Deuteronomy is the pivot on which the theology of the Old Testament turns. Moses’s climactic preaching on the edge of the Promised Land functions as both the conclusion to the Pentateuch and the gateway to the history of Israel as set out in Joshua–2 Kings. His words trace out the shape of the obedient life in the land in terms of worship, relationships, and behaviour, call God’s people to listen to him, warn them of the consequences of their inevitable failure, and hold out to God’s people the glorious prospect of a future provision of grace which will transform their hearts and bring righteousness within their reach.
Educated both in the world of international diplomacy in the royal court of Egypt and the traditions of the Hebrews, Moses draws on contemporary legal practices and treaty arrangements in the ancient world as he expounds both the covenant commitments which the LORD had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Genesis and their implications. His preaching repeatedly calls Israel to respond to God’s immense generosity and grace by listening to him, sticking with him, and delighting in him in the land which he has given them to possess. Whilst the book was clearly published sometime after Moses’s death (see e.g., the opening comments of chapter 1, and obviously, the account of Moses’s passing in chapter 34), there is no compelling reason to doubt that Moses himself was the one who shaped this theological masterpiece.
The book is profoundly “gospel-shaped.” Moses begins by laying out the problem of sin in the darkest possible terms. God’s people fail repeatedly and spectacularly on the way to the land. Although God continues to speak and make himself present through his word (Deut 4), it quickly becomes clear that Israel will not listen to (nor be able to listen to) God’s grace-filled invitation to enjoy a beautiful life with him in the land (see Deut 12–26). Moses makes clear it is only a matter of time before Israel will rebel and feel the weight of the curses of the covenant and then announces the dramatic news that God himself will bring about the transformation necessary for people like Israel (and us) as he will circumcise their hearts, enabling them to obey (30:6). Moses’s death at the close makes clear that this great leader is not the answer to our problems. For that, we will need one greater than Moses.
Deuteronomy was first spoken (by Moses) and then reproduced to urge God’s people to throw themselves into living gratefully in response to God’s grace in their new land and to acknowledge that, ultimately, their only hope of enjoying life with him rests on his future, gracious intervention to change their hearts.
“And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
— Deuteronomy 30:6 ESV
I. Moses Preaches History (1:1–3:29)
A. Introduction (1:1–8)
B. A Strange but Significant Reminder (1:9–18)
C. A Catastrophic Decision (1:19–46)
D. An Ironic Retrospect (2:1–25)
E. Two Model Conquests (2:26–3:22)
F. A Shocking Prohibition (3:23–29)
II. Moses Preaches Revelation (4:1–43)
III. Moses Preaches Covenant (4:44–11:32)
A. A Headline Statement (4:44–49)
B. The Basic Requirements of the Covenant (5:1–33)
C. Covenantal Listening (6:1–25)
D. The Demanding Covenant of Grace (7:1–26)
E. Learning from the Wilderness Years (8:1–20)
F. Sin, Second Chances, and the Grace of God (9:1–10:11)
G. What God Requires (10:12–11:7)
H. Blessing or Curse? (11:8–32)
IV. Moses Preaches Torah (12:1–26:19)
A. Worshipping God’s Way (12:1–28)
B. Worshipping God Alone (13:1–18)
C. Living as God’s Treasured Possession (14:1–21)
D. The Rhythm of Covenant Life (14:22–16:17)
E. Living under God’s Appointed Leaders (16:18–18:22)
F. Death as the Ultimate Sanction (19:1–22:12)
G. Righteousness in All of Life (22:13–25:19)
H. Conclusion: Living All of Life For God (26:1–19)
V. Moses Preaches Blessing and Curse (27:1–28:68)
VI. Moses Preaches the New Covenant (29:1–30:20)
VII. Postscript 1: The Inevitability of Failure (31:1–32:47)
VIII. Postscript 2: The Death of Moses (32:48–34:12)
Moses Preaches History (1:1–3:29)
1:1 Deuteronomy consists almost entirely of the words of Moses. After this brief introduction in verses 1–5, the leader speaks until 4:40, then resumes at 4:44, continuing all the way to 26:19. After speaking in concert with the elders and the Levites from 27:1–28:69, Moses’s voice alone dominates the rest of the book, until the third person account of his death in the final chapter. The Hebrew title of the book, “Words,” is deeply appropriate. These words are preached to “all Israel,” reflecting Moses’s concern that God’s people as a unified community must live God’s way in the land they are about to enter. The context of Moses’s address is described as “beyond the Jordan in the wilderness” (i.e., the introduction is written from a standpoint in the land, after these events have taken place and the people have crossed the Jordan). The place names cannot be identified with any certainty, but either refer to waypoints on the journey from Sinai to Moab or to locations in Moab (see 1:5).
1:2 The observation that the eleven-day journey has taken God’s people forty years prepares the reader for Moses’s cutting exposure of the sin of the people which follows.
1:3–4 Along with the geographical details, the precise date ensures that this book is read as the edited account of an actual speech, given in real time by a real person at a real place. This sermon marks the end of the wilderness period (“the fortieth year”), and appears to be delivered in a single day, at the end of which Moses dies (see 32:48). The fact that it comes in the wake of the straightforward conquest of the Amorite kings Sihon and Og (see Num 21:21–35) hints that the slow progress of 1:2 was unnecessary.
1:5 Again, the setting in Moab on the east of the Jordan is highlighted before Moses starts to “explain this law.” On the high ground overlooking the Jordan Valley (from which both Jericho and Jerusalem can be seen on a clear day), Moses starts to explain or clarify the “torah.” The fact that this heading is given to narrative and exhortation as well as legislation is the first hint that “torah” in Deuteronomy means much more than rules. It is rather “the gospel according to Moses.”1
1:6–8 Before Moses’s address begins in earnest, God’s own words are quoted from Numbers 10:11–13. God’s stated intent is to fulfil the promises he has made to his people (the sweeping extent of the gift of land is that promised to Abram in Gen 15:8–10). In contrast to God’s gracious intent, the apparent reluctance of the people to leave Horeb had been followed by forty years of delay. Now, the same words inviting them to gaze over the land, and the same assurance of God’s commitment to his covenant promises have the effect of highlighting the people’s long record of disobedience.
A Strange but Significant Reminder (1:9–18)
1:9–14 Slightly unexpectedly at this point, rather than dealing with the journey from Horeb to Moab, Moses turns to the appointment of a new network of leaders. The phrase “at that time” (1:9, 16, 18) underlines the significance of this moment. Exodus 18:13–26 provides the background (see also the appointment of Elders in Num 11:10–25). Moses’s concern here is not to clarify the process or timing, but to make two important theological points, which undergird much of the rest of this book.
First, the need for a leadership structure should be seen as a result of God continuing to fulfil his promises to the Patriarchs (for the promise of descendants “as numerous as the stars of heaven” see Gen 22:17 and 26:4). Moses’s exclamation in 1:11 makes it clear that this is only a beginning. But the inevitable consequence of God’s blessing gathering pace is that no one man can lead God’s people effectively. The language that Moses uses, however, is salutary. It is the prospect of dealing with three things which necessitates this change: their “burdens,” “weights” and “strife” (or arguments and complaints).
This is the second thing which this unit highlights: the sinfulness of the people, which is multiplying even as God blesses them. Moses calls for the appointment of qualified men to lead, and the people affirm this move in verse 14 (although see Josh 1:16–18; 24:16–18 on the reliability of the words of the people). This section is not focused ultimately on the desirability or qualifications of godly leaders: Moses rehearses this incident as part of his indictment of the disobedience of the nation as a whole. The decisions which were made on the way to the land were not down to Moses alone.
1:15–18 Moses’s appointment of leaders according to 1:15 was a thoroughgoing exercise which was applied at every level of society. No operational or practical details are given at this stage, other than the fact that these leaders are to be “wise” and “experienced.” The broad principles by which the “judges,” a loose title which seems to apply to every level of appointment, are to function are set out from verses 16–18: righteousness; impartiality; fearlessness. When a case is complex or sensitive, it can be referred “upwards.” But Moses’s focus, according to verse 18, is on the relevance of these appointments for this moment in the nation’s history. This “system” means that the people are both culpable and without excuse as they journey towards the land.
A Catastrophic Decision (1:19–46)
1:19–21 On leaving Horeb as God had commanded, the nation’s progress to Kadesh-barnea is completely straightforward (in contrast to 1:2), despite the nature of the terrain. This time Moses reminds them of his own words rather than God’s, pointing out the “view” (probably metaphorical) and encouraging the people to act fearlessly in line with God’s command.
1:22–25 The people’s suggestion to send spies into the land, if taken at face value, seems to be a sensible step. It certainly seemed so to Moses (1:23). The mission report of the twelve tribal representatives (mirroring the judges in the previous section) is condensed into the verdict “It is a good land” that God is giving us. On the positive side, the land is clearly good and fruitful (like Eden?). The lack of actual reconnaissance, however, does not bode well—their “spying” appears to be limited to a vineyard! Numbers 13:1–2 states that the spies were sent at God’s command, but there is no necessary contradiction here. As with 1:9–18, Moses’s concern is not to give a blow-by-blow account of events, but to highlight that despite God’s consistent faithfulness, the people messed up at every stage.
1:26–33 This intention is made explicit in verse 26, where God’s people stubbornly refuse to go a step further. Disobedience is compounded with disgruntled blasphemy, as the people claim that God only rescued them to have them destroyed by the local Amorites, and that he did it because he “hated” them. The accusation is astonishing, only to be compounded by their faithlessness. According to Moses, the people simultaneously blame the spies (for their report) and God, as they focus on the nature of the opposition. Their protests seem exaggerated and do not give any reason not to move forward. The “sons of the Anakim” (see Josh 11:21–22 and perhaps 1Sam 17:4) are simply large and fearsome Canaanite fighters. Moses cuts right to the heart of the issue, reminding them of the military dynamic of the Exodus (Exod 14:14) and the nature of God’s fatherly care in the wilderness, carrying them “as a man carries his son.” But neither the events of their departure from Egypt nor God’s providing presence in the pillar of cloud and fire in the desert, nor even his explicit promise could move them to trust him. At the root of their refusal to move forward was their unbelief.
1:34–36 As Moses summarises Yahweh’s angry response to all this, he highlights the exclusion of the evil (Exodus) generation from the land (which may well echo Adam and Eve’s exclusion in Gen 3) and the exception made for Caleb on the grounds that he “wholly followed the LORD.” The language implies that Caleb filled up the idea of following God, unlike the rest of the people. The other spy who advocated advance, Joshua, Moses’s successor as leader of the people, is mentioned separately.
1:37–40 Unexpectedly, Moses mentions his own exclusion from the land at this point, laying the responsibility for it with the people! Presumably this is because his striking the rock in Numbers 20 could not have happened had the nation entered the land at Kadesh-barnea. It is important to remember the rhetorical effect that this reminder must have had, as an entire adult generation, including their leader, is consigned to die outside the land. Rather than dying in the land at the hand of giants, they will now perish in the wilderness, as God begins to reverse the Exodus itself.
1:41–46 Despite appearing to repent at the start of verse 41, the people’s insistence on pressing into the land despite God’s command for them to withdraw illustrates the depth of the problem Moses was addressing. The fact that they “thought it was easy to go up” bespeaks a deep-seated independence and presumption (1:43). The result, predictably, is disaster, as they are roundly defeated by the Amorites. Moses’s diagnosis is simple: “you would not listen.” The God who had heard their groaning in Egypt (Exod 2:24) now ignores their weeping, as the Exodus grinds to a halt.
An Ironic Retrospect (2:1–25)
2:1–8a Almost forty years in the wilderness are dismissed as one long backward step. The people wander aimlessly around the outskirts of Edom (between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba). The abbreviated account further underlines the tragedy of their refusal to enter the land and highlights the grace of God in restarting their journey in 2:3. Their instructions are clear: they are to leave the God-fearing Edomites alone, for “I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession.” Strikingly, Edom’s blood relationship with Abraham (through Esau) leads to blessing—in this case, a land of their own. The relational “proximity” with Israel means that rather than being destroyed by them, they are to provide food and water (at an appropriate price). Moses encourages Israel to see all this as part of the relentless provision of God (2:7). This time, it seems, the people are so eager to ensure they follow God’s instructions that they try to avoid direct contact with the Edomites on main routes or near major settlements.
2:8b–15 As they move north into the territory of Moab, God also prohibits fighting with these distant cousins (through Lot) on the same basis: God has given the Moabites their land too. The impact of Moses’s insistence that God had given other nations their land is made explicit by the parenthesis of 2:10–12. The “publisher” of Moses’s sermon fills in some background, presumably well-known to his first hearers in Moab. Both the Moabites and the Edomites had previously dispossessed “giants” (who turn out to be large, fearsome, legendary but very human warriors—see Gen 14:5; 15:20; Deut 3:11), which makes Israel’s failure all the more culpable. This failure is brought front and centre, as Moses reminds them of the recently completed death of an entire generation of adult males during these thirty-eight years (their parents’ generation) as a direct result of their refusal to take the land promised to them.
2:16–25 Once the previous generation had all died (with the exception of Caleb, Joshua and Moses himself), the journey through Moab to Ammon, further to the north, began. In verse 19, the same conditions are applied to Ammon, also descended from Lot, as to Moab and Edom. The parenthesis of 2:18–23 mirrors that of 2:10–12 and has the effect for the reader of Deuteronomy of capturing the mounting irony of Moses’s preaching. Not only did the Ammonites and Edomites dispossess Rephaim from their lands, but even, according to verse 23, the otherwise unmentioned Caphtorim managed to overcome “giants,” even without the explicit help of Yahweh. The precise identity of these ethnic groups is hard to tie down, but the point is clear: even these Canaanite nations succeeded where God’s own people failed. It is against this background that God graciously commands the people to cross the boundary between the lands of the Moabites and the Amorites at the Wadi Arnon (Num 21:13). In contrast to their “blood relatives,” the rules of engagement are now very different (2:24). According to 2:25, the purpose of the conflict with Sihon includes “shock and awe” tactics in preparation for the conquest of the land itself (see Josh 2:10–11).
Two Model Conquests (2:26–3:22)
2:26–30 Having crossed the Arnon (Josh 13:18), Moses’s approach is diplomatic, and fits with the later template for dealing with other nations outside the land (Deut 20:10–12). His offer to Sihon surprisingly implies that both Edom and Moab were happy to assist in this way (in contrast to Num 21:14–21 (Edom) and Num 22–24 (Moab), see also Judg 11:13–23). This may be because he is using the stereotypical language of diplomacy, or simply because he feels no compunction to be entirely open with an ancient despot (as was the case with Pharaoh). The fact that in 2:30, there is a clear parallel drawn between God’s sovereignty over Sihon and the Egyptian ruler at the time of the Exodus, both of whose hearts God hardened, may favour the latter.
2:31–37 God’s sovereignty is front and centre in the account which follows. It starts with Yahweh’s statement in 2:31 that “I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you,” continues with Moses’s assertion in 2:33 that “ the LORD our God gave him over to us” and concludes in 2:36 with the summary statement that “the LORD our God gave all into our hands.” This is the main focus. As we read this text, however, the language of verse 34 is extremely jarring: “we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children.” We will return to the conduct of the war of conquest in chapters 7, 12, and 20. In this context, we should simply note the following points from verses 34–37:
- The language is typical of a crushing victory in the ancient world. Whilst clearly involving terrible destruction and loss of life, it may not necessarily mean that there were no survivors.2
- This conquest is complete (giving the lie to the protests of 1:28 about the challenges of “tall” cities!).
- The conquest is limited to the forces and strongholds which have been sanctioned by God. For Moses, the simple lesson of the defeat of Sihon is that when God’s people do things God’s way, they win.
When God’s people do things God’s way, they win.
3:1–11 The victory of Israel over Sihon was not a one-off. Moses reminds the nation how the pattern was replicated against Og of Bashan, a large highland area to the east of the Sea of Galilee (including the Golan Heights). God insists (3:2) that Og will meet the same fate as Sihon, and that is precisely what happens. In verses 3–7, Moses emphasises that the victory was utterly decisive: “he had no survivor left” (3), “there was not a city we did not take from him” (4), and as in the case of Sihon, everything and everyone was totally destroyed (or “subjected to the ban”). The note that Sihon’s cities were “high” is now expanded in verse 5 to clarify that no settlement could withstand the advance of God’s people. The list of cities taken in the Transjordan area is an anticipation of the division of the land to come, with the clear implication that if these cities outside the land could be taken so easily, what could possibly stop God’s people from advancing into Canaan proper? At this point, we find another parenthetical note. Verse 11 explains that not only was Og a king, but he was also a “giant”! The fact that this descendant of the Rephaim slept in a very large bed (about 4m x 2m, or 13 ½ feet x 6 feet) simply highlights that he was a very large man—and yet Israel defeated him. Should any reader doubt this, at the time Deuteronomy was “published,” it was still on display in the Ammonite capital.3
3:12–17 The author does not discuss the legitimacy of settling outside the land, even though it does raise some questions. Moses’s point here, however, is simply that empowering Israel to take land is a small thing for their God (even when the territory has not been specifically pledged to them). Moses’s allocation of the land to the two and a half tribes again anticipates the division of the land in Joshua. In the same way as Joshua and Caleb would be singled out for special provision, Jair and Makir (and their clans) receive specific territories (in recognition of their role in taking these areas—see Num 32:29–32). The explanatory note in 3:13b–14 not only clarifies the geographical details, but once again draws the Rephaim into the discussion to highlight both the needless failures of the past and the divinely guaranteed success which now lies before Israel.
