As the children of Israel rested at the edge of the Promised Land, Moses explained how certain societal concerns would need to be approached. To succeed, a nomadic wilderness society settling in new territory would need to be attentive to the realities of a more structured life. This would be Moses’ last opportunity to remind the people of their responsibilities in the new land, since he would not be allowed to enter himself. It was also time to confirm his successor, Joshua.
In reiterating the rules that were to govern the lives of Jacob’s descendants, God recognized that He was dealing with a people who had no heart or will to consistently obey Him (Deuteronomy 5:29). He therefore had to spell out very strict guidelines, many of which reflect the fact that this was a “stiff-necked” (stubborn and self-willed) group of people who had already strayed far from God’s way (Deuteronomy 9:6–7, 13). Some of the rules may therefore seem overly harsh or out of keeping with the mercy and forgiveness of God. But because the Israelites’ behavior was intended to be a good example for the surrounding nations, and because they were anything but spiritually minded, God knew they would need strong physical incentives to behave in ways that would bring peace and blessings.
“Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!”
If they fell into rebellion and disobedience, God would still keep His unconditional promise to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the children of Israel would inherit the land before which they now stood.
Justice and Warfare
By chapter 19 of Deuteronomy, Moses was about halfway through his restatement of the law and how it would be applied in the near future. Often within these instructions there is evident concern for equity and fairness, for communal stability and protection. Here he expanded on the concept of cities of refuge (he had previously named three such cities on the east side of the Jordan River [Deuteronomy 4:41–43]); if a person unintentionally killed another, he was to be allowed safe haven in one of nine specially designated cities (19:1–13; 4:41–43). This would protect anyone who had killed another accidentally from death by revenge. If an Israelite would try to use this protection when he had in fact committed murder, however, the elders of the city of refuge would be required to turn him over for judgment.
In other matters of civil justice, Moses mentioned that land boundaries should be protected; no one was to remove his neighbor’s landmarks (19:14). With regard to witnesses of any crime or offense, sensible protections were also put in place. Two or three witnesses would be required in any case, and malicious witnesses would be subject to the same outcome they had wished on the accused. Attempts to subvert justice by bringing a false accusation before a court would bring on the court’s punishment in kind. Such retribution would drive home the lesson for the whole community, so that “you shall put away the evil from among you. And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you” (verses 19b–20).
When the Israelites would confront enemies, they were not to fear if they were outnumbered, but rather trust in God’s help. Their armed forces would be more of a temporary militia than a standing army. New homeowners, owners of new vineyards, and men about to be married would be excused from such operations. The fearful would also be released so that they would not demoralize those willing to fight (20:1–8).
“Hear, O Israel: Today you are on the verge of battle with your enemies. Do not let your heart faint, do not be afraid, and do not tremble or be terrified because of them; for the Lord your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”
In respect of treatment of prisoners and the spoils of war, the Israelites were to make a distinction between cities in the land of promise and cities beyond their territory. The reason revolved around the influence the local peoples would have on Israelite commitment to God, “lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God” (verse 18). Nothing was to interfere with their loyalty. Thus they were to destroy all indigenous inhabitants of their new land, but in those cities beyond their borders that would not agree to the peace terms offered, women and children were to be spared.
In the case of an unresolved murder, the elders and Levites of the nearest city were to take responsibility by performing an atonement ritual for the people, thus ridding them of guilt associated with the death (21:1–9).
The next four chapters (21:10–25:19) contain essential reminders about laws relating to personal matters in everyday life. Here we find concern expressed for women in regard to marriage. Female captives of war could be married to Israelites, but they must be allowed to mourn the loss of family, must be treated with respect and, even if later divorced, must not be treated as slaves but be freed (21:10–14). Divorce is something God never intended and in fact hates (Malachi 2:16). Jesus showed that Moses allowed divorce only because of the hardness of the human heart (Matthew 19:7–8). In polygamous households, there were to be protections for a wife that was less preferred, extending to the firstborn. The husband could not displace his firstborn son by giving that status to another child, just because the firstborn’s mother was less loved (Deuteronomy 21:15–17). This is a law that deals with the reality of a people that had strayed from God’s original intention that a man have only one wife (Matthew 19:4–5). It promotes the maximum stability possible in a less-than-optimum family arrangement.
