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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers


The Old Testament title for the last book of the Pentateuch is Greek for “the second law” or “repetition of the law.”  While a major part of the book is concerned with laws to govern Israel in the Promised Land, many of which were also in the preceding books, the Hebrew title, “The Words” more accurately describes the book as the record of three speeches given by Moses prior to his death.  As is the case with the other books of the Pentateuch, some aspects of Deuteronomy appear to come from a later period in the development of Judaism.  It is believed to have been put into its present form some time after the return from exile in Babylon.  However some parts no doubt existed earlier.  Most scholars agree that the “Book of the Law” that was discovered in the temple and inspired the reforms of King Josiah (reigned 640-608 BCE) in 2 Kings 22-23 was an early form of Deuteronomy.  

While Deuteronomy is the last book of the Pentateuch, in the documentary hypothesis which seeks to understand the history of OT books in terms of their sources and editing, it is also the first book of what is termed the “Deuteronomic history” that runs through the books of Kings which was composed in its final form after the return from Babylon.  Richard Hess, in his The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction, suggests an alternative view, comparing the structure of Deuteronomy to that of Hittite vassal treaties from the second millennium BCE as evidence for a possible earlier date for the book in its present form (pp.129-133).  

Samuel Sandmel describes the message of Deuteronomy as “God works in history; obey his law, lovingly, and he will work good for you, but disobey, and he will work ill for you” (The Hebrew Scriptures: An Introduction to Their Literature and Religious Ideas, p. 415).  

The major part of Deuteronomy consists of three speeches Moses delivered to the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land.   The first speech (1:6-4:40) reviews the journey from Horeb (Deuteronomy’s name, in an unexplained shift, for the mountain called Sinai in Exodus-Numbers) to the border of Canaan with exhortations to remain faithful as Israel realizes its destiny of becoming a great nation.  The second speech (seemingly too long and tedious to have been delivered as a speech to “the congregation of Israel”) is a description of cultic and civil regulations, much of it repeating and expanding material contained in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  Chapters 27-28, which change to third person from the first person of Moses’ speeches, describe a ritual of blessings and curses to be performed after crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  

The final speech (29-30) of Moses calls for a renewal of the covenant made at Horeb.  Along with hope for the future, unfaithfulness followed by punishment via conquest and exile is predicted along with a promise of restoration following repentance.  Throughout Deuteronomy there are repeated references to what seems to be the conquest of Israel and Judah, exile, and return to Jerusalem, events that occurred centuries after the arrival of the Israelites in Canaan.  On one hand this can be read as prophecy; on the other it would seem to point to a post-exilic date for at least some parts of Deuteronomy.

Moses’ recapitulation of the journey through the wilderness emphasized the many times Israel failed to keep their side of the covenant with Yahve, especially in regard to the instances of worshipping other gods.  To lessen the possibility of temptation resulting in a recurrence of idol worship, all the idolatrous nations of Canaan were to be ruthlessly and completely destroyed along with their gods and shrines.  However the nations outside of Canaan (who of course also worshipped gods other than Yahve) were to be treated differently, killing only the men while taking captive the women and children.  

Even before entering Canaan the Israelites conquered two kingdoms in whose seized lands two and a half tribes (what would have been the tribe of Joseph was split between his two sons, making thirteen actual tribal groups although the two split tribes of Joseph were counted as one) were settled with the understanding that their men would continue to fight with the rest in the conquest of Canaan.  In agreement with the reports of the spies sent to Canaan, giants dwelt in the conquered land, one of whom was Og whose huge bedstead was on view as a sort of museum piece (3:11), a bit that would seem to be from a later time.

Following a review of the events at Horeb, including the Ten Commandments (“Ten Words” in Hebrew) with minor variations from that in Exodus 20,  Deuteronomy describes how Yahve told Moses “all the commandment and the statutes and the ordinances which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess” (5:31).  Moses’ teaching of what he was told runs from chapter six through twenty-six.  Chapter six leads off with what became in Judaic tradition the Shema (“Hear”), which Jesus quoted as the “First Great Commandment” (Mark 12:29-30):

     Hear, O Israel,

     Yahve is our God; Yahve is one,

     And you shall love Yahve our God

     With all your heart

     And with all your soul,      

     And with all your might.


