[Partly edited February 8, 2012.  Note that, in preparing your Deuteronomy essay, you might find it helpful to refer to the  Code of Hammurabi. The on-line version linked here is more complete than the version I passed out in class. ]


“Deuteronomy” is Greek for “second law” (or, “repetition of the law”).  Yet it’s the fifth book of Torah. The name I once thought was because Deuteronomy is the second book devoted mostly to law in strictest sense.  Genesis has stories of beginnings, Exodus has laws, but it is more concerned with the events bringing Israel out of Egypt. Numbers focuses on the wanderings in the wilderness.  Leviticus and Deuteronomy are mostly laws--but even in case of Deuteronomy there is more than law--laws put in historical and philosophical framework. And that’s where the “repetition of the law” comes in.  Moses is near the end of his life.  He calls the people together one last time.  He gives them a history lecture (and a scolding or two), and then he goes over the law one more time, preparing them for one last affirming of the covenant and an agreement to be bound by the law.

Deuteronomy, then, is essentially a review session. There aren’t any new laws here, but the laws are restated in another context.  The Hebrew name for book is "Elai h'debrim, "these are the words." It turns out to be a good title--perhaps a better title than "repetition of the law."  These are the words to live by, to put on your wall and on your head, and on your arm, to teach to year children, to preserve unchanged from one generation to next.

I made the generalization that the Torah is perhaps the finest law code the ancient world produced: the book of Deuteronomy is one more excellent example of this.

Unlike other ancient codes, the book of Deuteronomy puts law withing a a specific historical and philosophical context.  Notice Moses summary of everything from the Exodus to the conquest of the Transjordan.  Both Exodus and Numbers are nicely summarized here.  Also, not the purpose of law.  Follow the law so things will go well--but also out of love.  Note the shema of Deuteronomy Chapter 6, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God...."

As one looks at the specific laws of Deuteronomy, there are many similarities to other ancient law codes, but also some striking contrasts.   The Ten Commandments particularly are different from other laws.   They *don't* come with specific penalties, probably an indication that they are meant to be universal laws, not bound to a specific time and society. 

Notice other specific contrasts with the code of Hammurabi and the other Mesopotamian law codes:

--sons and daughters are *not*  put to death for a father’s crime
--runaway slaves *not* to be given back
--crops are to be deliberately left in the field for the strangers, widows, and orphans: no15 shekel fine for stealing!
--the laws are to be the same for all, not adjusted according to social status

In some respects, one not quite agree with generalization that Deuteronomy is such a fine law code. One problem is that Deuteronomy (as much of th rest of the Torah) regulates areas you might not think ought to be regulated, e.g. religion.  Not only does it forbid the worship of other gods, but it also limits worship of God of Israel to specific ceremonies, in specific places, led by specifically designated priests.  Further, it restricts the priestly class to one tribe.

*What about the elimination of idolatry?  Is this good or bad in terms of law? (Note the idea of ethical monotheism, and the fact that Socrates [cf., Euthyphro section 8], Plato, and Aristotle all also drift toward monotheism in their quest of justice. Why?]

*Ought the priesthood be limited in this way, and worship regulated in this way?  What would be consequences of not doing so? (Note ch. 13 v. 1-5.  Is the penalty listed appropriate here?)

Note further the penalty for apostates of one's own family (13:6-8) and for apostate Israelite cities (13: 12-16).  But notice the provision of vs. 16: why is the spoil to be burnt?

Deuteronomy also regulates diet (14:3-21).  Why these restrictions?  What is the impact of following dietary regulations?  (Note vs. 21--some things that can't be eaten can be sold or given away!!!).

Another requirement some might object to is tithing (Deut. 14:22-29).  Why the tithe?  Note the use in vs. 29.

One of strengths of Deuteronomic code (and all Torah) is its concern for the weaker members of society.  Cf. Chapter 15 and the seven year release of debts.  Here is a particularly important law--notice what happens eventually in any society that allows the loaning of money. Debts mount until they can't be repaid. Deuteronomy solves problem.  And note that just because seventh year is close, doesn't mean you don't lend!!

Note also the seven year release of bondservants.  What's the affect of a law like this on society?  What would be the potential problem?  Note how that also is dealt with: a servant is not sent out empty, and the *servant* has the option of remaining in service.  (The awl through ear at first seems cruel, but it's  necessary for the slave!)

