I. Title, Content, And Canonical Placement
The first two words in the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy, 'elleh haddeḇārîm, comprised the title that the Jews most commonly used for this book. The Hebrew means “these are the words.” The title was sometimes given in a shortened form as simply deḇārîm (“words”). These are the words given to Israel by Yahweh through Moses: “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (32:47). And even Jesus chose to live by them: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Mt 4:4; Dt 8:3). All of humankind made in the image of God (Ge 1:26-28) and specifically the nation of Israel potentially recreated in his image at Sinai (Ex 20-24), were to obey and heed the words of Yahweh. Thereby they reflected him (cf. Ge 2:15-17; Dt 26:18).
Another title used by the Jews when referring to Deuteronomy was “the book of exhortations” (sep̱er tôḵāhôṯ), which emphasizes the mode of delivery of “these words” rather than the words themselves. The exhortatory nature of this book is central to the spirit of the book and a significant dimension of its meaning. Deuteronomy is a convincing example of a holistic appeal to the emotions and the mind.
The name Deuteronomy is an English rendering of the Latin Vulgate's title Deuteronomium, “second law.” The Vulgate took the title from the Greek translation of the Hebrew phrase meaning “a copy of this law” (Dt 17:18). Rather than a second law, Deuteronomy represents the law of Sinai (Horeb in Deuteronomy). It is an exposition of that covenant in a new literary, theological, and historical setting. The literary nature of the book is difficult to define. The various names that have been used to designate it make this evident. However, the general character and purpose of the book is clear.
An idea of its character can be gained by analyzing the major speech segments delivered by Moses. After a brief introduction (1:1-5) that sets the theological, literary, and historical context, the first exhortatory address of Moses sets forth God's requirements in order for Israel to take the land and to become God's people. Moses' second address (4:44-28:68) declares even more earnestly the theological basis needed for Israel to become God's people. Interestingly, John Wesley (Notes) calls the speech in ch. 4 a “pathetic exhortation to obedience.” This speech includes the basic covenant stipulations (the “Shema,” 6:4-9; the “Ten Words,” 5:6-21) and leads into the specific covenant stipulations in 12-26. The concluding covenant rituals and a review of the covenant theology consummate this address in 27:1-28:68. Moses' third address (29:1-30:20) begins and ends with his charge to Israel to keep the covenant. His closing words (31:1-33:29) depict Israel's future rebellion but also express his final blessings upon the people he loves. An account of the death of Moses and a eulogy conclude the book. Deuteronomy is sometimes called “the last will and testament of Moses” because of these final chapters.
Deuteronomy is a finished literary document. Many references in it refer to events of the past: Sinai (Horeb), the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the fathers, the golden calf, and others. But clear implications about the future are here as well: a rebellion of Israel, the reality of exile, a return from exile, the taking of the land, a circumcised heart, and covenant blessings. A call to commitment in the present appears regularly. Deuteronomy gathers up all of these features in an effective literary-theological style that makes the book a dynamic transition piece. It moves the reader and the theme from the Pentateuch (Genesis-Numbers) into the historical books (Joshua-2 Kings).
But it is, nevertheless, not a mere transition piece. It elucidates everything that has occurred before so that Israel may understand and respond correctly to the great words/deeds that God has wrought on its behalf. It also projects the significance of those words/deeds for the history of God's people. The future of Israel hinges upon her choice of two ways: the way of faith and love, followed by blessings; or the way of disbelief and enmity, followed by curses (cf. Ge 2:17; Dt 28:2, 15). The free choice of Israel to serve Yahweh is a central tenet in Deuteronomy. Wesleyans have understood this moral choice of a free will, made possible by grace, as the entrance into fellowship with God. However, although the book indicates that even if the covenant curses are realized because of Israel's unbelief, it also asserts that the future can be altered by Israel's repentance and Yahweh's forgiveness and mercy. These factors enhance and enlarge the seemingly simple black/white character often asserted of the theology.
Israel's history as recorded in Joshua through 2 Kings follows the pattern of the covenant stipulations in Deuteronomy: obedience = blessing; disobedience = cursings, as recorded in the covenant in Moab (chs. 29-30). Ample illustrations of repentance, mercy, forgiveness, and renewal punctuate the narrative. Deuteronomy sets the plumbline by which the writers of the history evaluate the nation of Israel, the chosen people of God.
Hence, Deuteronomy is a pivotal document in the OT. It ties together the Pentateuch and the later history of Israel, furnishing the ethical-religious guidelines by which God's people were to live or perish. Their welfare was not dependent upon whether they were in the Promised Land. It depended upon their obedience of faith toward Yahweh. God would come to them even in a strange land; “if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul” (4:29; cf. Jer 29:13)). Yahweh's appeal through Moses was not merely for Israel to obey some external code; it was essentially an impassioned plea for his people to love him with all their heart, all their soul, and all their might (6:4-9; cf. Mt 22:37; Mk 12:29-30; Lk 10:27).