Devarim (Deuteronomy)

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Sefer Devarim – or the Book of Deuteronomy – is the fifth book of the Tanach and the fifth book of the Torah. The book title, Devarim, means “words” and is taken from the opening phrase of the book – “These are the words” (אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים). The English book title Deuteronomy is derived from the Greek Deuteronomion and the Latin Deuteronomium.

A large part of the book consists of three speeches delivered by Moses reviewing the previous forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and the future entering into Eretz Yisrael. The central element of the book is a detailed law-code by which the Children of Israel are to live by while residing in Eretz Yisrael. Theologically the book constitutes the renewing of the covenant between God and the Children of Israel.

One of its most significant verses is Devarim 6:4, which constitutes the Shema, a definitive statement of Jewish identity: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord (is) our God, the Lord is one.”

Sefer Devarim consists mostly of the discourses which Moses delivered immediately before his death, on the East side of the Jordan. The purpose was to teach the Children of Israel the laws which they were to obey, and the spirit in which they were to obey them, when they settled in Eretz Yisrael.

The contents of the book may be summarized as follows:

Chapters 1-4: Moses’ first speech which consisted of a review of God’s guidance of the Children of Israel through the wilderness to the border of Eretz Yisrael and concluded with an appeal not to forget the great truths impressed upon them at Horeb.

Chapters 5-28: Moses’ second speech which consisted of the laws that form the central part of Sefer Devarim. These chapters are broken into two broad parts:

Chapters 5-9 which includes an discourse of encouragement to proper conduct, the development of the first mitzvot of the Aseret Hadiberot (Ten Commandments), and the general principles by which Israel – as a nation – is to be governed.

Chapters 10-28 which includes the “code of special laws”, the blessings and curses attached to the observance and non-observance of the mitzvot, and the ratification of these mitzvot upon entering Eretz Yisrael.

Chapters 29-30: Moses’ third speech which consisted of emphasizing the duty of loyalty to God and the dangers of apostasy.

Chapters 31-34: Moses’ last words of encouragement addressed to the Children of Israel and Joshua. The song of Moses, the blessings, and the account of Moses’ death end Sefer Devarim.

Speeches
First speech

Chapters 1-4 recapitulate the Children of Israel’s disobedient refusal to enter Eretz Yisrael and the resulting forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The disobedience of the Children of Israel is contrasted with the justice of God, who is judge to Israel, punishing them in the wilderness and destroying utterly the generation who disobeyed God’s commandment.

God’s wrath is also shown to the surrounding nations, such as King Sihon of Heshbon, whose people were utterly destroyed. In light of God’s justice, Moses urges obedience to divine ordinances and warns the Children of Israel against the danger of forsaking God.

Second speech

Chapters 5-26 are composed of two distinct addresses. The first, in chapters 5-11, forms a second introduction, expanding on the mitzvot received at Mount Sinai.

The second, in chapters 12-26, is the Deuteronomic Code, a series of mitzvot, forming extensive laws, admonitions, and injunctions to the Children of Israel regarding how they ought to conduct themselves in Eretz Yisrael, the land promised by God. The laws include:

