The book of Deuteronomy is the final book in the Pentateuch. What is the theme and purpose of Deuteronomy? What lessons can we learn from this book?
The book of Deuteronomy is the last of the five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch.
Deuteronomy naturally follows the book of Numbers. Numbers ends with Moses and the Israelites in the land of Moab, on the east side of the Jordan River overlooking the land of Canaan. The book of Deuteronomy picks up the story by recording Moses’ final instructions to the Israelites before his death, as he was preparing them for their future—a future in a new land and without him as their human leader.
The word Deuteronomy comes from the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible and basically means “Second Law” or “Repetition of the Law.” This is because the book focuses on Moses’ reaffirming and explaining God’s law one final time before his death. Its Hebrew title is Elleh Haddebharim, meaning, “These Are the Words,” taken from the first verse of the book.
The term “Second Law” may be misleading, as it could imply that there was a second set of laws added to those given at Sinai. This was not the case. The book is a restatement of the laws God had given Israel nearly 40 years earlier at Mount Sinai, along with further instructions to the generation about to leave the wilderness and enter their new home in the Promised Land.
In this retelling of the law, Moses often applies the laws more specifically to a people living in a settled land. The people of Israel were about to make a major transition from a nomadic people to a nation with land, borders, cities and property. A more suitable meaning may be “Repetition of the Law,” as it reaffirms and restates the Sinai Covenant.
To learn more about God’s covenants, read “Covenants: God’s Agreements With Man.”
Authors William Sanford LaSor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush in their volume Old Testament Survey make the following comments: “Deuteronomy is a treasure chest of theological concepts that have influenced the religious thought and life of ancient Israelites, Jews, and Christians . . . No wonder Bible students have yearned to understand the theological ideas of Deuteronomy. Its antiquity, its centrality in Old Testament thought, and its influence on the New Testament church all testify to an importance that cannot be exaggerated . . .
“Every indication points to the conclusion that Deuteronomy is one of the most significant books of the Old Testament. In any generation it deserves careful study” (pp. 118, 127).
Halley’s Bible Handbook refers to Deuteronomy as “some of the world’s finest eloquence” (p. 150).
Who wrote the book of Deuteronomy?
The book of Deuteronomy was written by Moses.
Since the book contains three sermons on the law delivered by Moses himself, it is logical that he would also record his own words in writing. Much of the dialogue is written in the first person.
Moses’ authorship of Deuteronomy is also supported within the book itself. In Deuteronomy 31:9, we read: “So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel.”
A few verses down, we also read: “So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished . . .” (verse 24).
Though the evidence is strong that Moses wrote all five books of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy contains more crystal-clear statements showing Moses was the author than any of the four other books of the Pentateuch.
Not only do we have these passages saying that Moses wrote out the law, but we also know that Moses would have been one of the most qualified writers in Israel due to his upbringing and education in the royal court of Egypt (Acts 7:22).
Though it’s clear that the vast majority of the book was written by Moses, it’s likely that the last chapter, describing Moses’ death on Mount Nebo, was written by someone else. A likely candidate for authoring Deuteronomy 34 is Moses’ successor, Joshua. Others suggest it could have been added by Ezra.
When was the book of Deuteronomy written?
The book of Deuteronomy was written at the end of Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Moses probably wrote the words of his final three sermons to Israel in the last year of his life, around 1404 B.C. It’s possible that Joshua completed the book and wrote the final chapter shortly after Moses’ death, or possibly a year or so later—after Israel had conquered much of the land of Canaan.
What is the book of Deuteronomy about?
The immediate context of the book is as the Israelites were about to enter and inhabit the Promised Land. Because of their disobedience and disbelief many years earlier, the Israelites had ended up wandering for 40 years in the wilderness. Only after the old generation had died were the Israelites allowed to continue their journey and enter the Promised Land.
