Introductions: Deuteronomy

from Feb 29, 2012 Category: Articles

Who wrote it? When was it written and why?

These are some of the important questions to answer as you explore any book of the Bible. To aid you in your study of God’s Word we have been adapting and posting some of the detailed book introductions found in The Reformation Study Bible. Today, we conclude a series through the Pentateuch. 

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The Book of Deuteronomy

Author | Date & Occasion | Characteristics & Themes


By its own testimony, Deuteronomy is the work of Moses

By its own testimony (Deut. 1:1, 5; 31:22), Deuteronomy is the work of Moses. Mosaic authorship is affirmed many times elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g. 2 Kin. 14:6), in ancient Jewish sources (e.g., Josephus), and in the New Testament. This view was almost universally held until the rise of rationalistic criticism in modern times.

Critics correctly point out that the last chapter could not have been written by Moses. It is widely agreed that ch. 34 is an addendum, perhaps appended by Joshua. In the same way, the Book of Joshua ends with the death of Joshua, this record clearly having been supplied by the author of the Book of Judges, who appended verses from Judges to the end of Joshua (Judg. 2:7–9; cf. Josh. 24:29–31). Likewise, the first verses of Ezra are copied and appended to the last chapter of Chronicles (Chronicles ends in the middle of a sentence). This way of linking a subsequent book to the preceding one (or variations of this practice) was common in antiquity and was intended to show the proper sequence of scrolls or clay tablets. It is probable that Joshua added the note on Moses’ death and Israel’s acceptance of Joshua in order to link his own book to Moses’ great production. Such obvious additions do not, however, negate the general authorship of Moses.

More controversially, some critics have alleged that the language of Deut. 1:1, 5 indicates that the writer of the book must have been located on the west side of the Jordan River, i.e., in Canaan (the Hebrew phrase here translated “beyond the Jordan” is often translated “the other side of the Jordan” or “this side of the Jordan”). Such a description, they argue, belies the credibility of Deuteronomy as a work of Moses, since Moses never crossed the Jordan. This argument assumes that the Hebrew phrase in question must always refer to the region east of the Jordan. It is evident, however, that the precise meaning of the phrase must be determined by the context, and that it can refer either to Transjordan (the region to the east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, Deut. 1:1–5; 3:8; 4:41, 47, 49) or to Canaan itself (Deut. 3:20, 25; 11:30; Josh. 9:1, 10). Here it clearly means the region east of the Jordan, as the geographical descriptions indicate (Deut. 1:1, 5).

Date and Occasion

Deuteronomy was written by Moses, Israel’s lawgiver, before his death in 1406 B.C.

In the nineteenth century, biblical critics contended that Deuteronomy was written about 620 B.C., as part of the religious reform of King Josiah, in which he insisted that worship be centered in Jerusalem. The law of the central sanctuary (Deut. 12) was said by these critics to have been the invention of a writer in the time of Josiah. Since the early twentieth century, however, this view has received less favor. Some have dated Deuteronomy as early as Samuel, others as late as the Exile. Many critics still date the book in the seventh century B.C., which is the period of Josiah. But these scholars also question the unity of the book. If some parts seem “early” (from Moses’ time), they ascribe those parts to an old tradition that has conveniently been preserved. If other parts seem “late” (during or after the time of Josiah), they are called “later editions” or due to “late editing.” Such elastic, subjective, and speculative methods cannot be conclusively disproved without a copy from Moses’ own time, which no one possesses. No concrete evidence rules out the composition of Deuteronomy at the time of Moses, making reasonable allowances for additions by someone like Joshua, who appended Moses’ obituary to the book, and for some later updating of Hebrew grammar and place names.

The background and setting of the book reflect conditions prior to the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. There is no mention of a king in Judah or of the city of Jerusalem, which is mentioned over one hundred times by the prophet Jeremiah (who wrote in Josiah’s day). It is unlikely that a sixth-century author would make no allusion whatever to that capital city or its temple. The twelve tribes are represented as one nation (instead of, as in Josiah’s period, the kingdoms of Judah and Israel). The Transjordan cities of refuge are named, while those in Canaan (which were named later by Joshua) are not. The Babylonian names of months are not used, and there are no Persian loan words in the vocabulary, even though such words would be expected to appear in a work supposedly written during a period when these empires were dominant. Moses, Aaron, and Joshua are named, but no later persons or later historical incidents are mentioned. It is unlikely that a later author, even one well-versed in the lore of the past, could so completely avoid the use of later terms and the mention of persons and events of his own period.

Perhaps most significant is the general conformity of Deuteronomy’s structure to the covenant or treaty form of the mid-second millennium B.C.(the approximate time of Moses). We find the following treaty elements in Deuteronomy: (a) a preamble identifying the covenant mediator (Deut. 1:1–5); (b) a historical prologue reviewing previous covenant history (Deut. 1:6–4:40); (c) stipulations expounding the covenant way of life (Deut. 4:44–11:32; 12–26); (d) a declaration of sanctions stating the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience of the covenant (Deut. 27–30); and (e) a provision for the administration of the covenant after the death of the inaugural mediator (Deut. 31–34). The main divisions from the covenant documents of Moses’ lifetime, then, are discernible in the fifth book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy.

