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Deuteronomy, The Book of


The book of Deuteronomy received its title from the Greek translation of Deuteronomy 17.18, where the Hebrew word indicating “copy” has been understood as meaning “second law” (deuteronomion, hence “Deuteronomy”); in Hebrew it is called dĕbārîm, “words,” from the opening verse. Despite the misunderstanding, this is a good description of a book whose main part is a second corpus of laws given to Israel through Moses, supplementing those given at Horeb (see 29.1). This second corpus was delivered to the Israelites in the plains of Moab on the eve of their entry into the land of Canaan. The central part of the book lies between 4.44 and 30.20, which must once have formed its beginning and ending. Deuteronomy 29.1 describes them as “the words of the covenant [between God and Israel],” and 4.45 describes them as made up of “decrees, statutes, and ordinances.” Presenting “law” or Torah (Hebr. tôrâ) is the major concern of the book as it formulates the covenant between God and Israel, the basis for the nation's life in the land of Canaan. Because such laws are to be found primarily in chaps. 12–26, the material of 4.44–11.32 can be seen as a general introduction made up of Moses' exhortations in the form of long speeches directing Israel to obey the laws; 27.1–30.20 is an epilogue with admonitions, warnings, and curses against failing to do so. The whole of the book may be described as “preaching law”: often the laws themselves take the central place, but at other times a passionate preaching and admonitory manner are foremost.

The laws at the heart of the book are in many cases laws in our familiar juridical sense, specifying offenses and defining the appropriate punishments for them. At other times, however, they are essentially religious instructions and regulations for worship, as in the festival calendar of 16.1–17, or an even broader type of ethical admonition and instruction, as in the Ten Commandments of 5.6–21. The speeches broaden this sense of the demands for godly living still further by emphasizing the need for a right attitude toward God and society. Consequently, there is much urgent warning to remember God and his dealings with Israel, not to forget the divine gifts, and to love God with a deep love in the heart (esp. 6.5).

The book thus aims to provide both the framework for a national constitution of Israel and a basic summary of every citizen's rights and duties, as well as to exhort the proper feelings and attitudes toward God and fellow citizens; it strongly endeavors to bring all of life—its private, social, and more openly religious aspects—under an awareness of obligation and duty toward God.


The sources of the book can be determined only with a degree of probability, since in many cases there is limited evidence on which to base conclusions. Clearly, a significant part of the central law collection in chaps. 12–26 repeats, with additions and modifications, many of the laws given earlier in the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20.22–23.19). Approximately half of the laws are covered, and in a way that shows the Deuteronomic version to be later, either fuller or adapted to a more complex economic and social order. These laws provide a handbook for administration in civil or criminal cases where wrongs have been perpetrated and society must act against the wrongdoers. Why all the cases present in the earlier laws are not dealt with remains unclear.

The book's brief historical framework presupposes an earlier Pentateuchal narrative tradition, which scholars have usually assigned to the sources J and E. Where a few traces of the P (Priestly) source are to be found, these are thought to have been added after the main book of Deuteronomy had been completed. The detailed festival calendar similarly presupposes earlier forms of this material (Exod. 23.14–17; 24.18–23), now elaborated extensively (see Feasts and Festivals). We must assume that much of the contents of Deuteronomy rests on far older tradition, partly oral and partly written, which has not otherwise survived in biblical tradition.

The consistency of style and continuity of dominant themes suggests strongly that there was a community of scribes and legislators, often loosely described as the Deuteronomists or the Deuteronomic School, who composed the present work. This undoubtedly took place over a long period of time, perhaps as much as a century, for the book shows signs of having been elaborated, adapted, and extended until it attained its present form.

