Introduction to Deuteronomy

Historical Background
When Moses led Israel out of Egypt after the Passover, the nation traveled for roughly three months before coming to Sinai.  There God gave Moses the Law, the tabernacle was built, and many events transpired (golden calf, miracles of water provision, etc.) over approximately a year’s time.  From Sinai they traveled to Kadesh-barnea on the south side of Canaan – a trip that typically takes eleven days (per Deut 1:2) – but likely took longer for the entire nation.

At Kadesh-barnea the people sent spies into Canaan, and after hearing their report decided not to enter the land (Num 13-14).  As a result, God punished Israel and sentenced the people to stay in the wilderness for 40 years – one year for every day the spies were in Canaan.  The 40 years was a reference to the total elapsed time from the day they left Egypt; thus, the time from the rebellion at Kadesh to when the people will enter the land under Joshua is roughly 38 years.

During the 38 years it appears the people stayed mostly in the Kadesh area.  Per the Numbers account (Num 15-20:1 and the comparison verse in Deut 1:46) they did not make any significant movements until the 40th year out of Egypt.  They left Kadesh in the first month of the 40th year and made their way to the area God designated as the entry point into Canaan.

It’s worth noting that by the time they left to enter Canaan many of the people had known only Kadesh as home.  After almost four decades it was likely no longer just a temporary tent camp.  Moving must have been quite an operation both logistically and emotionally.

Current Setting
Israel is camped in the land of Moab on the east side of the Jordan River.  They have finally reached the end of the 40-year journey that started in Egypt.  They are preparing to enter Canaan, the land God promised to Abraham for his descendants and the destination that has been the goal since the Passover. 

This is the second chance for the nation to possess the Promised Land.  The parents of the people now encamped at Moab rejected the first opportunity when they turned back at Kadesh-barnea 38 years ago.  Their punishment was to stay in the wilderness until they died – no one who made that decision to turn back is now alive (Num 14:26-35).  Those who are here watched as their parents’ generation died and so will not make the same mistake.  They are ready to enter the land as soon as Moses – still their leader – tells them to proceed.

Moses
Moses is 120 years old.  He has led Israel for the last four decades.  He has acted as its prophet, judge, and ruler throughout that time.  He is God’s mouthpiece to the people.  He is one of only three men in the entire nation over the age of 60.  He has witnessed the ten plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the receipt of the Law directly from God at Sinai, God’s provision of manna and water in the wilderness, the people’s refusal to enter the Promised Land after becoming scared at Kadesh-barnea, and the deaths of an entire generation over the last 38+ years.

He is God’s friend.  God says of him that He can talk to Moses face to face – as a friend talks – and that this is unlike how He talks to any other man.  Moses has spent an enormous amount of time talking to God and just being in God’s presence.  God allowed him to actually see a very small part of His glory.  Moses has been God’s instrument for many miracles and God’s mouth for many proclamations and God’s leader for many miles of wilderness wanderings.  He has even been God’s commander through several successful battles. 

Moses did not falter at Kadesh – he pleaded with the people to go into the land and conquer it.  Moses did not worship the golden calf – he was horrified by Aaron’s disobedience.  Moses did not engage in immorality with the Moabite women, he did not complain about a lack of meat, he was not afflicted with the plague of snakes, and he never complained that God brought them out of Egypt just to let them die.  He has stood between the people and God countless times and has continually preached obedience to Israel.

With all of that, however, he will not be the one to lead them into Canaan.  For while Moses has been God’s friend, he failed on one occasion to uphold God’s glory – and for that reason God will not allow him to see the fulfillment of his forty years of leadership.  He upstaged God in front of the people once in four decades (Num 20:1-13) and will pay for it by dying before he sees the triumph of all he has worked for.  He has been exemplary in all things and for all people – but God cannot allow what he did to go unpunished.  Nothing is more important to God than His glory, and God will not share His glory with any man.  Thus the one who sought to share that glory cannot be allowed to lead God’s people into the Promised Land.

