Deuteronomy is an important book in the Bible. It is the final book of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and it lays the foundation for the following historical books in the Old Testament. Furthermore, Deuteronomy is often cited in the New Testament.
The structure of Deuteronomy resembles ancient treaty documents from the second millennium before Christ. After the preamble, a historical prologue, general stipulations, specific stipulations, blessings and curses, a document clause and summoning of witnesses follow each other.
Historical prologue (Deuteronomy 1:4-43)
In Deuteronomy, the covenant between God and Israel is of paramount importance. The people of Israel have come to the borders of the promised land, after forty years of wandering through the wilderness.
Moses knows that he is not allowed to enter the land. He addresses the people for the last time. A large part of Deuteronomy is dedicated to this farewell speech. He first recalls the history of the long journey through the wilderness. Almost forty years before, Israel had been on the border of Canaan. They sent spies ahead to the land, who reported strong cities and giants.
The people of Israel became afraid and didn’t trust the power and faithfulness of their God, who promised to give them the land. They rebelled and God punished them: all Israelites of twenty years and older had to die in the wilderness. Only their children would inherit the land. After forty years, Israel traveled through Edom, Moab, Ammon and came in the land east of the Jordan river.
They defeated king Sihon from Heshbon and Og from Bashan. That part of the land was divided among the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh. Three refuge cities were also designated.
General covenant stipulations (Deuteronomy 4:44-11:32)
After Moses has described the historic journey, he reaches the general covenant stipulations. God made a covenant with Israel on Mount Horeb (Deuteronomy 5:2). The Ten Commandments are a summary of what God asked of His people. Moses therefore first repeats this law of God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” (Deuteronomy 5:6). In the remainder of Deuteronomy, these ten words will be elaborated on more specifically.
Moses exhorts the people to serve the Lord God with all their hearts: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). There is only one God, the God of Israel. He has chosen this people among all other nations to fear Him. Therefore, they must keep God’s commandments, for only then will they have peace and the Lord God’s blessing.
They should never forget their God when they have prosperity, otherwise their happiness will soon end. The people have no reason to boast about their origins, for they were full of sin. It is only God’s free grace that He has chosen them as His people. Therefore, the Israelites should circumcise the foreskin of their hearts and be no longer stubborn (Deuteronomy 10:16).
Special covenant stipulations (Deuteronomy 12-26)
In the previous chapters, Moses has made the general will of God known to the people. In chapters 12 through 26, he deals with all kinds of specific cases, roughly in the order of the Ten Commandments. Moses warns against idolatry and eating unclean food. He commands the people to pay tithes and to observe the Sabbath years and the high feasts.
Moses gives instructions for kings, priests and prophets. He also makes God’s laws concerning sexuality and property known. All these instructions made known the will of God, so it enabled the people to shape their life according to God’s commandments.
Blessing and curse (Deuteronomy 27-28)
The long series of laws comes to a conclusion in the blessings and curses that had to be pronounced on the mountains Gerizim and Ebal. If the people would obey God’s voice and keep His laws, a rich blessing would descend upon them. The land would be full of fruit and the people would live in peace: “The Lord will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And He will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 28:8).
But if they deviate to the right or left, if they disobey God’s commandments and do not stick to His ordinances closely, then the most terrible plagues will strike them. Disease, hunger, war, and disaster will engulf them. The people will be led into exile.
Closure (Deuteronomy 29-34)
With all kinds of arguments Moses urges the people to choose the Lord and His service. Even if the curse of the covenant has struck them, there is still a way out by conversion. Moses presents them with the choice between life and death. Whoever chooses the Lord, receives life. He who turns away from Him, faces death. In Deuteronomy 31 Joshua is appointed as Moses’ successor. Then Moses sings a song that functions as a witness for Israel. Finally, Moses blesses the twelve tribes and dies on Mount Nebo.
Lessons for us
- It is due to grace that God wanted to make a covenant with Israel.
- God is holy and is not indifferent to how He is served. The long series of laws in Deuteronomy make that clear. It is a privilege to receive God’s revelation, because then we know what God wants from us.
- In own power it is impossible to keep God’s commandments perfectly. This has been proved on numerous occasions in the history of Israel. The curse has struck them because of their transgressions (sins). An answer, including verses from Deuteronomy is found in the New Testament.
- “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ — so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:13-14, compare Deuteronomy 21:23).
- When we are again in a good covenant relationship with the Lord through Christ, Moses’ exhortations are set in a new light.