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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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|