I. The First Address by Moses —Historical Recap (Deuteronomy 1:1–4:43)
I. The First Address by Moses —Historical Recap (1:1–4:43)
1:1-5 The spotlight in Deuteronomy landed on Moses, but not for his sake. He was speaking on the Lord’s behalf as Israel’s lawgiver and leader, the man through whom the Lord had liberated his people and revealed his covenant. When the people sinned against the Lord, Moses burned with righteous indignation and was zealous for God’s holiness (see Exod 32:17-20). When the Lord threatened Israel with destruction for their sin, Moses interceded for them (see Exod 32:11-14). He had led the people of Israel for forty years, never shrinking back from delivering God’s messages to them. And here, as he faced the end of his life, the words Moses spoke to all Israel were once again everything the Lord had commanded him to say to them (1:1, 3).
Moses began to explain God’s law to the people (1:5). Why was this review necessary? One reason is the sad historical lead up to his message. Years before, the Israelites had received God’s law, departed Mount Sinai, and arrived at Kadesh-barnea. From there they were supposed to enter the promised land and conquer it. But it was now the fortieth year since that day (1:3). At Kadesh-barnea, the people had rebelled against the Lord and refused to enter the land. Therefore, God had decreed that everyone from Moses’s generation, those twenty years and older, would die in the wilderness for failing to trust him.
So Deuteronomy opens with a new generation of Israelites standing at the edge of the promised land, this time at Moab (1:5). These children of the previous generation needed to hear afresh how Moses’s generation had failed to obey God, and what God expected of them as they prepared to lay hold of their inheritance as his people. Only by renewing their faithfulness to God and his covenant could they hope to conquer the land and live there in peace and prosperity.
1:6-8 As he reviewed the nation’s history, Moses started at the right place. He said, The Lord our God (1:6). This God, the only true God, had redeemed Israel from Egyptian bondage, just as he had promised their ancestor Abraham (see Gen 15:13-14). He had chosen them for himself and entered into a covenant with them—a sacred agreement in which he would be their God and they would be his people. The Lord had delivered them, revealed himself to them, and promised his faithfulness to them. In response, they were to give their faithful obedience to him—and him alone.
When the Lord spoke to the Israelites at Horeb (which is another name for Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given), he commanded them to leave and go to the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their future descendants (1:6-8). But notice that even though he had set the land before them, Israel still had to take possession of it (1:8). This is an important principle for modern believers to embrace. Whatever God promises, he delivers. But laying hold of those promises still requires our obedience. We do not inherit the promises of God by sitting in our easy chairs. We love, work, serve, pray, and fight the good fight of the faith because this is our kingdom role. We follow our King’s agenda, trusting that he will follow through with his blessings.
1:9-18 Though Moses was a faithful leader, he couldn’t do it all by himself. The people of Israel were too numerous for him to bear all of their troubles, burdens, and disputes himself (1:9-12). So leaders —wise, understanding, and respected men—were appointed for every tribe to help Moses (1:13-14). Thus, every person in the community would have a place of appeal to obtain a hearing, with Moses ruling only on the most difficult cases (1:15-18; see Exod 18:13-27).
1:19-25 The Israelites’ journey from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea was anything but easy. They had to cross a terrible wilderness (1:19). But once they reached the edge of Canaan, Moses could point to it and say, See, the Lord your God has set the land before you. Go up and take possession of it . . . Do not be afraid (1:21). It was at that point that they sent twelve scouts—one from each tribe—to explore the land (1:22-24). When they returned from their survey, the scouts declared, The land the Lord our God is giving us is good (1:25).
1:26-28 But things rapidly went downhill from there. The people rebelled against the Lord and grumbled when ten cowardly men among the scouts claimed the inhabitants were giants in cities fortified to the heavens (1:26-28). They actually had the audacity to claim that God had brought them out of Egypt to let the Amorites slaughter them—because he hated them (1:27). Years later, the Lord would testify, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1). But the people of Israel, the very ones for whom he so tenderly and graciously provided, described the love of God as hatred.
1:29-36 Moses tried to rally the people with the reminder that the Lord would go before them and fight for them, as he had done in Egypt and in the wilderness (1:29-31). But the Israelites’ fear had made them deaf and blind to God’s goodness. Sadly, they did not trust him (1:32). This provoked him to such anger that he swore an oath that none of that evil generation would enter the good land he had promised (1:34-35). Only Caleb (1:36) and Joshua (1:38), the two scouts who responded faithfully when confronted with seeming obstacles, would receive an inheritance in the promised land.
