“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mat 22:36-40 KJV)
I begin with this familiar passage because it bears directly on our study of Deuteronomy. It illustrates two things.
First, Deuteronomy was the heart of the Torah, the Law of Moses, the humanitarian center and the caring, charitable aspects of it. Puzzlingly, our KJV does not provide footnotes to Jesus’ statement; in enumerating these two great commandments, Jesus simply quotes the Law of Moses. The second commandment is a citation from Leviticus 19:18, but the first commandment to love God with all one heart soul and mind is a quotation of Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (which has become a twice-daily and the most important prayer in Judaism, called the Shema’). Indeed, Deuteronomy is the third most-quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament, the first being Psalms and the second Isaiah.
Second, in spite of its frequent quoting and importance in the New Testament, Deuteronomy remains largely unknown to most of us. This means that when we generalize about “The Law of Moses” we’re probably not being as fair or accurate as we should.
What is interesting about Deuteronomy?
1) Emphasis on covenant and covenant renewal
Deuteronomy makes explicit reference to covenant, (Heb. beriyt) 27 times. Although it talks about covenants, the whole book itself is structured as a covenant. While the order and content shifted slightly over hundreds of years, the covenant/treaty pattern consisted of several common elements.
(1)the preamble and (2) historical prologue, in which the two parties to the covenant are named, their relationship defined, and the things the sovereign has done for his subjects enumerated.
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery”
(3) The stipulations or terms of the covenant. We refer to these offhandedly as “commandments.” And indeed, Deuteronomy repeats previous commandments, including the 10 commandments (Deu 5) and adds others to them. (See below.)
(4) blessings and curses;
One enters into a contract because of the potential benefits or blessings, received for honoring the terms. However, it’s not a one-way street. Contracts usually specify what happens if you default on the terms; just as there are benefits and blessings for keeping the covenant, there are, in biblical terms, cursings for violating the covenant. More than elsewhere in the Torah, Deuteronomy hammers this point repeatedly. The blessings enumerated there (forms of “bless” appear 52x in Deu) largely consist of life, fertility, protection from enemies, and prosperity in the land. (Deu 28:1-14)
As is often the case, the cursings not only invert the blessings but expand on them, culminating in the visceral cursing of “the LORD will return you to Egypt in boats, by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer. (Deu 28:68)
With both blessings and cursings on the table, Deuteronomy twice includes passages about choice.
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.” (Deu 11:26-28 NRS)
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God… then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear… I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deu 30:15-19 NRS)
Witnesses could be human, divine, or both. Covenants could be made in the temple, in the implicit presence of deity as a witness, or outside of Israel, sometimes long lists of deities were called upon to act as witnesses. Here creation itself bears witness.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deu 30:15-19 NRS) Cf. 4:26- “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today”
The function of witnesses was forensic, like a notary. They certify that someone had actually made this covenant. Later on, prophets invoke witnesses against Israel in what is called the prophetic lawsuit. Israel has violated the covenant, and the witnesses to the covenant are invoked.
(6) deposition and public reading of the covenant.
The covenant was written and read to the people every seven years. This recitation by Moses marks the first one.
“Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people– men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns– so that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law,and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”
(Deu 31:10-13 NRS)
So the covenant is expounded within a book that is itself arranged like a covenant.
-Emphasis on loving other people and care for those who were particularly vulnerable in society.
Deuteronomy sets forth several laws not found elsewhere in the Torah. These laws enjoin upon the people particular care and sensitivity towards the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.
The Torah’s humanitarianism is most fully developed in Deuteronomy’s legislation and exhortations on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged: debtors, indentured servants, escaped slaves, resident aliens, orphans, widows and Levites, as well as animals and even convicted criminals. Humanitarian rules of this sort are found in all of the Pentateuchal laws, but they are most extensive in Deuteronomy.
- Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary.
A few examples-
18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow… [This is gleaning, which figures prominently into the Book of Ruth.]
20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
(Deu 24:18-22 NRS)
Part of the continued blessing of abundance was contingent on the Israelites sharing that abundance.
When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year… giving it to the Levites, the foreigners, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments… I have obeyed the LORD my God, doing just as you commanded me. (Therefore) look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors– a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deu 26:12-15 NRS)
As the manual points out, these commandments are filled with reminders for Israel to remember their own status as slaves and foreigners in Egypt, and let that affect how they treat these people.
