deuteronomyGeneral Introduction

Deuteronomy-the last book of the Torah or Pentateuch, but certainly not the least. It envisages the extraordinary ideal of the one people of Israel gathered in the one land to worship the one Lord of Israel at one place according to the one Torah.

The down- payment for realising this ideal is that all traces of other gods and their worshippers are to be ‘utterly destroyed’. No wonder Deuteronomy has been described by some as the zenith of Old Testament thought; by others as its nadir, one of its worst moments.

The English title derives from the Greek word for ‘repeat of the law’ or ‘copy of the law’, a reference to Deut 17:18. The Hebrew title comes from the first words of the book ‘eleh haddebarim’ (these [are] the words’ or more simply, ‘the words’).

Neither title quite captures the fact that Deuteronomy is an extended address by Moses in which he reminds the people of all that God has taught them as they prepare to enter the land. This gives Moses’ words the status of the ‘word of God’.

Leviticus 25-26

Leviticus 25 legislates for the great Jubilee every 50th year (7x7 plus 1).

It brings the code and indeed the whole book to a fitting climax with its focus on Israel's well-being.

Land acquired is to be returned to the original owners, slaves are to be released, and so on.

Fidelity to the Jubilee is a key measure of Israel's fidelity to God. It is extraordinarily idealistic and some wonder whether it was ever implemented fully.

It raises the question of the purpose of these 'codes'.

Were they designed as 'state legislation' or as theological and catechetical treatises-for edification?

The code ends with a series of blessings and curses in ch 26, like the series in Deuteronomy 28.

These were a common feature of ancient Near Eastern covenants, both religious and civil (cf. our term 'treaty'), and OT theologians were probably following time-honoured custom.

As noted earlier, ch 27 is probably a later addition.

Division of the Book: chapters 1-12

Chapters 12 through to 26 are devoted principally to the ‘statutes and ordinances’ (12:1) that Israel is to observe in the land that God is giving them.

One can relate these chapters to the preceding by saying that the Decalogue provides the basic outline or principle (only 10 commands); the homilies in chs. 6-11 emphasise the importance of loyalty and obedience to the basic commands; chs. 12-26 spell out how they are to be implemented in Israel’s future life in the land.

Deuteronomy 12-16 is concerned mainly with the worship of God, thus paralleling the first 4 commands of the Decalogue; for its part, Deuteronomy 17-26 is more concerned with civil matters, thus paralleling the remaining 6 commands of the Decalogue.

Given that the statutes and ordinances in chs. 12-26 are meant to be a reprise for this new generation of what God proclaimed via Moses to the Exodus generation at Horeb, why do they differ from the statutes and ordinances in Exodus 21-23 and the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-26?

After Moses has reviewed what many now call the ‘Deuteronomic Code’, in ch. 27 he gives instructions for a ceremony of ‘inscription’ of the torah once Israel has entered the land. This will make it the ‘law of the land of Israel’. A series of blessings (for obedience) and gruesome curses (for disobedience) follow in ch. 28, while chs. 29-30 contain a final series of homiletic exhortations.

Deut 29:1 says that the words spoken by Moses in the plains of Moab are the ‘words of the covenant’ and so have the same status as the covenant made at Horeb (that name again). One can see that homiletic exhortations frame the code in chs. 12-26 as well as chs. 5-26. This is a highly rhetorical book, a passionate manifesto.

Division of the Book: chapters 31-34

Deuteronomy 31-34 resumes the storyline after Moses’ long ‘homily’ to report the installation of Joshua as his successor (this has already been narrated in Numbers 27), the writing down of the Torah and provision for its regular reading, and his death.

Before he dies, Moses teaches the people a song that provides a telling reminder of the perils of infidelity (ch. 32) and then, like Jacob in Genesis, pronounces a final blessing (ch. 33).

The story of Israel continues in the book of Joshua which the Hebrew canon includes among the ‘Former Prophets’ rather than the Torah.

Next we will take a closer look at this powerful yet disturbing book and the attempts by biblical scholars to unravel some of its mysteries.

The Challenge of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is a challenging book on two counts. The first, and most important, is the noble ideal to which it calls the new generation of Israelites poised to enter the promised land. The book presents itself as a way, perhaps even the way, for Israel to realize something of what God intended for humanity in the first chapters of Genesis.

According to Deut 4:6-8, the nations observing Israel’s life in the land will be amazed and, hopefully, attracted to follow suit. The allusion to Genesis creates a narrative arc that covers the entire Pentateuch.

The ideal life in the land is something that, as we learn from 1 Kings 3-8, Israel believed it achieved briefly in Solomon’s early days. Despite the brevity, the King’s text is important because it claims that God does not set impossible goals for humanity: a theology that does so would impugn the justice and mercy of God.

The second challenge is the one faced by those who undertake to study Deuteronomy. Because of the differences between it and the contents of Exodus–Numbers one can hardly take Deuteronomy on face value as Moses’ and God’s final instructions before Israel entered the land. Either Moses (and God!) was suffering some memory loss or there is another explanation.

To my mind, the most plausible one takes its cue from the synoptic Gospels. Just as Matthew, Mark, and Luke provide similar but differing accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, so the covenant code in Exodus 21-23, the holiness code in Leviticus 17-26 and the code in Deuteronomy 12-26 provide similar but differing torahs.

And, just as the 3 synoptic Gospels were written by different authors at different times in the early church, so it was with the 3 great codes in the Pentateuch and their narrative settings—except that here the time frame was much longer and the authors were probably more numerous.