3:18–22 Moses now makes the connection between what happened in the Transjordan and what should happen in the land explicit. First, it is vital that “all Israel” fights together as a unity. For Moses, there is one people of God who must stand before him together. This is why the two and a half tribes must remain engaged in the conquest of Canaan until “the LORD gives rest to your brothers” (although it will be hard to determine precisely when that point has come—see Josh 12:23; 23:1). What is clear, however, is that they can be assured of Yahweh’s presence and a series of straightforward, Exodus-like victories, “for it is the LORD your God who fights for you.” (3:22) What Moses said “at that time” should provide them with all the incentive they need to (belatedly) take the land.
A Shocking Prohibition (3:23–29)
3:23–29 Moses’s reflections on the recent history of his people are not grounds for naïve optimism, as the private conversation he shares in this section quickly makes clear. Even at “that time” when God was underlining his willingness and ability to fight for his people, the consequences of Moses’s own past disobedience are reiterated. The language is strong, as Moses “pleaded” with Yahweh to no avail. The request to “see” the good land (presumably in particular the parts not visible from Moab) is rebuffed. Moses states that “because of you the LORD was angry with me.” Again, this is not a rewriting of history. Moses is using himself to illustrate the point that sin has real-time consequences. God halts his servant’s pleas and instructs him to climb to a peak (presumably part of Mt Nebo, 34:1) in order to look at the sweep of the land. After this, he is to prepare Joshua to take over the leadership of the people (3:28). Moses adds that the people were camped near Beth-peor, a place synonymous with idolatry, which cannot bode well (see Num 25:1–9).
The opening section of Deuteronomy sets the tone for what is to come. Israel’s past failures have been abject, despite God’s faithfulness. Whilst there is no reason for them to fail again as they reach the borders of the land, their record (and even that of Moses) introduces an ominous note from the beginning.
Moses Preaches Revelation (4:1–43)
After making clear that in the light of their history and God’s enduring commitment to them, God’s people have no excuse for not taking the land and living obediently in it, in chapter 4, Moses begins to spell out the shape of this life they are to live. The key for Moses is listening to the word of Yahweh. This chapter is both sweeping and complex, and functions as an “overture,” introducing the ideas and themes which will dominate the rest of the book.
4:1–4 The lessons of the past forty years are applied to Israel’s present (“And now” is a
significant marker in the book), as Moses urges God’s people to “hear/listen.” This verb recurs at multiple key points in the book (see also e.g. 4:33; 5:1; 6:3–4) and holds the key to Israel’s flourishing in God’s land. Failure to listen to the “rules and statutes,” which can be expressed either in expanding on or ignoring God’s words, and so follow God’s instructions can only lead to disaster. These “laws and statutes,” however, are not presented immediately (see also the comments on 5:1; 6:1; 11:1 and 12:1). Instead Moses reminds the people of the events alluded to in 3:29, although this time, the place name is altered to “Baal-peor” to make explicit its deadly history. The fact that his listeners “cleaved” (clung or stuck) to God then (and so survived), means that they should know what to do “now.”
4:5–8 The goal of God’s revelation of these statutes and laws, which trace out the rich life to which God is calling them in the land, is unpacked in 4:5–8. Moses says that “he has taught them” in the past (presumably referring to the past revelation at Sinai in, for example, Exodus 20–24 and Leviticus). At one level, God has already told his people everything they need to know to live for him (most of the rest of Deuteronomy is devoted to spelling out what it will look like to live in the light of his grace specifically in the land of Canaan). And if they do? That will be “their wisdom and understanding in the sight of the peoples.” This may be an anticipated fulfilment of the promise to Abram, that his progeny will be a blessing to the nations. It is certainly envisaged that the watching nations will be forced to gasp at the undeniable quality of life among God’s people, if they live according to “torah” (compare Isaiah 42:6; 49:6).
The twofold reason for this reaction is stated in 4:7–8: (a) Yahweh is near Israel when they call on him (with the clear expectation that he answers, presumably helping them to obey; (b) the sheer quality of the rules God has revealed to them, which are acknowledged by other nations to be uniquely “righteous” (the only place in the Old Testament where this word is applied to anything other than an individual). The decision facing Israel is whether or not to make the right choice “today” by listening to God.
The decision facing Israel is whether or not to make the right choice ‘today’ by listening to God.
4:9–14 No sooner has Moses made that call, however, than he turns to the possibility of disobedience, described in terms of “forgetting what your eyes have seen” (primarily the Exodus and the victories en route to the land), and allowing them to “depart from your heart.” The “heart” here is the control centre of the personality. This is describing a life lived without reference to grace. The antidote for such ingratitude is to remind every new generation of what God has done. But Moses gives more specific instructions than that—specifically, according to verse 10, they are to be reminded that God allowed them to “hear his words.” This revelation was designed to teach his people to “fear him,” which would, in turn, drive them to pass on the content and meaning of God’s words to their children. In 4:11–12, the fact that God’s people heard rather than saw is underlined as the crucial aspect of the Horeb revelation. Listening to God’s words is identified as the key to living the good life in the land. Even more specifically, Moses states that God’s “covenant” with his people involved their keeping the “ten words,” which were inscribed on stone. God spoke, revealing to his people how they were to live with him in the land.
4:15–20 A growing sense that it is only a matter of time before Israel departs from God’s words emerges, as Moses urges them to guard themselves “very carefully.” The particular temptations now in view are subverting the Horeb revelation by creating silent images of created beings (people or animals as described in Gen 1:20–23) to replace the divine word (verses 16–18) and “raising your eyes to heaven,” and being drawn into worshipping astral bodies (as described in Gen 1:14–19) even though they have been “allotted” by God “to all the peoples under the whole heaven.” This is an extremely difficult phrase (see also Deut 32:8–9). Whilst some argue that this is “licensing” the worship of other deities, the connections with Genesis 1 strongly suggest that the point is simply that it would be ridiculous to worship created objects. The statement in 4:20 is one of the highpoints of the book. The dramatic description of God rescuing his people from the “iron furnace” of Egypt is followed by a fresh expression of God’s covenant commitment in terms of making them a “people of his own inheritance,” a unique phrase probably inspired by Moses’s plea in Exodus 34:9. In the same way that the land will be Israel’s inheritance, the people themselves belong to God. The addition of “as you are this day” simply serves to sharpen the weight and urgency of the response Moses is seeking.
4:21–24 Slightly unexpectedly, Moses returns to the theme of his own exclusion from the land. This is one of the features of the text which really only makes sense in the context of a sermon to real people at a particular point of history. As Moses recalls Yahweh’s anger, reminds them that he will not cross with them, underlines that he will miss out on tasting life in the “good land,” and states bluntly in 4:22 that “I must die in this land” (Moab), he both gives Israel every incentive possible to press on and adds real force to the warning of 4:23. They simply cannot afford to “forget” the God-given covenant by sliding into idolatry. The ultimate reason for avoiding idolatry is grounded in the fact that “the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (for similar language see Isa 33:14; Zeph 1:18; 3:8; Heb 12:29). God’s passionate exclusivity is a foundational idea in Deuteronomy.
4:25–31 The enduring seriousness of the call to exclusive allegiance is spelled out bluntly in a passage which encapsulates the theological heart of the book. Like the “Moab generation,” all those who follow will have to choose between listening to God or “acting corruptly” (idolatry)/“doing what is evil.” The consequences of a wrong choice are stated in the strongest possible terms, as the entire cosmos is summoned as a witness. According to Moses, Israel will “utterly perish from the land” and be “utterly destroyed” (4:26). They will be scattered, severely diminished and reduced to worshipping dumb idols (4:27–28).4
As well as anticipating the curses of the covenant (see chapters 27 and 28), Moses also flags up the future hope of 30:1–10. As he does in that chapter, Moses predicates his people’s “change of heart” on the merciful initiative of God. The logic runs backward from verse 31—because God remembers his covenant and sticks with his people, he acts, causing them to seek him and then repent and start to obey his voice. Grace drives everything.
Because God remembers his covenant and sticks with his people, he acts, causing them to seek him and then repent and start to obey his voice. Grace drives everything.
4:32–40 Returning to the theme of the awesome uniqueness of God (see 4:5–8), Moses underlines two things that are completely unprecedented about the Exodus events: (1) God spoke to his people “out of the midst of the fire for their good (they “lived”!); (2) God performed signs and wonders, matched by sheer power to defeat the Egyptians. Together, these acts serve to show the people that Yahweh alone is God. But for Moses, the important thing is that these events really should have changed Israel. 4:36 makes it clear that the purpose of God speaking to his people was to “discipline” them (the word can also mean “warn” or “train”). His electing love for the patriarchs, and by extension, them as their descendants, led to his complete personal care for them as he was with them every step of the way from Egypt to Moab. Now Moses says again that this revelation in word and action should lead the Israelites to embrace the fact that their God is the only God, and so to listen to him speaking “today,” not on stone tablets, but through the preaching of his servant Moses. As long as they do this, they shall enjoy life with God in the land—potentially permanently. At this point, the implication that “if they do not obey, they will not enjoy it” is left unspoken.
4:41–43 Given the highly rhetorical structure of this chapter, it is unexpected that Moses apparently breaks off his preaching to identify three cities in the newly conquered Transjordan area as “cities (or towns) of refuge,” one for each tribal grouping who were to settle outside the land proper. Why is this material included here? This note seems to bring to a close the “retrospective” on the journey to the land by finalising the arrangements for the Transjordan tribes (for a similar provision in the land, see 19:1–13). It may also serve as a reminder that even in an easily conquered, God–given land, life will still be far from perfect.
Chapter 4 then introduces the key theological themes which will dominate the rest of the book. God has acted in grace (rescuing his people and speaking to them), and now the shape of the response required by Israel is clear—they are to listen to him and do what he says. No sooner had this hopeful reality become clear, than the likelihood of Israel “blowing their opportunity” began to loom large.
Moses Preaches Covenant (4:44–11:32)
Moses’s preaching from 4:44–11:32 is probably the most powerful and sustained appeal to God’s people to live a “gospel–shaped life” anywhere in the Scriptures. Having reviewed the recent past of the nation and shown how there is every reason for them to respond to God’s grace in obedience, he now turns to explain precisely what this obedience will look like, applying the basic revelation of Horeb to life in the new land.
A Headline Statement (4:44–49)
4:44–49 The assertion that “This is the torah that Moses set before the people of Israel” refers to the rest of his sermon (stretching all the way to chapter 30). The word “torah” here has a much broader reference than the English word “law”—it refers to Moses’s teaching which will lead those who follow it into a beautiful life with God in the land he is giving the people. It will be made up of “testimonies, statutes and rules,” covering all kinds of issues and challenges which they would face in the land. The word “testimonies” may well tie these laws with those on the two tablets (see Exod 25:16). This new expression of faithful living is to be understood as an expansion and application of what God has already said. If 4:44 is a banner headline for all that is to follow, 4:45–49 recapitulates 1:1–5 and reminds readers of the “story so far” according to chapters 1–3, continuing the build-up to the main body of Moses’s upcoming sermon.
The Basic Requirements of the Covenant (5:1–33)
5:1–5 Moses reconvenes the people to continue his address and immediately focuses on the need to “hear,” “learn,” and “do” what he says. The reason for this is striking according to 5:2–3. The need for obedience is rooted in God’s covenantal commitment to this emergent nation, made at Horeb (Moses’s preferred term for Sinai in Deuteronomy). His point, however, is not simply historical—he adds “not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” Given the passing of the Exodus generation (Num 26:64–65), this seems like a very strange claim. But in 5:4 Moses shows that this is not a lapse of memory, but a deliberate theological and rhetorical strategy. Because they are “one people” spread across time and space, he can say that God spoke to them “face to face” (even though technically it was only Moses himself who had this privilege), inspiring them to fear God. “Today” the response demanded of the people at Moab is exactly that asked of the Horeb generation—to hear and obey the word of God.
5:6–21 Moses then restates the “ten words” of Exodus 20, which are basically the constitution of Israel as the covenant people of God.5 It is not altogether clear how to demarcate these 10 words: the Lutheran/Roman Catholic tradition involves taking 5:7–10 as the first commandment, and then splitting 5:21 into two commands; the Reformed version takes 5:7 and 5:8–10 as commandments 1 and 2, and 5:21 as a single prohibition. It is hard to choose between these alternatives, but on balance, I think the latter view fits the text more easily.6
The terms of the covenant relationship here are almost identical to those in Exodus, with a couple of relatively small variations. The first of these comes in the Sabbath command in 5:12–15. The verb “remember” in Exodus 20:8 becomes “keep” or “observe” here, but the more significant change is in the motivation for keeping the Sabbath. Rather than flowing from creation, the need to rest is linked to the Exodus. The rescuing action of God now frees the entire community to rest and by doing so to commemorate the Exodus. The second slight change comes in 5:21, where desiring another man’s wife is named first, rather than his property in Exodus 20. This is in line with the strong sensitivity to women shown by Moses throughout the book. Up to this point, it is not entirely clear why Moses is going over old ground, but the rest of the chapter makes it plain.
5:22–27 In the past, God spoke definitively to the nation as a whole, laying out the terms of his covenant literally in stone. The people heard the voice of God and saw the phenomena of fire, cloud, and darkness (in the words of 5:24, they saw his “glory and greatness”). Then Moses emerged with God’s words divinely inscribed on rock. The problem was, according to Moses, that the people were in fear of their lives—such was the power and holiness of God. The question of 5:26 is a good one and the answer is “No one!” But the reason that Moses has included all this detail now becomes clear: the response of Israel at Horeb in 5:27 is precisely the response that Moses is calling them to “today” at Moab (and every day to come): to “hear and do” everything which God has said to Moses.
Covenantal Listening (6:1–25)
6:1–3 Moses’s assertion in 6:1–2 that he is now about to expound the commandment (made up of “statutes and rules” as we have seen) needs to be read in the light of 4:44 and 5:1. For Moses, the Ten Commandments, the subsequent rules of Exodus 21–24 (and presumably Lev 17–26) are all part of God’s progressively revealed picture of the good life which lies in front of them. God speaking on Sinai was the foundational moment of the nation. In one sense, nothing could be or needed to be added to that, but in another sense, as their context changes, God graciously expands on what life with him—life driven by grace—must look like.
The people are called to obedience to the “commandment,” which highlights that God’s revelation is so much more than a collection of laws; it is a unified vision of life. They are called to “fear Yahweh,” carrying overtones of ancient treaties and also the beginning of true wisdom (Prov 9:10). And the incentive? God holds out the fundamentally relational prospect of long life with him in his land. And what does this obedience look like? It is built on listening, as 5:27 made explicit. It turns out that the realisation of all God’s promises to those who have gone before, and even the fulfilment of the purpose of creation, is dependent on God’s people hearing his voice through the words of Moses (6:3). Only then will they actually make it to “the land of milk and honey,” as God referred to it back in Exodus 3:8.
6:4–5 The call to “hear” or “listen” (Hebrew does not distinguish between the two ideas) in 6:3 is then re-echoed in one of the most important statements in the Old Testament in verse 4. The “Shema” (as 6:4 is referred to in the Jewish tradition) is very difficult to translate because there are no verbs supplied in Hebrew. It simply reads Yahweh our God Yahweh one/alone. This could be a statement of the “unity” of God (Yahweh our God is one) or could rather be an assertion that Israel has no other gods (Yahweh only is our God). Block’s suggestion seems to capture the spirit of the phrase as a slogan for Israel to live by in the land: Yahweh our God! Yahweh alone!7 Although the idea of “oneness” may be contained in the phrase, 6:5 pushes in the direction of exclusive allegiance, as Israel is called to love God with “heart, soul and mind,” a phrase picked up by Jesus himself (and slightly extended) in Mark 12:28–34, and by one of the lawyers in Luke 10:25–28. This is a brilliant summary of the Godward requirements of the law. “Love” language occasionally crops up in ancient treaties, but there is no reason to limit it to anything less than a full-orbed personal response. God’s rescued people are to listen to him when he says that they owe him—and him alone—everything.
6:6–9 Moses reiterates that nothing is more important than this. These words must dominate the whole life of all of God’s people (the “heart” here encompasses both thinking and actions). If Israel is to live well with God in the land, then these words must saturate their national life: they must be passed on from generation to generation; they must dominate conversation in every place and at every time. The language of “sign on your hand” and “frontlet between your eyes” in 6:8 comes from Exodus 13:16, where the consecration of the firstborn was to be a (metaphorical) reminder of their identity as God’s people. Now the words of God are to function in a similar way. The precise meaning of “frontlets” is hard to pin down. Although 6:8–9 has been interpreted literally in Orthodox Jewish practice (the phylactery and the mezuzah), it seems more in keeping with the text to read this whole section as metaphorical, outlining the scope of the devotion demanded in 6:4–5.
6:10–19 The opposite of listening for Moses is “forgetting” (6:12). Given the extravagant grace of God in honouring the promises made to the Patriarchs—expressed in terms of rescuing them from Egypt and bringing them to fortified towns, homes with well–stocked larders, secure water supplies and flourishing agriculture—it would be unthinkable for his people to slide into ignoring their Lord. The danger here is not simply in being ungrateful, but in swapping the worship of their God for the gods of the land. As in 4:10, 5:29, and 6:2, the basic stance of the people is to be one of reverent awe, with a result that they serve and rely on him. To “swear on his name” is to attribute power to God and to God alone, as verse 14 makes clear. The temptation in the land will be to swap the commands of Yahweh for the less demanding allegiance to the gods of the nations. The problem is that the God of Israel is a “jealous” God, in the sense that his covenantal commitment to his people requires exclusive allegiance in return. If Israel will not listen, then they will face God’s wrath in real time, with the dreadful prospect that God may treat them in the same way as those nations facing his judgment, and he will “destroy them off the face of the earth.” All the way through this sermon, Moses links God’s extravagant grace with the terrible consequences of spurning that grace. According to verse 16, the entry to the land should mark a clean break with the past for the nation. Rather than putting Yahweh to the test as they had done in Exodus 17:1–7 at Massah/Meribah (which became proverbial—see e.g. Ps 95:6 also Ps 78:18), they are to listen and obey (6:17). This is the key to living Yahweh’s “good” life in the “good” land which he is giving them. 6:19 reminds them that for this to become reality, they will need to rely on God to remove the nations from the land or they will inevitably slide into idolatry.
