The Structure of Deuteronomy (part 1)

February 18, 2021 · 1230 words · 6 minute read Thought   Deuteronomy   Old Testament   Structure   Perspicuity of Scripture   Spirit of the Law   Wisdom Literature   Beatitudes  

Consideration of the argument that Deuteronomy is an exposition of the Ten Commandments.

Introduction

This blog post presents the argument that Deuteronomy is an exposition of the Ten Commandments. I present the central argument followed by supporting evidence.

Deuteronomy as an Exposition of the Ten Commandments

For most of Christian history, there has been discussion and debate about how Christians ought to make sense of the books of the Law. The central section of Deuteronomy (chapters 12 - 26), for example, has raised questions like: “Is there any order to these rules?” and “How is a list of (apparently) randomly-ordered laws supposed to be profitable (in light of 2 Timothy 3:16)?“.

Since first suggested by Stephen A. Kaufman1 in 1979, some scholars have argued that the central portion of Deuteronomy2 is an exposition of the Ten Commandments. That is, Moses goes one-by-one through the Ten Commandments, teaching Israel the natural extension, implications, and applications of each commandment. You can find an outline of one, possible way to break down the central portion of Deuteronomy around the Ten Commandments here.

Examples

Here are some examples to illustrate this conjecture:

  • Exposition on the first commandment (“No Other Gods Before Me”): Some believe that chapter twelve is an exposition of the first commandment.3 When Moses tells Israel to “utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods…” (Deuteronomy 12:2) and “you shall offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of Yahweh your God…” (Deuteronomy 12:27), he is expounding of the first commandment. Moses leverages the theological truths in the first commandment (that Yahweh is a worthy God demanding exclusive worship) to teach Israel what it means to obey this commandment.
  • Exposition on the fourth commandment (“Keep the Sabbath”): According to this conjecture, Deuteronomy 14:22 - 16:17 is an exposition on the fourth commandment. While Moses does not talk explicitly about the Sabbath, but he does address time and how Israel should relate to and use time. He seems to be using the logic of the fourth commandment (that (a) Yahweh created and owns time and (b) Yahweh has demands and stipulations on how Israel ought to use time) to group other commandments about time. Abiding by the truths underlying the fourth commandment means more than practicing a weekly Sabbath; it also means giving a yearly tithe (Deuteronomy 14:22-27), releasing indentured servants after on the seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:12-17), and celebrating the Feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Booths (Deuteronomy 16:1-17).
  • Exposition on the eighth commandment (“You Shall Not Steal”): I argue Deuteronomy 23:15 - 24:15 is an exposition of this commandment in which Moses addressing topics relating to ownership and responsibility. Under the logic of this commandment, Moses stipulates how one ought to interact when entering another’s vineyard or field (Deuteronomy 23:24-25), not ‘stealing’ a new husband from his wife for war (Deuteronomy 24:5), and what to do if someone ‘steals’ another’s child (kidnapping) (Deuteronomy 24:7).

Again, these are examples. You can find a complete outline of Deuteronomy as it relates to all commandments here.

Supporting Evidence

What evidence is there that Moses is expositing the Ten Commandments? In this section of the post, I’ll address three points of supporting evidence:

  1. Internal, explanatory power
  2. External, explanatory power
  3. Didactic benefit

Internal, Explanatory Power

The first point of evidence I present is that this view has significant internal, explanatory power. By that, I mean that this framework explains many confusing passages inside the book of Deuteronomy. If one reads Deuteronomy as an exposition of the Ten Commandments, a lot of passages make more sense than they would otherwise. For example, why are there laws about not sowing two kinds of seed in the same field/vineyard (Deuteronomy 22:9) and not plowing with an ox and donkey together (Deuteronomy 22:10)? And then, why are those laws followed by commands about marriage, divorce, virginity, rape, and incest (Deuteronomy 22:13-30)? If Deuteronomy is an exposition of the Ten Commandments, we can answer that this section of Deuteronomy is focused on purity and holiness as an exposition on the seventh commandment (“You Shall Not Commit Adultery”). As noted in the examples above, there are similar situations throughout the book where seemingly random commands take on greater significance because of their location in the overarching structure of the book. For some, this gives credence to the thesis that Deuteronomy is an exposition of the Ten Commandments.

External, Explanatory Power

Secondly, the argument that Moses is expositing the Ten Commandments in the central section of Deuteronomy has significant explanatory value outside of the book of Deuteronomy. In this blog post, I’ll give one example, but I hope to expand on this point in a later blog post as there is much more to say. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Deuteronomy is an exposition of the Ten Commandments. If this is the case, Moses is taking a set of commands (the Ten Commandments) and expounding their underlying ‘logic’ (for lack of a better term). Jesus does the same thing in Matthew 5:21-48. Jesus takes sayings and statements from the Old Testament law and goes ‘behind the scenes’, as it were, leveraging the underlying logic to expand the scope of the commands. It is not enough to refrain from committing murder; one must also banish hatred and unlawful anger from one’s life. If Deuteronomy is an exposition of the Ten Commandments, that gives precedent and more force to what Jesus does in Matthew 5 (which is doubly significant because Matthew sets Jesus up as a new Moses).

Didactic Benefit

Imagine someone is reading the book of Deuteronomy to you (out loud) and this is the first time you have heard the book. How well would you understand and remember what you heard? The book of Deuteronomy has a lot of content and is not easy to wrap our minds around or remember. If Moses used a meta-structure (like expositing each of the Ten Commandments) and his audience knew it, this would aid comprehension and memory. As Deuteronomy appears to be a sermon (see Deuteronomy 1:1 and 1:5), it makes sense that Moses had some structure to what he was saying. Some scholars view this as support, albeit indirect, for the thesis that Deuteronomy is an exposition of the Ten Commandments.

Conclusion

Understanding Deuteronomy as an exposition of the Ten Commandments makes the book more sensible, . While there are objections to this position (which I’ll outline in an upcoming blog post), I find this view sufficiently compelling so as to believe and teach it. That said, this teaching is very new and is not widely taught today, so I am cautious in my affirmation of this view and am doing more research, thought, and prayer on the subject. In the mean time, you can find my outline of Deuteronomy (including a break-down of the central portion of the book as an exposition of the Ten Commandments) here.