Deuteronomy Introduction

The book

Deuteronomy is the fifth and last book of the Pentateuch (see article on the Pentateuch), the books traditionally ascribed to Moses. It takes its name from the Greek translation of 17:18, which misunderstands the Hebrew ‘a copy of this law’, and takes it as a ‘second law’. The title in Hebrew is taken from the opening words of the book, ‘these are the words’, i.e. the words of Moses to the Israelites just before they entered the promised land. This is a better way of thinking of the book. It is not so much a ‘second law’ as a preaching, or reapplication, of certain laws given in the preceding books of the Pentateuch.


In the story of the Pentateuch so far, a promise has been given which is now close to its fulfilment. God had promised Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation (Gn. 12:1–3). That nation would dwell in a rich land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (Ex. 3:17). The nation grew in Egyptian slavery, until miraculously delivered by God (Ex. 14), who then met them at Mt Sinai and formally made a ‘covenant’ with them, which included various laws that they were to keep (Ex. 19–24). The next step was to march into the land, but they failed to do this straight away because they were overawed by the obstacles in the way. Because of their lack of faith, therefore, the Lord decided that not that generation, but rather the next, should enter the promised land. In the meantime, they were condemned to forty years of living unsettled in the wilderness of Sinai (Nu. 13–14; see especially Nu. 14:20–35).

At the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses, who himself will not enter the land, addresses the new generation. He reminds them of all the events that have brought them to this point, and prepares them to be faithful to their covenant with the Lord when they cross the River Jordan and receive the ‘inheritance’ which he has given them.

Date and authorship

Because a large part of the book is made up of the words of Moses, he has traditionally been regarded as its author. It is clear, however, that someone else must have been responsible for the final form of the book, since Moses appears as ‘he’ (rather than ‘I’) at a number of places (e.g. 1:1), including the account of his death (Dt. 34). It is best to see the book as a faithful record of his words written down at some point after his death.

At what point, then, was it written down? Many scholars believe that Deuteronomy was written as much as six centuries after Moses, in the seventh century bc. This view is based on the account of the discovery (in 621 bc) of the so-called ‘Book of the Law’ in the temple at Jerusalem during the reign of King Josiah, when he was conducting a religious reform following years of idolatrous worship (2 Ki. 22:8). (See 28:61 for the name ‘the Book of the Law’ applied to Deuteronomy; cf. 31:24.) When such a view of authorship is taken, it is usually not held that the book is a faithful record of Moses’ teaching, but rather that it expresses the concerns of Josiah’s period, and that the name of Moses is simply used to give authority to the words. Laws which presuppose a settled existence and an agricultural lifestyle (e.g. 24:19–22) are sometimes said to be evidence of composition only after entry to the land. And passages which anticipate the exile in Babylon (586–539 bc), such as 4:25–31, 28:64–68 and 30:1–10, have been thought to have been composed as late as the exile itself.

To some extent, decisions about dating depend on whether the biblical writers can be thought to have foreseen conditions and events in Israel’s history. There are independent reasons, however, for thinking that Deuteronomy was actually written much closer in time to Moses’ own day.

First, Deuteronomy shows no knowledge of the main institutions of Israel’s political and religious life during the period of the kings, namely the kings themselves and the Jerusalem temple. The phrase ‘the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling’ (12:5; cf. 12:11, 14; 14:24) is often taken to be a disguised allusion to Jerusalem. This would accord with the idea that Deuteronomy was written in Josiah’s time, because he did destroy all other places of worship other than Jerusalem. There is no good evidence, however, for identifying the ‘place’ exclusively with Jerusalem. The importance of Shechem in ch. 27, for example, speaks against it.

Deuteronomy is also unenthusiastic about the idea of a king (17:14–20), merely permitting such a thing, and trying to ensure that the king would not become a tyrant. This law is unlikely to have come from the time of Josiah.

Secondly, Deuteronomy knows only a single, united Israel, and shows no acquaintance with the division of the nation into two kingdoms following the reign of Solomon, around 930 bc (1 Ki. 12).

Thirdly, the book warns again and again about the dangers of Canaanite religion (e.g. chs. 7, 13). The temptation to stop worshipping the true God, and follow the gods of Canaan, was present as soon as Israel set foot on Canaanite soil. Deuteronomy’s concern, therefore, is understandable at a very early period of the nation’s history, though it certainly remained a factor at all times between entering the land and the exile.

Fourthly, certain laws make best sense in relation to imminent (or recent) occupation of the land. One such is 12:15–25, which permits the ‘secular’ eating of meat. The law is in contrast to Lv. 17, which insists that all slaughter of meat must be sacrificial, and carried out at the Tent of Meeting (the place of sacrifice and worship until Solomon built the temple). Deuteronomy permits non-sacrificial slaughter simply because, after settling in the land, the distance to the place of worship was too great for many people to slaughter meat sacrificially simply in order to eat it.