The punishment is bitter and harsh but ultimately just.  Moses knows the whole Law prescribes God’s glory and the ultimate punishment for disobeying the Law is death.  This does not mean he has not appealed to God to reconsider – he has.  But God has told him clearly there is no appeal – he will die on the wrong side of the Jordan and his assistant – Joshua – will lead the people to victory in Canaan.  It is bitter irony that if the people had not failed at Kadesh or if they had not lost faith and complained about a lack of water he would not have had opportunity to sin.  Moses will remind them in his final words that they are ultimately the cause of his punishment.

[It is interesting to study the story of Moses’ sin.  It appears from the context of Numbers 20 that it actually takes place not too long before the events of Deuteronomy.  Aaron dies in the fifth month of the 40th year (Num 33:38), and his death is detailed in the verses (Num 20:22-29) following the recounting of the events at Meribah, which take place in the first month (Num 20:1 – no year is mentioned, but the comparison with the date of Aaron’s death seems to imply it is in the 40th year).  As Moses begins to instruct the people in Deuteronomy, it is the 11th month of the 40th year (Deut 1:3) – only six months after Aaron’s death and potentially only 10 months after Meribah.  Could it be that Moses’ sin is still very fresh (only 10 months old) as he begins to speak?  If so, what must it be like for him to end his ministry and life under this cloud?  How must this affect what he says to the people?  He has lived an obedient life through all the trials and confrontations only to now blow it at the end and spoil his chance to do the one thing he has pointed to for so long.  Another item to note – if the estimate of the timing is correct it means the cause of Moses’ sin is the current generation he speaks to, not their parents who are now dead. 

Understanding the events at Meribah is difficult.  It seems Moses’ sin is minor and his punishment unduly harsh.  The facts of the story are as follows.  Israel begins to move out of Kadesh.  Miriam – Moses’ sister – dies (she is part of the generation that is not allowed to enter the land).  The people find no water and grumble to Moses and Aaron about being left in the wilderness to die (something their parents did repeatedly).  They complain that Moses has brought them out of Egypt to a wretched place (interesting that they refer to Egypt when many of them were not alive in Egypt or at best were very young).  They even go so far as to say that they wish they had died from God’s judgment – like their brothers (possibly a reference to the events of Numbers 16 or to the deaths of the generation that rejected God at Kadesh) – rather than live in this place without water.

Moses and Aaron fall on their faces before God and plead with Him to address the situation.  God tells them He will provide water.  Moses is to take the rod and speak to the rock (apparently they know which rock) and it will bring forth water.  Moses goes before the people and loses his temper.  He says to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?”  He then strikes the rock twice (instead of speaking to it) and it brings forth the needed water (do not miss how big this must be – it must bring enough water to satisfy hundreds of thousands of people and their livestock – this is a torrent).  It is likely a sign of God’s mercy to the people and to Moses that He honors Moses’ disobedient act and still provides water.  Moses’ and Aaron’s sin does not stand in the way of God’s provision.

The text then says (20:12) that God tells Moses and Aaron that since they did not believe Him and did not treat Him as holy in the sight of the people, they will not lead the nation into Canaan.  Nothing more is said.  No explanation, no reaction from the two men, nothing that marks the gravity of what has just happened.  This is a HUGE event in the journey to Canaan.  God’s handpicked man who has led Israel for four decades is now forbidden from doing what he has targeted for over a third of his life.  Even more, it can be argued that he was bred for this – from his miraculous survival as a baby in Egypt to his living in this same area for 40 years as a shepherd, he was prepared by God to be the one who led the Israelites to the Promised Land.  But just like that – he is now deemed unworthy.

Numerous theories exist as to why God deals with Moses in such a seemingly harsh way.  Moses obviously disobeyed a direct command of God – he was supposed to speak to the rock rather than strike it.  Somehow this meant he did not treat God as holy before the people.  His striking the rock showed he did not believe God but also somehow belittled God.  Perhaps the answer is in Moses’ whole manner when he confronts the people.  He loses his temper and lashes out in anger and sarcasm.  Forty years of frustration come out as the complaints about water and the comparisons to Egypt and the accusations of bringing them to the wilderness to die finally cause him to crack.  He also has just lost his sister.  His temper causes him to castigate the people and then strike the rock twice.