1:37-38 Even Moses wasn’t spared this sad fate. The Lord also prohibited him from entering the land (1:37). Instead of speaking to a rock so that it would provide water (as God commanded), Moses had struck it with his staff, also effectively claiming to share in God’s glory for the provision of the water (see Num 20:7-11). In mentioning this incident, Moses wasn’t blaming the people for his sin but reminding them that their grumbling had been so contagious that it caused him to sin too (1:37). Joshua, Moses’s faithful servant, would lead the people in his place (1:38).
1:39-46 On their first opportunity to do so, the people of Israel refused to enter the land, claiming that their children would be plunder for the nations living there (1:39). Ironically, God turned their excuse against them. In reality they would be excluded from the promised land and die in the wilderness, while their children inherited the land (1:39-40). Realizing their error, the people reacted to the sentence by foolishly trying to conquer Canaan. They got thrashed because God wasn’t with them (1:41-44). They returned to camp in tears (but without any genuine repentance). Because of their rebellious hearts, God ignored their requests (1:45). That’s a warning to all of us that he wants to be approached with sincere repentance and humility.
2:1 Following the failure at Kadesh, God told the Israelites to turn back and head into the wilderness, where they wandered for the next few decades. It had already been well over a year since they had left Egypt, so from this point the nation had to spend “thirty-eight years” wandering around (see 2:14). Moses recalled how they encountered three groups of relatives along the way, whom the Lord told them not to pick a fight with: the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Ammonites. The former group descended from forefather Jacob’s (that is Israel’s) twin brother Esau. The latter two were related to the patriarch Abraham since they were descended from his nephew Lot.
2:2-7 The first people Israel faced were the Edomites, the descendants of the brother of Jacob (2:4). God told the Israelites not to provoke them, because he had given their land to them as their possession (2:5). If they required any food or water, they were to pay Edom for it (2:6). As it turned out, though, the Edomites refused to give Israel anything or even to allow them to pass through their land (see Num 20:14-21). Nevertheless, God had blessed Israel and watched over them. Even though they were a nation of over two million people milling around in an immense wilderness, the Lord saw to it that they lacked nothing for forty years (2:7). Through this mention Moses wanted to instill in the new generation the confidence that just as God had been faithful to their parents, so he would be faithful to them.
2:8-12 From the land of Edom, Israel traveled to the territory of Moab and received the same command from God not to provoke the Moabites, since they were the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew (2:8-9). Previously, a very tall and impressive-looking people group lived in Moab, but they had been driven out (2:10-12).
2:13-15 Moses then recalled God’s command to cross the Zered Valley in Moab. He reminded his listeners that the entire generation of fighting men had not died in the wilderness from natural causes. On the contrary, the Lord’s hand was against them, to eliminate them from the camp until they had all perished (2:13-15). This is a solemn reminder that no matter how healthy, wealthy, or powerful you are, you will not succeed if you reject the Lord’s will. His hand will be against you. Conversely, if you submit to his kingdom agenda, his hand will be with you to help you in your circumstances.
2:16-23 When God’s judgment on the older generation had been carried out, Israel was ready to move on in preparation for entering the promised land (2:16). Once again, they were to cross the border of Moab, thus bringing them near the territory of the Ammonites (2:18-19). Like his half-brother Moab, the Ammonite patriarch Ben-ammi was a son of Lot through his daughter (see Gen 19:30-38). Israel was not to provoke his descendants either, for God had given them their land (2:19). The land of the Ammonites, too, had been previously inhabited by a numerous and tall people who had been driven out (2:20-23). This served as a clear message of encouragement to Israel that they could similarly displace the seeming giants that dwelled in the land of Canaan.
2:24-30 The next movement recounted by Moses was the taking of Transjordan (the land east of the Jordan River across from Canaan), beginning with the defeat of the Amorites’ King Sihon (2:24). Through this victory, God would start making people tremble in fear because of the Israelites (2:25). Moses had made an offer of peace to King Sihon (2:26-29). But the Lord knew in advance that the Amorite king would reject peace with Israel. God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to hand him over to Israel (2:30).
This brings to mind the way God hardened Pharaoh’s heart back in Egypt, so that he could display his great power and glory. The hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, though, began with Pharaoh. He repeatedly defied God, stubbornly setting his heart against him (see Exod 7:22; 8:15, 32). Finally, God gave Pharaoh what he wanted and hardened his heart even further (see Exod 9:12). Don’t think then, that when God made Sihon’s heart obstinate, Sihon had been a righteous man previously. He’d been obstinate to begin with. And a day arrived when God used his obstinacy to bring righteous judgment upon him.
