The Meaning of the Book of Deuteronomy
The book of Deuteronomy is confusing for many. And this is because it seems to repeat a lot of the history of Israel that has already happened as well as many of the laws. I mean there’s another copy of the Ten Commandments and the title of the book itself means “second law”. But there are important differences between the first occurrence of these stories and law and the second. And when you understand the differences, you’ll understand the art and genius of Deuteronomy.
First, by the time we get to Deuteronomy, Moses has lived, breathed, and applied God’s law for 40 years, wandering, leading his people in the wilderness. God’s words have become Moses’ bones. The difference is between learning a language and being a beginner having to look up every work and being so fluent that you can understand poetry, shades of connotations and subtle allusions.
Now we’re ready to understand the genius of Deuteronomy. Far from being a simple repetition of the law, Deuteronomy is a master’s exposition of a lifetime of living and loving the law. It’s the wisdom, the depth of the law.
Second, Deuteronomy is the final speeches of Moses. And this is significant because up to this point in the Bible this is by far the longest direct speech from a character. The last large section that was one characters’ extended speech was Leviticus. Leviticus is almost entirely Gods direct speech. So there’s a shift from God speaking to man, Moses speaking. And why that matters we’ll see in a moment.
The last time the laws were listed it was God speaking them in Exodus and Leviticus. The second time their repeated or explained here, it is a man, Moses explaining them.
There’s been a progression, from God doing all the explaining to Moses. God is growing his people up. God taught our forefathers, then they teach their children, and the children teach their children and so on. And with each passing on the understanding of Gods word gets deeper and richer. And we see the first deep passing on here.
Now to the book. The literary structure of Deuteronomy is designed in three major speeches with an introduction and conclusion.
A. Prologue (1:1-4)
I. First address (1:5-4:43)
II. Second address (4:44-26:19)
III. Third address (29-30)
B. Epilogue: Moses’ Song and Death (31-34)
In the first section Moses reviews, retells Israel’s history, but only part of it. He doesn’t review Abraham or Adam, Joseph or the Exodus. He starts from the end of the time at Mt Sinai brings it up to the present time for the readers, Israel on the plains of Moab, right outside the land of Canaan.
But even out of all that time he focuses on two things: the story of the spies spying out the land, and the relationship between the Israelites and other people’s like the Moabites and the Ammonites.
Now out of all the things Moses could focus on, why these two? Well, because these two scenarios are the same two scenarios that open the Bible is Genesis 3 and 4. Let me show you what I mean.
The story of Israel is the story of the garden of Eden writ large. So just as you have a son of God, Adam, who was given a law and land and he disobeyed and was kicked out, so Israel, called God’s son, is given laws and land and disobeys and is kicked out in Exile. That’s the macrostructure. But here, Moses highlights a few particular correspondences.
Israel is brought to the edge of the land and God instructs them to take it and they refuse, the inverse of the garden where they were told to not take and they took. Then after God says fine you can’t have the land, then the Israelites want to take it, but they are now disallowed and they are defeated, the same sin in the garden, taking something that is not theirs.
The next series of episodes recalled in Deuteronomy has to do with the interactions between different peoples during the 40 years of wandering in the desert. And interestingly, Moses will tell them that some of those peoples are their brothers. For instance in Deuteronomy 2 Moses will say “You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers, the people of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful. Do not contend with them.”
This corresponds to the next episode after the sin in the garden, Cain and Abel, a brother/brother conflict. James B. Jordan has pointed this pattern out. The first sin in the Bible is a sin against God, the second sin is a sin against a brother. And this is the same pattern in Deuteronomy. The first sin is a sin against God in not taking and then trying to take the land, the next scenes have to do with brother/brother conflict, how you relate to your neighbor. So in this section Moses wants to remind the second generation to not duplicate those original sins against God and neighbor but instead Love God and neighbor.
In the second and main section, chapters 4:44 through chapter 26, are. A collection of laws. But not a random collection of laws. They are an art full and wise collection of laws. You see, these laws are organized around The 10 Commandments. I many scholars have noted this arrangement and although there is debate on the precise scenes, where exactly one section ends and the next section begins, the fact that they are organized in order of the 10 Commandments is clear.
But I said they are not just artful but also why, and this is because these are not just repetitions of the 10 Commandments but an explanation of how they apply in a myriad of situations, Moses explains the implication the presuppositions of these laws. He speaks as someone who has lived with pondered and prayed over and applied these commandments for 40 years.
Bernard Bell provides a wonderful summary of Deuteronomy’s application of the different ten commandments. For instance, in the section about the 5th commandment, honoring father and mother, Moses applies it not just to your own father and mother but to respecting authorities. Or commandment 8, thou shalt not steal, applies also to property violations.
Well, after the explanation of the law, in the next section, chapters 29-30, Israel renews their covenant and God says, like Adam, he is placing good and evil before them and they are to choose the good.
In the last section in the book, chapters 31-34, Moses will speak two poems, once again, just like there are two poems at the beginning of the Bible. The first poem will be to Israel from Moses, like Adam’s poem about his wife when she is created. And the second poem is a blessing on the people that will foretell their future, just like God’s poem in Genesis 3 about the future of Adam and Eve, and about how one day God will give a son who will crush the head of the serpent.
In the final chapter, Moses will die, being barred from entering the land. And once again, just like in Genesis, God had put two angels with flaming sword guarding the way back into the land, so here, the leader must die to enter back into the land to be with God.