The fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, is controversial for several reasons.
One is the debate over how it came to exist.
The book includes extensive quotes attributed to the prophet Moses.
Some say the quotes are from a scroll found by the high priest during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. They usually say those quotes summarize and clarify “the law of Moses” expressed in earlier books of the Bible, rather than providing any new law.
Others say the quotes are not from a scroll found during the reign of King Josiah, but instead are from a scroll written then (hundreds of years after Moses died), maybe by the high priest, to support the king’s theological and political reforms.
Such others say the laws in Deuteronomy are different from laws expressed earlier in the Bible. They also assert the changes fit King Josiah’s desires, including that God is the only god and that sacrifices to God be made only in Josiah’s capital city, Jerusalem.
Some assert that Deuteronomy might have started out summarizing the law of Moses correctly, but the book was edited to change and add to the law. They assert parts of the book are “correct,” while parts are not.
The book is controversial also because of some of the laws expressed.
Here are 7 interesting things about Deuteronomy that came up in relation to my Old Testament Interpretation class at Wake Divinity:
1. Part of the law from Deuteronomy:
If a man marries a girl, and she is “found not to have been a virgin, then the girl shall be brought … to … her father’s house, and the men of her town shall stone her to death; for she did a shameful thing in Israel, committing fornication while under her father’s authority.”
Why do some argue certain laws of Moses that relate to sex apply to us today, but this law does not?
2. More law from Deuteronomy:
“In the case of a virgin who is engaged …—if a man comes upon her in town and lies with her, you shall … stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. Thus you will sweep away evil from your midst.”
The raped girl is to be killed because she did not yell loudly? How is she evil in the midst? The man is to be killed because he violated another man’s wife, not because he raped a girl?
3. Deuteronomy’s version of the 10 Commandments—another version is found in an earlier book of the Bible, Exodus—and related text includes:
Chapter 5: “[Y]ou shall have no other gods before me.”
Chapter 6: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”
Does the commandment in chapter 5—also in Exodus—mean there are “other gods,” and those gods just cannot come before the Lord? Does the commandment in chapter 6 mean there are no other gods? Or do both mean the same thing?
4. More law in Deuteronomy:
“If your brother … or your son or daughter, or [your] wife …, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, ‘Come let us worship other gods’—whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced— … [s]how him no pity or compassion, … but take his life. … Stone him to death, for he sought to make you stray from the Lord ….”
An Israelite man must kill his wife if she suggests, in secret, worshipping other gods? Does this command regarding wrongdoing done in secret (1 on 1) contradict a law expressed elsewhere in Deuteronomy: “a single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing”?
If “scoundrels among you are leading their fellow citizens astray by saying, ‘Let us go worship other gods’—gods you have not known before …, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants …. Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the open square and burn it. Burn the entire town as a burnt offering to the Lord your God.”
All the inhabitants of a town—men, women, and children—must be killed if some in the town say they ought to worship other gods? Is this only for brand new gods, gods “neither you nor your fathers have experienced”?
6. Moses is referred to in third person in the opening and closing of Deuteronomy:
“[T]hese are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel …. Moses spoke to the Israelites just as the Lord had commanded him to speak to them…. …. Moses undertook to expound this law as follows …. Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests … and to all the elders of Israel.”
Since it refers to Moses in the third person, why do some say that Moses wrote Deuteronomy? Because the last paragraphs refer to Moses writing down “this law” and most of the book is in the form of speeches attributed to Moses? How do we know “this law” Moses wrote down refers to what is in Deuteronomy?
7. God punished Moses by barring Moses from the Promised Land. Moses asked God to change his mind:
“I pleaded … and said, ‘O Sovereign Lord, you have only begun to show your greatness and the strength of your hand to me …. Is there any god in heaven or on earth who can perform such great and mighty deeds as you do? Please let me cross the Jordan to see the wonderful land on the other side …. But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he would not listen …. ‘That’s enough!’ he declared. ‘Speak of it no more.’“
If God would not change God’s mind for Moses, for whom would God change his mind?
In conclusion, I’m glad that, because of Christ, I do not have to over-worry about sorting out the exact law of Moses for myself or over-worry about whether the Deuteronomy we have today is completely or partially “correct.” I think it is helpful to have an understanding of these issues, though, as it helps me approach related questions humbly and to be sensitive to the impact on others.
(The picture is one I took in December 2016 of part of the Plains of Megiddo (of Armageddon fame), where King Josiah died in battle in 609 B.C.E.)
Scripture is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version or the Tanakh translation of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS).
The Jewish Study Bible 2d ed. 2014. Oxford: University Press (Tanakh Translation).
Second Kings Chapter 22 (finding the scroll)
1. Deuteronomy 22:20-21.
3. 5:7, Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 6:4.
4. Deuteronomy 13:6-10; 19:5.
6. Chapters 1 and 34.