How to read Deuteronomy


  • Content: rehearsal of the covenant for a new generation of Israelites just before the conquest.

  • Historical coverage: during the final weeks east of the Jordan.

  • Emphases: the oneness and uniqueness of Yahweh, the God of Israel, over against all other gods; Yahweh's covenant love for Israel in making them his people; Yahweh's universal sovereignty over all people; Israel as Yahweh's model for the nations; the significance of the central sanctuary where Yahweh is to be worshiped; Yahweh's concern for justice-that his people reflects his character; the blessings of obedience and the dangers of disobedience.


As with Genesis, two kinds of structure are evident in Deuteronomy at the same time. First, there is a concentric (chiastic) structure to the book, which looks backward at the beginning and forward at the end.


A The outer Frame: A Look Backward (chs. 1-3)

B The Inner Frame: The Great Exhortation (chs. 4-11)

C The Central Core: The Stipulations of the Covenant (chs. 12-26)

B* The Inner Frame: The Covenant Ceremony (chs. 27 -30)

A* The Outer Frame: A Look Forward (chs. 31 -34)

Note how easily you could read each of the two parts of both framing sections as continuous narrative: chapters 1-3 and 31-34; chapters 4-11 and 27 -30. The first part of the outer frame (A) repeats the essential narrative of Numbers, up to where Moses is forbidden to enter the land; the second part (A*) picks it up right at that point and concludes with the appointment of Joshua, Moses' song, his blessing, and his death. The inner frame (B), which calls Israel to absolute devotion to God, concludes with the announcement that God is setting before them "a blessing and a curse" (11:26); the second part (B*) picks up right at that point by offering the content of the curses and blessings.

This insight into how Deuteronomy works also highlights its second structural feature-that Deuteronomy presents this restatement of God's covenant (for the new generation) in the style of an ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaty-covenant (see "Specific Advice for Reading Exodus," with preamble, prologue, stipulations, document clause, sanctions, and witnesses. These last three items both supplement and reiterate the final three elements of the covenant of Exodus 20-Leviticus 27.

Thus, as a restatement of the covenant, Deuteronomy begins with a preamble and historical prologue (chs. 1 -4), which look both to the past and to the future. God has been faithful in the past, rewarding Israel for their faithfulness and likewise punishing them for unfaithfulness. Now they must again commit to being his people. The stipulations (chs. 5-26) begin with a restatement of the Ten Commandments, while the laws in chapters 12-26 tend to follow their vertical/horizontal order, having first to do with an individual's relationship with God and then with one another. The document clauses, reminders of the terms of the covenant, are found mainly in chapters 27 and 31, joined immediately by a long list of blessings and curses (prose in chs. 28-29 and poetry tn 32-33), which serve as the sanctions of the covenant. Finally, there are three kinds of witnesses to the covenant: "heaven and earth" (4:26;30:19-20), the song of Moses (31: 19; 31 :30-32:43), and the words of the law itself (31:26).

On this reading, Moses' death and Joshua's succession to leadership (ch. 34) form a kind of epilogue-not part of the covenant per se, but a narrative that connects Deuteronomy to the book of Joshua that follows.


Deuteronomy has perhaps had more influence on the rest of the biblical story (both Old and New Testaments) than any other book of the Bible. The continuation of Israel's history (Joshua-Kings) is written mostly from its perspective, so that this history portion has come to be called the Deuteronomic History. Deuteronomy likewise had considerable influence on Israel's and Judah's prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, and through them deeply influenced the major figures of the New Testament (especially Jesus and Paul).

As you read you will discover what drives Deuteronomy from beginning to end-an uncompromising monotheism coupled with an equally deep concern for Israel's uncompromising loyalty to Yahweh ("the Lord") their God. This comes out in any number of ways, but its primary moment is in the Shema (6:4-5), which became the distinguishing mark of Judaism and is identified by Jesus as "the first commandment": "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." The reason they are to love Yahweh in this way is that he first loved them-when they were slaves and counted for little: "The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples. . . . But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he . . . redeemed you from the land of slavery" (7:7 -8; cf . 4:37). Thus, everything is predicated on Yahweh's love and faithfulness and his actions that flow out of that love and faithfulness.

This concern in turn accounts for the other distinctive features in the book, three in particular that are closely allied with this first one. Watch for the following:

1. The constant reminder that Israel is about to possess "the land" (a word that occurs more than one hundred times in Deuteronomy). God in his love is about to fulfill the oath he made with Abraham. But the land is currently under the control of the Canaanites.

