I often get asked what my favorite book of the Bible is. The real answer is (it is not the one people want to hear): I don’t know. A number of books come to mind but which of these would be my favorite is hard to decide. Here is what I do know: Deuteronomy is not one of them; it never makes it to this list. And yet it is a book that is truly foundational for the rest of the Old Testament. So maybe I need to rethink this.
Deuteronomy can be thought of as the capstone of the Torah and it is the measuring stick used both by the prophets when they condemn Israel’s faithlessness and by the historical books (Joshua through Kings). For this reason, these historic books are sometimes even referred to as “Deuteronomistic history.”
Daniel Bock, whose commentary on Deuteronomy I recently finished reading, has this to say about its theological importance:
Inasmuch as this book offers the most systematic presentation of theological truth in the entire Old Testament, we may compare its place to that of Romans in the New Testament. (Bock 2012:25)
The general editor of this commentary series has obviously misread this; in his preface, he states:
At one point he claims it is “the most systematic presentation of theological truth” in the entire Bible, rivaled perhaps only by Paul’s Romans. (Ibid.:13)
So probably not even Romans can keep up with Deuteronomy? Not quite. Bock’s own statement, the first quote, is more realistic than this. Even so, I don’t think I agree. Genesis and especially Isaiah come to mind as theological statements matching or surpassing Deuteronomy. Isaiah may not be very systematic but it certainly contains an enormous amount of theological truth. Still, Bock’s claim did give me a reason to consider Deuteronomy and spend some time with this book.
There is a second reason why I decided to spend some time studying Deuteronomy. In the past, I have occasionally been asked to teach this book. I have always declined because I would need time to prepare. By the time an invitation comes, it is already too late to make that time available. So I am being proactive here and giving myself a head start – just in case I get asked again.
A Formal Agreement: Suzerainty Covenant
There is one thing that has always fascinated me about Deuteronomy. It clearly copies the form of a formal treaty in use at the time: that of a covenant between a king and his vassal, usually a conquered nation or its ruler. A number of such treaty texts have been found, dating to the second millennium BC, and they show remarkable similarity in structure to Deuteronomy. If you have attended an SBS, this should sound familiar to you, but for the sake of my other readers, let me include this structure here.
I first learned about this years before I did the SBS when I picked up a book at a flea market about this subject. It was, therefore, one of my earliest discoveries (we are talking early 1980s) about the background of the Bible, one through which an entire book of the Bible suddenly made a lot more sense to me.
Originally, this treaty form, often called a suzerainty covenant, developed in the area of international politics and diplomacy. It was an attempt to find a way out of the perennial cycle in which a powerful kingdom or empire would subdue a nation, have it rebel, and then subdue it again. A formal treaty ordered the relationship between the two nations and offered an alternative to brute force. As such, it represented a step forward in international politics.
The rough outline of such a covenant document would look like this (in brackets, I include the corresponding section in the book of Deuteronomy):
Preamble to the actual covenant text, which often includes the mediator (Dt. 1:1-5).
Historical Prolog. This section recalls the good things the king has done for his new vassal. For Israel, this includes the exodus from Egypt, God’s provision in the desert, and the initial victories over the kings east of the Jordan, Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan (Dt. 1:6-4:43; this is the first speech by Moses in this book).
Stipulations. The third section details the obligations of both parties to the covenant. In the case of Deuteronomy, there is a general section with a call for commitment to the covenant (Dt. 5-11), followed by specific regulations (Dt. 12-26). This is part of the second speech by Moses, which runs until Dt. 29:1.
Sanctions in the form of curses and blessings. Here, the consequences of faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the covenant are listed. This part corresponds to chapter 27-29 in Deuteronomy.
Arrangements for the continuity of the covenant relationship (Dt. 31:9-32:47). This would normally include:
- Depositing a copy of the treaty text in the sanctuary of the vassal nation (Dt. 31:24-26)
- The public reading of the treaty text at regular intervals (in Deuteronomy, it is every seven years; Dt. 31:9-13)
Witnesses to the treaty, who could be called upon in case of covenant breaches. This would normally be the gods of the king and of his new vassal. For obvious reasons, this does not work for the covenant between God and Israel. In this case, the witnesses include:
- Heaven and earth (Dt. 30:19; Dt. 31:28)
- “This book of the law” (Dt. 31:26)
- The unique form of a prophetic song (in Dt. 32), also meant as a witness (Dt. 31:19)
The third speech of Moses, Deuteronomy 29:2-30:20 (or 31:8), does not match the treaty structure. Instead, it takes the form of a ceremony in which the covenant is renewed. This means it is still directly related to the treaty and as a result, it includes several of the elements listed above.
The book finishes with Moses speaking a prophetic blessing over the tribes of Israel (Dt. 33) and with a report of his death (Dt. 34). These sections do not have a counterpart in the standard outline of a suzerainty covenant.
