Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, Elliott Johnson, believes that accurate study of Bible verses and passages can only be done after the overall message of a biblical book has been determined. In an effort help people better understand the meaning of the book of Deuteronomy, I am presenting a “synoptic study” of the book of Deuteronomy.
This is my study of the overall message and meaning of the book of Deuteronomy.
I. Chart of the Content and Structure of the Book of Deuteronomy
II. Summary Statement of the Meaning of Deuteronomy as a Whole
A. Theological Themes
1. What does the book say about God?
The book of Deuteronomy says that God cares for His people. It says that He desires them to be close to Him and in fellowship with Him unhindered by sin. Throughout the first four books of the Torah the people had failed to live obediently to God. Through the fall, death of Abel, Tower of Babel, flood, and failing to take the Promised Land, God’s people had proven they were not obedient and faithful to Him.
As a result, they were not in close fellowship with Him. Over and over again the people failed to live in fellowship with God even though He often provided crystal clear instructions about how the people were supposed to live in fellowship with Him.
2. What does the book say about God’s purpose for acting and speaking in history?
The book of Deuteronomy says that God wants to make His will as clear as possible and that He wants that will to be obeyed by His people, Israel. This is shown in the fact that many of the teachings and narrative Moses writes in Deuteronomy had already been shared in one of the four previous books of the Torah.
These items are being re-taught or re-communicated to the people of Israel. Here are a few examples:
- The Ten Commandments in Deut. 5 had already been shared in Exod. 20:2-17.
- The teaching about the proper cutting of hair in Deut. 14:1 was taught in Lev. 19:27.
- The teaching about clean and unclean animals in Deut. 14:3-21 was also taught in Lev. 11:1-45. 1
3. What does it say about God’s administration of His purpose?
It says that if God is going to have an expectation of His people, He is going to be very clear about what that expectation is.
In fact, God not only is clear about what His expectation is of His people, but He also is very gracious to allow His people to get it right, even if they fail many times. Furthermore, God is going to bless those who do get it right (that is, following His laws in obedience to Him) and curse those who do not. This is shown when God says through Moses,
If you listen to these regulations and faithfully obey them, the LORD your God will keep his covenant of unfailing love with you, as he promised with an oath to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you, and he will give you many children. He will give fertility to your land and your animals. When you arrive in the land he swore to give your ancestors, you will have large harvests of grain, new wine, and olive oil, and great hearts of cattle, sheep, and goats. You will be blessed above all the nations of the earth (Deut. 7:12-14).
God promises to protect and guard His people on earth who obey His commandments and who loyally follow Him.
B. Textual Design
1. In what terms does the author address the audience?
The author of Deuteronomy initially addresses the audience by reminding the reader that “normally it takes only eleven days to travel from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-barnea, going by way of Mount Seir. But forty years after the Israelites left Egypt, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses addressed the people of Israel, telling them everything the LORD had commanded him to say” (Deut. 1:2-3).
The reader, having just read Numbers, would know about how the Israelites had disobeyed the LORD and how they had been punished by God because of their disobedience to God. This was because Numbers 13 and 14 tells the story of how the scouts Moses appointed saw the land, became afraid, and the people failed to obey God in taking the land promised to them. With this, the author addresses his audience directly reminding them how they had spent 40 years in the desert when they would not have had to. This is how the author begins his call to the readers to obey.
2. What is the literary genre of the book of Deuteronomy as a whole?
Contrary to most of the Torah, Deuteronomy is more of an “application” type of message. The author, Moses, appears to use five literary techniques when composing this book:
- Narrative Story Telling (Deut. 1:6-3:29, 9:7-10:11, 19:1-26:15, 31:1-13, 31:30-32:44, 32:45-34:12)
- Teaching of the Law (Deut. 5:1-33, 12:1-32, 13:1-18:8, 18:15-22, 27:11-26, 29:2-29, 31:14-29)
- Promises of Blessing in Obedience to God (Deut. 7:1-26, 11:8-32, 28:1-14)
- Promises of Curses in Disobedience to God (Deut. 4:15-31, 28:15-68)
- Calls for Obedience (Deut. 4:1-14, 6:1-25, 8:1-20, 10:12-11:7, 18:9-14, 26:16-27:10, 30:1-20)
Throughout Moses’ urgent call to obedience he mixes in these five various types of literary techniques while always urging the nation of Israel to obey God and stay loyal and faithful to Him. Moses often says, “This is what has happened, this is what you should do, this is what will happen if you do do it, this is what will happen if you do not do it.” Throughout this writing he always returns to a call to obedience for the Israelites.
C. Subject and Compliment Statement
God’s desire is for Israel to obey Him despite their past and future failures of correctly obeying Him.
1. God’s desire is for Israel to obey Him (subject)
Ever since the beginning God has had a desire for His people to obey Him. From the first “law” or “command” He gave in Gen 2:16 God gave commands so that His creation could live in communion with Him. The book of Deuteronomy is yet another attempt of God to “start over” in a way similar to what He had done in Gen. 6:6-8,
So the LORD was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the LORD said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” But Noah found favor with the LORD.
