Book of Deuteronomy Summary
Think of Deuteronomy as a sequel-slash-remake of the rest of the Hebrew Bible up until this point. It's got a similar cast of characters, a similar story, and even some of the same axioms. Moses is back, and once again we're talking about the history and future of the Israelite people.
This whole thing is made up of a bunch of flashbacks and flashforwards with Moses as narrator, and a few interludes from an outside writer. The book places the Israelites on the verge of entering the Promised Land while Moses stands before them to review all of God's laws. It's basically a pep talk—if pep talks involve a lot of finger-pointing and reprimanding. He wants them to have courage as they prepare to fight for the land they've been promised.
Once upon a time, the parents and grandparents of the Israelites now seated on the banks of the Jordan decided not to fight the inhabitants of the Promised Land. They were afraid of giants who guarded humungous castles in Israel and refused to go to war. When they finally decided to enter the ring of battle, God would not help them. Because of their lack of trust in God (and a number of other minor offences, traffic violations, and religious profanities), God refused to give them the Promised Land. Their enemies beat them down, and God made the survivors and their children wander in the wilderness for forty years. That generation died in the wilderness. Now their children are ready to conquer the land.
Moses sets up the showdown by reminding them of all the times God has helped them in their journey (1:6-4:40). He reviews a lot of laws with the Israelites, and illustrates what we call The Doctrine of the Two Ways. There are only two choices in life: good, which means following God's laws, or evil, which means not following God's laws. Goodness leads to reward. Evil leads to punishment. It's that simple, and Moses is here to make sure the Israelites get it. So what we get, basically, is an explanation of this covenant between the Israelites and God, with all the stories, specific legal doctrines, and ideas surrounding it. It's a big, mixed-up bowl of confusing Bibleness.
One of the main points of Deuteronomy is that once the people enter the Promised Land, they must not adopt the customs of the people they are displacing. In chapters 27-30, Moses encourages the people to be loyal to God and to avoid the idols of the Canaanites. "No idols" could almost be the motto of this whole book.
Finally, in chapters 31-34, Moses leaves the people with a farewell song and blesses them. The Lord doesn't let Moses enter the Promised Land, and the Israelites get a guy named Joshua to lead them in their battles. Moses dies, and that's that—the stage is now set for the next chapter of Israelite history.
The Israelite History Channel
- Moses—remember him?—is the leader of the Israelites.
- Right off the bat, he begins a review of Israelite history at Mt. Horeb (6), the mountain of God where he received the Ten Commandments.
- Warning: Scholarly Disagreement Ahead! Many scholars believe that Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai, while others think they were two different places.
- Forget about all that, though. The important thing, story-wise, is that Moses is giving the commencement address to the Israelites. He's trying to give them a sense of perspective on their journey so far.
- That's right, this whole thing is told from Moses's point of view.
- Deuteronomy places the new nation of the Israelites at the edge of the Promised Land. God is about to fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob back in Genesis, when he promised them innumerable offspring and a ton of land.
- And don't forget—we know from the beginning that they'll have to take the land from the current inhabitants, among them the Canaanites and the Amorites.
- The Israelites have been wandering through the wilderness for 40 years. They stop from time to time and make camp (who wants to move constantly in the burning hot desert?).
- Along the journey, Moses realizes that he is unable to judge all of the disputes in the camp. (In Exodus, we're told that there are hundreds of thousands of Israelites. How would you approach judging all the disputes in a population of that size?)
- So Moses appoints leaders over various sections of people and encourages them to be fair judges. Each of the twelve tribes of Israel gets its own judge. Looks like Moses was not only a great legislator, but also a great delegator (9-18).
- Moses continues on to recount the failures of the previous generation of Israelites. That's right, we're in a new generation. After all, 40 years is a long time in a world when life expectancy was way lower than it is now.
- Here's how it went down:
- On the borders of Israel, twelve spies (one from each tribe—get used to this system) go into the Promised Land to check things out. Two of them, Joshua and Caleb, believe they can take the land, while the other ten incite fear in the people with tales of enormous castles and muscular opponents.
- The Israelites don't trust in God (this isn't new) and wish that they could return to Egypt (19-33), where they'd been slaves.
- God gets really annoyed about all this grumbling, and judges these Israelites for their lack of trust.
- Now these people will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land; and for some unspecified reason, or maybe because God was just angry, Moses can't go into the land either.
- God sentences the Israelites to roam the wilderness for forty years. Only Joshua and Caleb will enter the land with the next generation of Israelites. (34-40). Can't argue with experience.
- The Israelites, ever fickle, change their mind and are now ready to fight the inhabitants of the Promised Land.
- The Lord tells Moses to warn the people that he will not be with them.
- But the Israelites saunter into the land anyway to try and stir up trouble. And—surprise, surprise—they are soundly beaten.
- The Israelites return from their defeat and plead with the Lord to change his mind, but the Lord refuses (41-46). He's a tough sell.
Don't Mess With the Big Boys
- Because of their disobedience, the Israelites head back toward the Red Sea in the opposite direction of the Promised Land (1).
- The Israelites avoid Mt. Seir until God tells them to head in that direction. When they do, they are united with some long lost cousins, the descendants of Esau (Jacob's brother from Genesis).
- The Lord tells the wandering Israelites to buy food and water from these people and not to incite any kind of violence.
- If this reminds you of Jacob selling a bowl of soup to Esau back in Genesis, you're a smart cookie. The idea is that some people are commercial partners for the Israelites (these guys), while some people are just plain evil.