The alternative story of Israel that one finds in the much neglected books of Chronicles finds a very general parallel in the unique Gospel of John.

The Covenant Code and the Deuteronomic History

The covenant code is thought to be the earliest of the great codes, perhaps before the collapse of the northern kingdom in 722 BC. The priestly holiness code is probably from the exilic (587 BC) or post-exilic periods, although it may contain older material.

The deuteronomic code is associated by many with the book discovered during renovations to the temple by king Josiah of Judah in 622 BC or thereabouts. An account of this discovery and its impact is given in 2 Kings 22-23 (parallel in 2 Chronicles 34-35; note the differences).

Evidence in support of this hypothesis is the similarity in the way Josiah’s lawcode is described in the Kings’ account and the kind of language and theology one finds in Deuteronomy. A key figure associated with the lawcode in Kings is the prophetess Huldah (2 Kgs 22:15-20) one of the few women prophets who is given a major role in the OT.

Once scholars saw linguistic and theological similarities between Deuteronomy and Josiah’s lawcode, they started seeing evidence of the Deuteronomists (the alleged theologians promoting this theology) elsewhere.

It is worth dipping into the ‘Former Prophets’ to note the deuteronomic nature of Joshua’s speech in Joshua 1, the introduction to the stories of the judges in Judges 2, Samuel’s speech inaugurating the monarchical era in 1 Samuel 12, David’s advice to Solomon in 1 Kgs 2:1-4, Solomon’s prayer on the occasion of the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, the long peroration on the fall of the northern kingdom in 2 Kings 17, and the account of Josiah’s reform in 2 Kings 23.

All of these texts are strategically placed in the unfolding narrative of Israel’s life in the land. Add to these the speeches of prophets in 1–2 Kings and Martin Noth drew the conclusion that there was probably once a narrative that reached from Joshua to 2 Kings 25, compiled from a deuteronomic perspective, with Deuteronomy as its prologue. He dubbed it the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ (the ‘history’ element is something of a misnomer).

Others, seeing evidence of deuteronomic language and theology in Genesis—Numbers, propose that this ‘history’ once reached from creation to the exile before it was divided into separate books and separate parts of the emerging Hebrew canon. This would probably have taken place in the post-exilic period when Judah was re-established as the Persian province of Jehud.

The 'Reforming Manifesto'

Deuteronomy itself was identified as a reforming manifesto, either triggered by the catastrophic collapse of Judah’s much larger northern neighbour or having its origins in the north and being brought south by refugees after the collapse.

The presence in Jerusalem of what was probably an early version of Deuteronomy prompted the assembling and editing of the above mentioned books as well as some of the prophetic corpus, in particular the book of Jeremiah.

The hope may have been that a reform which advocated a ‘return’ to the great tradition could stave off the disaster that had befallen northern Israel. In the Deuteronomists’ perception, it had become corrupt, ripe for Assyrian takeover (cf. 2 Kings 17).

The authority of the reforming code was enhanced by projecting it back to the time of Moses, the legendary leader of hoary antiquity.

A similar move was made for the other codes that we now find in the Pentateuch. Copyright did not exist in those days and this was an accepted way to try and win a receptive audience as well as to honour the ancestors one most admired.

And God, who sees all that is done on the earth, is presumably quite content to have ‘the Word of God’ produced in the manner of the particular culture. Next we will have a look at the special nature of deuteronomic language and theology and how those who assembled the Pentateuch managed to make Deuteronomy an integral part of the final product.

Reading Deuteronomy

As noted in our first reflection on Deuteronomy, chapters 1-3 review the ‘story of Israel’ from Mt. Horeb to the edge of the promised land. A quick read through these chapters indicates that the main items covered are the promise of the land (1:6-8), the delegation of Mosaic leadership (1:9-18), the episode of the spies (1:19-45; cf. Numbers 13-14), a period in the wilderness until the disobedient exodus generation expired (2:1-15), finally, an account of the conquest of the Amorites of east-Jordan (2:16-3:29).

We also noted that this review does not tally with Israel’s story in Exodus and Numbers at a number of points. Let’s have a closer look at the similarities and differences: they provide some useful clues as to how Deuteronomy works.

Horeb and Sinai provide the first clue. We are so accustomed to the term ‘Mt. Sinai’ and a particular peak in the Sinai peninsula that we tend to forget how flexible the Bible is and how it respects different traditions. The Bible speaks of ‘the mountain’, ‘the mountain of God’, ‘Sinai’ and ‘Horeb’.

There seems to have been a variety of traditions and Deuteronomy may reflect one associated with Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 19). Pilgrims will no doubt continue to flock to Sinai but it is worth noting that those who compiled the Torah did not erase the different terms for the sake of uniformity; nor did they blend the three law codes into one uniform ‘mega-code’.

Possible reasons for variant traditions

A second clue lies in Moses’ appointment of leaders in 1:9-18 because of the burden of the people upon him. This text echoes some features of Numbers 11 and Exodus 18 where Moses’ father-in-law advises him to appoint delegates. Did Deuteronomy construct its version from these texts or does it reflect another tradition?

It is probably impossible to answer such questions but we can at least suggest why it appears at this point in Deuteronomy. In chs. 17-18 the text, which is presented as a speech by Moses, legislates for judges, kings, priests and prophets. These apportion various aspects of Mosaic leadership for Israel’s future welfare in the land.

