Overview of the Book of Deuteronomy


Overview of the Book of Deuteronomy

Author: Moses


To encourage a renewal of the covenant mediated by Moses as Israel was about to enter the Promised Land under Joshua's leadership.

Date: c. 1406 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • The Israelites on the plains of Moab were to learn the importance of loyalty to the covenant from the experiences of the previous generation.
  • The laws of Moses were designed to benefit the people of God as they moved into the promised land under Joshua's leadership.
  • Loyalty to the covenant would be rewarded with blessings, and disobedience would be punished with curses.
  • The Israelites were to renew their commitment to the covenant as they waited on the plains of Moab and after they entered the promised land.


Deuteronomy, like the rest of the Pentateuch, is substantially the work of Moses. It is apparent that some portions of the book were later additions (e.g., the account of the death of Moses in Deut. 34) and that other portions underwent later editing. Nevertheless, the book should be read as coming from the time of Moses. See "Introduction to the Pentateuch."

Time and Place of Writing:

Deuteronomy was probably largely written on the plains of Moab, c. 1406 B.C., as the Israelites prepared to enter the promised land, though it probably was not completed until the days of Joshua, when such elements as the account of Moses' death (Deut. 34) were likely added. See "Introduction to the Pentateuch."

Original Audience:

Moses wrote to the second generation of the exodus. Their faithless parents had all died in the wilderness as a punishment from God (Num. 32:10-13), but God had spared this children in order to preserve his holy people and maintain his promises to their forefathers. Since Moses would not be allowed to lead them into the promised land (Deut. 1:37-38), he restated God's Law in order to guide them in covenant renewal under Joshua. See "Introduction to the Pentateuch."

Purpose and Distinctives:

With the first generation of the exodus gone, Moses needed to exhort the new generation to avoid the sins of the previous generation and to commit to the law so that blessings would come in the future. Deuteronomy consists mainly of three great speeches and a legal compendium given by Moses at the end of his life. The book summarizes addresses he made to the nation as he called the people to renew their covenant with God not only before, but also after, entering the land. It has been noted that Deuteronomy's content resembles the main elements of ancient Near Eastern treaties. Treaties between great kings (suzerains) and their vassals typically contained a number of elements, and the book follows this well-attested pattern: (1) the preamble (Deut. 1:1-4), (2) the historical prologue (Deut. 1:5-4:43), (3) the stipulations (Deut. 4:44-26:19), (4) ratification (Deut. 27:1-30:20), and (5) leadership succession (Deut. 31:1-34:12). Some interpreters have made too much of these connections, for these sections of Deuteronomy only roughly resemble the elements of treaties. Yet because these descriptions are helpful orientations, they have been included in the outline and in the study notes for the book.

Deuteronomy is better understood as a series of addresses that have been joined together in their present form. The opening address (Deut. 1:5-4:43) recounts the experiences of Israel under Moses' leadership. Deuteronomy does not speak of how Moses confronted Pharaoh or of how the miracles of the ten plagues forced Pharaoh to let the people go, but it does allude to the exodus repeatedly (five times in the first address - Deut. 1:27, 30; 4:20, 34, 37). Moses recounted God's providential and miraculous care for the people during the journey from Egypt to Horeb. Then he detailed their defeat both spiritually and militarily at Kadesh Barnea. There are references here to events recorded in Numbers. Like the record in Numbers, practically nothing is said about events during the 40 years of wandering. The journey around Edom toward Transjordan is mentioned, and the defeat of Sihon and Og is recorded in fuller detail than in Numbers. Then the allocation of land in Transjordan for Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh is described (cf. Num. 32). The narrative ends with reference to Moses' personal plea to enter Canaan, which God disallowed (cf. Num 27:12-23). Moses concluded this address with exhortations to be loyal to the Lord.

The first part of the second address (Deut. 4:44-11:32) is composed of exhortations and begins with the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were given directly by the voice of God, but the rest of the law was mediated through Moses. Deuteronomy 6-11 set out the great issues that inform a covenant relationship with God. Chapter 6 records the famous Shema-"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Deut. 6:4) - with the exhortation to love God with all one's heart (Deut. 6:5), which is followed by an exhortation to teach, remember and obey (Deut. 6:6-25). The following chapters are sprinkled with examples of God's care and judgments since leaving Egypt-all allusions to material in Exodus and Numbers. These examples served to warn the Israelites to trust the Lord rather than themselves. These chapters then lead to a promise of success in the coming wars of Canaan.

The laws of the second part of the second address (Deut. 12:1-26:19) include regulations for worship, clean foods, slaves and debts, annual feasts, judges, cities of refuge and various matters of conduct. Most of these laws have parallels in the previous books of the Pentateuch.

The third address (Deut. 27:1-30:20) is a powerful exhortation to Israel to obey the laws of the Lord. It includes the instructions for the solemn ceremony that would be held in the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, near Shechem, after Israel had secured a foothold in Canaan. This ceremony is reminiscent of the covenant ceremony of Exodus 20:1-24:8 and was duly carried out by Joshua (Josh. 8:30-35). Some interpreters hold that this address, with its instructions about the altar and its recitation of blessings and curses, is really a conclusion to the previous one, which is viewed as being in the form of a treaty-covenant. Whatever the case, these laws and exhortations were given by Moses with tremendous emphasis on Israel's obligation before God to hear and obey the law of the Lord.

The final sections of the book are equally important and powerful (Deut. 31:1-34:2). They include the investiture of Joshua as Moses' successor; the song of Moses, which celebrates the greatness of God and his care for his covenant people (Deut. 32); Moses' blessing of the 12 tribes, which is similar to Jacob's blessing of his 12 sons (Gen. 49); and the obituary describing Moses' death (Deut. 34).

The book received its title from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), which called it Deuteronomion, "the second law." A better sense of its meaning would be "the repetition of the law."

Christ in Deuteronomy:

Moses, the founder of Israel's theocracy, mediated the Old Covenant and as such foreshadowed Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who mediated the New (re-newed) Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). The moral substance of the covenants is the same, but their forms of administration differ significantly. This substantial identity is evident in the way Paul connected his gospel message with Moses' appeal for Israel to renew the covenant (see note on Deut. 30:11-14). In Deuteronomy, grace precedes the human obligation of faith, and human obedience is the proof of genuine faith. The same is true in the teaching of the New Testament.

Even so, Deuteronomy represented a stage of God's covenant dealings that foreshadowed the greater realities of Christ's covenant (see notes on Heb. 8:6-13). The Old Covenant was effected with the blood of animals; the everlasting New Covenant with the efficacious blood of Christ (Jer. 32:40; Heb. 9:11-28). Moses called for a religion of the heart (Deut. 6:6; 30:6), but it failed through human weakness and became obsolete (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 8:13). Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit changes human hearts (see note on Deut. 10:16; cf. John 3:1-15).

Christ is also anticipated in Deuteronomy by a number of its specific concerns. He is the Passover Lamb (Deut. 16:1-17 and its notes) and the coming Prophet (see note on Deut. 18:15-22). Deuteronomy's concern with the establishment of one sanctuary (Deut. 12) anticipates the New Testament's outlook on Christ as the only One who can bring salvation. The details of the sacrificial system anticipate Jesus' sacrifice of himself. The emphasis of Deuteronomy on life in the promised land anticipates the hope of the new heavens and the new earth that Christ offers to all who believe in him. As Moses called the Israelites to fidelity so that they could enter the land to take possession of it, so also Christ calls us to fidelity to him so that we may enter the world to come and enjoy its eternal blessings.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Pentateuch


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.