Deuteronomy is more than a covenant/treatise, both in form and content. Chs. 31-34 could be termed the last will and testament of Moses. But that is not sufficient even for these chapters. They also do more than record the transfer of leadership of Israel from Moses to Joshua. They are concerned with more than Moses' death. They are chapters whose major concern is still the people of Yahweh and their destiny and the faithfulness of Yahweh to his people. In this sense Deuteronomy reminds one of part of a national epic of Yahweh's people, an epic in which Moses plays a major part as a hero but in which Yahweh himself is the supreme Defender, Teacher, and Savior of his chosen people.
The section from 31:1 through 32:47 has three major concerns. First, Moses encourages both Israel and his successor, Joshua, to be courageous and take the land that Yahweh is giving (31:3-8). Yahweh would never forsake Israel.
Second, Moses establishes “this Book of the Law” (31:26) and rehearses Israel's relationship with God (“Moses' Song,” 32:1-43) as witnesses for Yahweh against Israel whenever the people rebel in the future (32:15-18; 26-29; esp. vv. 16, 19). And Israel will rebel despite Moses' instructions to read the law (hattôrâh hazzô'ṭ, 31:9-12) during the Feast of Tabernacles every seven years, the year of release. He could have chosen no better time for the renewal of this Torah, for the year of release (15:1-11) provided for a new start toward social righteousness and holiness.
Third, this section develops the motif of Israel's future rebellion against Yahweh. Israel's true internal, spiritual condition is heartbreaking (31:27). They will forsake the Lord; he will not forsake them. Israel remains rebellious and stiff-necked.
It is through the words of “this Torah” that the prophets will remind the nation of the curse that follows disobedience (Dt 11:26-27; Lev 26:14ff.). But these very words also will call her to repentance and circumcision of heart (30:1-10). At the center of the covenant is a merciful God who is more interested in dispensing mercy than wreaking vengeance and is determined to love his rebellious people rather than hate them. He will deal, however, with those who abuse and destroy his people:
Sing in jubilation concerning his
people, O nations.
Indeed, he will avenge the blood of
He will turn in vengeance upon their
Indeed, he will atone for his land, his
people. (32:43, my trans.)
Moses' song was not only written down the day he composed it, it was also disseminated orally among the people. It was not to remain hidden on a parchment in a darkened royal chamber. It was to be in the hearts and minds of the people.
The words announcing the death of Moses on Mount Nebo recall 3:23-29. It was because of Israel that Yahweh was angry with Moses. And it was because of the provocation of the people that Moses was unfaithful toward Yahweh and thereby did not sanctify Yahweh among them. Yet Israel would enter the land; Moses would not. The people would occupy the land; Moses could only see it (32:52), although he had endured agony and pain on their behalf. In the ancient world, however, it was understood that the greater always blessed the lesser. Moses, after being denied entrance into the land, blesses Israel (33:1ff.), for he was truly the man of God ('îš hā'elōhîm).
After blessing the various tribes, Moses concludes with a blessing for all Israel:
Blessed are you, O Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord?
He is your shield and helper
and your glorious sword.
Your enemies will cower before you,
and you will trample down their
high places. (33:29)
Much attention is often given to the fact that in chs. 27-28 the curses recounted outnumber the blessings. But after the dismal picture of Israel's breaking the covenant and forsaking of Yahweh (31:16, 20), the book concludes with Moses' final blessing upon Israel. The nation is divinely favored as God's people, for he will not forsake or abandon them. In the end they are “a people saved by the Lord” ('am nôšâ' bayhwh, 33:29).