Book of Deuteronomy

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Books of the

Hebrew Bible

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible. It is part of Judaism's Torah and Christianity's Old Testament. Its Hebrew name is Devarim—דברים ("words")—which comes from the opening phrase, "These are the words which Moses said." Its English title, "Deuteronomy," comes from the book's name in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and the later Latin Vulgate (Deuteronomium). The term implies a reiteration, or "second-giving," of the Law of Moses.

The language of Deuteronomy is often inspiring and poetic, portrayed from a retrospective view as the Israelites complete their period of wandering the the wilderness and prepare to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. It is the source of the famous Jewish prayer known as the Shema (Deut. 6:4) and the well-known injunction, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, (Deut. 6:5) taught by Jesus in the New Testament. It is also the source of important legal traditions later introduced into both European and Byzantine law codes.

Deuteronomy is much discussed by modern biblical scholars, who consider it to have been composed in the seventh century B.C.E. as part of a program to centralize worship exclusively in the Temple of Jerusalem.

The death of Moses (Deut. 34:5).


Deuteronomy consists chiefly of three discourses delivered by Moses to the Israelites a short time before his death, on the plains of Moab, near the end of the final year of their wandering through the wilderness. Moses summarizes the trials the Israelites have endured, reminds them of God's justice and mercy, outlines various commandments they must obey, and urges them to go forward to conquer the land of Canaan. The Canaanite nations are to be driven out or destroyed, and the Israelites are strictly commanded to refrain from intermarrying with them or worshiping their gods. A central place of worship is to be established, and no sacrifices are authorized to be performed at any other location. The Ten Commandments are reiterated, and a detailed set of specific laws are instituted. Finally Moses offers the Israelites a set of blessings if they follow God's will, together with frightful curses if they rebel. Joshua is appointed as Moses' successor, and the book concludes with an account of Moses death.

First discourse

Moses' first discourse (chapters 1-4) is a historical recollection of Israel's disobedience and refusal to enter the Canaan, resulting in their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Moses addresses the children and grandchildren of the first generation whom he led out of Egypt:

I selected twelve of you, one man from each tribe. They left and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and explored it... But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. (Det 1:23-26)

The disobedience of Israel is contrasted by the justice of God. God is a judge to Israel, punishing them in the wilderness, and destroying utterly the generation who disobeyed God's commandments. God's wrath is also shown to the surrounding nations, such as King Sihon of Heshbon, whose people were utterly destroyed during this time. In light of God's justice, Moses urges obedience to divine ordinances and warns against the danger of forsaking the God of their ancestors.

At the same time, Moses emphasizes God's forgiveness and grace towards the young generation of Israelites. God will be with the Israelites and will drive out their enemies, giving them land of Canaan, which is a good land, "flowing with milk and honey." A number of laws are set forth, which Moses also describes as a gift of divine grace.

Second discourse

Moses' second discourse (chapters 5-26) constitutes the main body of the book. It begins with an introduction (chapters 5-11) expanding on the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai and continues with a longer section (chapters 12-26) outlining what has become known as the Deuteronomic Code. In chapter five can be found the so-called Ethical Decalogue, one of the best known versions of the Ten Commandments. In chapter six are found two of the Bible's most famous verses:

  • The Shema—Israel's basic prayer and motto:
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Deut. 6:4)
  • The first half of what later became a famous summary the entire Torah, as taught by Jesus of Nazareth:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."(6:5)[1]

Moses repeatedly reminds the Israelites that they must carefully obey the commandments. They must not intermarry with the Canaanites, and must demolish their places of worship. They must make no treaty with the Canaanite tribes, and are commanded to "totally destroy them." (7:2) On the other hand, if the Israelites turn to other gods, it is they who will be completely destroyed. (8:20) Moses reminds them of the incident of the Golden Calf and strictly warns them of the consequences of idolatry.[2]

Before giving the details of the code, Moses declares:

I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse---the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. (11:26-27)

The code

The Deuteronomic code is a series of commands, forming extensive laws, admonitions, and injunctions to the Israelites regarding how they ought to conduct themselves in Canaan, the land promised by God as their permanent home. Great emphasis is placed on Israel's separateness from the other peoples of the land, and they must especially refrain from worshiping the Canaanite deities. The following list divides the code into three categories: religious laws, rules governing political affairs, and laws covering civil and criminal matters. The list is not exhaustive, and it should be noted that the categorization is artificial. In fact, all of the Deuteronomic laws are characterized as commandments from God.