Laws covering the course of action to be taken in the case of rebellious, insubordinate children that will not be reformed now follow (Deuteronomy 21:18–21). Again, the Israelites themselves were a stubborn people and, from God’s perspective, needed to have the societal consequences of rebelliousness reinforced. For this reason, in certain cases the death penalty was to be exacted by the elders of the city in agreement with the parents. Harsh as it seems in 21st-century times, it was to the stability and safety of society that this law pointed. Were these rules sufficient in general to deter most cases of rebellion? Knowing the potential, perhaps most parents and young people would never arrive at the final outcome. Presumably they would be willing to take the steps necessary to avert it.
Within the listing of miscellaneous laws, there is a rule limiting display of the bodies of those convicted of capital crimes. This was later applied by the religious authorities to cases of crucifixion and was mentioned in respect of Jesus Christ: “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (verses 22–23; John 19:31).
“A primary concern in the laws of Deuteronomy 21–25 is for protecting the poor and vulnerable in society from exploitation on the part of the powerful.”
Additional wide-ranging laws cover care for the property of others, including stray animals and lost clothing; cross-dressing; protection of adult female birds; building codes; agricultural and horticultural situations; and standards of quality. There are laws that protect individuals engaged in or disadvantaged in various sexual situations—from false accusation to rape, from promiscuity to adultery and incest (Deuteronomy 22:1–30). Exclusion from the religious assembly of Israel was to be based on ritual purity and, in the case of the neighboring people of Ammon and Moab, on what they had refused to do to help Israel as they journeyed toward the Promised Land (23:1–14).
Laws forbidding cult prostitution and governing the rights of slaves, interest on loans, the making and keeping of vows and pledges, the consuming of a neighbor’s farm produce, quarantine, widows and orphans, divorce, military service, fair wages and fair punishment, and much more—all extend the breadth of issues covered by Moses (23:15–25:19). This was truly an all-encompassing legislative code that has at its heart the fair treatment of individuals within a society designed to become stable and generationally successful.
One of the obligations the people would have in the new land would be the giving of offerings in gratitude for the abundance it produced (26:1–19). These gifts would be made in the form of firstfruits dedicated to God at a central location of God’s choosing. It would be accompanied by the recognition of their origins and their struggle in arriving in the land, and of who it was who had delivered them from oppression. In giving their offerings, they would repeat, “My father was a Syrian, about to perish, and he went down to Egypt and dwelt there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. But the Egyptians mistreated us, afflicted us, and laid hard bondage on us. Then we cried out to the Lord God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and looked on our affliction and our labor and our oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’; and now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land which you, O Lord, have given me” (verses 5–10).
Blessings and Curses
Once the people had entered the land, they were to set up stones (with the law of God written on them) and an altar on Mount Ebal, in the central part of the country near Shechem (27:2–8). The 12 tribes would be divided into two groups standing on the opposite mountains of Ebal and Gerizim. On Gerizim, designated to represent God’s blessings, would be Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin; on Ebal, declaring various curses, would be Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.
- Cursed is the one who makes a carved or molded image.
- Cursed is the one who treats his father or his mother with contempt.
- Cursed is the one who moves his neighbor’s landmark.
- Cursed is the one who makes the blind to wander off the road.
- Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.
- Cursed is the one who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s bed.
- Cursed is the one who lies with any kind of animal.
- Cursed is the one who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.
- Cursed is the one who lies with his mother-in-law.
- Cursed is the one who attacks his neighbor secretly.
- Cursed is the one who takes a bribe to slay an innocent person.
- Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 27:15–26).
The Levites were to proclaim 12 curses for all to hear and give their assent. This announcement focuses on the outcome of disobedience to various laws and principles. For example, “Cursed is the one who makes a carved or molded image” (verse 15), and “Cursed is the one who treats his father or his mother with contempt” (verse 16). All 12 curses relate to actions that are private, unseen, or done in secret. It’s a question of whether what is professed publicly of belief in God and His ways is being acted out in everyday life (verses 9–26). In fact, a warning to this effect is seen in a later chapter: “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart’” (29:18–19, English Standard Version).
