Historical Review

Deuteronomy commences with four chapters providing an historical framework against which the rest of the book should be viewed. They bring the covenant history up to date and indicate that the important renewal of the covenant took place in Moab on the eastern bank of the Jordan. The persons involved in the renewal, as well as the place and time, are clearly specified.

1. God's Word to Israel (1:1-8)

1:1 The book begins with a short introductory section which leads into the historical review. It opens with the expression 'these are the words' from which the Jewish title of the book has been taken (The Words). Deuteronomy claims to record Moses' addresses which were delivered in the desert east of the Jordan to all Israel. The expression 'east of the Jordan' is possibly a general geographical description denoting the region of Transjordania, though originally it meant 'across the Jordan' (either east or west depending upon the standpoint of the author). The 'Arabah' is the rift valley running from the Sea of Galilee down to the modern Eilat on the Gulf of Aqabah, and then down into central Africa.

The place names cannot be identified with precision. Both Paran and Hazeroth are mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g. Paran in Gen. 21:21; Num. 10:12; 1 Kings 11:18; and Hazeroth in Num. 11:35; 12:16; 33:17) but it is difficult to know if the same places are intended here. 'Suph' means 'reed', and it occurs in the Old Testament Hebrew phrase yam suf, 'Sea of Reeds', which expression is used of both the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqabah (Exod. 13:18; 1 Kings 9:26). While attempts to identify the sites are interesting, the reality of the events does not depend upon our ability to identify the sites with precision today, any more than our belief in the crucifixion and ascension of Christ depends upon discovering the exact locations on which they happened. Probably all the Deuteronomic sites instanced are in the region of Moab.

1:2 A note is appended to indicate the time taken for travel from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea. Horeb and Sinai are synonymous terms, but in Deuteronomy Horeb is used almost exclusively with the only occurrence of Sinai appearing in 33:2. In the 19th and 20th centuries this time period of eleven days was tested and proved quite possible. The reason for this statement here is, however, not just a matter of curiosity. Rather there is a sharp contrast between 'the eleven days' here in this verse and 'the fortieth year' in the following one. Because of their disobedience Israel was to experience those long and bitter years in the wilderness and only at the end of that period are they again on the borders of Canaan.

1:3 The only specification of time in the whole book occurs here. Moses' proclamation took place on the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year. This fits with other time indicators in Numbers and Joshua. Miriam died in the first month (Num. 20:1), and Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month (Num. 33:38). The Jordan crossing took place on the tenth day of the first month in the forty-first year (Josh. 4:19). The content of Moses' proclamation did not originate with himself but was a declaration of instructions he had received; and they were intended specifically for all Israel.

1:4 The reference to the defeat of Sihon and Og is important. Israel had to realise that the Lord was continuing to fulfil his promises. Moses had led them to victory over these two Amorite kings. Edrei could well have been another capital that Og occupied, rather than the place where he was defeated. The following chapters spell out details of these victories.

1:5 It was just prior to Moses' death that he undertook to expound the law to them. Aware of his coming death, Moses gives his final instruction to the people and prepares to hand leadership to Joshua. The reference to 'this law' most probably includes the basic demands of the covenant as law. It is used elsewhere as virtually synonymous with covenant (Isa. 24:5; Hos. 8:1). 'The book of the law' is a fitting description of the entire covenant document (Deut. 28:61).

1:6 Moses begins by referring back to Horeb and the initiative for moving out from there. It did not come from the Israelites themselves but it was 'the Lord our God', says Moses, who gave the directions. Events at Sinai had seen the Israelites pledging themselves to their God, and now the time had come for advance into hostile territory.

1:7-8 The people were instructed to move forward and to enter Amorite territory in southern Canaan. They were also to attack in the Jordan Valley (the Arabah), in the low country between the Judean hills and the Mediterranean (the Shephelah), and the desert extending from around Beersheba north to the hills of Judah (the Negev). In the north they were to reach Lebanon, and the Euphrates in the north east, all this being the land promised to the patriarchs (see Gen. 12:1; 15:18-21; 17:8). Abraham had to leave his home land of Ur, but was promised much more in its place. The same promise was also given to Isaac (Gen. 26:3) and to Jacob (Gen. 28:13f.; 35:12). At the very outset of this book the theme of the land appears and it is dominant throughout. The people are reminded that God was fulfilling an oath he had made (Gen. 15). The land which was to be their possession was a sworn land, for God had in solemn covenant pledged it to Israel.

