Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22)


In the days of King Josiah, the high priest Hilkiah “found” the Torah in the temple (2 Kgs 22). Interestingly, Jeremiah the prophet — who was from the line of deposed priests of Shiloh — was the “son of Hilkiah” (the same Hilkiah or a different one?). Richard Elliott Friedman argues that Deuteronomy was written by someone very close to Jeremiah, perhaps his scribe Baruch. It is not likely that these two Hilkiahs were the same individual, because it is hard to imagine how a priest from the deposed line could be the high priest. But the connection is intriguing.

In vs. 5, we read that in these speeches Moses set out to “expound” or “make plain” the Torah. In the setting of the story, this is about Moses speaking to the second generation who are on the verge of entering the land and the speeches are Moses’ last words before he dies. In the more realistic setting of an author living in the days of King Josiah (640-609 BCE), this is about reinterpreting and updating the Torah to fit Israel’s new situation. Deuteronomy is a retelling of the Torah and will have its own peculiar emphases. It stands as one more of many evidences that Torah was not intended to be static, but to be reinterpreted by new generations.

The divine content of the tradition is not fixed and unchanging. Just as Deuteronomy will depict slight alterations in some famous stories (variations on the ways E and J especially told them), there will also be alterations in some of the laws. The Torah in Deuteronomy is not the same as the Torah in Exodus-Numbers, at least not exactly the same. Reading Deuteronomy will provide us with insight into the divine nature of the Torah and invite us to see the layers of human thought which are subject to alteration with time.

These are the words (1), a note about the length of the journey (2), the timing of Moses’ speech (3-4), the site repeated (5), the command to leave Horeb/Sinai (6-8), Moses’ need for leadership structure (9-10).

Deuteronomy represents the work of a new author of Torah, with two primary layers. The first, D (also known as Dtr1), wrote before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, in the days of King Josiah (640-609 BCE). He wrote not only major sections of Deuteronomy, but also edited and authored Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (all as one history of Israel). His work culminated in the kingship of Josiah, who he saw as the ideal king, faithful to the covenant with Adonai (see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?). In the first edition of D’s work, the kingship of the Davidic family could not come to an end. The disobedience of the Davidic kings, such as Rehoboam, would not cause God to bring an end to their dynasty. And Josiah was such a king that “there was no king like him”(2 Kgs 23:25), which sounds almost identical to D’s description of Moses (“Never again did a prophet rise up in Israel like him,” Deut 34:10).

But the Davidic line did come to an end. Jerusalem was destroyed. And so there is a second layer, post-destruction, sometimes referred to as Dtr2. Through insertions and some original sections of text, the second “Deuteronomist” added the reality of exile and divine punishment of the royal house to the story. Friedman identifies D (both the first and edited edition) as the work of someone closely connected to the prophet Jeremiah (perhaps Jeremiah himself, or Friedman thinks it was more likely his scribe, Baruch).

“These are the words that Moses spoke.” This is clearly an author writing after the time of Moses, which we can see in the words that follow: “… to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” Which side of the Jordan is Israel camped on according to this story’s timeline? They are camped outside of the land. But the author is located inside the land and thus refers to the place as “the other side of the Jordan.” The author is writing from a time after Israel is settled in the land. As for attributing these speeches to Moses, ancient historiographical writings routinely put speeches in the mouths of characters expressing what the authors believed the ancient personalities thought. That is, no one had any transcript of Moses’ words. The author is expounding on Mosaic traditions passed down through the priestly families of Shiloh (see Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, for the Shiloh connection).

Vss. 3-4 suggest that Moses gave all these speeches on one day and 32:48 completes this theme of a single day (“that very day Adonai spoke to Moses”).

Vss. 6-8 add something new to the story of Israel, giving words from God directing Israel to leave Mount Horeb (Sinai). The previous telling of Israel’s departure from the mountain did not include these words (see Numb 10:13). Amorite is the name often used for the people of the hill country while Canaanites usually designates people on the coast and the lowlands. In vs. 8, God relates his promise of giving the land to Israel to his earlier promise to give it to the patriarchs.

Vss. 9-10 are the beginning of a new sub-section (vss. 9-18) about the appointment of judges. Deuteronomy’s account of the appointment of judges appears to combine elements of Numbers 11 and Exodus 18 into one harmonized version (see comments that follow). We begin to see a pattern in the way Deuteronomy retells the stories of Israel. Chapters 1-3 will organize the wanderings of Israel into seven stages, drawn from material in Exodus and Numbers, but will do so with some key differences and discrepancies compared to other versions.


