Deuteronomy—Moses’ Loving Farewell Discourses
WHEN forty years of age he tried in vain to be his people’s deliverer. At the age of eighty he was called by Jehovah God himself actually to deliver God’s people Israel from Egyptian bondage. Now, at the age of 120 years, he and his people were gathered on the plains of Moab, at the border of the Promised Land. Knowing that his end was near, this man Moses poured out his heart to his people in a series of discourses, in what came to be known as the book of Deuteronomy.—Deut. 31:2; Acts 7:23-30, 35, 36.
This fifth book of the Pentateuch received its name from the Greek Septuagint Version and is based on two Greek roots meaning “second” and “law.” Among the names given it by rabbis is Mishneh, meaning repetition. In some languages it is simply known as the “Fifth Book of Moses.”
Establishing the authenticity of Deuteronomy is the fact that Jesus repeatedly quoted from it as inspired Scripture. (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10 from Deut. 8:3; 6:16, 13; Mark 10:3-5 from Deut. 24:1-3; Mark 12:30 from Deut. 6:5) In fact, Deuteronomy is quoted more than eighty times in the Christian Greek Scriptures and is one of the four most quoted books, the others being Genesis, Psalms and Isaiah.
The book of Deuteronomy, however, is not what its popular name seems to imply, a mere restatement or repetition of God’s law to Israel. Rather, knowing that his end was near, Moses wanted to give parting admonition, counsel, exhortation, instruction to Jehovah’s people, coupled with warnings, saying all that he could and saying certain things repeatedly. It was as though he were penning a farewell letter to them because of his great love for them and his desire to do all that he could to help his people to continue in faithful obedience to their God Jehovah. As nineteenth-century Bible scholar Hengstenberg so well expressed it:
“He speaks like a dying father to his children. The words are earnest, inspired, impressive. He looks back over the whole of forty years of their wandering in the desert, reminds the people of all the blessings they have received, of the ingratitude with which they have so often repaid them, and of the judgments of God, and the love that continually broke forth behind them; he explains the laws again and again, and adds what is necessary to complete them, and is never weary of urging obedience to them in the warmest and most emphatic words, because the very life of the nation was bound up with this; he surveys all the storms and conflicts which they have passed through, and, beholding the future in the past, takes a survey also of the future history of the nation, and sees, with mingled sorrow and joy, how three great features of the past—viz. apostasy, punishment, and pardon—continue to repeat themselves in the future.”—The Pentateuch, Vol. 3, p. 276, Keil and Delitzsch.
MOSES’ HEARTFELT PLEAS
Typical of how strongly Moses felt about the Israelites’ keeping God’s laws previously stated is the way in which he words, in Deuteronomy, the prohibition not to eat blood: “Simply be firmly resolved not to eat the blood, because the blood is the soul and you must not eat the soul with the flesh. You must not eat it . . . You must not eat it.” Four times he states this prohibition.—Deut. 12:23-25.
Because Moses felt so strongly about matters we find him frequently repeating himself, even as the apostle John did in his first letter, as at 1 John 4:8, 16. For example, there are Moses’ urging parents to teach God’s law to their children when they sit, walk, lie down and get up (Deut. 6:7; 11:19), his reminding them that God gave them manna to humble them (Deut. 8:2, 3, 16) and his putting life and death before his people.—Deut. 30:15, 19.
It might be said that the discourses in the book of Deuteronomy are Moses’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Yes, the book of Deuteronomy is indeed “motivated by a desire to instruct such as we find in no other book of the” Hebrew Scriptures. And as we note the warmth, the earnestness, the heartfelt solicitude, the deep concern of Moses for his people, for their spiritual and their mundane well-being, as well as his two references to his regrets for not being permitted to enter the Promised Land, to what conclusion can we come? That absolutely no one other than Moses himself could have written such a moving document, that simply nobody could have feigned all that feeling. Yes, to charge, as many theologians in Christendom do, that Deuteronomy is a pious fraud is not only utterly baseless, it is preposterous!