  • The worship of God must remain pure, uninfluenced by neighboring cultures and their ‘idolatrous’ religious practices.
  • The death penalty is also prescribed for males who are guilty of certain crimes.
  • Kashrut is further established.
  • The law of rape prescribes various conditions and penalties, depending on whether the female is engaged to be married or not, and whether the rape occurs in town or in the country.
  • Tithes for the Levites and charity for the poor are expounded upon.
  • A regular Jubilee Year is observed during which all debts are cancelled.
  • Slavery can last no more than 6 years if the individual purchased is a fellow Hebrew.
  • Festivals—including Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot—are to be part of the Children of Israel’s worship.
  • The offices of Judge, King, Kohen, and Prophet are instituted
  • A ban against worshipping Asherah next to altars dedicated to God, and the erection of sacred stones
  • A ban against children either being immolated or passing through fire, divination, sorcery, witchcraft, spellcasting, and necromancy.
  • A ban preventing blemished animals from becoming sacrifices at the Beit HaMikdash.
  • Naming of three cities of refuge where those accused of manslaughter may flee from the avenger of blood.
  • Exemptions from military service for the newly betrothed, newly married, owners of new houses, planters of new vineyards, and anyone afraid of fighting.
  • The peace terms to be offered to non-Israelites before battle.
  • The Amalekites are to be utterly destroyed.
  • An order for parents to take a stubborn and rebellious son before the town elders to be stoned.
  • A ban on the destruction of fruit trees, the mothers of newly-born birds, and beasts of burden which have fallen over, or are lost.
  • Rules which regulate marriage, and Levirate Marriage, and divorce.
  • The procedure to be followed if a man suspects that his new wife is not a virgin.
  • Purity laws which prohibit the mixing of fabrics, of crops, and of beasts of burden under the same yoke.
  • The use of Tzitzit.
  • Prohibition against people from Ammon, Moab, or who are of illegitimate birth, and their descendants for ten generations, from entering the assembly; the same restriction upon those who are castrated (but not their descendants).
  • Regulations for ritual cleanliness, general hygiene, and the treatment of Tzaraath.
  • A ban on religious prostitution.
  • Regulations for slavery, servitude, vows, debt, usury, and permissible objects for securing loans.
  • Regulations on the taking of wives from among beautiful female captives.
  • A ban on wearing the clothes of the opposite gender.
  • Regulations on military camps.

Third speech

The concluding speech set out sanctions against breaking the law, blessings to the obedient, and curses on the rebellious. The Children of Israel are solemnly adjured to adhere faithfully to the covenant, and so secure for themselves, and for their posterity, the promised blessings.

Moses renews the covenant between God and the Children of Israel, which is conditional upon the people remaining loyal to God.

By the direction of God, Moses then appointed Joshua as his heir to lead the people into Eretz Yisrael.

He writes down the law and gives it to the Priests, commanding them to read it before all Israel at the end of every seven years, during Sukkot.

Themes
Covenant

The Covenant, a major theme of the Torah, plays a central role in the theology of Sefer Devarim. Israel is God’s vassal, and Israel’s tenancy of the land is conditional on keeping the covenant, which in turn necessitates tempered rule by state and village leaders who keep the covenant.

Israel

The Children of Israel are addressed by Moses as a unity. Their allegiance to the covenant is not one of token respect, but comes out of a pre-existing relationship between God and Israel, established with Abraham and attested to by the Exodus event. In many ways the laws of Devarim set the nation of Israel apart, signally the unique election of the Jewish nation.

Land

Sefer Devarim is set immediately prior to the Children of Israel crossing the Jordan. Therefore it is not surprising that land forms a major theme of the book. The Children of Israel are called to possess the land and many of the laws, festivals and instructions in Devarim are given in the light of Israel’s occupation of the land. Devarim presents God as giving Eretz Yisrael to the Children of Israel.

Law

After the review of Israel’s history in chapters 1 to 4, there is a restatement of the Aseret Hadiberot in chapter 5. This arrangement of material highlights God’s sovereign relationship with the Children of Israel prior to the giving of establishment of the Law. The Aseret Hadiberot in turn then provides the foundational principles for the subsequent, more detailed laws.

The Law as it is broadly presented across Devarim defines the Children of Israel as a community and defines their relationship with God. There is throughout the law a sense of justice. The Law also features an important distinction between clean and unclean foods.

Obedience

The historical overview of the first several chapters of Devarim demonstrate the Children of Israel’s disobedience but also God’s gracious care. This is followed up after the Aseret Hadiberot, with a long call to the Children of Israel to choose life over death and blessing over curse, in chapters 7 to 11.

Daniel Block notes that the assumption in Devarim is that “obedience is not primarily a duty imposed by one party on another, but an expression of covental relationship.” [Daniel I. Block, ‘Dueteronomy’ Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005): 172.]