Descriptions of “the commandment, statues, and ordinances” vary from terse to discursive.  Compared with Numbers, there is less about sacrifices and more focus on civil law.  There seems to be no discernible pattern; only motifs and reframes with some repetition.  

Some of the laws are appalling to modern sensibilities.  A “worthless son” could be stoned to death at his parents’ request.  A newly married wife who is found to not be a virgin was also to be stoned.  In determining sentence for an intentional injury done to another, the law was “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”  A wife who helped a husband who was being physically attacked by grabbing the assailant’s genitals was to have her hand amputated.  Men with damaged genitals were excluded from the assembly as were the disfigured and disabled.

Other laws were surprisingly humane.  A number concerned obligations towards the less fortunate.  Cities of Refuge were to be established to protect those who had unintentionally caused a death from revenge by relatives of the deceased.  Slavery was allowed, but Hebrew slaves were to be freed after seven years and fugitive slaves were not to be returned to their masters.  A captive woman could be taken as a wife, but could not be made a slave and must be set free if her husband tired of her.  There had to be more than one witness to a crime for conviction.  Men with unfinished business of various kinds, in the first year of marriage, and those “fearful and fainthearted” were excused from participation in warfare.  There were several laws pertaining to animal welfare.

Practical matters were addressed.  Soldiers were to carry a tool with which to bury their excrement outside the camp.  Flat roofs had to have parapets to keep people from falling off.  A king elected by the people would be permitted but he was not to “multiply” horses and wives (17:14-17), perhaps a late addition commenting on the behavior of Solomon?

Some laws just seem strange.  Levirate marriage concerned the obligation of a brother-in-law to ensure the survival of a deceased brother’s heritage by getting his widow pregnant with a son.  Garments were to be fringed and could not combine two kinds of cloth.  Two types of crops were not to be sown together and two kinds of animals were not to plow together.    

Compared with Numbers, Deuteronomy is less concerned with matters of clean vs. unclean.  I was surprised to read that meat from unclean animals could be eaten provided the animal had been slaughtered in town rather than the country-side.  As in Numbers blood was not to be consumed but, as the life-force, had to be drained from slaughtered animals (12:15-16, 20-21).  

Following the long, often tedious discourse on the laws is a description of the ritual that was to be performed once the Israelites had crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.  In contrast to a previously stated stipulation that sacrifices were to be performed only at a central location, instructions were given for the building of an altar on the Canaan side of the River Jordan on which sacrifices would be offered, likely an indication of an early origin of the ritual.  A series of curses for disobedience and blessings for abiding by the terms of the covenant were to be ritually read and affirmed by the people.  

In Moses’ final address he set before the people of Israel, “life and death, blessing and curse,” in hopes that they would “choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (30:19).  In preparation for his death, he appointed Joshua as his successor to lead the conquest of Canaan.  Then he “spoke the words” of a song about Yahve’s covenant with Israel, their disobedience and punishment followed by Yahve’s “vindication of his people,” another apparent reference to the Babylonian exile and return (32:1-43).

In the form of another poem Moses blessed the several tribes (Simon is not mentioned but the splitting of Joseph’s descendants makes for twelve) with their assigned land.  Interestingly, the poem describes the mountain of Yahve as Sinai rather than the Horeb of the rest of Deuteronomy indicating a likely origin for the poem earlier than the rest of the book.  

Moses then ascended “Mt. Nebo, to the top of Pisgah” (there seems to be a mix of two traditions), from which Yahve showed him “all the land” from which he was barred because in anger he struck rather than spoke to the rock.  Yahve buried Moses in an unknown grave.  Thus ended “all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel” (34:1, 12).  Volumes two through five of the Pentateuch (literally “Five Scrolls”), regardless of who may have written them, are rightly the Books of Moses, the central figure in the narrative which runs from Exodus through Deuteronomy.

© 2021 James Moyers