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Laura Quick
Assistant Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies, Princeton University

Course: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Related Courses: History of Law, The Bible and the Ancient Near East
Intended Audience: Undergraduate
Syllabus Section: The Book of Deuteronomy

Guide to the Lesson Plan

The following lesson plan is intended for use in an undergraduate level "Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament" course, and provides an overview of the literary history of the book of Deuteronomy. The lesson will also ground Deuteronomy in its broader ancient Near Eastern setting. Ultimately, we will explore issues of the dating, social-setting and original audience of the text, as well as the transformations that the text underwent through a continuous process of transmission and interpretation. The lesson plan assues that the students possess some familiarity with the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and with methodological approaches to the Hebrew Bible. A section of background information is also provided for students without this familiarity; for example, if the class is to be implemented as part of a "History of Law" lecture course, rather than in a course focused on biblical literature and/or history.


After completing this lesson, students should:

  1. be able to offer a clear account of the general contents of the book of Deuteronomy;
  2. gain an understanding of the ways in which the book of Deuteronomy was formed and transmitted;
  3. have a clear understanding of the main historical processes that shaped the book of Deuteronomy;
  4. attain an understanding of the ancient Near Eastern background of biblical law; and,
  5. hone their skills as close readers and as critical thinkers.

Outline of Lesson Plan

  • I. Background Information
  • II. Pre-Class Preparation and Assignments
  • III. Class Session:

    • 1. The Book of Deuteronomy: Some Background
    • 2. Introductory Discussions: Two Biblical Law Codes
    • 3. Lecture: Who Wrote Deuteronomy?
    • 4. Group Activity: Reading and Analysis of Deuteronomy and Ancient Near Eastern Texts
    • 5. Conclusions and Prospect
  • IV. Assignments and Topics for Further Discussion
  • Further Reading

I. Background Information

Prior to the class, students with no previous experience in the academic study of the Torah or the Pentateuch, or who lack familiarity with the general historical outline of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, may find it helpful to read some of the following background material:

  1. Oxford Biblical Studies Online: Biblical World and Rulers Timeline
  2. Oxford Bible Atlas: The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah
  3. Oxford Biblical Studies Online: Documentary Hypothesis

II. Pre-class Preparation and Assignments

Prior to the class, all students may find it helpful to read the following material:

  1. NOAB: Deuteronomy—Introduction
  2. Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies: Law in the Old Testament, The Book of Deuteronomy

Optional reading: Oxford Companion to the Bible: Covenant

Optional pre-class assigntment:

Ask students to read Deuteronomy 12‒26 in advance of class, and then to write a short journal-style blog response to the following questions:

  1. For which sort of people do you think the laws in Deuteronomy were intended?
  2. Which sort of people do you think would have written the laws of Deuteronomy?
  3. How practical would it be to implement these laws?
  4. What is the purpose of a legal code?

Encourage students to upload their responses to an online platform and to read the responses of their fellow classmates.

III. Class

The following material is intended to provide a possible outline for a lecture, including a presentation, group activities, and discussion. Relevant OSBO links are provided where possible in order to flesh out the outline with more detail and further materials.

1. The Book of Deuteronomy: Some Background

The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch, also known as the Torah in Jewish tradition. As well as forming a part of this five book collection, Deuteronomy displays a number of marked similarities to the Former Prophets, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. In a way, then, Deuteronomy provides a bridge between each collection. The book begins with a short narrative introduction (1:1‒5) recalling selected traditions from the wilderness wanderings, followed by three farewell speeches issued by Moses to the Israelites (1:6‒4:4‒3; 4:44‒28:68; and 29:01‒32:52) on the plains of Moab, taking place directly before they cross over the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land (although the actual conquest of Canaan is only described after the close of the book of Deuteronomy, in the book of Joshua). The bulk of these speeches consist of various laws, about half of which are modified from the Covenant Code, the body of legal material from the book of Exodus (20:23‒23:33);in fact, the main law code of Deuteronomy 12‒26 roughly follows the pattern of the Ten Commandments first given in Exodus 34. So Deuteronomy provides a second version of the laws of the Covenant Code, both reformulating them and adding some new laws, too. This is how the book got the name by which it is frequently called in English translations: "Deuteronomy" is taken from the Greek to deuteronomion, meaning "a second law."