Religious laws

  • Altars and shrines devoted to Canaanite gods must be destroyed. (12:2-3)
  • Yahweh must not be worshiped in the Canaanite way. (12:4)
  • The death penalty is prescribed for anyone—whether it be a prophet, a miracle-worker, or a member of one's immediate family—who encourages people to worship other gods than Yahweh. (13:1-11)
  • Towns or villages guilty of worshiping other gods are to be wiped out: "all who live in that town" are to be killed. (13:12-18)
  • A central place of worship is to be established, and sacrificial offerings must be brought there alone.(12:4-7)
  • Sacrifices to Yahweh are banned outside of this central location, but meat may be butchered and eaten locally. (12:8-23)
  • Levites who move to the capital from outlying areas are to be recognized as authorized priests. (18:6-8)
  • A strict ban is imposed on religious prostitution. Earnings from any type of prostitution may not be used in connection with Temple offerings.
  • Various kosher dietary principles are enjoined. (14:3-21)
  • A tenth of all produce and cattle is to be brought to the central sanctuary each year and offered there as a sacrifice. Those living in distant places may sell their produce for money to purchase offerings in the capital. (14:22-26)
  • In addition to tithing, firstborn male cattle are to be offered as sacrifices in the capital. (15:19-20)
  • Only unblemished animals are to be offered as sacrifices to God.
  • Every three years, the tithe is to be given to the local Levites and those in need of charity, rather than being brought to the capital. (14:28-29)
  • Yahwistic religious festivals, including Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are to be part of Israel's worship. (16:1-16)
  • A ban is instituted against erecting sacred pillars dedicated to the goddess Asherah next any altars dedicated to Yahweh. (16:21-22)
  • Sacrificing one's children and/or dedicating them to foreign deities is strictly forbidden, as are divination, sorcery, witchcraft, spellcasting, and mediumship.
  • A regular Jubilee Year is instituted every seven years, during which all debts are canceled. (15:1-11)
  • Emasculated men are prohibited from the joining religious assemblies, as are Ammonites, Moabites, and children of mixed marriages through the tenth generation (23:1-5)
  • Purity laws are instituted prohibiting the mixing of fabrics, crops, and beasts of burden under the same yoke. (22:9-11)
  • Commandments are given for ritual cleanliness, general hygiene, and the treatment of skin diseases. (23:9-14)
  • Cases of serious skin diseases are to be decided by the priests. 24:8
  • God will raise up a prophet like Moses to guide the Israelites. Men who prophesy falsely in God's name, however, must be put to death. (18:14-20)

Political laws


King Josiah hears the reading of the "Book of the Law." (2 Kings 22-23)
  • No foreigner may rule as king in Israel, nor may any Israelite king grow rich in horses purchased from Egypt. (17:14-17)
  • The king must make a copy of "this law" received from the Levite priests; he must study it "all the days of his life" and not turn aside from it. (17:18-20)
  • Peace terms must be offered before attacking a non-Canaanite city, the terms being that its inhabitants will agree to become slaves. No quarter is to be given to those cities who do not agree to terms, and no mercy is to be offered to the cities of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (20:10-18)
  • Women captured in war may be forced to marry their captors. However, they may not be sold as slaves once the captor has slept with them. (20:10-14)
  • Treaties of friendship with Ammon and Moab are forbidden. (23:6)
  • Edomites and Egyptians are to be treated kindly, and their third generation inhabitants of Israel may join the congregation. (23:7-8)
  • Exemptions from military service are stipulated for the newly betrothed, newly married, owners of new houses, planters of new vineyards, and even men who are afraid of fighting. (20:1-9)
  • Runaway slaves are to be given refuge. (23:15)
  • The Amalekites must be utterly blotted out. (25:17:-19)

Civil and criminal laws

Deuteronomy establishes the office a judges and bans bribery.
  • Slavery for an Israelite is to last no more than six years, after which he is to be set free if he wishes. (15:12-18)
  • The office of judge[3] is instituted and bribery is forbidden. (16:18-20)
  • Three witnesses are necessary to convict an accused person. Judges are to show no mercy to those convicted. They must take "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life." (19:15-16)
  • Difficult law cases are to be brought to the Levite priests in the capital, and their decision is final. (17:8-13)
  • Cities of refuge must be established to protect people who have committed unintentional homicide from blood vengeance. (19:4-7)
  • The death penalty by stoning is prescribed for sons who persistently disobey their parents.
  • Beasts of burden which have fallen over must be assisted to their feet. Lost cattle are to be returned to their owner. Certain animals are to be protected: The he mother of newly-born birds must not be killed an eaten. (22:1-6)
  • Various marriage and sex-related laws are stipulated: Transvestitism is prohibited, on pain of death. (22:5) A supposed virgin bride found not to be a virgin on her wedding night is to be stoned to death. In the case of adultery, both guilty parties are to be stoned to death. If a betrothed virgin fails to scream when being raped, both she and her rapist are to be put to death. If an unbetrothed virgin is raped, her rapist may be forced to marry her and never divorce her. A man may not marry his widowed step-mother. (22:13-20) If one's brother dies childless, his widow is to marry the surviving brother so that the dead brother's name may "not be blotted out." (25:5-6)
  • Regulations are given regarding vows, debt, usury, and permissible objects for securing loans. (23:19-21, etc.)
  • Kidnapping a fellow Israelite for the purpose of enslaving him is punishable by death (24:7)
  • Children are not to be punished for the crimes of their parents, and vice versa. (24:16)
  • Aliens, orphans and widows are to be treated justly. (24:17)