Fifthly, Deuteronomy shares the concerns of the prophets, namely, the need for heartfelt religion, and a love of justice and the rights of the poor (14:28–29). Yet it is different from the prophetic books in the sense that it does not address particular occasions and individuals. It has much more the appearance of a programme for the future. It is likely, in fact, that the prophets take their cue from Deuteronomy, as well as from other parts of the Pentateuch. Amos, for example, may have Deuteronomy in mind when he shows how God has given different peoples their respective lands (Am. 9:7; see Dt. 2:19–23), or when through him God urges Israel: ‘Seek me and live’ (Am. 5:4; see Dt. 4:1; 4:29; 30:19; 32:46–47).

Finally, it has been shown that Deuteronomy formally resembles certain political treaties made by Hittite kings with weaker states, as well as certain ancient law-codes, such as that of the famous Babylonian king and lawgiver, Hammurabi. The treaty analogies are more important because Deuteronomy shares with them the elements of relationship and loyalty.

The parts of the Hittite treaty are as follows: (i) a preamble, announcing the treaty and those who are party to it; (ii) a historical prologue, remembering the previous relations between the parties; (iii) general stipulations, setting out the nature of the future relationship between the parties; (iv) specific stipulations, the detailed requirements made of the weaker party; (v) witnesses (gods were called to witness the treaty); (vi) blessings and curses: these are pronounced for loyalty and disloyalty respectively.

Deuteronomy has a similar, though not identical, pattern, namely: (i) preamble (1:1–5); (ii) historical prologue (1:6–4:49); (iii) general stipulations (chs. 5–11); (iv) specific stipulations (chs. 12–26); (v) blessings and curses (chs. 27–28); (vi) witnesses. Ch. 32 fulfils the latter function. 32:1 calls heaven and earth to witness the words to Israel, a necessary variation from the treaties because of Israel’s monotheism.

The match between Deuteronomy and the treaties is not perfect. For example, Deuteronomy’s curses section is unusually long. And if ch. 32 is the witnesses section the order is unusual. Furthermore, scholars vary on the precise way in which the parts of the treaty should be described, and therefore on how Deuteronomy fits it. Most importantly, Deuteronomy is not a political treaty, but a document of the covenant between the Lord and his people. The treaty form is a kind of figure of speech, showing that the Lord is Israel’s ‘king’ (see 33:5).

For dating purposes, the important point is that these treaties date from the second millennium bc. Scholars differ, it should be said, on whether these second-millennium treaties are sufficiently different from other treaties of the first millennium to be evidence of a second-millennium date for Deuteronomy. The case is not finally proven. Yet the similarities between Deuteronomy and the Hittite treaties are striking, and remain an important supporting argument for a date in the late second millennium.

In conclusion, the data cannot prove conclusively any of the dates canvassed for Deuteronomy. But the evidence is consistent with its composition in the period following Moses’ death. This may have been quite soon after, or within a few generations.


The theology of Deuteronomy has begun to become clear even as we have spoken of its background and date. It is helpful to bear in mind that it is always proclaiming the truth about God in contrast to what other peoples believe. Deuteronomy is a book for a people that has been brought out of Egypt, because God wanted a people that would be different (or ‘holy’; 7:6), different from the Canaanites in the land they were going to (12:31), as well as different from the Egyptians (29:16–17). It is a book of instruction, and meant to be preserved for this purpose. As such, it has a characteristic style, whose main feature is the repetition of certain key terms and phrases. Deuteronomy, like sermons, sounds sermonic! The point is that Israel should always remember that it is different from other peoples, and why.

This is why Deuteronomy speaks about ‘election’, God’s choice of Israel (7:6–7; 14:2). When God called Abraham, he clearly intended that the people who would be descended from him would bring benefit to all the nations (Gn. 12:3). The choice of Israel, therefore, does not mean that God does not love other peoples too. Deuteronomy, however, does not have much to say about the salvation of other peoples. It is concerned with what must come first; God’s people must know him, and become faithful covenant partners.

The ‘covenant’ is the relationship between God and his chosen people. The idea had been present since God promised Noah that he would make a covenant with him, and that no such flood would ever happen again (Gn. 6:18; 9:9–17). The idea was developed with Abraham (Gn. 15:18; 17:2) and at Sinai, where it is shown that the covenant must be ‘kept’ (Ex. 19:5) and the Ten Commandments are given (Ex. 20:1–17). Deuteronomy spells out at length the two sides of covenant which we see in these other ‘books of Moses’, namely God’s promise and the need for Israel to be obedient to his commands. On the one hand, it refers frequently to the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the ‘fathers’; e.g. 1:8); on the other, it actually repeats the Ten Commandments (5:6–21) as a kind of introduction to the other laws which follow.

In the revelation of God’s covenant Deuteronomy’s basic ideas about God are spelt out. First, God is ‘one’ (6:4). Israel is not to worship other gods, or even to worship the Lord alongside other gods (5:7). These were real moral dangers. There were good reasons, however, for Israel to understand with their whole heart (6:5) that the Lord was ‘one’. The first is, obviously, because it was true. But in addition, it meant that no other god had a claim on the people. There was no rivalry between gods for their service. There is great freedom in knowing this, a freedom in the service of one all-powerful God.