It is appropriate therefore to show that Moses had made the same kind of provision way back at the beginning, at Horeb, for the exodus generation. This generation (and its leaders) became the ‘burden’ that resulted in Moses being denied entry to the land by God (1:37). Unlike Numbers 20, Deuteronomy blames the people rather than Moses for his death outside the promised land. These different portrayals of Moses are juxtaposed in the final Torah and not airbrushed away.

Another striking feature of the deuteronomic version of Israel’s journey from Horeb to the edge of the land is that it recounts only one ‘murmuring story’ (the spy episode) among the several that appear in Exodus and Numbers. The reason for this may be that it is the rebellion in this story that seals the fate of the exodus generation: they died outside the land.

Deuteronomy is addressed to the new generation of their children. Hence it is appropriate to recall the one crucial story that explains why this new generation is being addressed by Moses. It also provides an appropriate context for what follows. Deuteronomy thus selects material from the larger tradition that will best suit its theological purpose.

The Gift of the Land

Another fascinating feature of Deuteronomy is the way its rhetorical style conflates generations. Throughout his review of the spy story, Moses addresses his listeners as ‘you’ but it is the now defunct exodus generation to which he is really referring. In that story, the listeners in Deuteronomy were little children. It is difficult for us to do this but it was no problem for ancient people who had a heightened sense of what scholars call ‘corporate personality’.

They believed that their lives ‘continued’ in the children who bore their name (Hebrew ‘shem’; so ‘semite’, the people of the name). In fact present, past and future generations—those who read this book—can all be addressed as ‘you’ in order to enhance its impact.

Moses’ account of the wilderness wandering and the conquest of east Jordan provide additional insights into the dynamics of Deuteronomy. He does not mention that this wandering was an affliction for the children of the exodus generation, as Num 14:33 does. Rather, the focus of Deuteronomy is the gift of the land (1:3), appropriate for the location of this book at the end of the Torah; appropriate too for a reform movement concerned about Judah’s future in the late 7th century BC.

As noted, Moses skips over the other murmuring stories and goes straight to the final stages of the journey. Here, there is no sign of the hostility shown by Edom and Moab in the Numbers’ version (20:14-21; 22:1-21) or of the rebuff suffered by Moses.

Instead, he claims God instructed him not to engage them in battle because of their fear of Israel (2:4) and because these were not the lands God allotted to Israel (2:18-19). Again, the text protects Moses from any diminishment or criticism, unlike Numbers.

The Idealised Portrait

The conquest of the Amorite kings Sihon and Og is likewise portrayed somewhat differently to Numbers 21:21-35.

According to Deuteronomy, these east Jordan conquests are integral components of God’s gift of the land. The book of Joshua presents the conquest of west Jordan or Palestine as the completion of what began under Moses.

Moreover, unlike Numbers 32 where the Reubenites and Gadites ask for permission to settle the conquered lands, the initiative is here given to Moses who distributes them (3:8-17).

From the perspective of Deuteronomy, everything comes as God’s gift through the hands of his faultless servant Moses. It is an idealised picture that is tailored to the great ideal of life in the land that the book goes on to outline.

Moses gets to see the land where this is destined to take place, but he cannot enter. Deuteronomy respects the tradition that he died outside the land.

Statutes and Ordinances

In Deuteronomy 4, Moses’ discourse switches from a review of Israel’s past to a long homily on obedience to the ‘statutes and ordinances’. This is followed by a narrative report about Moses’ establishment of cities of refuge in east Jordan (4:41-43) and another piece that recalls the introduction in 1:1-5.

It is as if this homily on the law is set apart somewhat from those that follow; many commentators regard it as an addition that incorporates the exile into the framework of deuteronomic theology. If so, one could expect the addition to have been made with an eye on what was already there.

It is worth having a look at 4:1-40 to see some of the characteristics features of deuteronomic theology and its ‘preaching’ style. As a top teacher and preacher in ‘deuteronomic’ guise, Moses first provides an outline of the lesson or homily (4:1-4) and then fleshes it out.

Its aim is to instruct Israel how to life faithfully in the land that is God’s gift. The ‘statutes and ordinances’ are a means to this end.

It is therefore essential that the people never tamper with Moses’ teaching, not only for the above reason but even more so because his words have divine authority: they are the ‘commandments of the Lord your God’.

An example is invoked to illustrate the teaching: Moses reminds them of what happened in the Baal of Peor incident in Numbers 25. He ends the introduction on an upbeat note: those who remain faithful, like his audience, live to enjoy God’s bounty. Ancient Hebrew authors knew all about rhetoric: the art of persuasion.

'Word Theology'

Verses 5-8 promise an important outcome for faithful life in the land: Israel will become wise and a beacon of wisdom to surrounding nations. Such a privilege will of course not lead this wise nation to boast about it except, to borrow a phrase from Paul, to boast ‘only in the Lord’ (cf. v. 7). Why would one ever seek to alter the ‘statutes and ordinances’ of Moses?

They come from God and therefore are just and perfect. By now a reader or listener would expect a list of these wonderful statutes and ordinances to which Moses keeps referring. But, the purpose of this discourse is to provide a homily or lesson on their importance rather than to list them: this comes later in the book.

Verses 9-14 now tell how the statutes and ordinances come to have divine status. They do so by recalling Mt. Horeb where God spoke the ‘ten words’ (the Decalogue) directly to the people but then charged Moses with the task of delivering the statutes and ordinances.

They have the same divine origin as the Decalogue but are intended to complement them. Subsequent chapters of the book will presumably illustrate this.

Notice the care with which v. 12 says that Israel heard words but saw no form. In contrast to the more visible and tangible symbols of the divine in priestly theology (cf. Leviticus), Deuteronomy is ‘word theology’. To hear the word of God and to pronounce the divine name are the most intimate and important components of deuteronomic worship.

