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Preaching on Deuteronomy

An overview of the historical background and theology of Deuteronomy to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on Deuteronomy
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Historical Background

While some of the titles given to these books—most of which were given hundreds of years after the books were even written—make sense, there are some titles that do cause confusion. The letters of Paul take their titles from the recipients. Romans is written to the Christians in Rome and Philemon is written to Paul’s wealthy friend (and possible patron) Philemon. Additionally, although they are Greek in origin, the title of Genesis does mean “birth,” and Psalms (psallo) does mean “to sing.”

This seems to be the case with the title of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the sub-collection known as the Pentateuch. Our English title comes from a compound Greek word, first used in the Septuagint (aka, the LXX; third century BC), that means “second law” (deuteronomion). The problem is that this title comes from a misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 17:18, where the future king is instructed to “have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests,” implying that this version of the law comes secondarily from an earlier primary source, such as Exodus and/or Leviticus. In reality, what is recorded in Deuteronomy is not a new version of the Law of Moses but is a repeated or second version of the law, much like Chronicles functions as a second version of the royal narratives recorded in Samuel and Kings.

Thus, to properly understand the content, themes, and message of Deuteronomy, we should embrace the actual Hebrew title, which is something like “These are the words of Moses,” as in, these are the words of Moses as Israel stood “beyond the Jordan” and waited for their opportunity to finally enter the land of Canaan (1:1).

A second concern comes in addressing who authored Deuteronomy and when it was written. According to the traditional view, Deuteronomy was written by Moses, as it is a collection of speeches given to the Israelites as they prepared to enter into the land of Canaan following forty years of wandering due to the disobedience of the older generation that left Egypt (cf., Numbers 13-14). This view finds clearly articulated support as the book closes: “These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb” (29:1). Additional support for this view can be seen in at least a couple of others places, where the law lays out guidance for a future system of government—including the aforementioned kingship—which would replace Moses upon his death (16:18-18:22) or the laws that govern holy war (7:1ff) and conquest (20:1ff). Aside from the final chapter, which recounts God’s promise to show Moses the land of Canaan before his death (34:1-12), one could make a solid textually-based argument that Moses was, in fact, the author of Deuteronomy.

And yet, there is that last chapter. While I have actually had it explained to me that this chapter was written with “prior knowledge” (as in God knew Moses would die and then dictated that knowledge to Moses), the text of Deuteronomy can provide a clear, rational, logical answer: there are two authors of Deuteronomy (or, at the least, an original author and a later editor).

Most of Deuteronomy is written in third-person (i.e., 1:1-5; 5:1; 27-29; 31-34), which Moses could have easily done, as a bulk of the recorded speeches are in first-person. However, in addition to the third-person material noted above, there are also a few other places where an editorial hand can be found. Specifically, these editorial comments (aka, “post-Mosaica” materials) show themselves as parenthetical statements, such as sociological comments (2:10-12), geographical comments (2:20-23), and chronological comments (10:6-9), all of which provide contextual information that would make sense for a latter readership rather than for readers who are living in the moment of Moses’ speechmaking.

This also helps us understand Deuteronomy canonically. Two authors mean two periods of composition. The traditional view, most notably argued by Jerome (342-420 AD), is that Deuteronomy is the famed “book of the Law” discovered Hilkiah the priest (2 Kings 22). While cleaning up the Temple which had fallen into disrepair, Hilkiah finds this “book” and takes it to the boy-king Josiah, who uses the book to bring about religious reform in Israel.

The traditional theory held its ground until 1805, when Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette, a German theologian, first began arguing for the presence of source materials in the Pentateuch (aka, the Documentary Hypothesis). This led to arguments that focused on the rhetorical and linguistic difference between Deuteronomy and the other books in the Pentateuch (Driver, 1895) and the aforementioned parenthetical editorial comments (Smith, 1918).

The theory that won the day was that of Gerhard von Rad (1938)—that Deuteronomy was composed following the reign of Solomon, revised during the reign of Josiah, and finished during the Babylonian exile as a way of preserving Israel’s socio-religious culture.

