Lesson 5 of 6
In Progress

Theological Themes in Deuteronomy

The ark

Whereas the traditions found in Exodus depict the ark as the place where the tablets of the covenant are housed and, more important, as a symbol of God’s presence–since it is God’s footstool, and the cherubim above the ark are described as God’s throne from which God speaks to Moses (Exodus 25)–Deuteronomy describes the ark only as a chest that houses the tablets (Deuteronomy 10:1-5; 31:26). Further indications of Deuteronomy’s rejection of the ark as a symbol of God’s presence are its omission of the ark from those texts in Numbers that depict God traveling above the ark in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 1:33, 42; Numbers 10:33-36). Deuteronomy’s refusal to limit God’s presence to objects such as the ark helps to explain its similar rejection of the temple as God’s house and the use of the divine name as indicative of God’s presence.


The Hebrew word herem (“ban” or “dedicated/devoted” object) refers to anything set apart as belonging to God and therefore disqualified from other use. In the priestly materials it usually has reference to things set apart for use in the cult, and therefore holy. In the Deuteronomic tradition, however, the ban has to do with war. Any spoils or booty attained in military encounters were understood to be devoted to God and therefore not to be used by Israel. In fact, following a victory, everything must be “utterly destroyed” (the verbal root of “ban”; Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 7:2, 13:15, 17; 20:17). The point of this is not to advocate violence, but that Israel is not to profit by means of warfare.

Blessings and curses

Deuteronomy 28:1-14 describes the blessings that Israel will receive for faithful obedience:

  • victory in war (vv. 1, 7, 10)
  • prosperity (vv. 3-6, 8, 11-12)
  • becoming God’s holy people (v. 9)
  • finding themselves only “the head,” “at the top” (vv. 13-14, meaning obscure)

God brought about all of this in the occupation of the land.

Deuteronomy 28:15-68, however, describes the curses that Israel would receive for apostasy:

  • no prosperity (vv. 17-19)
  • affliction (vv. 20-22, 27-28, 58-61)
  • drought (vv. 23-24)
  • defeat by their enemies (vv. 25, 31-33, 47-57)
  • population reduction (vv. 62-63)
  • exile (vv. 32, 36-37, 41-44, 63-68)

God brought about all of these “curses” for Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 722/721 B.C.E. (2 Kings 17:1-41) and for Judah at the hands of the Babylonians in 587/586 B.C.E. (2 Kings 24:1-25:21).

Centralized worship

Deuteronomy 12 is important for the later Deuteronomistic editors because of its insistence upon the centralization of worship. When Jeroboam revolted and established the Northern Kingdom of Israel, he needed to set up shrines in Bethel and Dan as rival sanctuaries to the Jerusalem temple. This became the primary sin that brought condemnation upon all the northern kings in the judgment of the Deuteronomistic editors. The relevant items in Deuteronomy 12 include:

  • Canaanite places of worship need to be destroyed (vv. 1-4)
  • after Israel enters the land, God would choose one place to dwell instead of the tabernacle that functioned as a portable shrine in the wilderness (v. 5)
  • sacrifices, offerings, and gifts may only be brought to this place (vv. 6-7)
  • sacrifice can only be offered to God here (vv. 10-14)

Within Deuteronomy the emphasis on centralized worship forms the background for the following passages:

  • the tithe (14:22-29)
  • the first-born belongs to God (15:19-23)
  • the festival calendar (16:1-17)
  • the central court (17:8-13)
  • the rights of the Levitical priests (18:1-8)
  • the cities of refuge (19:1-13)

It is important to recognize that no specific city is named in the chapter. If these traditions arose in the North, it is likely that Shechem, the most important shrine in Israel, was meant. When the traditions came south, after the fall of the North (722/721 B.C.E.), the chosen place was identified with Jerusalem.


Election, God’s free choice, is an important aspect of the theology of Deuteronomy. Most important, Israel was regarded as an elect nation, chosen by God (4:37; 7:6-7; 10:15; 14:2). This means that Israel owed its very existence to the gracious initiative of God’s prior choice, simply because God loved them, apart from any merit on Israel’s part (7:7-8). Besides Israel, God has also freely chosen the king (17:15), the priests (18:5, 21:5), and the place of worship (12:11; 14:25; 16:6; 18:6).

This understanding of God’s prior establishment of the relationship militates against the common notion that Deuteronomy is a “legalistic” work in which God rewards Israel for its compliance with the commandments. On the contrary, God chose Israel before Israel had a chance to obey. Israel’s response follows God’s election and flows out of gratitude (chapter 8). This order is especially clear in Deuteronomy 27:9-10: “O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the LORD your God. Therefore obey the LORD your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today” (emphasis added).

High places, pillars, and poles

Due to their affinity with the religion of the Canaanites, these three cultic items were especially abhorrent to the Deuteronomistic editors.

  • high places (bamoth): sites of Canaanite worship
  • pillars (masseboth): standing stones, possibly phallic, that symbolized Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility
  • sacred poles (asheroth): trees that represented the goddess Asherah

Josiah’s reform

Since the early-19th century, Josiah’s extensive reform of the cult in 621 B.C.E. has been linked to the Book of Deuteronomy. Comparison with 2 Kings 23 yields the following verbal correspondences; in most cases, the Deuteronomic citation is representative of terminology that frequently appears:

The correspondence between Deuteronomic prohibitions and Josiah’s reforms is even more striking:


Deuteronomy 17:14-20 provides the blueprint for what kingship should look like:

  • Verses 16-17 regularly appear in the descriptions of Solomon’s reign: 1 Kings 4:26; 9:19; 10:14-28; 11:3.
  • The king is to be faithfully obedient to the prescriptions of the Mosaic legislation (vv. 18-19). Most of the kings of Judah and all of the kings of Israel failed in this regard. Josiah, however, literally complied by ruling according to the precepts of the book of the law discovered in the temple (2 Kings 22:8-23:25).
  • The continuation of the monarchy as well as the dynastic succession is tied to the king’s faithful obedience (v. 20).


