Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Bible, and last book of the Pentateuch. It is a record of Moses’ last words before his death. The title Deuteronomy means “second law,” because here, at the end of Israel’s desert wanderings, Moses gives the law again to a generation not alive forty years earlier (when they were first given on Mt. Sinai).

Most of the book consists of a series of speeches given by Moses. The first verses of the book set up Moses’ speeches, and the final chapter (34) records his death. After recounting some of their desert woes (chapters 1-4), Moses drives home the necessity of absolute allegiance to God (chapters 4-11). It is in this section, in 6:4-5, that we find one of the most famous verses in the Old Testament, known in Hebrew as the shema, which means “hear”: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” These same words are also found on Jesus’ lips in the Gospels. (See Matthew 23:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27)

Much of the rest of Deuteronomy contains laws, many of them having to do with Israel and its leaders being righteous (chapters 12-26). Many of the stipulations here are the basis upon which Israel’s kings are judged in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. In fact, those books are so similar in style and content to Deuteronomy that most biblical scholars think that Deuteronomy through 2 Kings forms a large unit, typically referred to as the “Deuteronomistic History.”  In using this title, scholars are referencing the common academic consensus that these books are the work of a group of people living in the century or two leading up to the time of the exile in Babylon (around 600 BC). It is argued that it was this group of people who wrote a history of their nation to explain why they went into exile and suffered at the hands of their enemies. The theological reason given for this sad turn in Israel’s history is that Israel had failed to follow Deuteronomy’s model for a righteous nation, and hence taken upon herself the curses of Deuteronomy 27-29.

These blessing and curses for obedience and disobedience are a final warning by Moses to the people not to stray from obeying God. Finally, chapters 31-34 recount the changing of Israel’s leadership from Moses to Joshua followed by Moses’ death. This final scene alerts readers that Moses could not have been the author of this book, as has been the traditional position.

Another way of dividing up the book is to see it as three addresses: 1:1-4:43; 4:44-28:68; 29-33, followed by Moses’ death. This is accurate but does not tell us much of the contents of Deuteronomy.

One of the recurring issues with Deuteronomy is how its laws differ from those given in Exodus. For example, the fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath, reads differently in Deuteronomy 5 than it does in Exodus 20. In the former, the reason given for a day of rest is to commemorate that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  In Exodus, the reason given is that God rested from his labors at creation, and so should the Israelites. Another example concerns the preparation of the Passover lamb. In Exodus 12:9, it is to be roasted over fire, and not boiled (Hebrew bashal) in water. Deuteronomy 16:5 says nothing of fire, only that it should be cooked (bashal). These and other factors tell scholars that Deuteronomy represents a different legal tradition than what we find in Exodus or Leviticus. The Pentateuch is truly a collection of traditions and sources compiled into one.

In Deuteronomy 20:10-20 we find one of the more disturbing passages in the Old Testament. God gives the Israelites their marching orders for their conquest of the land of Canaan. God tells Israel that if they approach a city outside of their divinely allotted boarders, they must offer it terms of peace. If the city accepts these terms, its inhabitants are to become slaves to the Israelites. However, if they resist Israel, the men must be killed, with the women, children, and treasure of the city kept as booty. Even more disturbing is the description of the Israelite approach to a city within Israel’s allotted borders.  For such a city, no terms for peace are to be offered and everything that breathes within it is to be wiped out. This divine mandate continues into the book of Joshua.

Many have struggled with how to reconcile this with what we read of God’s character elsewhere in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, where Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to be servants of all. Scholars often explain these Old Testament acts as reflecting ancient, tribal ways of thinking about God. In other words, these would be ways of thinking that Israel shared with other peoples of the same time period. Israel was describing God in the way in which was natural for them in their culture. In contrast to this, Jesus presents God not as a warrior intent on destroying other people groups, but a wise and loving father who wishes to draw all to himself.

Deuteronomy 20 and other such passages in the Old Testament are best explained as presenting a view of God that reflects ancient cultural norms of the time.  The Bible as a whole, however, does not leave us in this understanding of God. The issue of divine violence comes up again in the book of Joshua.

– Peter Enns