OT Lesson 17 Study Notes: Deuteronomy 6; 8; 11; 32:1-4, 15-18, 30-40, 45-47


Feel free to skip this background discussion if you aren’t interested in it. You can skip to the study questions without losing anything.

Before taking up two points, however, let me say that I am not generally in favor of bringing much scholarly discussion into Sunday School lessons or our study for them, I don’t think those discussions have much relevance to our understanding of the Bible as a religious text or our application of its teachings to our lives. Scholarly information and ideas have an important place in our studies and in my experience they can sometimes add significantly to our spiritual insights, but they are ultimately collateral to what we do in Sunday School. One need not be a biblical scholar to study and learn from the Bible.

Point 1:

The title of this book, “Deuteronomy,” is the result of a 3rd century BC Greek mistranslation of Deuteronomy 17:18. “A copy of this law” in Hebrew gets translated as “the second law”: to deuteronomion. The Hebrew title of the book is simply “These are the words,” in other words, “the words of Moses,” but it is also referred to as “Mishneh Torah,” meaning “second law,” like the Greek title. The book has the form of a farewell speech by Moses: he bids Israel farewell and binds them with covenant, calling on them to remember the Lord. (Compare King Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah).

Moses’ audience is composed primarily of those born in the wilderness. Only Joshua and Caleb remain of those who had known Egypt. The oldest in the group, with the exception of these two and Moses, would be sixty years of age (Numbers 14:29), so the entire camp of Israel would be relatively young. Moses, now 120 years old, would be twice the age of the oldest among them. Deuteronomy is Moses’ final plea to the children of Israel to abide by the laws of God and especially to remember the Lord’s hand in their deliverance. The key word throughout the book is “remember.” Compare the Sacrament prayers, where that is also the key word. Why is remembrance so important? What should we remember?

Point 2:

I make somewhat of an exception to my general rule about ignoring biblical scholarship for the book of Deuteronomy because it is a particularly problematic text. The problem is that it repeats the content of Exodus. Joseph Blenkinsopp compares Exodus and Deuteronomy in this way (in Raymond Brown, Joseph A. Fizmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., Jerome Biblical Commentary 1:102):

From Egypt to Sinai
From Sinai To Moab
Covenant and 10 Commandments
Covenant and 10 Commandments
Book of the Covenant
Deuteronomic Code
Concluding Ceremony
Concluding Ceremony
Aaronic Apostasy, Intercession of Moses, Renewal of Alliance (i.e., Covenant)
Aaronic Apostasy, Intercession of Moses, Tablets Rewritten

Blenkinsopp’s chart shows that, except for moving the Aaronic apostasy and the renewal of the covenant to earlier in the story, the story told in Deuteronomy has the same structure as the story told Exodus. Of course, it is possible that is exactly what happened, that the history of Israel had the same shape on its way from Egypt to Sinai and then on its way from Sinai to Moab. It is possible that the book is what it claims to be. I take that possibility seriously.

However, most biblical scholars have been skeptical. For them, the parallels between the two histories suggest that the second narrative (Deuteronomy) was modeled on the first (Exodus) and, so, is problematic as a history. Those thinking in these terms have often linked Deuteronomy to the book of the law found during the Temple’s renovation at the time of King Josiah (2 Kings 22, especially verse 8) or with one of the other 7th century BC reforms. It has also been linked with Israel’s return from exile as a reinterpretation of the Law based at least partly on their experiences in Babylon. (See Nehemiah 8). The assumption is that Deuteronomy was written at one of those time periods to justify religious reforms made then or that it was written after the Exile to justify the returnees’ domination over those who had stayed behind and to give Israel its own constitution, like what they had seen in Persia. (See, for example, André LaCocque, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in LaCocque and Paul Ricoeur, Thinking Biblically, pages 71-109. Among other things, LaCocque discusses the possibility that, prior to the Exile, the Mosaic Law was not understood as law in our sense, but as law in a much looser sense—a sense closer to the understanding of Jesus and Paul: advice for living the good life rather than rules for regulating society.)

From a theological or exegetical point of view, however, the problem with the scholarly view is that Deuteronomy is frequently quoted in the New Testament, particularly in Matthew and Hebrews. For example, when Jesus tells us what the first and greatest commandment is (Matthew 22:37-38), he is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5. What are we to make of the New Testament quotations of Deuteronomy if it is not what it claims to be? (Are there Book of Mormon quotations from Deuteronomy? I’ve heard that the answer is no, but I don’t know.) The problem isn’t insuperable, but it is a problem.