In the three rather different stories in Torah about Moses choosing leaders over Israel, we see that the Deuteronomy version emphasizes an unexpected quality of leadership: wisdom and knowledge. This is part of a larger trend in which Deuteronomy has some kind of relationship with the wisdom literature of Israel (i.e., Proverbs).

Moses tells the tribes and clans of Israel to choose אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים וִידֻעִים ‘anashim chachamim u’nevōnim viydu’im, “men who are wise, perceptive, and knowledgeable.” The choice of synonyms for wisdom/knowledge calls to mind Proverbs 1:2-6 and its list of the facets of wisdom. Moshe Weinfeld (Deuteronomy 1-11: The Anchor-Yale Commentary) theorizes that Deuteronomy is the result of work by a movement of scribes and wisdom sages, part of a flourishing center of thought in Judah before the exile. The book of Proverbs attributes some of its sections to scribes in the court of Hezekiah.

Deuteronomy is a retelling of the Torah, edited in the days of King Josiah and then re-edited shortly after the beginning of the exile (see comments on Deuteronomy 1:1-10). Part of the vision of D, the author of Deuteronomy, is for a nation to be ruled by both Torah and wisdom, by commandments stemming from the time of Moses as well as by the kind of knowledge known in Israel as “wisdom.” This is a vision of a land governed by faith and intelligence, trust and perception.

Furthermore, in the Deuteronomy version there is some sense of democratic or at least representative rule. Moses does not appoint the chiefs over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, but leaves the selection to the tribes themselves. Deuteronomy describes a kind of government which was not realized in ancient Israel or Judah. If we compare the complaints of the prophets, such as Amos and Isaiah, with the ideals of Deuteronomy, we immediately see the contrast. What the people actually got was a lazy, immoral class of royal officials who drank and took bribes while running the nation into the ground. The actual government of Judah was not for the people, not a protector of the weak, but actually a system for the strong to take further advantage of the masses.

Deuteronomy speaks still today about the issue of government for the people. It calls for a model based on intelligence and justice, for leaders who “decide justly” between parties without partiality. Government is for everyone, the “small and the great alike,” to be carried out by leaders who are not afraid of any person but who see the divine will for the good of the people. The purpose of government then is to cause the people to thrive and not to enrich a class of ruling elite. In the context of the last days of the kingdom of Judah, this may have been idealistic talk, a kind of literature of reform that did not take hold fully. It may have been a utopian vision that came and passed quickly, but its message is worth believing in and hoping to see lived out on earth.

Appointing leaders and officials to govern (11-18), Israel just before the sin of the scouts (19-21).

There are three accounts in the Torah concerning the selecting of leaders for Israel. In Exodus 18:17-26 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, suggests that Moses should choose chiefs over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. In Numbers 11:16-30, immediately after leaving Sinai, God commands Moses to select seventy elders as a ruling council over all Israel and they are endowed with a spirit of prophecy like Moses. Here in Deuteronomy 1:9-18, Moses initiates the plan (not Jethro or God) and proposes it to the people. He appoints tribal leaders (apparently those who were already regarded as heads of clans) over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.

It is not clear how these three stories are related to one another. The Exodus version is from the E source (a northern priest, from Shiloh, and thus closely related to D). The Numbers version is also from E, which suggests that the two events are separate. The Exodus appointment of leaders is about officers within the tribes and the Numbers appointment is a national council. The Deuteronomy account follows some aspects of the Exodus and some of the Numbers story. Like Exodus, this is about officers within the tribes and not a national council. Like Numbers, this involves administrators (secretaries, שֹׁטְרִים shōterim) to assist the chiefs. D is clearly using both stories as a source.

Following the digression about the appointing of leaders, the text returns to the story of Israel’s journey which began in vss. 6-8. Vss. 19-21 picture the Israelites on the verge of entering Canaan, looking from across the Jordan at the promised land. Moses reminds them that God has promised this land to their ancestors and urges them to have faith rather than fear. אַל־תִּירָא וְאַל־תֵּחָת ‘al-tira’ v’al-teichat, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed,” Moses says, a phrase which is found in many other D texts, (so Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11: The Anchor-Yale Commentary, Deut 31:8; Jos 8:1; 10:25 and similar phrases in Deut 1:29; 7:21; 20:3; and 31:6).


“Adonai, your God, is the one going before you.” In Deuteronomy 1:29-33, Moses reminded the people that the divine Presence had gone with them. “God carried you as a man carries his son.” This was not mere religious sentiment or some vague reference to a feeling people have about God. The reference is literal, connecting with Israel’s memory of a real divine Presence.