The second discourse concludes with an speech reminding the Israelites that in their new land, they must be careful to remember to bring their tithes and offerings gratefully to the religious capital every year, and also to care for the Levites, widows, and orphans in their localities. If they do this, God will surely bless them.

Final discourse

The concluding third discourse (27-30) is an exhortation, relating primarily to the solemn sanctions of the law: blessings to the obedient and curses to the rebellious. When the Israelites enter Canaan, the tribes are to gather in two groups of six tribes each on two facing mountains. The blessings are to be pronounced from Mount Gerizim[4] and the curses from Mount Ebal. (27) In this discourse, the Israelites are solemnly adjured to adhere faithfully to the covenant between them and God, and so secure for themselves, and for their posterity, the promised blessings.

After the final discourse, the text describes Moses preparing himself to die. He conditionally renews the covenant between God and the Israelites, the condition being the loyalty of the people:

Moses presents Joshua before God at the Tabernacle.
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. (30:15-18)

After this, Joshua is appointed by Moses as his heir and successor to lead the people into Canaan.

The final chapters are generally regarded as three appendices, namely:

  • The Song of Moses, which the text states was created by Moses upon the request of God (32).
  • Moses' final blessing, which is pronounced upon the individual tribes of Israel (33).
  • The story of the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:48-52), and subsequent burial (34).

The book concludes:

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is... Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. (34:5-10)

Analysis of authorship

Early Jewish analysis

The rabbis of the Talmud were the first to discuss the assumed premise that Moses wrote the entire five books of the Torah, especially Deuteronomy. They wondered how Moses could possibly have written the text recording his own death and burial, as well as the words that "... since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses." While some of the rabbis contended that Moses wrote these verses prophetically, the dominant talmudic opinion is that Joshua wrote the final verses of the Torah.

Later Jewish biblical exegetes, notably Abraham ibn Ezra (c.1093-1167 C.E.), noted the distinctly different meditative style and language of Deuteronomy (see documentary hypothesis). Ibn Ezra stated that a number of verses must have been written by a later author, again probably Joshua. Similarly, in his introduction to Deuteronomy, Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) suggested that Deuteronomy had a different author to the rest of the Torah.

Modern views

The "lost book" of Hilkiah

A clue to the origin of the Book of Deuteronomy is found in of 2 Kings 22-23 in the narrative concerning the religious reform conducted during by King Josiah and his priests. During the process of restoring the Temple of Jerusalem at the king's command, the high priest Hilkiah reportedly found the lost "Book of the Law."

The biblical story continues that Josiah and Hilkiah went to the prophetess Huldah to confirm the book's authenticity. She did so, adding that because of Judah's idolatry, God was about to fulfill the curses the book describes. As a result, a public reading ceremony only otherwise mentioned in Deuteronomy was conducted. Josiah proceeded to purge the Temple of pagan influences, including the presences of an Ashera pole and sacred prostitutes. (2 Kings 23:6-7) He also destroyed both pagan and Yahwist altars outside of Jerusalem, bringing the Yahwist priests to Jerusalem but slaying any priest who sacrificed to other gods. He did these things "to fulfill the requirements of the law written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of the Lord." (2 Kings 23:24) The account in 2 Chronicles 35 mentions that Josiah also instituted a national celebration of Passover in Jerusalem at this time, in which the Levites played a central role.

The idea that the lost scroll found by Hilkiah in the seventh century B.C.E. (2:Kings 22) was none other than Deuteronomy dates back to talmudic times. Later textual scholars went further, however, suggesting that Deuteronomy had not simply been found during King Josiah's reign (c. 620 B.C.E.), but that it had been written at that time as well.

Deuteronomy is the only book of the Pentateuch to impose the centralization of worship at a single location where sacrifices could be legitimately offered. Moreover, its stipulation that Levites who moved from outlying areas to the capital be recognized as authorized priests fits perfectly with Josiah's reform and seems totally out of place in the time of Moses. In effect, these policies of centralization were the very essence of Josiah's reform, which he completed in direct response to the dictates of the lost "Book of the Law."[5]

According to the documentary hypothesis, the Book of Deuteronomy was thus not written by Moses, but by an author or authors of the seventh century B.C.E. as a means of bolstering their program of centralizing worship in Jerusalem and eliminating all rival centers of worship, both Israelite and pagan.