The temptation in the land will be to swap the commands of Yahweh for the less demanding allegiance to the gods of the nations.
6:20–25 Here Moses returns to the fundamental importance of “covenantal listening” for the future of the nation in the land. Envisaging a day when a child will ask about these words defining the shape of the good life in the land (the Hebrew interrogative māh can convey a whole range of questions—Why do we have these rules? What do they mean? Etc.), Moses spells out the definitive answer in a form which is basically a simple creed (see also 26:5–11 for a similar approach). Verses 22–23 step through the Exodus experience, making it clear that God’s rescue was linked intrinsically to the gracious promises made to the Patriarchs.
Verses 24–25 take us to the heart of the theology of Deuteronomy. God’s words, calling his people to show reverent fear through obedience, are designed for our good (perhaps echoing Gen 1). Listening to God leads to life (rather than death, as experienced by the wilderness generation). Moses, however, has much more than survival in mind, as verse 25 makes clear. Listening to these words in their entirety (“the commandment”) will, says Moses, “be our righteousness.” Living the beautiful life described by God (listening to his word and doing what he says) will lead to God announcing the verdict that his people are “righteous,” even as they reflect the very righteousness of God himself.8
The Demanding Covenant of Grace (7:1–26)
7:1–6 After establishing the need for careful “covenantal listening,” Moses turns to the specifics of occupying the land. His overarching concern is ensuring that the people grasp the fact that God’s gracious actions (in both election and conquest) require an appropriate response.
The inhabitants of Canaan here are represented as seven nations or tribal groups, probably as a sign of completeness (see also Josh 3:1, 24:11), but Moses has no interest in the origins or interrelations of the tribes (the lists and designations of the inhabitants vary significantly—see, for example, the list in 20:17). The point here is that they are “more numerous and mightier” than Israel. From the beginning of Genesis, God has been committed to seeing his people multiply, and these nations who stand under judgment cannot prevent that. In 7:2, God again emphasises that he will be the architect of their victory (“giving them over to you”), but now spells out what is required of his people. They are not only to subdue the Canaanites but “devote them to complete destruction.” This Hebrew phrase, which contains a double use of the verb hrm, is almost impossible to translate. The key idea is that the object concerned is to be devoted to God, either to be used solely for him or destroyed (see Lev 27:28–29). No rationale is given for this shocking statement here (although from Gen 15:16 onwards, it is clear that these nations will be judged by God for their sin), and it is important to notice that the idea of “herem” is one of principle rather than operational detail, which is why a translation like “devote them to God” or “subject them to the ban” may be more helpful.
Moses’s purpose here is to ensure that Israel takes God’s command to conquer Canaan and defeat the inhabitants seriously. This is why he piles up prohibitions in 7:2–3: they must not make a peace treaty with them, show mercy to them, or intermarry with them. This last instruction at least implies that Moses fears the nation will struggle to carry out God’s commands in a thoroughgoing way and may suggest that 7:2 does not actually envisage the eradication of every single Canaanite. The motivation here is attempting to protect the weak Israelites from the inevitability of idolatry, and the ensuing wrath of God. This is why they need to destroy every last vestige of Canaanite idolatry, whether sacrificial altars, symbols of the male (“pillars”) and female (“Asherim”—poles probably carved in the image of the goddess Asherah, the wife of the High God El and mother of over 70 other Canaanite gods) deities, and other carved idols. The implication is if they remain, then God’s people will slide into worshipping them. This must not be, for Israel is “a people holy to the LORD your God.” The nation is to be both singularly devoted to Yahweh and morally pure (like him). But Moses goes on, underlining that God has chosen Israel uniquely to be his “treasured possession” (see also Exod 19:5–6).
7:7–11 Moses anticipates the danger of Israel developing a sense of entitlement rather than gratitude in the light of God’s kindness and so reminds them of their insignificance. The twin reasons for his choice (expressed in the Exodus) are his love and his promise (both of which flow purely from his grace). The language of “love” reflects the father-son relationship which is embodied in the covenantal promises which God had made to their forefathers.
The Father’s gracious actions (and words) open up the possibility of knowing him—specifically that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the one and only God, faithful both in “keeping covenant” and in exhibiting “steadfast love.”
This unconditional commitment also makes demands which determines how his people experience this love and faithfulness. “Loving him and keeping his commandments” leads to a perpetual basking in his affection. Rejecting him (“hating him”) will lead in turn to rejection by God. The genius of this text (which lays the foundation for the rest of the Bible) is the way in which experiencing the unconditional electing love of God is conditional upon our response. Neither the unconditionality nor the conditionality in this text can be collapsed into the other.
7:12–16 Moses continues to pile up motivation to listen and obey as he explains how God’s covenant faithfulness will result in extravagant blessing for his people when they live with and for him. 7:13 sums this up: God’s initiative should lead to obedience, and an ongoing experience of his grace, now cast in terms of a filial relationship (“love”), the fulfilment of the patriarchal promises (“bless”), and even the realisation of the command of Genesis 1:28 (“multiply”). This will in turn be expressed in human fertility, crop fertility, and even successful animal husbandry. The point is made explicit in 7:14: “you shall be blessed above all peoples” (cf. 4:5–8). This “blessed life” is in marked contrast to their past experience in Egypt (which sets up the depiction of the “cursed life” as a return to Egypt (7:15; see also 11:26–32; 28:15–68). As with the Egyptians, all those who oppose God’s people as they enter the land can expect their evil to rebound on them. For Israel to go soft on them or tolerate their practices would be foolish in the extreme and make obedience virtually impossible.
God’s initiative should lead to obedience, and an ongoing experience of his grace.
7:17–26 On entering the land, Moses sees twin dangers facing God’s people. The first (7:17–21) is that the superior military might of the Canaanites may deter them from advancing. The antidote to this attitude is simple: remember what God did to Pharaoh and the Egyptians (7:18–19). He adds a vivid image to strengthen their confidence: God will send “hornets,” a vicious insect whose sting could be fatal, among them, with the result that there will be nowhere for them to hide. According to 7:21, God’s presence with them should be more than enough to dispel any fear.
The twin temptations of greed (the belief that God’s goodness is not enough) and idolatry (the belief that God himself is not enough) imperil the life of the nation.
In 7:22, however, Moses moves on to deal with a more subtle danger—creeping accommodation to the ways of Canaan. Up to this point, the conquest has been described as a “blitzkrieg,” in which the nations are defeated instantly. Now the practicalities of the campaign start to come into view.9 Yes, God will defeat the nations as he has promised (7:23–24), but this will take time as the land must be secured and made safe for God’s people, as he had already made clear in Exodus 23:29–30. This safety will require both dealing with physical threats (like wild animals) and spiritual challenges (like the carved idols coated with precious metals which littered the landscape). The twin temptations of greed (the belief that God’s goodness is not enough) and idolatry (the belief that God himself is not enough) imperil the life of the nation. For the first time in Deuteronomy, Moses uses the word “abomination,” which is his preferred word for any alternative to God, alternatives that promise everything but deliver nothing. Such “abominations” have to be rejected and removed (like the Canaanites themselves, 7:1–5).
Learning from the Wilderness Years (8:1–20)
8:1–5 Once again, all that God asks of his people is presented as crystallizing in a single requirement (covenant loyalty or obedience), and this one thing will determine the future of the nation (and therefore God’s grand project to bless the people he created and chose). And what is this key to living for Yahweh in the land? Humility. According to 8:2, God’s dealings with them over the previous forty years were designed to do one thing about all others: to humble them by showing them that they had neither the desire nor the ability to obey. The experience of hunger and the subsequent provision of manna throughout this period (see Exod 16 and Josh 5:12) were intended to teach them dependence on God and, particularly, reliance on his words (8:3, quoted by Jesus in the wilderness in Matt 3:4). Moses also adds two previously unmentioned expressions of Yahweh’s faithfulness (preserving their clothes and saving them from podiatric problems, see also Neh 9:21), as evidence that God was “disciplining” them as sons, training them in humble dependence. This fact must shape the way they live in the land.
8:6–10 The memory of the barrenness of the wilderness, in contrast to the fertility of the land of promise, should also drive them to live wholeheartedly for God, “walking in his ways and fearing him” (8:6). The land is then depicted in terms which echo the description of freshly created Eden in Genesis 1 and 2. This land is “good” (8:7, 10). There is an abundant supply of water (see Gen 2:10–14), ensuring that a vast range of crops flourish, and, as in Gen 2, there are significant mineral deposits. In this place, God’s promised blessing can be tasted, and they will have every reason to bless him.
The way of humility is the way of obedience and blessing.
8:11–20 It is possible, however, that rather than remembering and learning from the journey through the wilderness to the land, that Israel “forgets” God, which will express itself in disobedience (8:11). Several factors will encourage a forgetful attitude: a vastly improved diet, comfortable homes, successful breeding programmes, increased capital, and overall wealth (8:12–13). God’s discipline was designed to humble them, but these things threatened to “lift up their hearts” (promote arrogance). Their first line of defence in 8:14–16 was to recall the details of God’s care from Egypt to Moab, including protection from poisonous snakes (see Num 21:6–9) and scorpions, the miraculous provision of water (Exod 17:6; Num 20:7–11), and the ongoing supply of manna. Once again, Moses reminds them that the purpose of these events (and their recollection) is to humble them, for the way of humility is the way of obedience and blessing. In contrast, even the internal assertion that they are responsible for their own prosperity is a recipe for disaster, equivalent to switching one’s allegiance to “other gods.” If, rather than pressing-on in obedience as God “confirms his covenant” by blessing them, they choose idolatry, they will suffer the same fate as the former occupants of the land, falling under the judgment of God. In the case of Israel, however, the sole cause of their demise would be clear: refusing to “obey the voice of Yahweh” their God (8:20).
Sin, Second Chances and the Grace of God (9:1–10:11)
9:1–3 Another call to “hear” emphasises the fact that Moses is continuing to expound the basic response which grace should provoke. The language (as in 1:28) picks up the exaggerated and fearful report of the ten spies (see Num 13:33), which linked the tall Canaanites to the mysterious figures of Genesis 6. Moses has already mocked their faithless panic (see chapter 2), which verges on superstition and now makes it explicit that their fears are groundless. Their primary need (as in 4:39; 7:6 and 9:6) is to recognise a fundamental theological truth: the God of Israel who leads them into the land is a “consuming fire” (see 4:24, also Heb 12:29). This language has previously been associated with God acting in judgment against his disobedient people (Lev 9:24; 10:2; Num 11:1; 16:35), but here refers to God acting in judgment against the Canaanites. There is a seeming contradiction with the statement in 7:22, that God would drive out the nations “little by little.” The difference is simply one of focus: when speaking of overcoming the resistance of the Canaanite armies, the emphasis falls on the fact that victory will be instantaneous; when dealing with the progress of occupying the entire region, it is made clear that the campaign will take some time.
9:4–7 As in 7:7–9 (and throughout chapter 8), Moses insists that Israel has been chosen purely by grace and that their election gives them no reason to become proud. Rather than focusing on their lack of size or significance in this case, Moses stresses that no individual Israelite can claim that they have been rewarded by God for their “righteousness” (see on 6:25), their “uprightness of heart” (thus covering both actions and motivation), or that they are “better” than the Canaanites. Their good fortune is a result of the kindness and faithfulness of God in keeping his freely made promises (“the word he swore”) to their forefathers, and the wickedness of the current occupants of the land. Alongside the reality that God is a “consuming fire,” they are also to “know” that he has not acted because of their righteousness but despite their “stubbornness” (9:7). The fact that they are literally a “stiff-necked people” (9:6; see also Exod 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9; Deut 9:13; 31:27; 2Kgs 17:14; Neh 9:29) explains Moses’s determination to hammer home his point, revisiting the same basic themes repeatedly throughout these chapters. This assessment is based on a lifetime’s experience of leading God’s people. 9:7 serves as a transition to the rest of this section, summing up their behaviour en route to the land as “rebellious,” provoking Yahweh to wrath.
9:8–21 Even the definitive and formational experience of the nation at Horeb was marked by rebellion (which surely casts a long shadow over their future in the land). Moses goes so far as to say that Yahweh was on the very point of destroying his people then and there. Verses 9–12 are an abbreviated account of his experience on the mountain, which is deliberately contrasted to the wilderness experience of the nation. The outcome of Moses’s time on Horeb is miraculous and unmistakeably clear communication from God. The “tablets of the covenant” is an expression which is used only here (and in Heb 9:4) and highlights the role of the “Ten Words” in outlining the shape of covenant loyalty. Despite what God has done for them (in bringing them to Horeb) and given to them (the tablets of the covenant), even as Moses is on the mountain, the people abandon God and make a “metal image.” God describes them as “your people” whom “you” have brought out of Egypt, presumably to highlight that leader and people share the same character (9:12). God’s exposure of the people’s sin does not stop there—he now speaks directly to Moses, affirming that he is well aware of their “stiff necks” (9:13).
Perhaps unexpectedly, he now instructs Moses to step aside that he might act in judgment and “blot out their name from under heaven.” This is extreme language reminiscent of Genesis 6:5–8 (similarly 7:24 of the Canaanites) which highlights the depth of the depravity of the people. God’s intention to start over with Moses (as he had done with Noah) in his commitment to honour the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (9:14) is both shocking and unique. Moses deliberately leaves this threat hanging in the air as he recreates the scene of his descent from Horeb, burning with Yahweh’s presence, clutching the stone tablets. God’s statements are vindicated before his eyes as he sees the bovine evidence of their propensity to sin (9:16). His reaction is instant as he hurls down the tablets in full view of the nation, symbolising Israel’s wilful breaking of the covenant God had made (9:17). As in 9:9, Moses goes through another “wilderness period” (perhaps also echoing the period of judgment through the flood (Gen 7:17; 8:6), during which the fate of the nation is clearly in the balance. He explains his face-down posture in verse 19 in terms of the “anger and hot displeasure” of God, which imperilled the people. Yahweh in his grace, however, listened to the pleas for mercy (9:19). The focus is clearly not on Moses’s actions, but on the narrow escape of the people. Only through God’s forgiving kindness did Israel make it this far. Even Aaron barely escaped judgment (9:20). Moses’s care in destroying the “sinful thing” suggests that radical action is needed to guard the Israelites from temptation (see Exod 32:20).10 There is no doubt that for Moses, rehearsing this story aims to have a sobering effect on the people, who have already been given multiple chances by God.
9:22–29 The sobering effect of the present story is confirmed by 9:22–24, where Moses makes the same point from four key moments on the journey from Egypt to Canaan: Taberah (Num 11:1–3); Massah/Meribah (Exod 17:1–7); Kibroth-hattaavah (Num 11:4–34), and Kadesh-barnea (Num 13–14). At each stage, the people “provoked Yahweh to wrath” (by complaining or rebelling), leading to the very reasonable conclusion of 9:24 that “you have been rebellious against the LORD from the day that I knew you.” This damning assessment starts to bring to the fore the nagging question which lies behind these opening chapters of Deuteronomy—if this is the case, what hope is there that things will be any different in the land itself? Hope can only be found in one place.
Once again, Moses spends a “wilderness period” crying out to God, but this time, he shares the content of his intercession (9:26–29). His plea is based on the promises God made to the Patriarchs (9:27a) and an appeal to overlook the sinful nature and actions of the people (9:27b) for the sake of the reputation of God himself. Moses argues that the watching nations should not be able to underestimate God’s power or his love for the people he has rescued and whom he calls his “heritage” (his permanent possession or inheritance, which cannot be lost).
10:1–5 The mood is lifted slightly by God’s command to make two fresh tablets, and also “an ark of wood.” This box is the initial container for these covenant “documents,” and is made by Moses himself (10:3), rather than the much grander, permanent version (the Ark, constructed by Bezalel and Oholiab in Exod 35:30–36:1).11 The “ten words” are once more written by God himself on the stone and are handed to Moses, who in turn, handed them over to the people. At this point, Moses points in the direction of the box he made which contains these words, the basis of their agreement with Yahweh (10:5). The question is: will God’s people now chose to do what God asks of them?
10:6–11 The flow of Moses’s sermon is interrupted at this point by a short explanatory note (a loosely condensed version of Num 33:38–39). The inclusion of the death of Aaron (without explanation) at this point both highlights the seriousness of Israel’s idolatry and the kindness of God in hearing Moses’s prayer and sparing him until now. The commissioning of the Levites to carry the Ark and carry out a priestly ministry in perpetuity, along with their symbolic exclusion from inheriting any land (because God himself is their inheritance), provides a series of pointers to the covenant loyalty which Moses has been calling for so passionately.12 The preaching resumes in verses 10–11, where once again, Moses reminds them that he spent 40 days and nights interceding, and that God “was unwilling” to bring the nation to an end. Notice how the text does not attribute forgiveness to the prayers of Moses but to the sovereign will of God himself. Despite the people’s continuing stubbornness and the multiplicity of fresh starts and repeat offences, incredibly, God is willing to continue to extend his grace to his people and instructs Moses to lead his people forward towards the land which he has promised them (10:11).
