Study Guide

Book of Deuteronomy Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Pop quiz!

    What are the first four words of Deuteronomy?

    Okay, time's up.

    Answer: "These are the words" (1:1).

    And so we get the title… Deuteronomy? Oh wait, no. In Hebrew, the title of Deuteronomy is actually "Words." The book is named after the words Moses speaks to the people. It makes sense, if you think about it. Earlier books were all about myth (Genesis) or miracles (Exodus). Deuteronomy might recount those myths and miracles, but it's done through speech, not action. It's all about words.

    So what does "Deuteronomy" mean? In Greek and Latin, the word means "second law." It's basically a mistranslation of this verse in the book:

    When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. (17:18)

    When it was translated from Hebrew to Greek, someone misread the verse and translated "a copy of this law" to "second law" or "Deuteronomy." But hey, it kind of works. After all, Deuteronomy is a retelling of the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. It's a second look at the law.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    After all this work, toil, sweat, blood, and tears, Moses doesn't get to enter the Promised Land. He can't even dip his big toe in.

    What gives? Check out Moses's "Character Analysis" for more, but remember, keeping Moses out of Israel keeps him pure. These peeps are going to mess up big time in the Promised Land, and the writers don't want Moses to have anything to do with the flub. It might seem like a disappointment, but killing Moses off allows the writer to move on freely with the story while paying respects to the man himself.

  • Setting

    Scorching desert, dangerous waters, and massive castles defended by idol-worshipping giants with a vengeance. Who said the Bible was boring?

    The book of Deuteronomy is mainly set near the Jordan River, the boundary between some pretty nasty desert country (think scorpions, no water, few oases, snakes) and the land of Israel, an Eden compared with the deserts that surround it. More importantly, it's the last boundary between the Israelites and the Promised Land.

    The majority of Israelite history so far has occurred outside of the Promised Land. After all of this slavery, wilderness wandering, and fighting, the Israelites are finally in this lush, fertile land on the banks of the Jordan.

    But don't get too excited. It's story-time for the Israelites before they get to take the land they've been dreaming of for so long. And how do they prepare? They think about all the time they spent in these other settings.

  • The Jordan River

    Water, Water, Everywhere, But Only Some Is Holy

    You thought the Israelites had gotten over the big water hurdle with the whole Red Sea episode in Exodus, right? Not so fast. The very first verse of Deuteronomy tips us off to another major body of water to cross: the Jordan river.

    These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan—in the wilderness (1.1)

    The writers wouldn't tell us where we were if it weren't important, right?

    In fact, the writers mention the Jordan by name nineteen times—usually in the context of crossing over it to get to the promised land (see 2:29, 3:25, 4:21, and many more). Yep, the Jordan River is all that separates the Israelites from the desert in which they've lived for forty years from the Promised Land that they hope to take for their own. The river serves as a boundary between Israelite success and failure. Talk about crossing the Rubicon.

    P.S. The Jordan River itself probably isn't what you're picturing. No tubing on this guy. It's only about six feet wide in some places, but its waters are legendarily dangerous because of their speed. Be careful getting your feet wet.

    Obey the Crossing Guard

    Crossing a river is always pretty symbolic—it represents entering into a new state of existence. especially for the Israelites, for whom the Jordan means one last barrier toward that new life in the Promised Land. And remember, these people were on the threshold of claiming God's promises once before, but they remained on the wrong side of the Jordan, both literally and figuratively. This time, the stakes are even higher.

    So why doesn't God let Moses cross along with his people? Can't he just step into the Promised Land and then die?


    Because crossing the Jordan is such a symbolically huge deal for the Israelites, it also helps define different periods in their history. Moses was a part of Israelite life in the Pre-Promised Land Period, but his role stops there. Crossing the Jordan into the next step of Israelite history just isn't an option.

  • Stars

    Way back in Genesis, God promised Abraham as many descendants as stars in the sky. And now in Deuteronomy, it looks like he came through on his word:

    The Lord your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven. (1:10)


    Throughout Israelite history, this promise seemed to be in jeopardy—we're talking conflicts with other tribes, famines, and slavery. But with God's help, the Israelites survived all of these brutal trials. Actually, they did more than survive; they prospered. To give you an idea of how much the nation has grown, Deuteronomy gives us a refresher:

    Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven. (10:22)

    For so long, the tribe has been in the survival business, but now they're about to go into the business of conquering and governing. But don't get too excited, because it works the other way, too. The Israelites are going to screw up again and this time,

    Although once you were as numerous as the stars in heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. (28:62).


    What Does It All Mean?

    So stars = big numbers. Got it. But what else to do stars make us think of?

    • Something incalculable or unfathomable. We can't even begin to imagine how big the sky is, just like we can't even begin to understand God.
    • God's power. Imagine counting all the starts in the sky. Impossible, right? Not for God. 
    • The relationship between God and humans. God is making this otherworldly promise (they didn't have telescopes back then), but the results will be absolutely human: more people and more land.

    Why else do stars work as a symbol in Deuteronomy?