The ancestors saw manifestations of God “fire by night and cloud by day.” God tangibly fought for them and led them in their journeys.

By the time D wrote his take on the meaning of Israel’s relationship with God such visible signs of God’s Presence were only a distant memory. Life in the kingdom of Judah in the 7th century was no longer filled with supernatural appearances or open miracles. What could stories of old miracles mean to the people of Judah?

Most likely, the faithful in Judah believed the miracles of old could return. The prerequisites for a golden age in the land included absolute trust in God and a united will of the people to follow his ways. Deuteronomy is not simply remembering history, but calling people back to the faith of Moses Caleb, and Joshua. It is a belief in a sort of messianic age on the earth.

The book frames the laws of Israel (chapters 12-26) in a framework of theology using stories and poems before and after the legal section. In the stories and poems the message is relatively simple: trust, remember, and do what God commands. This is the wisdom that will bring back the divine Presence in a tangible way for Israel. He will carry them once again like a child and bring them to the fruitfulness of the land they dream about but can never achieve.

The good beginning of the scouting party (22-25), Israel’s lack of faith in God’s promise (26-28), Moses contrasts God’s promise and Presence with the people’s faithlessness (29-33), a combined account of those who will be barred from entering and those who will enter (34-38).

This is the same story as in Numbers 13-14, but with some differences. This retelling is shorter, with a clearer message about faithlessness. The idea for the scouting mission and the motive for it differ here from the account in Numbers. The story in Numbers is a combination of the J and P sources of the Torah which D (the author of Deuteronomy) takes up with some substantial changes.

The most striking difference is that in D, the people suggest the idea of a scouting mission and Moses approves it, whereas in J and P, God commanded the mission. Also, the motive in D is to find the best route, whereas in the earlier version it was to evaluate the quality of the land and the strength of the Canaanite enemy.

The D account is condensed, not naming the spies, giving only at first a short and positive report from them, and skipping over Moses’ intercession when God wanted to destroy Israel. Moses complains that God was angry with him because of the people’s faithlessness and excluded him from the land, another clear discrepancy with Numbers 20:10-13 in which Moses’ own sin resulted in his exclusion.

The D account assumes the reader already knows the earlier version of the story, not mentioning, for example, that Joshua was one of the spies even though he is named as one of the only two who will be allowed to enter the land. Therefore, the differences in perspective in Deuteronomy seem to be here to present an alternative view, starting with the assumption that readers already know the other version.

D is more positive about Moses and argues that Moses’ sin and his exclusion from the land was partially the result of the people’s complaining. Stephen Cook (Reading Deuteronomy) argues there is a sense of vicarious atonement in Moses’ standing between God and the people in D (and also in the E story, where Moses offers to be blotted out in order to “atone” for the sin of the Golden Calf, Exodus 32:30). Moses has taken God’s anger on himself and in some sense say from the people.

Walter Bruegemann (Deuteronomy: Abingdon OT Commentaries) says Moses’ threefold charge against the people (“you were unwilling . . . you rebelled . . . you grumbled” is D remembering the “murmur tradition” from the older stories (in J, E, and P). Numerous stories in Torah depict Israel as murmuring against God (Exodus 15:22-26; 16:1-3; 17:1-7; Numbers 11:1-15; 14:1-4). While they traveled through the desert, the people imagined they had been better off in Egypt with its plentiful food supply. Now on the brink of the land, they imagine they were safer in bondage.

Moses’ speech in vss. 29-33 urges them to believe in the Presence of God with them. They should have more wisdom about the situation, remembering how the Presence went before them on the departure from Egypt and trusting God’s manifestation to do the same in the land. God has carried them as a father does his own son. He has been fire by night and cloud by day with them. In the context of the times when D was writing, in King Josiah’s reign, these words were likely seen as the basis of Josiah’s reforms: trust in divine protection and a call back to faith in God as a nation. Caleb and Joshua are used as examples of the right kind of wisdom, who were both rewarded for seeing correctly that God was their strength.

DEUTERONOMY 1:39 – 2:1

An entire generation is rejected as unworthy to receive the divine promise in this part of the story. Having witnessed the miracles of the departure from Egypt, this generation complained of hardship instead of seeing the greatness of the miracles. So many times our outlook on life is a matter of perspective.

Is life beautiful, filled with light and potential? Or is the world harsh, coming at us with malevolent disappointments again and again?

To the Exodus generation, the discomfort of the journey and the limited cuisine offered by miraculous provision mattered more than the Presence of God before them and the potential to enter a land of milk and honey. “God wants to kill us and our children,” they grumbled. In an act of measure for measure justice, God said to them, “Your little ones, who you said would be prey . . . they will enter it.”