One could say that Deuteronomy lies at the heart of Judaism’s aniconic tradition. The prohibition against any visible representation of Israel’s God is spelled out in vv. 15-18, with a warning against apostasy following immediately in vv. 19-20.

The implication is that any attempt to represent YHWH in visible form will lead to, or is akin to, abandoning YHWH for other gods. This indicates that deuteronomic theologians accepted the existence of other gods: these have been allotted their respective nations but Israel is YHWH’s exclusive possession (vv. 19-20, but see also v. 39). Deuteronomy champions worship of YHWH alone (6:4); the (later) priestly literature seems to presume YHWH alone—monotheism has won the day.

God as Just and Merciful

Verses 21-24 are not anticipated as such in the introductory verses but they raise an important factor—Moses will not accompany them into the land. This realization provides an added opportunity for our deuteronomic theologian to warn against temptations that life in the land will bring without the guidance of Moses.

We can note here again how Deuteronomy avoids attributing Moses’ death outside the land to any personal failure, unlike the account of his conduct at the waters of Meribah (Num 20:2-13). Is the difference due to different traditions or the fact that Moses looms so large in the deuteronomic firmament?

Verses 25-31 now echo v. 3 by raising the expectation that, once in the land, Israel will fail. If this reflects the exile then the claim being made is that it was the result of Israel’s sin. Presumably, the deuteronomic theologians were including themselves among the sinners.

Whether composed after or before the exile, the text appeals to two key images of God as just and merciful. God, who is intolerant of evil, will justly punish evildoers; God, who is merciful and forgiving will welcome back the repentant.

The juxtaposition is rather stark but Deuteronomy is not shy about confronting its audience with what it believes to be the great challenges of life.

Despite dire warnings of the consequences of failure, a good preacher like our deuteronomic author aims to end on a positive note and vv. 32-40 do just that. In a rousing rhetorical flourish, Moses summarises the great things that God has done out of love (loyalty) for Israel, from its ancestors onwards.

How can Israel do else than be loyal to the statutes and ordinances that are themselves a gift of God (v. 40)?

The homily ends with a dash of self-interest; loyalty will have its reward—long life in the land. Moses’ care for Israel in words is matched by his care in deeds: vv. 41-43 describe how he provided cities of refuge in conquered east Jordan. His legislation will provide for the same to be done after the conquest of west Jordan.

Deuteronomy 5-11

In this reflection, we will look at Deuteronomy 5-11. Chapter 5, which outlines a second version of the Decalogue, is preceded by an introduction in 4:44-49 (note how 4:44 refers to ‘the law’ whereas 1:1 uses the broader term ‘words’) while chapters 6-11 contain a series of homilies that lead from the Decalogue to the Deuteronomic Code of 12-26.

There are two notable differences between the Decalogue in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The first involves the explanation attached to the Sabbath command.

According to the Exodus version, keeping the work and rest rhythm enshrined in the Sabbath reminds Israel of creation and their role in it—to be the image and likeness of God on earth. The formulation of Exod 20:11 clearly echoes Genesis 1 and suggests that a key function of that text is to promote Sabbath theology.

According to the deuteronomic version, keeping the Sabbath will remind Israelites of their God-given freedom—as slaves in Egypt they got no rest. One emphasises creation theology, the other salvation theology. Their relationship? One could say that Torah enables a person to live in God’s freedom and thereby become a worthy steward of God’s creation, able to achieve the ideal of Genesis 1:26-30.

The second difference occurs in Deut 5:21-22 where, unlike the Exodus version, a ‘neighbour’s wife’ is detached from what is in a ‘neighbour’s house’ and becomes the focus of a special command.

A number of scholars think that this reflects a commitment of the deuteronomic reform to give a woman legal status in her own right rather than as a member of her father’s or husband’s ‘house’. If this is the case, the text is one of a number of deuteronomic reforms that I will subsequently identify in the Code.

As noted in the reflection on Deuteronomy 4, Moses’ review of the Decalogue is followed by a more detailed account of how he came to be appointed by God as the one to teach the ‘statutes and ordinances’ (5:28-31).

The Homilies of 6-11

Chapter 6 begins like chapter 4, announcing the ‘statutes and ordinances’ and, like chapter 4, we don’t get a list or code of them.

Instead we get more homilies or exhortations on loyalty to God and the consequences of disloyalty. Our puzzlement may be due to the fact that we are looking at this too much from a modern, western angle.

Many now argue that for Deuteronomy, Torah and a homily or sermon about Torah amount to much the same thing. The commands, statutes and ordinances are a call from God to live the covenant relationship fully: the homilies have the same function.

The long homily or series of homilies in Deuteronomy 6-11 begins and ends with the proclamation that it is Moses’ task to teach them to the people. Within this all embracing frame there is another; the famous call in 6:4-9 to love God with one’s whole heart, soul and might (i.e., to be utterly loyal), a call that is reiterated in similar terms in 11:18-21.

One could say that this is the essence of the ‘statutes and ordinances’ and that the homilies placed between these frames exude something of this essence. It is significant therefore that 6:4-9 is immediately followed by a reminder that Israel’s love of God is a response to God’s love of Israel, manifested in God’s fulfilment of the promises to the ancestors in the gift of the land.

This is a pattern that recurs throughout these chapters: God’s initiative (love) calls for a loving (loyal) response from Israel. It is beautifully enshrined in the catechetical instructions in 6:20-25, the answer to be given when children ask about the meaning of the statutes and ordinances.

