15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Deuteronomy, the Book of

Additional Links
English name of fifth book of Old Testament taken from Greek translation meaning, “second law.” Deuteronomy is the last of five books of Law and should not be read in isolation from the other four books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers). Pentateuch (five books) is the familiar title associated with these five books of Law, the first and most important division of the Hebrew Bible. By longstanding tradition these books have been associated with Moses, the human instrument of God's deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt and the negotiator of the covenant between God and Israel.

Title The probable origin of the title “Deuteronomy” is the translation in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) of Deuteronomy 17:18-19 . These two verses contain instructions to the king about making “a copy of this law” to be read regularly and obeyed faithfully. The Septuagint translators rendered the above phrase “this second law” instead of “a copy of this law.” The Septuagint translation implies a body of legislation different from that contained in the previous books of Law. That does not seem to be the point of the instruction in Deuteronomy 17:18-19 . This apparent Greek mistranslation is the likely source of the title “Deuteronomy.”

The title used in the Hebrew Bible, “these (are) the words” (two words in Hebrew), follows an ancient custom of using words from the first line of the text to designate a book. Sometimes the title in the Hebrew Bible was shortened to “words.” This title more accurately defines the contents of the book than our familiar English title, Deuteronomy. In the main the book consists of the words by which Moses addressed Israel prior to their entry into the Promised Land. The style is sermonic, that of a preacher addressing his congregation with words designed to move them to obedience and commitment. “Words” is an informative title, affording a window into the nature of the book.

Background Deuteronomy is not primarily a law book or a book of history. It claims to be the words of Moses addressed to Israel on the eve of their entry into Canaan. Their wanderings in the wilderness were at an end. Their early efforts at conquest of the Promised Land east of the Jordan had met with success. The events recorded in Deuteronomy took place east of the Jordan before the beginning of the conquest west of the Jordan.

The historical background to the Book of Deuteronomy is found in Moses' opening address (Deuteronomy 1-4 ). Moses recounted the events of Israel's history from the time of their departure from Sinai to the time of their arrival in the land east of the Jordan. Behind that recitation lay the covenant-making procedures at Sinai, covered by Moses in Deuteronomy 5-11 . Before that was the Exodus from Egypt, God's mighty delivering act for His people Israel. Moses used the events of the past to press home to Israel the importance of the present moment.

Israel's Exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Sinai were the stages of Israel's birth as a nation. As yet they were a nation without a homeland. God's covenant with Israel at Sinai was in part a renewal of earlier covenants made with the patriarchs. Included in those covenants were the following promises: (1) that Israel would be God's special nation, (2) that Yahweh God would be their God, (3) that they would be obedient to God, and (4) that God would give them a homeland and innumerable descendants.

Now Israel was poised on the borders of Canaan ready to enter and to possess the Land of Promise. Moses, knowing that Israel's future hung on their obedience and commitment to God, led the people in a covenant renewal ceremony. Moses' approaching death and resulting transfer of human leadership to Joshua, plus Israel's approaching battles in conquest of the land, formed the basis for renewal of the covenant.

Contents Deuteronomy contains not one, but three (or more) addresses from Moses to Israel. Most interpreters agree that the structure of the book is patterned after Near Eastern vassal treaties. More will be said about this subject in the “Date and Authorship” section of this article. The present form of Deuteronomy emphasizes the words of Moses, not the details of the covenant renewal ceremony.

Deuteronomy 1:1-5 is an introduction, giving the time and place of the addresses. The time is “the fortieth year” ( Deuteronomy 1:3 ) of wilderness wandering, “in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month.” The place is “on this side Jordan in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:1 ) and, more particularly, “in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 1:5 ).

Deuteronomy 1:6-4:40 is Moses' first address in which he recounted Israel's journey from Horeb to Moab and urged Israel to be faithful to Yahweh. Moses used Israel's immediate past history to teach the present generation of Israelites the importance of trusting God. Israel's obedience was imperative if they were to expect to possess the land of Canaan. Moses set up cities of refuge on the east bank of the Jordan ( Deuteronomy 4:41-43 ).

Deuteronomy 4:44-28:68 contains Moses' second address to Israel. The address is introduced in Deuteronomy 4:44-49 . Then Moses proceeded to teach Israel lessons from the law. These are not laws to be used in the courts to decide legal cases, but instructions for life in the land of Canaan.

Moses' third address is found in Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20 . The focus is upon covenant renewal. Repentance and commitment would assure life and the blessings of God. Rebellion would result in their death as a nation. The choice was theirs.

Deuteronomy 31:1-29 is Moses' farewell address. The song of Moses is given in Deuteronomy 31:30-32:52 . Moses' blessing is reported in Deuteronomy 33:1 , and his death is recounted in Deuteronomy 34:1 .

