PART 1 • Torah CHAPTER 5 • Deuteronomy 167


Deuteronomy: The Torah of Moses

1 Introduction

2 The Torah of Moses

3 Torah and Covenant

4 Deuteronomy as a Book

Study Guide


Centralization, Covenant, Deuteronomist (D), Deuteronomistic History (DH), Deuteronomy, Josiah, Mezuzah, Shalom, Shema, Suzerain, Suzerainty treaty, Syncretism, Vassal


Unterberger's Moses

Moses is the great lawgiver of Israel, and nothing has reinforced this perception more than the book of Deuteronomy. It is a collection of his best applications of Torah to the life of Israel. This drawing depicts Moses with his face aglow. The full painting has him leaning on the two tables of the law flanked by angels.

Source: Cristoforo Unterberger (1732–1798), Moses. Sala dei Papiri, Vatican Museum, Rome. Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on a photo by Barry Bandstra, 1998.


Deuteronomy provided the key that unlocked the structure of the Torah and the prophets in modern scholarship. Close literary and historical study of this book inspired a revolution within biblical studies that opened new ways of viewing the Torah and the Prophets of Hebrew Bible. How did this happen? Once analysts linked Deuteronomy to the reform of King Josiah of Judah in the 600s BCE, they realized that the principles articulated in this book provided the lens through which the history of Israel had been written in the books of Joshua through Kings. This, among other things, forced a reevaluation of the traditional notion of

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Mosaic authorship. After we survey the content and structure of Deuteronomy, we will be in a better position to appreciate the significance of these changes.

Deuteronomy gets its name from Deuteronomy 17:18, which states that the king was to receive a “copy of the Torah” to guide him. This was misleadingly translated in the Septuagint as “a second law” (deuteronomion in Greek). Deuteronomy is not a “second law” but a retelling and reapplication of the law given first at Mount Sinai, as stated in 1:5, “Moses began to explain this torah saying . . .”. The Hebrew name for the book is devarim, or “words,” taken from the first phrase of the book, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan.” Deuteronomy is unique in the Pentateuch because it is consistent and uniform in style and displays a unity not evident in the other books. It consists almost entirely of Moses’ addresses to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land. Characterized by ardor and urgency, it contains motivational material that is directed straight at “you”—first the you of Israel, of course, but unmistakably also the you of the reader. Here is how those words are introduced:

Yhwh our Elohim spoke to us at Horeb, “You have stayed at this mountain long enough. Get on with your journey.” (1:6–7a)

Even when God is speaking, as in this quotation, the divine word comes to the people through Moses. This will be the dominant construction of the book of Deuteronomy: Moses’ voice is the voice of God, and vice versa. The Torah of Yhwh becomes the Torah of Moses.

1.1 The Torah of Moses—A Summary

Moses addressed the Israelites near the eastern bank of the Jordan River, recounting their experiences together during the forty years in the wilderness (Deuteronomy Chapters 1–4). He restated the Ten Commandments and urged the Israelites to both love and fear God (5–11). In a major address, he laid down guidelines for Israel’s worship that specified the place to worship, whom to worship, and when to worship. He gave rules for family and community life and also defined the public offices of king, prophet, and priest (12–26). Moses solemnized the occasion with a covenant renewal rally using promises of blessing to lure the people and curses to warn against forgetfulness (27–30). After authorizing Joshua as his successor (31), he recounted God’s past history with Israel in song (32) and then blessed the tribes (33). Lastly, he ascended Mount Nebo and died after seeing, but not entering, the Promised Land (34).

1.2 Reading Guide

The first four chapters are Moses’ first address. They are a summary retelling of the trip from Mount Sinai, here called Horeb, to Transjordan. This retelling highlights the rebellion and dissatisfaction of the people. Skim this material to gather how Moses addresses the people and lays blame on their shoulders. Then read Chapters 5–6 closely; these two chapters introduce the second address and contain the Decalogue and the summary of the law called the shema. Read Chapter 11, which is Moses’ plea to love Yhwh. The next set of readings deals with institutions that will only begin functioning once Israel becomes a nation in Palestine. Read the laws regarding the one official sanctuary (12), the king (17), the

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priesthood and prophets (18), and holy war (20). Read about the first fruits ceremony (26) and the curses and blessings of the law (27–28). Lastly, read about the death of Moses (34).


Deuteronomy is different from the preceding four books of the Torah in these ways. Instead of being mostly historical narrative into which law codes were inserted, it consists of the speeches that Moses delivered to the Israelites in Transjordan as they prepared themselves to enter the Promised Land. Instead of being composed from a variety of sources, it is essentially from one source, the Deuteronomist, or D for short. And instead of being framed as God’s words to Moses, it is mostly Moses’ words to Israel. As for the name of God, the deity is referenced overwhelmingly as “Yhwh your God.

Deuteronomy is a series of addresses that Moses gave to the Israelites in the border region just east of the Jordan River. He knew his death was imminent, so this was his last opportunity to reinforce the values and demands of covenant life; God denied him entry into the Promised Land because of his actions at Meribah (Numbers 20). The following texts sample the flavor of the book and introduce us to some of its main ideas.