Stylistic issues

Literary critics point out that style and method of this book and its peculiarities of expression show that it came from a school of thought separate from the rest of the Torah. In fact, Deuteronomy often refers to itself as a separate code of law (1:5, 8:26, 27:3, 31:26), distinct from the four preceding books of the Pentateuch. In addition to the book's emphasis on "Jerusalem-only" sacrifice and the relocation of Levite priests from outlying areas to the capital, scholars have also noted differences in language and style, the laws themselves, and some anachronisms in the text.

Similarly, it is notable that neither Amos, nor Hosea, nor the undisputed portions of Isaiah show even the remotest familiarity with Deuteronomy. These facts can easily be explained if Deuteronomy was written after these three prophets and before Jeremiah, placing its creation squarely in the seventh century B.C.E. In fact some see the text as particularly reminiscent of Jeremiah. Several scholars have posited him, or his scribe Baruch, as the book's real author. Arguing against this, however, is the fact the Jeremiah was by no means and ardent supporter of the Temple. Indeed, he was at times its harshest critic. Another theory points to the strong denigration of Aaron in Deuteronomy (he dies shortly after the incident of the Golden Calf, while in the Book of Numbers he dies in the fortieth year of the Exodus) as evidence of the influence of the Shiloh priesthood[6] in the Deuteronomic narrative. A third, more obvious choice, is Hilkiah himself, or one of his scribes.

In any case, modern biblical scholarship is agreed that Deuteronomy was created in, or very close to, the reign of Josiah. Further study of the other books of the Torah has led to the documentary hypothesis becoming overwhelmingly accepted among academic biblical scholars. The Deuteronomist's work, or that of his school, is believed to have also included the editing and compiling of earlier histories into the books of Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Samuel.

Modern Evangelical interpretations

Christian scholars have done significant work to criticize the documentary hypothesis and revive belief in Moses as the primary author of the Book of Deuteronomy. While many Christian Old Testament scholars accept the idea that the book found by Hilkiah was indeed Deuteronomy, they also believe that the original author of the book was Moses:

  • Internal evidence points to Mosaic authorship. (Deuteronomy 1:1; Deuteronomy 29:1; Deuteronomy 31:1; Deuteronomy 31:9-11, etc.)
  • Later books of the Jewish and Christian canons refer to Mosaic authorship. (Joshua 8:31; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Chronicles 23:18; 2 Chronicles 25:4; 2 Chronicles 34:14; Ezra 3:2; Ezra 7:6; Nehemiah 8:1; Daniel 9:11-13)
  • New Testament authorities point to Mosaic authorship. (Matthew 19:7-8, Mark 10:3-4, John 5:46-47, Acts 3:22 and Acts 7:37, and Romans 10:19)
  • The earliest manuscripts do not indicate alternative authors.
  • The earliest available Jewish and Biblical oral and written tradition confirms Mosaic authorship.

The author of Deuteronomy, as with many other books of the Torah and the Christian Bible, remains contentious points of debate. For many, however, Deuteronomy is key to a proper Evangelical understanding of the Mosaic law and a contextual understanding of the words of Christ.

See also


  1. The second half of this summary is a quote from Leviticus 19:18: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
  2. In the Deuteronomic version of this story, which differs from that of the Book of Exodus, God is so angry with Aaron over the incident of the Golden Calf as to want to kill him, and Aaron indeed dies soon after the episode, (Deut. 10:6) at Moserah, while in the Book of Numbers he dies at Mount Hor in the fortieth year of the Exodus. (Numbers 33:8)
  3. Not to be confused with the judges who led Israel in the Book of Judges.
  4. In later history, Mount Gerizim became the central shrine of the Samaritans, while Jerusalem became the religious capital of the Jews.
  5. Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (San Francisco: Harper, 1997, ISBN 978-0060630355).
  6. The Ark of the Covenant was moved from Shiloh to Jerusalem by King David, and any remaining priests of Shiloh may have relocated to Jerusalem after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom in the eighth century B.C.E. According to some theorists, Shiloh priests were not of Aaronic descent and were thus more likely to report unflattering things about him. They also worked in close proximity to the rival Yahwist shrine of Bethel, which featured a golden statue of a young bull, while Shiloh had been famous for its golden cherubim atop the Ark. See Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Harvard University Press, 19973, ISBN 978-0674091764).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brueggemann, Walter. Deuteronomy (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries). Abingdon Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0687084715
  • Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Harvard University Press, 19973. ISBN 978-0954088842
  • Dever, William G. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. ISBN 978-0802821263
  • Finkelstein, Israel. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0684869136
  • Friedman, Richard E. Who Wrote the Bible? San Francisco: Harper, 1997. ISBN 978-0060630355

External links

All links retrieved November 17, 2023.


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