Book of Deuteronomy


Authorship, date, and background The Hebrew title for this book is simply the opening words in the text: "these are the words," or just "words." The English title derives from the Greek word deuteronomion, which means "second law," or "repetition of the law." The Septuagint uses this word as the title for the last book of the Pentateuch. From the earliest days, Jewish and Samaritan traditions have attributed the authorship of the book to Moses. Thus the date for its composition would depend on whether one dates the Exodus around 1440 B.C. or 1220 B.C. The early date for the Exodus is preferable, however.

Deuteronomy itself supports Mosaic authorship by several statements such as: "On this side Jordan, in the land of Moab, began Moses to declare this law" (1:5); And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the son of Levi…" (31:9); "And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites which bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, it may be there for a witness against thee" (31:24-26). Rationalist scholars have usually claimed that Deuteronomy was written in the seventh century B.C. The Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis is hardly in accord with the internal evidence of Deuteronomy as well as the external historical data common to the seventh and fifteenth centuries B.C. The testimony of Jesus, who endorses the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy in Matthew 19:8, forecloses the question for those who accept his Lordship.

The background against which Deuteronomy was written presupposes the existence of the material contained in Exodus and Leviticus. At the time Moses delivered the addresses in Deuteronomy, the children of Israel were encamped on the outskirts of the Promised Land, which they had not yet entered. Their forty years of probation and wandering, awaiting the death of the old generation, except Joshua and Caleb, were over. But God also told Moses not to enter the land because of his sin when he struck the rock rather than speaking to it at Meribah (Num 20:11ff.). God decreed that Joshua should lead Israel into the land, but Moses, prior to his own death, was to explain to the younger generation the terms and conditions of the covenant and the necessity for their obedience to it.

Characteristics and content Deuteronomy consists of a series of speeches which were delivered orally, no doubt, and which were written down for posterity. Moses first traces the background history of Israel in the wilderness journeys. The Ten Commandments are repeated and their implications expanded upon. Moses pays particular attention to the first commandment, which is basic to the covenant. From thence he goes on to discuss first the ceremonial laws having to do with such matters as places of worship, idolatry, clean and unclean foods, tithes and holy seasons. In the second category he treats civil ordinances dealing with the appointment of judges, the election of a king, as well as regulations for priests, Levites, and prophets. This is followed by criminal laws relating to murder, cities of refuge, false testimony, waging war, and crimes punishable by hanging. Miscellaneous laws on marriage, disobedient sons, unchastity, wages, remarriage, parents, children, and even weights and measures are dealt with.

Moses' third discourse outlines the nature of God's covenant with Israel. He accents the need for repentance when the covenant is violated, and calls them to keep the covenant, with promises of blessing or of the severest punishment depending on Israel's faithfulness or unfaithfulness. Chapter 28 contains the prediction of future judgements on Israel. Moses closes the book with his final charge, a farewell and exhortation, the intimation of his death, and the pronouncement of blessing. The account of his death is apparently added to Moses' written record by Joshua, who takes over the leadership of Israel as the people prepare to enter the land.