2.1 The Great Commandment (6:4–9)

The core of Deuteronomy is a law code contained in Chapters 12–26. This law code is introduced by two speeches of Moses. The first introductory speech (1:1–4:40) reviews Israel’s history from the time that God spoke to them at Horeb to the present. Notice that the mountain of revelation is almost exclusively called Horeb in Deuteronomy, not Mount Sinai. Moses highlighted two features of their history. First, the wilderness generation had been unfaithful time and again. They had constantly complained, murmured, and grumbled. Second, the Lord had demonstrated his faithfulness by giving them all they had needed, including victory over their enemies. Moses was warning the Israelites: Do not be unfaithful, as was that first generation, or you will not reach your goal.

The second introductory speech (4:44–11:32) contains a rehearsal and elaboration of the Decalogue from Exodus 20, with a few changes. This generation needed to hear the commandments afresh. If they did not hear and obey them, they would be as doomed as the generation before them. Immediately preceding the Decalogue in its Deuteronomic version, Moses delivers the following charge:

Moses called all Israel and said to them, “Hear, Israel, the laws and rules I speak in your hearing today! Learn them and make sure you do them. Yhwh our Elohim made a covenant with us on Horeb. It was not with our fathers that Yhwh made this covenant but with us, those of us living here today.” (5:1–3)

Notice the sense of urgency in Moses’ preaching style. This is characteristic of his addresses in Deuteronomy. There is no mistaking that he wants to impress upon the people the crucial importance of the covenant. It is not ancient history, nor did it apply just to their forebears. The covenant applies directly to them. Moses speaks in such a way that the covenant obligations fall on each generation, not just on the generation that heard the original words at Horeb.

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After stating the Ten Commandments, Moses goes on to encapsulate the essence of this Torah in one of the most notable passages in the Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4–5. The Jewish community calls it the Shema, the first word of this passage. Along with Deuteronomy 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41, it is Judaism’s prime prayer, recited daily by observant Jews. Jesus calls it the Great Commandment (Mark 12:29–30).

“Hear, Israel: Yhwh is our Elohim, only Yhwh. You shall love Yhwh your Elohim with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words which I command you today—take them to heart. Repeat them to your children. Say them when you are sitting in your house, when you are walking on the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as a sign on your hand. Let them be headbands above your eyes. Write them on the door frames of your houses.” (6:4–9)

The first few words of our text are open to several possible translations, all allowable given the rules of the Hebrew language, yet each has a different twist. The Hebrew text of the core affirmation is this in transliteration: Yhwh Elohenu Yhwh echad. A literal word-for-word rendering of these four terms is this: Yhwh our-God Yhwh one. It may help to keep in mind that Yhwh is the personal name of Israel’s deity, whereas Elohim (the base form of Elohenu) is the way to refer generally to a deity. Also, keep in mind that a verb is not needed in Hebrew for equative sentences in the present tense (x is y). Given these linguistic facts, the question is this: how should the individual words be grouped in order to constitute a message? These four nouns can be grouped and understood in three different ways. Here are the options:


1. Yhwh, our Elohim, Yhwh is one: one sentence where Elohim simply describes Yhwh and the main claim is his oneness

2. Yhwh is our Elohim, Yhwh alone: one sentence essentially meaning Yhwh alone is our deity and none other

3. Yhwh is our Elohim; Yhwh is one: two separate sentences and two claims


What is the intent of the Hebrew text? Does the statement affirm the oneness of God (option 1), and if so, does it assert that only Israel’s God exists and the many gods of Canaan, Egypt, and Mesopotamia do not? Or does it primarily affirm that Israel’s God is Yhwh and that they may worship no other god (option 2)? This option would not address the issue of whether or not there are other gods or assert the essential oneness of Yhwh but would only claim that Yhwh is the only God for Israel. Or is it both (option 3)? Table 5.1 shows how some English versions translate it in their main text, though most also acknowledge other possibilities in footnotes.

The rendition of the KJV is the only one that does not make sense. Because LORD stands for the personal name Yhwh, it is a tautology to say “Yahweh our God is one Yahweh.” It would be like saying “Arnold my father is one Arnold.” The other renditions, while representing different choices, are all possible.

While it is difficult to be sure precisely what the shema means, we can say the following. An affirmation of monotheism, a claim about what exists and what does not exist in the realm of heaven, seems too abstractly philosophical for those times. And although it is conceivable that the statement was intended to deny the many Baal and Asherah gods that the Canaanites recognized, Moses via the

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TABLE 5.1 Translations of Deuteronomy 6:4: The Shema


Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.
NASB Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!
NIV and TNIV Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
NLV Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
NRSV Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
JPS Tanakh Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
Fox Hearken O Israel: Yhwh our God, Yhwh (is) One!
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!