Although much of the material is familiar from the earlier books of the Pentateuch, in Deuteronomy these laws are couched as direct speech by Moses: instead of prescriptions, they appear more like teachings, and for this reason Deuteronomy has commonalities with Wisdom Literature, particularly the book of Proverbs. The basic structure of the book can be broken down into historical prologue, legal code, and blessings and curses. This structure is also found in the treaty texts that were formalized between the different kingdoms of the ancient Near East. While Deuteronomy therefore has features in common with various genres of biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature, the combination of all of these features in Deuteronomy has created something unique, and it is perhaps for this reason that commentators have struggled to understand when the book was written, who wrote it, and the reasons behind its production.

2. Introductory Discussion: Two Biblical Law Codes

Since we have identified the social and historical context that gave rise to Deuteronomy as being essential to its understanding, then another important question arises regarding the relationship between the laws in Deuteronomy and the similar laws given in the book of Exodus. In what order were these laws written? Are the laws of Deuteronomy based on the laws in Exodus, or vice versa? The introductory discussion is a good place to start thinking through some of the implications of these kinds of questions, as well as to introduce students to some of the scholarly methods utilized by biblical scholars when working with ancient texts.

Warm-up activity: Ask students to work together in groups of four or five, and provide them with exmaples of laws that are found in both Deuteronomy and Exodus, for example the laws concerning release from slavery:

Exod. 21:2‒11

2When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's and he shall go out alone. 5But if the slave declares, "I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person," 6then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life. 7When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. 11And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

Deut. 15:12‒18

12If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. 13And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. 14Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD your God has blessed you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today. 16But if he says to you, "I will not go out from you," because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you, 17then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his earlobe into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. You shall do the same with regard to your female slave. 18Do not consider it a hardship when you send them out from you free persons, because for six years they have given you services worth the wages of hired laborers; and the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.

Students should consider the following questions in their groups:

  1. How do the laws relate to each other? What are the similarities and differences between each version?
  2. Why does the Hebrew Bible preserve multiple version of laws concerning slaves? What are the implications of this?
  3. What criteria could be used to determine which version is the earliest? What are the implications of this for our understanding of the composition of the Torah?
  4. What might these laws suggest about gender relations or ethnic identity in ancient Israel?
  5. Do these texts have any ethical implications for us today?

After considering these questions in groups, the class should come together to discuss their findings. The instructor should try to facilitate discussion toward the idea that, in general, the laws in Deuteronomy seem to streamline and condense the laws of Exodus, and that this might suggest that Deuteronomy serves, in a sense, to update Exodus. Students should also be encouraged to think sensitively about ancient texts that come from cultures very different from our own, as well as the responsibility of biblical interpreters when working with this kind of material.

Alternative laws that might be discussed include the release from debt (Deut 15:1‒11; Exod 23:10‒11); festivals (Deut 16:1‒17; Exod 23:14‒17); judges (Deut 16:19‒20; Exod 23:6‒8); cities of asylum (Deut 19:1‒13; Exod 21:12‒14); witnesses for trial (Deut 19:15‒21; Exod 23:1‒3); rebellious sons (Deut 21:18‒21; Exod 21:15,17); lost property (Deut 22:1‒4; Exod 23:4‒5); illicit sexual relations (Deut 22:28‒29; Exod 22:16‒17); and helping the debtor (Deut 24:6,10‒13; Exod 22:26‒27).

The exercise works best when using laws that extend over more than one verse.

3. Lecture: Who Wrote Deuteronomy?

It is generally accepted among most biblical scholars that at least part of Deuteronomy should be associated with the seventh century BCE. In this lecture, we will consider some of the reasons for this assumption. However, given the diversity of genres and intertextual links found in the book as discussed in section [1] above, the situation is complex and generally Deuteronomy is understood to have had a long compositional process across several distinct periods, as the material was updated in response to new situations and crises. While this does account for the diversity found in the book itself, it makes it difficult to associate Deuteronomy with a particular group. For this reason, and due to its literary history, Deuteronomy has continued to be controversially discussed among scholars. Nevertheless, we can discern the following periods as being particularly important for understanding the growth of the text.