The short ‘creed’ that follows in 6:21-23 provides of model for Israel’s confession of faith: the emphasis is on what God has done in freeing Israel from slavery. It recurs in similar terms at the end of the code (26:5-9).

Problematic aspects of the text

One of the enigmas of this great book is how such lofty thoughts can be juxtaposed with thoughts that, for modern readers, are pretty appalling.

Chapter 7 lays out clearly what God will do to the occupants of the land and what Israel is also to do to them. The great gift of freedom is apparently for Israel alone.

In contemporary terms, these instructions smack of ethnic cleansing. The rabbis argued that the circumstances of this torah are so extreme that it is there for educational purposes, to illustrate the gravity of apostasy.

Patristic exegetes sought to salvage such texts by seeing foreign nations as allegories of temptations and sins that one needs to root out. For historical-critical analysis, they are a projection onto the fabled Mosaic era by much later theologians.

But, as my mother used to say ‘it’s the thought that counts’ and by any count, these are disturbing thoughts in a biblical text. Perhaps they serve as a warning that if you push an issue such as purity of worship too far you can tip over the edge.

One may point to the injunction to ‘love the stranger’ in Deut 10:19. However, an individual does not pose the same threat as a whole nation and Israel knew well enough the threat to its existence posed at times by foreign nations. At other times it did very well out of them. Texts in Genesis and Isaiah 19:19-25 provide a welcome contrast to the deuteronomic ones, as also does 2 Kgs 5:18-19 (Elisha).

If Deuteronomy is hard on the worshippers of foreign gods, it is just as hard on Israel. At the centre of these chapters Israel is reminded of its own rebellion against God in the golden calf episode (Exodus 32-34).

According to Deuteronomy God would have destroyed Israel for this sin but for the intercession of Moses (9:8-10:11). The text effectively claims that not only was Moses installed as Israel’s lawgiver (cf. 5:28-30) but also as intercessor. Deuteronomy’s authors knew from experience that you can’t have one without the other.

The ‘Deuteronomic Code’

The so-called ‘Deuteronomic Code’ runs from chapter 12 to 26 and can be divided into 3 main sections. Deuteronomy12-16 is principally about worship and associated matters; Deuteronomy 17-18 is about various kinds of leadership in Israel’s society for its life in the land; and Deuteronomy 19-26 is principally about civil matters.

One can see that, in a general sense, the code follows the structure of the Decalogue: right conduct towards God followed by right conduct towards neighbour. As in chapters 4 and 6, Deuteronomy 12 begins with Moses announcing the ‘statutes and ordinances’. Old Testament authors love doing things in threes and I guess this third announcement means that Moses is about to get down to the nitty-gritty. But, as one reads chapter 12, there is the sense that it is as much an exhortation as a list of laws (homiletic exhortation and legislation are interchangeable).

Those who have made Deuteronomy bed-time reading may be surprised at the virtual absence of references to Aaron in its review of the past. Moses’ older brother and priest appears in many texts of Leviticus and Numbers, but in Deuteronomy he is mentioned twice only: in a very negative way in 9:20, and in 10:9 in relation to his death. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Deuteronomists were not very interested in Aaron or the priesthood in general.

Chapter 12 is all about how the people are to worship God. In 12:19 the people are urged not to neglect the Levite; perhaps a sign that in deuteronomic eyes he is an impoverished figure. The Levitical priests get a mention in 18:1-8, among a number of officials and leaders of Israelite society. According to many modern commentators, the deuteronomic reform of the late monarchical period was a lay movement with a somewhat different agenda to the Jerusalem priesthood, represented by texts in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.

Worship of God in One Place

As well as being people oriented, chapter 12 reflects other important elements of the deuteronomic ‘reform’. Central is the worship of God at one central place (v. 5). The conditions for implementing it in vv. 8-12 signal that the ‘place’ is a deuteronomic codeword for the Jerusalem temple.

The book is set in the time of Moses and it is inappropriate to name the as yet unconquered city of Jerusalem. But the deuteronomic authors are drawing a long bow and their target is Solomon who claims that the conditions for establishing the worship of God at one place have been fulfilled in his reign: the text then describes in very deuteronomic terms how he builds and dedicates the Jerusalem temple (cf. 1 Kgs 5:1-6 and 1 Kings 7-8).

According to Deuteronomy, God will choose one place where the sacred name resides: when a worshipper pronounces the name of YHWH at this place (in the temple), God in heaven hears and answers (cf. 1 Kgs 8:27-30). Both the transcendence and immanence of God are thus respected.

Centralisation of worship is a key plank in the deuteronomic platform but it comes at a price. It is impractical and 12:20-27 recognises this by an important and potentially far-reaching permission: separation of the sacred and the secular. Here it applies only to the slaughter of animals that was customarily ritualised at the local sanctuary: this is no longer required. Nevertheless, some scholars see such a concession as the thin end of the wedge of secularism. It is doubtful whether the authors of Deuteronomy saw it this way.

If the code begins on a high note of worship and celebration, chapter 13 sounds a grim warning about its opposite—apostasy. Its instructions for eliminating apostates are so harsh that, as with chapter 7, the rabbis believed they were never meant to be implemented; they serve a catechetical purpose to illustrate the gravity of the crime.

This response is effectively a recognition of the limitations of Deuteronomy. Having dealt with the threat of apostasy, the subsequent chapters outline further requirements for loyal worshippers of YHWH. There are three main items.