MOSES’ FIRST DISCOURSE
Deuteronomy is generally considered to consist primarily of four discourses. The first takes in De chapters one through four. In this discourse Moses recounts his appointing judges to aid him in judging the people and the instructions he gave them to judge without partiality. He also tells of the bad report of the spies and the rebellion it caused.
Next he recounts Israel’s travels from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab, and reminds them of the victories that they won en route. In chapter four he admonishes his people not to forget God’s laws, that keeping these would make them famed for their wisdom. He also warns against their making idols, since they saw no representation on the day that Jehovah spoke to them at Mount Sinai. He underscores his warning with the words: “Jehovah your God is a consuming fire, a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—Deut. 4:24.
MOSES’ SECOND DISCOURSE
Moses’ second discourse covers chapters five through twenty-six. In it he exhorts obedience to a vast array of God’s laws, some of them previously given, such as those relating to the three annual festivals and the cities of refuge, and others stated here for the first time. He begins with a restatement of the Ten Commandments. Continuing, he stresses the importance of knowing Jehovah God and his laws, for man does not live by bread alone. Israelites were to place excerpts of the law on their doorposts; they were to inculcate God’s law in their children at all times, when walking, sitting or lying down. The priests were to teach the people God’s law, and the king himself was to make a copy of God’s law and read in it all the days of his life, so that he would keep humble and keep on doing what was right.—Deut. 6:7-9; 17:14-20.
Eight times in this second discourse Moses urges his people to faithfulness and obedience so that it might go well with them. Even more often Moses stresses the need for his people to love their God Jehovah: “Listen, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah. And you must love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your vital force.”* And time and again he reminds his people of Jehovah’s love for them; a fine expression of which is found at Deuteronomy 5:29: “If only they would develop this heart of theirs to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, in order that it might go well with them and their sons to time indefinite!”*
Moses also felt so strongly about justice, that ever so often he urged the judges of God’s people to deal justly, impartially, never accepting bribes.—Deut. 1:16, 17 (first discourse); 16:18; 24:17; 25:1.
Moreover, Moses repeatedly commands his people to appreciate all their blessings and to show it by rejoicing before Jehovah. They were to “become nothing but joyful.” Yes, in a subsequent discourse he even warns that calamity would befall them to time indefinite “due to the fact that you did not serve Jehovah your God with rejoicing and joy.”—Deut. 16:11, 14, 15; 28:47.
Noting their tendency to worship other gods, Moses never wearies of warning them against apostasy and false prophets. Capital punishment was to be the penalty. One was not to spare members of one’s own family, and even whole cities were to be wiped out if guilty of turning to false gods.—Deut. 5:7; 6:14; 7:4; 8:19; 11:16; 13:1-18; 17:1-7; 18:20-22.
In spite of such stern warnings against apostasy, the loving consideration manifested in the legislation recorded in Deuteronomy is unique in the annals of jurisprudence. When mustering for war, an engaged man, a newly married man, or a man who had planted a vineyard or built a house and had not as yet had the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his labor was excused from military service for a time. In some respects it might be said that much of Deuteronomy anticipates how injustices could take place, and it gives commands to prevent them from occurring.—Deut. 20:5-7; 24:5.
Even birds and animals were not overlooked. An Israelite coming upon a bird sitting upon her nest had to let the mother escape, although he could take the young. A farmer was not allowed to muzzle a bull that was threshing grain. When plowing, he could not yoke a donkey with a bull, for the disparity of strength would prove a hardship upon the weaker donkey.—Deut. 22:6-10; 25:4.
Moses in this discourse also warns against the Israelites becoming materialistic because of prosperity and against the sin of self-righteousness. To avoid the sin of apostasy they were not to intermarry with pagans. (Deut. 7:3, 4) Pointedly Moses sets before Israel the blessings and the curses depending upon the course that they would pursue. He also foretells the coming of a prophet like himself to whom the people would be required to listen on pain of death. The apostle Peter applied this prophecy to Jesus Christ.—Deut. 18:15-19; Acts 3:22, 23.