God

Sefer Devarim presents only God as the G-d of Israel and speaks against the worship of other gods. For example in chapter 17 Israel is warned against worshiping the gods of other nations. The focus of most of the book is God. Throughout Devarim His actions, attributes or purposes are in view to the exclusion of other deities.

Worship

The centralization of worship is an important and repeated theme in Devarim. The emphasis on centralization is designed to focus the listeners attention on the unique and exclusive holiness of God.

Sefer Devarim (דברים) is divided into the following Parshiot

Devarim (1:1-3:22) – (Words):
Haftorah: Isaiah 1:1-27 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 1:1-27 (Sephardi)
1:1-12: Veiled rebuke 2:17-30: G-d commands Israel to march toward the Land
1:13-18: The appointment of judges 2:31-37: The first conquest Sihon
1:19-46: The mission of the spies 3:1-11: The conquest of Og
2:1-8: Esau/Seir 3:12-20: The inheritance of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh
2:9-16: Moab 3:21-22: The command to Joshua

 

Va’etchanan (3:23-7:11) – (And I Pleaded):
Haftorah: Isaiah 40:1-26 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 40:1-26 (Sephardi)
3:23-25: Moses prays again 5:1-18: The Ten Statements
3:26-29: Exile and return 5:19-26: Fire, cloud, thick smoke
4:1-11: Decrees and ordinances 5:27-6:3: G-d teaches all commandments, decrees, and ordinaces
4:12-20: From the midst of the fire 6:4-9: The Shema
4:21-24: Moses would not enter the Land 6:10-12: Not succumbing to prosperity
4:25-30: Exile and return 6:13-19: Further trust in G-d
4:31-35: He will not abandon you 6:20-25: Teaching the tradition to children
4:36-40: You heard His voice 7:1-11: G-d will clear the way to settle in the Land
4:41-49: Setting aside the cities of refuge

 

Eikev (7:12-11:25) – (Because):
Haftorah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 49:14-51:3 (Sephardi)
7:12-17: The reward 10:1-5: A temporary Ark and the second Tablets
7:18-26: The assurance 10:6-7: Aaron’s death
8:1-10: The lesson of food 10:8-11: Elevation of the Levites
8:11-20: A warning against the lure of prosperity 10:12-22: G-d’s reconciliation
9:1-6: Remembering the Exodus and tribulations in the Wilderness 11:1-8: Firsthand knowledge of G-d’s miracles
9:7-12: Receiving the Tablets 11:9-12: The great virtues of the Land
9:13-21: A stiff-necked people 11:13-21: The second portion of the Shema
9:22-29: Repeated rebelliousness 11:22-25: The promise if one observes the commandments

 

Re’eh (11:26-16:17) – (See):
Haftorah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 54:11-55:5 (Sephardi)
11:26-32: Blessing and curse 14:1-2: A treasured people
12:1-7: Sanctity of the Land 14:3-21: Permitted and forbidden food
12:8-14: Private altars 14:22-29: The second tithe
12:15-16: Permission to eat redeemed offerings 15:1-6: Remission of loans
12:17-19: Sacred foods consumed only in Jerusalem 15:7-11: To be warmhearted and openhanded to our brethren
12:20-25: Permission to eat unconsecrated meat 15:12-18: A Jewish bondsman
12:26-28: General principles of observance 15:19-23: Firstborn bull shall be sanctified to G-d
12:29-31: The prohibition against copying the Canaanites 16:1-8: Pesach
13:1-6: A false prophet 16:9-12: Shavuot
13:7-12: One who entices others to go astray 16:13-15: Succot
13:13-19: The wayward city 16:16-17: To come to Jerusalem with offerings

 

