Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Bible and the final book of the Torah. In the preceding books, Israel had left Egypt and stayed at Mount Sinai for a year, where they entered into a covenant with their God. Despite this amazing start, the Israelites struggled in their journey through the wilderness, and the entire Exodus generation was disqualified from entering into the promised land. Deuteronomy begins with Moses standing in front of the new generation, and his job is to explain the significance of the laws of the Torah (Deut. 1:1-5). This opening scene helps us understand the design and purpose of the book. It’s a series of speeches from Moses, who calls the next generation of Israel to be faithful to their covenant with God.
At the center of Deuteronomy is a collection of laws, which make up the terms of the covenant between God and Israel (Deut. 12-26). Some are new, but many are repeated from the laws given at Mount Sinai. This is actually where the book gets the name “Deuteronomy,” from the Greek word deuteronomion, which means “a second law.” Surrounding the laws in this book are two outer frames of Moses’ speeches (Deut. 1-11 and 27-34), each broken down into two parts (Deut. 1-3, 4-11 and Deut. 27-30, 31-34).
Many Jewish and Christian traditions hold that Moses is the author of Deuteronomy. However, authorship is not explicitly stated within the book.
The events described in Deuteronomy take place on the Sinai Peninsula, particularly Mount Sinai, before Israel enters the land of Canaan.
Deuteronomy contains mostly prose-discourse, poetry, and narrative literary styles.
Israel’s obedience and devotion to the covenant
Israel’s mission to be a kingdom of priests for the nations
God’s promise to transform the hearts of the people
The tension of God’s holiness and Israel's continuous rebellion
The structure of Deuteronomy is divided into three parts. Chapters 1-11 summarize Israel’s story, 12-26 contain more laws about the worship of God and laws about civil life, and 27-34 offer encouragements for Israel to listen to and love God.
Deuteronomy 1-11: Moses Calls Israel to Faithfulness
Moses first summarizes the story so far, highlighting how rebellious the previous generation was in contrast with God’s constant provision and grace in the wilderness (Deut. 1-3). God brought his justice upon them, yes, but he did not abandon his covenant promises.
Next comes a series of passionate sermons in which Moses calls on the new generation to be faithful to the covenant (Deut. 4-11). He reminds them of the ten commandments and goes on into the centerpiece of this section, a famous line called the Shema.
“Listen Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone, and you shall love the LORD your god with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.” -Deuteronomy 6:4-5
This became an important daily prayer in Judaism, and it brings all the themes of the book together. The word “listen” (shema in Hebrew) means more than simply “hear.” Its meaning includes responding to what you hear. In English we would say “obey.” Similarly, the word “love” in Hebrew also refers to more than simply an emotion or feeling. It’s about a wholehearted commitment and devotion to God that involves our wills and our emotions, our minds and our hearts.
Now, Israel’s obedience and devotion to the covenant serve a much larger purpose. Obedience to the laws will make Israel a unique people among the nations. Like God said at Mount Sinai, they will become “a kingdom of priests,” and Moses explains how. Israel has the chance to show the world the “wisdom and justice of God” (Deut. 4:5-8).
The other key idea of shema is that Israel was called to obey and to be devoted to “the Lord alone.” In Hebrew, it says literally that “the Lord is one.” In context, the point is that the Lord is the only God Israel is to worship and follow, and they are not to represent him with any physical image.
Israel is about to enter the land of Canaan, where people worship idol gods that represent various aspects of creation, such as the sun, weather, sex, and war. In Moses’ view, the worship of these gods degrades people and destroys communities, but obeying the God of Israel, the gracious creator God who redeemed them from slavery, will lead to life and blessing.
Deuteronomy 12-26: Laws on Worship, Leadership, and Civil Life
After Moses’ passionate sermons, we come next to the large collection of laws in the center of the book of Deuteronomy, which are roughly arranged by topic. The opening section is about Israel’s worship of their God (Deut. 12-16a). Israel was to have one central temple where the one true God is worshiped. God was also to be worshiped through Israel’s care of its poor. For example, all Israelites were to set aside one-tenth of their income to be given to the temple and another one-tenth, set aside every three years, to give to the poor. Many of these laws put Israel on the cutting edge of justice in comparison to their ancient neighbors, which was all part of their worship of God.
