Reading through the Book of Deuteronomy

The Greek term deutero-nomos is literally ‘the second law.’ We may be aware that God gave the prophet Moses a law on Mount Horeb/Sinai after the dramatic escape from Egypt; this is outlined at the end of the book of Exodus, and throughout the book of Numbers, and is a first Law for the observance of the people, to train them in the mind of God as they passed through the wilderness of Sinai and wandered for forty years through the wilderness of Seir. But, at the end of the book of Numbers, the people had arrived in the plains of Moab, which were directly opposite the Holy Land, across the Jordan on the East. They had already taken much of Moab by storm and the land there had been partitioned among three of the tribes of the people: Ruben, Gad and part of Manasses. Now they have prepared an invasion force, which Moses will not lead, since he is to be punished for his bad faith (in the desert of Seir, when the people suffered great thirst, and he joined them in complaining to God) with death in Moab, on mount Nebo. Before he left them, Moses appointed a new captain for them, his disciple Joshua/Iosue, the son of Nun. And he gave them the second law, the deutero-nomos, which would guide their lives no longer wandering in the desert, but settled in the Holy Land that they would soon conquer and distribute to the nine and a half remaining of the tribes. Thus Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, that has governed the lives of the Hebrews since then, and the lives of the Jews (and in a different way, the Christians) until now.

The book begins with Moses recapping the history of the people from the time they left mount Horeb in Sinai until their then current location on the plains of Moab. He describes their acclamation of the first Law and their consequent prosperity in numbers, their procession to Cades-Barnea and the first discouragement given by the scouts the tribes had sent into the Holy Land to take a measure of the crops, the defences of the Canaanite tribes and the chances of conquest there. This had occasioned the great revolt against Moses’ leadership that resulted in the destruction of significant portions of the tribe of Ruben, among other rebels:

“Faction raised its head in the camp against Moses, against Aaron, the Lord’s chosen priest; and now earth gaped, swallowing up Dathan, overwhelming Abiron and his conspiracy; fire broke out in their company, and the rebels perished by its flames.”

Psalm 105(106): 16-18

Another result of these factions among the people was the punishment of the forty-years wandering through the desert before they could finally make progress towards the lands of Moab (which are across the river Jordan from the Holy Land). By then, the first generation of the people had perished in the wilderness and those who had been children at the Exodus found themselves easily overcoming and exterminating powerful Syrian tribes, led by the Amorrhite kings Sehon of Hesebon and Og of Basan. This resulted in the settlement of vast Amorrhite country to the east of the Dead Sea, and the country also of Basan to the east of Sea of Kinereth (later Galilee), all rebuilt and given over to those three tribes, Ruben, Gad and Manasses. This history of Moses ends with his exhortation to the people to keep the terms of the second Law, in order to avoid losing the plot and ending in their own destruction as a people. Thus begins the law book, in chapter five of Deuteronomy, lasting until chapter twenty-five. It begins with the Ten Commandments, which are thereafter expanded in content and applied directly to diverse situations. This begins with the famous Shemaa of the Hebrew and the Jewish people, beloved of Christ and the Apostles, and still recited/sung by Jewish communities today in synagogue:

Listen then, Israel; there is no Lord but the Lord our God, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with the love of thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole strength. The commands I give thee this day must be written on thy heart, so that thou canst teach them to thy sons, and keep them in mind continually, at home and on thy travels, sleeping and waking; bound close to thy hand for a remembrancer, ever moving up and down before thy eyes; the legend thou dost inscribe on door and gate-post.”

Deuteronomy, 6: 4-9

The Jewish people still follow these rules literally, binding portions of the Law upon their foreheads, and upon their doors and gate-posts. The very soul of the Law is complete dedication and devotion to the Lord, the God of Israel, to the exclusion of every other deity that the people would find during the course of their stay in the Holy Land. Obedience of the Law was to be a sign of that devotion and their love for the God Who had claimed them as His own. The Hebrews had not earned the land in any way; it was a promise made to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Canaanites are given to have forfeited the land themselves at the command of God, because of their own idolatry and moral perversion. 

“But do not flatter thyself, when the Lord thy God destroys them thus at thy onslaught, do not flatter thyself it was for any merit of thine He gave thee possession of this land thou hast invaded, when in truth it was the wickedness of those other nations that brought them to ruin. No, if thou dost invade and conquer their lands, it is for no merit of thine, no right dispositions of thine; they are to perish at thy onslaught in punishment of their own ill-deeds, and because the Lord must needs fulfil the promise which He made on oath to thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Be well assured thou hadst no claim to the possession of this fair land the Lord thy God is bestowing on thee, a stiff-necked nation as thou art.”