What Loyal Worship Enatils

Chapter 14 lists animals that can and cannot be eaten (clean and unclean), and what one should bring to the central place of worship to be consumed there during the festivals. In a sense, chapters 12 and 14 on true worship form a frame around chapter 13, hedging it about and rendering its shocking possibility impossible.

Deuteronomy 15, the legislation for the seventh year or sabbatical remission of debts, extends the reach of the Decalogue command on the Sabbath. A person in debt apparently sold himself for a term to pay the debt (effectively indentured labour). The system was probably abused at various times during the monarchy. In any event, it was a grave concern for Deuteronomy with its deep conviction that Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt to serve YHWH and enjoy the blessings of the land. Note in v. 3 that the remission does not apply to foreigners.

Deuteronomy 16 brings this first section of the code to a conclusion with its instructions for the celebration of the festal calendar. It is thought that, by the time of Deuteronomy, Passover had become attached to the agricultural feast of Unleavened Bread that marked the commencement of the harvest (vv. 1-8).

Unlike Exodus 12, Passover is not to be celebrated in each home but at the central place that God has chosen for the ‘name’. Later Judaism opted for the custom of local celebration. This initial festival is followed by the feast of weeks at the end of the harvest (normally about 7 weeks; vv. 9-12).

The deuteronomic festal calendar reaches its climax with the feast of booths to mark the ingathering of the harvest. The final verse of the chapter offers a brief but important reminder. Obedience to the statutes and ordinances is a response to God’s initiative in forming a special relationship with Israel; it is not a condition for the establishment of that relationship. Next week we will look at leadership in Deuteronomy’s vision of the perfect (Israelite) society.

Leadership in Deuteronomy 17-18

These two chapters deal with four kinds of ‘leadership’ in Israel: the judiciary (17:2-13); the monarchy (17:14-20); the priesthood (18:1-8); prophecy (18:9-22). There is some overlap with the preceding material on the festal calendar in that the legislation for the judiciary begins in 16:18-20 yet is followed by more instructions about worship in 16:21-17:1.

The reason for this overlap or interweaving is debated but it may be a way of linking the material on leadership with Deuteronomy’s primary concern for right worship. Alternatively, they could be additions located in what was thought a suitable spot. The chapter division here intrudes between instructions: chapter divisions were added in the medieval period and the rationale behind some of them escapes us.

I use the modern term ‘leadership’ cautiously because the ‘job description’ of each is rather different to our notions of leadership. But, it is about the best term we have. Some modern scholars think these chapters represent the delegation of Mosaic leadership. Against this, the only one that is linked explicitly to Moses is the prophet.

Others think their purpose is the distribution of power to counter its abuse—part of the deuteronomic reform. If this is the case, its authors have set the legislation in the Mosaic era in order to claim that their agenda corresponds to the Torah ideal. Attributing speeches to the great ones of hoary antiquity was a recognised way for ancient authors to market their wares. They honoured the tradition and at the same time gained an audience: as we say, a win-win situation.

We can get some idea of how this legislation advances the deuteronomic ideal by noting the following. The statutes and ordinances about judges and priests seek to link the towns (in Hebrew ‘the gates’) of the land with the central ‘place’ (sic. the Jerusalem temple).

According to the setting of the book, Israel is yet to enter and conquer the land. When it does so (when God gives it), Israel will be dispersed among the towns; yet is required to worship at the central ‘place’ as a sign of its commitment to the ideal of the one people worshipping the one god YHWH at the one shrine.

Deuteronomy sees the potential for division and conflict between towns and temple and so legislates to preserve Israel’s unique status. Thus, in the text on the judges care is taken to ensure that no town, however insignificant, is deprived of a judge (16:18-20). Even the worst capital crime—apostasy—is to be handled at the local level.

But, cases that are likely to cause conflict and division (v. 8) are to be referred to the central place where the judge and priest provide the final court of appeal (vv. 10-13): a bit like our high court. The aim of this legislation is to turn what might threaten the ideal into a sign of the ideal. Diversity (the towns) is respected; unity (the central place) is maintained.

Leadership in Deuteronomy 17-18 Continued

The legislation on the priests serves a somewhat similar function. The requirement of centralised worship has the potential to create two classes of clergy; those who reside at the central place and those who live in the towns (the advantaged and the disadvantaged).

Conflict and envy between them could seriously erode the ideal. To avoid it, Deuteronomy gives the country Levites the same rights and privileges as their city cousins (vv. 6-8). Notice how Deuteronomy also takes pains to spell out the rights and responsibilities of the people, both in the appointment of judges and the care of the clergy. All this is designed to advance the ideal and enshrine Israel’s unique status.

The statutes and ordinances about the monarchy and prophecy aim to secure Israel’s unique status in another key area: its place among the nations. As before, the legislation turns what could be a problem into an advantage.

The text on the monarchy begins by accepting that when Israel conquers the land it will desire to have a king ‘like all the nations’. However, the kind of king legislated for is completely different to those of the surrounding nations. Rather than make Israel ‘like the nations’ it will show just how much God has ‘set Israel apart’ from the nations (cf. 4:6-8).

The king is chosen by God (how is not specified), must be one of the community and not a foreigner, must not seek his own power or wealth and must spend all his time reading the Torah—a copy, hence the same Torah that every other Israelite obeys. It is an extraordinary portrait of a king and, if written as part of the late deuteronomic reform, a highly critical reaction to Israel and Judah’s monarchy. It is significant that the reforming king associated by scholarship with Deuteronomy—Josiah—is cast in this mould in 2 Kings 22-23.

