Deuteronomy is the last book of the Pentateuch, and it is set in the context of the final leg of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The book itself contains very little narrative; rather, it is a farewell speech given by Moses before his death. The speech itself gives a recap of Israelite history, including the promise to the ancestors and the escape from Egypt, among other important events. Overall, much of Deuteronomy consists of further legal material. The core of these laws is found in Deuteronomy 12–26, which contain directives that parallel and modify laws found elsewhere in the Pentateuch. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, most of the book of Deuteronomy is derived from the D source, which apparently is found nowhere else in the Pentateuch. The earliest parts of the text probably date to the eighth century BCE, with revisions and additions that may have been as late as the sixth century BCE.
Genre, Style, and Contents
The genre of Deuteronomy is a farewell address given to the people shortly before Moses’s death. While this is somewhat unusual, it is not unique in the Bible; farewell addresses from Jacob, Joshua, Samuel, and David are found elsewhere. As with all speeches, Moses’s farewell address was supposed to be read aloud. Furthermore, since the book was composed as a speech that discusses the law, Deuteronomy can be characterized as a rhetorical work that was designed to persuade its audience. This rhetorical arrangement of the law is unlike earlier presentations encountered in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. In all earlier books of the Pentateuch, it is God who speaks and gives the laws to the people; however, in Deuteronomy it is Moses who is speaking, suggesting that Deuteronomy represents an early stage of the interpretation of God’s laws.
Upon close analysis, Deuteronomy is not just one speech; rather, it consists of several speeches from different periods that are linked together. Scholars have established a hypothetical reconstruction that demonstrates how Deuteronomy evolved over the span of two centuries. The oldest material dating to the eighth century BCE is the core laws from Deuteronomy 12–26. During the eighth or seventh century, these laws were then incorporated into a speech of Moses found in chapters 5–11 and 28. In the sixth century, the opening chapters were added, followed by P’s final editing of the text before the end of that century.
As was mentioned earlier, the core of Deuteronomy is the law code found in chapters 12–26. This block of text, called the Deuteronomic Code, covers a range of topics; like other law codes that we have discussed, it is not comprehensive. However, the tone of these laws is quite different from that of other law codes found elsewhere in the Bible. The Deuteronomic Laws have a more utopian feel to them and are more humanized in their approach. In Deuteronomy the proper observance of the law is a response to and an imitation of what Yahweh had done for the Israelites. Therefore, the law in Deuteronomy is often focused on the less fortunate and their well-being. The best example of this concerns the observance of the sabbath. In the P source, the day of rest commemorated God’s rest after creation. However, in Deuteronomy the attention is given to humanitarian issues, namely, that everyone needs a day of rest regardless of their status.
Although Deuteronomy mostly contains laws whose substance is found elsewhere in the Pentateuch, there are a few important innovations. Most notable among these are rules that discuss kings, prophets, and the Levites. The rules for kings essentially argue for premonarchic idealism. Kings should put limits on their possessions and should focus on their devotion to the law. The laws concerning prophets are designed to help the community distinguish between a true and a false prophet, although they do not provide clear answers to the problem. Perhaps the most interesting are the rules that apply to the Levites. Deuteronomy elevates the Levites, calling them a tribe of priests. They have special status because they were both teachers of the law and the caretakers of the ark of the covenant. However, they are also represented as a protected class that is often lumped together with other underprivileged groups such as slaves and orphans. Presumably the reason for this protected status is that the Levites may have been left unemployed after legislation closed all temples besides the one in Jerusalem, making them the responsibility of all Israelites.
The Origins of Deuteronomy
In sum, Deuteronomy argues that Israel must return to its original ideals, centered on the unified worship of Yahweh and the observance of the teachings of Moses. Scholars have argued that Deuteronomy, or the Deuteronomic school that produced it, probably originated in the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE. This conclusion is based mainly on the fact that the text focuses on places in the north and does not mention important locations in the south such as Jerusalem at all. Furthermore, Deuteronomy has close connections to the eighth-century northern prophet Hosea, whose themes and language have striking similarities to Deuteronomy.
Another connection to this northern origin is the apparent link between Deuteronomy and Assyrian rule. Deuteronomy was written at a time when Assyrian power was at its peak. As a result, it is not surprising to find Assyrian influences on the biblical text. In particular, Deuteronomy 28 has several affinities with Assyrian suzerainty treaties from the period. This apparent use of Assyrian treaty forms in Deuteronomy also could have been understood as subversive since the Deuteronomic writers were not pledging allegiance to the Assyrian kings but to God instead.
The authors of Deuteronomy were influential in Israel and left a substantial mark on its literary history. These authors founded the Deuteronomic school, an intellectual movement that was connected to both the Levites and the prophets. They are responsible for Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History as well as the editing and possible collection of materials from many of Israel’s prophets. Although this school adapted with the changing times, their overall message stayed the same: that Israel needed to remain faithful to the teachings that were given by Moses.
Implications for Our Study
Over the course of the last four books of the Pentateuch, Moses is elevated to heroic status. He is the primary figure in many of the major events in Israel’s early history, making him the foremost human authority. Since there are so many inconsistencies in these narratives and no corroborating sources that mention Moses, it is difficult to speak of him as a historical figure. However, the sheer weight of traditions centering on Moses suggests that there may have been a historical figure whose deeds were embellished greatly over time. While the overall picture of Moses is complex, his importance to Israel’s identity cannot be questioned, as he is the paradigm for excellence as a leader, lawgiver, and prophet.
Returning to the larger picture, this examination of Deuteronomy concludes our discussion of the Pentateuch. The stage is now set for the conquest of Canaan and Israel’s emergence as a nation in the Promised Land. In the biblical books that follow, we will see how the laws and experiences discussed in the Pentateuch influenced these historical narratives. In particular, we will observe how the Deuteronomic school linked the trials and tribulations of Israel to the nation’s failure to observe Moses’s teachings properly.