Deuteronomy 9, 4-6

Avoidance of idolatry (and of the related superstitious practices of soothsaying and divination, in chapter eighteen) was to be the condition of their continued possession of this gift of land, and idolatry was to be utterly condemned and exterminated from their society, to the extent that any idolater would be put to death by an act of the whole people: 

“Somewhere, unworthy sons of Israel are seducing their fellow-citizens, bidding them follow the worship of alien gods untried. Careful and anxious be thy search, to find out the truth of the matter; and if it proves that the report was true, and the foul deed has been done, then, without delay, put all the inhabitants of that city to the sword, and destroy it, with all that is in it, even the cattle in its byres. Make a pile in the streets of all its household store, and burn that with the city itself, as forfeit to the Lord thy God. Let it be a ruin for all time, never to be rebuilt.”

Deuteronomy, 13: 13-16

The law book begins with a command to the people as a whole to support the tribe of the Levites (such as through the tithing system in chapter fourteen), which was to receive no inheritance of property, since God Himself was to be their inheritance – they had been appointed for sacred duty, and as a symbol of holiness among the people. Holiness of the people as a whole was to be another result of the second Law, which reiterated the purity conditions of the first Law, which included the dietary regulations. The jubilee year regulations and the great calendar festivals are reproduced in chapters fifteen and sixteen, and a government of judges and magistrates was required to settle disputes; this local government system in the various regions would still be subordinate to a higher court of the priests and Levites at the religious centre of the people (eventually Jerusalem) – a hierarchical system that was erected by Christ in the Christian Church as well. Severe rules are presented against homicide in chapter nineteen and various other offences in chapters twenty-one through twenty-five, including the stoning of unruly children!

“Is there a son so rebellious and unmanageable that he defies his parents’ bidding, and will not brook restraint? Such a son they must bring by force to the city gate, where the elders are assembled, and make complaint to them, ‘This son of ours is rebellious and unmanageable; he pays no heed to our remonstrances, but must ever be carousing, ever at his wantonness and his cups.’ Thereupon the citizens shall stone him to death, so that you may be rid of this plague, and every Israelite that hears of it may be afraid to do the like.

Deuteronomy, 21: 18-21

Now that is an extreme result of the fourth commandment: Honour thy father and thy mother, etc. This is quickly followed by the curse which Christ accepted upon Himself on our behalf:

“When a man is guilty of a capital crime, and his sentence is to hang on a gallows, his body must not be left to hang there on the gibbet, it must be buried the same day. God’s curse lies on the man who hangs on a gibbet, and the land which the Lord thy God gives thee for thy own must not suffer pollution.”

Deuteronomy, 21: 22-23

There follows, in conclusion to the book of the Law, the command that the people are to surrender the first-fruits of their labour to God, in addition to the tithing system outlined earlier, for the support of the Levites and of foreigners, orphans and widows, with the following prayer:

I have stripped my house, thou wilt tell Him, of all that I had vowed away, given it to Levite or to wanderer, to orphan or to widow, as Thou badest me; I have not neglected Thy will, or forgotten Thy commands. None of it has been eaten when I was in mourning, or set apart when I was defiled, or devoted to the dead; no, I have obeyed the Lord my God, and done all Thy bidding. Look down, then, from that sanctuary of Thine, that dwelling-place high in heaven, and bless Thy people Israel; bless the land Thou hast given us, that land, all milk and honey, which Thou didst promise to our fathers before us.”

Deuteronomy, 26: 13-15

Once the Holy Land had been settled, a rite of blessing and cursing was to take place in the ancient sanctuary of Shechem, north of Jerusalem. This is described in detail in chapter twenty-seven and is comparable to the anathemas proclaimed against grave sin by the Church. The following description of blessings associated with the fulfilment of the Law and accompanying curses in chapter twenty-eight illustrate well what Saint Paul called the burden of the Law in the letter to the Galatians and elsewhere:

“There is a passage in Scripture which, long beforehand, brings to Abraham the good news, ‘Through thee all the nations shall be blessed;’ and that passage looks forward to God’s justification of the Gentiles by faith. It is those, then, who take their stand on faith that share the blessing Abraham’s faithfulness won. Those who take their stand on observance of the Law are all under a curse; ‘Cursed be everyone (we read) who does not persist in carrying out all that this book of the law prescribes.’

Galatians, 3: 8-10

That last is Saint Paul actually quoting this part of Deuteronomy. Chapter twenty-eight actually describes in detail the almost total destruction of the people that would follow a general apostasy from God among them. The remainder of the book deals with the solemn appointment of Joshua/Iosue as captain of the people in the Conquest, the great song of Moses predicting the destruction of the people and their later restoration, and then a final blessing on the tribes by Moses and his death on mount Nebo. The scene is now set for the crossing of the Jordan and the conquest of the Holy Land.

Moses on the Mountain