This starting over in Deuteronomy was based on a new generation of Israelites who were allowed to enter into the Promised Land. As God said,
Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land I swore to give your ancestors, except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He will see this land because he has followed the LORD completely. I will give to him and his descendants some of the very land he explored during his scouting mission (Deut. 1:35, 36).
Additional commentary is provided about the older generation of Israelites not entering the Promised Land when Moses recorded God saying,
Thirty-eight years passed from the time we first left Kadesh-barnea until we finally crossed the Zered Brook! By then, all the men old enough to fight in battle had died in the wilderness, as the LORD had vowed would happen. The LORD struck them down until they had all been eliminated from the community (Deut. 2:14-15).
2. Despite their past and future failures of correctly obeying Him (compliment)
Sadly, the human race has failed to follow God correctly. This new generation of Israelites is going to fail to obey God just as their forefathers had failed to obey God in previous generations. And, this is predicted to happen again. Deut. 31:16 tells of how God shares with Moses,
After you are gone, these people will begin to worship foreign gods . . . abandon me and break my covenant that I have made with them.” God explains further, “I know the intentions of these people, even now before they have entered the land (Deut. 31:21).
Moses did his best to help the Israelites remember the wrong they had done in the past, what would happen if they disobeyed again, as well as what blessings they would receive if they did follow God. Moses’ best efforts could not overcome the sinful nature that humans possess. The book of Deuteronomy affirms the human nature displayed through past generations since the fall in Gen. 3.
D. 7 Themes Chosen and Traced in Their Development in the book of Deuteronomy
- Obedience: Over and over again the theme of obedience is discussed by Moses. For example, Moses shares history in Deut. 1-3, then urges the Israelites to obey in Deut. 4. After that he shares the story of the Ten Commandments, then urges Israel to obey. Moses teaches about worship practices in the Promised Land in Deut. 12, teaches about eating practices in Deut. 14, and then urges them to obey. This theme is repeated throughout the book of Deut.
- History: Moses mixes in rich history from Israel in his address. Moses wants to remind the people that they came from a specific group of people. He does not want them to forget who they are, where they came from, or how God has been gracious to them. History is told in Deut. 1-3, 5, 9, 10, 12, 29.
- Obedience for the Future Generation of Israelites: Moses recognizes several times in Deuteronomy that this is a new generation of Israelites. He wants them to remember the Lord. For example, Caleb and Joshua are the only people from the Israelites who originally left Egypt would enter the Promised Land. This meant activities and practices needed to be created to allow people to pass along their belief in God as well as their rituals of worshipping Him. Moses’ repetition of history, teaching about laws, and urging Israel to obey perhaps stems from his desire to have this new generation follow God correctly.
- Preparing Joshua to Lead the People: The book of Deuteronomy was probably written and given to Joshua as well as having been spoken originally in front of him. Joshua was the one chosen to lead the people of Israel to conquer the land they had been promised. In Deut. 31:7 it is recorded that “Moses called for Joshua, and as all Israel watched, he said to him, ‘Be strong and courageous! For you will lead these people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors he would give them, You are the one who will divide it among them as their grants of land.” The first thing Moses did after this long address to the people of Israel was to appoint their new leader who like them, had heard everything Moses had said. This new leader’s job was to lead them in following God’s will for them.
- Moses Not Getting to Enter the Promised Land: Through the telling of history in the first part of Deuteronomy Moses makes the prediction that he will not be entering the promised land. In Deut. 1:37 Moses reminds the people that “the LORD was also angry with me because of you. He said to me, ‘Moses, not even you will enter the Promised Land!’” The end of the book of Deuteronomy returns to the theme that Moses—Israel’s most prominent prophet and leader out of Egypt—would not be entering into the Promised Land. The death of Moses is “foretold” in Deut. 32:48-52 and then his death is recorded in Deut. 34.
- Blessings Promised for Obedience to the Law: The theme of obedience is discussed nine times in Deuteronomy and six of those times a promise of blessing is included when the Israelites act obediently. Those who are obedient are promised by God, in Deut. 28:2-6: “You will experience all these blessings if you obey the LORD your God: Your towns and your fields will be blessed. Your children and your crops will be blessed. The offspring of your herds and flocks will be blessed. Your fruit baskets and breadboards will be blessed. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you will be blessed.”
- Curses Promised for a Lack of Obedience to the Law: The theme of curses being promised due to lack of obedience to the law is not as prevalent as the blessings promised for obedience, but they are featured in Deut. 4, 8, 28, 38, 31.
Question: What are the meanings and messages you see in the book of Deuteronomy?
- Although more specific references are not listed, the concept of commands taught in the previous four books of the Torah being re-communicated in Deuteronomy could be exemplified in the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, Festival of Harvests, Festival of Shelters, provision for the priests and Levites, and harvest offerings and tithes. These are all items written by Moses in Deuteronomy which also were previously shared in the four earlier books of the Torah. ↩