2:31 Notice what God told the Israelites in this passage: I have begun to give Sihon and his land to you. Begin to take possession of it. This raises the question, Did God give it to them, or did they have to take possession of it? The answer is both. Though God makes promises to his children, we must obey him to secure those promises. God feeds the birds of the sky (see Matt 6:26), but they don’t sit in their nests waiting for a special delivery of worms. They go out and obtain the food that God has provided. This is a lesson for us all.
2:32-37 When King Sihon came out to confront Israel with his army, God handed him over, and Israel defeated him (2:33). The Amorites were destroyed, and Israel took all of their possessions (2:34-35). There was no city that was inaccessible (2:36). Compare this victory to what is recorded in 1:28, where the faithless scouts complained that the Canaanite cities were “fortified to the heavens.” Moses wanted the new generation, which was about to cross over into Canaan and face those fortified cities, to know that nothing could stand in their way if they gave themselves fully to obeying the Lord’s instructions.
3:1-7 Another Amorite king whom the Israelites encountered was Og of Bashan. Like Sihon, Og came out against Israel with his whole army to do battle (3:1). And as in Sihon’s case, God had already determined to give the king, along with his whole army and his land, into Israel’s hands (3:2). Israel destroyed all the people and captured all sixty cities in Og’s kingdom, which also had the same high walls as Sihon’s (3:4-6). High-walled cities were no barrier when God decided to hand an enemy over to his people. The most spectacular example of that truth would come later at the city of Jericho (see Josh 6:1-21).
3:8-11 Israel defeated Sihon and Og and took possession of their vast lands on the east side of the Jordan (3:8). Then Moses added another parenthetical comment. King Og was the last remnant of the Reph-aim, a people group of gigantic physical size. His bed was made of iron and was 13 1/2 feet long and 6 feet wide (3:11). Clearly, he was no puny king. And his take down testifies to the truth that the Lord is no puny god. Israel need not worry about the size of the enemies they would have to face. They needed only to remember the size of their God.
3:12-20 Moses then recounted the dividing of the Transjordan among the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh (3:12-13). These groups had asked to dwell on the east side of the Jordan rather than accompany the other tribes into Canaan (see Num 32:1-42). Yet they promised to send soldiers to help their brothers conquer the promised land before returning home (3:18-20). Jair, a member of the tribe of Manasseh, was singled out for his valiant efforts in taking land for his family (3:14).
3:21-22 Next came a discussion regarding the transfer of leadership—something that must have been very difficult for Moses. He reminded Joshua of what he had seen with his own eyes. Israel had vanquished the two kings, Sihon and Og, and captured their lands. But there was a larger purpose in their destruction than mere land acquisition: The Lord [would] do the same to all the kingdoms [they were] about to enter (3:21). In other words, Moses said, “Don’t worry about the enemies in the promised land, Joshua, because you’ve just seen what God can do to those who oppose him. Don’t be afraid of them, for the Lord your God fights for you” (3:22). (You too can be courageous to follow God’s will for your life because he has your back.)
3:23-25 Since he had disobeyed the Lord, Moses had been forbidden to enter the promised land (see Num 20:1-13), but it seems the encouraging victories he had led in Transjordan may have given him hope that God was open to changing his mind. So Moses, whose intercessory prayers had been effective previously, begged God to let him cross over and see the beautiful land (3:23-25).
3:26-28 But God’s “no” was indeed “no.” He, like a parent putting his foot down, said, That’s enough! Do not speak to me again about this matter (3:26). All he allowed Moses to do was to ascend Mount Pisgah and view the land from afar (3:27). Nevertheless, though Moses could not go with them, the Lord continued to provide leadership for his people. Joshua (mentioned now for the third time in the book; see also 1:38; 3:21) would lead Israel and enable them to inherit [the] land (3:28). To inherit what God was giving them required obedience, and Joshua was the man for the job.
4:1-4 Chapter 4 is an important hinge in Deuteronomy, pivoting from Moses’s retracing of Israel’s forty-year journey in the wilderness to the lessons the nation needed to learn from this retelling. This chapter transitions to Moses’s formal teaching of God’s laws and commands, which covers the majority of the book (5:1–26:19). Before this second address begins, Moses finishes his first address to Israel with a strong call to respond to God with obedience.
To the new generation of Israelites, Moses had a message with two simple but powerful points: obey God and worship him alone. In their short time as God’s covenant people, Israel had repeatedly failed at this. Moses reminded them of one example with the mention of Baal-peor (4:3). This was the infamous incident in which the Israelite men were enticed into physical and spiritual adultery with Moabite and Midianite women, worshiping the false god Baal (see Num 25:1-18; 31:13-16). God destroyed every Israelite who followed Baal of Peor (4:3). Yet Moses made a clear contrast between that group and his hearers: But you who have remained faithful to the Lord your God are all alive today (4:4). Obedience to the Lord brings life and blessings; disobedience brings death and cursing. That’s the message of Deuteronomy.
