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PENTATEUCH or TORAH: Deuteronomy

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
–Deuteronomy 6:5

In Deuteronomy, the fifth book in the Old Testament and the final book of the Pentateuch, the Israelites get a second chance to make things right with God. “You have been rebels against God from the day he first knew you,” says Moses to his people (9:24). Now it’s time for them to get their act together by keeping God’s commandments and loving him with their entire being.

Deuteronomy means “second law” in Greek (deutero + nomos), and that’s what it is. It repeats the covenant law of Exodus 20-23, and offers commentary on its meaning. This “looking back” mode, as well as the book’s language, style, and historical references, suggest it was written a long time after the days of Moses. Most scholars date the book to the 7th century B.C. and suggest that its recovery late in that century probably spurred King Josiah’s religious reforms. It was edited into its final form during the exile in Babylon. Its editors were part of a group that also penned the Deuteronomistic History.

So if Moses didn’t write it, why is the book presented as his farewell speech and set on the banks of the Jordan before the Israelites cross over into the Promised Land? The writers of Deuteronomy— most likely, a group of Levites— were not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, just linking the teaching of Deuteronomy to the tradition of Moses. The practice was common in biblical times, as it vested the writing with authority.

One of the most notable aspects of Deuteronomy is its constant exhortations to the Israelites to love and obey Yahweh and to keep all his observances, laws, customs, and commandments (11:1). If the they do this, they will conquer the country into which they are about to cross and will prosper there. If they go astray, they will “quickly perish” (11:8-9; 16-17). The continual repetition of this warning gives you the impression the Israelites were incredibly hard-headed— or short on memory. It certainly indicates that loyalty to Yahweh— and Yahweh alone— is the major theme of this book.

Given the time it was written, this unrelenting message makes sense. By the end of the 7th century B.C, the Israelites had been to hell and back on numerous occasions: They had seen their kingdom split into Judah and Israel, been subjected to foreign powers, suffered the reign of corrupt kings, committed numerous injustices, and fallen into idolatry. The writers of Deuteronomy sincerely believed that things would have turned out differently had the Israelites taken their covenant more seriously. This message strongly echoes that of the prophets, especially Hosea, Zephaniah,and Habakkuk.

At the end of the book, Moses dies and entrusts his leadership to Joshua, who will lead the Israelites into the promised land.

 
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