The territorial extent noted here agrees with other descriptions given elsewhere (Num. 34:1-12; Josh. 1:4). The closest Israel came to possessing it was during the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 4:21, 24) or during the reigns of Jeroboam II in the north and Uzziah in the south. After the exile the people acknowledged that the promise of the land had been realised (Neh. 9:8).

2. Horeb to Hormah (1:9-46)

(i) The Appointment of Leaders (1:9-18)

Moses now calls attention to an event prior to the giving of the law on Sinai. He recalls the record in Exodus 18:13-26 when he, acting on the advice of his father-in-law Jethro, appointed leaders and judges to assist him in the task of leading and governing Israel. This section in Deuteronomy looks back to the decentralisation of legal processes in Israel.

1:9 Moses recalls how he recognised the heaviness of the task committed to him. By himself he was unable to bear the burden of caring for Israel. The reminder of this fact is important as Israel prepares to go into the land under a new leader, but already it had other recognised officials who were able to assist.

1:10 The covenant given to the patriarchs had promised a large family (Gen. 12:2, 'a great nation'; 26:4, 'descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky'; 35:11, 'a nation and a community of nations will come from you'). Having already referred to God's covenant oath (v. 8), Moses points to the fulfilment of this promise in respect to the large family. Despite the then childlessness of Abraham and Sarah God fulfilled his promise. Abraham had been 'fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised' (Rom. 4:21).

1:11 Moses' prayer is for an even greater fulfilment of the promise than that already experienced. He specifically mentions the blessing of Israel (cf. Gen. 12:2). Probably the thought is of spiritual blessings which would accompany and proceed from the increasing size of Israel. The conjunction of the two ideas is already explicit in the promise to Isaac (Gen. 26:4).

1:12 The question posed by Moses relates to burdens which press down on him ('problems' and 'burdens' are practically synonymous terms) and to the legal questions ('disputes') that he had to settle. As his father-in-law rightly perceived (Exod. 18:18) some lightening of his burdens, especially in the legal sphere, was necessary.

1:13 The invitation was given for the people to choose men of practical wisdom and insight; and who were also men of proven ability, for appointment over them. Appointees were to be from each tribe so that those possessing authority over a particular tribe would be chosen from it.

1:14-15 The proposal being accepted by the people Moses proceeded with the appointments. Leading men were chosen to exercise authority over the various divisions within Israel ('thousands', 'hundreds', 'fifties', 'tens'). At this time there was little separation of general leadership responsibilities, i.e. military roles and legal functions.

1:16 The judges had the task of hearing disputes, whether they were between native Israelites or involving an alien. The people who had just come out of slavery, without rights as aliens in Egypt, now have to show concern for the alien in their midst. Such aliens would not have the full rights of an Israelite, but are to be accorded respect in legal disputes.

1:17 In giving judgment the newly appointed officials had to show impartiality, as is stressed twice in this verse ('Do not show partiality in judging;... do not be afraid of any man'). The additional reason is given that judgment was the prerogative of God himself. God was the Lord to whom they were bound by covenant bonds, and within the theocracy of Israel God was the ultimate judge. He therefore required administration of justice in the earthly kingdom over which he ruled to be a true reflection of his own uprightness as judge over all. The most difficult cases were to be referred to Moses.

1:18 If God's law was to be administered rightly in the land to which they were going, the people must first show obedience to his commands. The content of their instructions extended to 'everything' that God had commanded through Moses.

(ii) The Exploration of the Land (1:19-25)

These verses summarise the exploration of the land by the twelve scouts. A fuller account appears in Numbers 13. The spies went as far north as the region around Lebo Hamath, which is probably the modern Lebweh in Syria (Num. 13:21). Both accounts focus attention on the Valley of Eshcol and the samples of its bounteous crops which were brought back.