Most important from a literary perspective is the variety of patterns of addresses to the audience, which is variously referred to in the singular and the plural. In all cases, however, the reader is assumed to be an ordinary Israelite, rather than a priest, prophet, or administrator; the book is addressed to the laity, both men and women. Furthermore, it is evident that this lawbook of Deuteronomy provided the opening part of the historical narrative of Israel's fortunes as a nation, which is continued in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. This corpus has come to be known as the Deuteronomic (or Deuteronomistic) History because it presupposes throughout the lawbook of Deuteronomy as the primary constitution of Israel, which is frequently referred to as the “law” and sometimes as “the covenant.” Deuteronomy 1.1–4.43 can best be regarded as an introduction to the whole work consisting of both law and historical narrative. Only at a late stage was this lawbook detached from its subsequent history and combined with the other laws and traditions about Israel's origins, now found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, in order to compose the Pentateuch. This must have taken place after the Babylonian exile, in order to bring together in one work all the primary instructional material about the origins, nature, and responsibilities of Israel.

Date of Composition.

We read in 2 Kings 22.8–20 that a lawbook was found in the Jerusalem Temple while the Temple was undergoing repairs in the eighteenth year of the reign of King Josiah. The authors of this narrative and of the account of the subsequent kingdomwide reform of worship undertaken in accordance with this lawbook (2 Kings 23) intend it to be understood as the lawbook of Deuteronomy in some form. Since 1805, when the German scholar W. M. L. de Wette briefly noted the point, scholars have recognized that the date of this reform (622 BCE) has some bearing on the date of the composition of Deuteronomy. The main part of the book was most likely composed during the previous half‐century, in the reigns of Manasseh (696–642 BCE) and Josiah (639–609 BCE). A probable time is the early years of the latter's reign, when the century‐long Assyrian domination of Judah and Israel was coming to an end. Other elements of the book were composed in the later years of Josiah, and it was undoubtedly still being supplemented after his death in 609 BCE.

This period can be viewed confidently as the time when Deuteronomy was composed, and serves to explain many of its most distinctive features. Although the book evinces an air of crisis that has not passed, it does not presuppose the catastrophes that took place in the years of Babylonian rule, when the Temple was destroyed and the Davidic dynasty removed (587/586 BCE). It regards the land of Israel, the demand for national unity (“all Israel”), the gift of kingship, and the very “name” of God dwelling in the sanctuary as the supreme spiritual endowments of the nation. These precious institutions are threatened and may even have been neglected, but clearly they had not been lost when the major part of the book was composed. It is, when viewed comprehensively, a last appeal to Israel to regain its sense of a God‐given destiny, which Mesopotamian imperialism and internal apostasy were weakening perilously.

Distinctive Feature.

A distinctive feature of the book is its stress on the three great unities. First, Israel is one people, which Moses can address as such (Deut. 5.1, 6.4, etc.), and which is viewed as remaining one through all its subsequent generations. Second, it must worship one God alone, the God who reveals himself to Moses on Mount Horeb; this finds expression in the great formulation (the Shema) “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (6.4). This should not be understood as originally implying that there is only one God (see Monotheism), though it later came to be interpreted in this fashion. Rather, it declares that the Lord (Yahweh) is a deity who is not to be worshipped alongside, or in conjunction with, any other deity. Furthermore, though there were many sanctuaries where the Lord God was worshipped, this was not to be taken as implying that he existed in different forms or manifestations, as was the case with Baal. The third great unity is the sole place of worship where an altar is to be set up and sacrifices offered (12.5–14). This is described as “the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there” (12.5). This location is not further defined, but Jerusalem was obviously intended and is later identified by the historians of the Deuteronomic school (1 Kings 8.16–21; etc.).

These three great unities of people, God, and sanctuary form the visible and outward expression of the one purpose of God first revealed to the ancestors of Israel (6.3) and confirmed and realized through the covenant made through Moses on Horeb (5.1–5). The concern for centralization of worship and a kingdomwide consistency of religious observance provide keynotes for all that the book of Deuteronomy understands by “law” (tôrâ). To tolerate, let alone to encourage, the worship of other gods is capital offense (13.1–18; 17.2–7). Thus, an insistence on the purity of religious observance pervades all the Deuteronomic legislation, and appears to have given rise to the desire to control the administration of worship. Even the king, the supreme head of the people, must subject himself and his conduct wholly to the terms laid down in the Deuteronomic law (17.18–20). This concern to regulate the administration and observance of all forms of religion is extended further to cover the activity of prophets, who fulfill a role like that of Moses (18.15). The danger of false prophets is noted (13.1–5; 18.20–22), but the true prophet's teaching conforms to that of Moses.

