My Understanding of Deuteronomy

The Book of Deuteronomy purports to be the last words of Moses as it reports his death and burial near Mount Nebo. At the same time it talks about a book that Moses is writing. This is the origin of the idea that Moses wrote the whole Torah or at least this Book of Deuteronomy. Most contemporary biblical scholars, however, date this book between 700 and 400 BCE, which would mean that it was written about 800 to 1,000 years after the death of Moses.

Deuteronomy presents Moses apparently giving three long sermons before his death. Parts of this work have Moses speaking in the first person singular, ‘I,’ which has beautiful moving descriptions of how Moses felt as he led the Israelites from Egypt up to eastern banks of the Jordan River. This personal touch is lost in the later parts of this book where there is a switch to the third person singular, describing Moses and his actions with a return to the more prosaic ‘Moses says.’

Deuteronomy is somewhat of a duplication of the stories in the other books of the Torah. Moses is there on the plains of Moab, on the east side of the Jordan River, as they plan to take the land on the west side, Canaan, the Promise Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. Moses is telling his people what has happened to them, the Israelites, since they left Egypt. He continually reminds them about their unbelief, especially at Kadesh and at Peor. He also related the conquests on the east side of the Jordan, against King Sihon and Og.

The Ten Commandments are also part of the larger Deuteronomic Code, but they are not from Mount Sinai as in Exodus, but from Mount Horeb. Throughout this work, Mount Sinai is usually referred to as Mount Horeb. The Ten Commandment stone tablets were placed within the Ark of the Covenant. The Israelites wanted Moses to be their intercessor with Yahweh since they were afraid that they would die if they had to speak with Yahweh face to face. Moses then became their intercessor and interpreter with Yahweh.

There was an emphasis on the greatness of Yahweh and his divine choice of Israel. Yahweh is all powerful. Love of Yahweh is the essence of the law. Following the commandments of Yahweh is an act of love, not a legalistic action. Thus the Israelites had to remain faithful to Yahweh which made them a separate people, chosen by Yahweh with a divine favor.

There were trials in the desert. However, there would be more temptations to come in the Promise Land. Victory belonged to Yahweh, not to the Israelites. The Israelites had to circumcise their hearts. There were both promises and warnings as they prepared to enter the new land. Aaron died at Mount Hor while Eleazar, his son, took over as the new high priest.

The Deuteronomic code determines that there will be one place to worship without mentioning Jerusalem. This new place of worship will be ‘the place where Yahweh chooses.’ This work talks continuously about this ‘place where Yahweh will choose to glorify his name.’ Since all this takes place before the Israelites came into Canaan, they could not say Jerusalem. However, the hints are very clear.

All the sacrifices had to be very precise. Nevertheless, they had to fight against the seduction of the Canaanite cult and idolatry in general. They are reminded about the clean and unclean animals. There is a difference between the annual tithing and the third year tithing, which is local. There are the details about the Sabbatical year. They were told how you to deal with their fellow Hebrew slaves. They had to dedicate the first-born of their animals and the first fruits of their crops to Yahweh.

The feast days were to be all celebrated in the place that Yahweh will choose. The great feast days were Passover, the Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Booths. The judges were to act with justice and not accept bribes. There should be no deviations in how worship is conducted. The decisions of the Levite judges were to be followed under pain of death. A king in the new land would be okay. The Levite priests could go the place to be named later. You had to learn the difference between true and false prophets.

The laws of retaliation were clear, an eye for an eye, no more and no less. Murderers could go the refuge towns as long as they were not premeditated killers. Otherwise the avenger of blood, the next of kin of the killed one, could step in and kill the murderer.

You had to accept your neighbor’s boundaries. No one could be convicted with one witness alone since it had to be two or three. When you conquered a town, you killed all the males but took the women, children, and all their possessions as yours. If a town found a corpse, and they did not know who murdered the person, they had to have an absolution rite to cleanse that town.

There was a lot about the family and marriage. You could marry a captured woman after a month of mourning for her family. Even if you had two wives, the oldest son got the double birth right. Disobedient sons were to be put to death by stoning. You had to be careful about a young girl’s reputation as a virgin. Adultery and rape were punishable by death. Unmarried women who have sex with a man, had to marry the man they had sex with. Nocturnal emissions made you unclean for a day. One divorce seemed to be okay. The laws of the levirate marriage say that if your brother died without children, you had to marry your brother’s widow. Certain people were excluded from the community for a few generations even if they marry into it.

You had to help your neighbor with his animals. You could not charge interest to fellow Israelites, but interest to strangers was fine. You could eat your neighbor’s crop if you just took a handful. You had to make sure your roof was safe. There should be no cross-dressing. You could not take a mother bird from her nest. If someone was hanged, they had to be buried the same day. You had to keep your seeds, animals, and clothing separate. You had to keep accurate weights and measures and not cheat people.

You had to give the first fruits of your field, vine, and herd to Yahweh. On the third year of tithing the tithe stayed in town for the Levites, the poor, the widows, and the orphans. You had to write the laws in plaster. Moses gave a series of curses and blessings as he reminded them of the struggles to come, which might be a hint at the later exiles and the need for conversion. As Moses finally finished his sermons, he once again reminded them of the Exodus and the covenant for future generations.

Moses handed things over to Joshua. He wanted them to have a ritual reading of the law. Then the law was placed before the Ark of the Covenant. The law is the source of life. Moses then recited his famous Canticle. He then blessed the individual tribes. He died and was buried at Mount Nebo on the east bank of the Jordan River. Now it is on to Joshua and his exploits as they try to cross the Jordan River and enter the new land.

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