1:19 At God's direction the Israelites left Horeb and journeyed through the desert until they reached Kadesh Barnea. They were then poised for advance into the hills of southern Judah, which at that time were home to the Amorites.

1:20-21 Moses reassures the people concerning their right to the land and that their God was in the process of giving them possession of it. There is express mention of the covenant promises concerning the land for 'the Lord, the God of your fathers', said Moses, had given it to them. This covenant faithfulness of God stands in marked contrast to the rebellion of the people that is described later in the chapter (vv. 26-46).

1:22 The people en masse approach Moses suggesting that there should be reconnaissance of the land prior to invasion. They wanted knowledge of the actual situation ('the towns') and also the most appropriate way ('the route') to make the incursion into Canaan.

1:23 Here Moses accepts the proposition and chooses one spy from each of the twelve tribes. In Numbers 13:1-3 it is stated that it was at the Lord's express command that Moses sent out the spies. Clearly the proposal of the people met with divine approval.

1:24-25 The spies explored the valley of Eshcol in the vicinity of Hebron, an area still noted for its grapes. Taking some of the fruit (the Hebrew word used, pe, is the general word for fruit) the spies returned with a glowing report concerning the land that the Lord was giving to Israel.

(iii) Disobedience and Failure (1:26-46)

1:26 This verse provides a summary of Numbers 13:26-33. In spite of all God's promises, the spies' report on the land's bountiful nature and Caleb's urging to advance, the people baulked. The word 'rebelled' is a technical term for breach of covenant regulations.

1:27 That the people grumbled in their tents implies that to one another they spoke rebellious words against the Lord. They even considered that God had brought them out of Egypt because he hated them and wished to destroy them. They had already forgotten that God had brought them out because he loved them and had displayed his sovereign grace in the Exodus. The memory of this event was to remain throughout coming generations in the words of one historical psalm: 'They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord' (Ps. 106:25).

1:28 The people now questioned where they could go as the report of the spies had made them utterly discouraged. They wanted to transfer the responsibility for their rebellion to the spies. The report was that the Canaanites were stronger and taller (some Hebrew mss. have numerous here in place of taller, conforming this verse to the expression in 2:10, 21), and living in fortified cities. 'Anakites' seems to be used as a general expression for giants, though it may well originally have been the name of a particular tribe.

1:29 Moses then tried to re-assure a frightened Israel that there was nothing of which to be terrified or afraid (cf. his earlier words in v. 21). The reality of the opposition awaiting them was not denied, but with God on their side why should they be afraid of them?

1:30 If the people wanted re-assurance for the future they should simply remember the past. They were eye-witnesses of what had transpired in Egypt when God brought them out 'with an out-stretched arm and a mighty hand'. This same God was going before them and would fight their battles.

1:31 In their desert experiences they had seen the protection which God had afforded them right up to that very moment. It was constant, fatherly protection. The imagery here is important because it relates to the unique relationship between God and Israel. Earlier when Moses was told what to say to Pharaoh in Egypt, this was the message: 'Then say to Pharaoh, "This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, 'Let my son go, so that he may worship me'" (Exod. 4:22). Israel had been adopted into a position of privilege and service, and during all the experiences since the Exodus they had known God's fatherly care.

1:32-33 Even remembering all that God had done for them, they still did not put their abiding trust in him. The verb used here for 'trust' comes from a root which means 'sure, steadfast'. One form of the Hebrew verb (the Hiphil) came to mean 'believe, trust', and the participle here points to a constant characteristic of the people. It was not an isolated incident of unbelief, but an abiding manifestation of distrust. Their attitude was all the more reprehensible, because they had a constant manifestation of God's presence.

1:34-36 Though the people thought that their murmurings were known only to themselves, the Lord heard them. What they said provoked his anger and his response was in terms of another oath. Whereas the previous one (see v. 8) was an oath concerning possession of the land, this one was to ensure that those of the present generation would be excluded from it. The first oath pledged the land to Israel, as long as obedience was shown to the covenant requirements. Because this generation had proved themselves disobedient they were not to have any part in the blessings of the good land. The only exceptions were Caleb and Joshua (see v. 38). Caleb is described as having 'followed the Lord wholeheartedly'. The Hebrew text literally means 'he filled (himself) after the Lord'. Caleb's commitment was total, and this fact was reflected in his report about the land (Num. 13:30). The territory which he had traversed was promised specifically to him and to his descendants. Joshua 15:13 refers to this promise and notes the allocation to Caleb of Hebron.