What God Requires (10:12–11:7)
10:12–22 As this long section of exhortation draws to a close, Moses summarises what God asks of his people in five ways (10:12–13): they are to (1) fear God (2) walk in all his ways (3) love him (4) serve him wholeheartedly (5) keep his good commandments. These should not be thought of as separate responses, but as different ways of describing the beautiful life which God holds out to people in covenant. Both the awesome transcendence of God (10:14) and his tender love to the people of Israel from Abraham onward (10:15), should both spur them on to live for him. The radical nature of the commitment Yahweh requires is captured in what is probably the most important (and certainly the most graphic) metaphor in the book: Israel is to deal with their ongoing stubbornness by “circumcising the foreskin of your heart.” This is a call to significant, decisive change on the inside. In the context of this chapter, Moses’s point is that this is what it will take to follow God, and we owe him nothing less. The fact that he is the “God of gods and Lord of Lords” surely means that the people must do whatever he asks. The fact that he is incapable of favouritism or dishonesty but acts justly for the weak and vulnerable (as he did with the whole nation in Egypt) should lead them to do the same, following his lead (10:17–19). Moses then returns to a barrage of calls for a wholehearted response to God, repeating the command to fear and serve and adding the need to “hold fast” (or “cleave”) to him and to swear only by his name, as the only real authority. \ God himself is to be the object of their affection and admiration (“their praise”), the only one who has committed himself to them, rescued them, and multiplied them in fulfilment of the promise to Isaac (see Gen 26:4).There is no doubt what Israel should do—but can they do it? The appeal to perform heart surgery on themselves does suggest that Moses is sceptical of their ability to do it (a point confirmed by the fact that in Deut 30:6, as we shall see, it is God himself who is able to perform this transformative procedure).
11:1–7 Moses is not quite finished. Drawing on Genesis 26:5 to underline yet again that God’s people must live in covenant faithfulness, just as Abraham their forefather did (11:1), he insists that his audience knows very well that what God has said and done applies to them (because they are not infants who have not yet grasped the stories of the Exodus or are not yet able to understand God’s words). The word “discipline” here is best rendered “teaching,” which took place in and through the Exodus (and, in particular, the fate of the Egyptians) and on the way through the Wilderness (11:4–5). Moses also cites the rebellion led by Dathan and Abiram (Num 16) as a potent warning against responding wholeheartedly to God’s great grace in action (11:7).
Blessing or Curse? (11:8–32)
11:8–17 In the final movement of this sweeping part of Moses’s sermon, running all the way to 11:32, he paints a vivid picture of the basic choice faced by God’s people. Keeping the “whole commandment” (as in 5:31; 8:1) is the key to living in God’s strength, to successfully conquering the land (11:8), and to living well in the beautiful land (“flowing with milk and honey,” as it was described to Moses in Exod 3:8, 17 and rejected by the people in Num 14:8, 16:13–14) for generations to come. This new paradise was utterly different to Egypt—irrigation-based agriculture was fairly impressive (11:10), but Canaan needs no such artificial (and labour-intensive) help, as it just “drinks water by the rain,” being tended by God himself. This land enjoys God’s watchful gaze every day of the year (11:12)—and so it is set up to make a life of glad obedience as easy as possible. Moses then goes on to suggest that the fertility of the land itself will be a reliable index of the obedience of God’s people. If they do what God tells them wholeheartedly (as in 6:4–5), then the rains will come regularly (including the “early rain” in the late Autumn, softening the ground for sowing, and the crucial “late rain” in Spring for a good harvest), resulting in good crops of the ancient staples of grain, wine and olive oil, as well as an abundance of quality fodder for livestock, with the result that “you shall eat and be full” (11:15).13 If, on the other hand, the people believe a lie and slide into worshipping other gods, then God’s anger will be expressed in “shutting the heavens,” with drought preventing a good harvest, and eventually making it impossible to live in the land, with the result that they will “perish quickly” (like the nations in 9:3). This is why in the books that follow (see e.g., 1Kgs 17:1–7), drought is never merely a meteorological phenomenon but an indicator that God’s disobedient people are living under the curse, rather than the blessing of the covenant.
Drought is never merely a meteorological phenomenon but an indicator that God’s disobedient people are living under the curse, rather than the blessing of the covenant.
11:18–25 Moses returns to the themes and language of 6:1–9, where his covenantal preaching began in earnest (signalling that this part of the sermon is drawing to a close). This time the emphasis falls on “laying up” God’s words in the heart and soul. The word simply means “place” or “set,” probably carrying the sense of either keeping them next to the heart, or “installing” them as a kind of operating system for the heart. Rather than holding out the prospect of population growth and long life separately (6:2, 3) as God keeps his promises, they are combined in 11:21. This looseness has all the marks of natural rhetorical variation in an actual sermon.
Unlike in chapter 6, Moses presses home the fact that obeying “all this commandment” (loving, walking with and sticking to God) is the key to occupying the land (11:22–23). Once again, the balance between human action (obedience) and divine action (driving out these more powerful nations) is beautifully preserved. The end result of obedience will be spectacular: the full extent of the promised land will be theirs without exception (“every place on which the sole of their foot treads”); no one will be able to defeat them, and they will be secure in the fact that no one will dare resist them. There is little doubt that God is committed to delivering on his promises, but the tone of Moses’s address has raised the very real possibility (which will be borne out in the book of Joshua) that it may well be beyond Israel to deliver on their side of the covenant.
11:26–32 Here, Moses’s repeated use of the word “today” makes clear that this is the day of decision for the nation.14 The choice they face is now set up in the most concise—and stark—terms. They must choose either “blessing” or “curse.” These have been defined in multiple ways in the preaching up to this point. To be “blessed” is to benefit from the full scope of the fulfilment of God’s covenantal promises in terms of population growth, length of life, prosperity, and national security in the land. To be “cursed” means missing out on these “blessings,” being sent back to “Egypt” (at least metaphorically), and being treated like the nations whom they are to dispossess. According to 11:28, this all hinges on the twin decisions of obeying God and worshipping him alone. Moses insists that this fundamental decision be established at the centre of the new life of the nation through a ritual to take place at the heart of the land near Shechem. Mt Gerizim and Mt Ebal are twin almost 1000m (around 3,000 foot) peaks near the modern town of Nablus (11:30 contain the ancient directions to these mountains to the west of Moab on the other side of the Jordan, on the main east-west road in the region). More detail on this ritual will be supplied in chapters 27 and 28 (and it is carried out in Josh 8).
The choice is clear. Now is the time for them to cross the Jordan, take the land, committing themselves to wholeheartedly obeying Yahweh as they go (11:31–32).
Deuteronomy 5–11 contain some of the most powerful and emotive preaching in the whole Bible, as Moses urges the people of God to live in the light of his grace. The variety of his expression and motivation is a model to any communicator, and his varied but uniformly urgent calls to listen to and obey the words of God as the key to life echo compellingly across the years. We must not, however, miss the plaintive note in Moses’s calls to follow God wholeheartedly. It is beyond doubt that God’s rescuing grace warrants such a response. The emerging problem is that Israel is not going to be able to sustain it. The hope for the nation in the long-term surely rests on God’s grace, rather than their own ability to obey.
Moses Preaches Torah (12:1–26:19)
Throughout chapters 4–11, Moses has been urging the people of Israel to respond wholeheartedly to God’s covenantal, rescuing grace. He has sketched out the shape of this response in broad terms (e.g. “keeping the whole commandment,” “fearing God,” “loving Yahweh with heart, soul and might,” and “listening to God.” At the start of chapter 12, he begins to fill-in the details of the obedience which God requires.
These “laws and statutes” have been promised and anticipated from chapter 4 onwards (see e.g. 4:1; 5:1; 6:1; 8:11; 11:1) and now are enumerated at some length in the largest collection of laws in the Bible. This section of the book is often referred to as the “law-code” (in line with other ancient collections like that of Hammurabi),15 but this description is probably misleading. No ancient law code adequately parallels this collection. These chapters do not simply list specific stipulations and their accompanying penalties. Rather, Moses continues to preach as he both presents an expansive, all-encompassing vision of the life of freedom lived in the presence of the Lord in the land which he has given them by grace in fulfilment of his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and seeks to persuade Israel to embrace this vision.
There has been much discussion of the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the laws of Deuteronomy 12–26.16 Whatever the precise nature of the relationship, it is clear that as he expounds the shape of the obedient life in the land, Moses is applying and expanding the revelation given at Horeb. Chapters 4–11 have already made clear that the response which God requires is that laid out in the First Commandment—to have no other gods before him. Now from chapter 12, Moses lays out how the loose template of the Decalogue is to be worked out in the land. Exodus 20 and the Deuteronomic laws share a broad correspondence, but this is difficult to tie down with certainty, particularly as we move into the later parts of chapters 12–26.
It is also important to note that these laws are indicative rather than attempting to be comprehensive. In addition, they give little sign of either being a “national constitution” or an evolving “statute book.” Many of the situations envisaged are hypothetical, rather than actual “case law.” Their concerns, if anything, are theological rather than “legal” in a narrow sense. They are concerned with what it looks like to live with “righteousness” (like God himself) in the land and are clustered around the need for right worship, right relationships, and right behaviour.
Worshipping God’s Way (12:1–28)
12:1–7 The “statutes and rules” which are to govern Israel’s life in the land in perpetuity (“all the days you live on the earth”) begin with a command to obliterate every place where pagan worship and fertility rituals took place in Canaan, thus obviating all other claims to ownership of the land. It is telling that even this most basic command was one which Israel struggled to carry out (particularly with regard to the “high places,” and also 1Kgs 3:1–3; 11:7; 14:23; 15:14, etc.). As in 7:2–5, every piece of cultic apparatus is to be obliterated in order that every memory of the false gods be erased. This leads to the key principle that “you shall not worship Yahweh your God in that way.” The point is that God’s people are not at liberty to adapt Canaanite worship for their purposes but must worship in the way which God himself commands. This is primarily expressed in God’s own choice to make his presence obvious at the place which he alone will choose (12:5). Only one place will bear his name, and as they have journeyed with God to the land, now they will journey to this one place in the land, where the whole gamut of national religious (sacrificial) activity will take place. Moses sums this activity up as “eating” in Yahweh’s presence and rejoicing as families, as the culmination of God’s blessing in bringing them into the land. From the outset of the laws, it is important to notice that Moses’s concerns are sweeping and theological, rather than detailed and prescriptive. The absence of any role for the priest, for example, is significant only in that Moses’s emphasis lies on the sovereignty of God and the joy of the people.
12:8–14 According to Moses, the current laissez–faire approach to worship en route to the land is about to change (although see the reversion of Judg 21:25) as they enter the “rest” (security and satisfaction) of Canaan. In this phase, there will be no excuse for any failure to align their worship with God’s instructions. Moses now broadens his scope to include “all that I command you.” In this new era, joy is now specifically said to extend to individual members of the household, including offspring, servants, and specifically “the Levite,” who symbolically has no inheritance apart from God (10:9). The injunction to worship at the place chosen by God is repeated once more (12:13–14). Notice that this is not cold legislation—these rules are very definitely preached.17
12:15–19 These instructions are not designed to inhibit the enjoyment of life in the land—on the contrary, they safeguard the nation’s commitment to Yahweh and thus their future. Up to this point, it seems, that all sacrificial animals were to be slaughtered at the sanctuary. In the land, however, anyone (whatever their state of ritual cleanness) can eat of any animal as if it were wild game and eat as much as they want! It is, however, misleading to call this “profane slaughter”—every time they kill an animal, they are to “pour out the blood on the earth like water,” in a simple but solemn reminder in an arid habitat that all life ultimately belongs to God. The danger, of course, in such “liberalisation,” is that God’s people forget their obligation to God, leading Moses to repeat almost word for word the instructions of 12:7–9 with an extra underlining of the importance of the Levite. In this part of the book, to remember the Levite is to remember the God who not only gives them land but gives them himself.
To remember the Levite is to remember the God who not only gives them land but gives them himself.
12:20–28 In order to convince people that this provision will be both needed and extended, Moses describes a situation in which someone is craving a barbecue a long way from the chosen place. It is now spelled out (12:21) that any of the permitted sacrificial animals can be killed, cooked and eaten, with the normal proviso, now strengthened in verses 23–25 (see also Lev 17:10–11). The statement that the “blood is the life” is symbolic rather than physiological and expresses the principle that God himself is the master of life and death, and that their survival and flourishing is dependent on his kindness. This sense of gratitude is to be expressed in the “holy things,” that is their sacrificial obligations, which need to be discharged at God’s place in God’s way—as the blood poured out on the altar expressed the fact that the offerer owes God everything (even deserving death). In God’s kindness, the meat can be eaten, but the message of the “blood” cannot be overlooked. Enjoying the beautiful balance of rich provision of food and forgiveness promised through sacrifice is the key to living the beautiful life (“what is good and right”) with God in the land.
12:29–32 At the end of the chapter, Moses returns to his central theme: God must be worshipped his way. God did not expel the nations before them for Israel to model their life on the very worship that led to the judgment of the Canaanites. They must worship God’s way, for the alternative is “an abomination,” extending even to child sacrifice (12:31).18 The slogan of 12:32 sums up what they are called to: “Do everything I tell you—add nothing and leave nothing out.”
Worshipping God Alone (13:1–18)
13:1–5 Chapter 13 raises the problem of God’s people (either the whole nation, a family or a town) being led astray by someone advocating a return to worshipping the gods of Canaan. It assumes that the reality of the conquest (presumably including both the pace, 7:22, and the messiness, e.g. Josh 19:47–48) will mean that Israel will need to be on their guard against resurgences of idolatry and must act swiftly when it happens. The words for “prophet” and “dreamer” are not pejorative in themselves—the issue in the first scenario is that the miracle-backed message is highly toxic. Worshipping gods which “you have not known” is a radical rejection of the covenant God who has made himself known to the Patriarchs and to Israel at the Exodus. Israel must react to such temptation by strengthening their efforts to love God with heart and soul and to live for and listen to him (the same vocabulary we have seen repeatedly in Deut 5–11). The penalty for imperilling the nation by preaching rebellion is death. Moses insists for the first time that God’s people must be ruthless in dealing with evil from the inside (see also 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7).
13:6–11 In the second scene, the challenge comes quietly from a close relative or friend. The phrase “son of your mother” reflects the special bond between full brothers in a world where childbirth was often fatal and “blended families” common. This time the enticement may extend beyond the gods of Canaan to false gods from the ends of the earth (12:7). The response is to be equally decisive. Not only is the temptation to feel sorry for or protect the person responsible to be resisted, “you” must take the lead in the community execution by stoning (13:9), which is to serve as a permanent deterrent for all Israel. Again, it is important to notice the nature of this material—Moses says effectively “if this ever happens, it must be dealt with so decisively that it does not occur again.” His concern is not legislative, but theological, ensuring that the covenant loyalty of the people is preserved or restored.
13:12–18 The final situation which Moses envisages is equally serious. This time, one of the (recently?) occupied walled towns of Canaan falls foul of some “sons of Belial” (lit. “sons of worthlessness”) who are pushing the same message of worshipping “gods we have not known.” If news of this reaches the rest of the country, there is to be a careful investigation (13:14), and if it turns out to be true, the city is to be treated as a Canaanite city and “devoted to destruction.” One massive burnt offering is to be made (16:16; Lev 6:8–9), presumably in atonement, with the charred “heap” standing as a perpetual warning to anyone who sees it. Again, the emphasis is on instant deterrence, rather than an ongoing programme of law enforcement. Moses great concern in all this is that God’s covenant may be maintained, and his promises fulfilled in the life of his people (13:17). And the key to this? Once more, we see the main thing is listening to the voice of God, not those who would lead his people astray, and doing what is “right.”
Living as God’s Treasured Possession (14:1–21)
14:1–2 So far in chapters 12–13, Moses is clearly moving in the realm of the first three commandments (although there is disagreement both about the nature of these commands and their relationship with these chapters). When we come to Deuteronomy 14, however, attempts to plot a strict Decalogue pattern seem slightly strained, for Moses now deals with the importance of distinctiveness from the earlier inhabitants of the land. Israel is now explicitly described as God’s son (see 1:31 and 8:5). The language has both filial and covenantal overtones, and the implications are profound. Israel is to live in a way which reflects the Lord’s own holiness, for they have been uniquely adopted by him (as also 7:6). In particular, they are to avoid cutting or shaving their hair in some kind of pagan ritual involving the dead (see the similar prohibition in Lev 19:27–28). Whatever the nature of the act, it would have blurred their distinctiveness and identified them with the Canaanites.
