Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Deuteronomy

Canonical setting

Traditionally, Deuteronomy has been seen as the concluding scroll of the Torah or Pentateuch, the so-called five books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Its legal materials (chapters 12-26) and narratives about the final days of Moses provide some justification for this view. Since the middle of the 20th century, however, scholars, following the lead of Martin Noth, have tended to see Deuteronomy as the theological introduction to the historical books of the Old Testament, the Deuteronomistic (“Deuteronomy-like”) History that stretches from Joshua through 2 Kings.

Covenantal shaping

For over 50 years, scholars of both liberal and conservative persuasions have noticed the strong similarity between Deuteronomy and international treaties pervasive in the Hittite culture of the second millennium B.C.E. Such treaties established the relationship between the conquering Hittites and their vassals with this general structure:

  1. preamble identifying the two parties
  2. historical prologue relating their past relationship
  3. stipulations agreed to by the vassal including loyalty and tribute
  4. curses and blessings, including sanctions for noncompliance
  5. invocation of the gods as witnesses to the treaty
  6. provision for public reading of the document

This framework was then applied to the Book of Deuteronomy:

  1. preamble identifying the two parties (1:1-5)
  2. historical prologue relating their past relationship (1:6-3:29)
  3. stipulations agreed to by the vassal, including loyalty and tribute (chapters 4-26)
  • general (4:1-11:32)
  • specific (12:1-26:19)
  1. curses and blessings, including sanctions for noncompliance (chapters 27-30)
  2. invocation of the gods as witnesses to the treaty (31:28)
  3. provision for public reading of the document (31:9-13)

The current debate centers on the different character of the Neo-Assyrian treaties of the first millennium B.C.E., which lack the historical prologue, only put forth curses for noncompliance, and lack the requirement of the depositing of the treaty in the sanctuaries of both suzerain and vassals. Conservatives tend to favor the second-millennium form and use this as an argument for Mosaic authorship. Liberals tend toward the Neo-Assyrian format. At least the origins of Israel’s covenantal theology have been discovered, though what particular form that concept has taken is far from clear.

Farewell speeches in the Deuteronomistic History

The Book of Deuteronomy was probably conceived as a treaty document based upon either the Hittite treaties of the second millennium or the Neo-Assyrian treaties of the first millennium B.C.E. Upon its incorporation into the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH), however, a secondary shaping of the material was imposed upon the text. The different “books” of the DtrH familiar to us (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) were originally divided by means of significant speeches, prayers, theological reflections of the editors, or farewell addresses of the major character of the period at the end of their era:

  • Moses’ first speech: Deuteronomy 1:1-4:40
  • Moses’ second speech: Deuteronomy 5:1-28:68
  • Moses’ third speech: Deuteronomy 29:1-31:13
  • Joshua’s farewell address at the settlement of the land: Joshua 23
  • Theological reflection on the period of the Judges: Judges 2:11-23
  • Samuel’s farewell address at the establishment of the monarchy: 1 Samuel 12
  • Nathan’s dynastic oracle and David’s prayer: 2 Samuel 7
  • David’s farewell address: 1 Kings 2
  • Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple: 1 Kings 8:22-53
  • Theological reflection on the fall of Samaria to Assyria: 2 Kings 17:7-23
  • Theological reflection on the fall of Judah to Babylon: 2 Kings 25:1-7

The Deuteronomic Code and the Decalogue

There is a long history of interpretation that sees the Deuteronomic Code in chapters 12-26 as an explication of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Philo, a Jewish philosopher in the first century C.E., may have been the first to suggest this, but he was not the last. Both Luther and Calvin in the 16th century and several modern interpreters have attempted to find the elusive structure of the laws in Deuteronomy 12-26 by following this intriguing proposition. A common result of their investigations, based upon the Catholic/Lutheran numbering of the commandments, follows:

  • First Commandment: No other gods, 12:2-13:18
  • Second Commandment: Misuse of God’s name, 14:1-21
  • Third Commandment: Observe the Sabbath, 14:22-16:17
  • Fourth Commandment: Honor father and mother, 16:18-18:22
  • Fifth Commandment: Do not murder, 19:1-22:8
  • Sixth Commandment: Do not commit adultery, 22:9-23:18
  • Seventh Commandment: Do not steal, 23:19-24:7
  • Eighth Commandment: Do not bear false witness, 24:8-25:4
  • Ninth Commandment: Do not covet neighbor’s wife, 25:5-12
  • Tenth Commandment: Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor, 25:13-26:15

There is much to commend this approach. It is certainly logical and provides much needed order to a somewhat jumbled grouping of the legal materials. As the chart makes clear, the specific stipulations can be shown to be elaborations or applications of the statements rather flatly made in the Ten Commandments themselves; these elaborations follow the order of the Decalogue. There are difficulties in the details, however. It seems best to acknowledge that Deuteronomy 12-26 is essentially a more detailed exposition of the general principles of relationship addressed in 5:1-11:32.

Parallels with other law codes

Scholars have long recognized that much of the legal material in Deuteronomy also appears in the Covenant Code (also called the Book of the Covenant) in Exodus 20:22-23:33 and the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-26. It is well established that the Book of the Covenant is older than Deuteronomy. The Book of the Covenant reflects an agrarian setting, while the code in Deuteronomy is clearly more urbanized. Deuteronomy adopted the decisive features that made the Book of the Covenant unique from other ancient Near Eastern law codes, expanded them, and couched them as the command of Israel’s God to the covenant people.