In a similar vein, the promise of a prophet in 18:15-22 is preceded by a list of intermediaries found among the nations (vv. 9-14). The prophet like Moses whom God raises up will be completely different to these. In a bold move, the text claims that this prophet was provided for way back at Horeb (not mentioned in the Sinai version) as a response to the people’s need.

In line with deuteronomic theology, God will place ‘my words’ in this prophet’s mouth and the prophet will proclaim the sacred name (vv. 18-19). The question inevitably arises as to which prophet fulfilled this promise. Many opt for Jeremiah but perhaps the text has more than one in mind (cf. the importance of the prophetess Huldah in Josiah’s reign; 2 Kings 22:15-20).

In support of this, notice how the people, as before, are given rights and responsibilities in deciding which prophets are true and which are false (vv. 21-22). As a final comment on this vision of leadership one may note how it covers the two basic areas of the Decalogue: intermediaries or the relationship with God (priest, prophet); governance or the relationship between people (judge, king).

Deuteronomy 19-26

These chapters cover social areas of Israel’s life in the promised land and provide some instructions on how to implement the corresponding second part of the Decalogue (5:17-21). However the correlation is not exact: ch. 23 contains a number of stipulations about who should be admitted to the ‘assembly of the Lord’ and the sequence of statutes and ordinances in 19-26 is somewhat different to that of the Decalogue.

Ancient ideas of order were probably different to ours and we need to respect this. Careful scrutiny of the ‘drafting techniques’ in the laws indicates some form a sequence because they address the same or similar crime (e.g., homicide), others because of handy catchwords (e.g., ‘wife’), or because they resume an earlier collection in a somewhat different way (e.g., the little collection in 24:19-22 expands on 23:24-25). As well, one can presume that the ‘deuteronomic laws’ are meant to illustrate dominant theological issues in the book such as desecration of the holy land, protecting the unique status of Israel as the one people of YHWH, etc.

Finally, as noted in earlier comments, OT laws and narratives are often aimed at protecting appropriate boundaries and dismantling inappropriate ones, at instructing readers about rights and responsibilities. All we can do here is illustrate these features in some parts of chapters 19-26.

Deuteronomy 19:1-21:23 expands broadly on the curt Decalogue command ‘you shall not kill’. The first issue tackled is one that seriously threatens the deuteronomic view of the sacredness of human life precisely because it too is about the sacredness of human life: namely, revenge executions (19:1-21). Unintentional killing can start a chain reaction in a society where family bonds are sacred.

The counter to this was the cities of refuge. According to 4:41-43, Moses set them up in east-Jordan; now he legislates for them in west-Jordan. The concern to maintain a united Israel once it is dispersed throughout the towns provides a link with chs. 17-18.

The warning against moving boundary markers in 19:14 may be in this company because it was regarded as akin to depriving a covenant member of his life (his inheritance in the land). Chapter 20 constitutes a code of conduct in war. In vv. 1-9 a number of exemptions from service are listed. Deuteronomy envisages a militia of free citizens, quite different to the mercenary troops employed by the kings of Israel and Judah (is it therefore a reaction to this practice?).

The legislation then outlines how war is to be conducted (vv. 10-20). Again, the focus is on the towns. Those far away (v. 15) can be sacked, presumably because they are not going to be lived in. Those that fall within Israel’s ‘inheritance’ are not sacked because they will be lived in, but every living being is to be eliminated because they constitute a threat to the purity of Israel’s worship (cf. chs. 7; 13).

The sacredness of human life is sacrificed for the sake of loyalty to YHWH. The ritual for disposing of an unaccounted corpse in 21:1-9 may be located here because it could be the victim of a homicide or a war casualty. Verses 10-14 return to the theme of war booty to provide protection for a woman who fails to please her captor husband. Verses 15-17 seem to be linked to this via the catchword ‘wife’ and vv. 18-21 to vv. 15-17 by the catchword ‘son’.

The rabbis saw in vv. 18-21 another execution that was never to be implemented—for educational purposes only! Desecration of the land is an evident issue in vv. 22-23.

Deuteronomy 22

Deuteronomy 22 looks a disparate collection about care for animals, cross-dressing, sowing and plowing, and sexual matters. However, at the risk of distorting things, one can suggest that a concern for boundaries links these laws. Inappropriate boundaries are to be crossed (vv. 1-4), while appropriate boundaries are to be respected (vv. 5-12). Each piece is designed to enhance Israel’s unique status and unity. The logic of the sexual laws is instructive. Verses 13-19 are evidently designed to discourage a husband from slandering his wife. Verses 23-24 presume a woman in town is guilty of sexual misdemeanour because someone would have rescued her had she cried for help; vv. 25-27 presume a woman in the country is innocent because there is no witness to say whether or not she cried out.

Deuteronomy 23:1-8 prohibits certain groups from crossing a boundary to enter the presence of God, a sacred space: 23:9-14 reverses the direction; the military camp must be a sacred space worthy of the presence of God.

This legislation on worship and the military camp recalls ch. 19 and suggests that chs. 23-25 may be a supplementary collection that expounds on matters aired in the preceding chapters. They display the same concern to mark appropriate boundaries in various sacred and social areas so as to protect the dignity of Israelite life as well as to identify a number of key rights and responsibilities.

Thus 23:24-25 enshrines one’s rights to a neighbour’s crops when in need while 24:19-22 enshrines one’s corresponding responsibilities towards a neighbour. Verses 5-10 are worthy of note. Perpetuating one’s name via children was akin to our notion of immortality in ancient Israel: to deny a dead brother’s wife this hope was a gross dereliction of duty.

