The Book of Deuteronomy

Several years ago I wrote a commentary on the book of Deuteronomy that was published in Spanish in the series Comentario Bíblico Mundo Hispano: Levítico, Números y Deuteronomio (El Paso, TX: Editorial Mundo Hispano, 1998). In the introduction of my commentary, I wrote of the importance of the book of Deuteronomy in the formulation of the religious ideas of Israel and in the formation of the Hebrew Bible.

A good commentary on the book of Deuteronomy is Richard D. Nelson’s, Deuteronomy, The Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002). Nelson’s commentary on Deuteronomy was designed to replace the commentary written by Gerhard von Rad, a work that has become a classic in its field. Nelson has written an excellent commentary which is a worthy successor of the original in this series.

In his work, Nelson recognizes that the language found in the book of Deuteronomy is peculiar and distinctive. The language found in Deuteronomy is characterized by words and phrases that are unique to the book. According to Nelson, the purpose of this distinctive language is “to arouse emotion and stimulate memory” in order “to motivate acceptance and action” (p. 2).

According to Nelson, the composition of Deuteronomy is complex. The book is unified in its theology, but there is evidence of disunity and repeated redaction in its final composition. Nelson refers to scribal activities present in the final redaction of the book. The redactional activity seen in the book was part of an attempt to integrate and organize the material into a coherent whole.

Nelson believes that the Ten Commandments and the covenant making at Sinai and in Moab were not originally part of the book. According to him, these texts were added to the core of the original text of Deuteronomy with the intent to connect the message of Deuteronomy to the life of the community in order to motivate the people’s obedience to the new laws.

One peculiar issue in Deuteronomy is the shift between the second person singular and the second person plural in Moses’ speeches to the community. Nelson believes that this shift reflects addresses to different audiences: when the second person singular is used, Moses is addressing the entire community. When the address shifts to the plural the focus is on individuals who are members of the community; they are addressed in order to emphasize personal responsibility.

Nelson says that a seventh century date for Deuteronomy is supported by two crucial facts: first, the book is based on the ideas and language found in Assyrian Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon. Second, Deuteronomy is firmly associated with the book that encouraged the reforms of Josiah. In addition, the similarities between the language and message of Deuteronomy with the preaching of Hosea reflect the influx of refugees who came into Judah after the destruction of the northern kingdom.

The book of Deuteronomy was developed as a set of reforming laws, written at a time of religious, political, and social crisis in the life of the nation. The laws present in the book of Deuteronomy are in part a seventh century revision of many laws found in the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33). This revision reflects many of the issues that the book seeks to address: the problem of centralization of worship, the issue of syncretism in the religious life of Judah, the changes in the economic and political conditions of Judean society, and the rise of humanitarian concerns that are reflected in laws dealing with the status of women and the oppression of the poor, widows, orphans, and the resident alien.

The laws of Deuteronomy are introduced as revelation of God’s will; they were given by God to the new generation of Israelites on the eve of their entrance into the land of promise. These laws are presented in the form of a farewell address by Moses to the gathered community in the land of Moab. Thus, the character of the book is homiletical and didactic.

According to Nelson, Deuteronomy was a “constitutional proposal,” a program designed to reform the social, religious, political, and economic life of Judah at a time when the nation was facing a struggle for survival. Israel was facing a religious and political crisis that could mean the life or death of the nation. Thus, the purpose of Deuteronomy was “to unify the nation, remove foreign ideologies, and reform religion” (p. 99).

Deuteronomy has many theological themes. One theme that runs throughout the book is the formation of a distinctive community living under obedience to Yahweh, the God of Israel. According to Nelson, many of the laws and demands in the book are “utopian,” that is, many of these laws in Deuteronomy were unenforceable because they ignored the economic realities of Judean society and the realities of power politics and class struggles. Rather, the laws of Deuteronomy were an appeal to the heart, requiring obedience to Yahweh’s law because of Yahweh’s gracious deeds on behalf of the nation.

A second theme is that of centralization of worship. This issue developed because Yahweh chose a single place of worship for the people in order to protect the nation’s relationship with Yahweh and its national unity. Deuteronomy stresses the election of an undeserving Israel. According to Nelson, “election means that Israel is a people defined by love and obedience” (p. 102). For this reason, Deuteronomy requires that anything that would compromise Yahweh’s position as the sole God of Israel should be eliminated.

A third emphasis of Deuteronomy is the humanitarian concerns of the book. The book of Deuteronomy promotes the view that every Israelite of means was responsible to help fellow Israelites in need. The laws of Deuteronomy deal with the plight of slaves, debtors, wage earners, widows, orphans, and resident aliens. In addition, many laws were revised and new ones enacted in order to improve the role of women in Israelite society. The aim of Deuteronomy was to present “a law for life in the land given by Yahweh” in order to “create the fair and just society” described in the book.

Nelson’s commentary is a book that should be added to the library of every serious student of Deuteronomy. Scholars, pastors, and students will find much in this commentary that will enhance their understanding of the message of this important biblical book.

Studies on the Deuteronomic Concern for Women

The Book of Deuteronomy

The Status of Women in Israelite Society

The Deuteronomic Concern for Women

The Tenth Commandment (Deuteronomy 5:21)

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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