Essentially, the book of Deuteronomy contains the farewell words of Moses to the Israelites.Moses, aware that he was excluded from entering the land himself, took the opportunity to deliver three lengthy speeches, or sermons, to the people of Israel. Most of the book of Deuteronomy comprises these instructions and admonitions. With this in mind, we recognize the aptness of the Hebrew name for the book, “These Are the Words” or merely “Words.”
Essentially, the book of Deuteronomy contains the farewell words of Moses to the Israelites.
Moses’ final words can be divided into the following three sermons:
- Deuteronomy 1-4: Moses recounted the history of the covenant God made with the Israelites on Mount Sinai and of His guiding them through the wilderness.
- Deuteronomy 5-26: Moses gave a detailed review of God’s law with strong reminders and warnings for the Israelites to stay faithful to their part of the covenant.
- Deuteronomy 27-31: Moses recorded a renewal of the covenant with a powerful call for Israel to choose life and blessings by obeying God’s law.
Throughout these three sermons, Moses constantly used the word today (for example, Deuteronomy 4:4, 40) to emphasize Israel’s new beginning and the urgency of his message to their lives at that moment.
Deuteronomy begins with Moses’ discourse on the plains of Moab in the 11th month of the 40th year after the Exodus, and it ends with the death of Moses and mourning for him that same year. The book covers the final two months of the wanderings of Israel.
How many chapters are in the book of Deuteronomy?
The book of Deuteronomy contains 34 chapters. Though the ancient scribes long divided the text into sections, the current chapter divisions of the Bible are less than a thousand years old.
“The division into chapters was employed first in the Vulgate, perhaps by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1228). It was adopted by Jewish scholars for purposes of reference” (Jewish Encyclopedia).
What is the theme of the book of Deuteronomy?
The theme of the book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ admonition to the Israelites to stay faithful to the covenant they made with God on Mount Sinai. Moses encouraged them to faithfully obey God’s laws and not fall into the sin and idolatry of the peoples who would surround them in the new land they would be inhabiting.
The audience Moses addressed had grown to adulthood in the wilderness. Many had known God and His laws from birth, childhood and through their teenage years. They were accustomed to witnessing miracles such as manna and clothes that did not wear out.
Since they were already well-acquainted with God’s laws, the major emphasis throughout the book is to remember and to obey. The people of Israel was told to remember their history, as it is important for all nations to learn the lessons from their past. They were instructed to remember God’s personal intervention in leading them out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, the miracles in the wilderness, and the lessons of their fathers who died there.
Frequently they were told to “diligently hearken” to God’s commandments and “to do” them. “Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (4:6).
And in Deuteronomy 10:12 we read this important instruction: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
In Deuteronomy the law was seen as a blessing and a gift from God. Notice especially chapter 4:6-9.
Deuteronomy emphasizes the heart and feeling of the law—to love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself.Deuteronomy emphasizes the heart and feeling of the law—to love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself. Even though that generation knew the letter of the law, God instructed them to circumcise their hearts and write His laws there (10:16). God is vitally concerned for Israel and for all peoples and their well-being. He wants them to obey Him from the heart so that He can pour out His abundant blessings upon them.
If the people respond with faithfulness, His loyalty is steadfast and sure: “Then it shall come to pass, because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers” (7:12, emphasis added throughout).
Deuteronomy and the New Testament
There are numerous quotes from this book in the New Testament. There are approximately 35 quotations that show the honor in which this book was held by Christ and the various authors of the New Testament.
Christ quoted Deuteronomy three times as His scriptural authority to refute Satan (Matthew 4:1-11; Deuteronomy 6:13, 16; 8:3). When a Pharisee asked Christ what the great commandment in the law was, He quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
That’s good advice for us today as well!
To learn more about the great commandment, read “The Great Commandment.”
Overview and outline of the book of Deuteronomy
The book begins with a history of the Israelites’ journeys and their preparation to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. The defeat of the kings east of Jordan is a sign of what God would do for Israel in Canaan. Admonition is given to Joshua to have faith in God and not to fear the enemies (3:21-22).
The new generation is commanded to keep God’s laws and statutes so that they could live a full, abundant life.