Deuteronomist was probably not interested in affirming the unitary nature of God so much as impressing upon Israel that there is only one God for them, only one God to whom they could be loyal. His name is Yhwh. He had been faithful to them in the past, and they must be loyal to him now. While there may be other so-called gods among the other nations, Yhwh is the only God that deserves and demands Israel’s love. McCarter (1987) suggests that the issue was not monotheism but the worship of local manifestations of Yhwh in local shrines, which is what the centralization effort of Josiah’s reform set out to eliminate. In any case, the command to love Yhwh is central to the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is not a theological or philosophical treatise but an encouragement to Israel to remain in covenant relationship with the God who brought them out of Egypt and preserved them through the wilderness.

The injunction to tie these words on forehead and forearm would keep the covenant always in front of each Israelite as a guide for everyday living. This was put into practice early in the history of Judaism by binding small cases containing Torah texts (called tefillin or phylacteries) onto the forehead and left arm. The Torah was also placed into another holder, called a mezuzah, and attached to the door frames of homes and public buildings.

2.2 The Place That Yhwh Chooses (12:2–7)

Moses promoted loyalty to Yhwh by advocating the centralization of worship, the policy that Yhwh could only be worshipped in one place. This would have had two purposes. One would have been to eliminate the myriad local shrines dedicated to the ancestors and to traditional Canaanite deities. The other would have been to supervise all legitimate worship practices and, not coincidentally, to reap the material benefits for the support of the priesthood that accrued when Israelites came to perform their duties.

“You must completely eradicate all the places where the nations you are dispossessing used to worship their gods, places on the high mountains, on the hills, and those under lush trees. Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and cut down the idols of their gods. Eradicate their name from that place. Do not worship Yhwh your Elohim in the same way as they did theirs. Rather, you shall seek out the place that Yhwh your Elohim will choose out of all your tribes to put his name, where he will dwell. You should go

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there. Bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and donations, your pledges and contributions, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There you shall eat in the presence of Yhwh your Elohim, you and your household, rejoicing in everything you undertake, in whatever Yhwh your Elohim has blessed you.” (12:2–7)

The phrase “the place Yhwh your God will choose” is an indefinite way of referring to the tribal federation’s central sanctuary. Early on it may have been Shiloh, but certainly later it was assumed to be Jerusalem. The exact place could not be named, and this circumlocution was used because the surface setting of Deuteronomy puts it at a time before Jerusalem had been founded as Israel’s capital and the site of the state temple.

The various types of sacrifices and offerings in this passage indicate that all forms of worship and the payment of all dues were to be made at this central sanctuary. The phrase “to put his name, where he will dwell” has been taken as an indicator of the attempt of Deuteronomy to change the common Israelite belief that God actually lived in an earthly sanctuary (see von Rad, 1966; challenged by Wilson, 1995). By referring instead to the name of God rather than to God himself as that which dwells in the sanctuary, Israel was encouraged to acquire a less physical and a more transcendent understanding of the nature of God’s presence.

Worship centers traditionally were located on hills or other high places, frequently in forests and groves. That goes for the Canaanites and other inhabitants of Palestine (“the nations you are dispossessing”) as well as for the Israelites. Both of the places on which Israel’s God had revealed the divine presence were mountains. The covenant was given on Mount Sinai, and Israel’s chief sanctuary was located on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

The Israelites were warned against using traditional Canaanite high places because of the danger of syncretism, blending Yahwism with Baalism, or some other foreign religious element, even in unintentional ways. The experience of the northern kingdom suggested that a variety of worship centers could be dangerous to the faith of the people. Before Israel’s destruction, many northern cities contained shrines. Usually, they were located in places where Baal and Asherah had been worshipped, and aspects of Baal worship were frequently assimilated to Yahwistic worship in those places. Sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference between the two. Prophets frequently condemned such worship places (Hosea 8:11; Jeremiah 11:13). According to the prophets the attraction of such shrines was one of the major reasons why the northern kingdom fell.

The Deuteronomist presumably knew the price of such disloyalty. He was most likely a Levite from the north, and after its destruction in 721 BCE, he fled south and brought a message of warning to Judah in the hope that its people might avoid Israel’s fate. The centralization of worship in Jerusalem mandated in this text was initiated during the reign of Hezekiah (715–687 BCE). He abolished the offering of sacrifices anywhere but in the capital. Josiah (640–609 BCE) went even further by abolishing all sanctuaries and temples throughout the land except for the Solomonic temple in Jerusalem. In this way, tighter control over the religious practices of the people could be maintained.

Archaeological excavations at Arad, a Judean city in the south of Palestine, support the biblical description of these religious reforms. Arad contains the remains of a

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Arad Sanctuary

FIGURE 5.1 Arad Sanctuary

The temple in Arad matches the general structure of the Jerusalem temple described in the Hebrew Bible. It proves the existence of sanctuaries outside Jerusalem during the monarchy until the time of Hezekiah.

Photo by Barry Bandstra, May 1996.

temple structure and altars dating to the period before the time of Hezekiah, all built according to the specifications of the Jerusalem temple and its altars (see Figure 5.1). Arad was destroyed during Hezekiah’s reign and rebuilt during the time of Josiah, but the temple itself was not redone. These changes at Arad are consistent with Josiah’s centralization efforts, as mandated in Deuteronomy.

2.3 A Prophet Like Me (18:15–22)

One of the central themes of Deuteronomy is the exclusive relationship between Yhwh and Israel. Yhwh was their God, and this God demanded total loyalty. The Deuteronomist set Israel apart from the other nations in many ways, including how they would maintain contact with God. Whereas other people employed diviners, sorcerers, and soothsayers to hear a divine voice, Israel was not allowed to use such means. Instead, Israel would hear the voice of deity through that deity’s prophet.

“Yhwh your Elohim will raise up a prophet from among your own people, one like me. To him you shall listen, just as you requested of Yhwh your Elohim at Horeb in the assembly when you said, ‘If I hear the voice of Yhwh my Elohim and see this great fire again, I will die.’ So Yhwh said to me, ‘They are right in what they said. A prophet I will raise up from among their own people, one like you. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them what I command him. Everyone who does not listen to my words which he speaks in my name—I will hold him responsible. But, the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name which I did not command him to speak, and which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet will die.’ You might ask yourself ‘How can we recognize the word which Yhwh did not speak?’ What the prophet speaks in the name of Yhwh and which does not happen or come about is not a word Yhwh spoke. Presumptuously the prophet spoke it. Do not be afraid of him.” (18:15–22)

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Moses predicted that Yhwh would raise up a prophet like himself. The need for a prophet was revealed by the fear of the people as they stood before Yhwh at Horeb. They could not stand up under the intensity of direct contact with God; by their own admission, they thought that they would die. It is a truism of the Hebrew Bible that one cannot look upon God directly and live.

Moses mediated between Yhwh and Israel. He became the enduring Deuteronomic model for prophetic communication between the deity and his people. A true prophet receives his words directly from God and is distinguished by his access to the Divine Council where he receives God’s words directly from his mouth.

The criterion for true and false prophecy was the “wait-and-see” test. In Deuteronomic perspective, prophecy predicted future events. If a prophecy was genuine, it would come to pass. This was not very helpful to those who were trying to figure out at the time who was genuine. Rather, this test only worked in hindsight when later generations evaluated the prophetic message in terms of the events predicted: Had they taken place or not? And it only worked for past prophets (probably ones already long gone) whose words had been recorded and written down.

The Deuteronomist is really providing a test for his seventh-century BCE contemporaries. They were able to evaluate past claimants to prophetic office—men such as Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea. Having passed the test, these men would have been authenticated as true prophets. Listen to them and learn from their writings. All others are false. This was later applied as a test when decisions were made concerning which books to include in the canon of the Bible: Had their predictions come true or not?

2.4 The Earliest Creed (26:5–9)

The last chapter of the central law code mandates a ceremony of first fruits. This ceremony is one of the three major yearly festivals established in Israel according to Deuteronomy 16:16. It was called the Festival of Weeks because it occurs seven weeks after Passover. Later it was also called Pentecost, from the Greek word for fiftieth (the fiftieth day after Passover).

As proof that they had actually entered the Promised Land and as proof that it was a good and productive place, each Israelite had to take the first produce of the wheat harvest and bring it to the sanctuary. This was authentication that Yhwh’s promise to the ancestors had come true. As part of the ceremony, the one offering the harvest gift would recite the following historical summary:

A wandering Aramean was my father. He went down into Egypt and lived there as a resident alien with only a small group. He became a great nation, strong and numerous. The Egyptians treated us badly and persecuted us. They imposed hard labor on us. We cried out to Yhwh, the Elohim of our ancestors. He heard our voice and saw our persecution, our toil and our oppression. Yhwh brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, with signs and with wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (26:5–9)

Three major historical movements are evoked by this sketch of Israel’s early history. The first is the ancestors’ journey from Canaan to Egypt. The description “wandering Aramean” best fits Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. He is the one who brought his family down to join Joseph. The second journey is Israel’s experience

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of slavery in Egypt and the plagues that led to the miracle of the Exodus. The entry into Canaan is the third movement. The gifts of produce taken from the good earth are proof that they were now in the Promised Land, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” This description of Canaan is found throughout the Pentateuch. It not only contrasts Canaan with the wilderness out of which Israel came but also captures the bountifulness of the land that God gave to his people. The statement expresses a faith grounded in historical events where Yhwh met his people.

Von Rad (1966) proposed that these verses contain the earliest digest of Israel’s faith, a creed or confession. He suggested that the events summarized here are the core of Israel’s salvation history. He claimed the outline of events contained in this creed formed the basic historical outline of what came to be Genesis through Joshua. Carmichael (1969) has called into question the antiquity of this statement, suggesting instead that it was composed by the Deuteronomist for the first fruits festival and is not an ancient independent creed. Nonetheless, it attests the importance of historical recollection to the life of faith, such that the gifts of the present are grounded in Yhwh’s deliverance in the past. The Deuteronomist often used historical recital to challenge the people to remain faithful: from this book of Deuteronomy, to the speeches of Joshua, Samuel and others in the Deuteronomistic History of Israel (the books of Joshua through Kings).

2.5 Choose Life! (30:15–20)

These verses form the concluding section of Moses’ last address. They bring together the core covenant themes of the book: commandment, obedience, blessing and curse, promise and fulfillment. Moses demands a decision from each member of the community: “Choose life or death, but you must choose!

See, I have put before you today life and good, death and bad. This is what I am commanding you today: to love Yhwh your Elohim, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, laws and rules. Then you will live and increase, and Yhwh your Elohim will bless you in the land you are entering in order to possess it. If your heart turns and you do not listen, but you go astray and worship other gods and serve them, I tell you this very day that you will perish. You will not have a long life in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call as witnesses against you today heaven and earth. Life and death I set before you, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your offspring may live, loving Yhwh your Elohim, heeding his voice, clinging to him. For he is your life, your longevity, so you may settle in the land which Yhwh swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (30:15–20)

This final entreaty reveals more clearly than anything else that Deuteronomy is more than just another legal code. It is a covenant document that demands commitment from the people of God. The choice is laid out in all its simplicity. Keeping Yhwh’s covenant yields life and prosperity; breaking the covenant brings death. This bipolar set of options is characteristic of Deuteronomic theology generally and also finds expression in wisdom literature. The life of obedience leads to shalom, the Hebrew notion of complete blessing. To disregard God is foolishness and leads to death. Blessing and curse are the respective outcomes of obedience and disobedience.

The focus of the Deuteronomist is transparent in passages such as this. By framing Moses’ message in the second-person you, he succeeds in merging the

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generation that was about to enter the land with the reader/hearer of Deuteronomy in the 600s BCE when the people were threatened with the loss of their homeland by foreign invasion—indeed, with the you of any generation. It did not take great spiritual insight on the part of seventh-century Judeans to see the connection between the call to faithfulness addressed to the generation of Moses (so that the people could cross the Jordan to enter the land and keep it) and the call to their own faithfulness (so that Judah would not lose the land they already possessed).

Certainly these words became even more meaningful after 587 BCE when the Judeans were in fact exiled from their homeland. And it held out the same promise. If the people renewed their faithfulness, Yhwh would bring them back to the Promised Land. Indeed, Moses’ call to faithfulness becomes timeless. His injunction to obey the covenant today becomes a call to faithfulness in every age.


The book of Deuteronomy has attracted a great deal of scholarly discussion about the nature of Israel’s covenant in relation to extrabiblical covenants. Mendenhall (1955) is the classic description of ancient Middle Eastern covenants in relation to the Hebrew Bible, especially as structured in Deuteronomy, while McCarthy (1978) lays out and annotates the ancient parallel covenant documents. Given the shape of Deuteronomy as a call to covenant faithfulness, it is not surprising that major components of Deuteronomy have parallels in ancient treaty ceremonies that initiated covenant or treaty relationships between two parties. Treaty documents associated with such ceremonies were a permanent record of the conditions of the alliance. The term covenant can be used for both the type of relationship between the parties and the document that defines that relationship.

Certain parallels between Deuteronomy and ancient treaty documents are so close that some scholars have argued that Deuteronomy is explicitly a treaty document such as was used in Hittite and Assyrian covenant ceremonies (see Kline, 1963). Today, this view is considered a bit of an overstatement. Deuteronomy is not itself a treaty document, though most certainly it contains covenant language and major elements of such ancient treaty texts. More likely, Deuteronomy is an anthology of sermons based on the covenant concept.

Ancient treaty documents such as those known from the Hittites and Assyrians were legal texts used to administer conquered kingdoms. Using somewhat antiquated terminology, such an administrative document is usually called a suzerainty treaty, a suzerain being a feudal lord or patron who controlled a vassal, or client, state. The most extensive body of suzerainty treaties comes from the Hittite empire of the Late Bronze Age (circa 1400–1200 BCE). Equally important and closer in time to the Deuteronomist are legal documents from the Neo-Assyrian empire (935–612 BCE) that make extensive use of the treaty form (see Figure 5.2).

Close study of these Hittite and Neo-Assyrian treaty documents has revealed that they have a number of components in common (see ANET, 199–206, 529–54). A complete treaty document would contain the following elements:


• An introduction, sometimes called the preamble, introduces and identifies the parties in the treaty.

• An historical review recalls the history of the relationship between the parties.

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Map of Treaties

FIGURE 5.2 Map of Treaties and Covenants of the Ancient Middle East

• The conditions, or stipulations, are the terms of the treaty. This is really the meat of the document. Among other things, the suzerain demands the vassal’s total loyalty.

• The provisions for publication describe where the treaty document would be stored and when it would be recited in public.

• The list of divine witnesses specifies the gods who would be called on to witness the making of the treaty (equivalent to a notary public today) and enforce any breach of the treaty (the lawyers and courts).

• A list of blessings and curses anticipates the good and bad things that would happen to the vassal if the treaty was kept or broken.


The book of Deuteronomy contains remarkable parallels to the components of ancient treaty documents (Table 5.2). The substantial similarities between Deuteronomy and the ancient treaty form suggest that the Deuteronomist intentionally framed Yhwh’s relationship with Israel in treaty terms. Clearly, the Deuteronomist was influenced by broader ancient Middle Eastern legal traditions and used them to shape the presentation of Yhwh’s bond with Israel. He used the political metaphor of treaty and covenant to conceptualize the spiritual relationship between Yhwh and Israel and specifically as a theocracy.