- Next, the Israelites pass through Moabite territory. The Moabites are the descendants of Lot, the nephew of Abraham. Back in Genesis, he and Abraham parted ways, but they're still distantly related.
- Blood counts for a lot in the Bible. The Israelites are not supposed to bother the Moabites because God has given this land to them as descendants of Lot. Both the Edomites and the Moabites have received their land, but the Israelites must continue wandering (9).
- Basically, the text is telling us that this is common practice among the powerful and the vassals. You claim a family status (as a descendant of Lot, Esau, etc.), and God gives you some land that you have to take from whoever is currently living on it.
- This gets rid of the Godless people and makes everyone happy.
- The Israelites just have to take a very long road—you know, because of that evil generation.
- The writer now inserts an editorial note about the Emim, a tall and powerful people who used to live in the land of the Moabites. We know that a writer from a later period in history inserted this note because he also talks about Israel driving people out of their Promised Land, which, at this point in the narrative story, hasn't even happened yet (10-12). Oops!
- To make a long story a little bit shorter, thirty-eight years pass by in two verses. The generation of warriors who were afraid to take the land die—except for Joshua and Caleb. The Lord even speeds up their deaths as punishment for their lack of loyalty to God (13-15).
- God is a vengeful character, everyone. Watch out.
- The Israelites head back toward the Promised Land. But this time, they're told not to attack the Ammonites because God has given them their land. Like the Moabites, the Ammonites were the descendants of Lot.
- Just like in verses 10-12, the writer quickly interrupts the story to provide us with a history lesson. The narrator tells about the Ammonites taking the land of those giant people known as the Anakim. And, just for good measure, the narrator again reminds the people of the conquests of the Edomites (20-23).
- The text is super repetitive, but it coolly gives the modern reader an idea of the context of the history; we may not have details on the finer cultural exports of the Edomites, but the readers of ancient times would have had all the deets.
- Next up, the Lord tells the Israelites to attack King Sihon the Amorite. God wants to use this battle to make the reputation of Israel spread throughout the land and cause their enemies to fear them (24-25).
- Before attacking Sihon, the Israelites offer him a peace treaty. (Check out Deuteronomy 20:10-12 for some not-so-interesting laws concerning peace treaties.)
- They assure him that they only want to pass through the land and buy food and water. Hey, they've already made a similar deal with the Edomites, so why shouldn't Sihon trust them? Sihon refuses their offer because God hardens his heart—just like he hardened Pharaoh's heart a zillion times in Exodus. Kind of makes you wonder about free will, right?
- The point is that God constantly feels the need to prove his power, and he uses his superpower of "hardening people's hearts" to start fights he knows he can win. Morally messy, but it would make a great movie. And it sure makes a great story.
- The people destroy Sihon and kill all of the men, women, and children. There is not a single survivor left, but the Israelites are allowed to keep livestock and plunder.
- This is one of the first times we start asking serious ethical questions in Deuteronomy.
- Interested in ethics? Check out "Hot Button Issues and Current Cultural Debates" for more thoughts.
- The Lord gives more land to the people, but they are to stay out of Ammonite territory (36-37).
The Eastern Tribes Receive Their Land
- King Og of Bashan is defeated just like King Sihon. Same song, different verse (1-7). In case you're curious, Moses lists the lands the Israelites took from the Amorites (8-10).
- The writer again interrupts the text to tell us more about Og of Bashan. Apparently, you can still see his bed in Rabbah. We're not sure about the price of admission, but seeing a bed thirteen feet long and six feet wide might be worth it.
- No wonder the Israelites were afraid of this giant. Looks like God's power can even decimate some larger-than-life humans. The Israelites can literally make a killing in this business with God's help.
- Moses doles out different lands to different tribes, including the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Mannasseh.
- Geography time: Manasseh is called a "half-tribe" because the tribe's land rests on either side of the Jordan River. Half is on the east, the other half on the west. We'll see a lot more dividing of the land in the book of Joshua when the Israelite conquest kicks into high gear (12-17).
- Don't get too cozy, though. These tribes will have to help the other tribes conquer their territories. Only their wives, children, and livestock will stay on this side of the Jordan (18-22).
- Moses begs God to let him enter the Promised Land. The Lord angrily refuses his request, and Moses blames the people for the Lord's stubbornness in the matter.
- But he sticks to his guns: Joshua will lead the people into the land (23-29). What's God's deal?
How to Prosper: Obey God, Listen Up
- If the Israelites want the land, they better obey the law. No messing around.
- Moses reminds them of what happened at Baal-Peor in Numbers 25. Some of the Israelite men had sex with Moabite women and bowed down to false gods. Sounds like a juicy story.
- Bottom line, says Moses: don't do that.
- If the Israelites obey the law, the other nations will see their wisdom and think that they're great. Because God proved his power to the Israelites, they now get to be examples for the world.
- Moses warns the people not to worship idols.
- He reminds them of a time on Mt. Horeb when they heard the Lord's voice but did not see his physical form. Because God has no specific form, the Israelites aren't supposed to make or worship images. And while they're at it, they shouldn't worship the sun, moon, or stars either.
The people learn that Moses will not see the Promised Land because of them. We wonder how guilty they felt.
- In verses 25-29, we get some foreshadowing of the Babylonian Exile. In 587 BCE, The Babylonians exiled the Israelites from the land and scattered them throughout the Babylonian Empire. Because of the pretty clear allusion to this historical event, many scholars think that the book of Deuteronomy was written after the Exile.
- Oh, you want to know why the people will be exiled? Because of idol worship.
