Deuteronomy 1-3

Good morning! Today we begin Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Torah which are centrally important to Jews, and so also to Jesus and his peers. This book’s English name means something like “the second law-giving” captures the way the heart of Deuteronomy (chs. 12-26 especially) is a longer version of the core legal covenant between God and the Hebrews described in Exodus 20-23. Though most of Deuteronomy takes the form of addresses by Moses to the Hebrew people on the cusp of entering Canaan, biblical historians have identified this as most likely the book discovered by the reforming King Josiah in 622 BCE (Before the Common Era). Its expansion of the legal code so closely tracks the actions of King Josiah that it was presumably the blueprint for his reforms. Further, Deuteronomy has been informed by the insights of later biblical prophets like Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, because their themes are present in the ways that earlier Exodus covenant is here expanded. In Deuteronomy we will read far less of priestly regulations, and far more of the moral and ethical underpinnings for righteous Hebrew life.

“Moses’s” opening address begins in Deuteronomy 1-3, retracing some of the events we’ve read about previously in Exodus and Numbers. This writer likes to use “Horeb” as another name for Sinai, the holy mountain of God’s appearing—the first of many naming alternatives. The retelling of certain events emphasizes Moses’ righteous and wise leadership, in some tension with earlier narratives. For instance, the selection of judges described in chapter 1 doesn’t mention father-in-law Jethro’s advice but presents this as Moses’ initiative. Moses uses a direct address to “you” throughout, which makes these chapters personal and pointed (setting aside the understanding elsewhere in the Torah that those who saw/did these things have passed away by the time of Moses’ last days). They also carry a heavy critique of the people’s unfaithfulness, characterizing them as rebellious children who forget the ways God has carried them all along the wilderness way. Moses’ own judgment from God is because “the Lord was angry on your account”, and leaves out any mention of the incident at Meribah in Numbers 20.

Chapters 2-3 continue to characterize the journey through the wilderness, mostly in keeping with Numbers but also with some key differences. Edom and Moab are supposedly avoided because of their kin connections to Esau and Lot respectively, and not because of their military dominance as is suggested in Numbers. The descriptions here contain several parenthetical notes about the names of the various current and former inhabitants, suggesting attempts to connect earlier history with those who lived in Palestine at the time of Deuteronomy’s writing (hundreds of years later). The total destruction of all human life in the territories of vanquished kings Sihon and Og is in keeping with earlier descriptions in Numbers 21. Chapter 3 finishes with a poignant description of Moses’ longing to enter Canaan, then God’s harsh rebuke, and command to look long and hard at the land he will not be allowed to enter. Happy reading!

Read Deuteronomy 1-3.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Deuteronomy 4-6. Thanks for reading!

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