The second generation would grow up used to desert life, whereas the first generation had experienced settled life in Egypt. To the second generation the opportunity to enter a land with rich potential for agriculture would be a blessing.

The same opportunity looks to one person like a trap, an object not worth pursuing and destined to end in disappointment, while to another it appears to be the chance of a lifetime. One pursues the dream while the other languishes in a state of dissatisfaction. The first generation made an abortive attempt to pursue the dream with only half of the required resources (their own strength minus God’s help). If the dream was worth pursuing in their minds, it was only worth doing so by means of a half-hearted attempt. They stopped short of putting everything into the effort that was required and by so doing they missed it completely.

But others not only see the dream but also see what is required to achieve the dream. It will take everything and all of it together with effort and consistency to realize the thing desired. The struggle to achieve is real and cannot be shortened. In the case of this story, this means the faith and consistent obedience of the people will be required at every step of the way. The second generation will be willing to do what the first was not.

Success in life and with God requires effort and trust. The good is worth believing in, despite the obstacles and work necessary to arrive there.

Only the second generation will enter (39), turn and go back to the desert (40), the people try conquest against God’s command (41-42), flouting God’s command, they are defeated (43-45), the defeated people obey at last and return to the desert (1:46-2:1).

The first generation out of Egypt complained that God wanted to kill them and their children. Now God ironically announces it is their children who will take possession of the land. The very ones they said God would kill are the ones God will grant a place in the promised land. Meanwhile the Exodus generation is to turn back, to go away from the boundaries of the promised land back deeper into the desert of Sinai.

But, as we also read in Numbers, they were sad to lose the promise of the land and tried to take it without God’s blessing. Moses warned them that the divine Presence would not be with them. At a place called Hormah they faced a crushing defeat. God hid his face, a stance he would take increasingly throughout the generations of Israel.

Vs. 46 is obscure. Is it saying that Israel remained at Kadesh a long time? Or did Israel, as the next section of verses narrates, travel back south and turn again north toward Edom? Whatever vs. 46 means (and however it should be translated) the Israelites continue wandering. They head back into the desert and skirt the borders of Seir (Edom).

DEUTERONOMY 2:31 – 3:14

In spite of the troubling reports of military slaughter recorded in these paragraphs, the larger message is about the potential Israel has through the covenant to be a free people living in peace. The original context of the story is about young Israel, not yet in the land, facing giants on their way into Canaan. But their safety and ability to continue their journey were not dependent on the normal attributes of a warlike nation. Instead their success was granted by miraculous power through the covenant promise.

The actual context of the writing of Deuteronomy was the time of King Josiah. Assyria was the dominant power in the world and Judah was a tributary nation. Far from being free and secure, Judah was surrounded by danger and existed tenuously through treaties and alliances. Deuteronomy is a call back to the ways of early Israel, a call to leave behind all the complexity and royal administration, and all the normal ways human beings carved out a secure place in the world. Israel, the author asserts, has a different way of being.

God will give what he promises. “See, I begin (הַחִלֹּתִי hachilōti) to give you Sihon and his land . . . [so] begin (הָחֵל hacheil) the occupation to occupy his land” (2:31). God grants and the part the people play is to take what God is offering. The author of Deuteronomy would no doubt say his generation was failing to take what God was offering or even to believe in it. No doubt the world seemed much more complex by his time than it had when the tribes were wandering in the desert. But cutting through all the changes and increasingly complex world of diplomacy and politics, the author sees the times as precisely parallel.

The land of Israel, unlike all other lands and peoples, was governed by a divine promise. But that divine promise only worked if the people adhered to the covenant. The history of Israel and Judah shows that human beings are not capable of adhering to a covenant. The way forward for humanity will have to come from somewhere else, from the place Deuteronomy calls “a circumcision of the heart” (10:16; 30:6). That is to say, the people will never take hold of the divine promise unaided. God will have to bring the people to a better place through some unknown process, one that will result in a change of heart. The author does not know how or when this will happen, but he believes in it.

Defeating Sihon the Amorite king (2:31 – 3:1), defeating Og the Rephaimite (3:2-11), apportioning land to Reuben, Gad, and the Jair clan of Manasseh (3:12-14).

Sihon, ruler of a local city-state in the Trans-Jordan region, becomes like the Pharaoh of the Exodus story, with his heart hardened by God (2:30). Therefore he refuses Israel passage and war becomes a necessity. So begins the account of two battles the new generation of Israel fought on the verge of the promised land. These reports, written about five centuries after the time the battles fail to explain why fighting was necessary, what God’s attitude was toward the fighting, and any detail about the fighting itself. The simplistic message seems to be: “with faith in God, Israel’s enemies are easily defeated.”