The following section outlines the character qualities of Israel’s leaders (Deut. 16b-18). Elders, priests, and kings were all placed under the authority of the covenant laws, which God would enforce by sending prophets to keep them accountable. In contrast to Israel’s neighbors, who thought of their kings as divine and a law unto themselves, Israel’s leaders were all subordinate to the law as well as the prophets.
Next, there are laws about Israel’s civil life (Deut. 19-26). They cover issues of marriage and family, business and the legal system, and community justice. Specifically, the difficult circumstances of widows, orphans, and immigrants are highlighted. Israel is to take extra care and make sure these people are supported in their towns. Finally, this section concludes with more laws about Israel’s worship.
Now, here are some tips for reading all these laws. Remember, these are the terms of the covenant between God and ancient Israel, which was a very different culture from our own. In other words, it’s not going to be helpful to compare them with modern laws from a different time and culture. These laws were given to set Israel apart from their neighbors. When you compare biblical laws with those of Israel’s neighbors in Babylon or Assyria, rules that at first seem bizarre or harsh become more clear. You can see God pushing Israel to a higher level of justice than was ever known before. Finally, try to discern what core principle of wisdom or justice underlies a particular law, and you’ll discover some really profound things. (Here’s some extra credit: Check out how Paul does this very thing in 1 Corinthians 9:9 when he quotes a law in Deuteronomy 25:4.)
After going through the laws, Moses offers a final challenge to Israel that they should listen to and love their God (Deut. 27-30). He issues a warning and ultimatum. If Israel listens to and obeys their God, things will go well and divine blessing will abound. If they don’t listen and instead rebel, they will suffer from famine, plague, devastation, and ultimately exile from the land.
Moses then forces a decision: “Today I set before you life or death, blessing or curse, goodness or evil ... So choose life, by loving the Lord your God and listening to him” (Deut. 30:15-20).
Now, Moses hasn’t somehow forgotten the last forty years with these people. He’s not optimistic about Israel’s future, and so he continues with this: “I know that after I die, you’re going to rebel, turn away from God, and end up in exile.” It’s clear he doesn’t have high hopes, at least not for the people’s ability to obey.
However, all is not lost because Moses also says that when Israel finds themselves sitting in exile, at any point they can turn back to their God. And in response, God will, in Moses’ words, “circumcise your hearts, so that you may love him with your heart and soul and live” (Deut. 30:6). This vivid metaphor is saying that something is fundamentally wrong with Israel’s heart; it’s stubborn and hard—the same thing that’s wrong with all humanity. Going all the way back to humanity’s rebellion in the garden, Israel has also seized autonomy to define good and evil for themselves. Along with all humanity, they’ve ruined themselves and God’s good world, but that’s not the end of the story. Moses says that he knows that one day God is going to do something to transform the hearts of his people, so that they can actually listen to and love God from the heart and discover true life. This is the promise of the new heart, picked up by later biblical prophets (Jer. 31 and Ezek. 36).
Moses ends his speech with poems of warning (Deut. 32) and blessing (Deut. 33). And having made his point, Moses walks up onto a mountain and passes away.
Surprisingly, this is where the Torah draws to a close. Moses’ story has ended, but the biblical story is just starting. All the major plot tensions generated in the Torah are left totally unresolved.
When is the descendant of the woman going to come and defeat evil (Gen. 3)?
How is God going to rescue his world and restore blessing to all nations through Abraham’s family (Gen. 12)?
How can God’s holiness be reconciled with continuously rebellious people (Exod.-Num.)?
How will God transform the hearts of his people (Deut.)?
The Torah sets up all these problems, and to find their resolution, you have to keep reading.
Deuteronomy offers Moses’ final word to Israel, encouraging the people to listen to God and love him. Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant they made with God becomes the path to blessing for both themselves and everyone around them.