The Scribal Background of Deuteronomy and the Reform of King Josiah

It has long been noted that the book of Deuteronomy should be associated with the "book of the law" found by King Josiah of Judah (639‒609 BCE), and described in 2 Kings 22:

8The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD." When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. 9Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, "Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the LORD." 10Shaphan the secretary informed the king, "The priest Hilkiah has given me a book." Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.

Upon hearing the laws of this mysterious book, Josiah decided to radically reform the religion of his country, including centralizing all worship in the Jerusalem Temple and tearing down any sanctuaries outside of the capital city. This reform is described in 2 Kings 23. The move toward centralized worship in Jerusalem is very similar to laws found in Deuteronomy 12. Accordingly, it is thought that Hilkiah's "book of the law" was in fact an early version of the book of Deuteronomy. In order to justify this revolutionary vision of Judean religion, the reformers utilized earlier legal traditions from the book of Exodus—even when they disagreed with those laws. As shown by Levinson (1998), Deuteronomy revised these earlier laws as a way of showing continuity with the past, and hence legitimacy of the religious reform.

There is a second reason for associating Deuteronomy with the seventh century BCE. In the ancient world, literacy was limited to fairly narrow groups of people, and during the period of the Israelite and Judean monarchies, scribes working at the royal courts were largely responsible for communicating with other nations and producing literary works. The latter responsibility included texts of national and theological importance, some of which made it into our Hebrew Bible. Throughout their histories, Israel and Judah frequently had to withstand the political ambitions of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. In fact, the nothern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722/721 BCE. While Judah was not destroyed at this time, it was also not an independent kingdom, but a vassal of Assyria that was politically dependent on the larger nation. A commmon way of establishing a vassal relationship between two kingdoms was for the larger power to subject the dependent nation to a number of laws and sanctinos known as a treaty. There are multiple examples of these treaty texts from the ancient Near East, sharing a standard format and structure. As noted in section 1 above, Deuteronomy has a similar structure to these treaty texts. Moreover, following Weinfeld (1972) it has been recognized that the curses in Deuteronomy 28 have clear correspondences to a particular treaty from the seventh century BCE known as the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon. In 672 BCE King Esarhaddon of Assyria made his vassals swear loyalty to his son via this treaty, and presumably this would have included Judah. The scribes at the royal court of Judah would therefore have been familiar with the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon, and adapted parts of it in their new composition, Deuteronomy. Although the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon had declared the Assyrians to be the overlords of Judah, Deuteronomy utilized the same treaty structure, as well as some specific curses, and attempted to subvert these claims by creating a new document in which God, and not Assyria, was envisioned to be the overlord of the Judean people.

Complicating the Picture: Northern Prophecies and Sanctuaries

While this presents an attractive picture for understanding the composition of Deuteronomy, nevertheless it does not account for all of the diverse material found in the book. In addition to the parallels to Assyrian treaties, there are also a number of similarities between the curses in Deuteronomy 28 and some Aramaic incsriptions of the eighth century BCE, in particular the Sefire Aramaic Inscriptions (Quick 2017). Nicholson (1967) has shown that there are affinities between the language of Deuteronomy and the writings associated with Hosea, a prophet from the northern kingdom of Israel active during the eighth century BCE. Accordingly, it has been suggested that Deueronomy also contains traditions from the kingdom of Israel. Following the fall of Israel to the Assyrians, fleeing Israelites may have brought some of their literary texts and traditions across the border into Judea, whereupon they were adapted and incorporated into what later became the book of Deuteronomy.