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TABLE 5.2 Treaty Components of Deuteronomy

Introduction 4:44–49 Moses speaking for Yhwh: “This is the law that Moses set before the Israelites” (4:44). This is the setting for the covenant addresses.
Historical background 5–11 This recollects Israel’s experience at Horeb and in background the wilderness, which is the occasion for Moses to warn the people to be obedient.
Conditions 12–26 The central law code: “These are the laws and rules that you must diligently keep” (12: 1).
Publication 27:1–10 Covenant ceremony: “Write on the stones all the words of this law” (27:8). Covenant renewal every seven years with public reading is specified in 31:10–13.
Divine witnesses 30:19 I call as witnesses against you today heaven and earth” (30:19). Yhwh himself would guard the covenant and enforce it.
Blessings and curses
If you obey Yhwh your God, . . . all these blessings will come upon you” (28:1–2). Chapter 28 spells out the curses.

If Deuteronomy was intentionally made analogous, at least in part, to a suzerainty treaty, the intended effect may be that Yhwh stands in the role of the suzerain and Israel assumes the place of his vassal. Other nations had a human king as their suzerain, but Israel had Yhwh. In other words, Deuteronomy, viewed as a suzerainty treaty, presents Yhwh as the Great King of Israel. Although provision for a human king was given (17:14–20), even that king would be subject to the Torah of the Great King Yhwh.


The wholeness of Deuteronomy is due to its self-contained and unique character within the Pentateuch. It was not created out of a blending of different sources and traditions. Its unity of authorship is revealed by its unifying themes, consistent style, and clear structure.

4.1 Themes

Deuteronomy is perhaps the most deliberately theological book in the Hebrew Bible, if by theological we mean explaining in a systematic and thoughtful way what the nature of God is and what faith entails. The theological teaching of Deuteronomy can be distilled into three phrases.


1. One God. The Deuteronomist affirms a “practical” monotheism: Yhwh is our Elohim, Yhwh alone. He was not concerned with abstract theological formulations. He stated that there was only one God who was interested in Israel. God demonstrated that by divine care in the past. This God demands their undivided loyalty in the present. Yhwh is the one and only God for their future. The people were bound to Yhwh by means of a legal contract, called the covenant. It defined the shape of their loyalty and specified how they would remain in God’s good graces.

2. One people. Deuteronomy is addressed to the people of God as a whole. No distinction is made between southern and northern kingdoms. There are no tribal distinctions. The book presumes that the people of God are unified. The oneness of the people transcends generations. The book is addressed perpetually to the “now” generation. References to today and this day abound. The covenant is made “not with our fathers but with us alive today.” The unity of the people is not based on genetic commonality but on the belief that God called them to be his people. They alone are the people of God, set apart from the rest of the nations and held together because Yhwh, in love, chose them. Sometimes called the “election” of Israel, this notion affirms that these people were singled out by God at his own initiative. That is what makes them special—Yhwh’s “treasured possession” in Deuteronomy’s language (7:6; see also Exodus 19:5, where the same term is used).

3. One faith. Israel got into trouble because it had lost spiritual focus. Local variations in religious practices and the tendency to drift in the direction of Baalism resulted in straying from Yhwh. The various local Baal and Asherah shrines promoted this. “The place Yhwh will choose” became the only worship center. Although left unspecified in the text, the Deuteronomist presumably had Jerusalem in mind. The Deuteronomist demanded uniformity in worship. This could only be enforced if one central sanctuary was officially designated and Yhwh’s festivals were celebrated. Did you notice that Deuteronomy has almost nothing to say about sacrifices and offerings? Devotion would be expressed by loving Yhwh and nurturing a community where right would prevail.


These themes of oneness quite logically support the religious reform efforts of Josiah and his political efforts to reunify the peoples of Yhwh into one nation. Centralization, one deity, one people, one cult in Jerusalem, constitute a consistent ideology that would form the foundation of a rebuilt Israel now that the Assyrian empire has collapsed and the reassertion of Israelite statehood is a possibility.

4.2 Style and Structure

The content of Deuteronomy is presented as an anthology of speeches given by Moses to the Israelites just before they were to take possession of the Promised Land. He counseled and cajoled them, “Be faithful to Yhwh and you will be blessed.” More obviously than any other material in the Hebrew Bible, except perhaps some of the prophets, this material is didactic, pleading, even preachy. Deuteronomy is permeated with such phrases as “with all your heart and soul,” “in order that it may go well with you,” “be thankful,” and “if only you obey the voice of Yhwh your God.” It contains urgent calls to faithfulness and social responsibility.

Deuteronomy was designed to appeal to the hearts and minds of its listeners. The bulk of the book is framed not as a narrative but as a direct address to the people. Although not noticeable in English translation (because you can be either singular or plural), the book vacillates, apparently indiscriminately, between address to individuals (“each of you”) and to the people as a collective (“all of you”). With this vacillating approach, the Deuteronomist targets each person, and—virtually at the same time—the group, suggesting that they are each and every one in this together as the one people of God.