Deuteronomy is often seen as the Bible’s charter document for monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. This fundamental belief at the root of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, however, is not quite present in Deuteronomy, since it fails to deny the existence of other gods. Deuteronomy 5:7, “You shall have no other gods before me,” implies that there are other gods; the point of the commandment is that they are not to be worshiped alongside or in addition to the Lord.

The name of God

Deuteronomy’s frequent reference to the name of God in phrases like “the name of the LORD your God,” “his name,” “the name of the LORD,” and others, has often been thought to be the means by which God is revealed. But the occurrence of this terminology in Deuteronomy may be an implicit critique of earlier, less sophisticated theological beliefs that God was actually present in Israel’s places of worship (see Exodus 25:8, 22; 29:45-46; 40:34-35). Following the division of the kingdom, which denied the northern tribes–where Deuteronomy probably originated–access to the ark, the authors of Deuteronomy intended to show that no earthly structure can “contain” God (see 1 Kings 8:27); what is present is not “God,” who dwells in heaven (Deuteronomy 26:15), but God’s “name” (12:5).

The people as one

Deuteronomy never urges the people to become one, because this state of affairs was assumed by the covenantal nature of their relationship to God. A further indication of Israel’s assumed unity is the unusual habit of referring to members of the community as “brothers”-a term variously translated in the NRSV (see 1:16; 3:18, 20; 10:9; 15:3, 7, 9, 11; 17:20; 18:15, 18). By so doing, Deuteronomy effectively minimized the tribal differences that had divided the people in the past and fostered a perception among them of a united entity. The emphasis on the “oneness” of God, the unity of the people, and the prescription to worship only in Jerusalem has led to the oft-repeated Deuteronomic dictum of “one people worshiping one God at one central sanctuary.”


Deuteronomy is the only law code that addresses the role and function of prophecy. Contemporary notions of the prediction of future events are especially denounced in 18:9-14 where divination, soothsaying, augury, sorcery, the casting of spells, the consultation of ghosts or spirits, and the seeking of oracles from the dead are declared to be abhorrent practices. Notice that the possibility of such practices is not denied; Saul will later consult a medium who successfully conjures up the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28). Rather, Deuteronomy prohibits such practices. In Deuteronomy the role of the prophet is modeled upon the role of Moses who, at the time the torah was given on Mt. Horeb, was designated as mediator, that is, as the one to explain and apply the Torah to the lives of the people. The prophets are Moses’ successors in this regard. They are subservient to the regulation of the Torah; if their message or behavior should deviate from its prescriptions or lead the people astray, they must forfeit their lives (13:1-5). In addition they are also enjoined to be attentive to new revelations from God (18:18-20).

Social justice

One has the feeling that eighth-century prophets like Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah of Jerusalem would have been delighted with the Book of Deuteronomy. In both traditions there is a clear emphasis on the necessity for social justice, particularly with regard to those on the margins of society, debtors, indentured servants, escaped slaves, Levites, the poor, widows, orphans, women, foreigners, even animals and convicted criminals. This is especially clear in the following passages:

  • care for the Levite (12:18-19;14:28-29)
  • the sabbatical year with its release of debts (15:1-18)
  • care for Levites, sojourners, orphans, and widows (16:11, 14)
  • exemption from military service for various reasons (20:5-8)
  • moral duties toward the neighbor (22:1-4; 23:24-25)
  • care for animals (22:6-7, 10)
  • asylum for escaped slaves; restrictions on prostitution (23:15-18)
  • financial ethics (24:10-22)
  • corporal punishment; humane treatment of animals (25:1-4)

Such extensive humanitarian activity on behalf of those in need is based on Israel’s own past experience (10:19; 15:15). All this is to be implemented through fair and impartial judges and a legal system designed to uphold the social fabric of the community (16:19-20).

True prophecy

The importance of the Deuteronomic test of true prophecy (18:15-22) for the Deuteronomistic editors lies in its conformity to the facts of real life and history. The exiles wondered if God was reliable in the face of the apparent failure of God’s promise to David. The Book of Kings, especially, seeks to reassure the people that God remains true to God’s word. The exile was not a failure on God’s part, but rather a parade example that God would do what God had said: “The LORD sent against him bands of the Chaldeans, bands of the Arameans, bands of the Moabites, and bands of the Ammonites; he sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by his servants the prophets” (2 Kings 24:2, emphasis added). Numerous other places could be cited in support of the fulfillment of prophecy in these terms, including 1 Kings 13:1-2, 5, 21-22, 26, 32; 15:29; 2 Kings 1:17; 7:1; 9:26, 36; 10:17.

Why did the Canaanites have to be exterminated? 

Deuteronomy’s call for the extermination of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:17) troubles readers. The logic of this position is as follows:

  • since God promised the land of Canaan to Israel (1:8, 35; 6:10), and
  • since Canaanite sin means they have lost all claim to the land (9:5), and
  • since the odds are very good that Israel will fall into apostasy (4:3-4), and
  • since the golden thread running through Deuteronomy is a demand for total loyalty to God and God alone, rejecting other gods (5:7; 17:2-7), therefore
  • the fear of Israel falling away from God into apostasy is the driving force behind the injunction to exterminate the Canaanites.

But the injunctions may be idealized preaching rather than historical reminiscence. It makes no sense to have commands forbidding intermarriage and making treaties with the Canaanites (7:2b-5) following the demand to “utterly destroy them” (7:2a). Historically, the Canaanites were, in fact, never exterminated.