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
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:
20:1-20: War: This chapter can be disturbing to modern people and we ought not to explain it away. But how ought we to think about this subject, when war is presented as a religious duty? First, many commentators believe that discussion of war, such as chapter 20, reflect the writers of Deuteronomy coming to grips with Israel’s defeat in 587 BCE and the military strength of Assyria and Babylon. This is a theological and ideological discussion of war not a historically accurate discussion of war. One of the main points here is that God is in control rather than humans. Victory comes from God not human maneuvers and planning. Ronald Clements thinks this chapter also represents Deuteronomy’s attempt to reform royal military practices by describing a militia over royal professional troops and by placing limits on “the acquisitive purposes of royal warfare”(206) Notice that there are two speeches to be given to the troops. First a priest outlines that Israel is dependent upon God for any success. The second speech allows exemptions from service. Why do you think that is? Is this an issue of fairness? Or is it an attempt to preserve the troops moral by removing those who might be less committed to the cause? Historically some have interpreted this as allegory. (John Bunyan, The Holy War ). In this reading, the text is actually about the conflict between good and evil over the human soul. Spiritual warfare rather then actual warfare is the subject matter. What do you think?
21:1-23 Murder, Capital Offenses and Inheritance: There are six separate issues in this chapter. In verses 1-9 the problem is what to do about a dead body which seems to be murder but no murderer can be discovered. Additionally there is the concern that holiness be preserved. Guilt can affect the rest of society and so must be addressed.
verses 10-14 concern the status of women taken in war. This situation is distasteful to us but notice how the authors think about this. Given that women were taken captive in war (and not killed) they are allowed a period to mourn and is fully integrated into the communities life. She is treated as an equal member of the household and not as a slave.
verses 15-17: the status of the firstborn son is not to be changed if his mother is not the favorite wife. Again, difficult for us to understand but this keeps the man from “punishing” a wife by depriving her son of his inheritance. In addition it keeps younger wives from unduly upsetting the household.
verses 18-21:Remember Israel’s belief that the actions of one person could and would affect the larger community. And recall the the household was, in those days, the primary economic unit of the society. But also notice the checks on parents- both parents, not just the father. They may only report the son to the elders. The elders were to decide.
Verses 22-23: Again the concern for defiling the land. And a restraint on a rulers inclination to leave a body displayed as a warning. This is the origin of Paul’s comments in Galatians 3:3.
22:1-30 Maintaining the Divine Order of Life: These laws seem to us to not have much in common. In some ways all these laws are concerned with what might be called boundaries. Verses 1-4 have to do with property ownership and boundaries. Verse 5 reflects Israel’s belief that gender/sexual boundaries were to be kept. Some think that this might be a prohibition against an idolatrous cult practice. Note there is not punishment for breaking this law. Verses 6-7, much like the preservation of fruit trees in 20:19 and concern for “fallen” animals in 22:4, display an often overlooked (by modern people) concern for the welfare of animals. Verse 8 is concerned to prevent accidents and preserve life. Verse 9-11 are concerned with boundaries and preserving what was understood to be natural boundaries. We no longer know why the tassels on the four corners of a cloak was important.(v12) Verses 13-30 are concerned with marriage and sexual relations. Again the boundaries of gender and sex were important to preserve. In addition we need to remember that women were not accorded equal status in society and were treated, legally at least, as the property of her father and husband.This was an extremely patriarchal society. These rules primarily protect the “property rights” of men, they also served to protect the interests (and lives) of women. While we would find making a rape victim marry her attacker, in the ancient world a woman who was raped was considered unmarriagable. By legislating marriage, the law serves to protect the financial and social and physical well being of the woman.
E. 22:1-30 Maintaining the Divine Order of Life
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.