14:3–21 There then follows a long list of dietary requirements, carefully designed to avoid contact with an “abomination.” This word has already been used to denote idolatrous, pagan practices (7:25–26; 12:31; 13:13) and its presence here sends a clear signal that Moses in this context is making the point that Israel’s menu should mark the nation apart. The four groups of animals follow the same broad pattern as Leviticus 11 (medium to large land animals (14:4–8), aquatic creatures (9–10), birds (11–18) and insects (19–20), but the tone is quite different. There is much less explanation, and some emphases in Leviticus are missing (avoiding contact with carcasses and the vileness of creeping creatures (Lev 11:42, alluding to Gen 3). Rather the God-given system (based simply on the nature of hooves and cud-chewing) is not justified but simply stated. This is in keeping with God’s right to instruct his people how to worship him in Deuteronomy. The list of animals to be eaten in verses 5–6 is basically an expansion of the categories of 12:27–28, with the camel, hare, rock badger and the pig the representative of unclean mammals. Sea creatures get a much briefer and theoretical treatment (14:9–10), perhaps because this is still a future problem in the plains of Moab, but in contrast, more birds are mentioned than any other kind of animal. On the positive side, Moses simply says they may eat all “clean birds” (without naming them), before listing the same birds to be avoided as Leviticus 11:12–19. The precise identification of most of these birds is uncertain. The list is then rounded off with the prohibition of eating swarming insects. Again, Moses concern is to promote distinctiveness, rather than providing a comprehensive list of dietary requirements for God’s people. This is confirmed by the prohibition of eating any animal that dies naturally (presumably because of the difficulty of allowing the blood to drain) in 14:21a, and the odd proscription of “boiling a young kid in its mother’s milk.” In Leviticus 22:8, this practice was forbidden for priests, but now it is extended to the whole nation (perhaps because they are a nation of priests). The precise nature of what lies behind 14:21b remains a mystery, but it may well refer to an unknown Canaanite ritual, which would make sense given the focus on standing out from the nations.19
The Rhythm of Covenant Life (14:22–16:17)
14:22–27 If it is a little hard to see how the preceding section fits with a Decalogue pattern, the connection between the Sabbath command and the collection of laws running from 14:22–16:17 is much clearer. This section opens with the requirement to make an annual trip to the place which God chooses to celebrate God’s kindness by feasting on a tenth of the produce he has given. One tenth of the grain, wine, olive oil and livestock produced are to be transported (or, if distance makes this prohibitive, sold, with the proceeds funding the feast) to enable an all-inclusive celebration in the presence of God. According to verse 23, this annual journey is designed to bolster ongoing “fear” (awe and respect) of this good and generous God. The instruction to spend the money according to taste and choice (14:26) underlines that this banquet is a powerful testimony to the kindness and generosity of God, a fact which is, once again, highlighted by the inclusion of the Levite (14:27).
14:28–29 In a beautiful touch, it is also ensured that the local community share in the same kind of joy which is experienced annually by the nation as a whole. Every three years, a shared community celebration is to take place, in which everyone who is potentially excluded from enjoying the bounty of the land (Levites, immigrants, orphans, and widows) are to be included, not least because this will ensure future blessing. God is committed to making the land a place where all people enjoy life with him. Moses does not get into the logistics of this celebration, which is described only here and 26:15–18.
15:1–6 After inclusion at the triennial tithe, the thought flows smoothly to provision for the remission of debts. Leviticus 25:1–7 provided rest for the land one year in seven, but now Moses provides for those who are in economic distress. Again, Moses is light on detail because his primary concern is to press home a theological principle. In this case, according to verses 2–4, brother Israelites who have borrowed (probably providing some property as a pledge) are to be “released” (which may denote either forgiveness or deferral of the loan). The reason for this is Moses’s repeated insistence that the presence of acute poverty among his people is a slight on God himself (15:4). Israel must obey the full range of Yahweh’s prescriptions, in order that their “beautiful life” commends God himself to the watching nations. Their prosperity and autonomy will speak of the glory of God. This is the ideal which Moses’s preaching sets before his people.
15:7–11 In Deuteronomy, however, idealism is always tempered with the realism that flows from its robust doctrine of human sinfulness. This becomes apparent in 15:7 (and is even more explicitly in verse 11). Poverty will strike individuals, and when that happens, it is imperative that the rest of God’s people react in a way which extends the same “open-handed,” liberal grace which God has shown them (15:8). One key difference between this collection of “preached laws” and similar ancient material is the way in which Moses presses beyond mere legislation to diagnosis of the sinfulness of the human heart. 15:9–10 anticipates self–interest and greed trumping God’s command to be generous (as the Pharisees did with the “Corban” rules in Mark 7). The warning against withholding help on the grounds that “the year of release” is near (limiting the advantage to the lender) is based on the relentless generosity of God himself. Life with God in the land—and the poor—is to be a constant embodiment of his kindness.
15:12–18 Taking things a step further, this section deals with a situation where poverty has driven a fellow Israelite to sell themselves into indentured service. Both Exodus 21:1–11 and Leviticus 25:39–46 deal with the messy reality of slavery/indentured service, but Moses here adopts a different tone and focuses on the responsibility of the master, irrespective of the actions or conditions which have led to this situation. The ongoing legacy of the Exodus and God’s continuing loving kindness have created a dynamic of increasing generosity as his people enter the land. So from now on, debt-servitude can only last for six years (15:12). This is built on the same principle as the “year of release” but seems to operate separately, with the clock running down from the moment the service begins. In addition, according to 15:14, this period should allow the individual to flourish moving forward, as the six-year period should end with a generous provision from the master. The reason for this is simple: the freedom from slavery provided in the Exodus (as a fulfilment of God’s commitment to bless). This is to be replicated in the master-servant relationship. In the exceptional case where the servant has no wish to leave (see the similar scenario in Exod 21:5–6), this is allowed, but a special ritual involving ear-piercing signals that this is an unusual and voluntary arrangement. Moses adds that these arrangements really are for the good of all concerned and will safeguard the blessing of God.
15:19–23 The placement of how to handle the firstborn of the flock seems a little odd—however it may simply be that the discussion of the rituals concerning indentured servants suggested inclusion of the firstborn animal at this point. As we have seen, Moses’s approach here is slightly different from earlier material (see Exod 13:2, 11–16; 22:29–30; Lev 27:26–27; Num 18:15–18). This appears to be a consequence of the changed circumstances in the land and Moses’s goals in preaching this material. The basic principle is that of Exodus 22:30–31—every firstborn animal belongs to Yahweh as a reminder of the Exodus. Moses adds that in the land, these animals are not to be set to work (making them available for 14:23). Rather than taken to the central sanctuary after 8 days (which would have led to an inordinate amount of time travelling back and forth), they (that is, the males—Exod 13:11–13) are to form part of the tithe festival. If, however, any defect or imperfection is found in the animal, they can be eaten at home with the usual theological safeguards in place (15:23). With that, attention turns to the most fundamental rhythm of the life of the nation—the three major annual festivals.
16:1–8 From the beginning, the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were linked (see Exod 12:8, 15–20, 34, 39; 34:18–25). From now on, on entering the land, they are to be combined into one “super–festival” to be celebrated in the first month of the year, Abib (later known by its Babylonian name, Nisan). The fact that God had brought them out on Abib 14 was presumably already engrained in the national consciousness, so there is no need to specify the date. Again, Moses’s concern is less with specific detail and more with principle: in this case, that the first of the three annual festivals should marry the celebration of the nation’s rescue from Egypt and the enjoyment of God’s presence and rest in fulfilment of his promises at the heart of the land. All Israel is to travel to the place chosen by God, to kill a clean animal (presumably usually a lamb) with due care (at sunset), to roast it (see Exod 12:9), and to share it and eat it all that night. Unleavened bread is not to be eaten until the next day, when marking the “day that you came out” begins. The joint festival will conclude with a “solemn assembly,” after which the people disperse again to live with God in the land. The insistence that the entire nation journey to the place chosen by God both enshrines perpetual movement/pilgrimage at the heart of life in the land and ensures that their identity as one covenant people is regularly reinforced.
16:9–12 Some time later, seven weeks after the harvest begins, the journey to the place chosen by God is to be repeated. According to Leviticus 23:15–16, the countdown began straight after the end of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (later giving rise to the Greek name “Pentecost” (50 days) for this feast). Unlike Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28:26–31, which specify the appropriate offerings to be made, the focus here is simply on freely acknowledging God’s goodness to his Exodus people in bringing them into the land. This is to be expressed in another joyful and inclusive feast in God’s company (16:11). For Moses, the origins of this festival are unimportant—what matters is that it now plays its part in maintaining a rhythm of joyful thankfulness in the life of God’s people in the land.
16:13–15 The third member of the set is the Feast of Booths, which comes when the harvest has not only been gathered, but processed and ready for consumption, storage, or sale. Again, more detail is supplied in Leviticus 23:33–44 and Numbers 29:12–39, but Moses’s emphasis here is distinctive. The focus once more is on enjoying God together with the entire community at the place which he chooses. The culmination of this annual cycle is “that you will be altogether joyful.” God has rescued his people and brought them into the land so that they might rejoice in his presence.
16:16–17 In a final summary statement, Moses states that it will be compulsory for all Israelite adult males to attend each festival every year (although clearly everyone else is allowed to join if they wish). This is so important because it enshrines gratitude to God at the heart of the national consciousness. God has blessed them, so they must acknowledge that by “giving as they are able,” with God’s goodness precluding anyone showing up “empty-handed.” God makes this annual rhythm of gratitude possible. Their obedience will bring it to reality.
Living under God’s Appointed Leaders (16:18–18:22)
16:18–20 The principle of delegated authority laid out in 1:9–18 is now expanded for life in the land, with the added proviso that these tribal appointees should cover “all your towns.” The role of these officials is to show “righteous-judgment,” a unique hyphenated expression, which deliberately binds human legal judgments to the perfect righteousness of God. This is underlined by the striking (and unparalleled) expression in verse 20: “Righteousness, righteousness you shall follow.” This is a prerequisite for taking and holding the land and enjoying life with Yahweh in it. 16:19 provides a thumbnail sketch of what this divine righteousness looks like in practice: no subverting the system, no favouritism, and no bribes. Bribery in particular has the power to cloud the vision of even the wise judge and lead to mistreatment of the godly.
16:21–17:7 As Moses expands on the role of these figures, he highlights that their responsibility is to uphold the covenant (rather than a narrow “legal” function as we would understand it). This starts with ensuring that the worship of God at the altar is safeguarded from potential idolatry by prohibiting planting a tree or erecting a pillar near the sanctuary (16:21), by preventing sub-standard sacrifice (17:1) and, in a longer discussion, by dealing with idolaters (17:2–7). In Deuteronomy, the responsibility for covenantal faithfulness is shared by everyone in the people of God. Idolatry within their “gates” (conveying the idea of jurisdiction) is to be treated with the utmost seriousness, as it is a breach of the covenant with God. Even in a case like this, however, the accused must be treated justly, which demands at least two witnesses (17:6). The responsibility of the community to guard against and deal with idolatry is clear (as in 13:9); those who have uncovered the act are the ones to initiate the shared judicial execution by stoning. Capital punishment was necessary to rid the community of this toxic root (17:7).
17:8–13 Moses is all too aware of the complexity of national life and now seeks to extend the principle enshrined in 1:17 for life in the land after he has gone. Whether dealing with murder, complex civil cases, or assault, sometimes the judicial process in the community will reach an impasse (17:8). If that happens, the case can be escalated to the Priests who are Levites and the “Judge who is in office,” who is most likely the one chosen to chair such priestly tribunals (17:9). Speaking from God’s place and with his delegated authority, their ruling must be accepted as coming from God himself. There is to be no negotiation, for this would undermine the fabric of the life of the covenant nation. The word of the priest(s) or the Judge in this context must be obeyed, for Israel must be a holy nation, and this is the divinely ordained mechanism for removing evil from their midst, which is designed both to punish and deter. It is fascinating that in Moses’s conception of the one people of God, there is no divide between secular and religious authority: the judges guard against idolatry in 17:2–7, and the Levitical Priests rule on judicial matters in 17:8–13.
17:14–20 If confirmation were needed that this is no conventional “law-code,” it can be found in 17:14–20, which is both one of the most influential and most surprising passages in Deuteronomy, as Moses turns to address the question of kingship. Seemingly out of the blue, Moses anticipates a foolish request: that Israel replace their covenant Lord with a “king like all the nations.”20 Given the record of the people thus far, and the very real challenge of leadership after his departure, the future possibility does not require a massive leap of the imagination. Moses allows that this may happen but on one primary condition: that the King, like the place where they should worship, must be chosen by God himself (17:15). The parameters within which God will operate are then revealed: the king will be an Israelite (“from among your brothers” also implies that he remains an “equal”); he must not “acquire many horses” or “return to Egypt” , which appears to mean he must not pursue military power or political influence; the king must not acquire many wives (out of lust, a desire to build diplomatic links, or both) nor accumulate great wealth. The sense that the king which God will choose is completely unlike any other king is strengthened in 17:18–20. Positively, the king’s duties begin with making by hand a “priestly-certified,” accurate copy of “this law” (presumably Deuteronomy, which derives its name, “second law,” from the Greek (mis)translation of this verse). He must then keep this on his person at all times, devoting himself to reading it regularly for the rest of his life. This should have the effect of enabling the king to be the model Israelite, fearing God and doing what he says consistently and, strikingly, humbly (17:20), as he leads under God in a way which allows God’s people to flourish for generations. This picture of the king provides the theological foundation of the critique of the kings of Israel and Judah, beginning in 1 Samuel and stretching through to the end of 2 Kings (see e.g., the appraisal of Solomon in 1Kgs 10:23–11:8). It is, however, important to notice that there are elements of this prescription which are not emphasised in the later narratives (lifting up one’s heart only appears in 2Kgs 14:10 in a message sent from Jehoash of Israel to Amaziah of Judah, and no king ever copies out the word). This does seem to be an early, idealistic text, only parts of which are picked up by later works.
18:1–8 The focus now shifts to the “Levitical Priests.” Moses does not generally distinguish between the tribe of Levi as a whole and those families commissioned to serve as priests (although see 10:6; 31:25). In Deuteronomy, the entire tribe of Levi, loosely construed as “the Priestly tribe” has a vital theological function, which is reiterated in 18:2: “They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them.” It will be the whole nation’s responsibility to maintain the (leadership) “structure” in which Levi lives off the portion of the sacrifices and offerings allocated (18:3–4) for all time. This will be a permanent reminder that God’s goal in giving them the land is actually to give them himself. This, in turn, means that no one can be allowed to play power games with the priesthood. After settlement, any Levite has the right to relocate (probably temporarily) to the place God will choose, and to enjoy God’s provision, irrespective of any inherited wealth (presumably from properties within Levitical cities). The role of the Levites then is a perpetual reminder that ultimately, Israel has only one leader and only one God.
18:9–14 It seems that the symbolic role of the Levites prompts a series of fresh warnings against mimicking the “abominable practices” of the nations. Despite the fact that these activities led to the judgment of the Canaanites, Moses anticipates that the Israelites, though called to be “blameless,” may well be sucked into similar behaviour. It is not easy to identify all of the prohibited activities with confidence but they include child sacrifice (see Lev 20:2–5); various attempts to discover the minds of the gods; casting spells on people and trying to contact and manipulate the dead.21 As has been clear from chapter 4, there is no need to do all this when one belongs to the God who speaks.
18:15–22 Moses announces that God is committed to raising up a “prophet like” him at some indeterminate point in the future (18:15).22 The paradigm for this future prophet’s ministry is Moses’s own role at Horeb. In response to the plea of the people that the direct revelation of God was too much to cope with, God provided Moses as his spokesman. Looking back to these events, God himself affirms the wisdom in their words (18:17) and affirms his intention to provide a similar figure in future. The comparison with Horeb suggests that this figure will come at a decisive moment in the life of God’s people and presumably have a similar impact to the events of the Exodus and Horeb. And how will the people recognise this prophet (or conversely, when someone claiming to be this figure or another messenger from God is a charlatan)? The test is straightforward: according to 18:22, if the message is or comes true, then the prophet is the real deal. If he speaks falsely (or in the name of another god) however, he is to be killed (18:21). Such is the weight of responsibility of claiming to speak with God’s authority. Moses’s words here lay the foundation for the Old Testament understanding of prophecy (see e.g., Jer 28:1–17 and the demise of the false prophet Hananiah) Somewhat surprisingly, however, the idea of a prophet like Moses to come does not figure large in the rest of the Old Testament (which once more suggests that this is an ancient text, rather than reverse-engineered to suit the purposes of Josiah or the Exiles). In later extra-biblical texts from Qumran and elsewhere, there is a clear expectation that God will send an individual who meets these criteria. In Mark 6:15, Acts 3:33, and Acts 7:37, Jesus is identified as precisely this figure.
Death as the Ultimate Sanction (19:1–22:12)
19:1–14 As Moses continues to preach these laws, the clear focus of each section starts to diminish, and the connections between adjacent laws harder to discern. In this part of his exposition, however, there is a still a clear thread linking much of the material as he deals with safeguards and stipulations around justified (and unjustified) killing, roughly linked to the Sixth Commandment. He begins by outlining the provision of three cities of refuge carefully located in the northern, central, and southern parts of the land (19:1–3, also Exod 21:12–14). This ensures every citizen has roughly equal access to these safe places. This special designation of existing towns provides for circumstances like that outlined in 19:4–5, where an axe-head flies off and kills your neighbour (which does seem like a vivid illustration, rather than “case law”!). The fact that there is no bad blood between those involved (“without having hated him in the past”) and that the killing is clearly accidental allows the perpetrator to flee to safety. The protection may be necessary because of the “hot anger” of the “avenger of blood.” It seems that this is envisaged as a temporary provision until the situation cools down. This is so important that the command to identify three such cities on entering the land (19:7) is backed up by the provision of three more (19:8–10). The motivation behind this is more than simple justice: it is to prevent innocent bloodshed in the land. According to 19:10, this bloodguilt will impair Israel’s relationship with God, which is intrinsically linked to the land. This explains why “stealing” your neighbour’s land by interfering with boundaries is included here. 19:11–13 (see also Num 35:16–23) makes clear that refuge can only be offered to those who have been involved in an accidental death: premeditated murder is in an entirely different category and must be dealt with appropriately in order to “purge the guilt” from God’s people (although Moses does not specify the processes involved).