“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.” (Deu 15:15 NRS)
Remembering is thus a key action in shaping Israel’s understanding of the law, and their humanitarian duties. Similarly, they are commanded not to forget their troubled past, particularly as they enter into a time and place of relative abundance and prosperity.
Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes…. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deu 8:11-17 NRS)
A thought-question: What about those Israelites who hadn’t experienced Egypt? Who would be born after entering into the land of promise? How can they “not forget” being a slave and outsider?
A friend of mine is the oldest in her family. She remembers living in a small cinder-block apartment. However, her later siblings have grown up in a house with a racquetball court in the basement. All they know is the prosperity. How can they remember? How do you remember something you haven’t experienced, or let it affect you?
Deu recognizes this problem. “When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land…” (Deu 4:25 NRS)
9 But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children– (Deu 4:9 NRS)
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,
9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
10 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you– a land with fine, large cities that you did not build,
11 houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant– and when you have eaten your fill,
12 take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deu 6:6-12 NRS)
- The history of Deuteronomy
Deuteronomy is portrayed as Moses repeating the Torah before his death, with the Israelites on the verge of crossing the Jordan and entering Canaan. Since in theory it’s a repetition of selected portions of Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, Deuteronomy shouldn’t be introducing anything new. Yet it expands, differs, and sometimes contradicts these other parts of the law. The reason for that is probably due to its interesting history.
Deuteronomy is probably a later revision/adaptation of the law, retrojected and put back into Moses’ mouth. (This is a little like supporting the Word of Wisdom by telling the story of 8-yr old Joseph Smith rejecting alcohol; the principles themselves are fine, but the way its authority is established is historically questionable.)
The idea of the book of Deuteronomy as a later revision comes from several aspects of the Bible itself. Let’s take three.
First, the language and style of Deuteronomy is “not found in any of the historical and prophetic traditions before the 7th century B.C.E. Conversely, from the 7th century onward almost all of the historical and the prophetical literature is permeated by this style.”- “Deuteronomy, Book Of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary.
Second, several of the absolute laws of Deuteronomy appear entirely unknown to the Israelites and prophets for a long time. One of these is Deuteronomy 12, which centralizes all sacrifice, and forbids any sacrifice outside the tabernacle/temple. Yet, Samuel and others officiate and offer sacrifice at all kinds of local sanctuaries without any problems for hundreds of years. Did they not know about it?
Third, Kings and Chronicles give us a fascinating story about the (re?)discovery of Deuteronomy, with an important difference between the two accounts. Just before or contemporary with Lehi (and thus hundreds of years after Moses), King Josiah orders some repairs to be made in the temple. They discover a book in the temple, described as a book of Torah (or “law”), and then Josiah sets about making all kinds of reforms which happen to line up very neatly with Deuteronomy.
Kings and Chronicles disagree over the relationship of Josiah’s reforms and Deuteronomy; One portrays this discovery as the catalyst for Josiah’s reforms. The other says he started making changes and reforms, but only years later discovered the book. King Hezekiah, decades earlier, had also tried to make similar reforms, but was unsuccessful. Due to space/time issues, this sounds like a tabloid news show, but… did someone decide that the best way to make these reforms successful was to attribute them to Moses? Was the book in the temple planted there and “discovered”? This kind of idea solves many of the problems generated by a Deuteronomy contemporary with the other books, the discrepancies between them, and the laws unknown for hundreds of years.
More interesting from an LDS perspective- The big emphasis on Deuteronomic themes in Josiah’s (and thus Lehi’s) day provides an interesting backdrop for a theme in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon refrain “if you keep the commandments, you shall prosper in the land” comes straight from Deuteronomy, almost. Similarly, the cursing on Laman and Lemuel in 2Nephi 3-4 is connected to the cursing for rejection of the covenant in Deu 28. See my general post here.
I’ve zipped up a few articles on Deuteronomy here.
Is Deuteronomy relevant to us? With its model of caring, its discussion of the problems of prosperity, of remembering and forgetting, I think it’s one of the most relevant.
Also, don’t miss my combined podcast on Lessons 15 and 16.
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