God renews His covenant with the new generation (5:3), and the 10 Commandments are restated (5:6-21). Obedience is closely linked with man’s heart (5:29). Prosperity tends to create distance between God and man. People tend to forget God when all goes well (6:10-15). Children are also to be taught God’s laws (6:7).
To learn more about the 10 Commandments, read our articles in the section “The 10 Commandments and God’s Way of Life.”
God shows His loyalty to His chosen people (7:6-26), but they are not special due to their own strength or goodness (see also the same principle in 1 Corinthians 1:26 in reference to the Church of God at Corinth). Diseases are withheld (7:15), and God removes their fear of the enemy (verse 18).
An admonition not to forget God’s mercy and blessings is given. Forgetfulness and ingratitude are among man’s greatest sins. Showing gratitude to God should be part of our daily walk with Him.
Moses reviews the stubbornness of Israel. Unless Moses had acted as an intercessor, the people would have been destroyed. We are admonished in James 1:21 that we are to receive the Word of God “with meekness” and in humility.
Verses 26-28: Humans have free moral agency, whether they decide to choose the way of obedience that leads to blessings or the way of disobedience that leads to curses.
Because God regards them as “a holy people to the LORD,” He lists which foods are clean (suitable to eat) and which are unclean (14:2-21). Tithing principles are outlined so that “you may learn to fear the LORD your God always” (14:22-29). Tithing is one way that we honor God and express our gratitude and thankfulness for His blessings.
To learn more about God’s food laws, read about “Clean and Unclean Animals.”
Certain of God’s festivals and holy days are enumerated. More details of the “feasts of the LORD” are given in Leviticus 23. Christ and His disciples also observed these holy days in the New Testament.
Moses gives a prophecy of Christ (18:15), which Peter quotes in Acts 3:20-22.
Moses commands the leaders of Israel to write out the words of the law and engrave them on whole stones upon entering the land of Canaan. It was to be a reminder to Israel of who led them into the Promised Land. “Therefore you shall obey the voice of the LORD your God, and observe His commandments and His statutes which I command you today” (27:10).
Sadly, after the death of Joshua, the people soon departed from their God and chose rather to follow the gods of the nations around them. God demands absolute obedience to Him and Him only, and He will not tolerate unfaithfulness, especially from those who claim to be His followers.
God shows Moses the land of Canaan (32:48-52), but because he did not hallow God in the sight of the people at Kadesh (Numbers 20:11-13), he was not allowed to enter the land. There is no indication that Moses became upset with God over this decision. The death of Moses is recorded in chapter 34. This section was most likely added later, perhaps by Joshua or by Ezra prior to the Old Testament canonization.
Lessons from the book of Deuteronomy
The book of Deuteronomy contains many lessons for Christians today.
It is unfortunate that many believe that the Old Testament has no relevance for Christians today. Jesus and the apostles included Old Testament passages in their writings and instructions.
Here are five spiritual lessons that New Testament Christians can learn and apply from the book of Deuteronomy.
- Just as Moses encouraged the Israelites to be courageous and “go up and possess” the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 1:21), Christians must courageously seek the true promised land of the Kingdom of God. Jesus commanded us to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).
- Just as Moses encouraged the Israelites to “not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2), Christians should be diligent to obey God’s laws according to His intent and not add man-made ideas or remove God-ordained laws (Matthew 5:18; Mark 7:7).
- Just as Moses encouraged the Israelites to set a shining example so other nations would look at them and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6), Christians must also model righteousness and “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).
- Just as Moses warned the Israelites that disobedience would cause them to lose their land and nationhood (Deuteronomy 4:27), Christians should be aware of losing their identity if they “neglect so great a salvation” (Hebrews 2:3).
- Just as Moses exhorted the Israelites to put God first and love Him with all their strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), Christians should also follow what Jesus called the “great commandment” and “love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
These are just a few of the many lessons that can be learned from this amazing book. We hope you will study it and draw out even more lessons that you can apply to your life!
For further study, read the articles in the section: “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.