God “gives” Sihon and his land to Israel. Vs. 31 contains a subtle wordplay as God says “See, I begin (הַחִלֹּתִי hachilōti) to give you Sihon and his land . . . [so] begin (הָחֵל hacheil) the occupation to occupy his land.” The theology of the verse is about divine provision and human responsibility, which go hand in hand. God gives but the people must take.

The battle report is gruesome: “we placed under the ban every town — men, women, children — leaving no survivor.” What does the author of Deuteronomy mean by this? It is quite possible that he has no idea what actually happened, given that the battle occurred some five centuries before his time. This may simply be a sort of patriotic exaggeration similar to boastful descriptions of victories we read in other Near Eastern documents. It could be, as John Walton argues in The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest that placing towns and people “under the ban” does not mean killing all of them. Whatever we decide the battle report means to communicate, we cannot find in the Torah overall permission to slaughter entire towns of people. The idea of obliterating a population contradicts other commands such as “do not murder” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A second battle report follows against Og, King of Bashan (the region now known as the Golan Heights). Og is one of the Rephaim, one of the giants in the land. His bed is nine cubits long (thirteen and a half feet). The report of Israel’s victories against powerful enemies is meant to be a message about faith. In the time when Deuteronomy was written, the world is dominated by major empires. Assyria was the dominant power in the time of King Josiah and Babylon was about to rise up to take Assyria’s place. Looking back on early Israel’s history, the author is counseling his generation to be devoted to God and Torah and let God worry about enemies.


The Torah asks Israel to believe in something beyond the scope of normal life. Deuteronomy is a text with two contexts: the time of the people in the story and the time in which the story was written. The time periods are about five hundred apart. What both eras have in common is that Israel feels small and surrounded by nations more numerous and powerful.

In the normal pattern of the world, things like diplomacy, war, and politics matter very deeply. But Israel has the potential to live in a different pattern, a supernatural one. It is important to note that this biblical material is not a general truth. It is not true that if any group of people become devoted to God the normal rules of life will cease to matter. Rather, Israel specifically was (and is) given a chance to transcend the normal through a covenant promise (whose benefits are outlined in Deuteronomy 28).

“You have seen with your own eyes.” The wilderness generation had the divine Presence with them. They saw supernatural victories. Their parents saw the Exodus from Egypt.

“All that Adonai your God has done.” The direct action of God in the world is not something most people ever get to see. Normally God’s face is hidden and the world runs according to the laws God set in place. Any role God plays in the natural world is hidden and we are unaware of it. By the time Deuteronomy was written, God was hidden. Public miracles were rare to non-existent. The world seemed to operate according to natural laws and Judah did not experience supernatural blessings. There were wars, plagues, and droughts. The Presence of God with the people was a distant memory.

“So shall Adonai do.” The purpose of the retelling of these stories in Deuteronomy was to make the people in King Josiah’s time think about possibilities, the potential for God to return in a visible and tangible way. Now, thousands of years later, we face an even larger obstacle to faith, and especially with horrors such as the Holocaust in mind. God has so withdrawn from the world, it is very difficult to imagine a pillar of cloud-encased fire leading the people. Deuteronomy invites us to ask questions and imagine a more direct Presence of God in the world.

Apportioning land to the Machir clan of Manasseh, and to Gad and Reuben (15-17), the charge to the Transjordan tribes (18-20), a charge to Joshua (21-22).

Moses’ retelling of Israel’s wilderness story now turns to the tribes settling in the Transjordan (east of the Jordan river). As the reader knows from the story as old in Numbers, three tribes (Gad, Reuben, and part of Manasseh) asked to settle east of the Jordan and bargained with the rest of the tribes. They would be allowed to settle their women and children in the Transjordan, but promised to enter Canaan with the other tribes and serve as shock troops (frontline warriors) in the initial campaign, before returning to their families. This would mean being away from their wives and family for several years.

Moses charges Joshua to believe in God’s power and his promise to deliver the land to the tribes. These early victories would help Joshua’s confidence in the victory and the vision of Israel settling and living out the Torah in a land of promise.

Since the author of Deuteronomy is writing in the time of King Josiah, the purpose of this historical prologue seems to be encouragement. The same God who led early Israel is available to the people in the time of Deuteronomy. The admonition against fear is meant to encourage the nation to believe in God above the empires and problems of the time the text was written.