Alongside this stress on purity of worship, there is a surprising and far‐reaching emphasis on its essential inwardness. The primary purpose of a festival even so great and deeply rooted as Passover, with the Feast of Unleavened Bread—which Deuteronomy now for the first time firmly conjoins with it (16.1–8)—is to serve as an occasion for remembering the great acts of God toward the people's ancestors: “so that all the days of your life you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt” (16.3). Worship itself, then, is valued primarily for its spiritual and psychological potential as a remembrance of the goodness of God and a demonstration of gratitude toward him. Particularly appropriate is a special concern for the oppressed and downtrodden members of the community: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and diligently observe these statutes” (16.12). This deep and religiously motivated attention to the poor is a prominent moral feature of Deuteronomy (15.7–11).

The combination of an inward psychologizing and spiritualizing of worship with a regard for the poor leads to a remarkable desacralising of tithes, the offering of which becomes a holy opportunity for rejoicing before God and for sharing gifts with the poor and disadvantaged (14.22–29). The entire people is conceived as a single entity, whose members are regarded as being “brothers,” from the king at the head (17.20) to the slave at the bottom of the social ladder (15.12–18). Likewise, the foreigner is to be accorded a certain status providing the possibility of full entry into the people (23.7– 8).

The target of the religious hostility expressed in the Deuteronomic legislation is the worship of Baal and Asherah, more often described as the male and female deities who represent the older forms of religion practiced by the previous inhabitants of the land (7.4–5, 16, 25; 11.28; etc.). In view of the period when the Deuteronomic legislation was probably composed, it is surprising that the book never explicitly condemns the symbols and evidence of Assyrian imperial control over Judah. To what extent there had been such visible signs of Assyrian rule is not known, but the aims of the Deuteronomic reform were established when this rule was in serious decline and had largely disappeared. Deuteronomy regards the great variety of religious traditions that had survived in the land of Israel as the cause of the divine anger that led God to punish the Israelites by bringing “a nation from far away” (28.49).

In sharp contrast with this emphasis upon the inwardness of true religion and a just and caring social order is the vehement condemnation of any deviation from absolute loyalty to God. Veneration of other gods is to be ruthlessly opposed and its practitioners exterminated (7.2, 16; 13.8–10; etc.).

The most enduring expression of concern for complete loyalty of religious practice and a just social order is to be found in the Ten Commandments (5.6–21). Since this series of injunctions, with only minor modifications, is also found in Exodus 20.2–17, scholars have been divided in their views as to whether the collection is of Deuteronomic origin or derives from a much earlier time. Clearly, the subject matter of the commandments reflects ancient and fundamental concerns in any society, but this recognition does not itself suffice to determine the actual date when this short didactic compendium of ten basic religious and moral duties was brought together. Many think that such a brief teaching form was of early date, but underwent revision and modification over a long period of time. In any case, they wholly accord with the aim of Deuteronomy to bring as much of life as possible under a sense of obligation toward God.

Authorship and Readership.

The book of Deuteronomy, formulated as an address by Moses to all Israel, presupposes a literate reading public who could benefit from a book of instruction. It also recognizes, however, the need for orally teaching the law (esp. 6.7, 31.10–13) and regards the preservation of the lawbook and its placement beside the ark in the Temple (31:24–26) as serving primarily as a “witness.” Since the Levitical priests are made the custodians of this lawbook (31.9), it is certain that they were expected to fulfill some teaching role in promulgating its contents. Clearly, Levites would form the bridge between the custodians of the law and the laity of Israel. This suggests that some elements of the Levitical priesthood were closely linked to, and supportive of, the lawbook's authors.