- While they're in exile, the people will call upon God in exile, and God will hear them if they search with all of their heart and soul. After all, the Israelites are unique because they have heard the voice of God.
- Next up, Moses tells the people to acknowledge that there is only one God (35-40). That might not seems like a huge deal, but it is. In other places in the Bible (think Exodus), we know God is the best, but he's definitely not the only.
- Moses tells the people to set apart cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan. People who accidently kill someone may flee to these cities. Translation: people who commit certain types of sins don't necessarily have to be executed, but they do have to be sent away.
- P.S. Just to recap, the writer tells us that Moses gave these laws to the people in the land of the Amorites. (Yeah, the text likes to go in and out of voice sometimes. Go figure.)
The Ten Commandments
- Next up: Moses rehashes the people's time at Mt. Horeb in Exodus.
- The version in Deuteronomy is a bit longer than the one in Exodus, but only because verse 15 states that slaves should be given the opportunity to rest on the Sabbath, since the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.
- Talk about a powerful memory. Because the Israelites remember their times as slaves, their rules on slavery reflect that cultural experience. For more on this, check out "Memory" in our Themes section.
- One final note about the Ten Commandments: did you notice that the first four commandments relate to God while the last six refer to how members of the community are to be treated? What do you make of that?
- On Mt. Horeb, the people hear God speak out of the fire. Yikes.
- Since the people are (naturally) afraid of God, they send Moses to talk to him (22-27).
- Wait a second, what happened to the whole golden calf incident? We hear about the lost generation that resulted from it, but we don't get a recap of what went down. Why not?
- Moses concludes by telling the Israelites that if they want to live and take the land, they must follow the commandments exactly.
Keeping Family History Alive
- Now Moses related more of God's commandments. The Big Guy promises prosperity in return for obedience. What do you think of this deal?
- The people are reminded about their duties to God: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."
- In Jewish tradition, these words are called the Shema, and they are a cornerstone of the Jewish prayer canon. Oh, and hundreds of years later, when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment of all, he quote these verses in Mark 12:29-30.
- Want to know where else Jesus quotes Deuteronomy? Check out our "Shout-Outs."
- The Israelites are told to always be conscious of the law. They are supposed to talk about the laws throughout the day and place reminders of them on their bodies and in their homes. Some observant Jews use objects called tefillin to fulfill this requirement. Tefillin are small boxes that contain verses from the Torah and are bound to the body with straps. Check it out.
- Most importantly, they should teach these laws to their children.
Because God is a jealous God, the Israelites must not worship other gods (13-15). This is monotheism at work. One God and one God only.
- Moses warns the people not to test God like they did at Massah. In Exodus 17:1-7, the Israelites demanded water and wished that they had never left Egypt. Worst of all, they wondered if God was truly with them. That's a big no-no.
- If the people keep God's laws, good things will happen.
- When their children ask about the laws, the Israelites should tell them about all God's signs and wonders and the Promised Land. Just as Deuteronomy retells the events of Exodus and Numbers, the Israelites are supposed to continue repeating the story generation after generation.
The Lord Will Help Israel Conquer the Land
- When God gives Israel its land, the people are supposed to "utterly destroy" the nations already living there. Hmmm. If you're curious about ancient and modern-day genocide, head on over to "Current Hot-Button Issues and Cultural Debates."
- The Israelites are not to intermarry with these people because, presumably, the children of these marriages would be taught to worship other gods, and the Lord would be angry. People are still worked up about intermarriage, too—the ancients were no different from us in this regard.
- Moses now tells Israel why God chose them. Sure, every other group of people was larger than them. But the Lord loved them anyway because he made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Genesis. This is a loyalty thing.
- The Lord is loyal to those who love him and keep his commandments, but he punishes those who reject him. Translation: free stuff if you follow the laws, and a plague on your house if you break them. So if they serve God well, they'll have lots of food, children, land, and help from disease.
- All of this leads up to the conquest of Canaan.
- If the people are afraid that they will not be able to take the land because there are too many enemies to conquer, they should remember what the Lord did in Egypt—i.e., save their butts.
- God will fight for them, but only gradually. If Israel conquers the land too quickly, wild animals may become too plentiful.
- Think about this gradual business in terms of promises—"gradual conquest" can have a few setbacks and still be successful, right? If the text promises too much, and the Israelite armies are defeated, then people will lose faith in God much more quickly.
- And hey, guess what? No idols. What—you already heard that? Too bad. Hear it again.
- God's love is like a parent's love—sometimes, you have to let your kid struggle a bit.
- At this point in the recap, God forces the Israelites into the desert for forty years, but he makes sure that they're fed, don't overheat, and that their feet don't swell up. These difficult situations are supposed to be seen as a kind of test or humbling experience. It gives the reader the impression that God is in control even when times are bad.
- Next lesson: When you enter the land, don't get cocky. Remember that God brought you through the wasteland—you most certainly didn't do it yourself. Oh, yeah, and in case you forgot that manna thing from verse 3, it's repeated in verse 16.
- Yes, Deuteronomy is a bit redundant. Why? A lot of these books would have been read aloud, and repetition helped people remember it. Literacy wasn't exactly widespread in the ancient world.
- God acts like a parent again, warning the Israelites of disaster if they follow other gods. Tired of hearing about other gods yet? Don't be. There's plenty more to come.
The Failures Continue
- The Israelites aren't exactly walking into unoccupied territory.
- The Anakim, a proud and powerful people, control the land. But the Israelites shouldn't fear the Anakim's strength and height because God is awesome. To be specific, he's a consuming fire who will stop these giants.
