After receiving the law at Mt Sinai, Israel spent almost forty years in the wilderness region between Sinai and Canaan. During this time the adults died and a new generation grew up (cf. Num 14:28-35). Moses’ repetition of the law for this new generation is recorded in the book called Deuteronomy (from two Greek words, deuteros, meaning ‘second’, and nomos, meaning ‘law’). Concerning the authorship of the book and its relation to the previous four books see PENTATEUCH.
Characteristic style Deuteronomy does more than simply repeat the law; it expounds the law, giving it a new emphasis. It shows that God wants more than legal correctness. He wants his people to obey him because they want to, not because they are forced to. He wants the relationship with his people to be one of warmth and love (Deut 6:3,5-7; 7:7-8,11; 8:5). The book’s style is that of the preacher rather than the lawgiver; its audience is the people as a whole rather than the priests and judges (Deut 6:8-9; 8:6; 10:12-13). The basis of Deuteronomy is the covenant between Yahweh and his people. In his sovereign grace, God chose Israel to be his people, and promised them Canaan for a national homeland (Deut 7:7; 8:1; 9:4- 5). Israel could do nothing but accept God’s grace and promise to serve him with loving obedience (Deut 5:6-7; 6:1-3; 10:12-13; see COVENANT). In form Deuteronomy is similar to the normal covenant documents of the ancient Near East. When a sovereign overlord made a covenant with his subject peoples, he prepared a treaty document that declared his sovereignty over them and laid down the order of life he required of them. This is what God did with his people Israel, using Moses as his mediator.
Contents of the covenant document Usually a treaty document began with an historical introduction in which the overlord, after announcing his name, recounted all he had done for his people. Deuteronomy opens with God’s recounting all he had done for Israel (1:1-3:29) and urging the people to be loyal to him in return (4:1-43). After the introduction came a statement of the covenant’s basic requirements. For Israel the basic principles were in the form of ten commandments (4:44-5:33). Love would enable the people to do God’s will. There was to be no treachery through forming alliances with foreign powers (foreign gods) (6:1-25). God was giving his people a good land, but they had to remember that life depends on more than the food people eat. It depends on spiritual forces found only in God (7:1-8:20). The people therefore were not to be stubborn (9:1-10:11), but were to have humble purity of heart towards God and towards their fellows (10:12-11:32). Having established the basic principles, the treaty document then set out the detailed laws. Ancient custom allowed treaties to be updated from time to time to suit changing circumstances.
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In the case of the Israelites, they would no longer be together as a vast crowd moving through the wilderness, but would split up, spread out and settle down in an agriculturally fertile country. Moses’ repetition of the law therefore included adjustments to fit in with the people’s new way of life (e.g. 11:10-11; 12:20-22; 14:24- 27; 18:6-8). The updated covenant document dealt with a number of matters, including faithfulness in worship (12:1-13:18), honesty in religious and social matters (14:1-16:17), justice in government (16:18-19:21), respect for human life (20:1-21:23), sexual purity (22:1-23:25), protection for the disadvantaged in society (24:1-25:4), and integrity in family relations, business dealings and religious duties (25:5-26:15). The two parties then declared their loyalty to the covenant (26:16-19). In keeping with the form of ancient treaties, the covenant also listed the rewards and punishments (blessings and cursings) that people could expect. If they were obedient, they would enjoy increased benefits from the overlord; if they were disobedient, they would suffer severe penalties (27:1-28:68). Having stated the conditions under which the covenant operated, Moses then formally renewed it (29:1- 30:20). A further feature of the covenant was the twofold provision for its maintenance. First, the people had to assemble periodically to hear it read; second, the document had to be kept in the central shrine, where it served as an absolute standard of reference (31:1-29). Moses summarized the covenant’s contents in a song that the people were to memorize and sing (31:30-32:47). He brought the ceremony, and his leadership of Israel, to a fitting close by announcing prophetic blessings on each of Israel’s twelve tribes (32:48-33:29). After viewing the promised land, he died peacefully (34:1-12).