Interpreting Deuteronomy


I need some tips on interpreting Deuteronomy. Could you please pass along what the book is basically saying, and what its influence in today's world is?


Deuteronomy is the history of Moses' last words to the nation of Israel, and of his transfer of leadership to Joshua. The book is literarily structured as an ancient Near-Eastern treaty, and is intended as a guide for Israel to follow under Joshua so that they can renew and keep their covenant with God. It's basic outline roughly follows the outline of other ancient Near-Eastern covenants as follows:

  1. Preamble (1:1-4) - describing the God who established the covenant;
  2. Historical Prologue (1:5-4:43) - describing God's past actions on behalf of the covenant people;
  3. Stipulations (4:44-26:19) - describing what God required of his covenant people;
  4. Blessings, Curses, Ratification (27:1-30:20) - describing how the covenant people's actions would affect the way God treated the covenant people, and confirming that the covenant was in force;
  5. Succession (31:1-34:12) - describing the fact that Joshua would take over leadership of the covenant community when Moses died.

In interpreting Deuteronomy, it helps to understand this outline and its covenant orientation, as well as the book's purpose -- knowing why someone wrote something is a great help to interpreting what he or she wrote.

It also helps to remember the historical circumstance of the original audience. While we say that the book is of essential Mosaic authorship (meaning that Moses wrote or approved what is in it), it is also important to note that some portions were not written before Moses' death (such as the description of his death). It is not improper, however, to suggest that Moses approved the final authors. Since the final form of the book places its date after Moses' death, the original audience would seem to be the first generation of Israelites who returned to the Promised Land under Joshua.

The parents of the original audience had all died in the wilderness (except for Joshua and Caleb [Num. 26:64-65; 32:11-12]) because they had broken God's covenant. Even Moses had not been allowed to enter the land (Deut. 3:23-28). Joshua, however, had not broken covenant (Num. 32:11-12). The original audience was encouraged to follow Joshua because he knew how to keep covenant, because he had kept covenant, and because God had authorized his succession. They were to learn from their parents' negative example, and were to obey God wholeheartedly. If the nation followed Joshua, they would not violate the stipulations of the covenant, and would receive the covenant blessings and avoid the covenant curses.

Since Deuteronomy is primarily historical narrative, it also helps to have a good grasp of the way narrative works. It is important to recognize different aspects of characterization, conflict, setting, and other issues commonly involved in storytelling. It does not just relate factual information. The stories evoke emotions and attitudes, and Moses intended those emotions and attitudes to convey something to his readers -- take note of them. Sometimes the audience is supposed to emulate those emotions and attitudes, and other times they are not to do so. The best way to tell whether what someone does, thinks or feels is appropriate is to note: 1) who does it (a "good" character, or a "bad" character; good characters usually do good things, and bad characters almost always do bad things); and 2) what happens to that person, especially as a result of what they have done (if God blesses them, then they have done well; if God curses them, then they have sinned). Also, Deuteronomy is quite selective -- notice that only some of Israel's are recorded here, not all of them. It is important to figure out why each piece is there, and what function it serves.

It's influence in today's world is difficult to summarize. I think it is safe to say that the western secular world has been influenced significantly by Deuteronomy in the area of law. The Judeo-Christian concept of the law has been fundamental to the legal codes of western civilization. More recently, however, its influence has been waning as people have been abandoning traditional religious perspectives. Deuteronomy is also influential in today's Christian world: the applicability of the law is still hotly debated; and in many circles the law is still very important in helping determine proper Christian behavior and worship. In churches which adhere to covenant theology (Reformed especially), the covenant described in Deuteronomy is fulfilled in Christ, and the blessings offered are realized and furthered in Christ. These of course are only a few examples of the ways in which Deuteronomy continues to influence the world.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.