19:15–21 The dual focus on due and fair process on the one hand and dealing properly with “evil” on the other is reflected on the rules for admissible evidence in 19:15–21. The threshold is “two or three witnesses” (19:15). Well aware of our innate deceitfulness, Moses also lays out the procedure for dealing with false accusations. The issue is to be brought before the “priests and the judges in office” in the presence of God himself. Should it be found that the allegations are baseless, then the false witness will face the penalty for the alleged crime (19:19). This has the result of “purging the evil” from the nation, presumably by restoring justice. It also acts as a deterrent to such behaviour. The principle of 19:21 is a succinct expression of just proportionality, both limiting and prescribing judicial sentences at the same time.
20:1–4 Chapter 20 moves on to discuss the way in which Israel should conduct its wars. Whilst the imminent but unique conquest of Canaan is clearly in Moses’s mind, he ranges much more widely to deal with basic theological principles as he explains that righteousness is required of God’s people even on the battlefield. Repeatedly, Israel has been called to fear God alone—this is not to change even on the eve of battle, when confronted with a superior force (20:3). Moses lays out exactly what the priest(s) should say at that moment, reminding them that there is no to flinch or panic, for God will fight for his people (also Exod 14:14). This does not give Israel a licence for expansionist aggression—for God’s undertaking is to fight for them against Canaan and when they are attacked.
20:5–9 This dependence on God rather than military prowess or power allows for the remarkably relaxed approach to conscription at a time of crisis. The “officers” (see 1:16; 1Chr 27:1 and 2Chr 26:11), who seem to be non-military administrators, are to release those who have just set up a new home, those whose fruit trees are at a key stage in their fruit-bearing, and those who are on the point of being married (20:5–7). This is more generous than any contemporary provision and is an expression of God’s kindness. The dismissal of those who are fearful, in contrast, is to ensure that the army is protected from infectious and ungodly panic, before taking up its formation under the commanders (20:9).
20:10–20 The “normal” way in which the nation shall fight against other cities after the conquest (i.e. non-Canaanite cities) is laid out in these verses. They are to:
- Offer terms of peace;
- If accepted, make the people their subjects;
- If not, lay siege to the city;
- Then kill the males (i.e., soldiers) but no one else;
- Take everyone and everything else as “spoil.”
This is decidedly more benign than usual Ancient Near Eastern practice. 20:16–18 state baldly that the six nations listed (basically all the Canaanites) should be put to death as God has commanded on the basis of his judgment (Gen 16:16–20) and to put an end to their evil (and dangerous) practices. If these stringent measures are not followed, then it is inevitable that Israel will “sin against the Lord.” These instructions are deeply confronting but are striking for their carefully circumscribed scope.23
The note in 20:19–20, that when cities (even in Canaan) are being besieged, there is to be no “scorched earth” policy underlines the carefully defined scope of the act of judgment in the previous verses. Trees are to be treated differently not primarily for ecological reasons, but simply because they are not accountable to God for their actions! To this theological rationale, Moses adds an eminently practical ban on destroying fruit-bearing trees (which in many cases, take years to bring to this point), presumably because it would erode the future food supply.
21:1–9 Stepping away from rules surrounding warfare for a second, Moses turns to the right way to deal with an unsolved murder. His concern, however, is not with identifying the culprit, but rather ensuring the people’s relationship with God is not interrupted by “blood guilt.” Moses’s main focus is theological, not legal: God’s people must understand that their relationship with God is built on the need for atonement and forgiveness. The ritual itself involves a ruling by the elders (heads of families) and appointed “judges,” whose role is presumably to ensure that internal conflict does not develop, to determine whose responsibility it is to perform the ritual. The ritual itself will be overseen by the Levites (21:5). The animal selected must be a young heifer which has not yet been put to work (which may imply “unblemished” and may also mean it is easier to kill by a blow to the neck or head) and the site must be like Eden—virgin country with a river running through it (21:4).24 This is not a sacrifice per se—no blood is to be shed, and it is not at the place chosen by God—but the assertion of innocence by all the elders on behalf of the community (and ultimately the nation) in 21:7, and the striking atonement language in 21:8–9 rests on the fact that God alone can (and must) atone for this crime and forgive his people. Moses is adamant that the threat of “guilt” is the major challenge faced by the people in the land.
God’s people must understand that their relationship with God is built on the need for atonement and forgiveness.
21:10–14 The next verses return abruptly to the subject of warfare but this time deal not with legitimate killing, but the ramifications of taking captives. If an Israelite warrior is drawn to a captive woman by her beauty and wants to commit to her (the language is the same as 7:7 and 10:15 used of Yahweh “setting his love” on his people), then safeguards are set in place for both the woman and the community. The “makeover” in 21:12–13 both allows her to express the pain of being a captive and to emerge from this mourning period as a new woman, divested of any signs of her previous (idolatrous) culture. This allows the marriage to take place. Moses is, however, very aware of the danger of the power of the (victorious) husband being abused and so insists that if things fall apart because the husband (shamefully) changes his mind, then the captured woman is free to leave without stigma. These prescriptions are quite remarkable for the ancient world.
21:15–17 The situation presented in 21:15–17 (a husband of two wives loving one and (lit.) “hating” the other (see Mal 1:2, which shows the word has a much broader semantic range than the English “hate”) may flow on from the previous verses (involving a former captive) or may even recall the events involving Jacobs’s sons.25 Perhaps surprisingly, no comment is made about the bigamy, but the rights of the unloved wife through her son are protected (unlike in the case of Leah and Rachel, where Joseph supplanted Reuben as the official “firstborn,” receiving a double share of the inheritance). Moses’s concern for the weak on the one hand, and deep realism about life in Israel stand out.
21:18–23 Returning to the subject of death, Moses deals with the seriousness of rebellion within the family, which is tantamount to a breach of the covenant. If a son is “stubborn and rebellious” (probably best taken together to mean something like “completely incorrigible”), repeatedly resisting and rejecting all attempts to discipline him, then the community must put him to death (21:21), for behaviour like this threatens the covenant itself. This explains why this law is harsher than other Ancient Near Eastern sanctions on such sons. The necessity of such drastic action (and the way in which the corpse is to be handled) is further explored in 21:22–23. The reference to the body being “exposed on a pole” (such a punishment has not been mentioned thus far) seems to refer to general practice (see Gen 40:19, 22; Josh 8:23, 29; 10:26; 2Sam 4:12; 21:12). It is clear that the person has come under God’s curse in order that blessing in the land might continue. This is why both John and Paul pick this up (John 19:31 and Gal 3:13) to explain that on the cross, Christ bore both our sin and the curse flowing from that, bearing God’s wrath in our place, in order that we might know the blessing of God.
22:1–12 The collection of laws in 22:1–12 signals a shift away from larger blocks of material clearly organised around a unified theme to a more eclectic approach (albeit one which occasionally seems to be loosely following the order of the Decalogue). A series of laws concerning two themes appear to be intertwined: the “brotherhood of Israel” and remaining distinct from the Canaanites. In 22:1–4, treating one another like brothers will involve rescuing and restoring lost or endangered livestock, as well as “any lost thing of your brothers.” It will also mean observing a strict building code (22:8) to avoid accidental death by falling from your roof.
The prohibition of cross-dressing seems to involve some kind of Canaanite ritual (perhaps a fertility ritual?), as it is denounced as an “abomination.” The insistence that Israel is distinct from the nations may also lie behind the four instructions in verses 9–12: mixing seed, teaming different kinds of animals, combining fabrics (all compromising the symbolism of Israel’s uniqueness), and the prescription of tassels providing a final underline (Num 15:37–41). The “bird’s nest” law of 22:6–7 does not fit easily into the flow but is further evidence of the humane nature of these chapters.
Righteousness in All of Life (22:13–25:19)
22:13–21 Sexual misconduct dominates the next series of laws, beginning with provisions to protect a woman who is wrongly accused of unfaithfulness before marriage by her new husband, after he decides he would rather not be with her (as in 21:10–11). This time, however, the ramifications for the entire covenant community are massive. The life of God’s people is to be built on righteousness—such an accusation impugns the woman, her parents and the entire community she is from. Uniquely in the Ancient Near East, the process in verses 13–19 is designed to protect and exonerate the woman (and her community). The father of the bride is to produce the evidence of her virginity (presumably the sheet from the wedding bed—the word normally means “cloak,” but as Exod 22:26–27 shows, it could also be used for sleeping). When the elders see the evidence (22:18), they are to flog the husband, make him pay double the normal bride price, and remove any right to divorce. This kind of lying threatens the very fabric of the covenant people. If, however, she is guilty, the woman shall be executed for adultery in her home community (which “allowed” this to happen) because such behaviour strikes at the heart of the covenant as we have seen.
22:22–30 The basic principle (in keeping with the 7th Commandment) is laid out in 22:22. Adultery is deeply wrong and is punishable by death for both parties. This is vital for the survival of Israel as a covenant people. But what about cases which are not clear cut? The three scenarios which follow (23:23–24; 25–27 and 28–29) involve a single man with a betrothed woman in the town, in a rural area, and then with an unattached virgin. Given the cultural setting (where men and women would not have easily had time alone under normal circumstances), the assumption is that if the act happens in the town, then the woman must have been a willing party, and so both shall face the penalty of 22:22. If it happens in the countryside, however, the woman is presumed innocent and only the man shall die. In both cases, the issue is covenant-breaking, which demands the death penalty. By contrast, pre-marital sex where the woman is not betrothed simply means that the man must pay the bride price and they must marry (with no possibility of divorce). Although these rules are brief (and so inevitably leave some questions unanswered), they are consistently geared to protect the women involved. It is surprising at this point to read a prohibition of marrying a woman who had previously been married to your father (it seems that this assumes a father with multiple wives, rather than dealing with incest). The phrase “uncover his corner/nakedness” is not completely clear, but obviously brings shame on the family, and thus the covenant people as a whole.
23:1–8 Admission to the assembly of God’s covenant people is not open to several groups of people. The identification of these people (and reasons behind their exclusion) is not always certain, but the overall point is clear. In 23:1, it is probably those who have been involved in extreme Canaanite rituals (perhaps hinted at in 14:1) who are in view, and in the next verse, a rare word is used which occurs only here and in Zechariah 9:6. It may point forward to the offspring of “mixed marriages” with the other nations prohibited in verses 3–8, or, perhaps more likely, to the children of cult prostitutes (as in verses 17–18), given what is effectively their permanent exclusion. Despite the kinship with Ammon and Moab (through Lot), the treatment they meted out to Israel “on the way” (see Num 22–24), disqualifies their offspring from becoming part of the covenant people. Nor should Israel allow their past to move them to rush to their defence (22:6). In contrast, the Edomites, descendants of Esau, are to be treated as “brothers,” with the implication that any Edomite who wishes to can become a member of the covenant people (presumably because of the direct relationship with Abraham). The real surprise is that Egyptians are not to be loathed, and the third generation can become full-fledged Israelites, “because you were a sojourner in his land” (23:7). Given Moses’s own upbringing and the increasing influence of the tribe of Joseph, it is perhaps not surprising that forty years after the Exodus, a more positive attitude to Egypt emerges.
23:9–14 The focus now shifts to the importance of ritual purity when on a military campaign (like the one which is about to start). Moses assumes knowledge of the thought and categories of Leviticus (Lev 15:1–33, also Num 5:1–4), and simply alludes to the fact that any nocturnal emission excludes a man from the camp for the next day (23:11). The need to defecate is also a potential cause of ritual contamination, so Moses adds some very specific instructions from identifying a site for a latrine, digging the hole, squatting, and then turning around to fill it in. Why is this so important? Because, in an echo of Genesis 3:8, God himself walks around the camp, and nothing unholy must be allowed to drive him away—not least because victory depends on it!
23:15–16 In stark contrast to contemporary legislation, asylum is to be granted to foreign slaves who seek refuge in Israel. This flows from the fact that there is no slavery proper in the land, although the right to choose freely where to live is unexpectedly generous.
23:17–18 The prohibition of illicit sexual cultic activity among God’s people (presumably associated with the place chosen by God) is an expression of the regularly expressed concern that the people will, sooner or later, fall into idolatry. The aversion to this is strongly expressed, with the male compared to a dog in heat, and the proceeds of such activity banned from any religious use.
23:19–25 Israel is to function like a family, with a ban on charging “brothers” interest (see also Exod 22:25–27; Lev 25:35–38). The generosity of God to his people must be mirrored in their interactions with each other (although not foreign merchants!), whether dealing with money or goods. This is how to live as a people of promise and enjoy the blessing of God. Making a commitment of any kind should not be taken lightly in the community. Moses insists that for Israel, to give your word is essentially to make a vow to God, which must be honoured if Israel is to avoid sinning (23:23, see also the incident involving Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5). Israel is to speak as God has spoken to them. This is the foundation for the kind of trust that lies behind 23:24–25, which allows for everyone to enjoy the produce of the land (which is, after all, God’s ultimate possession) without attempting to exploit one another for material gain. This is righteousness in action.
24:1–7 The discussion of divorce in 24:1–4 is puzzling in several ways: the reality of divorce is simply assumed; it is hard to envisage this being a regular occurrence; the particular situation is described as an “abomination,” the term usually reserved for “Canaanite” behaviour; it is said to bring sin upon the land, thus interrupting Israel’s relationship with God. The simplest explanation seems to be that this underlining that righteousness and trust must characterise Israel’s ethical life in every sphere, including marriage and even the sadness of divorce. In this case, the woman must be protected. To do anything else would be a breach of covenant (which is how Jer 3:1 understands this passage). 24:5 is very similar to 20:7–8, although in this case, the positive enjoyment of marriage is emphasised and the “honeymoon” extended to cover release from all kinds of public service. To deny a husband (or a wife) this would be self-evidently wrong, as would “taking an upper millstone in pledge” (24:6), thus undermining the ability of the person to grind and therefore feed himself (and presumably his family). Going a step further, removing the freedom of a brother is punishable by death. It cannot be so in the family of God.
24:8–9 An abrupt change of focus introduces the kind of skin condition dealt with at length in Leviticus 13 and 14. Here, however, the issue is really disrespect for authority (in this case, the Levitical priests) which is backed up by a reference to Miriam’s rebellion against Moses himself in Numbers 12:1–10.
24:10–21 From 24:10, Moses moves to a body of material gathering together a range of protections for those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged (whether the fault is theirs or not). In 24:10–11, those who are in debt must not be humiliated (in their own home) but should be allowed the chance to discharge their debt with dignity. If the man is poor, then he should not be deprived of the cloak which doubles-up as a sleeping bag. He is to be shown kindness, which will result in a right relationship with both the man (“he will bless you”) and with God himself (“it shall be righteousness for you”). Hired workers, whatever their ethnicity, should be treated with kindness and consideration rather than being exploited (24:15) as an expression of the same righteousness. Individuals should be answerable for their own sin (24:16), and the vulnerable should not be denied justice or protection, whether non-Israelites passing through, orphans or widows. All this flows naturally from the way in which God treated Israel in the Exodus (24:18, 22). Profit and productivity should not be pursued at the expense of the needy. Instead, a studied inefficiency in harvesting grain, grapes, and olives (24:19–21) is the road to ongoing blessing with Yahweh (as happened in Ruth 2). Even those who are convicted of an offence are protected, as their punishment is limited to what is warranted (25:1–4). Even the guilty brother should not be dehumanised or degraded. The final statement sounds “proverbial”—the hard–working ox should not be forced to smell the food he is providing without being allowed to eat it—and acts as a summary of the LORD’s commitment to justice for the weak (Paul picks up on this principle when talking about support for teachers in 1 Cor 9:9 and 1 Tim 5:8). The overwhelming burden of Moses is to see God’s righteousness embodied in the life of the nation, and particularly in the protection of the vulnerable on the basis of the Exodus.
25:5–10 Righteousness in Israel means both caring for the vulnerable and taking family responsibilities deeply seriously. This includes ensuring that the widow of a brother who dies before having children is cared for (25:5). The focus is on ensuring the continuance of his “name” (thereby preserving his inheritance and so the economic security). Refusal to meet this obligation will lead to public humiliation (in front of the elders) at the hands of the woman and a label of disgrace being attached to the family (25:10). Whilst this seems a strange provision today, it is clearly a loving action to protect a female member of the extended family.
25:11–12 One could say the same about the envisaged intervention in 25:11! In this case, it is the wife’s action which is shameful, literally grabbing the man’s “parts of shame.” No reason is given for this intervention, but the penalty is uniquely severe.26 The injunction to “show no pity” has occurred in 13:8; 19:13 and 21, and implies that this action strikes at the core of the life of the covenant people, which may mean that in this case, it is a deliberate attempt to end any possibility of the man having children. This would explain the inclusion of this (presumably highly rare!) event at this point.
25:13–16 “Righteousness” also leads to the use of completely fair (“righteous”) weights and measures (25:15, see also Lev 19:35–36), rather than using a lighter weight to calculate one’s debts and a heavier one to work out what one is owed. This is the way of blessing, as befits a covenant people. To defraud each other is rather the way of the nations.
25:17–19 Exodus 17:8–16 (see also Num 14:43–45) provides the background for the final command of the main body of laws. Israel is to live in the light of what has gone before, which in this case means to enact God’s judgment on the cowardly, opportunistic and godless enemies like the Amalekites. As they get ready to enter the land, it is imperative that they act with “righteousness,” whether that means treating their brothers fairly, or doing carefully what God has commanded them to do in meting out his judgment against specific nations.