Suppose we take Deuteronomy at face value. Then creating a variation on Blenkinsopp’s chart we could get this version of Israel’s history:

From Egypt to Sinai: First dispensation of the Covenant
Exodus 1-18
Covenant and 10 Commandments
Exodus 19-20:21
Book of the Covenant
Exodus 20:22-23:33
Concluding Ceremony
Exodus 24
Aaronic apostasy, intercession of Moses, renewal of the Covenant; tablets Rewritten
Exodus 32-34
From Sinai to Moab—Second dispensation of the Covenant
Deuteronomy 1-4:43
Covenant and 10 Commandments
Deuteronomy 4:44-5:22—note also 29:1
Deuteronomic Code
Deuteronomy 12-26
Concluding Ceremony
Deuteronomy 27-28

This purely speculative way of looking at the text assumes that Deuteronomy 9:7-10:5 are not presently where they belong in the text. If they were at the beginning of the Deuteronomy story (as I have suggested in this chart), then they would be the point of overlap with the Exodus story.

Something like this understanding of the text accommodates our understanding that Moses received the covenant and law of the Melchizedek priesthood but, because of the apostasy of Israel, that first covenant was replaced with the covenant and law of the Aaronic priesthood. Nevertheless, a number of Latter-day Saint biblical scholars accept some version of the standard scholarly view, so we can assume that scholarly view is not incompatible with our understanding of the first covenant and the second.

Study Questions: Deuteronomy 6

Verse 1: Perhaps the word translated “judgments” in verse 1 is better translated “ordinances.” How are judgments and ordinances related in such a way that either could be used to translate the same Hebrew word?

Verse 2: The use of the word “fear” to describe our attitude toward God is, I believe, unique to Hebrew. We use that word to describe our emotional state when we anticipate something bad or evil, and so does Hebrew (e.g., Genesis 31:31; Deuteronomy 5:5; 1 Samuel 7:7). However, Hebrew uses the same word also to describe the attitude we should have toward our parents (Leviticus 19:3), holy places (Leviticus 26:2), and God, his name, and his work (Psalms 112:1, 86:11; Habukkuk 3:2), though we would probably describe that attitude as “reverence.” Why do you think that attitudes of fear and reverence were understood as variations of the same thing by the Hebrews? How are our days prolonged when we keep the commandments?

Verses 4-6: These are called the Shema (from the first Hebrew word of verse 3, “hear”), the passages of scripture placed in the phylacteries bound on the foreheads and arms (verse 8b), and the mezuzots, placed on their door posts (verse 9a). (See the information on each in the Bible Dictionary.) Why do you think that these were chosen for daily reminders? How can we be commanded to love someone, even God? Love is complicated, but it is not something that I just exercise will to do, so how can it be commanded? Some have suggested that we should understand all of Deuteronomy as an expansion of what it means to say that we should love God. It is as if verse 5 commands “Love God” and the rest of the book says, “If you love God, then you will do X, Y, and Z.” How is obedience and expression of our love for God? How are verses 5 and 6 related to each other? For example, does verse 6 repeat the same idea as verse 5 but differently? What does it mean for the words that God commands to be in our hearts? Are “heart,” “soul,” and “might” three different things or are they a poetic way of saying one thing? If the first, what is each? If the second, why does the Lord say this poetically?

Verses 7-9: Does the admonition of Moses in verse 7 still apply? How? If the commandment of verse 7 applies, why doesn’t the commandment of verse 8 or that of verse 9? We do not use phylacteries and mezuzots today. Why not? What is the relation between the covenant made with Israel here and our covenant? How do we know which parts of the ancient covenant we are still to obey and which parts are no longer required of us?

Verse 13: Why does Moses tell the Israelites to swear (make oaths) by God’s name, when Christ tells us not to make oaths at all in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5: 33-34)? Why do you think that part of the Mosaic law was changed? In what context did Jesus refer to verses 13 and 16? (See Matthew 4:13 and 4:7. Note that he also quotes Deuteronomy 8: 3 on that same general occasion—Matthew 4: 4.)

Verse 20: What were the Israelites instructed to reply when their children asked them the meanings of the testimonies and statutes and ordinances? Is there anything akin to this in our own family practices? Should there be? What events in our Church past might be cited that would be equivalent to these?

Deuteronomy 8

Verse 2: Why does the Lord desire to humble us? Why does he want to prove or test us? Doesn’t he already know what is in our hearts? What does verse 16 add to our understanding of why he says he intends to prove us?