Secondly, God may be known. He spoke to his people when he met them on Mt Sinai (always called Horeb in Deuteronomy), and he spoke in words, so that he might be understood. Deuteronomy lays great stress upon the word by which God makes himself known. In the covenant, it is possible to have a relationship with the living God, and be confident that what he says may be trusted.

Thirdly, God is spiritual. No images may be made of him, because he cannot be reduced to a material part of his own creation, and thus controlled by the worshipper (5:8–10). Nor does he live, in any simple way, at the place where he is worshipped; rather his ‘Name’ lives there (12:5; and see 1 Ki. 8:27–30 for the same idea).

Fourthly, he controls both history and nature. The gods of Canaan were understood primarily as nature gods, and the Israelites would often be tempted to think that it was they who had the real power in this area. Deuteronomy shows that the Lord has not only brought them out of Egypt, but that he also controls fertility and the seasons (7:13), and indeed that these things are not separable (16:9–12).

Fifthly, there is the possibility of an ordered and happy life before God. Deuteronomy insists that there is a balance in the order of things between ‘righteousness’ (loyalty to the standards of the relationship with God) and ‘good’, or prosperity (6:24–25). This is elaborated most obviously in the ‘curses and blessings’ of ch. 28. The reader of the book naturally asks whether this is not too mechanistic an understanding of morality. However, Deuteronomy is more subtle in this respect than appears at first glance, as we shall see.

Deuteronomy is firmly a book of God’s grace. It stresses that Israel owes its whole being to him, for he has brought them out of Egypt, and will lead them into a land in which they will be richly blessed (e.g. 8:7–10). Even his commandments are part of his grace, for in keeping them Israel will experience true freedom. The laws of Deuteronomy are designed to enable every Israelite to enjoy fully the gifts of the land, and to protect each from possible exploitation at the hands of others. Israelites are ‘brothers and sisters’ in the community of God’s making. Everyone, from the king (should they decide to have one; 17:14–20) to the ‘slave’ (15:12), is a ‘brother’ in Israel. This was a profoundly different idea of society from others in its day, in which most people were no better than serfs. Deuteronomy, therefore, has a vision of a harmonious society, in which people’s knowledge of God enables them to live together in the best possible way.

The vision, however, cannot be realized without the faithfulness of the people. Will they have the spiritual liveliness and moral stamina to keep the covenant? The good of all requires, in the short term, what always appear to be sacrifices, the giving up of one’s ‘rights’. Deuteronomy knows very well the frailty of human beings. The frailty of this chosen people has already become evident in its story so far (1:26–46). Indeed, it is a ‘stiffnecked’ people that is to receive the gift of the land (9:4–6). From its beginning, therefore, Deuteronomy asks whether this (or any) people can keep covenant with God. The question receives its answer only at the end of the book (ch. 30), in a passage which reckons that the ‘curses’ are likely to fall before a final salvation can occur.

The theology of Deuteronomy has relevance to modern Christians, but it must be read carefully, and in the light of the coming of Jesus Christ. Christians see themselves as the chosen people of God (1 Pet. 2:9), though in a quite different way from ancient Israel. They are not a political nation, living among other nations, nor do they need a land of their own, criminal laws, or their own leaders for times of peace and war. No more do they look for a single place of worship on earth in which God is more present than in other places. The period in God’s dealings with human beings in the world when these things were important is past. Since Jesus came, God’s people is international, living under different political systems, and actively seeking to extend God’s kingdom in all the world. And, of course, it is no longer making sacrifices to atone for sin.

Yet the main lines of the theology of Deuteronomy remain relevant. The book teaches about the grace of God in making us his own, as well as about the need for us to respond to him in a wholehearted way, in love and obedience. For us too God has been made known, though now in Christ, who is himself the ‘Place’ where we meet him. Our covenant is a new covenant in Christ, in which, though as morally weak as ever Israel was, we are enabled to remain faithful. And the blessings of God are no longer thought of in terms of material prosperity, but apply both to this age and the age to come.

Deuteronomy, indeed, is no excuse for so-called ‘prosperity-theology’, though a careless reading might make it seem so. It does show a delight in the good things of the world, and a clear understanding of the need for human beings to enjoy the basic necessities of life. These things are as important for us and our world as they ever were. But Deuteronomy rules out any religion which disguises an attempt to become rich. It does so because it demands a love of God from the heart, and indeed a love of one’s neighbour. This is the opposite of selfish calculation. That, in fact, is idolatry, which is for Deuteronomy the primary sin.

Further reading

R. Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy, BST (IVP, 1993).

J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy, TOTC (IVP, 1974).

P. C. Craigie, Deuteronomy, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1976).

A. D. H. Mayes, Deuteronomy, NCB (Eerdmans/Oliphants, 1979).

cf. compare

BST The Bible Speaks Today

TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary

NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament

NCB New Century Bible

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Dt 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.