A Bible for Exiles: Deuteronomy adn the Deuteronomic History

Josiah's reform had proposed that all of the misfortunes suffered by the Israelites and Judeans were occasioned by their failure to adhere to "the book of the law," naemly an early version of Deuteronomy. Following the reform in light of this book, it could be expected that things would take a turn for the better for the Judeans. This was not to be so, and 597 BCE Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians, and the king along with his nobles were exiled to Babylon. Further groups of Judeans were subsequently deported, with the largest and most disastrous occurring in 586 BCE. During the period of exile, Deuteronomy was expanded in order to serve as an introduction for the Former Prophets, also known was the Deuteronomistic (or Deuteronomic) History, which served to explain the reasons for the Babylonian defeat of the Judeans (Noth 1942). References forewarning the exile were inserted at various points in the text (28:45‒68; 29:19‒29; 32:13‒35).

The Transformation of Deuteronomy in the Persian Period: Deuteronomy and Torah

So far we have seen three of the stages behind the composition of Deuteronomy: first, early literary traditions from the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE; these were then updated and adapted in Judah in the seventh century BCE, as part of Josiah's reform and as anti-Assyrian propaganda; finally, this text was connected to the Deuteronomistic History in the sixth century BCE, as an introduction to that collection. It is clear that Deuteronomy was not originally composed in order to be the final book in the Torah, despite its current canonical location. In 539 BCE, Cyrus of Prussia conquered Babylon and allowed the exiled Judeans to return. During the post-exilic period, Deuteronomy was updated again. This update transformed Moses into a unique figure from whose mouth the legal material issued, and separated the material from the Former Prophets in order to create a stronger link with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers (Najman 2003). Thus, the five-book corpus of the Torah was created.

4. Group Activity: Reading and Analysis of Deuteronomy and Ancient Near Eastern Texts

Divide students into groups of 4‒5. Task each group to compare and contrast the curse section from Deut 28:26‒29 and the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon, §§ 39‒41.

Deut 28:26

Your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air and animal of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away.

VTE § 41

May Ninurta, the foremost among the gods, fell you with his fierce arrow; may he fill the plain with your blood and feed your flesh to the eagle and the vulture.

Deut 28:27

The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed.

VTE § 39

May Sin, the brightness of heaven and earth, clothe you with leprosy and forbid your entering into the presence of the gods or king. Roam the desert like the wild-ass and the gazelle!

Deut 28:28‒29

The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind; you shall grope about at noon as blind people grope in darkness, but you shall be unable to find your way; and you shall be continually abused and robbed, without anyone to help.

VTE § 40

May Shamash, the light of heaven and earth, not judge you justly. May he remove your eyesight. Walk about in darkness! (Parpola and Watanabe 1988: 419‒424)

The group should read the passages and then discuss the following questions:

  1. What are the similarities between these texts?
  2. What are the differenes and how might we account for them?
  3. Why might it be useful to include such blessings and curses in a legal code?

5. Conclusions and Prospect

This class has considered the development of the canonical book of Deuteronomy. However, even after the close of the canon, Jewish communities have continued to expand and adapt it. Students can continue to trace this process of transformation and renewal in the Second Temple Period by looking at texts from Qumran, such as Reworked Pentateuch, the Temple Scroll, and the Damascus Document. Additional questions to consider could therefore include the canonical process, Rewritten Bible, and the ways in which texts confer authority.

IV. Assignments and Topics for Further Discussion

Possible term paper topics or questions for further discussion could include:

  1. Is it fair to call Deuteronomy a manifesto for social and religious unity among the people of Israel?
  2. What sort of strategies does Deuteronomy utilize in order to claim authority for its laws and message?
  3. Is the term "Rewritten Bible" helpful for understanding the composition of Deuteronomy and the history of its interpretation?

Further Reading

Levinson, Bernard M. Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Najman, Hindy. Seconding Sinai: The Development of Mosaic Discourse in Second Temple Judaism. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Nicholson, Ernest W. Deuteronomy and Tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967.

Noth, Martin. Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien 1. Halle: Niemeyer, 1943.

Parpola, Simo, and Kazuko Watanabe. Neo-Assyrian Treaties and Loyalty Oaths. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1998.

Quick, Laura. Deuteronomy 28 and the Aramaic Curse Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Weinfeld, Moshe. Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

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