An Overview of the Book of Deuteronomy

James Coakley
header for An Overview of the Book of Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy is the final book of the five-book set known as the “Pentateuch” that begins the Christian Bible. Deuteronomy is a rich book, full of wisdom and crucial to understand God and His relationship with his creation. Dive into this overview and learn all about this book of the Bible.

What Does the Title of Deuteronomy Mean?

The English title for the fifth book of Moses comes from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) name Deuteronomion, meaning “second law.” The LXX derived this from the phrase “copy of this law” from Dt 17:18, erroneously understanding the book as a repetition of the book of Exodus. The Jewish title for the book is elleh haddebarim, the first Hebrew words of the book, meaning “these are the words.” This is a more accurate reflection of Deuteronomy since the bulk of it consists of the speeches Moses gave to the nation Israel just before they entered the promised land. Also, this title reflects the sermonic element of this material, rather than focusing on the legislative quality of the book.

Who Wrote the Book of Deuteronomy?

Internally the book is clearly attributed to the hand of Moses (31:9, 24), and there are several references to Moses “speaking” the content of this book (1:9; 5:1; 29:2; 31:30). No other OT book is as clearly attributed to a human author as this one, so to suggest otherwise means that the burden of proof clearly lies with those do not hold to a Mosaic authorship of the book. Some editorial additions have been inserted (e.g., 34:5-12), but the core of this book is attributed to Mosaic composition as Joshua (Jos 1:7-8), Ezra (Ezr 3:2), and Jesus Himself attest (Jn 5:45-47). For most critics of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy is the “D” portion of the JEDP documentary hypothesis identified with the “book of the law” found in the temple in 2Kg 22:8-11 and is a unified whole edited by a single writer who lived in the seventh century BC. For a critique of the documentary hypothesis see the Introduction to the book of Genesis.

When Was the Book of Deuteronomy Written?

The historical background of the book is the period of the nation Israel just before they crossed the Jordan River into the promised land (c. 1405 BC).

Covenantal in form, this book resembles the format of ancient Near Eastern treaties, specifically the suzerain-vassal treaty texts as advanced by Meredith Kline (Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963]), but the overall style and genre of Deuteronomy is hortatory and homiletical. Moses was exhorting the readers/listeners to certain behavior by using motivation clauses and directives. While the book does include some laws, it is not entirely a book of laws since it also contains narrative and poetry. In addition, while it does use treaty language, the word “covenant” (Hb. berith) is not used in the book to describe its overall nature. It is best to view the book, as Olson does (D. T. Olson, Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994], 10-12), mainly as a catechetical type book that distills the essential traditions and theology of Israel. The book includes the core of the faith-based education that was to be passed down from generation to generation. Deuteronomy is the closest that the OT comes to a systematic theology. Deuteronomy should not be viewed as a self-standing, independent book but as one part of a unified book, the Torah, which includes all five books of the Pentateuch.

What Is the Purpose of the Book of Deuteronomy?

Since it is primarily a teaching book, the purpose of Deuteronomy is to call Israel to covenant loyalty and obedience. Each subsequent generation of readers is, as it were, on the plains of Moab being reminded to love the Lord wholeheartedly and not to forget the God who graciously fulfills promises and longs for a personal relationship with His children. Israel was to prepare to claim God’s promises by being rooted in God’s Word and by abounding in love for Him and others.

What Is the Structure of the Book of Deuteronomy?

Deuteronomy has three overlapping structures:

First, it mirrors the form of ancient Near Eastern treaties, which highlights the book’s covenantal emphasis:

  • Preamble (1:1-5)
  • Historical Prologue: Covenant History (1:6–4:49)
  • Stipulations (5–26)
  • Blessings and Cursings (27–30)
  • Witnesses (30:19; 31:19; 32:1-43)

Second, Deuteronomy is also organized in a chiastic structure, which pivots on the central body of legislation in chaps. 12–26.

  • Historical Look Backward (chaps. 1–3)
    1. Exhortation to Keep the Covenant (chaps. 4–11)
      1. The Center: The Stipulations of the Covenant (chaps. 12–26)
    2. Ceremony to Memorialize the Covenant (chaps. 27–30)
  • Prophetic Look Forward (chaps. 31–34)

Third, various superscriptions are used to introduce the different portions of the book, which serves the book’s internal organization as a teaching book:

  • 1:1. “These are the words”— The Past (chaps. 1–4)
  • 4:44. “This is the law”—The Ten Commandments (chap. 5)
  • 6:1. “This is the commandment, the statues and the judgments”—Laws for the Present (chaps. 6–28)
  • 29:1. “These are the words of the covenant”— The Future Covenant Renewal (chaps. 29–32)
  • 33:1. “This is the blessing”—Blessing for the Future (chaps. 33–34)

What Are Some Themes in the Book of Deuteronomy?