Newer theories, such as those proposed by Fretheim (1996), Sweeney (2017), and Wright (1994), have expanded on von Rad’s theory by emphasizing the intergenerational purpose at play. Deuteronomy represents an evolving understanding of the role of the law (torah) in the communal life of the nation of Israel. In this view, Deuteronomy is more associated with Proverbs than Exodus, as the legal and liturgical instruction seeks to shape a community that is looking toward the future, learning from its past rather than simply memorializing it.

Thus, Deuteronomy is not a second version of the law but an attempt to understand the nature and function of the law in light of a community that is rebuilding itself following years in exile.

Literary Background

Deuteronomy comes at the end of a mostly-narrative unit of the Hebrew Bible. Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers are almost exclusively narrative. However, on the surface, Deuteronomy is more akin to Leviticus than any of the other members of the Pentateuch because of its legal nature. Yet, remember the above comments about not judging a book on its appearance.

While there is still a narrative quality to Leviticus, Leviticus has more of a rhetorical tone to it, ultimately serving more of a liturgical function. For example, Leviticus begins this way:

The LORD summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock of the LORD, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock.” (1:1-2)

It begins more like a speech rather than a story. The purpose of Leviticus is to articulate God’s law to Israel. To put a contemporary spin on this, reading Leviticus is like reading the Constitution of the United States or a Supreme Court majority opinion. Leviticus is clear, functional, and open to little interpretation.

Deuteronomy, on the other hand, rises higher on the narrative ladder. While not a complete narrative, like Genesis or even Exodus (where legal codes are articulated within the larger narrative), Deuteronomy is not just a collection of legal speeches. It is a mixture of several literary devices, a true literary masterpiece given its rhetorical function.

The challenge, then, is to determine what the main literary form of Deuteronomy is so that we can fully understand the rhetorical function. Each of the following theories adopts a lens connected to rhetorical criticism, focusing on the nature of the speeches recorded rather than on the bookend editorial comments (1:1-5; 34:1-10). While ignoring this material would severely impact the interpretation of a book like Job or Ecclesiastes, it causes less concern with Deuteronomy, mostly because of the above comments related to the original author (or, at least, speaker of Moses) and latter editor. Moses’ speeches, beginning at 1:5, provide a coherent document that clearly articulates both its content and function.

Overall, there are five commonly-accepted contemporary theories regarding the literary nature of Deuteronomy. These will be addressed by popularity among scholars, beginning with the least popular. First, there is the polity theory. In this theory, put forth by McBride (1987), Deuteronomy functions like a kind of constitution, enacting laws that empower and protect the citizenry in order to establish a unified society.

Second, there is the speech theory. In this theory, put forth by Polzin (1981, and revised in 1987) and building on the work of Noth (1948), Deuteronomy functions as a theological introduction to and provides a theological assessment of the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy-Kings). This theory has recently been revised by Sweeney (2017), building mostly off of the work of Levinson (1997) on legal innovation and Clements (1965) on Hebrew liturgical literature. This theory focuses on the three main speeches in Deuteronomy (1:1-4:43; 4:44-28:68; 29-30; with closing material in 31-34) as theological reflection on the adaptive nature of the Mosaic Law within an ever-developing society. In this newly-revised theory, Deuteronomy functions as a hermeneutic bridge between the Pentateuch (where the law was given) and the historical narratives (where the law was lived out).

Third, there is the exposition theory. In this theory, put forth by Kaufman (1978/1979), Deuteronomy functions to clarify and illuminate the content of the Mosaic law, using the Decalogue as something like a table of contents. Walton (1987) added to this theory by grouping the laws under four themes (authority, dignity, commitment, rights and privileges) that would articulate how God and Israel would relate to one another.

Fourth, there is the liturgical theory. In this theory, put forth by Christensen (1991) and looking at the poetic quality of the language, Deuteronomy functions in a pedagogical way, based on the Shema passage (6:4-9).

Lastly, and the theory that has mostly won the day with scholars, is the treaty theory. In this theory, put forth by Kline (1963), Deuteronomy functions in a legal way, much like the ancient Egyptian, Hittite, and Mesopotamian treaties (i.e., the Rosetta Stone or the Code of Hammurabi), where a conquering party lays out a political arrangement between themselves and their conquered enemy, in which protection is offered in exchange for political fidelity. These ancient treaties followed a similar pattern, beginning with a preamble and historical prologue, moved into an extended section of stipulations and concluded with a series of blessings and curses. When applied to Deuteronomy, God offers protection to Israel in exchange for their political—and spiritual—fidelity.