Deuteronomy as we have it is the result of a long process of development and deliberate shaping. That should be no surprise. Almost every book of the Hebrew

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TABLE 5.3 Textual Units in Deuteronomy (boldfaced phrases mark the beginnings of the units)


These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan.
4:44–11:32 This is the torah that Moses put before the Israelites.
12:1–26:19 These are the laws and rules that you must diligently keep.
27:1–28:68 Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows.
29:1–32:52 These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites.
This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death.

Bible was. The editor of Deuteronomy left us some helpful clues to the shape of the book (Table 5.3). The main textual units are easily recognizable because a formula introduces them; the words this is or these are stand as a title at the head of all but one major section.

The nucleus of Deuteronomy is the set of laws in Chapters 12–26. If we visually diagram the book, we see this central set of laws surrounded by concentric sets of material (Figure 5.3). This material reinforces those laws and gives them context. Simplifying matters somewhat, the inner circle of speeches by Moses (5–11 and 27–28) bracket the core laws (12–26) and is itself surrounded by a prologue (1–4) and an epilogue (33–34) containing the farewell of Moses and various appendices. The covenant renewal section (29–32) is the only section that breaks the symmetry.

To a degree, the concentric structure of the book coincides with its composition history. The book was written in stages. The core laws of the central code was probably written first, perhaps as early as the 700s but no later than the reforms of Josiah around 622. The historical prologue and the epilogue were added to the book during the time of Josiah or the Babylonian exile when Deuteronomy was shaped into the prologue to the Deuteronomistic History.

4.3 Deuteronomistic History

Deuteronomy represents a theological tradition that is reflected in other books of the Hebrew Bible, including many of the prophetic books and Joshua through Kings. It is the theological lens through which Israel’s greatest historian focused attention on the national epic. The history of Israel’s monarchy, including the events leading up to the formation of the nation, is contained in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This material is not historiography in a modern social-scientific sense, but then it does not pretend to be. It tells the story of the nation from the theological perspective that Israel prospered or suffered in relation to how obedient or disobedient they were to the covenant. As went their faith, so went their national security and standard of living.


FIGURE 5.3 Structure of Deuteronomy

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FIGURE 5.4 The Deuteronomistic History

The writer of Joshua through Kings is called the Deuteronomistic historian because he derived his basic theology from Deuteronomy. After closely examining the book of Deuteronomy, authorities have suggested that most of the prologue, Chapters 1–3, is in fact the work of the Deuteronomistic historian and not the Deuteronomist himself. Here is how the theory goes. The Deuteronomistic historian, writing at the time of Josiah, took Deuteronomy (which probably only consisted of Chapters 5–26 and 28) and prefaced it with his own historical introduction (what is now Chapters 1–3). He then used all that material as the first part of his magnum opus, the Deuteronomistic History (DH). Some scholars think that the DH was edited later by an exilic theologian who added Deuteronomy 4:1–40, Chapter 27, and Chapters 29–34. Figure 5.4 displays the shape of the DH by this theory.

The Deuteronomistic historian really set out to answer significant questions concerning Israel’s national destiny. First, by writing theological history, he attempted to answer the question, “Why did Israel, the northern kingdom, fall to the Assyrians?” Second, he attempted to shed light on the question, “Why is Josiah trying to reform the religious practices of Judah?” We will examine his answers in RTOT Part 2.


Now, back to the question that we started with. How did the study of Deuteronomy revolutionize our understanding of the Pentateuch? DeWette, a nineteenth-century scholar of the Pentateuch, was the first to recognize that Deuteronomy fits the description of Josiah’s reform program in 2 Kings. He postulated that Deuteronomy was in fact the “book of the law” discovered in the temple. DeWette’s insight prompted a reevaluation of the book and led eventually to the observation of its affinity with the following historical books and its dissimilarity with the Tetrateuch.

The authorship of the book of Deuteronomy is a two-level issue involving the surface setting of the book (what the book portrays itself to be) and the actual setting (when it was actually written). The surface setting of Deuteronomy is evident from the book. What little action there is takes place in Transjordan (the modern Hashemite kingdom of Jordan) just before the people crossed the Jordan River and entered Palestine. The best current estimate is that it would have happened beginning around 1250 BCE. Moses addressed all the people of Israel, urging them to be faithful to the Lord. By so doing, they would ensure prosperity and peace in the new land that they were poised to enter. The speeches contain a reapplication of the Mosaic Torah to these people, updated for a settled-down life in the homeland that Yhwh had

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promised them. Most of the book is made up of speeches by Moses, addressed directly to the Israelites. At the end of the book, the manner of speaking changes to a narrative description of the death of Moses. The leadership role then shifts to Joshua, who becomes Moses’ successor.