It is fascinating that God would take this existing human format to formalize his special relationship with the people of Israel.
A Few New Things I Learned about the Book I
One new insight I gained through spending time with this book also relates to its structure. Deuteronomy can be understood as an exposition of the Ten Commandments, in order. In other words, its structure follows these “Ten Words,” as they are called in the text (Dt. 4:13, 10:4; see also Ex. 20:1 and Dt. 5:22). They are stated in Deuteronomy 5, at the beginning of the second speech; their exposition begins in chapter 6. Exposition is at times too strong a word; often, it looks more like a loose arrangement of thematically related commandments in each section.
I am following Walter Kaiser (2016) here, who takes the opening statement (“I am the LORD, your God”) as the first of the ten words and combines what are often considered two commandments into one: no other god, no graven image. The structure looks like this:
- He is the LORD (Dt. 6:1-11:32). Fear, love, serve, and obey him. In one word, this is about commitment: love him back. This section could also be understood as a general introduction or as an exposition of the first commandment: no other gods. Restated as a positive: make him your god and love him only, which you do by keeping his commandments.
- No other gods and no graven image (Dt. 12:1-13:18). This section imposes one place as the only place of worship as an antidote to idolatry with its multiple gods, images, and places of worship.
- Taking the LORD’s name in vain (Dt. 14:1-29). Since this chapter deals with unclean animals and the tithe, the link to the third commandment is not clear. Perhaps we are to think of the positive counterpart to the prohibition: sanctify his name (cf. the Lord’s Prayer: “hallowed be thy name”), which would include giving the tithe and abstaining from unclean animals.
- Keeping the Sabbath (Dt. 15:1-16:17). This is mostly about the Sabbath year and the three main festivals: sacred time.
- Honoring father and mother (Dt. 16:18-18:22) is enlarged to cover leadership in other areas and justice, even though not all the material fits (prohibition of sacred poles, Dt. 16:21-22; bringing a blemished sacrifice, Dt. 17:1; perhaps the link here is “honoring”, in these cases, God).
- Murder (Dt. 19:1-22:8). Here, the thematic link is strong, and the discussion of blood guilt and witnesses does indeed serve as an exposition of the commandment. The war laws in Deuteronomy 20 are more loosely related.
- Adultery (Dt. 22:9-23:14). Not all the material fits but there is a focus on marriage and sexual issues.
- Stealing (Dt. 23:15-24:7). The organizing principle in this section appears to be property issues.
- False testimony (Dt. 24:8-25:4). Even more than in section 3, the thematic link is not clear. Some of this material more readily fits the previous one (property issues). Kaiser calls this section “Just Dealings”.
- Coveting (Dt. 25:5-26:19). Kaiser calls this section “Honesty and Duty”. Again, the thematic links are at best quite loose.
It is not a perfect principle of organization, but there is at least a tendency to arrange the material according to this framework.
A Few New Things I Learned about the Book II
Here are a few more things I picked up:
1. In Deuteronomy, we get to know Moses as pastor. He is not laying down the law but is pleading with the people to live according to this covenantal agreement. It is for their own good. Moses, still the shepherd he became in the land of Midian, pours out his pastoral heart for his flock.
2. What do pastors do? Among other things, they preach sermons. They expound and exhort and challenge and encourage. This is exactly what Deuteronomy does and what the book is. It is a sermon preached by Moses, his last one. In it, he explains the law; this makes it an expository sermon:
Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law… (Dt. 1:5)
3. You have probably heard it before but it is worth repeating: law is a poor translation for the Hebrew word Torah, even though it is translated like this even in the New Testament. Instruction or teaching would be better. Roughly a third of the Torah consists of stories and therefore does not fit the category of “law” at all. Even the book of Deuteronomy does not present itself to us as a legal text or a collection of commandments. It is first and foremost a speech and an expository sermon. On top of this, the sermon is embedded in historical narrative. In other words, we are told the story of Moses preaching this sermon. Deuteronomy is not his script. Strictly speaking, then, like Genesis and much of Exodus, Deuteronomy is also a historical narrative.
The name we use for this book means Second Law but this is also a poor choice. First, as is now clear, it is not a law book. Second, it is not something new or different that can therefore be considered second; it is an explanation of the first (or only) version of Torah.
4. If Deuteronomy conveys one thing besides love for and commitment to God I think it would be justice. It imparts a passion for what must be one of God’s own central values:
Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Dt. 16:20)
Deuteronomy is not an exhaustive or complete overview of everything that is right or wrong. Such an overview is not and cannot be its aim. Rather, it seeks to convey a heart attitude toward God and toward humans in order to build a society that is thoroughly shaped by this value: justice, only justice.
That alone makes this a book worth studying!
Block, D. I. (2012), The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan)
Standard Bible Society (2001), The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society)
W. C. Kaiser, Jr (2016), “Deuteronomy, Book of” in J. D. Barry et. al. (eds), The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press)