In so doing, he takes away from the mercy and glory of God.  God does not mean to make the water provision an act of judgment.  He wants to mercifully and miraculously provide for the people and cause them to celebrate His mercy and generosity.  Instead they are treated to the spectacle of Moses’ anger and likely remember his words and actions much more than God’s provision.  Speaking to the rock would have been an incredible illustration of God’s power – but striking it after angrily rebuking the people brings attention to Moses instead of God.

Since Moses’ actions are a sign of a lack of faith – just like the people’s sin at Kadesh 38 years before – he is not allowed to enter the land.  If the people who turned back at Kadesh did not believe God and were punished, then Moses and Aaron must be punished in the same way.  They will die in the wilderness just like the rebellious generation.  It will not be three men over 60 who survive the wilderness years – only two will cross the Jordan.]

Overview
Moses’ final words are what this book records.  Moses is about to die and give up his position of leadership, but God has one more job for him.  He wants Moses to remind the people of all God has done for them (in the midst of their repeated disobedience) and ensure they know the Law (Deuteronomy means “second Law”).  Many in the nation were either not alive or were too young to remember firsthand the events Moses will recount.  No one who is alive now was an adult in Egypt.  No one who is alive now was an adult at Sinai.  Moses will preach three sermons to make sure they know why they are here and are prepared for what is to come.  It is vitally important that they understand what God has done and what the Law requires of them in their future home.

His sermons will concentrate on recounting their history (1-4), repeating the Law and its application (5-26), and declaring the promises God makes to them based on their obedience or disobedience (27-30).  He will lay out for them that they have a choice as they enter the land – obey God and prosper or disobey God and perish.  After Moses’ third sermon the book will record Joshua’s commissioning and Moses’ final song.

Probably the key text to the book is 30:15-19.  This passage points to the purpose for the whole book.  It is to lay out for God’s people that they have a choice (and really only one choice) – serve God or do not serve God.  In the end, nothing else matters.  Choose God and choose life – or do not choose God and choose death.  It does not matter what we choose if it is not God – the details of the wrong choice are not important because they all lead to the same place.

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You shall not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

Another text that summarizes the book is 10:12-13 –
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?

Thought: These verses point to the applicability of Deuteronomy to all Christians.  We all have this choice – every day.  We do not claim the promises of prosperity or longevity in the land (at least not in this life), but the choice of who or what we serve is ours every morning.  The admonition to choose life by loving the Lord and obeying His voice and holding fast to Him is as vital today as it was when Moses spoke it 3400 years ago.

Deuteronomy contains the Shema (or Sh’ma) in Chapter 6.  This is part of the morning and evening prayers for Israel.  The main part of the Sh’ma is in 6:4-5 – Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Deuteronomy is quoted over 80 times in the New Testament.  It, along with Genesis, Psalms, and Isaiah, is referred to more than any other Old Testament book by the early Christians.

In recounting the Law, Deuteronomy records several difficult passages (see 22:28-29 as an example) that are seemingly impossible to reconcile with our current culture.  Our study will not go through the Law in detail but one or two of these passages will be worthwhile to investigate for the purpose of wrestling through our own thinking as well as furthering our ability to defend the Scriptures.

Finally, Deuteronomy records Moses’ unique death in Chapter 34.  God kills Moses after showing him the land and buries him in a secret location (although some Jewish traditions hold that he does not die but is simply taken in the same way as Elijah – hence his presence at the transfiguration with Elijah).  Moses is described at his death as unlike any other prophet in Israel and that even at the age of 120 his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated.  He is the consummate man of God.

Deuteronomy is the pinnacle of the Pentateuch.  It sets the stage for the history that follows it and really forms the basis of Israel’s ethical and moral life until Christ.  Its influence on the domestic and personal religion of all ages has not been surpassed by any other book in the Bible – JA Thompson.

Deuteronomy is a book worthy to be read, day and night, and never to be out of hands: for it is the most excellent of all the books of Moses.  It is a preaching of faith and love; love to God out of faith, and the love of a man’s neighbor out of the love of God.  – William Tyndale

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