- Moses tells the Israelites: don't think God is giving you the land because you're righteous. It's actually because the people of the land are evil, and because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were promised the land. Oh, and you almost didn't get it because you're so stubborn. Well, that's nice.
- Notice how God judges all people—he's in charge of everyone. So why don't the commandments (like the one not to kill) apply to everyone?
- This covenant is like a contract. Because God and the people have a deal, the people live by certain rules; God has no deal with the enemies of the Israelites, and so the Israelites are free to plunder and pillage their opponents. What do you think of this logic?
- If you don't like being reminded of your faults, be glad you weren't an Israelite. Moses constantly reminds them of their rebellious and stubborn nature. Their worst offense occurred when Aaron created a golden calf (Exodus 32). When Moses stayed too long on the mountain, Aaron created a golden calf in response to the people's demands for a god. God wanted to destroy them and choose another people, but Moses pleaded with God on behalf of the people, and God changed his mind. Thanks, Mo.
- Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of law and smashed them. That's right: he literally broke the law.
- Moses continued to fear for the people because of the Lord's anger, but he again convinced the Lord not to destroy the Israelites, and finally burned the golden calf. Whew, that was a close call.
- Moses essentially says, "Hey Israelites, let me remind you of other times that you did bad stuff, especially when you didn't trust God by refusing to take the land." There's nothing like a pep talk, eh?
- Moses reminds the people how he continually interceded on their behalf. You think he wants them to feel guilty because he won't be entering the Promised Land with them?
- Think about it in terms of when the text was written. Deuteronomy talks a lot about how bad the Israelites are in terms of perfectly upholding this contract. It sounds to us like pieces of Deuteronomy were an attempt to explain a tragic event in Israelite history. Just something to chew on.
The Ark of the Covenant
- Moses continues to rehash the Exodus story. Here's what went down:
- He brings tablets of stone to God, and God writes the Ten Commandments on them. Moses puts them in ark made of acacia wood. Cue John Williams music.
- Now the writer provides a note about the death of Aaron. The Levites, his tribe, are responsible for carrying the ark, but their tribe will receive no allotment of the land since they'll be taking care of religious matters. Tough luck.
- Once again, Moses lets the Israelites know that he's to thank for the Lord not destroying them.
- Deuteronomy places Moses in a much different place than Exodus. In Exodus, Moses is more the doer than the talker. Here, Moses probably needs a lozenge from all the speeching he does.
- It's neat to see how writers spanned across centuries can take the same character and the same story and still put a twist on it. Just think of all the different incarnations of Batman over the past fifty years. It all depends on who's doing the writing.
- Back to the story, where Moses is talking about being loyal to God. The Israelites should keep God's laws and love the Lord because the Lord loves them. Moses even tells them to "Circumcise your hearts." Don't worry, it's just a figure of speech. The point is, the Israelites should hold as strongly as they can onto this contract with God.
- God gets a major endorsement at the end of this chapter. As usual.
Obey or Beware
- Time for some more remembering what the Lord did.
- The Promised Land is not like Egypt. In the Promised Land, there's rain. That's a huge deal, since the Egyptians depended on the Nile for water. And water meant life.
- Of course, the writers link weather patterns with God. If the people disobey, God will withhold rain from them.
- Looking for a recap of 6:6-9? You've come to the right place. Yeah, we know. Deuteronomy is a bit redundant, but it definitely helps us remember the stuff.
- If the people obey the "entire commandment," God will drive out the other nations. Moses even gives us pretty specific parameters of the land they'll have (22-25).
- Deuteronomy believes in The Doctrine of the Two Ways, and it's pretty clearly stated here: Those who obey God are blessed and those who don't are cursed. These verses foreshadow 27:11 where half of the tribes stand on Mt. Gerizim to pronounce blessings, and half stand on Mt. Ebal to pronounce curses (26-31).
- Interested in learning more about The Doctrine of the Two Ways? Wander on over to "Theological Point of View." Just don't get lost in the wilderness for 40 years.
P.S. Don't Eat Blood
- The rules continue. This time, it's smash anything idol-related and burn sacred poles.
- Sacred poles are associated with the goddess Asherah, and some inscriptions from the ancient Near East refer to "Yahweh and his Asherah." In some ancient Near East cultures, Asherah was actually God's wife. In Deuteronomy, God is a bachelor.
- The writers probably wouldn't take time out of their days to tell people not to do something they weren't doing anyway, right? Translation: people all over were worshipping these sacred poles, and the writers weren't happy about it.
- Next rule: bring sacrifices and offerings to the place where God will choose to dwell (i.e., what will be the temple). What the text doesn't say is that worshipping other gods and going to other temples cuts down on revenue for the Levites. That's why it's in the Levites' best interest for the Israelites to worship one God in one place (5-14).
- Also, don't eat the blood of the sacrifices. Sorry, Twilight fans, the Lord doesn't like blood-eating.
- Even if you live far away, some offerings must come to the temple. (26-28).
- Don't do what the other nations are doing—God hates their practices. In fact, some of them burn their children as offerings to their gods (29-32).
- The basic takeaway is that the ancient world was a culturally diverse place. For the Israelites, circumcision was a means of worshipping God during the birth portion of the life cycle; for other cultures, that meant child sacrifice. Because all of these cultures were influencing each other, we can understand them all better through little shout-outs like these.
Worship Idols—but Only if You Have a Death Wish
- It's the death penalty for prophets and dreamers who try to get you to worship other gods.
- If anyone in your family tries to entice you worship other gods, you get to throw the first pitch at the stoning. This sounds really cruel, but the writers are trying to make their point.