The deuteronomic code is limited, or better, selective: as a state constitution it is quite inadequate but this may not be its purpose. It only targets the things that enhance the theology of the book.

It ends as it begins—with the worship of God. The loyal Israelite is to appear before God on two occasions. The first is to bring the first fruits of the land and to give thanks by making a solemn profession of faith in YHWH as saviour and provider (26:1-11). The second is in the third (tithe) year, to testify that the requirements of the law have all been fulfilled (26:12-15). The order is significant: obedience is a response to God’s goodness not a condition for it.

Concluding Remarks on Deuteronomy

According to the setting of the book of Deuteronomy, the code (chs. 12-26) with its accompanying homilies and instructions is proclaimed to Israel poised to enter the land from the east-Jordan bank. Once this is complete, the text provides for its (permanent) inscription on stone pillars in ch. 27. This law is after all for Israel’s life in the land. The ceremony accompanying this inscription is to take place on Mts. Gerizim and Ebal, northern locations that suggest northern traditions behind this part of Deuteronomy at least. The altar in v. 6 is presumably for this ceremony only and is not the one ‘place’ at which all Israel is eventually to worship.

The ceremony will conclude with the pronouncement of blessings and curses (we only get the curses in the text). Joshua 8:30-35 records all this being faithfully carried out by the faithful conquest generation (excepting the case of Achan in Joshua 7).

The list of curses in 27:15-26 may have attracted the much longer and gruesome list in ch. 28. A saving feature of a curse is its referral of the matter to God. Better to hand it over to God than play god oneself. Archaeologists frequently find ‘execration’ (cursing) texts on potsherds and other material in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

This may be an appropriate point to mention the theory that Deuteronomy was constructed after the pattern of ANE treaties between a victor and a vassal, Israel and Judah for example being vassal states of Assyria. The pattern was as follows: a prologue that set out all the good things the victor has done for the vassal; the terms of the treaty (the laws); commitment to the treaty by both parties; blessings for loyalty and curses or punishment for disloyalty; provision of copies for the victor and vassal.

The pattern, which has some uncanny parallels to international power plays today, works to some extent if one assumes Deuteronomy is a once off composition. But it is more likely the book was composed in several stages. Still, the similarity may suggest that, in its final form at least, the book was meant to be a subversive, revolutionary manifesto that denied any legitimacy to treaties between foreign powers and Israel: its allegiance was to YHWH alone. The curses underlined the seriousness of what was at stake.

Deuteronomy 29-30 is effectively a closing series of homilies that, with ch. 4, forms a frame around the central part of the book. Like ch. 4, these homilies warn the audience about the devastating consequences of failure but also offer hope beyond it.

A new element is that the words of Moses proclaimed in Moab on the bank of the Jordan are given the same divine status as the words of the covenant at Horeb-Sinai (29:1). The claim being made here is that Deuteronomy is not at odds with the terms of the earlier covenant: they are effectively one and the same. How one relates unique deuteronomic laws to the earlier codes is presumably left to the wisdom of the reader.

The final chapters of Deuteronomy 31-34 tidy up a number of loose ends and add some important material. Within the logic of this book, Joshua has to be installed to fufill the command in 3:28 even though this is already accounted for in Numbers 27.

The logic of the book also requires that provision be made for a written copy of the law and its regular reading (31:9-13). The words that God entrusted to Moses are now entrusted to the people (cf. also 30:11-14). Moses’ song in ch. 32 is regarded as an addition that covers in poetic form the same topics as the homilies: God’s goodness to Israel; Israel’s disloyalty; God’s just punishment and ultimate mercy.

In ch. 33 Moses, like Israel’s ancestor Jacob, pronounces a farewell blessing before he dies. The account of Moses’ burial is intriguing. The Hebrew of 34:6 clearly says ‘and he (i.e., God) buried him’. This seems to have been too much for the Greek which brings in undertakers (they) and the NRSV which opts for obscurity (he was buried). But why shouldn’t deuteronomic authors portray God personally seeing to the burial of his close friend Moses?

Two final comments are worth making to link Deuteronomy with the larger Torah project. The first one touches its intense idealism. Even though the text does not state it explicitly, one has the impression that Deuteronomy believes Israel can achieve in the land the ideal of creation with which the Bible begins (Genesis 1).

Is this the great arc that binds the various parts of the Torah together; its faith conviction and great hope? If in turn one links this with the promise to Abraham in Gen 12:2-3, then Israel’s ideal life in the land will realise that promise of blessing for all the families of the earth. They will see the blessed life and seek blessing from it.

A troubling element in this of course is the exclusiveness of Deuteronomy and its hostility to those who worship other gods. Intense idealism has its dangers.

The second comment touches the unfinished nature of the Torah, which raises a question about the great ideal. Despite all Moses’ talk about life in the land, the Torah ends with Israel still outside it. There is the story of the conquest in the book of Joshua but this is assigned to another part of the OT canon. One explanation is that the Torah reflects post-exilic times when Israel no longer enjoyed sovereignty over the land. A good historical explanation but there may also be a theological one.

Does the arrangement of the canon imply that Torah, the centrepiece of the Hebrew canon, is a more precious gift than the land and that loyalty to Torah takes precedence over achieving the perfect life in the land? To put this another way: Torah is the story of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and this relationship is and must be the foundation of all others; especially Israel’s relationship with the land.


By Mark O'Brien, OP; Catholic Institute of Sydney. Copyright © 2005, First published in the Catholic Weekly.