Conclusion: Living All of Life for God—Firstfruits and Tithes (26:1–19)
26:1–11 Chapter 26 picks up many of the elements of chapter 12, as people are called to go to the place chosen by God to rejoice in his presence, and so provides a fitting conclusion to this long central panel of Moses’s preaching. The ritual of firstfruits was associated with the Feast of Weeks and so could have been included in chapter 16 (or even where it is mentioned in 18:4), but Moses holds it back until now for rhetorical effect, as it sums up many of the key themes of the book so far. Twelve actions are described—five by the worshipper, two by the priest, and then five more by the worshipper. At the heart of the ceremony is the idea of gratitude: God has given the land (26:1, 2, 3), and now the people must express their thanks, both in terms of this offering and the “confession” that is to accompany it. The confession starts with Jacob (the “wandering Aramean”) in 26:5, who took his family to Egypt with the result that they flourished in fulfilment of Genesis 12:1–3. Verses 6–8 recall the Exodus in typical terms.27 The worshipper is then to thank God for the sumptuous gift of the land, which enables all Israel to rejoice together in God’s presence “in all the good” which God has given them, including both the Levites and the foreigner. This is the attractive and inclusive righteousness of God (see 4:5–8) on display.
26:12–15 The presentation of the triennial tithes was dealt with in 14:28–29, but now Moses revisits this ritual as a model of obedience in action. The confession in 26:13 asserts that the worshipper has listened and obeyed, sharing his produce with the landless Levite, the disadvantaged stranger, orphans, and widows from God’s family. It is to be declared loud and clear that the offering of this tithe is untainted by associations with Canaanite religion (26:14). This wholehearted obedience then creates the conditions for God to continue to bless his people in his land from his “holy habitation.” This is a picture of God’s people in God’s land living the beautiful, righteous life to which he has called them in the preceding chapters.
26:16–19 Moses summarises not just the requirement for righteousness, laid out so powerfully in chapters 12–26 (the “laws and the statutes”), but the message of the book as a whole. At that moment, it is Israel’s responsibility to respond with wholehearted obedience (as in 6:4), listening to him, and doing exactly what he says, not least because Israel is his “treasured possession” (7:6), the people of promise. Should they do what they are told, they will be “set in praise and fame and honour high above all nations” (an idea anticipated in Deut 4:5–8 and picked up in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6), as a people “holy to God.” The form of the “double declaration” resembles an ancient treaty between “equals” (e.g., that between Rameses II of Egypt and the Hittite Hattusili III),28 although it is not entirely clear who said what (or when), as Moses simply summarises the state of play now. It is clear what God asks of his people and promises to his people. The only outstanding issue is their ability to pull it off.
This is a collection of laws unlike any other in the ancient world in its scope, intent and vision.
In Deuteronomy 12–26, then, Moses gives the fullest, most wide-ranging picture of righteousness (construed in terms of right worship, right relationships, and right behaviour) in Scripture. It is a stunning picture of the beautiful life in God’s presence in his land. Expanding on the Decalogue, Moses applies and illustrates what a righteous life with God looks like, mixing commands with persuasion, examples with exhortation. This is a collection of laws unlike any other in the ancient world in its scope, intent and vision.
Moses Preaches Blessing and Curse (27:1–28:68)
In the final movement of the book, Deuteronomy takes a significant theological and rhetorical turn, as Moses spells out what has been merely a gnawing sense of unease thus far. The gulf between what God requires and what Israel is capable of now comes into full view as the ritual to be enacted on entering the land is outlined.
27:1–8 Joined for the first time by the elders, Moses reiterates his clarion call to obey the “whole commandment,” and to do it today. This daily obedience must characterise national life from this moment on, even as the nation crosses the Jordan. According to verse 3, large plastered stones must be prepared, inscribed with the words of “this Torah,” which most naturally refers to either chapters 12–16 or Moses’s speech in its entirety. These stones are presumably to be sourced on the limestone–rich Mt Ebal, one of the twin 1000m (3,000-foot) peaks above Shechem on the east of the land above the Jordan Valley. This whole event has echoes of Exodus 24:1–11.The plaster would be easily made and written on (or etched), but would also quickly wash away, underlining that this is a one-off ritual.29 A natural altar (Exod 20:25, eschewing “Canaanite” technology) is to be constructed next to these stones, and the nation shall make burnt and peace (or fellowship) offerings there, rejoicing in the presence of the Lord in the land for the first time. The enduring function of these stones is to make God’s instructions not just clear but binding, so that Israel is without excuse should they depart from them. The setting on Mt Ebal (“curse mountain” according to what follows, may imply that these stones will function as an indictment of the people in years to come.
27:9–10 This time joined by the priests who are Levites, Moses calls on the nation to “shut up” and listen (an echo of 6:4 and elsewhere), as the basic stance of those who have “become the people of God.” The importance of “today/this day” in this chapter is clearer.30 God has spoken (as he did on the “day” at Horeb). Now Israel has come of age, and every day from now on must be a day of listening and obedience. The heightened rhetoric creates a growing sense of disquiet.
27:11–26 Moses and the Priests then return to the detail of the ritual to be performed above Shechem on entering the land. The nation is to split in two on the twin mountains: six tribes are to climb Mt Gerizim (viewed from Shechem, the peak to the south/left) and six Mt Ebal. The grouping of the tribes is not explained but reflects the period before Joseph is divided into Ephraim and Manasseh. At this point, one might expect blessing and curse to be pronounced (as happens in chapter 28). Instead, the Levites pronounce a list of twelve curses, clearly matching the number of tribes. It is unclear if the Levites are to speak from their tribal position or to split into two groups (as actually happens in Josh 8:30–35). The content of the twelve curses is fascinating, covering some of the content of the Decalogue (idolatry, honouring parents), but more prominently encouraging “Deuteronomic” righteousness (not moving landmarks, exploiting the vulnerable or committing bribery, but observing sexual propriety, and doing everything God has commanded). 27:18, 21–22 pick up sins (misleading the blind, bestiality, and incest) not mentioned elsewhere in the book. At each stage, the nation must declare “Amen” as a commitment to obey. The presence of these curses builds on the growing impression that Israel will choose not to obey, an impression which is confirmed by chapter 28.
28:1–14 Picking up what was flagged in verses 13 and 14, the blessings and curses to be intoned by the two sets of tribes on the mountains are detailed. (According to Josh 8, they did it facing one another on the lower slopes of the valley in between Ebal and Gerizim). The blessings are relatively brief. 28:1 picks up the overall promise of 26:19, promising pre-eminence for Israel in God’s economy. First, six blessings are pronounced, covering urban and rural dwellers (28:3), human, animal, and crop fertility, domestic food production (28:4–5), and all the details of life (28:6). The theme of blessing is then expounded in verses 7–14. As we saw in 26:16–19, Israel’s internal holiness and international reputation are guaranteed if they obey (28:9–10). God’s promises to those who have gone before will be fulfilled, the land will flourish (see 11:11–14), and the nation will stand tall on the international stage. Clever directional language states that they will only move up (not down) if they do not veer to the right or the left in idolatry. The “head” not “tail” language occurs only in this chapter (also 28:44) and Isaiah 9:14–15.31
28:15–68 The pattern in 28:15–19 mirrors that in 28:1–6, with a statement of the consequences of not listening followed by a list of six curses. The order is slightly different, which may simply flow from the looseness of Moses’s address. The sheer volume of curses listed is, however, the standout feature of this chapter. 28:20–24 opens with the destruction of the nation through human and livestock epidemics and drought. The focus switches in 28:25 to external military adversaries, who will make an example of Israel, whose “corpse” shall become prey for vultures. As if things could get worse, the nation will be struck with the “boils of Egypt” and other skin diseases; mental illness, blindness, confusion and the knowledge that there is no-one to help (28:29). In 28:30–35, the scene envisaged involves losing everything and having to watch: a future wife or a newly-built home will be taken, livestock slaughtered, and children deported and sold into slavery. All this is ostensibly the work of another nation (28:33–34), but behind all this stands Yahweh himself (20:35), who will then bring them (and their king) into exile, where they will worship other gods and become a dark warning to all nations.32
All their activity will literally be fruitless (28:38–42), because of locusts, worms, crickets, and even foreign marauders taking their children. The blessing of 28:13 will be flipped on its head, and the nation will become subject to sojourners (28:44). As he has done throughout the book, Moses is not slow to insert commentary on what might happen—it is because of their refusal to listen that these “signs and wonders” are now plaguing Israel: their lack of joy will lead to hunger, thirst, nakedness, and want, as they are crushed by an iron yoke (28:48).
The agent of all this and the effects of his coming are detailed in graphic language in 28:49–57. This “eagle” will swoop, cruelly attacking people of all ages and utterly despoiling the land. Israel will be besieged and then devoured (28:53) as the social fabric of Israel falls apart and the “brotherhood” of Israel is swept away in a tide of desperation, where fathers eat their children and women their own placenta (28:55, 57). In 28:58–68, all this is characterised as a “return to Egypt.” The promises made by God from the time of Adam to today are systematically reversed—population growth, the blessing of Yahweh’s presence, and even the land itself is lost. The freedom of Exodus is replaced by the diseases of Egypt. This metaphorical “return” will bring with it further idolatry, a loss of “rest” (28:65), and fear not of Yahweh but of life itself, as they are forced unsuccessfully to find a new lord and master, having rejected their own.
The promises made by God from the time of Adam to today are systematically reversed—population growth, the blessing of Yahweh’s presence, and even the land itself is lost. The freedom of Exodus is replaced by the diseases of Egypt.
The unravelling of God’s promise in these chapters, and the looming reality of the curse dwarfs the blessing and brings to the surface the strengthening sense that this will, sooner or later, be Israel’s fate.
Moses Preaches the New Covenant (29:1–30:20)
These chapters bring us to the climax of Moses’s preaching and the theological heart of the book. Understanding this part of the book unlocks Moses’s sweeping biblical-theological perspective and lays the foundation for the rest of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ in the New.
29:1 This is the only place in the Bible where the “covenant at Moab” is named explicitly (although it is simply the confirmation of Moses’s teaching in e.g., 5:2–3). It is a “refresh” or “update” of the covenant at Horeb, where God called his rescued people to live a holy life (e.g. Exod 19:6) and sets the trajectory for the future for the covenant people in the land, choosing to listen to God “today”.
29:2–9 There is, however, one new feature of the covenant at Moab—this iteration acknowledges that ultimately, it cannot deliver what it promises. After reminding them once more of the dramatic intervention of God in the Exodus, Moses says, “but to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (29:4) For the first time it is spelled out that listening, seeing, and trusting are actually beyond Israel. Without missing a beat, Moses continues to rehearse God’s kindness in the wilderness (as in 8:4), alludes to the spiritual benefits of a wilderness diet of manna rather than bread and wine, and reminds them of the ease of conquering the Transjordan, as a dry run for taking the land. This tension is central to the message of the book.
29:10–29 Moses then speaks to this new covenant, which is being established with Israel in its entirety, right down to those—presumably part of the mixed crowd who came out of Egypt—who cut the wood and carry the water (29:11–12). The aim of this fresh covenant is to “establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” In other words, the aim is consistent with God’s earlier promises and paradigmatic for what is to come, as 29:14–15 makes clear. This ever-current Moab covenant is the key to life in the land for future generations. The experience of Egypt and the nations en route to the land (and in particular their various idols) should have convinced Israel to live wholeheartedly for God. Under the terms of this covenant, even one individual whose commitment starts to waver is a threat to the life of the nation. This “root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (29:18) needs to be isolated and dealt with. His arrogance (“I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart”) will have universal consequences (unusually “for the moist and dry alike”). Not only will he face the “jealousy” of God and the curses of the covenant, his name will be “blotted out from under heaven” (see e.g., Gen 7:23 of judgment in the flood, and Psalm 9:5; 69:28; 109:13–14). The consequences of idolatry, however, are not limited to the original perpetrator. Visitors and subsequent generations will both see the devastation, evidence of God’s judgement like that against Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19).33 Should this covenant be broken, the nations will be the audience of the tragedy, asking “Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?” Moses provides the answer ahead of time: covenant-breaking is the reason, as they worshipped other gods (29:26). Again, the curse of the covenant is centre stage, where Moses envisages a day where the Lord is provoked, the covenant broken, and the land lost (29:27–28). The apparently cryptic statement of 29:29 speaks of the “secret things” and the things that are “revealed” to the Moab generation and those who follow. The “revealed things” are best taken as the content of the covenant at Moab, as the culmination of all that Moses has said in these addresses. These words are to be listened to and acted upon. And the “secret things”? They seem most naturally to refer to the future events that Moses has hinted at, including what he is about to describe in chapter 30.
30:1–10 After warning of the possibility of losing the land because of idolatry, Moses speaks of the distant future in what is the most remarkable passage in the entire book.34 For the first time, it is made explicit that Israel will experience both the blessing and the curse of the covenant (lit. “all these words; (30:1), implying that they will not be able to sustain obedience and will sooner or later lose the land. Moses also speaks of the day when they “return” to God and obey in the way they were called to in 6:4. On that day, God will “restore their fortunes and have mercy on them,” bringing them home to the land to experience an even greater degree of blessing than before (30:5). How can this complete turnaround in every aspect of the covenant relationship be explained? Right at the centre of this carefully arranged passage is the statement which explains how all this could be: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (30:6). In 10:16, Israel was called to circumcise their hearts. On this day far in the future, God will do it for them. This dramatic, gracious intervention will reverse all that has happened: the curses will fall on their enemies (30:7). Obedience will become normal, prosperity will be restored, and God will delight once more in blessing his people (30:8–10).
30:11–14 Moses’s injunction in 30:11–14 seems best taken with 30:1–10. These are words which will be able to be spoken under the new arrangement (what amounts to a new covenant, although it is not given that name until Jer 31:31) after God has circumcised the hearts of his people. Then and only then (only on that day) can it be said that “this commandment” (the whole law) is not too hard for you to live out (30:11). Only after God has intervened is “the word vert near you. . . . in your mouth and heart, so that you can do it.” Moses is speaking prophetically of what is revealed more fully later in the Old Testament and then in the Lord Jesus, the one who sets up the new covenant through his death (Luke 22:20). This is precisely how these verses are read by Paul in Romans 10:5–13.
30:15–20 The word “see” is used here as a marker to bring the Israelites back to real time (as it is at the key points in Moses’s speech at 1:8; 4:5 and 11:26, see also the reports of 1:21; 2:24, 31; 3:27). The choice between blessing and curse is now sharpened to a choice between life and death or good and evil. The unconditionality of 30:1–14 has now been replaced once more with conditionality—only full obedience can lead to blessing and the fulfilment of promise. Anything less amounts to idolatry and will lead to disaster, and the briefest of stays in the land (30:18). As in 4:26 (and 31:28), the entire cosmos is enlisted to witness the choice that has been clearly set before them, before Moses urges them to “choose life,” loving, listening and cleaving to God, as the key to enjoying the promised life in the land of promise with the one who “is your life.”
These chapters completely recalibrate the message of the book. The obedience which God rightly requires, and which Moses passionately preaches turns out to be beyond the reach of Israel. God, however, has already committed to doing what is necessary to enable people like us to live for him—he has promised to change our hearts through a new covenant to come.
Postscript 1: The Inevitability of Failure (31:1–32:47)
After the climax of Moses’s preaching, chapters 31–34 detail the transition of leadership to Joshua and the final words and death of Moses, including the song of chapter 32 and the blessing of chapter 33. Although the sermon proper has concluded, this material emphasises and reinforces the key theological concerns of the book.
31:1–8 Moses points out his advanced age and his decreasing ability to lead, especially in battle (for “going out and coming in” see Num 27:17, also Deut 28:6). The fact that Moses announces this himself is unusual, but the reminder that God himself has excluded the great leader has a significant impact, backing up the sense that Israel as a whole surely must also fail.35 Once more the Transjordan experience is cited as irrefutable evidence that the God who is with them can be trusted, and so they should obey (31:5). Moses then leaves them with the ringing call to “be strong and courageous,” which he then repeats to Joshua in front of the gathered nation (see Josh 1 for an expanded version of this speech). The hope of the people should be in God’s promise and his presence as they enter the land.
31:9–13 At key points in this book, reference is made to written materials (4:13; 5:22; 10:4; 17:18; 27:3, 8), and now Moses himself transcribes the words of his address (presumably on leather or parchment) and deposits it with the Levites and elders. Written records like this were designed to facilitate periodic renewal of the covenant commitments set out in the document.36 Every seven years, all the people (rather than just the males, 16:16) were to gather at the chosen place for a fresh encounter with God himself through his words. The Levites and elders are to read the whole law to the whole community. This ensures that each successive generation knows that “today” God is their God and calls them to serve him wholeheartedly (see 5:1–2; 29:29; 30:18–20). There is little evidence however, that this ever became embedded in the life of the nation.
31:14–29 In an astonishing section of narrative, God himself confirms the conclusion of Moses’s preaching. After instructing Moses and Joshua to come to the tent of meeting for his commissioning, Yahweh appears in a pillar of cloud (for the first time since Num 14:14, when the journey to the land was aborted). In 31:16, rather than proceeding straight to the commissioning itself, God speaks to Moses in unprecedented terms about the inevitability of the apostasy to come: “this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them.” Covenant–breaking will lead to divine wrath and God withdrawing from his people, as he “hides his face.” Before Joshua takes over, both he and the people need to confront this basic, brutal reality, which is why God instructs Moses and Joshua (the command is plural) to “write (down) this song” and teach it (which includes expounding it) to the people (31:19).
The purpose of the song is to be a “witness” against the people. It is a warning ahead of time that they are wired for disobedience and, sooner or later, will become complacent and selfish and turn to other gods (31:20). Singing this “national anthem,” as Daniel Block calls it, will remind them even when they have rebelled (31:21) of the truth. So Moses wrote it down and taught it to them. As with the reading of the law every seven years, there is little evidence that they ever learned this song. When the commissioning of Joshua actually happens in 31:23, the call the “be strong and courageous” takes on a different hue, given the dark warnings of the previous verses (this perspective is also reflected in the narrative of Joshua 1, with the people’s hollow assurance, “just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you!”). The chapter concludes with the completion of the “book” (or better the “scroll” or “document”) which is to be placed next to the ark as a witness against the people (like the song). The ark and the scroll together capture the basic tension of God’s commitment to be present with his people, and their inability (and unwillingness) to obey. Moses’s words to the Levites (31:27) and what he will say to the people (31:28–29) sum up what he has heard from God. The people are deeply sinful, and their future failure is inevitable.