The presumption of literacy by the lawbook's originators, combined with the pronounced rhetorical style of persons skilled in public speech‐making, also points to scribes. There are, in addition, numerous indications of expertise in legal affairs, which leads us to conclude that the Deuteronomic authors included among their number several major state officials. It is the only law collection in the Bible to include a statute defining the office of the king (17.14–20; see Kingship and Monarchy). All of this suggests strongly that the authors of Deuteronomy formed a body of religiously motivated reformers, drawn from a circle close to the centers of state administration but apparently not directly associated with the king and royal household. They are, in any case, too critical of many of the basic assumptions regarding priestly service and its ritual obligations to have been priests themselves.

It is important to recognize the warm interest in prophecy and the belief that certain prophets continued to fulfill a role in Israel comparable to that of Moses. Such interest, which becomes more marked in the history that elaborates the lawbook, suggests that some prophetic element may also have contributed to the Deuteronomic movement for reform in Israel. Yet the understanding of prophecy is highly distinctive, and too removed from its most fundamental forms, for the authors of the book to have been prophets themselves. Prophecy is viewed essentially as a means of promoting the knowledge and claims of the Deuteronomic law.

As to the first readers of the book, we must assume that these were the lay men and women of Judah who so eagerly watched the decline of Assyrian control during the years of Josiah's reign. With the king's untimely death, the setbacks caused by Egyptian attempts to fill the power vacuum in Judah, and then the firm assertion of Babylonian rule over Judah from 604 BCE, the first expectation of the reformers presumably gave way to a more considered hope. There is much to indicate that this took effect by a sharp shift of emphasis from the sought‐after outward political changes to striving for a basic change of heart and a renewal of faith among Judah's citizens. All of this finds expression in the numerous expansions, modifications, and exhortations that were added over a long period to the original lawbook.

The Significance of the Book.

The significance of the book in the growth of biblical tradition is considerable. More than any other book, it establishes the general tone and character of the Pentateuch, and it is likely that the Deuteronomic classification of “law” (tôrâ) gave this title to the Pentateuch more generally. In many prominent features, it was Deuteronomy's claims to represent an embodiment of Israel's religious tradition superior to that of prophet, priest, or king that established the notion of a canon of sacred legislative tradition.

In literary influence, it is demonstrable that the historical work consisting of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings (the Deuteronomic History) was a direct development of the lawbook of Deuteronomy and emanates from the same general circle of authors. Furthermore, the edited book of the prophecies of Jeremiah, which now constitutes one of the major texts dealing with the final downfall of the state of Judah at Babylonian hands (604–587/586 BCE), has also been shaped by the Deuteronomic circle of reformers. Jeremiah's prophecies are presented as the final proof of the Deuteronomic interpretation of the reasons for the collapse of Israel as a nation; they serve also as the vehicle of hope and guidance for the nation's renewal and eventual restoration.

Deuteronomy's religious ideas, which more directly than any prior element in Israel's religious traditions express a coherent and comprehensive theology, are a milestone in Israel's intellectual development. It is surprising that when the restoration of a fully organized religious life took place in Judah and Jerusalem after the initial returns from Babylonian exile, the Deuteronomic legislation was much altered and left aside. A staunchly priestly tradition, more conducive to the thinking and aims of a traditional pattern of ritual, merged with it, heavily modifying the relatively rational and spiritualized features of Deuteronomic religion. Among the Jews of the dispersion, however, who formed an increasing element of the surviving Jewish people after 587/586 BCE, the currency and clarity of a simple lawbook able to embody so many aspects of the Jewish tradition was of inestimable importance. With Deuteronomy, the first major step had been taken to promote the existence of Judaism as a religion of a book. Formal worship in a temple came to be simply an adjunct to a more comprehensive code of religious attitudes and duties prescribed in an instructional text.

See also Law


Ronald E. Clements

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