The presence and influence of Deuteronomy is evident throughout the Bible. It provides orientation for what happens in the rest of the OT and even influences the NT. Seven facts may be noted in this connection.

1. Joshua and the Judges

First, Deuteronomy explains the success of Joshua and the failure of the period of the judges. To have success, Joshua was instructed (Jos 1:8) to meditate and keep “this book of the law” (i.e., Deuteronomy). Joshua faithfully executed the teaching of this book, even to the point of conducting a covenant renewal ceremony at the end of his life. He certainly impressed the Word on his children, because at the end of his life he boldly proclaimed, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Jos 24:15). Joshua was successful because he knew and lived Deuteronomy. The complete opposite happened in the period of the judges. It was a chaotic period, full of flawed leaders when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg 21:25). In that time period Israel was not doing what was right according to “the book of the law,” and so it experienced failure.

2. The Israelite Kings

Second, Deuteronomy explains the success and failure of the Israelite kings (Dt 17:14-20). Each king was to handwrite his own personal copy of the “book of the law” (a phrase which might refer only to Deuteronomy since it is the only book in the Torah to use it (29:21; 30:10; 31:26).). That way he could not feign ignorance of God’s commands. King David most likely followed this injunction (Ps 1, 19, 119), whereas his son Solomon did not (cf. Dt 17:16-17 with 1Kg 10–11). Jeroboam clearly violated the commands of Deuteronomy in 1Kg 12, and this was later true of other evil kings (1Kg 15:34; 16:26).

3. God’s Grace in the Prophets

Third, Deuteronomy explains the existence of many prophets in the eighth to sixth centuries BC. Israel’s spiritual decline caused God in His grace to send prophets, who in essence said: “Read and heed Deuteronomy.” The nation needed to hear the message that if they listened and lived by Deuteronomy God would bless them and forestall His judgment against them. If they responded correctly, they would receive the blessings of Dt 28, and if not they would reap the curses of Dt 28. In essence the prophets’ repeated message was the book of Deuteronomy. All the prophets, especially Hosea, Jeremiah, and Daniel, all beat with the same heartbeat of Deuteronomy. For readers to understand the prophets they must understand the message of Deuteronomy.

4. The Babylonian Exile

Fourth, Deuteronomy explains the reason for the Babylonian exile (Dt 28:36): “The Lord will bring you and your king, whom you set over you, to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods, [gods of] wood and stone.” In summary the exile of 586 BC happened because no one heeded Deuteronomy.

5. New Testament Context

Fifth, Deuteronomy greatly influenced the NT. Deuteronomy is one of the four books most frequently quoted in the NT (Psalms, Genesis, and Isaiah are the others). Paul’s epistles are loaded with quotations from and allusions to this book.

6. The Bible of Jesus

Sixth, Deuteronomy was an integral part of the “Bible” Jesus read and lived. Jesus astounded the teachers at the temple with His knowledge of the law at the age of 12 (Lk 2:46-47). After He was baptized, He was driven by the Spirit into the Judean wilderness to be tempted by the devil, where in Mt 4 (vv. 4, 7, 10) He quoted three times from Deuteronomy. The first Adam fell to temptation in a garden by doubting God’s Word, and the Last Adam resisted temptation in a desert by reciting what God said in Deuteronomy. This shows that Jesus is the ideal perfect King, for He “knows” Deuteronomy (cf. Dt 17:18-20).

7. The First Great Commandment

Seventh, Deuteronomy summarizes the first great commandment. When Jesus was asked “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” He replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:36-37; Dt 6:5). Deuteronomy is the first book in the OT to command believers to love God, and it mentions this repeatedly. “Love the Lord your God” (Dt 11:1; 30:16).

For Further Reading:

The Moody Bible Commentary

by Michael A. Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham

Imagine having a team of 30 Moody Bible Institute professors helping you study the Bible. Now you can with this in-depth, user-friendly,...

book cover for The Moody Bible Commentary