1:37 Against Moses the Lord also displayed his anger. It is possible that on two occasions the Lord was angry with Moses. The first is mentioned here at the start of the wilderness wanderings and the other was much later when Moses struck the rock at Meribah (Num. 20:1-13). However it may well be that Moses brought in here a reference to the later incident as the consequence of his sin was that he too shared in the exclusion from Canaan. Psalm 106:32-33 refers to the same incident and makes the same connection between Moses and the people: 'By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord, and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses' lips'. Such thematic linking of ideas, not necessarily in chronological order, is quite common in Old Testament narratives. The reference highlights the fact that it was on account of Israel that Moses was punished. The unique position that Moses occupied as leader of Israel is also emphasised. In the Hebrew text this is indicated both in Moses' words and the quotation of the Lord's words. A literal translation brings this out: 'With me also the Lord was angry on account of you, saying, ''You also shall not enter there."'

1:38 The exclusion of Moses meant that another leader had to be appointed for the covenant people. This may well be a reference to another later incident which is also mentioned here because of the thought of Moses' impending death. In Numbers 27:12-23 there is the account of the designation of Joshua as Moses' successor, while later in Deuteronomy 31:1-8 the actual appointment is described.

He is called here Moses' assistant. The Hebrew text says that he stood before Moses, using a technical Hebrew description for a servant. His task would be to see that Israel truly entered into the promised inheritance.

1:39 The narrative now reverts to the present situation. In the reference to the children the element of hope appears. Not only are Caleb and Joshua to enter the land but a new generation as well. The rest of this book is concerned to spell out for that and succeeding generations their responsibilities before the Lord. It would seem that the Israelites had also used as an excuse for their own disobedience their fears that their children would be taken captive by their enemies. Those children were not to be punished because they had not reached years of maturity. They could not discern between good and evil (cf. the use of a similar phrase in connection with the Messianic child in Isa. 7:16).

1:40 Moses instructed the people to turn away from Canaan and to travel into the wilderness along the road to the Yam Suf. This seems to have been a road which ran along the rift valley south of the Dead Sea down to the Gulf of Aqaba at present day Eilat. Thus Yam Suf would appear to be a description of the Gulf of Aqaba and not of the sea which the Israelites crossed as they came out of Egypt.

1:41 The people had a change of mind and wanted to go up and fight. Their confession of sin ('we have sinned against the Lord') was not a genuine one as they still had not grasped the significance of their rebellion. Instead of looking to their God to fight for them, they thought that they could achieve it by themselves. So they made their preparations for battle.

1:42 Through Moses the Lord warned the people not to venture into battle because now he was not in their midst. The outcome could only be certain defeat in battle.

1:43 Even when the Lord's message came to them they persisted with their disobedience and presumptuously marched into battle. It was not only a reckless act but one which involved direct covenant rebellion.

1:44 Defeat was inevitable. The Amorites are likened to vicious bees on the attack (for use of this simile cf. Ps. 118:12; Isa. 7:18-19). They were defeated and had to flee before their attackers from Seir to Hormah, which appears to have been north-east of Kadesh. Later Hormah was part of the territory allotted to Simeon after the conquest (Josh. 19:4).

1:45 The first verb in this verse (NIV 'you came back') can be used in Hebrew of a mental turning or repentance but here it is best to understand it as a literal return. They appeared before the Lord (presumably the sanctuary is intended) and wept. Now it is the Lord who does not listen and pays no attention to their lamentations.

1:46 The last verse in the chapter records that Israel remained at Kadesh for quite a long time. The expression seems to be a general and indefinite one. It was not that they now remained for as long a period as they had previously stayed there. Israel had to learn through bitter experience that what was required was humble and willing submission to the Lord's clear commands.