4:5-8 One of the purposes of God’s statutes and ordinances (4:5) was to teach Israel to be a light to the nations around them. If the Israelites were faithful to follow these commands, the peoples surrounding them would marvel at their wisdom and understanding (4:6). After all, their righteous statutes and ordinances were without equal (4:8). This pointed not to the greatness of Israel—but to the greatness of their God, who is near to his people whenever we call (4:7). This is a wonderful indicator that when you faithfully follow the agenda of your divine King, you will experience the comfort you need, and he will receive the glory he deserves. Moreover, those who don’t know him will take notice that there is something different about your approach to life and will seek to learn about it.
4:9 To fulfill their role and live as God’s covenant people, Israel dare not forget the things they had seen and been taught. The human mind has an amazing tendency to forget God’s goodness and fall into sin again and again. One of the ways to help the people avoid this pitfall involved them regularly teaching God’s ways to their children and grandchildren—that is, they needed to establish a godly legacy within their homes. Living faithfully as God’s people requires that we transmit our faith to our children.
4:10-12 Israel faced the constant temptation to copy the idolatry of the surrounding nations, as they had at Baal-peor. To help the new generation remember the greatness of Israel’s God, Moses recounted that fear-inducing experience when God gave them his law at Horeb (4:10). The mountain was blazing with fire and enveloped in a totally black cloud (4:11). In the midst of this experience, God spoke. Yet the people saw no form but only heard a voice (4:12). In other words, the people had been given no image to associate with their deity. God did not reveal himself in a physical form; therefore, Israel was not to worship physical images—idols of their own creation.
4:13-14 Instead of revealing an image of himself, the Lord revealed his own character and his will for his people in the form of the Ten Commandments (4:13). If Israel were to cross into and possess the land, keeping God’s Word would be essential to their ability to flourish (4:14). It would show their reverential awe of him, their holy fear. When we fear God, we take him seriously—so much so that we fear disobeying his Word.
4:15-20 Since idolatry had posed such a problem for Israel in the past, and since the land they were entering was filled with it, Moses spent extensive time warning the Israelites against idolatry’s consequences (4:15-31). He pointed out that on the day Israel entered a covenant with the Lord, they saw no form of the Lord—no shape of a person or animal (4:15). To worship an idol in the shape of anything in all creation would only corrupt them; the Lord was not to be represented in such a manner (4:16-19).
4:21-24 Again Moses reminded the people that he wouldn’t accompany them into the good land (4:21). In his exasperation with the people’s complaining, Moses had disobeyed God (see Num 20:1-13). So he knew he wouldn’t be there to help them focus their minds and hearts on God when they reached their destination. Instead, he urged them not to forget the covenant God had made with them by making an idol (4:23). For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, he said, a jealous God (4:24). Idolatry is spiritual adultery, a theme that will be highlighted throughout much of the Old Testament. Like a faithful husband whose wife has broken the marriage covenant, the Lord expresses a righteous jealousy for his people when they turn from his love and their own promises to cozy up to strangers.
4:25-28 If Israel were to forsake their covenant God for an idol in the form of anything, his judgment on them would be severe (4:25-26). Sadly, though, these words of warning would become a prophecy. Eventually, God would indeed scatter Israel among the peoples of Assyria and Babylon because of their unfaithfulness (4:27).
4:29-31 Yet even in that extreme state of distress, God would not completely abandon his people. Moses said, You will search for the Lord your God, and you will find him when you seek him with all your heart (4:29). This, in fact, is a promise that is still available today. Though you may have strayed far from God, if you turn to him in true repentance, he will not hide from you but will allow himself to be found. He is a compassionate God who does not forget his covenant promises (4:30-31).
4:32-40 Moses invited the Israelites to consider their circumstances. From the day God created mankind, had any other people experienced what Israel had? he asked (4:32). Had any other nation heard God’s voice or been miraculously rescued by him? (4:33-34). Never. Israel had been shown such amazing grace, so that they would know that the Lord is God; there is no other (4:35). What should the knowledge of this unique and incomparable God drive his people of all times to do? To keep his statutes and commands . . . so that [we and our] children after [us] may prosper (4:40).
4:41-43 The cities of refuge were places where an Israelite who committed manslaughter could flee for protection until he could receive a trial (4:42; see Num 35:9-29). There were to be a total of six such cities throughout Israel, three on the west side of the Jordan River and three on the east. Since the people already occupied the land to the east of the Jordan, Moses set apart three cities there (4:41): Bezer in Reuben’s territory, Ramoth in Gad’s, and Golan in Manasseh’s (4:43).