Verses 3 and 10: Do these verses have any connection with the sacrament? If so, what might that be? In verse 3, the Lord speaks of manna as a test? How was it a test?

Verse 4: Note the information given in verse 4 that we haven’t been given earlier. How is it relevant here?

Verses 7-10: How do you think a people who had spent their life in the desert would react to this description?

Verses 11-17: Why does the description of the bounty of the land end with a warning? Why do you think God’s concern is justifiable? Do we react that way? Is there any connection between this and the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24)?

Verses 19-20: In what ways do we perish when we do not obey the voice of the Lord?

Deuteronomy 11

Verses 10-12: What is different about the land of Canaan, which is not true of Egypt? Why does the Lord feel this way about this land?

Verse 17: Notice the Lord’s warning about the rain. What is the connection between this passage and the tithing revival associated with Pres. Lorenzo Snow, as depicted in the film “Windows of Heaven”? Is there a connection between idolatry and the failure to pay tithing?

Verse 24: Note the boundaries that the Lord places on the promised land. Where is Lebanon? Where is the Euphrates? Israel would have to wait until the time of David before they would control this much land and their control did not last long.

Verses 26-29: What does the Lord mean when he says “I set before you this day a blessing and a curse”? Verse 29 is obscure, but when Israel crossed over into the promised land, Joshua read the blessings from one mountain and the curses from the other. (See Joshua 8: 30-35.) What is the significance of doing so?

Deuteronomy 32

Verses 1-43: This is a song or poem of Moses. Most modern translations make that poetic structure more obvious, so if you wish to see it as a poem, you might consult another translation, such as the Catholic New American Bible. Why would the prophet address Israel in poetry?

Those interested in looking at this song more closely might enjoy reading pages 332-350 of Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (Deuteronomy), translated by Aryeh Newman (Jerusalem:1993). There are, of course, also many other scholarly commentaries on and analyses of the song. Note for those with scholarly interests: there is considerable divergence for this song among the manuscripts, with the Masoretic text (that on which the KJV is based) probably being in the minority.

Verse 2: What does using rain and dew as a metaphor for doctrine, in other words, for teaching, tell us about it?

Verse 4: In what way is God a rock? Some have argued that “rock” is metonymic for “mountain.” If we accept that, what does it suggest?

Verse 6: This shows that the understanding of God as our Father is not a late invention. What do we learn by understanding that God is our Father, our Ancestor?

Verse 8: Why refer to God as “the most High”? What did that title tell the Israelites? What does it tell us?

Verses 12-18: In verse 15, the name “Jeshurun” means “the darling.” What story do these verses tell? What are they doing in this song, a song given by Moses prior to the entry into the Promised Land?

Verses 26-27: What change in the story of the poem occurs here? How is that important to the poem as a whole?

Verses 30-38: What is the difference between “their rock” and “our Rock”?

Verses 32-33: Why would Moses switch from the metaphor of the Rock to the metaphor of the vine? What would a rock do for one? What would a vine do for one? How does Jesus later play upon the metaphor of the rock (Matt. 7:24-27)? on the metaphor of the vine (John 15: 1-16)?

Verse 47: What does Moses mean when he says, referring to a study of the law, “it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life”? What does it mean to treat the scriptures as a vain thing, rather than our lives? Are we sometimes guilty of this in our attitude toward scripture reading?

Verses 49-52: What ultimately happens to Moses, according to the KJV? What actually happened to Moses? (See the Bible Dictionary in the back of your Bible, under “Moses.”) Why was it necessary for him to be translated, in other words, taken to heaven without death? Why was he not allowed to enter the Promised Land (verse 51)?

Deuteronomy 34

This chapter is not only the conclusion of Deuteronomy, it is the conclusion of the entire Pentateuch. Can you see things in this chapter that make it an appropriate conclusion to the “Five Books of Moses”? Many scholars believe that there has been considerable tampering with this chapter? Can you think of reasons why they might think so? Why would this chapter be more likely to be tampered with?

Verses 1-4: Where does Moses go when he leaves the Israelites (1-4)? (Remember Deuteronomy 32:52.)

Verses 5-6: Knowing what we now know from latter-day revelation about his transfiguration (Alma 45:19; Moses 7:21-23), what are we to make of the KJV’s account of Moses?

Verses 10-12: Compare this tribute to Moses with the tribute paid to the Prophet Joseph (D&C 135).

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