Sermon Series

Remember Your God: Charting a Course for the Future through Deuteronomy

This series was crafted for an older, more traditional congregation, as part of a vision re-casting process. A major pastoral focus in the previous years leading up to this re-casting had been building on “what you believe and why you believe it,” focusing on both content and practice. While much of their deeply held civil religious beliefs had been named and confronted, there were still several roadblocks to embracing a life-giving vision that had been discerned by the congregation’s leadership. The purpose of the series was to bring the congregation to the literal banks of the Jordan River, camping out with God’s Word for several weeks in order to hear how Israel went through a similar vision re-casting process (moving from a migrant people under Moses’ leadership to a planted people under Joshua’s leadership).

Series Big Idea: To be faithful to God’s vision for our congregation means knowing what we believe and why we believe it.

Text: Entire Book
  • Title: Remember Your God
  • Big Idea: Remember who God is and what God expects.
Text: Deuteronomy 1:1-25
  • Title: Time to Move Along
  • Big Idea: The church must stop living in the past and embrace the future.
Text: Deuteronomy 1:26-46
  • Title: Rebellion
  • Big Idea: Not following God where God wants to take the church is sinful.
Text: Deuteronomy 1:47-4:40
  • Title: Starting Over
  • Big Idea: God will forgive when we seek God out wholeheartedly.
Text: Deuteronomy 4:44-7:26
  • Title: Rules of the Game
  • Big Idea: The church must know what it believes and why it believes it.
Text: Deuteronomy 8:1-10:11
  • Title: Breaking and Remaking
  • Big Idea: The church must be open to the Spirit’s leadership, especially when the church does not like the direction it is being led in.
Text: Deuteronomy 10:12-11:32
  • Title: Choose Because Chosen
  • Big Idea: As God has chosen us, we must choose God’s mission.
Text: Deuteronomy 12:1-7
  • Title: Tent or Temple?
  • Big Idea: The church is more than a building with four walls.
Text: Deuteronomy 15-18
  • Title: The Called Community
  • Big Idea: Worship of God is central to the church’s mission.
Text: Deuteronomy 24:10-18
  • Title: The Just Community
  • Big Idea: Love of neighbor is central to the church’s mission.
Text: Deuteronomy 26:1-19
  • Title: Be Grateful
  • Big Idea: Worship should be a time of rededication to mission.
Text: Deuteronomy 27:1-30:20
  • Title: A New Covenant
  • Big Idea: The church should be a people who bless its community.
Text: Deuteronomy 31-34
  • Title: Moving ‘Beyond Jordan’
  • Big Idea: Commit to embracing God’s mission for our congregation!
Pledging Fidelity: Giving Ourselves to God

This series is crafted using the treaty theory described at the end of the Literary Background section. The purpose of the series is to provide a framework for discussing and articulating spiritual allegiance, given the dangerously tenuous connection between nationalism and the Christian faith. This series could be connected to a Bible study of Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods (Penguin, 2011).

Series Big Idea: Pledging fidelity to God means forsaking everything else.

Text: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:29
  • Title: ‘Hello.’ ‘Hi.’
  • Big Idea: Pledging fidelity to God means knowing who God is and what God has done for us.
Text: Deuteronomy 4:1-12:1
  • Title: Here Are the Rules
  • Big Idea: Pledging fidelity to God means knowing how God plays the game of life.
Text: Deuteronomy 12:2-26:19
  • Title: Going Deeper
  • Big Idea: Pledging fidelity to God means knowing what God expects from us in every area of our lives.
Text: Deuteronomy 27-30
  • Title: Yes and No
  • Big Idea: Pledging fidelity to God means connecting to what God accepts and disconnecting from what God rejects.
Text: Deuteronomy 31-34
  • Title: Long Obedience
  • Big Idea: Pledging fidelity to God means following God each day, every day, for the rest of our lives.


Regardless of where one stands on the theological purpose of Deuteronomy, all agree that Deuteronomy stands at a moment that defines Israel in light of her relationship with God.

