Alright, people. Hang in there. If you’re working through the Chronological Bible Reading Plan and you’ve come to the book of Deuteronomy, it means that you’ve successfully conquered Leviticus and Numbers and you are to be commended. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Or, if you’re as inflexible as me, pat yourself on the upper shoulder blade.
The title “Deuteronomy” comes from a Greek word meaning “second law.” The book does not introduce new laws; it reiterates those that have already been given to Israel at Sinai. Deuteronomy could be subtitled “farewell instructions for a nation.” Picture Moses as a preacher and the book of Deuteronomy as a collection of sermons given to a generation of Israelites on the cusp of the Promised Land (their long-awaited rest; see van Gogh). Remember, God’s people had been in the wilderness for 40 years. The audience’s parents had all died there due to their disobedience to the covenant (except for Joshua and Caleb). Even Moses was prohibited from entering into the promised rest (Deut. 3:23-28). Joshua, who had remained faithful, was to succeed Moses as leader. Therefore, here, in the plains of Moab, Moses preached a series of sermons to prepare and equip the Hebrew people for the conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua. Moses is the author of most of Deuteronomy (“most” because he surely didn’t record his own death – that would have been quite a trick). The author who finished the book after Moses’ death was likely sanctioned by Moses to do so.
The structure of the book resembles that of a Near Eastern treaty which was meant as a guide for Israel to follow under Joshua’s leadership. The following outline facilitated the work of God’s people to abide the covenant established under Moses:
- Preamble (1:1-4) – describing the God who established the covenant;
- Historical Prologue (1:5-4:43) – describing God’s past actions on behalf of the covenant people;
- Stipulations (4:44-26:19) – describing what God required of his covenant people;
- Blessings, Curses, Ratification (27:1-30:20) – describing how the covenant people’s actions would affect the way God treated the covenant people, and confirming that the covenant was in force;
- Succession (31:1-34:12) – describing the fact that Joshua would take over leadership of the covenant community when Moses died.
There are a lot of different kinds of laws and rules in the book of Deuteronomy. But it’s important to remember the point of it all. The goal was not to create a litigious society of rigid regulation, but to emphasize that the ethical fabric of Israel’s theocracy was aimed at community holiness and wholeness. Do not lose sight of the fact that for all of its legal conventions, the book of Deuteronomy ultimately addresses the most important reality of all – the condition of the human heart in response to God’s grace. In fact, the heartbeat of the book is something called the Shema (“hear”). It was Israel’s little creed and it is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
If you were to cling to one thing as you make your way through this book, let it be this: the covenant described in Deuteronomy is fulfilled in Christ, and the blessings offered are realized and furthered in Christ. All Old Testament history points to Jesus and so the Messiah-to-come should always be on the forefront of our minds as we read Israel’s history. As always, please feel free to ask questions. You can either email me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog. Thanks for reading.
 From Ra McLaughlin, webmaster and Vice President of Curriculum, Third Millennium Ministries