We conclude, therefore, that Deuteronomy was written by Moses, Israel’s lawgiver, before his death in 1406 B.C.

Characteristics and Themes

Through types and prophecy Deuteronomy also points us to Christ. He is the Passover Lamb and the coming Prophet…

Deuteronomy has been much used both by Christians and ancient Jews. It is quoted in the New Testament over fifty times, a number exceeded only by Psalms and Isaiah. The book contains much exhortation. The detailed legal material (Deut. 14–26), much of which parallels Leviticus, is not as familiar or as much used as the rest, although it has importance for special purposes.

The book is a repetition of the law and history of Israel. It consists mainly of three great speeches and a legal compendium given by Moses at the end of his life, while the people were encamped in the plains of Moab, just before Joshua took command and led the people in the conquest of Canaan. The conquest of Transjordan had been successfully concluded, and Moses challenged the people in these farewell addresses.

As Moses’ farewell messages to his people, the book combines exhortation and commandments, and serves as an example of how the Law should be taught. The opening address (Deut. 1:5–4:40) recounts the experiences of Israel under Moses’ leadership. Deuteronomy does not speak of how Moses confronted Pharaoh and how the miracles of the ten plagues forced Pharaoh to let the people go, but it alludes to the Exodus repeatedly (five times in the first address: Deut. 1:20, 34; 4:20, 34, 37). Moses recounts God’s providential and miraculous care for the people during the journey from Egypt to Sinai. Then he details their defeat both spiritually and militarily at Kadesh-barnea. There are references here to events recorded in Numbers, but like the record in Numbers, almost nothing is said about events of the forty years of wilderness wandering. The journey around Edom toward Transjordan is mentioned, and the defeat of the kings Sihon and Og is recorded in fuller detail than in Numbers. Then comes the allocation of land in Transjordan for the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh (as in Num. 32), and the narrative ends with reference to Moses’ plea for himself to enter Canaan, which God disallows (as in Num. 27:12–23). Moses concludes the address with exhortations to be loyal to the Lord.

The second address (Deut. 4:44–11:32) is composed of exhortations. Some consider this address as continuing to Deut. 26:19 with inclusion of the laws and regulations of Deut. 12–26. The speech begins with the Ten Commandments, almost exactly like the wording in Ex. 20, aside from the fourth commandment. The terror of the theophany (a visible self-revelation of God) is recalled with the call to obedience. Only the Ten Commandments are given directly by the voice of God; the rest of the law is mediated through Moses. The famous Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” is given in Deut. 6:4, with the exhortation to teach, remember, and obey. The following chapters are sprinkled with examples of God’s care and judgments since leaving Egypt—all allusions to material in Exodus and Numbers. These examples serve to warn Israel to trust the Lord and not themselves. This leads to a promise of success in the coming wars of Canaan.

The laws (Deut. 12–26) include regulations for worship, clean foods, slaves and debts, annual feasts, judges, cities of refuge, and various matters of conduct. Most of these have some parallel to material found in the previous books of the Pentateuch, which will be noted at the appropriate places.

The third address (Deut. 27–30) is a powerful exhortation to obey the laws of the Lord. It includes the solemn ceremony to be held in the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, near Shechem, after Israel had secured a foothold in Canaan—a ceremony reminiscent of the covenant ceremony of Ex. 20:1–24:8, and duly carried out by Joshua (Josh. 8:30–35). These laws and exhortations were given by Moses with emphasis on Israel’s obligation before God to hear and obey the law of the Lord.

The final sections of the book are equally important and powerful (31:1–34:2). They include the installation of Joshua as Moses’ successor, the great Song of Moses celebrating the greatness of God and His care for His covenant people (Deut. 32), Moses’ song of blessing of the twelve tribes after the fashion of Jacob’s blessing of his twelve sons in Gen. 49 (Deut. 33), and finally, the addendum describing the death of Moses (Deut. 34).

Through types and prophecy this book also points us to Christ. He is the Passover Lamb and the coming Prophet. Moses, the founder of Israel’s theocracy, mediated the old covenant, but Jesus Christ, the Son of God, mediated the new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34). The substance of the covenants is the same, but their manner of administration differs significantly. Whereas the old covenant was written on tablets of stone, Christ writes the new covenant through the Spirit of the living God on the tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:3). The old covenant was ratified with Israel’s promise, “we will hear and do” (Deut. 5:27; cf. Ex. 19:8; 20:19). But the new covenant depends on God’s better promise, “I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:7). The old covenant called for shedding the blood of animals; the everlasting new covenant was instituted once and for all by the blood of Christ (Jer. 32:40; Heb. 9:11–28). The old covenant calls for a heart religion, but it failed through human weakness and became obsolete after its fulfillment at Calvary (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 7:12; 8:13).

The Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses, receives its title from the Septuagint, which called it Deuteronomion, meaning the “Second Law,” or the “Repetition of the Law.”

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Adapted from The Reformation Study Bible, © 2005 Ligonier Ministries.