On one hand, it serves as a theological assessment of how Israel has lived in light of the Exodus moment, standing now on the banks of the Jordan River and looking toward their future home in Canaan. What have they learned? How will they respond to the challenges that await them? Will they remain faithful to the promises they pledged their fidelity to on opposing sides of the West Bank?

On the other hand, it serves as a theological assessment of how Israel has lived in light of conquering the land of Canaan, standing with their backs to the banks of the Jordan River and looking toward their ever-present enemies in Philistia and Egypt. Have they learned? Have they responded to the challenges they have encountered? Have they remained faithful to the promises they pledged their fidelity to on opposing sides of the West Bank?

Deuteronomy is a surprisingly relevant book for the contemporary Christian experience. Once we get past the momentary misunderstanding of what torah is and how it relates to spiritual formation (see next section), modern-day Christians can immediately see themselves and their congregational existence in the pages that contain this collection of speeches from Moses.

The contemporary church must answer the same questions as Israel. What have we learned? How will the church respond to the challenges that await it? Will the church remain faithful to the promises we pledged as we stood on the banks of the baptistery? Second, have we learned? Have we responded to the challenges that we have encountered? Have we remained faithful to the promises we pledged as we stood on the banks of the baptistery? Whether it has been embracing the neighbor (immigration), respecting the neighbor (precautions for Covid-19), or loving the neighbor (ending systemic racism), each of these topics boils down into one question—Have we been faithful to God?

There are at least three major applications from Deuteronomy. First, the church must pursue justice. This can certainly be a touchy subject, as some modern takes on pursuing justice too easily bleed over into anarchy. In Deuteronomy, we see a broad scope of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), a reminder that God is chiefly concerned with social justice.

Second, the church must embrace the study of Scripture. All of us have our favorite texts, one that we cling to for better understanding our faith. However, as we see throughout Deuteronomy, only when we devote ourselves to all of Scripture, can we truly and fully understand what it means to live faithfully for God (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Finally, the church must promote grace and repentance. In a culture steeped in an “us vs. them” mentality that seeks to punish first and question second, Deuteronomy reminds us of God’s longevity with grace. Yes, God will punish when necessary. However, God seeks repentance, resolution and restoration, reserving punishment in only extreme situations. May the church be known by the same approach to grace!

Theological Themes

Deuteronomy can function as something of a theological bridge between certain units of the Hebrew Bible. Whether standing on the banks of the Jordan River or standing on Mount Zion, there are four central themes that flow through Deuteronomy and tie its collection of speeches together.

Centrality of the Law

When studying the Pentateuch, we often get tripped up on a literal, albeit mistranslated, understanding of the word torah. Down through the years, torah has come to be understood as “law,” as in a legal code that defines moral correctness against moral incorrectness. To violate the code is to break the law and, thereby, deserve righteous punishment.

While there is certainly an element of law and order to torah, to think of torah only in terms of law and order denotes a severe misunderstanding of its purpose. It is true that stoning would have solved almost every problem in Israelite society, yet the punishment is not the point. The point is to ascertain the why of the legal situation. Torah, more fully understood, means “instruction” and indicates a pedagogical function to the law.

The law given by Moses was to teach the people how to live faithfully before God. There was much about God and how God operates that the Israelites needed to learn, and the law of Moses, now communicated in a collection of speeches rather than outlined in legal codes, would provide that teaching (cf. Gal. 3:24).

In Deuteronomy, we see that the nature of the law has not changed, although the form of the law has. Now, the Israelites are beckoned to “Hear, O Israel” (shema; 6:4) and to “fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (10:12). The law is to be central in the life of the Israelites, practiced through the tandem poles of love (ahab) and fear (yare).

However, these are not feelings; they are spiritual positions. Love is a position of devotion, of doing what is requested out of admiration for the one asking. Fear is a position of respect, of maintaining a proper and healthy relationship between the one asking and the one being asked.

The Law was a covenant, and Israel’s ability to remain in the land was determined by how well they lived by the Law.

Symbolic Nature of the Sanctuary

The tent of meeting was rich with symbolic significance. When the Law was first given to Moses at Sinai, Israel had yet to build their temporary house of worship. They were given instructions (Exodus 25-31), however communing with God was new, fresh, and a bit scary.