Once assembled on the two mountains, the tribes were to hear a separate series of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Since the Israelites were to be a special people chosen to display God’s way of life in action, a people chosen not for their own righteousness but to demonstrate the effect of God’s laws at work, their path was to be publicly announced as they set foot in the new land.
Chapter 28 details the benefits of obedience and the consequences of disobedience: “It shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God” (28:1–2). Those blessings would include prosperity, safety and peace in city and countryside; fruitfulness in human, animal and agricultural terms; seasonal rains; abundance and national wealth; and prestige (verses 3–14).
Failure to honor their agreement with God would bring corresponding but much more detailed curses (verses 15–68). They would suffer increasing hardships, including loss of peace and safety in the whole land; famine and want; decline of population and livestock; confusion and frustration; madness; despair; sickness; drought; military defeat; social decay; oppression; captivity—every evil imaginable: “And it shall be, that just as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good and multiply you, so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you and bring you to nothing; and you shall be plucked from off the land which you go to possess” (verse 63).
Renewing the Covenant
Moses again acknowledged that the people in his care were not yet committed to follow the One who had delivered them from Egyptian slavery: “The Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day” (29:4). In renewing the covenant first made at Sinai/Horeb and now at Moab, Moses pressed for their commitment, “[so] that you may enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and into His oath, which the Lord your God makes with you today, that He may establish you today as a people for Himself, and that He may be God to you, just as He has spoken to you, and just as He has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (verses 12–13).
“I know your rebellion and your stiff neck. If today, while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord, then how much more after my death?”
If, as Moses expected, the curses would come upon Israel and they were taken captive, forgiveness would still be an option if they would recall God and repent. Then they would be restored to their land and the blessings would again flow (30:1–10).
In effect, what Moses set before the children of Israel in the renewal of the covenant were two ways of life. It was their choice, but God commanded them to choose one over the other: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them” (verses 19–20).
Final Words and Actions
Moses was now 120 years old and tiring—as he said, “no longer able to go out and come in” (31:2). He confirmed that his helper, Joshua, would be their new leader and that he would guide them in the new land. Before all the people, he told Joshua, “Be strong and of good courage, for you must go with this people to the land which the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall cause them to inherit it” (verse 7; see also verse 23).
“And the Lord commissioned Joshua the son of Nun and said, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.’”
Calling the priests and elders together, Moses gave them a copy of the law to be kept with the ark of the covenant and instructed them to rehearse it with the people and their children every seven years at the autumnal Feast of Tabernacles (verses 9–13, 24–26).
Next God told Moses to bring Joshua into the tabernacle, where He would commission the new leader. This was prefaced with God’s words of warning that He fully expected the children of Israel to depart from Him once they arrived in the land and reaped its benefits, and that they would seek out new gods. Accordingly, Moses was to deliver a song outlining their history of unfaithfulness, so that they would later sing it and sorrow (verses 16–22; 32:1–43). He acknowledged once more their nature and feared for their future: “I know your rebellion and your stiff neck. If today, while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord, then how much more after my death?” (31:27).
Moses’ death on nearby Mount Nebo was now very near. God told him to go there and to prepare to die as his brother had ended his days on Mount Hor. The reason he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land centered on his and Aaron’s failure to maintain God’s holiness before the people when they called for miraculous water from the rock at Meribah-Kadesh in the wilderness, rather taking credit to themselves (32:48–51).
Just before his death, Moses spoke a blessing on the people of Israel according to their eventual geographic distribution, tribe by tribe (with the unexplained exception of Simeon). The blessing is not uniform in its presentation; in some cases it mentions benefits of location, in others positive attributes and failings, prayers for protection and prosperity, and prophetic elements (33:1–29).
Having viewed the land from Nebo, Moses died and was buried in Moab in an unknown location (34:5–6), perhaps to forestall undue adulation. The children of Israel mourned him for 30 days before moving on into the land under Joshua.
Moses’ considerable achievements under God’s direction are summarized in the conclusion to the entire Torah: “Since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, before Pharaoh, before all his servants, and in all his land, and by all that mighty power and all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (verses 10–12).