  • Giants

    Yep. We're talking about honest-to-goodness, how-did-you-get-so-much-taller-than-everyone-else giants here.

    First on the docket: Og. If it weren't for Goliath, we might remember Og as the most famous giant in the Bible. Og is an Amorite king, and he makes his appearance in many books of the Bible: Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, I Kings, Nehemiah, and Psalms. With an iron bed thirteen feet long and six feet wide (ahem, "nine cubits long and four cubits wide" [3:8]), Og is a huge obstacle for Israel. But that doesn't stop them. They defeat Og, proving once and for all that they shouldn't be afraid of giants:

    So the Lord our God also handed over to us King Og of Bashan and all his people. We struck him down until not a single survivor was left. (3:3)

    That's one big dude they just took down. And Moses sure doesn't forget it—he mentions it over and over in Deuteronomy, bringing up the defeat in five different chapters of the book. (We're guessing there was a recent political or military victory that readers would think of every time the writers mentioned it.) Looks like Moses is really trying to boost their confidence. If they can defeat Og, they can defeat anyone, right?

    A Giant Problem

    When it comes to conquering Canaan, it seems like a monumental task at first. This isn't just "lions, and tiger, and bears, oh my!"—it's about conquering a vast amount of land inhabited by giants who live in massive, fortified castles. Oh, and they know you're coming.

    But hey, beating one lets you know you might just be able to beat them all.

    Giants represent the fear that the Israelites felt when they first tried to enter the Promised Land—and failed, mind you. This time, they'll have to face that fear, and their faith in God will have to be bigger than even the biggest of all the giants.

  • Judicial Imagery

    A book full of laws being packed full of judicial imagery? Gasp! It can't be!

    Okay, we know, it's not that surprising. But we're not just talking about Moses appointing judges or talking about how many witnesses are necessary for conviction. In Deuteronomy, there are some fancy symbolic witnesses, too. Twice Moses calls heaven and earth to witness against the Israelites (4:26 and 31:28).

    The prosecution would like to call heaven and earth to the witness stand!

    Sounds weird, right? But who else is left? Moses is representing God, the other party in the covenant with Israel. Israel can't be a witness because they're involved in the trial, and the other nations are too wicked. Heaven and earth are the only ones available. It's kind of like Jack McCoy pulling a surprise witness out of his hat forty-nine minutes into an episode of Law & Order—just enough time to snag a conviction from the jaws of defeat.

    Notice how Moses makes a clever use of symbolic language here. Basically, he creates a courtroom out of thin air. If the Israelites fail to keep up their end of the contract with God, rain won't fall from the heavens. If they are loyal, they can break out their umbrellas (11:11-14). In a society so reliant on crops, rain was life.

    One last note: Moses is firmly on God's side throughout all of this. Why? Seriously, we're asking: why would he take God's side after the guy just forbade him from going into the Promised Land?

    • Sex Drugs And Violence Rating


      Some of the subjects in Deuteronomy are very adult, but the kids in the room will probably be snoring by the time they get to them anyway—they're all mixed in with laws.

      The sex in Deuteronomy isn't made up of steamy love scenes that heat up the screen and inflame your passion. It's more like watching one of those uncomfortable videos in health class. Deuteronomy talks about stuff like wives showing proof of virginity or what the penalties are for rape.

      The violence consists of laws for war and punishment for crimes. Picture the courtroom scenes in Law & Order. You don't get to see the crime, you just learn what happens to the perp.

    • Allusions

      Deuteronomy is super reliant on the books that come before it in the Hebrew Bible, especially Exodus and Numbers. On the other side of the coin, Deuteronomy had some heavy influence on later Israelite writings, and so its ideas pop up quite a bit in the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Fasten your seatbelt, because we've got a lot of allusions coming your way. (The parenthetical citation is where you'll find the meat in Deuteronomy.)

