Study Guide

Book of Deuteronomy Themes

  • Fear

    Is it better to be feared or loved?

    Both. Michael Scott, Machiavelli, and God all agree.

    In Deuteronomy, the Israelites act like the humans they are, freaking out when they see giants protecting the land they're supposed to conquer. But God wants the Israelites to fear him. And if they do that, they don't need to worry about the giants.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Why do the Israelites struggle with fear in Deuteronomy?
    2. What does it mean to "fear God" or to have the "fear of the Lord"? Are we actually talking about being scared into doing something?
    3. What does God do to instill fear in the Israelites? Is that his goal?
    4. Why do the Israelites seem to be more scared of giants than they are of God?
  • Memory and the Past

    Deuteronomy is like AP Israelite History for the ancients. Why does Moses retell all this stuff that we already heard in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers? Well, as your history teacher has told you a million times, we can better understand our current situation by looking at what's come before us.

    Example? Your ancestors were afraid of giants so they missed out on the Promised Land. Lesson: don't be afraid of giants.

    The writers of Deuteronomy are conjuring up these shared cultural memories to give Israelite culture a new lease on life and to remind them that their community shares a cultural narrative and set of laws. But this memory stuff applies to the Big Guy, too. When the Lord wants to wipe out the Israelites and start over, Moses reminds God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Genesis. And so they live to see another day.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why does Deuteronomy pair sound bites of history with all the legal jargon and laws? Is Deuteronomy a history book? Or is it more of a legal book?
    2. What events are important to remember in Israelite history? Why does Moses choose to highlight the things he highlights in Deuteronomy? Why doesn't he talk about some of the more particular stories from Genesis, for example?
    3. Why do the Israelites keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Are they just static characters?
    4. If God is able to remember, does that mean he's able to forget? Can we trust a God who might forget the covenant he made?
  • Foreignness and the Other

    Deuteronomy wants to have its cake and eat it too—be nice to strangers, massacre your enemies, and go home happy. This tension between local law and political rhetoric drives the whole book, but we notice it most when Moses & Co. run into other groups. Some of their travel meet-ups are with allies, but sometimes they're enemies who need wiping out. Bottom line, if you're not an Israelite, you haven't been chosen by God. And that puts you squarely in the outsiders club.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. How can we reconcile Deuteronomy's orders to be kind to strangers and its commands to destroy other nations in war? What's with all the contradictions?
    2. Who are the "others" in Deuteronomy? Why are the Israelites so special?
    3. What did the Israelites learn from their time in Egypt as foreigners and slaves? Are they applying that knowledge now?
    4. Is Moses still a "stranger in a strange land" (Exodus 2:22) in Deuteronomy? How about the Israelites?
  • Visions of the Promised Land

    Picture this: you're driving through Minnesota in the dead of winter with no heat. Suddenly, you come upon a magical place where it's 72 and sunny, there are warm-water beaches, all Apple products are free, and all utility bills are paid. Sounds nice, right?

    In the Promised Land, the Israelites won't have to work for anything. The plan, as it's laid out in Deuteronomy, is for them to evict the people living in the Promised Land. That way, they won't have to build houses, plant trees, or wait for anything to grow. They'll just take over, and prosperity will abound—as long as they obey God, of course.

    Unfortunately, the Israelites will be victims of their own success. Because life will be so easy peasy, the Israelites will begin worshipping idols, and God will evict them from the Promised Land. What can we say? Utopias are a tough sell.

    Questions About Visions of the Promised Land

    1. What specific visions of the Promised Land do we get? How is it described? Does it seem realistic?
    2. Why did God choose the Israelites out of all the other nations to take the Promised Land?
    3. What about all the people who are living in the Promised Land now? Why is God okay just destroying them and taking their land?
    4. What is the relationship between the Promised Land and the Garden of Eden in Genesis?
  • Justice and Judgment

    Take a deep breath, because we're about to get technical for a second. Ready? Go.

    There are at least two different types of laws in Deuteronomy: apodictic and casuistic. Wait, don't freak out. We're about to explain. Apodictic laws are pretty obvious and common-sense friendly like, say, "Thou shalt not kill." Casuistic laws, on the other hand, are based on actual cases. That means some event had to occur that demanded the creation of the law. Example: the Internet was invented, and suddenly we need laws about music piracy.

    But things get messy sometimes. "Thou shalt not kill" seems simple enough, but what happens in cases of war or self-defense? Law is just never easy and the contradictions are everywhere in Deuteronomy.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Are there any laws in Deuteronomy that still hold today? Which of the laws are much more geared toward an agricultural society? Which are more universal?
    2. Who decides the outcome of cases in ancient Israel? God? Society? A judge? Moses?
    3. Are there any laws in Deuteronomy that are both apodictic and casuistic? Does the distinction really matter? Why or why not?
    4. Can we reconcile the contradictions between the various laws in Deuteronomy?