THE THIRD AND FOURTH DISCOURSES
In his third discourse Moses gives instruction regarding the blessings and the curses that the Levites are to pronounce publicly upon entering the Promised Land. Six tribes are to station themselves before Mount Gerizim and are to say “Amen!” to the Levites’ pronouncing Jehovah’s blessings upon those serving him faithfully and obeying his laws. And the other six tribes are to stand in front of Mount Ebal and say “Amen” to the Levites’ pronouncement of curses upon those who violate God’s laws regarding worship and morals. Not content with this enumeration Moses develops the theme of the blessings for right doing and the curses for disobedience still further. These blessings and curses proved to be prophetic.—Deut. 27:1 to 28:68.
The fourth appealing wilderness discourse by Moses (chapters 29 and 30) begins with his again recounting the miracles Jehovah God performed on their behalf, including the one that “your garments did not wear out upon you, and your sandal did not wear out upon your foot.” (Deut. 29:5) Moses then concludes a covenant between Jehovah God and his people assembled there and warns against the dire results of disobedience. However, he also tells that upon their repentance Jehovah would again restore them to favor, and so on the basis of this prophecy he puts before them the choice: “I do take the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you today, that I have put life and death before you, the blessing and the malediction; and you must choose life in order that you may keep alive, you and your offspring, by loving Jehovah your God, by listening to his voice and by sticking to him; for he is your life and the length of your days.”—Deut. 30:19, 20.
MOSES’ FINAL WORDS
Moses, now 120 years old, encourages his people in their going over the Jordan to take possession of the Promised Land. “Be courageous and strong. Do not be afraid or suffer a shock before them, because Jehovah your God is the one marching with you.” He encourages Joshua with similar words and then commands that every seventh year there should be an assembly at which God’s law is rehearsed in the hearing of men, women and little ones. Then follows a prophecy foretelling Israel’s rebelliousness, in view of the way they rebelled in the wilderness: “For I—I well know your rebelliousness and your stiff neck. If while I am yet alive with you today, you have proved rebellious in behavior toward Jehovah, then how much more so after my death!” In view of that prophecy, should it cause any Jew to wonder why his people in general failed to accept the greater Moses, Jesus Christ, their Messiah?—Deut. 31:1-30.
Next, Moses, by means of a superlative song, attributes greatness to Jehovah: “The Rock, perfect is his activity, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness, with whom there is no injustice; righteous and upright is he.” He comments at length on his people’s wayward course, reminds them that vengeance belongs to Jehovah and then calls out, “Be glad, you nations, with his people.” Moses concludes by pronouncing a blessing upon all the tribes, with the exception of Simeon.—Deut. 32:1–33:29.
The book closes with the details of the death of Moses; most likely penned either by Joshua or Eleazar the high priest. Moses’ “eye had not grown dim, and his vital strength had not fled.” His people greatly mourned him for thirty days, for “there has never yet risen up a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom Jehovah knew face to face.”—Deut. 34:1-12.
Today Jehovah’s dedicated people are in a similar position to that of the Israelites on the plains of Moab. We therefore do well to take to heart the truths and admonition that Moses gave the Israelites. For one thing we always want to appreciate that man does not live on bread alone but on every word coming forth from Jehovah’s mouth. We know full well that Jehovah our God is one Jehovah and that we must love him with all our heart, soul and vital strength, for he is a God exacting exclusive devotion. Moreover, he is a God who is a consuming fire and to whom alone vengeance belongs. We also want to take comfort in the fact that all his activity is perfect and righteous. Truly, keeping his regulations means life, whereas disobedience means death.
Most gladly we rejoice in every undertaking of ours because of Jehovah’s goodness to us and call upon people of all the nations to rejoice with us. Well has it been observed: “Let the twentieth-century man place himself under the sovereignty of God in every area of his life and he will have begun to understand the import of the book of Deuteronomy.”