Philippe R. Sterling
Deuteronomy presents the renewal of the covenant in legal-prophetic form.
Deuteronomy means “the second Law”. In reality it is not a second law but a series of messages by Moses on the Law. It is the record of Moses restating the elements of Israel’s covenant with God for the generation about to enter the Promised Land. The covenant needed to be reaffirmed. The geographical setting for the renewal of the covenant was the Plains of Moab east of Jericho and the Jordan River. The nation would enter the land about 1406 BC.
Deuteronomy ties together what precedes it in Israel’s history with what follows in the conquest and settlement of the land. It functions as a literary bridge between the Pentateuch and the historical books. It is in essence a constitution for the theocracy of Israel once it is in the land promised to Abraham.
Literary Structure and Content
The literary form of Deuteronomy follows the pattern of the Near Eastern vassal treaties of the period. It is a covenant renewal document. In Deuteronomy, God is the suzerain (great king) and author of the covenant. Israel is the vassal. Moses presents the elements of the treaty through three messages and some closing words. His goal through these sermons is to get the new generation to renew the covenant made at Sinai. They would be able to enter the Promised Land, conquer it, and dwell in it in peace only by committing themselves to God and his covenant with them.
First Message: This Is What God Did – Across the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law, saying . . . (1:5)
The first message presents a theology of Israel’s history. By reviewing the past Moses prepares the nation for the future. The covenant ratified at Sinai was a partial fulfillment of the promises made to the patriarchs. The survey of the recent past shows the benefits of covenant faithfulness and the consequences of disobedience.
1. Preamble: God expresses the terms of covenant renewal to Israel through Moses on the plains of Moab where
the new generation is situated to enter and possess the land of promise (1:1-5).
2. Historical Prologue: The terms of covenant renewal are understood in the context of the nation’s
covenant history (1:6—4:49).
A. The review of Israel’s covenant history from Mount Sinai to the Plains of Moab reveals God’s faithfulness to
the covenant in spite of the nation’s repeated unfaithfulness (1:6—3:29).
The review of Israel’s covenant history begins with the first attempt to enter the Promised Land and its failure at Kadesh Barnea (1:6-46). It continues with the journey from Kadesh Barnea to Mount Seir and the journey past Moab and Ammon (2:1-25). It concludes with the conquest of the Transjordan kingdoms of Sihon and Og, the distribution of the conquered land, the denial of permission to Moses to enter the Promised Land and the transition of leadership to Joshua (2:26—3:29).
B. The review of Israel’s covenant history provides the context for the call to obedience to the covenant and
the warning against disobedience (4:1-49).
Second Message: This Is What God Wants – Moses summoned all Israel and said to them . . . (5:1)
In the vassal treaties of the period the section after the historical prologue establishes the duties of the vassals to their great king. The section divides into two parts: (1) a general exhortation to allegiance to the king, and (2) specific duties or laws.
3. The Basic Commandments – Principles: The renewed terms of the covenant begin with a call to wholehearted
obedience of the Ten Commandments so as to live in the land in a state of blessing (5—11).
The Ten Commandments provide a good summary of covenant living. Obedience to the commandments should be rooted in the love of God and neighbor.
Deuteronomy reveals both the spirit and letter of the law. The Shema (“hear”) first found in 6:4-9 and then summarized in 10:12-13 is a good expression of that combination: “Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?
4. The Specific Legislation – Practice: The renewed terms of the covenant focus on matters of ceremonial, civil,
and social duties in the covenant community (12—26).
A. The matters of ceremonial duties include the central place of worship, avoidance of idolatry, sacrifices,
clean and unclean foods, tithes, the sabbatic year, and the three appointed feasts (12:1—16:17).
B. The matters of civil duties include leadership (judges, kings, priests, and prophets), the system of justice,
military service and warfare (16:18—20:20).
C. The matters of social duties include domestic relationships, social responsibility, sexual behavior, and
economic transactions (21:1—26:15).
D. Moses concludes the explanation of the Law by calling for commitment to God and his commands as the
people of God (26:16-19).
Though there are distinctions in the spheres of life, all of life comes under the rule of the covenant. There is no separation between the sacred and the secular. Though the commandments do not cover every possibility that could arise in life, they indicate that no area of life is unimportant in covenant living. The commandments cover individual and communal responsibility in the context of a covenant relationship with God.
5. Blessings and Curses: The renewal of the covenant requires a commitment to God and his commandments
and a declaration of covenant blessings and curses from Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (27—28).
After the people entered the land they were to write the Law on stones coated with lime on Mount Ebal and set up an altar and offer sacrifices. After the altar was set up, six tribes were to assemble on Mount Gerizim to pronounce the blessings for covenant faithfulness and six on Mount Ebal to pronounce the curses.
Obedience to the covenant would result in blessing, long life, and the possession of the land. Disobedience to the covenant would bring increasing levels of discipline culminating in expulsion from the land.
The Apostle Paul quotes Deut. 27:26, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them” (Gal. 3:10). How can a person escape the curse of the Law? Paul gives the answer by quoting from Deut. 21:23 and applying the passage to Christ, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).
Third Message: This Is What God Will Do – Moses summoned all Israel and said to them . . . (29:2)
6. Concluding Charge: The concluding charge to covenant faithfulness is for the current and future generations
The choice is between life and death, the blessing and the curse: 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, 20 by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them” (30:19-20). Choose life!
7. Covenant Deposition and Continuity: Moses gives instructions for the public reading of the covenant every
sabbatic year and its deposit besides the Ark and commissions Joshua to succeed him in leading the
8. Song of Moses: In a song Moses calls for heaven and earth as covenant witnesses (32).
9. Blessing of Moses: Moses blesses the nation before his death (33).
10. Death of Moses: Moses dies after viewing the land from Mount Nebo and Joshua succeeds him in leadership
over the nation (34). God himself buries Moses.
Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal document. God selected Israel to demonstrate what his rule on the earth could be like. The conquest and occupation of Canaan was to serve as a prototype of God’s eventual rule over all creation. Even if Israel failed in its task, it would not end God’s purpose. Jesus Christ, the suffering Servant of Isaiah, will accomplish the task of redemption and will commission his body the church to proclaim the message of redemption to the end of its age. God’s promise to Israel will not be nullified for he will re-gather and qualify them in the age to come to fulfill the purpose to which he had called them.
Deuteronomy teaches that the covenant requires commitment. But love lies at the heart of God’s relationship with his people (4:37; 33:3). The basic requirement for God’s people is to love God with heart, soul, and might (6:5; 30:6, 20).
Moses is a type of Christ. He functioned as a prophet, priest and ruler in Israel. Moses said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him (18:15). Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy to refute the devil (Matt. 4:1-11) and to summarize the Law (Matt. 22:37).