- What about the whole "thou shalt not kill" thing from the Ten Commandment?
- Moses talks about scoundrels leading a whole town to worship another god. "Scoundrels" are called "children of Belial" in Hebrew. The phrase literally means "worthless individuals." If the scoundrels infect an entire town with idol worship, the people and the livestock are to be killed, and the town is to be burned. Everything there would then be "devoted to destruction" (17), which means that the Israelites are banned from taking anything from it (12-18).
Is that Kosher?
- Here we get a list of the land animals that the Israelites are allowed to eat.
- Kosher animals have divided hooves (split in two). They also chew the cud, meaning that food goes into the animal's stomach and then returns to its mouth to be chewed one more time. Pigs' hooves are divided, but they don't chew the cud, so they can't be eaten. Sorry, pork lover.
- Hungry for more? Check out Dietary Laws in our section on "Perspectives from Faith Communities."
- One rule definitely wouldn't be enough, so how about some more? If you have a hankering for some seafood, you can't eat shrimp—they don't have fins or scales, which makes them unclean.
- Also, don't eat anything that has died of natural causes.
- And here it is, folks. The verse upon which observant Jews base their separation of milk and meat. The Bible tells us not to boil a kid (a baby goat) in its mother's milk. For an interesting discussion of this law and the Hebrew language, check out "Should Cheeseburgers Be Kosher?"
- If you harvest grain, wine, or olive oil, 10% of it belongs to God. Bring it to the temple and it will help fund the priestly order.
- If the temple is too far away for you to bring your crops, then turn those crops into money and you can buy something to sacrifice. (Hundreds of years later, this rule caused a lot of problems for Jesus in John 2.)
Free from Debt and Slavery
- And… more rules. The Israelites should forgive all debts every seven years. Yowza—imagine if that were the case today.
- In the political arena, be a lender, not a borrower. When the seventh year is approaching and it's time to forgive these debts, don't hate on those who borrow from you. Just give to the needy and don't be tightfisted.
- Set slaves free in the seventh year and provide them with flocks, grain, and wine. That's right: the Israelites had slaves.
- If the slave loves you and wishes to remain with you, put a spike through their ear; but don't begrudge a slave who wishes to leave.
- A few more notes on what to do and not to do with firstborn animals and humans—and the chapter ends.
- Don't get too excited—more rules are on their way.
Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot
- Next on the docket: Moses goes over the rules for the harvest festivals.
- First things first. You should eat unleavened bread during the Passover holiday. Unleavened bread (you know it as matzah) is made without yeast, which is what normally causes bread to soften and rise. Since the Israelites left Egypt so quickly, they didn't have time to let their bread rise. And God is all about remembering, so he tells everyone else to do the same thing for the holiday.
- The Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) is celebrated seven weeks after Passover.
- Want another one? How about the Festival of Booths (a.k.a. Sukkot a.k.a. the Feast of Tabernacles)? The Israelites should stay in booths for seven days to commemorate the way Israel lived when they left Egypt. A lot of the deets can be found in Leviticus, too.
- All males are commanded to appear before the Lord with an offering at each of these three festivals. Sorry, ladies, but this is a very patriarchal culture.
- So what's the point of all these festivals? Basically, they tie your job (farming) in with other elements of culture, like ritual religion.
- Other rules include not accepting bribes and pursuing truth, justice, and God's way. It may not make you Superman or Superwoman, but it'll make you a super Israelite.
- In case you've already forgotten from Chapter 12, don't set up any Asherah poles or stone pillars.
- Man, we knew Deuteronomy repeated pieces of Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, but it's also repeats itself? Yowza.
Wait for It—More Laws
- God does not accept defective animals for sacrifice. Basically, this just means that God likes only the best of everything. It's about an image, people. Once you start letting in substandard goats, everything falls apart.
- Stone anyone who tries to get you to worship other gods, but make sure you have two or three witnesses so you can convict the offender. Yep, this is some community-based law here. The idea is to create a community standard, and then use community members to enforce it.
- For difficult judicial decisions, go directly to the temple. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Do exactly as the priests tell you. Hmmm… whose power is enhanced by this passage?
- Somebody should use Verses 14-20 as a political tool. Go read verses 14-20. We'll wait.
- In these verses, we find out that the people are allowed to choose a king. Just one caveat: the king can't have too many horses or wives or too much money. This isn't a democracy, but it is a check on the character of the king. The idea is that if you're going to give someone absolute power, you should give it to the right man.
- These verses also sound like a criticism of Solomon, who had many wives, a ton of money, and was said to be beholden to his foreign wives' religious practices. It's pretty much taking a direct hit at the guy—people do this all the time in the U.S., right?
- Nothing like a great rhetorical strategy to get your point across.
And It Continues
- Next up: Support the Levites, who will eat portions of your meat and grain offerings.
- Notice the subtlety of this society's power structure: the priests oversee the religious rituals, and they get their food directly from these rituals.
- Don't talk to sorcerers, people who cast spells, or those who talk to ghosts or spirits. Sorry, Harry.
- We are able to understand the intent of the original Hebrew here (magic = bad), but we can't be sure about certain nouns that have specifically magic connotations.
- One thing is for sure: these people are not fans of child sacrifice. So they've got that going for them.
- Now we find out that God is going to raise up another prophet like Moses to speak to the people. See, the people were totally freaked when they heard God's voice from the fire at Horeb. So intermediaries make things a lot easier. Who is the next great prophet? Check out the candidates in "Faith Perspectives."
