Deuteronomy is the fifth of the five books of Torah. Its name comes from the Greek and means “second law”. The Hebrew name for this book- devarim, words- comes from the first sentence of the book, “These are the words…”.
Deuteronomy is written as a series of speeches given by Moses as Israel is poised to enter the promised land. This book contains narrative, exhortation, liturgy, law and poetry. There are some central themes of Deuteronomy to notice as we read it. Covenant is, of course, central. (The place where the covenant was given is Sinai in the other books of Torah but called Horeb in Deuteronomy. ) God is the one true God of Israel and they have a unique relationship. Also notice that the teachings of Deuteronomy are accessible to all. Deuteronomy’s teaching is not hidden or reserved for certain people, it is addressed to all Israel. Moses is an important figure in the story and is presented as a model leader. There is also an emphasis on the centralization of worship. Notice the themes of God, Israel as the people chosen by God and loved by God, the concern that Israel not forget or be disloyal to God and the concern for justice.
The laws given in Deuteronomy are related to the laws given earlier in Torah, there are differences. For example Exodus 21:2-6 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18 both agree that slaves should be set free after 7 years. But Deuteronomy says the slaves should have compensation and Exodus does not. It appears that the law in Deuteronomy reflects some changes brought on by new social and political circumstances.
The language of Deuteronomy is different that the rest of Torah. The style is rhetorical, it “sounds” like preaching with repetition,and exhortation.
Determining the date of Deuteronomy’s writing is difficult. Deuteronomy seems to have a long and complex history. In general, there is a section of the book that many scholars believe is the “Book of Teaching” which was discovered during Josiah’s reign (c 621 bce)and described in II Kings 22 and 23. We don’t know how old that portion of the text is. It may be connected to Hezekiah’s reforms (715-687 bce)(II Kings 18)after the fall of the Northern Kingdom. Some believe an early form of the text was written during the period of the monarch (c 8th century bce) and addressed to the Northern Kingdom. These centuries of Israel’s history are complex. Here is a simple timeline. Here is a survey of ancient Israel’s history. And here is another resource.
What we can say is Deuteronomy has a long and complex history, likely the text was revised and edited over a long period of time. Deuteronomy is the last book of Torah but it is also the first book of the Deuteronomistic history found in the former prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings). Deuteronomy acts to link these two sections.
Deuteronomy, like many Old Testament texts, is addressed to several generations- from the people ready to take possession of the land until the post exhilic people thinking seriously about who they are and how the arrived there.
Torah is often translated as “law” but that translation is too narrow. “Teaching”, “exposition”, “proclamation”, “revelation” and even “good news” can also be used to describe Torah. Keep these in mind as we read Deuteronomy. “Israel is to love God solely because God first loved them.” (Anderson, 341) Israel is both separated from other nations and chosen for service by God’s choosing of them.
Deuteronomy can be outlined in various ways but we will follow Ronald Clements outline found in the New Interpreter’s Bible.
I. Deuteronomy 1:1-2:29 Introduction to Israel’s Story
A. 1:1-5 Editorial Preface
B. 1:6-45 Faith Affirmed, Tested, and Judged
C. 1:46-3:29 The First Campaigns- Peaceful and Military
II. Deuteronomy 4:1-11:32 The Commandments of God
A. 4:1-43 The Great Summons to Obedience
B.4:44-5:5 Introduction to the Covenant Law
C.5:6-21 The Ten Commandments, The Covenant Rule
D. 5:22-11:32 Mosaic Exhortations
III. Deuteronomy 12:1-26:19 The Deuteronomic Law Code
A. 12:1-14:21 Laws dealing with the Unity and Purity of Worship
B. 14:22-16:17 Regulations concerning the Sacred Divisions of Time
C. 16:18-18:22 Public Authority and Leadership
D. 19:1-21:23 Matters of Life and Death
E. 22:1-30 Maintaining the Divine Order of Life
F. 23:1-25:19 Matters of General Conduct
G. 26:1-19 Liturgy and Thankfulness
IV Deuteronomy 27:1-30:20 Epilogue
A. 27:1-10 The Law is Both Blessing and Curse
B. 27:11-26 Behavior Not Permitted in Israel
C. 28:1-68 God’s Order: Blessing and Curse
D. 29:1-30:20 The Great Farewell Address of Moses
V. Deuteronomy 31:1-34:12 Appendix
A. 31:1-29 Preparations for Life Under the Law of Moses
B. 31:30-32:52 The Song of Moses
C. 33:1-29 The Blessing of Moses
D. 34:1-12 The Death of Moses
Read More About It.
The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.
Anderson, Bernhard W. “Leviticus” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Clements, Ronald E. “The Book of Deuteronomy”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2 Keck, Leander E., ed. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.
Hallo, William W. “Deuteronomy and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.
Nelson, Richard D. “Deuteronomy” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Plaut, W. Gunther “Deuteronomy” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.
“Weinberg, Dudley, Gunther Plaut, “Introducing Deuteronomy” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.