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Introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy

Fifth Book of the Bible & of the Pentateuch


What is Deuteronomy?

The word Deuteronomy comes from the Greek Deuteronomion which means "second law." The Hebrew title is Devarim which means "[spoken] words" and this is derived from the opening phrase of Deuteronomy: Eleh hadevarim, "These are the words..."

The Greek-derived title Deuteronomy is a mistranslation of Deuteronomy 17:18 — the original Hebrew mishneh hattorah, "a copy of this law" became the Greek deuteronomion touto, "this second law".


Facts About the Book of Deuteronomy

  • Deuteronomy is the fifth book the Bible, the Torah and, the Pentateuch
  • Deuteronomy has 34 chapters & 957 verses
  • Chapter & verse divisions are of Christian origin
  • Deuteronomy covers just a month of time
  • Deuteronomy is quoted more than 80 times in the New Testament
  • Jesus quotes Deuteronomy more than any other biblical text


Important Characters in Deuteronomy

  • Moses: Leader of the Israelites
  • Joshua: Moses' successor as leader of the Israelites


Who Wrote the Book of Deuteronomy?

People traditionally believe that the Book of Deuteronomy, like the rest of the Pentateuch, was written by Moses. Since the 19th century, though, scholars have recognized that Deuteronomy was edited together from multiple sources — though one, the Deuteronomist Source, is primary. This understanding of the nature of the text is known as the Documentary Hypothesis.


When Was the Book of Deuteronomy Written?

Scholars believe that the basic text of Deuteronomy was created out of traditions brought south to the Kingdom of Judah from the northern Kingdom of Israel after the latter was destroyed by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE. It was later edited in the 7th century BCE under King Josiah and it acquired it's final form after the return from the Babylonian Exile in the late 6th century BCE.


Deuteronomy's Relationship to the Bible

The Book of Deuteronomy stands in an odd relationship between the texts which come before and those which come after. On the one hand it's presented as the finale of the wandering in the desert, with Moses delivering a couple of farewell addresses before the Israelites go on without him.

On the other hand, it's also the beginning of the conquest of Canaan, a story arc that involves the next several books. The relationship here is so strong that many scholars add Deuteronomy to Joshua, Judges, I and 2 Samuel, and I and 2 Kings — a group called "Deuteronomistic History." It's not just that the story arc fits together, but also that there are strong linguistic and theological connections.

Deuteronomy is thus a part of both sequences. Some scholars believe that Deuteronomy may have originally been part of the Deuteronomistic History group but later attached to the end of the Pentateuch. To better cement the change. Moses' death was moved from the end of Numbers to the end of Deuteronomy. If it was always Moses presenting the laws, this would have seemed natural since Moses is the central character in the Pentateuch. But if you move Moses' death to the end of Numbers, it fits in easily.


Summary of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy 1-4: Moses delivers his first sermon, recounting everything that happened to the Israelites for the past forty years, from the exodus out of Egypt through the reception of the laws at Sinai to the wandering in the desert.

Deuteronomy 5-11: Moses delivers his second sermon, urging the people to follow the laws and the parents in particular to teach their kids to follow all the laws.

Deuteronomy 12-26: Just to be sure, Moses continues his second sermon with a recounting of all those laws that everyone is supposed to follow. This is known as the Deuteronomic Code and is the oldest portion of Deuteronomy. Some scholars argue that the rest was constructed around this in order to create a narrative that helps communicate the older text.

Deuteronomy 27-34: Moses' third and final sermon is about the blessings and curses of God. Those who obey God and follow God's laws will be blessed; those who disobey God and fail to follow God's laws will be cursed. Moses dies at the end.


The Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy

The first two versions of the Ten Commandments can be found in Exodus 20 and Exodus 34. In Deuteronomy 5 we find a third version of the Ten Commandments, one that is similar to the first version in Exodus. This Deuteronomy text is used by Catholics and Lutherans as the basis for their Ten Commandments lists. Scholars disagree on which of the two — Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 — is older.


Book of Deuteronomy Themes

Covenant: The concept of a covenant may play a stronger role in Deuteronomy than even in the other texts of the Pentateuch. The Israelites are about to finally enter the lands which God had originally promised to them through Abraham. Before they do so, through, everyone must renewing their vows — the Israelites renew their vow of fealty to God while God renews his vow to protect and bless the Israelites.

There is significant emphasis on the blessings that would come with obedience and curses that would come with disobedience — a bit like a peace treaty that lays out the consequences for all the parties. None of the individual Israelites really have any choice in this. Moses recites the covenant to the people as a whole, not to any individuals, and so each individual is bound to it through blood and birth, rather like how they were bound to obedience while slaves in Egypt. Except that this bondage isn't really bondage somehow.

Monotheism: Although Judaism is today recognized as a monotheistic religion, it's not a characteristic that always existed. The earliest texts are instead monolatrous — the existence of other gods is acknowledged, but people are expected to only worship Yahweh. This monolatry remains evident even in the oldest parts of Deuteronomy. Later portions, though, begin to express the ideal of monotheism.

Israel: As noted above, the covenant with God is with the nation of Israel as a whole, not with individual members. Israel as a whole is also arguably a character in the narrative and is certainly a theme in the narrative. There are frequent references to what Israel does and should be doing, as if Israel were a single person making wise or unwise choices.

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