- Think about this passage from the perspective of a writer. You have to ensure continuity for your religious practices, but you don't have a person in mind yet. So what do you do? You endorse some unnamed future candidate, and then down the line you're free to name whoever you want as that person. It makes it very easy for Christians to declare Jesus the object of this passage and for Muslims to do the same with Mohammed. Whether or not they're true, these interpretations make sense in the context of the text.
- If a prophecy comes true, the person who made it is a true prophet. Easy enough, right?
An Eye for an Eye
- Are we there yet? Nope. Moses has plenty more to say.
- Set apart cities for people who are guilty of involuntary manslaughter. After all, a family member will want to avenge the victim, so the writers needed to devise a system to ensure that revenge killings didn't happen.
- Once again, we're watching community-based regulations in action. This rule predicts the reactions of the offended family members, so it sets up a means of fixing the problem while keeping the offender safe.
- Premeditated murder will be punished. A murderer who flees to a city of refuge will be handed over to the avenger of blood. Avenger of blood? Sounds like a superhero.
- On a slightly lighter note, don't mess with property lines. Good advice.
- Two witnesses are needed for a conviction. And get this—if a witness is lying, whatever he wanted done to the person he accused will be done to him: "eye for an eye, tooth for tooth."
- Yowza. What do you think about this strategy?
Call of Duty: Rules for War
- Be brave when you go to war. (Duh?)
- The priest will address the people and offer the following exemptions from military service: (1) building a new house, but not having dedicated it; (2) being engaged, but not married; (3) being afraid to fight.
- A little different than the modern draft exemptions, wouldn't you say?
- Did you notice that in Exodus, we only get descriptions like "They went to war"? Deuteronomy has a different agenda than just telling a story. It's taking the older stories and adding to them many layers of law.
- Speaking of law, when you approach a city, offer a peace treaty. If they don't accept it… attack.
- Kill all of the males on the opposing side. In the towns that are farther from you, take women, children, livestock, and their stuff. The Bible calls this booty.
- How do we reconcile this with the Ten Commandments?
- If it takes a long time to conquer a city, don't destroy the fruit trees. You can, however, use the trees that don't produce fruit to help you siege the city. Battering rams, anyone?
The List Continues
- What do you do if you find a dead body in the open country and the murderer is nowhere to be found? Answer: Kill a heifer and have the elders of the surrounding towns wash their hands over it to show that they did not shed innocent blood. Apparently, there weren't a lot of crime scene investigators back in ancient Israel.
- These verses show how valuable life is. You can't just leave a body alone—you're obligated to do something with it.
- An Israelite warrior who captures a woman from an enemy is allowed to marry her. But first, she has to shave her head and be allowed to mourn her family for a month. Oh, and if he decides he doesn't really like her, he can free her without selling her.
- This was a man's world, people. It may sound evilly misogynistic to us, but the reality is that this law was probably an improvement on whatever the status quo was. Context matters.
- If a man has two wives and likes one but not the other, his firstborn son will inherit his possessions. Even if he's the son of the wife his father doesn't like.
- The parents of a rebellious son who drinks too much wine and eats too much food can be turned over to the town elders for stoning. Guess he won't be able to eat his parents out of house and home anymore.
- Sound harsh? We're guessing that even people who follow the Bible pretty strictly don't go along with this one. How can we reconcile this?
- Don't leave a corpse on a tree all night. Got it.
- Actually, hundreds of years later in the action of the New Testament, Paul ties this scripture to Jesus's crucifixion in Galatians 3:13. Head on over to "Shout-Outs" for more New Testament scriptures that quote Deuteronomy.
- Get ready. These ones are all over the place.
- First, help your neighbor's ox or donkey if it wanders away or falls into a ditch.
- Also, women shouldn't wear men's clothes and vice versa. This is probably a law because the worship of Ishtar, an ancient goddess of fertility, used cross-dressing in its rituals (source). The writers weren't as concerned with cross-dressing as with worshipping not-God.
- If you find a nest on the ground with eggs, you can eat the eggs—but not the mother bird.
- Put a protective barrier around your roof to prevent accidental death. Very good call.
- Next up: laws against mixing crops, plowing animals, and threads.
- And now for something completely different: put tassels your garments. Like this.
- If a man accuses a woman of not being a virgin when he married her, her father and mother must provide proof of her virginity. If proof is provided, then the man will be punished, pay a fine to the girl's father, and never be allowed to divorce her. If there is no proof, the woman shall be stoned for prostituting herself. Yowza.
- A man and a woman caught in adultery are to be killed.
- If man meets an engaged woman and sleeps with her, he must be stoned. Whether or not the woman is stoned depends on where the act occurred. If she was in the city, she will be stoned with him because she didn't cry for help. If she was in the country, she will live because she may have cried out, but no one may have heard her.
- Sounds specific, right? Well, this is a great example of the urban-rural divide in this text. The writers had to account for both situations because their power extended across urban and rural areas.
- A man who meets a woman who is not engaged and sleeps with her must give her father 50 shekels. They must marry, and he can never divorce her.
- A man should not marry his father's wife. Translation: you can't marry your stepmother after your father has died. Sounds self-explanatory today, but there were rules back then for a reason.
More Laying Down the Law
- Every culture has its Do-Not-Fly List, and this is the Israelites'. We get a list of individuals not allowed to enter the temple, including Ammonites and Moabites.
- Back in Genesis, we found out that the Moabites and the Ammonites are the children of Lot, Abraham's nephew. That means they're distant cousins of the Israelites.
