Deuteronomy 1-4: Historical overview, massacre

Introduction: Deuteronomy is a complex text composed of 4 main sections: 3 discourses by Moses and a section describing Moses’ death.  The first discourse is mainly a historical review; the second is mainly a legal corpus; the third describes the ratification ceremony for the covenant.  Deuteronomy is a composite of multiple authors with multiple conflicting viewpoints.  The bulk (ch 5-26) is a treaty between God and the Israelites; this was probably written before the Babylonian exile but after Assyria’s conquest of the northern kingdom, serving as a tool in Josiah’s religious reform (who reigned 641-609 BC).  During the exile, many parts of the book were modified or expanded upon to reflect the new experiences of the Israelite people.  After exile, chapters 1-4 and 29-34 were added, partly to serve as introductions and conclusions.

Deuteronomy 1-4: Moses describes the history of the Israelites.  From Horeb, God guided us to the hill country of the Amorites and told us to take it as a possession.  All of you asked me to send spies first, and even though they gave a good report of the land, you refused to go up due to fear of the giants living there.  When God heard this, he punished you with 40 years of wondering in the desert, and I was punished too for your crime.  After this, you went south into the wilderness and skirted the edge of Edom until the LORD told you to go through Edom.  This detour took 38 years, until all the warriors who had left Egypt had died off.  The LORD commanded us to occupy the land of Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon.  We defeated them and massacred everyone, killing all their men, women, and children.  The LORD then delivered King Og of Bashan into our power.  We captured all his towns, killing all their men, women, and children.  We then apportioned land east of the Jordan for the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassehites, on condition that they serve as shock troops to conquer the rest of Canaan.

I pleaded with God to let me enter the promised land, but he would only let me observe it from afar.  Therefore, give heed to the laws and rules that I am giving, so that you may occupy the land.  You yourselves saw God at Mount Sinai and heard him speak.  Which other people has had that honor?


  • The account of the people’s spying of the land, complaints, and attempt to enter Canaan without divine sanction is a retelling of Numbers 13-14, with some variations.  For example, in Deut 1:35-36, Caleb shall only see the promised land; in Num 14:24, Caleb is allowed to enter.  Furthermore, in 1:37, God forbids Moses to enter Canaan due to this rebellious behavior, but in Num 20:12, it is due to a separate incident at  Meribah.
  • These chapters contain both a monotheistic and a polytheistic worldview.  Deut 3:24 reads “O Lord GOD […] You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!”  This assumes the existence of other gods.  The opposite viewpoint is espoused in 4:35: “It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the LORD alone is God; there is none beside Him”
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