Now, four decades later, they have come to know God, know somewhat of what to expect from God, and what is expected of them by God. In Exodus, God thundered the Law to Moses from atop Mt. Sinai. In Deuteronomy, Moses teaches the Law from God in front of the tent of meeting.

Nothing in the tent of meeting is without purpose, as many have noted the progression from the gate of entry to the curtain that separated the Holiest Place from the people. Each step was about preparation to meet God. The intermediary will be gone with the coming death of Moses. The people must learn how to meet with God on God’s terms. The Law will provide the content; the tent of meeting will provide the context.

History as Operational Theology

Operational theology is the lens through which we interpret and, therefore, practice our faith, regardless of what we claim to believe. Deuteronomy provides a “creational and vocational” perspective on Israel’s history in four ways (Fretheim, The Pentateuch, p. 163).

First, it draws all of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph together. God has chosen who will be divinely blessed, and the pages of Deuteronomy are full of reminders about these blessings.

Second, it focuses on the creative and redemptive nature of the law. The speeches of Moses, in Deuteronomy, remind Israel how God has been creating and redeeming Israel (a typology for humanity) since the procreative words were spoken in Genesis 1.

Third, it instructs Israel on how to relate to the other nations. While there is an “insider/outsider” thrust in Deuteronomy, it is not meant to be divisive. Israel is to live in such a way that “the nations” will look to Israel for spiritual guidance (4:6-8).

And finally, it attunes Israel’s motivations for obeying the Law. It is easy for a triumphant theme to enter the conversation here. However, as operational theology, Deuteronomy compels Israel to understand her history in regards of how the marginalized were treated and not only how accurate the measurements were on the priests’ robes.

Principle of Divine Retribution

This one is touchy because of how this principle has been corrupted. In its biblical origin, this concept argues that God will reward Israel for keeping the Law wholly and punish Israel for breaking the Law wholly. This is where the communal nature of the Law—and, therefore, operational theology—comes into play.

While individual Israelites were expected to live faithfully in light of the blessings and cursings they yelled to each other (27:11-28:68), Israel would be judged on their national faithfulness. If Israel, as a nation, was faithful, God will bless the nation of Israel. And if Israel, as a nation, was unfaithful, God will punish the nation of Israel. Although this principle has become much more individualized over the centuries (cf., John 9:1-3), we can see in Deuteronomy the preaching texts for the latter prophetic proclamations.

My Encounter with Deuteronomy

My initial experience with Deuteronomy has much of the traditional encounter, meaning there was virtually no encounter. It was taught as a second recording of the Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. So, when Bible classes would work through the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy was given a cursory introduction and then we moved on. This included my college classes, where we simply ran out of time because the professor spent so much time on Genesis or Exodus. Throughout most of my life, Deuteronomy was simply a biblical after-thought. Preach from the shema passage, to be sure. However, most of it can remain on the scrapheap of biblical study.

This changed when I was in seminary and almost took a course on Deuteronomy. I say almost because I had to drop the course at the last minute because my employment situation changed abruptly. To prepare for the course, before I dropped it, I read through Deuteronomy and realized that what I had been taught for years about this book was flat wrong. It was not a second recording! It was a second giving of the Law, to a new generation who was about to go through a major life change! That resonated with me, as I was about to go through a couple of major life changes—a new ministry position, the birth of my son, and graduating from seminary. All that I had known was gone. And in that new reading of Deuteronomy, I found some guidance for moving from my own wilderness wandering into the land of promise.

Then came the fall that I decided to finally preach from Deuteronomy as part of a re-visioning process at the church that I was serving at the time. I found myself leading a group that found itself on the shores of a major missional decision—do we cross the river and embrace the path that God has laid before us, or do we stay where we are comfortable and keep doing what we are accustomed to? In a time of such uncertainty, I would encourage pastoral leaders to turn to Deuteronomy and seek wisdom from a great leader who has already been there, a leader who spent his entire life tirelessly pointing others to God.


Peter C. Craige, The Book of Deuteronomy, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976).

Thomas W. Mann, Deuteronomy, Westminster Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).

Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy, Understanding the Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).

Rob O’Lynn teaches preaching at Kentucky Christian University, Johnson University, and Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a minister in Ashland, Kentucky.

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