- The Ammonites did not give food to the Israelites, and the Moabites hired the prophet Balaam—the guy with the talking Donkey—to curse the Israelites (see Numbers 22-24).
- Next up, laws regarding the Israelite camp and bodily functions. Things get gross here, people. We're talking "nocturnal emissions" and where to bury your feces. You may not have known these things were in the Bible, but Deuteronomy is very thorough.
- Changing the subject, escaped slaves are allowed to remain in the Promised Land.
- No female or male temple prostitutes. This was probably an issue in the regional religious scene.
- All people can charge interest on loans to foreigners, but not on loans to fellow Israelites.
- If you make a vow, do what you said you would do. Seems like sound advice.
- When you're on your neighbor's property, you can eat his grapes and grain. You just can't take any with you. Hmmm, we might go camp out in Napa now.
A Motley Mix: Divorce Court, Kidnapping, Leprosy, Loans, and the Poor
- A woman who has been divorced twice cannot remarry her original husband. And a newly married man is free from military duty for one full year after his wedding.
- Stealing someone's livelihood or kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery counts as murder in this book. The Bible definitely links human life to occupation and social status.
- Guard against leprosy, and remember what happened to Miriam. Because she criticized her brother Moses, God gave her leprosy—so be careful how you treat your siblings. (Parents, you might want to keep this verse handy.)
- Now we get some laws concerning loans and pledges. A person's garment can be given as collateral for a loan, but it has to be returned by sunset so that the neighbor can sleep on it. The garment essentially takes the place of loan papers and reminds the debtor that he owes money.
- Check out how case-based this law is. This obviously happened, and that's why the provisions are so specific. Imagine being that guy. "Hey, that's me! I swear!"
- Parents and children are responsible for their own crimes: one cannot be put to death for the misdeeds of the other.
- Wait a second. We hear quite a bit in the bible that your children can be punished for your sins, and vice versa (we're looking at you, Job). The problem is that that religious admonition is not necessarily good for society at large. Deuteronomy has religious laws, but it also is concerned with practicality, and it's just not practical to punish families for the crimes of one.
- And finally, we get some laws concerning the poor. Namely, some grapes and grain are to be left on the tree or in the field for the needy. Why? Because the Israelites were slaves in the land of Egypt. They know what it's like. Check out Ruth 2 for a story about the needy picking up grain during harvest.
Laws, Laws, and More Laws
- A guilty person can only receive forty lashes. Ouch.
- An ox treading grain should be free to eat it and should not be muzzled. After all, it deserves something for the work it's doing.
- If a man marries a woman and the man dies before they have a baby, the brother of the guy must marry the woman. Their firstborn child will count as the dead brother's child.
- Weird, right? But wait, it gets better. If the brother refuses, his brother's wife is supposed to spit in his face and take his sandal.
- Having trouble visualizing this scene? See When to Marry Your Sister-in-Law.
- Yeah, it sounds nuts to us, but it was common in the ancient world and was designed to keep communities together. A messy business, that's for sure.
- A woman who tries to help her husband in a fight and strikes another man below the belt will have her hand cut off. So much for self-defense class.
- Be honest. Don't use false weights. (They're talking about the weight of grain or the volume of olive oil, or even the measure of precious metals like silver and gold.)
- Punish the Amalekites for striking down the weak among you. The Amalekites are the perpetual enemies of Israel. Several passages in the Bible speak of annihilating these guys (see Numbers 24:20, 1 Samuel 15, 1 Chronicles 4:42-43).
- Do these verses push your buttons or at least make you a little curious? Check out our discussion of genocide in "Hot Button Issues and Current Cultural Debates."
But Wait, There's More!
- When they make it to the Promised Land, the Israelites should bring a fruit offering to God and recite a creed that recounts their history. Intrigued? Check out our discussion of "Memory and the Past" for more.
- The Israelites must pay the tithe (1/10th) of their produce and give to the Levites and the needy. They must also recite a creed telling the Lord of their loyalty to the commandment and asking for God's blessing.
- And finally, Moses is finished reviewing the laws with the people.
- Since the Israelites have agreed to God's terms, the Lord will raise them above the other nations (16-19).
- Hope you're still awake. We know, Deuteronomy is as much legal handbook as it is story.
Memorial Stones and Curses
- Now that we know all the laws, it's time to get down to business.
- The Israelites should choose twelve stones from the Jordan, write all of the laws on them, use them to create an altar on Mt. Ebal, and offer sacrifices there. One stone for each tribe.
- Six tribes will stand on Mt. Gerizim for the blessing of the people, and six will stand on Mt. Ebal for the curses. That's going to be one symmetrical group photo.
- And how about a few curses for good measure? Curses to those who make idols, dishonor their parents, fail to help the needy, engage in improper relationships, or mislead a blind person on the road. Good list.
Blessing and Cursing
- Blessings for… everyone! That's right—blessings for the Israelites in everything they do.
- The Israelites pronounce various blessings, including victory over enemies and Israel's power and prosperity being recognized by other nations. Also, the Lord will open up his storehouse of rain for the people. That's a big deal in wayback Middle East days.
- But it's not all good. The Lord will also send various curses, most of which are just the opposite of the blessings mentioned earlier. Maybe most importantly, these curses include a drought, which would be a crippling penalty in a farming-based society. These people need rain to make grain crops grow.
- Now, Deuteronomy gets back to anticipating Israel's future. A foreign king will rule over Israel, and his people will eat the fruit of Israel's labors. Historically, this is referring to the Israelites' exile to Babylon around 587 BCE.