However, the compositional setting of the book—that is, when it was written down—differs from its surface setting. The core of Deuteronomy was written sometime during the Israelite monarchy, perhaps as early as the reign of Hezekiah (715–687 BCE) or as late as the reign of Josiah (640–609 BCE). Deuteronomy in some form (probably only the inner core of laws) was the “book of the Torah” that was found in 622 BCE during the religious revival of Josiah. The similarities between the Deuteronomic reform (told in 2 Kings 22–23) and the prescriptions of Deuteronomy are too close to be coincidental. Both involved centralizing worship in one place, celebrating Passover in a particular way, and prohibiting certain specific pagan practices. Furthermore, the phrase “book of the Torah,” found in 2 Kings 22:8, is found in other places where it can only refer to Deuteronomy (for example, Deuteronomy 30:10 and Joshua 1:8 and 8:31–35).

Thus, Deuteronomy exists in two worlds, and both settings must be understood to fully appreciate the book. Set at the time of Moses, it was given its shape during the time of Josiah some five centuries later. Although the core traditions may go back to the Moses of the Exodus, the book as we have it today was shaped some 600 years later. Who, during the reign of Josiah, was responsible for giving the book its shape?

It is hard to pin down Deuteronomy’s author. Evidence from the book suggests that he came from the northern kingdom and reflects its traditions. This is indicated by the terms that he uses, which are consistent with other known northern traditions—for example, Horeb for Sinai and Amorites for Canaanites. Also, many of Deuteronomy’s laws seem to derive from the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22–23:33), which is from the Elohist source and embodies northern perspectives. The close connection between Deuteronomy and the religious reforms supported by Josiah might suggest that the writer was close to the royal court in Jerusalem. The description of the discovery of the law book, as described in 2 Kings 22–23, associates the find with Shaphan, the royal secretary, and Hilkiah, the high priest. Both were trusted associates of King Josiah.

Is it possible to determine exactly who the Deuteronomist was? The specific social background of the author is difficult to determine. The preaching style of Deuteronomy suggests that the book might have been written by northern Levites who warned and encouraged their congregations in periodic covenant renewal ceremonies at the great northern worship centers such as Shechem and Bethel (Von Rad, 1938). According to the Levitical priestly theory, when the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, these Levites fled south, taking with them their oral and written traditions. These then formed the foundation of their preaching in Judah. The Deuteronomist drew on this material for his book. Friedman (1987) believes that the Deuteronomist was a Levitical priest from Shiloh, and he argues that Jeremiah was in fact this Deuteronomist.

Another theory suggests that Deuteronomy came from administrative circles. In Israel, administrators and middle-level politicians tended to arise from scribal circles. Weinfeld (1972) studied what he felt were connections in Deuteronomy to Israel’s wisdom tradition and suggests that Deuteronomy is the product of an ancient Israelite civil service interest. Deuteronomy, he says, is the expression of a governmental

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group interested in shaping the structure and life of the nation. Nicholson (1967) suggests that the writer was deeply influenced by prophets and prophetic movements, especially those in Israel. The book of Deuteronomy certainly does hold a high opinion of prophets. Moses is portrayed as the model of all prophets. Thus, Deuteronomy has elements consistent with priestly, prophetic, royal, and wisdom connections. The multitude of authorship options suggests at the very least that we should be cautious about identifying Deuteronomy with any one social or political interest group in Israel.

Whatever the case, the writer of Deuteronomy was deeply committed to revitalizing the faith and practice of Israel, and he viewed himself as standing in the tradition of Moses. Indeed, virtually the entire book is framed as the very words of Moses. The writer succeeded in constructing a holistic vision of the Israelite community that accounted for all the major participants.

The critical issues of precisely when and where the book was written should not overshadow the overall impression that the book embodies a genuine testimony of Mosaic faith. Admittedly, the seventh-century BCE writer shaped that testimony, being sensitive to the issues of faith and life in the Judah of his time. Nonetheless, he felt that he was presenting the essential thrust of Moses’ message. Although shaping the words that he put in Moses’ mouth, he certainly felt that he was representing the Mosaic tradition faithfully.



1. Uniqueness. In what ways is Deuteronomy different from the other books of the Pentateuch?

2. Oneness. What major themes of Deuteronomy articulate Josiah’s ideology of unification and support his efforts to resurrect the grand state of Israel?

3. Covenant. What is the basic structure of a suzerain–vassal treaty, and what are the similarities between Deuteronomy and ancient Middle Eastern suzerainty treaties?


1. Deuteronomic themes. What themes of Deuteronomy reinforce major themes of Genesis through Numbers? What new themes, perhaps, emerge from Deuteronomy?

2. Treaty metaphor. God used covenant, a notion coming out of the realm of politics and international relations, to define his relationship with Israel. What is the effect and meaning of using this highly political notion, a notion that derives from the realm of international relations, to define the divine–human relationship? What other metaphors, such as parent–child, might have been used?

3. Moses and D. If Deuteronomy was written in the 600s BCE rather than during Moses’ lifetime, how does this affect your reception and appreciation of the book?


One of the basic notions of Deuteronomy is covenant. Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, by D. H. Hillers (1969), is a very readable explanation of this important concept in light of its ancient analogues, and Covenant, by Steven L. McKenzie (2000), traces the concept on into the Christian scriptures. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses, by D. T. Olson (1994), concentrates on the book as moral and spiritual instruction. Deuteronomy: Issues and Interpretations, by A. Rofé (2001), treats major issues in Deuteronomy interpretation.