Laws unique to Deuteronomy

Comparison of the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26) with the Book of the Covenant or Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33) and the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26, see above) indicates that only five topics are unique to Deuteronomy: centralization of worship (12:1-32; and elsewhere); apostate towns (13:12-16); kingship (17:14-20); war (20:1-20); and murder by unknown persons (21:1-9).

This is surprisingly few, given the extensive legal materials assembled. The material in chapters 12, 17, and 20 is all germane to the Deuteronomic setting and is the most important. The concern with kingship points to the period of the monarchy as at least one moment in the redactional history of the book. Observations such as these are often used to deny Mosaic authorship.

Moses as the author of Deuteronomy? 

Traditionally, Moses has been seen as the author of Deuteronomy, indeed, of the Pentateuch as a whole. Despite references to Moses “writing down in a book the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:24; see also 31:9), there are several indications that this is not the case:

  1. References to territories east of the Jordan River as “beyond the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 1:1, 5; 3:8; 4:46) presuppose a vantage point on the west side of the river, but Moses was never on the west side of the river (34:4).
  2. The language of Deuteronomy is very different from the rest of the Pentateuch, yet similar to the seventh-century language of Jeremiah.
  3. The settlement of Canaan is viewed as an accomplished fact (Deuteronomy 2:12).
  4. Chapter 34, the account of the death of Moses, cannot have been written by him.
  5. The argument in Deuteronomy 12 for one central sanctuary is more restrictive than Exodus 20:24-25, which allows multiple altars, yet the central sanctuary is assumed in Leviticus, suggesting an intermediate chronological setting for Deuteronomy that is clearly long after the time of Moses.
  6. The concern for monarchy and regulations concerning the king are from a time long past Moses (for example, Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
  7. The setting of the laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22-23:33) is essentially agrarian, while that of the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26) is more urban.

Textual matters 

The Masoretic Hebrew Text (approximately 1008 C.E.) of Deuteronomy is excellent. Roughly 80 passages from Deuteronomy of varying length are found in fragments of 32 of the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, the most significant being 4Qdeuteronomy (about 200 B.C.E.-60 C.E.). These attest to the popularity of Deuteronomy among that community. The Nash Papyrus (second century B.C.E.) provides us with the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-21) and the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) in a version similar to that of the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament (about 300 B.C.E.).


The Septuagint’s (LXX) mistranslation of Deuteronomy 17:18-19, which instructs the king to make “a copy of this law” (that is, the legislation in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers) is the most likely source of “Deuteronomy.” The Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) translated this phrase as “this second law,” suggesting a different body of legislation. The Hebrew title, “these are the words” (that Moses spoke to Israel before entering the Promised Land), is a more accurate representation of the contents of Deuteronomy.


Deuteronomy frequently employs the term “the day” (hayyom), meaning “this day” or “today,” as a way of making these sermons from Moses liturgically present for every hearer/reader (for example, 4:4; 5:1, 3; 11:32). Its most impressive rhetorical occurrence is in the sevenfold repetition found in 26:16, 17, 18; 27:1, 4, 9, and 10.


This definitive Hebrew concept is usually translated as “law.” This is appropriate, though “teaching,” “instruction,” or even “revelation” often better capture the nuances of this pervasive Old Testament term that expresses the moral and social teaching of God’s revelation to the covenant people. In Deuteronomy, torah often signifies the body of legislation known as the Deuteronomic Code found in chapters 12-26 (4:8; 30:10; 32:46), thus pointing to its character as “law.” After Deuteronomy, the entire Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), with its law codes and the story of God’s dealings with Israel, came to be called “The Torah,” thus pointing to its character as “teaching” or “revelation.”


Singular and plural. The material that frames the law code in chapters 12-26 (1:1-11:32; 26:16-34:12) occasionally shifts back and forth between singular and plural forms of “you.” While this is evident in the Hebrew text (and the King James Version of the Bible) the failure of modern English to distinguish between these forms means this strange occurrence goes unnoticed when one reads the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version). In the past, scholarship attributed this variation to different traditions in the history of the growth of the text. These days, while not denying the considerable editorial expansion in these chapters, the variations are usually seen as a feature of Deuteronomy’s rhetorical style. For example, by couching the Ten Commandments in the second person singular “you,” the Deuteronomist addresses each individual Israelite with the claim of each commandment upon one’s life.

What kind of book is Deuteronomy? 

Presented as a series of sermons, Deuteronomy differs from the other legal collections of the Pentateuch. Those other traditions are cast in the form of a long speech from God to Moses, which comprises the bulk of the Sinai covenant found in Exodus 21Numbers 10. Deuteronomy, in contrast, is cast as Moses’ speech to the people of Israel before they enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.

Many see Deuteronomy as a “covenantal document” based upon the pervasive treaties of the ancient Near East in the second millennium. This structuring of the book has been discussed elsewhere in this section.

Others see the basic shape as the “constitution” of Israel, due to its distinctive character as a treaty document with features of a law code. As such, Deuteronomy seeks to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population.

To date, no agreement exists between the suggestions of sermon, covenant document, and constitution. Deuteronomy seems to partake of all these elements.