      References to the Pentateuch in Deuteronomy

      Numbers 21:33-35 contains the defeat of Og and Sihon (1:4, 3:1-11, 29:7, 31:4).
      The original promise to Abraham is found in Genesis 12 (1:8. 6:10. 9:5. 29:13. 30:20. 34:4).
      In Numbers 13 and 14, the Israelites are afraid to fight for the Promised Land, and God becomes angry. Moses stops God from destroying them, but when they finally decide to fight, they are defeated because God refuses to help them (1:22-46).
      Genesis 33 and 36 associate Esau with Seir. The Edomites are his descendants (2:1-8).
      According to Genesis 19:30-38, The Moabites and the Ammonites are the children of Lot (2:9, 19).
      Numbers 25 records that the Israelite men had sex with Moabite women and worshipped Moabite gods (4:3).
      In Exodus 19, the people hear the Lord speak from the mountain (4:10-14).
      Exodus 20:2-17 contains the giving of the Ten Commandments (5:6-21).
      Exodus 32 records God's anger when Aaron makes a golden calf. Moses intercedes with God and keeps him from wiping out Israel (9:8-21).
      In Numbers 11:1-3, the Israelites complain, and God consumes them with fire at Taberah (9:22).
      In Numbers 11:31-35, the Israelites crave meat instead of manna at Kibrothhattavah. God sends them quail, but becomes angry as they eat and decides to send a plague among them (9:22).
      In Exodus 17:1-7, the people complain because they have no water at Massah and Meribah. Moses strikes a rock and water comes forth (6:16. 9:22. 33:8).
      In Exodus 34:1-4, God instructs Moses to cut out two tablets of stone. The original ones were created by God according to Exodus 32:16 (10:1-5).
      According to Genesis 46:27, seventy Israelites originally went down to Egypt (10:22).
      In Numbers 16, Dathan and Abiram challenge Moses and Aaron's leadership. The earth opens up and swallows them (11:6).
      Leviticus 11 contains dietary laws (14).
      According to Exodus 21:2, slaves go free in the seventh year (15:1-15). (For more on the seventh year, see Exodus 23:11 and Leviticus 25.)
      The first Passover is celebrated in Exodus 12 (16:1-8).
      The Festival of Weeks (Pentecost or Shavuot) is mentioned in Exodus 23:16, as the festival of harvest, Exodus 34:22, and Numbers 28:26 (16:10-12).
      The Festival of Booths or Sukkot is celebrated in Leviticus 23:33-44 (16:13-15. 31:10-11).
      Numbers 23-24 records the story of Balaam, a prophet hired to curse the Israelites (23:4-5).
      Exodus 17:8-16 records that Amalek fought against Israel. Amalek became a perpetual enemy of Israel (25:17-19).
      Numbers 20:8-12 records that Moses struck the rock twice. God had commanded Moses to speak to the rock. God references this story when he tells Moses that he will die before entering the Promised Land (32:48-52).

      References to Deuteronomy in the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua - Kings)

      Joshua 11 and 14 mention the Anakim, who are characterized as giants in Deuteronomy (1:28, 2:10-11, 21. 9:2).
      1 Kings 14:15 speaks of God scattering the people. We call this the exile (4:27. 28:64).
      In 1 Samuel 12:17-18, Samuel prays for rain; in 1 Kings 8:35-36, Solomon prays that God will hear the Israelites during droughts and give them rain; and in 1 Kings 17-18, the prophet Elijah proclaims that it will not rain until he says so (11:11-17).
      In 1 Kings 8, Solomon dedicates the temple during Sukkot (16:13-15. 31:10-11).
      Deuteronomy 17:14-20 states that the Israelites may choose a king. Samuel is against this plan in 1 Samuel 8, but God allows Israel to have a king. Deuteronomy also states that the king is not allowed to have too many wives because they will turn his heart away from God. Solomon definitely breaks this law. (17:14-20)
      1 Kings 12 records that Israel divides into the northern and southern kingdoms. The northern king places golden calves in Dan and Bethel to prevent the people from returning to Jerusalem to worship. Deuteronomy constantly talks about worshipping one God in one place.

      References to Deuteronomy in the New Testament

      In Matthew 4:4, Jesus quotes, "one shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that
      comes from the mouth of the Lord" (8:3)
      In Matthew 4:7, Jesus quotes, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" (6:16).
      In Matthew 4:10 and Luke 4:8, Jesus quotes, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him" (6:13 and 10:20).
      Matthew 15:4, Mark 7:10, and Ephesians 6:2-3 reference "Honor your father and your mother" (5:16)
      Matthew 18:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:1 call for two or three witnesses (19:15).
      In Matthew 22:24, Jesus is asked about a man having a child with his dead brother's widow (25:5).
      Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27 speak of loving the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength/mind (6:5, 10:12, 30:6).
      In Mark 12:29, Jesus quotes the Shema (6:4).
      Acts 3:22-23 and 7:37speak of the prophet like Moses (18:15, 18-19).
      In Romans 10:6-8, Paul says that the word is not beyond the sea; it is in your mouth, in your heart, and in your hands (30:12-14).
      In Romans 10:19, Paul quote, "I will make them jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation" (32:21).
      In Romans 11:8, Paul states that God has given a spirit of slumber to Israel: "the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear" (29:3-4)
      Romans 12:19 and Hebrews 10:30 record that vengeance belongs to God (32:35).
      Romans 15:10 speaks of rejoicing (32:43).
      Hebrews 1:6 equates the angels with the sons of God (32:43).
      In 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul speaks of removing an evil person from your presence (17:7).
      1 Corinthians 10:26-28 discusses the fact the earth and all that is in it belong to the Lord (10:14).
      In Galatians 3:10, Paul quotes, "Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them" (27:26).
      In Galatians 3:13, Paul says that Jesus was made a curse for us, "for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse" (21:23)
      Hebrews 10:30 states that "The Lord will vindicate his people" (32:36).
      Hebrews 12:21 speaks of the being terrified of the Lord's anger and wrath (9:19).
      Hebrews 12:29 records that God is a consuming fire (4:24).
      Hebrews 13:5 states that the Lord will never leave you or forsake you (31:6, 8).