- Their crops will not grow, and their children will become slaves. Without food, the people will commit atrocious acts just to survive.
Why is this all happening? Because the people did not obey.
- The Lord will bring the diseases of Egypt upon the people. Although the people were as numerous as the stars in the sky, their numbers will dwindle.
- Things are looking bleak.
The Israelite History Channel
- Now Moses gives a quick overview of Israelite history, talking about leaving Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, and defeating Og and Sihon. Deuteronomy is all about recaps.
- The people have seen all of things that God has done, and they should be grateful for all of it.
- The covenant, by the way, works for Moses's people and future generations, too. That means future generations will see the devastating results of idol worship. Because the Israelites abandoned their covenant with God, the destruction will be like Sodom and Gomorrah. Want to know how bad that is? Check out Genesis 19.
Returning to Prosperity
- If the Israelites return to God when they see the destruction caused by idol worship, God will restore them. Even if they've been exiled, God will bring them back to the land. Nice loophole.
- The people will receive the blessings of prosperity, and their enemies will be cursed.
- God has given the Israelites the choice of life or death. Sorry, there's no door number three.
- Remember, this is what we call the Doctrine of the Two Ways: the good are rewarded, and the evil are punished. (Check out "Theological Viewpoints" for more on this.)
- Heaven and earth are called as witnesses to hear God's words and see what Israel's decides. Wondering how heaven and earth can be witness? Hop on over to our "Symbols" section to find out.
Get It in the Ark
- Moses tells the people that he won't be able to enter the Promised Land with them. We already knew this, but it's still kind of a disappointment—we were hoping God would change his mind.
- So who's going to guide the people? God will go before them, and Joshua will lead them. Moses officially passes the mantle of leadership to Joshua, and then tells both Joshua and the people to be strong and not to fear.
- Break out the tissues.
- Moses writes down the law and gives it to the priests. He instructs them to listen to the words of the law every year during the festival of booths (see 16:13-15).
- God tells Moses that the people will start worshipping idols and doing wrong. Ugh—were they seriously not listening?
- He then tells Moses to recite a song as a witness against the people.
- We now officially find out that the priests put the law in the Ark of the Covenant.
- Like God, Moses has little faith in the Israelites. After all, they have been rebellious while he lived and will probably be even worse after he dies. He calls the Israelites together to hear the song he wrote chastising them. We're betting that's one concert a lot of the Israelites would have liked to skip.
"Breakin' Up is Hard to Do"
- Most of the chapter is written in verse, i.e., poetry. It is a song, after all.
- First, we get an intro to Moses's song. It's kind of depressing. If you sing it, try adding a nice guitar solo—that might help.
- The message: God is great, but his children are rebellious and degenerate. Kind of sounds like a breakup song.
- But even breakup songs tell about happier times. The Israelites are told to remember how God helped them get through the wilderness when no other god helped them.
- God blessed Israel, but Israel became fat on the blessings of God and abandoned him for other gods. Not cool.
- The Lord wanted to make them jealous. Typical. He thought of sending disaster and pestilence on them.
- It had the potential to be a really bad breakup, but God relented. He couldn't allow the other nations to defeat Israel because it would make them think God wasn't super powerful.
- Moses discusses how the other nations are fools who produce venom and poison. But don't worry, God will have vengeance on them.
- When the people are powerless, God will reconcile with them, destroy their enemies, and remind them of his nature. God is God alone, and God is the only God for Israel.
- Hmmm… looks like the breakup is over, and the couple is getting back together.
- Moses finishes the song and encourages the people to obey. After all, he says, "This is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life" (47).
- That's heavy.
- The chapter ends as God speaks to Moses with a reminder: Moses can't see the Promised land—he'll just have to look at it from afar.
The Blessing of Moses
- Now that the song is over, Moses blesses the people, calling them "favorite among peoples" (3). (When you see the word Jeshurun, it's just a poetic name for Israel.)
- Reuben and Judah are blessed, too, and Moses asks God to help Judah defeat his enemies.
- More blessings. This time for the Levites, who judge the people and teach the law.
- Blessings for the tribes of Benjamin and Joseph, too. Who are these guys? Well, Jacob, the father of the Israelites, had two wives named Rachel and Leah. Most of the tribes are descendants of the sons of Leah, but Joseph and Benjamin are the sons of Rachel.
- Joseph is blessed with fruitfulness.
- The blessings continue for Zebulun, Isaachar, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, and Asher (18-25). The tribe of Simeon does not receive a blessing because they have become part of the tribe of Judah. Ouch.
- God rides in the sky, defeats the ancient gods, and protects Israel. The people are happy and have nothing to fear.
- Overall, we'd say this blessing is much more positive than that downer of a song in chapter 33.
The End for Moses
- Last chapter, everyone. You've made it.
- God shows Moses the boundaries of the land, and then… Moses dies.
- Even though he was 120 years old, his eyesight was good and he was in excellent health. The people mourned for Moses for 30 days, but none of them knew where he was buried.
- Just a quick translation note before we finish up. People just love to translate this passage badly. The actual Hebrew word that describes Moses at the last moment of his life translates to "moisture." Huh?
- What the text is saying is that Moses's moisture had not abated when he died. Tweed-sporting academics disagree about whether this refers to sexual potency or skin wrinkles. Either way, it's a great opportunity to understand how the Hebrew language describes people. Languages all have certain feels, and this is a good one for Hebrew.
- Okay, back in the story, Joshua takes over.
- The book says that there has never been a prophet like Moses since he died. After all, he knew the Lord face to face and performed tons o' wonders.
- It's a tough act to beat.