These kinds of laws are mixed with religious regulations.  *Why is the law on firstlings and the Passover immediately following a law concerned with slaves?  Sacrificed animal were shared as in all ancient cultures-, and this assured frequent sacrifice.  Also, note the Passover (16:1-15) rejoicing for all memory of one's own status as a bondservant (contra J.D. Rockefeller and the Social Darwinists).  Note 16:16-17 all are to give "as able."  A graduated tax???? (Later, in Ch. 24, there's a prohibition against going over field more than once or harvesting tree more than once.  The remnant is for the stranger, the widow, and the fatherless).

Chapter 16:18-20 has specific laws against bribery.

Deuteronomy also provides for trials, and notes the standard of evidence (cf. Chapter 17:5-7 and contrast with code of Hammurabi!!!).

Also sophisticated the regulation of monarchy (17:15-20).  The implication here is that the king is not above law.  Also in addition to a king, there is a prophet, someone to speak God's will to people.  What's the potential problem with a prophet?  How does Deuteronomy deal with this?  How is failure to adhere to true prophet punished (left to God!!!).  Here is where Deuteronomy impresses me. On one hand, there's an outward code all are to adhere to--outward worship, rules of moral conduct. But Deuteronomy emphasizes a deeper area of obedience to God where God alone punishes, rewards. (See 18:15 ff.)

Impressive also is way Deuteronomy deals with homicides.  In Chapter 19, note the distinction between accidental death and murder.  A homicide can be innocent.  This was often not recognized in the ancient world.  In Israel cities of refuge set up--but they aren't safe havens for the guilty as other ancient altars might be.  Note also the ritual in Ch. 21 for innocent blood.

Some standards in Deuteronomy are at least similar to those in the Code of Hammurabi. False witness results in receiving the penalty one sought to impose.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, life for life.  But notice the difference: false testimony must be proved false, one doesn’t get penalized just because one can’t prove one’s accusation.

What about this as a principle of justice?  Is this right?  Why is it not followed today?

Note also the regulation also of warfare here.  Notice the condiions that will allow one to escape military duty: a new house, a new vineyard, a new wife.  Is this a good idea?  Note also that the fearful and faint hearted escape.  Is this a good idea?  How many do you think would take advantage of this?

What about the treatment of captive cities.  Is the regulation here good? (A city is given a chance at tribute.  If it doesn't pay tribute, the men are killed and the spoils yours.  But notice that fruit trees not destroyed during siege!!  Captive women are given a full month to mourn before being taken as wives—and there is a tacit assumption that captured women are not to be raped.  Also, these women are not to be sold.

Deuteronomy also has some occasional jarring statements.  Note Ch 21:18 ff.-- rebellious sons to be punished by death.  Is this a good law???  What's the effect of having a law like this on the books???

A bit jarring also is the penalty for non-virgin bride (22).  Is this a good law? (Consider, though, how it undercuts a seducer’s lines). What about penalties for rape and adultery?  The forbidding of prostitution?  The forbidding of homosexual prostitution?

Note Deuteronomy’s contrast to our own current societal direction in terms of sex.  Today, we seem to have the idea that whatever consenting adults do is ok. This isn’t the idea in Deuteronomy.  Note what kind of relationships are forbidden—and note also that these are almost all potentially exploitive relationships. 

What about the law of divorce in Ch. 24? Again, here is a protection of women from a libertine society in which men just pass around women among one another.  

Note Chapter 24:16 and the specific prohibition against putting children to death for father's crimes.

After all the commands, there is a ceremony cursing all who don't follow laws  including a group cursing.  What's the reason for this?  Note that this establishes the law as based on a Covenant: even divine law is a law agreed on by both parties.

Finally, note the results of law: if you keep law, this will follow; if you don't, this will follow.  The consequences of law made plain.

One other good thing about the law: it is clear enough for all to understand.  (Read 30: 11-20).  [Note that, if laws had been completely different from other ancient law codes, they would have not have been so easy for the people of the time to understand and accept.]

And note Moses plea at the end (Deut. 30:9)—Choose life!!!

But, perhaps most impressive of all, is the fact that Deuteronomy ends with joy.  Moses finishes with a song, and with blessings on the tribes of Israel. 

"The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." (Ch. 33).

And you see what is going on here. Moses, the man who seemingly lost everything in his own pursuit of justice, has found here what he was looking for—and he’s joyful—both in the blessing and the curse.  Law is joy, because justice is joy—and because, ultimately, justice is done.  God is just, even if we are not….