2. The relentless demand that, when entering the land, Israel not only avoid idolatry but that they completely destroy the places of Canaanite worship as well as the Canaanite peoples. If they do not, Canaanite idolatry will destroy Israel's reason for being. This motif begins in the historical prologue (2:34; 3:6) and continues as a divine demand throughout (7 :1 -6, 23 -26; 12: 1 -3 ; 13 :6- 1 8; 16:21- 1 7:7; 20:16-18; cf. 31 :3). The only hope for Israel to bless the nations (4:6) is for them to obliterate all forms of idolatry and to walk in the ways of the God who redeemed them to be his people (5:32-33).

3. The requirement that they regularly worship at one central sanctuary, "the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name" (12: 11). You will recognize this as carrying over the theme of the presence of God in the tabernacle into their new setting in the promised land. Note how often this theme, which begins in 12:5, is repeated thereafter (12:11 , 1 4, 18,26; 14:23-25; 15:20; 16:2-16; 17:8-10; 26:2).Yahweh, the one and only God will dwell among his one people in one place; he is not like the many pagan gods who can be worshiped at many high places throughout the land.

Why are these matters so important? Because the whole biblical story depends on them. At issue is not simply a choice between Yahweh and a Baal-although that too is involved-but syncretism, i.e., thinking that Yahweh can be worshiped in the form of, or alongside, Baal and Ashtoreth (Asherah), the Canaanite fertility gods. Since Yahweh is one Lord, not many-as are the pagan gods-he must not be worshiped at the high places where Baal and Ashtoreth were worshiped, and since Yahweh made human beings alone to bear his image (Gen 1:26-27) and does not have "form" as such (the second commandment), they must not think that he can be given form in some way by human beings (see especially Deut 4:15-20). You will notice how this issue recurs throughout the rest of the story, right through 2 Kings, and continues as a predominant feature in the prophets.

Two final items: God's love for his people in redeeming them and in making them his own, and then in giving them "this good land" (9:6), also lies behind the special nature of the Law Code in Deuteronomy (12:1-26:19).Be watching for how the code follows the pattern of the Ten Commandments, beginning with requirements that have to do with loving God (chs. 12-13) and continuing with various laws that have to do with sacred days and with loving neighbor (chs. 14-26). But note especially how often God's people are required to include "the poor and needy" (see 15:11; 24:14), which in Deuteronomy specifically takes the form of "the alien, the fatherless and the widow," and sometimes includes "the Levite" (26: 13). Their common denominator is that they do not own land among a people who will become agrarian in culture. As you read, observe how often these laws are tied either to God's character or to the redemption of Israel.

Finally, don't lose sight of one other important characteristic of Deuteronomy, namely, its forward-looking thrust throughout. This includes not only the immediate generation, which is poised to take possession of the land but also future generations (4:9,40). This motif in particular creates tension throughout the book between God'.s goodness in bringing them into "this good land" and God's awareness that Israel will fail nonetheless. Thus at both the beginning and the end, there are prophecies that the curses will eventually come upon them; their failure to keep covenant will result in loss of the land and in exile (4:25-28; 30:1; see 29:19-28 and 32:15-25), but God's enduring love will result in their being restored to the land through a "second exodus" (4:29-31; 30:2-10;32:26-27 ,36-43). As you read on from here in both the Old Testament and New, you will see how often this theme recurs.



Historical Prologue

You will recognize that most of this prologue is a succinct, carefully designed retelling of the narrative portions of Numbers. Note how the preamble (1:1-5) introduces you to the format of Deuteronomy speech of Moses by which God speaks to his people .

The story is recounted in three parts, each with an eye toward the rest of the book: (1) The appointment of leaders, because Moses is not going to enter the land (1:6-18), (2) a reminder of wasted opportunity and rebellion at Kadesh (1:19-46), and (3) a reminder of God's being with them nonetheless and bringing them to where they are now (2:1 -3:29).


Introduction to the Great Exhortation

Note how this introduction sets forth the emphases of the rest of the book: God's speaking his covenant directly to the people in the form of the Ten Commandments (w. 12-14); God's uniqueness, both as to his character and over against idols, which cannot speak or hear (w. 15-31); God's choice of Israel to be his unique people (vv. 32-38); the prophecy of Israel's eventual failure and restoration (vv. 25-31).


