You will find an introduction and outline to Deuteronomy, here.
A prayer to use before reading:
God of mercy, you promised never to break your covenant with us. Amid all the changing words of our generation, speak your eternal Word that does not change. Then may we respond to your gracious promises with faithful obedient lives; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (from the Book of Common Worship)
I. Deuteronomy 1:1-2:29 Introduction to Israel’s Story
II. Deuteronomy 4:1-11:32 The Commandments of God
III. Deuteronomy 12:1-26:19 The Deuteronomic Law Code
A. 12:1-14:21 Laws dealing with the Unity and Purity of Worship
13:1-18 The Perpetual Temptation: Apostasy, cont. Prophets are not easily controlled and there can be false prophets as well as true prophets. This concern about false prophets is consistent with Deuteronomy’s concern for the proper worship of God. The authors must have felt the threat of false gods was real and serious. Loyalty to God was presented as more important than any other loyalties, even to one’s family. Remember that this text receives it’s final form after the fall of Jerusalem, when Israel was in grave danger of being absorbed into the Babylonian religion. What does this sort of fear based intolerance mean to us today? Is this to be used as a warning against over reaction and fear? Or as a call to purity and faithfulness?
14:1-21 Maintaining the Holiness of God’s Name: These rules can be perplexing for modern people. In the ancient world, people were concerned to define and categorize holy and profane. Israel’s God is holy and as God’s people, Israel is to be holy also. Therefore all of life, including everyday life needed to be properly maintained and protected. Holiness in ancient times had a physical as well as spiritual connotation. So places, persons and things could be holy. Holiness and the unclean or profane did not belong together and so careful boundary keeping was in order. Also scholars think that some of these commands are given to forbid particular Canaanite rituals. Boiling a kid in its mother’s milk may have been a Canaanite practice. When Israel was a nation, this may have been easier to maintain as part of a group. But when Israel is scattered after the exile, attention to detail became important as a marker of identity and served to limit interactions with pagan gods and practices.
B. 14:22-16:17 Regulations concerning the Sacred Divisions of Time:
14: 22-15:23 The Worship of God in the Sacred Order of Time: Now the text discusses events that happen at particular times. The tithe serves several purposes. It helps the people remember that God is the one in control of the cycle of life. They work and produce but first they have received. Also the tithe is a source of food for the Levites and the poor. It is also a time for remembering and rejoicing for the gifts from God. Notice that a provision is made for those who live too far away from the central sanctuary. Now the holiness of the tithe is not the items themselves but the relationship between the person and God.
15:1-11 is concerned with debts. The text assumes a more commercial society, where there were commercial transactions of land and property. While there is the recognition of changing social and economic structures there is also concern to maintain the traditions and practices of a kinship based society by concern for the poor and less fortunate. The reason for lending to another Israelite is not economic advantage for the lender but helping one’s fellow Israelite. What should the balance between commerce, laws and compassion and conscience be?
15:12-18 Slavery is assumed in these verses. The emphasis, again, is on compassion to kinsmen. There were various ways people could become slaves but this section is only concerned with kinsmen and women who are slaves due to debt.
15:19-23 Again we are reminded of the need to dedicate the first born and the first fruits to God. Israel acknowledges that God is the giver of life.
16:1-17 Festivals: These festivals are somewhat changed from their earlier descriptions. The feast of Passover and of unleavened bread are joined here. Both were spring time festivals. but Passover was more connected with sheep farmers and the Unleavened bread festival was more connected with the cereal farmers. Now the authors join these two festivals, perhaps as a way to bridge distinctions of economy, life style and religious observance between the two groups. Notice that earlier, Passover had been primarily a family festival but now it is a public celebration as well. Also scholars think that there were, in a broad sense, common agricultural festivals celebrated by the pagan inhabitants of the land and ancient Israel. Israel intentionally appropriated these festivals and tied them to Israelite beliefs and practices. The agricultural aspects of the Feast of Weeks and Feast of Booths (as well as Passover) were preserved but also a deeper theological meaning was given as Israel developed a regular pattern of festivals and worship.
C. 16:18-18:22 Public Authority and Leadership: Now we move to a new section which is concerned with authority and leadership. In a basic way these grow out of the commandment to honor one’s parents. The family was the basic kin group and serves as the basis for other societal structures. Israel had four basic areas of public authority, the Judiciary, the Levitical priests, the monarchy and the prophets. Each of these was thought to be necessary but how they related to each other was not made clear. There was a need to figure out how to resolve conflicts of authority between these groups. Notice how the monarchy is not privileged over the other groups.
16:18-22 We are not told who appoints the judges, was it the community or was it the monarchy? But notice the emphasis on fairness and impartiality. Notice again the need to dismantle pagan shrines. Perhaps these shrines had functioned as places where legal matters were settled by pagan peoples.
IV Deuteronomy 27:1-30:20 Epilogue
V. Deuteronomy 31:1-34:12 Appendix
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.