Shoftim (16:18-21:9) – (Judges):
Haftorah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 51:12-52:12 (Sephardi)
16:18-20: Establishment of just courts 19:14: Preserving boundaries
16:21-17:1: Blemished sacrifice 19:15-21: Conspiring witnesses
17:2-7: The death penalty for an idol worshiper 20:1-2: When Israel goes to war
17:8-13: The rebellious elder 20:3-4: The Kohen anointed for battle speaks to the people
17:14-20: A king in Israel 20:5-9: Those unqualified to fight
18:1-8: Priestly gifts 20:10-18: Overtures for peace
18:9-14: Prophecy 20:19-20: Preservation of fruit trees
18:15-22: G-d sends His prophets to Israel 21:1-9: Unsolved murder
19:1-13: Cities of refuge

 

Ki Teitzei (21:10-25:19) – (When You Will Go):
Haftorah: Isaiah 54:1-10 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 54:1-10 (Sephardi)
21:10-14: The woman of beautiful form 23:20-21: Interest
21:15-17: The firstborn’s inviolable right 23:22-24: Vows to G-d
21:18-21: The wayward and rebellious son 23:25-26: A worker’s right to eat
21:22-23: Hanging and burial 24:1-5: Divorce and remarriage
22:1-4: Concern for the property of another 24:6: Millstone
22:5: Male and female garb 24:7: Kidnapping
22:6-7: Sending the mother bird from the nest 24:8-9: Tzaraas and slander
22:8-11: Protective fence 24:10-13: Dignity of a debtor
22:12: Tzitzit 24:14-15: Timely payment of workers
22:13-19: Defamation of a married woman 24:16: Individual responsibility
22:20-21: If the accusation was true 24:17-18: Consideration for the orphan and widow
22:22: Adultery 24:19-22: Gifts to the poor from the harvest
22:23-29: Betrothed maiden 25:1-4: Lashes
23:1-9: Forbidden and restricted marriages 25:5-10: Levirate marriage and releasing the obligation
23:10-15: Sanctity of the camp 25:11-12: Penalty for embarrassing another
23:16-17: An escaped slave 25:13-16: Honest weights and measures
23:18-19: Sexual purity 25:17-19: Remembering Amalek

 

Ki Tavo (26:1-29:8) – (When You Enter):
Haftorah: Isaiah 60:1-22 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 60:1-22 (Sephardi)
26:1-4: First fruits 27:11-26: Blessings and curses
26:5-11: Declaration 28:1-14: The blessing for fulfilling the commandments
26:12-15: Confession of the tithes 28:15-69: The admonition for disobedience
26:16-19: G-d and Israel are inseparable 29:1-8: Moses’ final charge to the people
27:1-10: The new commitment

 

Nitzavim (29:9-30:20) – (Ones Standing):
Haftorah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 61:10-63:9 (Sephardi)
29:9-14: Renewal of the covenant 30:11-14: The Torah is accessible
29:15-28: Warning against idolatry 30:15-20: Choose life
30:1-10: The eventual repentance and redemption

 

Vayeilech (31:1-30) – (Then He Went Out):
Haftorah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9 (Ashkenazi); Isaiah 61:10-63:9 (Sephardi)
31:1-6: Moses takes leave 31:14-18: Moses’ end draws near
31:7-9: Joshua 31:19-23: The Torah as testimony
31:10-13: Torah to be read during Succot 31:24-30: Moses gathers the people

 

Haazinu (32:1-52) – (Listen):
Haftorah: II Samuel 22:1-51 (Ashkenazi); II Samuel 22:1-51 (Sephardi)
32:1-9: The Song of Moses 32:28-31: The enemy’s foolish conceit
32:10-14: G-d’s kindness to Israel 32:32-34: Source of Israel’s suffering
32:15: Prosperity brings dissolution 32:35-43: Israel is comforted
32:16-18: The descent worsens 32:44-47: The Torah is your life
32:19-27: G-d’s wrath 32:48-52: G-d’s last commandment to Moses

 

Vezot Haberachah (33:1-34:12) – (And This Is The Blessing):
Haftorah: Joshua 1:1-18 (Ashkenazi); Joshua 1:1-9 (Sephardi)
33:1-24: The Blessing of Moses 34:1-9: Death of Moses
33:25-29: Moses blesses all of Israel 34:10-12: The quality of Moses’ prophecy