws the minds of its intended readers back to a time before disastrous mistakes were made and their disastrous effects felt, and serves to explain the political and theological dynamics that led to the destruction of the North as well as to warn the surviving Southern Kingdom, Judah, to reform by keeping faith with Israel’s covenant Lord.
The characteristic and highly recognizable language and theology of Deuteronomy are seen in editorial comments structuring the works that follow it in the Hebrew canon, the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Together with Deuteronomy, these present a history of Israel from Moses to the time of the Babylonian exile. Conventionally this great multivolume work is termed the Deuteronomistic History. The Book of Deuteronomy itself was also incorporated into the Torah as its fifth volume.
The book presents three discourses by Moses, as follows:
- First Address (1:1–4:43)
- Second Address (4:44–28:69)
- Third Address (29:1–33:29)
- The Death of Moses (34:1–12)