The Great Exhortation

Watch now as the themes introduced tn 4:1-43 are developed in this eloquent speech. It opens with the Ten Commandments (5:1-21), for this is the code that will be spelled out in chapters 12-26. This is followed by a reminder of Moses' mediatorial role at Horeb/Sinai (5:22-33), but even here the emphasis is on God and his longing for the Israelites' obedience. Then comes the primary commandment of all, namely, that they should love Yahweh their God totally (6:1 -25), with emphasis on (1) Yahweh's being the only God there is, (2) his redeeming them so as to make them his people, and (3) his gracious gift of the bountiful land. Next comes the Israelites' need to destroy the pagan peoples who now inhabit their promised land so that Israel will not succumb to syncretistic idolatry (7:1-26), followed by Moses' urging them not to forget God in the midst of their plenty (8:1 -20), accompanied by the reminder that the gift of the bountiful land had nothing to do with their own righteousness (9:1-6). Indeed, Israel has a history of stubbornness (9:7 -29). The final section (10:1- 11:32) anticipates what comes next, reminding the people of the central role of the ark of the covenant and urging that they fear and obey God. The choice is theirs with regard to whether it will be blessing or curse (11:26-32).


The Deuteronomic Code

This second giving of the law (deutero-nomo,s - "second law") is the heart of the book of Deuteronomy. Toward the end it is called "this Book of the Law" (28:61;29:21 ; 30:10; 3l:26), a term picked up five times in Joshua to refer to Deuteronomy (as the covenant-renewal ceremony at Mount Ebal in Josh 8:30-35, with its references to Deut 11:29-30 and 27:12-13, makes clear).

Laws Governing Worship (12:1-16:17). Note how the specific law code of Deuteronomy begins: with the future replacement of the tabernacle by a central sanctuary as the place where God will choose to put his Name (12:4-32, eventually Jerusalem). This is surrounded by reminders to destroy the idolatrous high places (12:1-3) and to avoid every vestige of idolatry (13:1- 14:2). These are followed by the clean and unclean statutes (14:3-21; cf.Lev 11), in this case limited to what the people eat, since this also set Israel apart from surrounding nations. These laws lead to regulations about the tithe of the field's produce and the firstborn of the animals, which are to be eaten at the central sanctuary and shared with the Levites (Deut 14:22-29; 15:19-23). These latter two laws surround statutes related to caring for the poor (15: 1- 18), which were to be constant reminders of their own deliverance from slavery. Worship includes the annual cycle of feasts, whose regulations also include reminders of the Israelites' redemption and of their need to care for the poor (16: 1- 17).

Laws Governing Leadership (16:18-18:22). Note that most of the next series of laws pick up the theme of "leadership after Moses" from the prologue (1:9-18). In turn these laws deal with judges (16: 18-20, 17:8-13, which surround another prohibition of idolatry in 16:21-17:7), kings (17 :14-20), priests and Levites ( 1 8: 1 -8), and prophets ( 18: 14-22), the latter two also surrounding yet another prohibition of idolatrous practices in 18:9-13. Note especially the emphasis on social justice on the part of the leaders, who are thus pivotal for the two crucial matters of the people's obedience to God namely, detesting idolatry and promoting social justice (cf. Isaiah; Hosea; Amos; Micah).

Laws Governing Community Life (19:1-25-19). Be sure to notice

here that most of the rest of the code deals with matters from the second

half of the Ten Commandments and focuses especially on personal and community relationships. Note also how various themes keep reappearing.

For example, the laws governing war (20:1-20) show special care for men and their families (w. 5-10) and even for trees (w. 19-20), while at the same time repeating the command to destroy idolatrous nations (vv. 10-18).Be sure to observe the recurrent concern about social justice, especially caring for the poor and needy.

Conclusion (26:1-19). Observe how the specific laws of Deuteronomy end with reminders of the Israelites' need always to put their God first (first fruits and tithes, w. 1-15) and with a final injunction to obedience.


The Covenant Ceremony

As Deuteronomy now returns to the inner frame, recall what was said above (and in Exodus) about suzerainty treaties. Here in sequence you find the document clause (27: 1-8), a picture of how Israel is to preserve the laws for the future, and its sanctions in the form of curses and blessings (27:9-28:68). The final part of the covenant ceremony contains a concluding charge from Moses, which anticipates Israel's future rebellion and exile, as well as God's restoring them once again to the land (chs. 29-30).


The Look Forward

The conclusion of the outer frame of Deuteronomy is full of anticipations about the future. The larger section (chs. 32-33, where you find the poetic expression of covenant sanctions) offers the song of Mos a prophetic word about future rebellion and restoration-and Moses' blessing of the twelve tribes (cf. Joseph in Gen 49). These are enclosed within the two essential transitional matters: (1) the succession of Joshua, including another prediction of future rebellion (Deut 31), and (2) the death of Moses, with a concluding eulogy (ch. 34).Note Yahweh's charge to Joshua, "Be strong and courageous" (31:23), which is then how the book of Joshua begins (Josh 1:6, 7 , 9, 18).

Deuteronomy brings the Pentateuch to a conclusion with its constant

reminders of God's love and faithfulness despite his people's constant

rebellion, but the final word is one of hope that God will ultimately prevail

with his people.