31:30–32:43 The Song of Moses (or the Song of the LORD transcribed by Moses), sung (or recited) and taught by Moses, is a roller-coaster ride of soaring descriptions of the power and beauty of God (e.g., 32:1–4) and searing criticism of the nature of Israel (e.g., 32:5). After the heavens and the earth are summoned once more as witnesses (see 30:19), and a prayer that the message of the song be internalised (32:2), the singer is to recognise and proclaim the greatness, perfection, faithfulness, and justice of God (32:3–4). Immediately, however, the theme of the song is announced in 32:5–6: God’s people have responded to God’s grace appallingly, for they are “blemished,” “a crooked and twisted generation.”
32:7–14 details God’s kindness from ancient times: ordering national boundaries (and perhaps assigning angelic protection, if the ESV is correct to read “sons of God” rather than “sons of Israel), choosing and caring for Israel in the desert (32:10–12), and providing rich provision on the way to and in the land—including freshly fermented wine (32:13–14).
Israel’s response to all this is summed up in 32:15–18. Jeshurun, used only in Isaiah 44:2 outside this chapter and the next, is an ancient name for Israel and ironically means “the straight one.” But they have become like a cow fattened and ready for slaughter, rebelling against God and swapping him for false gods, forgetting the one who had brought them to life (32:15–18).Yahweh’s envisaged response in verses 19–35 is exactly as chapters 27–31 have outlined: he “spurned” his people (32:19); hides his face from them (32:20); is “jealous” (32:21); demonstrates his “anger” through another nation (32:21–22); pours out the curses of the covenant (32:23–25). The only thing that stays his hand is the possibility of mixed messages going to the watching nations, encouraging them in their arrogance (32:26–27). God underlines that his people have neither self-awareness nor insight (32:28–29), despite the glaringly obvious fact that their plight is due to God’s withdrawal (32:30), as the nations are themselves under God’s control, and ultimately will be judged (32:31–35). The song takes an unexpected turn in verse 36, with God graciously intervening on behalf of his people when “he sees that their power has gone.” God’s own words both mock the people for having trusted in non-gods and declare that he alone has the power (and the willingness) to heal his people and deal with their enemies (32:39–42). And he will most certainly do it—for he has promised. In 32:43 the song ends where it began, calling the heavens and now the false gods to bow down to the just and powerful God, who, almost incredibly, will “cleanse his people’s land,” in a glimpse of a new future marked by holiness.
32:44–47 The words of the song recited by Moses (with the support of Joshua) are tied in to all that has gone before, as they are urged to “take them to heart” and pass them on to their children that they might obey wholeheartedly. The theology of the song (which is the theology of all of Moses’s “words/word” is their “very life” (30:20). Singing this song of sin and grace (and doing this word) is the key to the future—both in the land, and beyond it.
The message of Moses’s sermon is hammered home both by the direct words of Yahweh himself, and the mediated words of Israel’s national anthem. Israel is deeply sinful, and ultimately, their only hope is to be found in the future grace of God.
Postscript 2: The Death of Moses (32:48–34:12)
The final movement of the book (and of the “5 books of Moses”) is understandably focused on Moses’s death outside the land.
32:48–52 Straight after Moses’s teaches the song, God speaks to Moses and tells him to climb Mt Nebo on the eastern side of the Jordan Valley across from Jericho (the “Abarim” probably refers to the range of which Nebo is a part), from which to see the land (on a clear day, Jericho, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the mountains of the north are all visible). The reason for this is a powerful reminder of the sinful frailty of even the best of humanity. Moses “broke faith” (Num 20:3, 13, see also Deut 1:19–46), and failed to treat God as holy, and so shared the same fate as his entire generation (completing the picture of 3:26). His death casts a long shadow over this and future generations.
33:1–5 The blessing pronounced by Moses has only one parallel—that of Jacob himself, the father of the nation in Genesis 49. Moses’s benediction, however, does not follow birth order, but seems to be arranged geographically. In addition, rather than speaking prophetically, Moses expresses wishes, commands, and makes statements. The most striking feature, however, is the prominence of Levi and Joseph (and the corresponding lack of attention paid to Judah, and the omission of Simeon, whose territory was within Judah’s). The symbolic importance of Levi throughout the book is continued here. The rise of Joseph’s tribe through this period is also reflected. Moses’s emphasis on the brotherhood of Israel in the medium term (although see Deut 17:14–20) probably underlies his words about Judah. Moses, described as “the man of God” (despite 32:51–52) speaks first of Yahweh coming in all his (military) might and glory from the Sinai region (also referred to as Seir and Mount Paran).37 The third person reference to Moses himself in verse 4 is surprising, and suggests that Moses may well be rehearsing an ancient “confession of faith,” culminating in the assertion that “Yahweh became king in Jeshurun” the only explicit reference to God as king in the book.
33:6–25 The blessings begin without ado. The prayer for Reuben is terse and asks simply for survival (see Gen 34:30). Judah receives little more attention in 33:7, with Moses simply looking to God to provide success for them in battle. For Levi, on the other hand, Moses highlights key roles in the spiritual life of the nation: handling divine guidance through Urim and Thummim (Exod 28:30; Lev 8:8); safeguarding the covenant (the background includes Exod 32:26–29; Num 25:11–12, as well as the events mentioned); teaching God’s word (Hos 4:6; Mic 3:11; Mal 2:1–9); running the sacrificial system. This is why he asks God to bless their resources (“substance”) and crush those who oppose them (although no mention is made of taking an inheritance). The blessing of Benjamin is short but glowing (33:12), but that of Joseph in 33:13–17 extensive and fulsome. The focus falls not just on the blessing of one tribe—Moses asks that the entire cosmos be united in pouring out abundance on the land, and alluding to Exodus 3, the “favour of him who dwells in the bush.” In terms reminiscent of Genesis 49:22–26, the tribe is described as a bull and an ox, taking on all their enemies, with Ephraim, Joshua’s tribe, in the lead. In 33:18–25, Moses deals with the six northern tribes. He calls Zebulun and his older sibling Issachar, joy, as they call people to join them in right worship, celebrating God’s generous provision from ocean and desert (33:18–19). Blessing is called down on anyone who supports Gad in his fierce determination to take and hold his (Transjordanian) land, even as Moses commends Gad concern for “righteousness” in the nation as a whole (33:20–21). Dan is described briefly in terms reminiscent of Judah (Gen 49:9). Naphtali is encouraged to take its whole inheritance, even as the tribe enjoys the fulness of Yahweh’s blessing. Finally, Moses then prays for both security and prosperity for Asher, as the oil flows down from the hills, and the tribe can provide the best of protection, going from strength to strength.
33:26–29 At the end of his blessing, Moses returns to proclaiming the uniqueness of God in 33:26–27, the one who both comes to his people’s aid from on high and is their source of eternal security. He is the one who underwrites the blissful existence of his people in an idyllic land (33:28). Moses’s last words proclaim the kindness of the rescuing God to his people leading to their unparalleled contentment (see 4:5–8). Their shield and (uniquely) their sword will defeat their enemies, ensuring that they triumph.
34:1–8 The transition to Moses walking up Nebo, to the top of Pisgah (probably the ridge of which Nebo forms part), is highly emotive. Moses is shown the land from the top of the mountain, now described in terms of tribal territories. Moses does not speak, but the LORD’s words are reported: “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, “I will give it to your offspring . . . but you shall not go over there.” God will keep his promises, but the implication is that not even Moses can keep covenant. This is underlined in 34:6. This “servant of the Lord” died, “according to the word of the Lord.” The precise location of his grave is unknown, but the fact that Beth-Peor, a place of idolatry, is mentioned as the locator, adds further to the sense of sadness. The fact that Moses reached the age of 120 is highlighted, and we are told that both his eyesight and “vigour” (perhaps his mental capacities) were undiminished right to the end. Unsurprisingly, the people mourned his passing.
34:9–12 Joshua is a worthy successor (he is “full of the spirit of wisdom”) and was wholeheartedly endorsed by Moses who appointed him. He had the confidence of the people and was committed to obedience (34:9). But the book ends on the ominous note that not even Joshua could hope to match Moses as a leader, given the privileges which God has extended to him and the ways in which God had used him through the Exodus and beyond. And yet, as the verses before made very clear, even Moses ultimately fell short. Israel’s only hope and security can only be found in God himself.
Deuteronomy ends on a disquieting and ominous note. The curses, the song, the death of Moses, and the words of Yahweh himself have pushed the inevitability of Israel’s sin and failure in the land into full view. But even in doing that, they have promised and heralded the fact that God’s relentless grace will ultimately prevail. God has already committed to providing a way back for his sinful people through a new, transformative covenant which will bring to reality everything he has promised from the very beginning, putting a beautiful life with him within the grasp of people like us—an everlasting covenant established in the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
Block, Daniel I. Deuteronomy. NIVAC. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Craigie, Peter A. Deuteronomy. NICOT. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1976.
Woods, Edward J. Deuteronomy. TOTC. Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
Wright, Christopher J. H. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody MA: Hendricksen, 1996.
McConville, J. Gordon. Deuteronomy. AOTC. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Other recommended works for further studies in Deuteronomy
Barker, Paul A. The Triumph of Grace in Deuteronomy. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006.
Block, Daniel I. How I Love Your Torah, O Lord!: Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy. Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011.
——————. The Gospel according to Moses. Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.
——————. The Triumph of Grace: Literary and Theological Studies in Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Themes. Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017.
Millar, J. Gary. Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy. NSBT 6. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
McConville, J. Gordon, Law and Theology in Deuteronomy. JSOTS 33. Sheffield: Sheffied Academic Press, 1984.
McConville, J. Gordon and J. Gary Millar. Time and Place in Deuteronomy. JSOTS 179. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.
Olson, Dennis T. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses. OBT. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.
Wilson, Ian. Out of the Midst of the Fire: Divine Presence in Deuteronomy. SBLDS 151. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1995.
Endnotes & Permissions
1. A phrase coined by Dan Block in the title of his collection of essays.
2. The classic work on this subject is by K. Lawson Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, JSOTS 98 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990). Younger points out that the language is like that of “Germany conquered France” during World War II. One could say that all resistance was crushed, but that does not deny the existence of the French Resistance!
3. This would suggest that Deuteronomy was “published” relatively soon after the Mosaic period. Block suggests the bed may have found its way to the Ammonite capital (modern Amman) during the time of Jephthah in Judges 10–12 (see Deuteronomy, 95).
4. The presence of this “prediction” is often taken to imply that Deuteronomy is created much later than the Mosaic period. The language here, however, makes much more sense as a broad description of covenant curses announced ahead of time rather than a description of exile created after the event.
5. There is much discussion of the relationship between ancient treaties of various kinds (especially those involving Hittites and Assyrians). In my view, structural similarities are often overplayed, but the fact that a copy of the terms of these covenantal arrangements was often deposited at sacred places is helpful background for Deuteronomy 5, and a pointer to the foundational nature of this chapter.
6. For a thorough discussion of the role of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, see John H. Walton, “The Dacalogue Structure of the Deuteronomic Law” in Interpreting Deuteronomy, ed. David G. Firth and Philip S. Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 93–117.
7. See Block, Deuteronomy, 181–82 and McConville, Deuteronomy, 140–42. Also Block’s discussion “How many is God” in How I love your Torah!, 73–97.
8. God’s righteousness here is “at once rectitude, acquittal and the condition brought about as a result.” McConville, Deuteronomy, 145.
9. There are endless theories concerning differing traditions behind this text. It is, however, much more satisfactory to see both an idealistic (strategic) and a realistic (tactical) approach reflected in the text.
10. In Exodus 32, the narrative contains the added detail that Moses makes the people drink the water. In this truncated version, that is omitted, presumably because the point in Deuteronomy concerns God’s forgiveness and what the people will do moving forward.
11. For 14th Century examples of Hittites storing treaty documents in a box, see Block, Deuteronomy, 262 n.9.
12. On the complex relationship between the Priests and the Levites in Deuteronomy, see McConville, Law and Theology in Deuteronomy.
13. See Block, Deuteronomy, 287, for a detailed explanation of rainfall patterns in Canaan.
14. For an extended discussion of the significance and use of the phrase “today” in Deuteronomy, see Millar in McConville and Millar, Time and Place in Deuteronomy.
16. See Millar, Now Choose Life, 99–108, and Walton cited in note 6, above.
17. This idea was first proposed by the German writer in Gerhard von Rad in the middle of the 20th Century, albeit it as part of a very different understanding of Deuteronomy.
18. There is evidence of these practices in Phoenicia at the time, which suggests that we can reasonably assume that this assessment of the Canaanites’ behaviour is accurate. See McConville, Deuteronomy, 228–29.
19. C. J. Labuschagne suggests that the colostrum in the mother’s milk would have the effect of making it look as if the kid was being cooked in blood, in ““You Shall Not Boil a Kid in its Mother’s Milk”: A New Proposal for the Origin of the Prohibition,” in The Scriptures and the Scrolls, eds. F. G. Martinez et al. VTSup 49 (Leiden: Brill, 1992) 6–17. This may be possible.
20. The fact that it is not expressly stated that Yahweh is Israel’s King here (or anywhere in the book before chapter 32) weakens the suggestion that Deuteronomy is closely modelled on an ancient international treaty.
21. See excellent discussion and bibliography on these verses in Block, Deuteronomy, 437
22. Some have argued that the sense of “raise up” here is distributive and suggests that a succession of prophets are in mind. This is not persuasive, and it is best to take these verses as referring to an individual.
23. It is important, however, to remember several things: (1) this is a one–off judgment of God, traced back to the sin of the Canaanites; (2) in the ancient world, an entire community sharing in the consequences of actions was completely comprehensible; (3) the text itself prohibits this being made a policy. These are extreme measures designed to safeguard the future of the people of God.
24. See G. Brin, The Firstling of Unclean Animals” JQR 68 (1977/78) 12–14.
25. McConville, Deuteronomy, 330.
26. This is the only example of a command of mutilation anywhere in the Old Testament. It may be because physiological differences preclude the usual “eye for an eye” equivalence in sentencing! The seriousness of threatening the man’s “line” may lie behind the severity of the threat (which appears never to have been carried out).
27. There is no mention of Horeb in the rehearsal of God’s kindness. Given the airplay it has already received, and the focus on the fulfilment of grand promises, this is not surprising.
28. See James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 199–203.
29. Craigie, Deuteronomy, 328 suggests this is Egyptian-style.
30. Again, see Millar, Time and Place in Deuteronomy, and Now Choose Life, 67–98.
31. The curses draw on a common stock of ancient ideas. See K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 294.
32. It is worth noting that the language here simply does not match the events of the later Babylonian Exile.
33. Admah and Zeboiim are both mentioned in connection with Sodom and Gomorrah in both Genesis 9 and 14. Although they are not specifically named in Genesis 19, it seems that these associated communities were also destroyed in judgment.
34. See the excellent discussion of Paul Barker, The Triumph of Grace, 140–213.
35. A point made powerfully by Dennis Olson in Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses.
36. Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 63–64.
37. This is the only occurrence of “Sinai” in the book, Moses usually preferring “Horeb.”
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Command to Leave Horeb
1:1 These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Dizahab. 2 It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea. 3 In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the people of Israel according to all that the LORD had given him in commandment to them, 4 after he had defeated Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth and in Edrei. 5 Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law, saying, 6 “The LORD our God said to us in Horeb, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7 Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, in the hill country and in the lowland and in the Negeb and by the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. 8 See, I have set the land before you. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring after them.’
9 “At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. 10 The LORD your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May the LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you! 12 How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? 13 Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ 14 And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’ 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officers, throughout your tribes. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ 18 And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.
Israel’s Refusal to Enter the Land
19 “Then we set out from Horeb and went through all that great and terrifying wilderness that you saw, on the way to the hill country of the Amorites, as the LORD our God commanded us. And we came to Kadesh-barnea. 20 And I said to you, ‘You have come to the hill country of the Amorites, which the LORD our God is giving us. 21 See, the LORD your God has set the land before you. Go up, take possession, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’ 22 Then all of you came near me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up and the cities into which we shall come.’ 23 The thing seemed good to me, and I took twelve men from you, one man from each tribe. 24 And they turned and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and spied it out. 25 And they took in their hands some of the fruit of the land and brought it down to us, and brought us word again and said, ‘It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.’
26 “Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. 27 And you murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the LORD hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. 28 Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”’ 29 Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. 30 The LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ 32 Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the LORD your God, 33 who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go.
The Penalty for Israel’s Rebellion
34 “And the LORD heard your words and was angered, and he swore, 35 ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the LORD!’ 37 Even with me the LORD was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. 40 But as for you, turn, and journey into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea.’
41 “Then you answered me, ‘We have sinned against the LORD. We ourselves will go up and fight, just as the LORD our God commanded us.’ And every one of you fastened on his weapons of war and thought it easy to go up into the hill country. 42 And the LORD said to me, ‘Say to them, Do not go up or fight, for I am not in your midst, lest you be defeated before your enemies.’ 43 So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of the LORD and presumptuously went up into the hill country. 44 Then the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do and beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. 45 And you returned and wept before the LORD, but the LORD did not listen to your voice or give ear to you. 46 So you remained at Kadesh many days, the days that you remained there.