Date and Authorship The date when Deuteronomy was put in its final form was relatively late. Internal evidence seems to favor a time after the Mosaic era. The author makes third person references to Moses instead of first person statements about himself as one would expect Moses to do. “Beyond the Jordan,” a common phrase used for the territory east of that river, gives the perspective of a writer within the land of Canaan.

The Near Eastern vassal treaty form of Deuteronomy has been used by scholars to argue for a date for the book in the Mosaic period or shortly thereafter. Other scholars use the same information to argue for a date closer to 600 B.C. Differences in form between early Hittite treaties and later Assyrian treaties when compared to Deuteronomy are the bases for deciding in favor of an early or a later date for Deuteronomy. Such comparisons of the structure of Deuteronomy with the structure of Near Eastern vassal treaties do not provide firm evidence for dating Deuteronomy either early or late.

The “book of the law” found during the repair of the Temple in the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign (621 B.C.) has been identified as Deuteronomy since the early church fathers shortly after 300 A.D. That identity cannot be proved, but the nature of the reforms of Josiah and the contents of Deuteronomy show an interesting similarity. For example, the call for centralization of worship (Deuteronomy 12:1 ) is matched by Josiah's destruction of all altars except the one in the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:4-20 ).

All the basic material in Deuteronomy seems to be quite ancient, but the book seems to have been edited after the death of Moses. No doubt Moses gave such addresses to Israel as the book reflects when it became known to him that God would not permit him to lead Israel into the Promised Land.

The scribe who recorded the final form of Deuteronomy is not known. Longstanding tradition among Christians and Jews favors Moses as the author, but third person references to Moses, the location of the writer in Palestine (Deuteronomy 1:1 ), and comparison of the laws in Deuteronomy with the laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:23-23:19 ) all indicate that the book was produced later than the Mosaic period.

Gerhard von Rad has argued convincingly for the origin of Deuteronomy among the Levitical priests (Deuteronomy 10:8-9; Deuteronomy 17:9 ,Deuteronomy 17:9,17:18; Deuteronomy 18:1-8; Deuteronomy 21:5 ). His investigation shows that the materials in the book have a long history preceding that writing. The book apparently preserves genuine Mosaic covenant-faith. Whoever put it in its final form was inspired just as Moses was when he addressed the Israelites on the plains of Moab.

Purpose The sermonic style of Deuteronomy suits it well to serve just as most interpreters agree that it served originally. Deuteronomy is a call to repentance, a plea for God's disobedient people to mend their ways and renew the covenant God made with them at Sinai. Moses had led Israel to the borders of Canaan nearly forty years before, but in rebellion and unbelief the people turned back into the wilderness. Now the new generation of Israelites stood on the borders of the Promised Land. Would they turn back in rebellion and unbelief?

The approaching death of Moses put urgency into his appeal for covenant renewal. He called for obedience through love to Yahweh, the loving God, who had established the covenant with Israel. Moses was convinced that only through a renewed relationship with God could the new generation of Israelites hope to succeed under Joshua's leadership in possessing the land. No doubt Joshua used the materials of Deuteronomy when he led Israel in a covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem (Joshua 8:30-35 ). Later, covenant renewal became a regular feature of Israel's cult. Deuteronomy must have been used in these ceremonies.

Teaching Deuteronomy continues to exercise strong influence on God's people. In many ways it remains a guide to life under God. It reminds of the great things God has done and wants to do for His people. It calls to faith and action in response to God's acts. It holds high the belief in the uniqueness of God as the only God without rivals. Thus it points to worship of any other god as vain, without meaning or hope. It shows the Ten Commandments as the center of the covenant relationship for believers. It holds up love of God as the basic relationship God wants with His people. It calls for total separation from pagan practices and godless life-styles. It seeks to establish a community at rest, free from internal strife and external war. It focuses on the needs of the least privileged members of society, calling on God's people to meet their needs. It teaches that the commitment of people finds reflection in action. It pronounces curses on evildoers who forsake God's covenant and blessings on those faithful to the covenant. From first to last, it calls for repentance and renewal of faith.


I. Introduction: Historical Setting (Deuteronomy 1:1-5 )

II. Moses' First Sermon: Learn from God's Saving Acts (Deuteronomy 1:6-4:43 )

A. Historical memories call for present faith action (Deuteronomy 1:6-3:29 )

B. God's Word is the foundation for His people's life (Deuteronomy 4:1-43 )

III. Second Sermon: God's Law Guides and Gives Unique Identity to God's People (Deuteronomy 4:44-28:68 )

A. Covenant faith demands total allegiance and unchanging love for God (Deuteronomy 4:44 —-Deuteronomy 4:44—-11:32 )

B. God expresses His demands in worship, leadership, daily life, business life, legal practices, family life, and care for others (Deuteronomy 12:1-28:68 ).

IV. Third Sermon: God Seeks to Renew Covenant Relationships (Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20 ).

V. Conclusion: God Seeks Continuity in Leadership for His People (Deuteronomy 31:1-34:12 ).

Billy K. Smith

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Deuteronomy, the Book of'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry