Deuteronomy 1:1-46


1These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness to the east of the River Jordan, in the Arabah. The place was opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab. 2It takes eleven days to go from Horeb by way of Mt Seir to Kadesh-Barnea.

3In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the people of Israel, according to all that the Lord had given him as commandment for them. 4This was after he had defeated Sihon, the Amorite king who ruled in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who ruled in Ashtaroth and in Edrei.

5East of the Jordan, therefore, in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this law, in the following way:

6The Lord our God said to us at Horeb: ‘Now you have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7Set out now, and travel till you come to the land of the Amorites, and to the territory of all its inhabitants in the Arabah, in the highlands and lower uplands, in the Negeb and the coastal plain, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great River, the Euphrates. 8Look: I set the land before you; go and take possession of it. It is the land that the Lord swore to your forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give to them and their descendants after them.’

9At that time I said to you: ‘I cannot bear the burden of you alone. 10The Lord your God has increased your number, and here you are today, as many as the stars of the sky. 11May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you yet a thousand times greater in number and bless you, just as he promised you. 12Yet how can I bear alone your problems, your difficulties and disputes! 13Choose for yourselves wise, intelligent and experienced men, from all your tribes, and I will make them your leaders.’ 14And you replied to me: ‘What you propose to do is good.’ 15So I took from among you wise and experienced men, and I made them your leaders: commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens, and officers throughout your tribes. 16And I bound your judges at that time to hear cases between brothers, and to judge rightly, whether a man has a dispute with his brother, or with a resident non-Israelite. 17‘Do not show bias in your judgment; hear the cases of great and small in just the same way, without fear of your fellow human beings, for the judgment is God’s. But if a case is too hard for you, bring it to me and I will hear it.’ 18And I gave you instructions at that time about everything that you should do.

19We travelled from Horeb and went through that vast and terrible wilderness, which you have seen, taking a route for the land of the Amorites, just as the Lord our God commanded us. And we arrived at Kadesh-Barnea. 20I said to you: ‘You have come to the land of the Amorite which the Lord our God is giving to us. 21See! The Lord your God has set the land before you. Go up and take possession of it, just as the Lord, the God of your forefathers, told you to. Do not be afraid or dismayed.’

22Then all of you approached me and said: ‘Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us, to bring back news about the way we should go and the cities we are coming to.’ 23This seemed good to me, so I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe. 24So they set out to go up to the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol, and explored it. 25They took some of the fruit of the land, and brought it back to us, and also gave their report: ‘The land that the Lord our God is giving us is good.’

26But you would not go up. You rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. 27You complained in your tents, and said: ‘It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us from the land of Egypt to give us over to the Amorites to destroy us! 28Where are we to go up! Our brothers have dismayed us by saying: “The people are stronger and taller than us. The cities are huge, and fortified up to heaven. We even saw the Anakim there!” ’

29I said to you: ‘Don’t be terrified; don’t be afraid of them! 30The Lord your God, who goes ahead of you, will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes; 31and also in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all along your route, till you arrived at this place.’ 32For all that, you do not trust the Lord your God, who went ahead of you on the way to search out a place for you to camp—in the fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you the way that you should go.

34When the Lord heard what you said he was angry and swore this oath: 35‘Not a single one of this wicked generation shall see this good land which I swore to give to their forefathers. 36I make an exception for Caleb, the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it. I shall give him and his sons after him the land that he has walked on, because he followed the Lord wholeheartedly.’ 37The Lord was angry even with me because of you, and said: ‘You too shall not go in there. 38Joshua, the son of Nun, your servant, will go. Encourage him, for he will bring Israel to its inheritance. 39And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, your children, who this day do not know the difference between right and wrong, they will go in there. I will give the land to them, and they will take possession of it. 40You, however, must set out and go back towards the wilderness, the way to the Reed Sea.’

41Then you answered me: ‘We have sinned against the Lord. Let us indeed go and fight, as the Lord our God told us to.’ And you all put on your weapons of war, and thought you would easily go up to the land. 42But the Lord told me to say to you: ‘You must not go up and fight, for I am not among you. If you do, you will be mown down by your enemies.’ 43I told you this, but you would not obey. Instead, you rebelled arrogantly against his command and went up to the land. 44And the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you, and chased you just as bees do, and struck you down in Seir, as far as Hormah. 45You returned and wept before the Lord. But he would not listen to your cries; he turned a deaf ear to you. 46And so you stayed at Kadesh. Your stay was a long one.

Notes on the Text

1. Two Hebrew mss, lxx, Syr have we’ēlleh (‘and these’) for mt ’ēlleh (‘these’, cf. 12:1). The addition may imply a connection with the preceding narrative (in Numbers). be‘ēḇer hayyardēn means ‘across the Jordan’, from the standpoint of the speaker; this standpoint varies, as the respective contexts make clear, according to whether the speaker is the narrator (1:1, 5; 4:41, 46, 47, [49]), or Moses (3:20, 25; 11:30; cf. S. R. Driver 1895: xlii-xliii; Perlitt 1990: 10). The expression is sometimes translated ‘Transjordan’ (Craigie 1976a: 90), which seems to be favoured by 3:8, yet does not explain it in the other instances when it is used by Moses. A further possibility, ‘in the region of the Jordan’, can handle the latter objection, and is favoured by 4:29, where the term appears without the preposition be, and qualified by the adjective ‘east’. The solution seems to be that if the meaning of the phrase is not clear from the context, it can be specified by a further term meaning ‘east’ or ‘west’. (Cf. Josh. 5:1, 12:7; 1 Chr. 26:30. Num. 32:19 is a further comparable passage, where a specification in terms of standpoint [‘across the Jordan and beyond’] is contrasted with a more strictly geographical specification [‘across the Jordan to the east’].) It can in this sense be used as a geographical designation, but it can have different referents according to context. This also applies to 3:8, where the term is qualified by the following phrase, ‘from the Wadi Arnon to Mt Hermon’. (The phrase ’el ‘ēḇer benê yiśrā’ēl, Josh. 22:11, is not precisely the same sort of usage, and is best rendered ‘opposite the Israelite side’ [reb].)

3. Some Hebrew mss and some Greek versions read ‘all the sons of Israel’, conforming to v. 1, and in harmony with Deuteronomy’s theological emphasis on the unity of the people.

4. One Hebrew ms, lxx, Vg, Syr read ‘in Ashtaroth and in Edrei’, conforming to Josh. 12:4; 13:12, 31. It seems then that both places are cities in which Og reigned, and that it is best to restore the ‘and’.

5. hô’îl, ‘he began’: this verb is typically followed by another finite verb, not the infinitive (HALAT 2:365); here the 3 m. sg. pf. pi. bē’ēr, to ‘explain’, ‘make clear’ (or ‘establish’, see ‘Comment’). The construction can express not only beginning, but also purpose, firm intention.

7. har hā’emōrî: ‘the land of the Amorites’. The word translated ‘land’ is lit. ‘mountain’; this, however, can have the simple sense of land or territory in Deuteronomy (cf. 3:25; 2:1-3). ‘Amorites’ is strictly a singular form, but here has a collective meaning. It is apparently connected with the Akkadian term Amurru, which in the second millennium could be used both to denote the land to the ‘west’, viz. Syria and Palestine in a general way, and as the name of a state in Syria. In first-millennium Assyria, the name was commonly used for Palestine. It is in this sense that it seems to be used here (cf. 1:19-20, 44). See further Gibson 1961.

8. While mt has ‘Look!’ in the singular, other mss and versions (including SamP, QL, lxx, Syr) make it conform to the immediate context by putting it in the plural. However, sequences similar to the present one occur at 4:5; 11:26. These are perhaps not strictly examples of the alternation of singular and plural address in Deuteronomy, as the form re’ēh may rather be regarded as an interjection (but see note on v. 21).

naṯattî is perfect in form, but probably declarative in force (‘I give’). nišba‘ yhwh, ‘the Lord swore’: SamP, lxx read nišba‘tî, ‘I swore’, presumably on the grounds that Yahweh is speaking here. The change is probably unnecessary, as mt is simply making it quite clear that it is the Lord who is speaking. The form emphasizes, however, the close association of Moses’ words and those of the Lord in Deuteronomy.

lāhem; one ms and SamP omit, perhaps finding the idea of the gift of the land to the patriarchs difficult. But the gift may be taken as being in principle to the patriarchs too (see ‘Comment’).

13. wîḏu‘îm; should perhaps be repointed as an active participle (cf. Eccles. 9:11), and hence, as there, ‘experienced’; cf. Weinfeld 1991: 135.

15. mt’s ’et rā’šê šîbṭêḵem, ‘(I took) the heads of your tribes’, seems to anticipate unhelpfully wā’ettēn ’ōṯām rā’šîm ‘alêḵem, ‘I made them heads over you.’ Read with lxx: ‘I took from among you ... officers for your tribes.’ lxx actually has ‘officers as your judges’: tois kritais hymōn, possibly influenced by v. 16. However, ‘officers’ are distinguished from ‘judges’ in 16:18, where both are appointed ‘according to your tribes’.

16. Note the infinitive absolute, šāmōa‘, used as imperative: ‘hear!’ (see GKC 113. 4. bb [a]; and cf. 16:1). SamP has imp. here.

21. ‘Look!’ is singular in mt, plural in lxx, Syr; cf. v. 8. Here, however, the number remains singular throughout the verse, in contrast to the surrounding material. The singular interjection may have occasioned one of those temporary changes in number that are a feature of deuteronomic discourse.

24. mt’s ‘it’ is feminine, surprisingly, since the only nouns it could follow (naḥal, i.e. the valley of Eshcol, and hār, i.e. the hill country) are masculine. The pronoun presumably refers to ‘the land’ (’ereṣ, f.), as assumed in QL, Syr, Vg. This is in line with Num. 13:21, which records that the spies traversed the whole land. mt is probably to be retained although (or because) difficult.

25. lxx, Vg omit ‘and also gave their report’, mt follows v. 22, and there is no compelling reason against it.

26. lxx, Syr, Vg have ‘our God’ for mt’s ‘your God’. Cf. vv. 30, 32, 33. mt is preferable in vv. 30, 33 for reasons of consistency within those verses, and probably therefore also in v. 26. There is a tendency to confusion on the point in the ancient versions, perhaps naturally; cf. also v. 28.

28. lxx has ‘your brothers’ for mt ‘our brothers’; mt makes more sense. Some Hebrew mss, lxx and SamP have ‘greater in number’ rather than ‘taller’. This is an intelligible reading in view of 7:7; the relative fewness of Israel would be a natural ground for fear.

31. The change to the singular form of address in the first half of the verse seems to accompany the tender image of God carrying the people as a man does his son.

35. lxx omits ‘this evil generation’, which also has no counterpart in Num. 14:22-23. The phrase has therefore been interpreted as a gloss in mt, intended to avoid the impression that only the spies were referred to (S. R. Driver 1895: 25-26). If so, it is nevertheless consistent with the meaning of the context.

39. lxx omits ‘as for your little ones... prey’. SamP omits ‘who are still too young to know the difference between right and wrong’.

44. lxx, Syr, Vg have ‘from Seir’, which seems to be required for the sense.

45. lxx, Syr, SamP imply the reading wattēšeḇû, ‘they sat’, instead of mt wattāšuḇû, ‘they returned’. The former may have been influenced by the same form in v. 46 (though see the collocation of ‘sitting’ and ‘weeping’ at Judg. 20:26, and Weinfeld 1991: 153).

46. ‘Your stay was a long one’: lit. ‘many days, according to the days that you stayed (there)’. The latter clause virtually repeats the main statement, according to Hebrew idiom (cf. the divine name: ‘I am who I am’, Exod. 3:14). The phrase leaves the time unspecified; see ‘Comment’.

Form and Structure

Deuteronomy, though largely consisting of Moses’ exhortation to Israel, is cast in a narrative framework. The opening words of the book (1:1) make an explicit link with the end of Numbers (Num. 36:13; see ‘Notes on the text’, above). The preaching of Moses is thus announced, but is first located both geographically and in the context of the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, which has been the dominant theme of Exodus-Numbers. The substance of Deut. 1-3 runs parallel to Num. 10-36, that is, it covers the time and events from Israel’s departure from Mt Horeb (Deuteronomy’s habitual name for Mt Sinai) to the time when the people stand in the plains of Moab, at the northern end of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan, ready to occupy the promised land. Some of the land, indeed, namely the parts of Transjordan allocated to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh, has already been occupied, admittedly after a false start. The theme of the book, therefore, namely the opportunity (and obligation) that lies before Israel to enter fully into the covenant blessings, is nicely reflected in the geographical setting. Israel is between the wilderness and Canaan, between the promise and its appropriation.

Formally, ch. 1 falls into four sections: 1. an itinerary from Horeb to the people’s current location east of the Jordan (1-5); 2. a first exhortation to continue the journey into the promised land (6-8); 3. instructions for the routine legal regulation of the people’s life (9-18); 4. a further command to go and take the land (19-21), followed by the narrative of the spies’ expedition and the consequent failure of the people to take the land at the first attempt (22-46).

The arrangements for judging legal cases (9-18) seem to interrupt the narrative’s progression (e.g. Plöger 1967: 13ff.; cf. Mittmann 1975: 24-33, 164). However, the parallel passage in Exod. 18:13-23 falls, as here, between the account of the exodus and the giving of the law at Sinai/ Horeb. This may imply that a close connection is being stressed between the giving of the law and its implementation.

The ‘shape’ of the account is more complex than the superficial division into paragraphs that we have noted. The dominant motif of ‘journey’ provides a vantage-point for understanding the chapter. The book opens with a catalogue of places (1) and the parenthesis (2) concerning the length of the first stage of the journey, as far as Kadesh-Barnea. The places named in v. 1 echo place names on the route of the exodus (Num. 11:35; 12:16; 33:17-21). Thus while v. 1 looks at first glance like an indication of Moses’ location, both verses actually stress that Moses and Israel are in the midst of a journey. (Mittmann [1975: 8] sees a tension between ‘place’ and ‘route’ in v. 1, and thinks the verse is composite; cf. S. R. Driver 1895: 2; Mayes 1994: 113. It is true that the syntax of v. 1, implying location, seems at odds with the sense, implying journey; but see ‘Comment’). The perspective looks beyond Kadesh to Moab (3-5), and on into the land itself (7-8). The point of view of the ‘narrator’ here and throughout the book is Moab, and it therefore already presupposes the action about to be described in chs. 1-3.

The journey motif is reinforced by the composition of the account. Among a number of verbs of motion (Plöger 1967: 19), three stand out as occurring at key moments, namely pānâ, ‘turn’, ‘set out’; nāśā’, ‘travel’, and ‘ālâ, ‘go up. Thus the first command to Israel in the book is, ‘Set out and travel... ’ (7), that is, from Horeb to the land. The first response to the command is recorded in v. 19 with ‘and we travelled’; the spies ‘set out and went up’ into the hill country (24); the people then ‘would not go up’ (26; cf. v. 28). In response, Yahweh tells them to ‘set out, and travel’ back in the direction from which they had come (40); and finally the people decide to ‘go up’ to the land in spite of this new command of Yahweh, and he again prohibits this (41b-42). The vocabulary thus sets up the theological issues, the relations between Israel and Yahweh being ‘mapped’, as it were, on a geographical canvas. Obedience is matched by progress; disobedience by retreat and failure.

Vocabulary aside, the shape of the chapter also marks the reversal in Israel’s fortunes. Up to v. 25, there is progress towards the land (including the provision for life there, vv. 9-18), climaxing in the declaration by the spies that it is indeed a good land (25), a faithful acceptance of Yahweh’s promise. Thereafter, however, the story is all retreat; the spies’ faith is not echoed by Israel, and the land is (temporarily) lost. The language of the narrative, furthermore, belongs to the ‘war of Yahweh’, or ‘holy war’, according to which Yahweh conquers his enemies, in order to give the land to his own people. This, however, is put into reverse when the disobedient people is driven back by the Amorites and turns away from the land at Yahweh’s command.

The standpoint of the narrative has been seen as pessimistic (contrast 1:32 with Exod. 14:30-31), anticipating the fall of Judah in 2 Kgs. 25, and thus exilic (Plöger 1967: 3; N. Lohfink 1960: 114ff.). The account is more open than this, however (see ‘Explanation’).

Deut. 1:9-18 has a close parallel in Exod. 18:13-27. There, the arrangements for administration are made before the events on Sinai, while here the timing is not precisely specified (merely, ‘At that time’, v. 9). Furthermore, the passage also echoes Num. 11:10-25, in which seventy elders are given ‘some of the spirit that was on [Moses]’ (25), in order to help him lead the people. The close connection here is in the phrase, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you alone’ (9; cf. Num. 11:14) (though the idea of Moses’ endurance is present also at Exod. 18:23). While our passage is closer in content to Exod. 18:13-27 (the Numbers account having more to do with general spiritual oversight), it seems that Deuteronomy has collapsed the two other passages (one occurring just before the Sinai section, and one immediately after, in connection with the departure from the mountain) into one (here broadly with Mittmann [1975: 26-30], who rightly criticizes Plöger’s idea of an independent narrative source underlying Deuteronomy). The use of the latter passage is appropriate for linking the idea of administration with the journey.

There are interesting connections between the measures taken here and the judicial reform of King Jehoshaphat recorded in 2 Chr. 19:5-11: the appointment of judges throughout Israel; the appeal to the principle that justice is not human but God’s; the prohibition of showing partiality. These connections need not imply that the law dates from that reform (as Plöger on 16:19 [1967: 36-39], who thinks that as such it is an ‘old’ law remembered in a time of crisis). In some respects the laws here have parallels in the ANE (Weinfeld 1991: 140-141).

The account of the spies’ mission (1:19-46) shows similarities with and differences from the account of the same in Num. 13-14. In traditional criticism, the latter is a composite of J and P, with P being responsible for the list of the spies’ names, and the concept of one spy per tribe (Num. 13:1-16). Deuteronomy clearly knows the concept ‘one from each tribe’ (23), however, and the plainest reading of this is that it knows Num. 1-13 (P; cf. Weinfeld 1991: 143). Others have explained D’s knowledge of P on this point by postulating a complicated literary history; Perlitt (1990: 97-98), for example, thinks that the spy tradition has been repeatedly worked over in the context of both P and D streams, which ultimately influence each other.



The opening verses of Deuteronomy resume the note struck in the final verse of Numbers (36:13), and are also echoed by Deut. 4:44-49; 12:1; 29:1 [28:69]; 34:1-6. The passage shows a concentric pattern that highlights its theme (cf. Christensen 1991: 6):

The effect of this pattern is twofold: first, to splice the idea of word into that of geography and history—the word of God is spoken in and into Israel’s historical experience with him; secondly, to create an equation between Moses’ speech, God’s commandment and the important idea of Torah.

The dominant idea in these verses is the words of God spoken through Moses. Indeed, the opening phrase, ‘These are the words’, is the name given to Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible. The words meant here are, in the first place, those that Moses is about to declare to Israel in Moab, in the three extensive speeches that compose the greatest part of Deuteronomy (1:6-4:40; 5:1-28:68; 29:1 [28:69]-30:20).

The words of Moses are immediately set in their historical and geographical context (1b-3a, 4). The data in the present verses emphasize that words of God are being spoken into a new, particular situation. Moses’ speeches to Israel are located, loosely, ‘east of the Jordan’, or ‘in the land of Moab’ (1, 5; cf. 29:1 [28:69]; see ‘Notes on the text’). More precise data follow. The phrase ‘in the wilderness’ has no clear referent in Moab; it is further defined, however, by ‘in the Arabah’, indicating the gorge in which lie the lower Jordan valley and the Dead Sea, and which continues south to the Gulf of Aqaba and beyond. The other place names occasion some debate. Paran, Hazeroth and possibly Laban (= Libnah?) appear as staging-posts on Israel’s exodus journey (Num. 10:12; 11:35; 12:16; 33:17, 20). If those places are actually meant here, the information is hard to understand as specifying a single location in Moab. It is possible that the similarity of these names to the locations on the exodus route is merely coincidental, and attempts have been made to identify certain names in our list with locations in the region of Moab, though without certainty (Noth 1981: 108-109; cf. Christensen 1991: 7; Perlitt 1990: 12-14). Probably, however, there is an actual reminiscence of the exodus journey, as is suggested also by the note in v. 2 (and perhaps by the term ‘wilderness’). The ‘present time’ at Moab would thus be brought deliberately into connection with the various times and places along the way (see further ‘Explanation’).

The limits of the journey noted here (2) are Horeb and Kadesh-Barnea. Horeb is mentioned merely as the point of departure, though the note clearly anticipates the enormous importance the place will have in the book, as the place where the covenant was made with the generation before the one standing with Moses in Moab (5:2-3; 29:1 [28:69]).

Kadesh-Barnea was the place in the wilderness of Paran (Num. 13:26), between the Sinai desert and the southern reaches of the Negev, where the Israelites camped during the period between the exodus and the entry to Canaan. The reference to the eleven days taken to reach it from Horeb is presumably a realistic detail, even though the precise location of Horeb is not known. In contrast, the forty years of v. 3 measure the long time from the exodus from Egypt to Israel’s present position on the border of the promised land, because of the people’s failure to enter it at the first opportunity due to their fear and lack of faith (Num. 13-14). It is assumed here that these events are known, though they will be rehearsed again in the present chapter as part of Moses’ exhortation.

The precise detail (‘on the first day in the eleventh month’) seems to refer not only to the day on which Moses speaks, but also to the day of his death (32:48). It has been pointed out (van Goudoever 1985: 145-146) that, in the Israelite liturgical calendar, this is precisely two and a half months before the Passover. This may indicate that Moses’ speeches are to be seen as a preparation for the first Passover that Israel would celebrate in the land (Josh. 5). In that passage, conquest and Passover are certainly closely connected. Here too, the idea would forge one more link between word and history in the present verses.

The allusion to Sihon and Og (see on 2:26-3:11, and cf. Num. 21:21-35) has the double function of reminding the Israelites that the conquest of the land has already begun in Transjordan, and of specifying again the exact setting of the speeches, thus creating a sense of expectation and significance.

Moses will speak ‘according to all that Yahweh had given him as commandment for them’ (3). This develops the idea of Moses’ words in v. 1, and shows that what Moses will speak will come out of what has already passed between God and Israel on their journey to Moab, specifically echoing the covenant at Horeb, with its attendant laws (Exod. 20-23). The development continues when the preaching is also described as ‘explaining this law (Torah)’ (5). In Deuteronomy ‘Torah’ embraces both regulation (see 4:8, where Torah is an umbrella term covering individual laws) and instruction or exhortation. It is also closely associated with the covenant (see 5:1-2 for the close link between ‘statutes and laws’ and covenant; and 4:13 for covenant and the Ten Commandments; 31:9). Occurrences of the term in Deuteronomy fall predominantly in the opening and closing chapters (4:8, 44; 27:3, 8, 26; 28:58, 61; 29:21 [20], 29 [28]; 31:9, 11-12, 24, 26, 46; 33:4, 10; but see also 17:11, 18-19). These allusions show that the substance of the ‘Torah’ here is primarily Moses’ preaching in Deuteronomy itself, which is finally written in a book that is understood as a covenant document to be read regularly on specified worship occasions (28:58; 31:9). It is not merely the preaching as such, however, but the preaching as set in the historical narrative of Israel’s deliverance, and re-expressing the covenant at Horeb. This is clear from the sequel to ‘These are the words ... ’ in a historical account (6ff.).

Verse 5 is resumptive, again bringing together both geography and the theme of God’s word. That Moses ‘explains’ the law emphasizes the concern of Deuteronomy not merely to give information but to teach and persuade.


Moses’ first speech (1:6-4:40) now begins. It immediately picks up the theme of God’s word to Israel at Horeb from vv. 1-5 (6). It then proceeds (7-8) with God’s command to Israel to occupy the land, whose parts are described, balanced by a reaffirmation of his ancient oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Israel’s forefathers, or the ‘patriarchs’.

It is immediately clear that the words of Moses will be in reality God’s. The phrase ‘the Lord our God’ itself recalls the covenantal relationship already existing between God and Israel, and this is echoed by the reference now to Horeb. The word of God in question here, however, is a specific command, namely to leave Horeb, following the time the people had spent there, witnessing God’s revelation of himself, hearing his commands and entering into covenant with him. In the Pentateuchal narrative, this is the subject matter of Exod. 19-Num. 10 (see Num. 10:11-35 for the departure itself). The people have now stayed, or ‘dwelt’, long enough at Horeb. The command (which is echoed again at 2:3) shows that Horeb was not a final resting-place; rather, Israel must now move on, both physically and in terms of the covenant. This will become an important motif in the book.

When Moses says, ‘The Lord our God said to us at Horeb’ (6), this is not strictly factual, for by this time the vast majority of the generation that had actually stood at Horeb has passed away (see on 2:34-40). However, the new generation is often addressed as if it had stood itself at Horeb. This is a way of expressing the solidarity of Israel, and the need to re-enact the covenant in each generation (see further on 5:2-3).

The first reported command of God is now to move from Horeb and enter the land of Canaan (7). ‘Set out now’ is literally ‘Turn’, which carries the connotation of decision, a leaving behind and setting the face to the new destination. It occurs several times in this record of the journey from Horeb to Moab (chs. 1-3). As was shown above (on 1:1-46, ‘Form and structure’), there is a moral dimension to this travelling, and the verb pānâ (‘turn’) itself partakes of this (cf. its use in 29:18 [17]; 30:17; 31:18, 20).

The description of the land that lies before Israel broadly conforms to the outlines in Gen. 15:18-21; Deut. 11:24, though each of these differs in its details. This is the fullest. The ‘land of the Amorites’ is probably a general designation for the whole land. In my translation, correspondingly, ‘Amorites’ is understood as a name for the pre-Israelite peoples in general (cf. Gen. 15:16; Josh. 7:7; 10:5), though it can also be used for peoples in the eastern part of the territory described, including Transjordan (cf. 4; 7:1). The term ‘its inhabitants’ then stands in a kind of apposition to ‘Amorites’, but specifying those who live in the different parts of the land. The term ‘Canaanites’ seems here to refer to the peoples of the coastal area in particular (though in other texts it too can mean the pre-Israelite occupants of the land in general; S. R. Driver 1895: 11).

What follows then describes the land in detail. On the Arabah, see on v. 1. The word ‘highlands’ is again lit. ‘mountain’, but now in the specific sense of the central range running north to south, and comprising what would become Judah and Samaria. The ‘lower uplands’, or Shephelah, are the lower hills west of the Judean range, and running down to the coastal plain. The Negeb is the semi-desert area in southern Judah, and the coastal plain itself runs along the Mediterranean from the far south to the Carmel range in the north. The area described also includes Lebanon and territory running from the northern borders of Canaan as far as the Euphrates. The Euphrates is mentioned in all three texts named here, and this extent of the land was clearly regarded as ideal, though even under David it was scarcely possessed. (On the geography of ancient Israel see Rogerson 1985; Aharoni 1979.)

The area thus described is now called simply ‘the land’ (8). It is the land shown long ago to Abraham (Gen. 12:1), and given to him and his descendants by a promise that was repeated throughout the patriarchal narratives, to Isaac and Jacob as well as to Abraham (e.g. Gen. 13:17; 15:13-16; 26:2-3; 28:13, 15; see Clines 1989: 31-43). The appeal to that promise here is of central importance for Deuteronomy, which sees the imminent entry to the land of Canaan as its fulfilment (cf. 1:21; 6:3). The promise of land goes closely, of course, with that of descendants for Abraham (Gen. 12:2; 15:6). On this basis, the Lord says to the people that they themselves are the recipients of his ancient promise. When he refers to it as an oath, he stresses his irreversible commitment to it. The converse of this, however, is that the people must ‘go and take possession of’ the land. The verb ‘take possession’ is used frequently in Deuteronomy for Israel’s entry to the land. It implies a certain right to it, by way of inheritance, though clearly it is a right that is contingent on God’s gift. It also implies the need to dispossess the present inhabitants. The crucial point is, however, that the promise is received by active faith.


The need for organization of the tribes arose necessarily from the prospect of their movement on into the desert (Noth 1981: 15). The phrase ‘At that time’ (9) is somewhat general, recalling the whole period at Horeb. Moses’ recognition that he could not ‘bear’ the people alone derives, as we have seen, from two accounts, in Exod. 18 and Num. 11. Moses’ own initiation of the topic, namely the need of a system of administration for Israel, is closer to Numbers than to Exodus, where his father-in-law Jethro persuades him take the necessary measures (Exod. 18:14). Some commentators have supposed that the part of the non-Israelite Jethro has been deliberately suppressed here, because of the influence of later nationalistic, or ‘Jewish’, thought on Deuteronomy (Weinfeld 1991: 140). The reason rather is the sharp focus here on the relationship between Moses and the people, and the economical way of incorporating the existing, well-known traditions.

The phrase ‘I cannot bear you alone’, adopted from Num. 11:14, makes a rapid transition from the command to enter the promised land in vv. 6-8 to the topic of organization of the people. As such, it is presented not as a ‘complaint’ (thus rather differently from Num. 11), but as a consequence of the fulfilment of the promise. This connotation is reinforced by vv. 10-11. Verse 10 expressly recalls the promise that Abraham’s descendants would be greatly multiplied (Gen. 15:5), and declares it to be already fulfilled. Thus, incidentally, the promise’s elements of land and posterity are brought together in this connection. The thought is then carried further in verse 11 with the prayer that the increase and blessing would continue. Both the present fulfilment and the wish for the future are made dependent on the ancient promise (‘just as he promised you’). This juxtaposition of ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ is typical of Deuteronomy’s sense of a people always on the move, having received God’s promises, and yet still moving into an open future with him.

Having established that the ‘problem’ is actually a function of blessing, Moses now spells it out further (12). In the phrase ‘Your problems, burdens and disputes’, only one of the words appears in Num. 11 (maśśā’, ‘burden’, Num. 11:17), and none of them in Exod. 18. At first glance, therefore, Deuteronomy stresses the problems of governing Israel by this increase in vocabulary (the noun ṭoraḥ, here translated ‘problem’, occurs elsewhere only at Is. 1:14, where Israel’s false worship is seen as a burden on God). The word ‘dispute’ (rîḇ), however, is also drawn from the wider narrative in Exodus, namely at Exod. 17:7, where it is used of the people’s complaining about having been brought out of Egypt into the wilderness (interestingly, in close connection with the noun Massah, which resembles our maśśā’ here). In our text the ‘disputes’ primarily refer to regular legal disputes; yet, by its use of language, the text may subtly recall Israel’s basic stubbornness also, in keeping with an emphasis it will develop (cf. 9:6).

Moses now initiates the selection of leaders (13), calling on the people to do it, and indeed enlisting their support for the plan (14). This ‘democratic’ procedure, not reported in Exodus or Numbers, is consistent with Deuteronomy’s emphasis on the responsibility of the people, as a unity, for its entire life before God (see below on ‘brotherhood’, 16). A further peculiarity of Deuteronomy is the criteria it requires for leadership, where the stress falls on wisdom. This seems to contrast with Exodus, which looks first for virtue (Exod. 18:21). Deuteronomy does sometimes use language that is close to ‘wisdom’ (cf. Deut. 4:6). The contrast between ‘intellectual’ and religious-moral qualities can be overdrawn, however. The wisdom advocated in Deuteronomy is closely related to the laws and teachings of God (4:5, 8). At its heart, furthermore, is an insistence on the wholeness of the human response required by God (6:4-5). Finally, the wisdom literature also places wisdom very close to the ‘fear of the Lord’ (Prov. 9:10). The requirement for leadership is above all in terms of character (hence ‘experienced’; see ‘Notes on the text’).

The translation of v. 15 follows lxx. This is because mt (‘I took the leaders of your tribes’) poses the difficulty that the persons selected are here being made leaders, and therefore can scarcely be such at the outset (see ‘Notes on the text’). The jurisdiction of the leaders is now further explained. The terms ‘thousand’, ‘hundred’, ‘fifty’ and ‘ten’ need not be taken as exact figures, but rather as relative sizes of units; ‘thousand’, indeed, can roughly correspond to ‘clan’ (Judg. 6:15; 1 Sam. 23:23; see de Vaux 1961: 216-217). More importantly, there is a fusion between judicial and military functions here (as also in Exod. 18:21, 25), and as occurred elsewhere in the ancient world (see Weinfeld 1991: 140-141; also 1977 on Hittite parallels to the present section). The term śār, ‘leader’, is used for ‘official’ in a broad sense in 1 Kgs. 4:2. (For other views of the relationship between judicial and military functions, see Bartlett 1969; Knierim 1961.)

The judges were to be assisted by ‘officers’. Their role was apparently to communicate and implement decisions among the people (cf. Deut. 20:5, 8-9; Josh. 1:10; 3:2). Their organization according to tribes put them in a position to do this effectively.

The officials, introduced in v. 15 according to their different ranks, are now designated generally as ‘judges’ (16). As used in the book of Judges, the term means primarily a military deliverer, raised up for a crisis. Here, however, a regular judicial function is in view. (The two types of role seem to be combined in Samuel; 1 Sam. 7:15-17.) Moses binds the judges to perform their duties justly, perhaps in a formal ceremony involving an oath (Weinfeld 1991: 138). Their remit is to judge between ‘your brothers’, that is, Israelites (16). We have already observed Deuteronomy’s understanding of the unity of the people before God. That understanding is now more fully characterized as a concept of the brotherhood of all members of the people—a frequently occurring idea, which lies behind much of the book’s thought, and is conceived as a means of protecting the individual from the tyrannies of a hierarchical and oppressive society (cf. 15:7-18). The provision made does not rule out justice for the resident non-Israelite, however, whose needs are expressly catered for here and elsewhere in the book (cf. 14:29).

The heart of the judges’ task is to hear cases and judge ‘rightly’, or with ‘righteousness’, as the related passage in 16:18-20 also strongly emphasizes. The idea implies both straight dealing and loyalty within a relationship. Judgment therefore should be according to the true merits of a case, and ordinary human compassion. This means that the judges must not be deterred from a decision by any consideration other than the truth. No preference is to be given to the prestigious or powerful. The stress on this recognizes the natural human fear of others who are powerful. To show bias, however, runs absolutely counter to the vision of Israel, and of society, that is offered in Deuteronomy, in which human beings are on an equal footing before God. This is why it is insisted that judgment belongs to God. Justice is not a commodity in the hands of those who can control it, but is in principle God’s. The idea of Moses as a kind of Court of Appeal (17c) is related to this fundamental principle, for it symbolizes and guards the ultimate jurisdiction of God, which in turn is the only guarantee of a just society. Both the principle and the practice are reflected also in the reforming measures taken by King Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 19:6, 8-11; cf. Prov. 16:33).

Finally, Moses shifts the focus from the judges to the whole people, recalling the obligations he laid on them ‘at that time’. This seems to refer generally to the commands given at Horeb, rather than to the instructions for judicial administration in particular. The closure is intended to make explicit that the administrative arrangements just outlined are meant to implement the commands of God in Israel’s daily life.


19-25. The new section takes up (19) from God’s command in vv. 6-8 to continue the journey towards the land, designated here again as the ‘land [lit. mountain] of the Amorites’. The actual progress recorded is that which was prepared for in v. 2, namely Horeb to the desert staging-post of Kadesh-Barnea. The wilderness between is portrayed as vast and life-threatening, perhaps to stress the faithfulness of God by way of encouragement to keep his commands. Kadesh, however, is only a halfway house. In a sense they have arrived at their destination (‘you have come to the land of the Amorites’, 20); and God ‘is giving’ it to them. The present tense of ‘give’ in v. 20 is reinforced by a past tense (21) which proclaims the gift an accomplished fact. In another sense they are merely on the threshold; the land has been set ‘before you’ (21b), and there remains the command to possess it (cf. 8). Possessing must be preceded by ‘going up’, that is, the actual approach and entry to the land, the act of faith itself. The verb is used several times in the present chapter, especially in vv. 21-28, or at the point of decision.

They are to possess it according to God’s prior word to the forefathers (cf. 8), which thus takes on the character of command as well as promise. The command not to fear focuses on the moral and religious issue that now faces Israel. Possession will not follow automatically, but requires their faith, demonstrated in fearless action. (The same point was prominent in Numbers; Num. 14:9.)

The sequel (22-25) now takes up this very issue. The people take the initiative in a plan to send spies ahead to explore the land and bring back information about the journey before them and the land itself (22; the plan is more fully spelt out in Num. 13:17-20). It is stressed that the people as a whole make this move, and that it comes from them rather than from Moses. This differs from the account in Num. 13:1-3, where God himself initiates the spies’ mission via Moses. It might be supposed that the people conceived the plan, and brought it to Moses who sought and gained sanction from God (so Craigie 1976: 101; Merrill 1994: 73). Yet it seems significant that Deuteronomy chooses to narrate the incident thus. Two features suggest that the people are being shown to have been blameworthy in their adoption of the plan. First, there is an irony in the words, ‘Let us send men ahead of us’, in an account that stresses that God himself goes ‘ahead’ of the people to prepare their way. This theme is developed in vv. 29-33, where the command not to fear is resumed (29), only to be met by the people’s refusal (32), focused on their failure to believe that God went ahead of them into the land both to guide and to fight for them (cf. vv. 30, 33). Secondly, when Moses is refused permission to enter the land himself, there is reason to think that his role here in accepting the plan without demur (23) is regarded as culpable (see further on 3:26). Deuteronomy’s narrative of the spies, therefore, is part of its exposition of the people’s chronic failure to keep faith with God.

Moses’ reply to the people, ‘This seemed good to me’ (23), carries an echo of their response to him in the matter of appointing judges (1:14). Together, the two phrases suggest a certain solidarity between Moses and people. Each suggestion, furthermore, is followed by a selection of representatives according to tribes (cf. v. 15; the similarity of language is close, especially when lxx ‘from you’ is followed in v. 15). The appointment of one spy per tribe follows Num. 13:2 (for the relationship of Deuteronomy to P at this point, see above, ‘Form and structure’). Allusions to the tribal division of Israel are uncommon in Deuteronomy, ceding prominence to the stronger idea of the oneness of the people. But it is used here to establish the idea of proper representation of the people at important moments (as it is also in Josh. 3:12)—whether the decisions taken are for good or ill.

The spies’ expedition to the land (lit. the hill country) takes them as far as the Wadi Eshcol, a fertile valley near Hebron, in what would become southern Judah (24). The name Eshcol means ‘cluster’, and is taken from the prodigious cluster of grapes which, according to Num. 13:23-24, the spies brought back. While the Numbers account relates how the spies travelled through the whole land (Num. 13:21), our passage limits itself to the excursion to the Eshcol valley; the pronoun ‘it’, however, is a veiled allusion to the land (see above, ‘Notes on the text’), and the Wadi Eshcol, therefore, may be seen as representing it. (There may also be a suggestion, however, that the spies’ mission has been truncated; the human endeavour has been necessarily limited.) The spies’ report is entirely positive. In passing over the potentially frightening information conveyed by them according to Num. 13:28-29, Deuteronomy apparently wants to stress at this point that there are no grounds for the people not to go up into the land. The report that ‘the land is good’ is a kind of climax, which confronts the people with a decision.

26-28. In the fuller narrative in Num. 13:25-14:10, we read how the spies tell of the strength of the land, how the majority of them believe that the people could not take it (13:31), how they themselves took fright at the sight of the Anakim (13:33), and of the people’s consequent plan to go back to Egypt, despite the wiser counsel of Caleb and Joshua (14:6-9). All of this is compressed here into the simple accusation that the people refused to obey God by going up, a refusal characterized as rebellion (26; cf. Num. 14:9; the verb in Deuteronomy is mārâ, in Numbers māraḏ).

The rebellious plan to return to Egypt is conveyed by the motif of murmuring (27; cf. Num. 14:2; again Deuteronomy uses its own verb). Here, however, the fearful and rebellious words are in the mouths of the people themselves. The declaration that God hates them is in direct contradiction of Deuteronomy’s insistence that he has consistently acted out of love for them (Deut. 4:37; 7:8). It is a carefully directed complaint, for ‘love’ and ‘hatred’ belong to the language of covenant (Moran 1963a). The people are asserting that God never had any intention of bringing them into a covenantal relationship with himself when he brought them out of Egypt, but rather intended to destroy them. It is a statement of fundamental unbelief, made sharper by the use of the verb ‘give’, in the sense of ‘give over to the enemy’, when, on the contrary, the promised ‘gift’ of the land is a central plank in the promise.

The people’s exclamation, ‘Where are we to go up!’ (28), with its use of the key word for the decision required of them, expresses their response, in their own mouths, to the exhortation of v. 21. It is a cry of despair and impotence that flies in the face of the promise. The terrifying prospect of facing the land’s inhabitants is also conveyed through the people (28). What they say corresponds closely to what the spies had indeed said (the Canaanites are powerful and their cities well fortified, and there are giants; Num. 13:27-29). But Deuteronomy has allowed the words to come from the people themselves in order to stress their unbelief.

29-33. Moses exhorts them again not to fear, using a new, intense term for terror, which hints at the misplaced nature of the fear the people are feeling (29, cf. v. 21). His grounds are that ‘the Lord your God goes ahead of you’ (30). This looks like a direct response to the people’s earlier demand: ‘Let us send men ahead of us’ (22). The proposed purpose of that expedition was to bring back knowledge of the land and of the route to it. Now we are shown emphatically that it is God himself who does these very things (31-33). The idea of guidance is prefaced, however, by the assertion that he will fight for his people (30). Here is the first direct statement in the book of God’s Holy War (though cf. the parenthetical v. 4). That is, God himself appears as Warrior, the true victor over his people’s enemies, who are at the same time his own enemies. God’s capacity to wage war undergirds the central promise in Deuteronomy, and continues as a major theme into Joshua (cf. Longman & Reid 1995; and further bibliography in Merrill 1994: 78-79 n.). His war in the promised land is here seen as a continuation of the campaign begun in Egypt. Since the people have seen his victory there, they ought to believe that he can overcome again.

The theme of guidance is now elaborated, meeting the need timidly expressed in v. 22. God’s care for his people along the route is couched in the intimate image of a man carrying his child (31; see ‘Notes on the text’). He has borne the people thus through the dangers of the desert, ‘till you arrived at this place’. The place in question is their current location of Moab. This, of course, is not the end of their journey. But God’s capacity to bring them thus far is a paradigm of his power to do so again and again. (The metaphor of Sonship recurs at 8:5 and 14:1 in ‘election’ contexts. There are echoes of wider ANE usage in Num. 21:29. Cf. also Jer. 3:4; Hos. 11:1.)

The theme is further developed in v. 33, where God is pictured going ahead searching out resting-places along the way. The use of the verb tûr (‘search out’) is striking. Its OT occurrences are concentrated largely in the narratives of Numbers, first in Num. 10:33, where the ark of the Lord is said to go ahead of the people to ‘search out’ resting-places for them. Thereafter it falls almost exclusively in the spy narrative of Num. 13-14 (12x), where it is by way of a keyword, referring to the activity of the spies themselves. Deuteronomy avoids the expression for the spies’ activity, adopting it only for God’s. It thus stands close to Num. 10:33 (notice the ‘cloud’ in the same context, 34); in relation to Num. 13-14, however, it makes the point, with some irony, that God alone went ahead of the people, and that this should have been sufficient for them. The ‘cloud and the fire’ recall the Exodus account of his leading in the desert (cf. Exod. 13:21-22). Here the memory of God’s leading is more expressly directed at persuading the people to believe than in Exodus. The same concern explains the absence of reference to the ark (though it is important in Num. 10:33), and indeed the Jethro/Reuel connection (Num. 10:29-32), passed over here as it was in the recollection of Exod. 18 (Deut. 1:9-18, see above).

However, the pictures of leading in vv. 31, 33 are interrupted by a strong statement of Israel’s unbelief (32). It is made in an uncompromising participial (present) form that confronts the present generation standing at Moab with their own faithlessness, thus refusing to allow the charge of unbelief to be attached to the previous generation only. God continues to challenge his people to faith now.

34-40. The next section concerns the question ‘Who may enter the land?’ God first responds in anger to the people’s expression of unbelief (34, cf. vv. 27-28), swearing that ‘this wicked generation’ should not see the land (an oath that stands in ironic contrast to the ancient oath to the patriarchs, vv. 34-35). The logic of the Numbers narrative is thus preserved here, namely that the Horeb generation would not inherit the promise because of their unbelief, but that the next generation would do so. (See also ‘Notes on the text’.) That concept stands side by side with the somewhat contrary thrust of Deuteronomy, namely that the generations are united in character (contrast ‘the Lord heard what you said’, v. 34). (The gift of the land, incidentally, can be expressed as a gift to the patriarchs, v. 35. This is another aspect of the unity of Israel; cf. 1:8, and ‘Notes on the text’ there and above.)

The exception made for Caleb is now related. The specific reasons for this are not given here, consistently with Deuteronomy’s omission earlier of the details of the spies’ report, in which (in the Numbers account) Caleb’s faith had emerged. Here he is merely singled out in a general way for his wholehearted devotion to God. In this way the main lines of the Numbers account are adhered to once again, but subjected to the dominant concern to show that Israel was united in its faithlessness. (Num. 14:24 says that Caleb and his children will ‘possess the land’; Deuteronomy has passed over this too, perhaps because it might detract from its picture of the whole people at Moab about to do this.)

Moses, in contrast, will not see the land. No clear reason for this is given in Deuteronomy, beyond the tantalizing ‘because of you’. The book of Numbers makes no mention of Moses’ exclusion in its account of the spies’ mission (Num. 13-14). It tells of it later in the context of Israel’s approach to the land, after the enforced waiting period in the desert (Num. 20:10-13). The reason given there (12) is usually interpreted as implying arrogance on Moses’ part (Wenham 1981: 150-151). Deuteronomy has presented the data characteristically. It has, first, compressed events (this is a more satisfactory way of looking at the text than to suppose that the incident in Num. 20 is not in view, because of the chronological difficulty; S. R. Driver 1895: 26-27; Craigie 1976a: 105). Nor is it necessary to suppose that Num. 20:12 is a later concept based on Ezekiel’s doctrine of individual responsibility (Mayes 1979: 147; Weinfeld 1991: 150), for the reason given next. Taking its cue from Num. 14:30, which says that only Caleb and Joshua will enter the land, it goes immediately to the logical corollary of that, namely that Moses will not. (Aaron’s exclusion along with Moses, Num. 20:12, is ignored here, presumably because of Deuteronomy’s special interest in Moses.) Secondly, it preserves its picture of Moses as God’s mouthpiece, and passes over specific guilt attaching to him (cf. above on 1:9-18, where he is exonerated from ‘complaining’, 9; contra Merrill 1994: 82-83). This leaves no very specific reason for the exclusion, beyond a kind of solidarity with the people, who have deserved it.

The exclusion of Moses gives rise to the designation of Joshua as his successor (38). The sudden mention of Joshua, now introduced as Moses’ servant, makes little sense apart from a knowledge of the Numbers story. Yet, as with Caleb, his entrance is abrupt, and it is not said that he was one of the spies (cf. Num. 13:16). His appointment takes the shape here simply of a divine decision, consequent on Moses’ exclusion. The chronology of Numbers is once more compressed, as Joshua’s appointment comes at the end of the desert period, not the beginning (Num. 27:15-18).

The logic governing exclusion and entry continues (39) with the assertion that the children of the Horeb generation will enter. The verse relays succinctly the content of Num. 14:31-35. The phrase ‘your little ones who you said would become a prey’ follows Num. 14:31 exactly. In our passage it lacks an antecedent (supplied in Numbers by Num. 14:3). It may be therefore that the phrase has been imported late from Num. 14:31 (see ‘Notes on the text’ on this and its absence from lxx). Yet Deuteronomy’s treatment of the spies’ story elsewhere includes details that presuppose the fuller account in Numbers, and the phrase may be an original part of its castigation of Israel’s lack of faith.

The next generation is now characterized as not knowing the difference between right and wrong. That is, at this moment of decision (‘today’), they are not yet morally responsible (cf. Is. 7:15). This is different from an assertion of innocence as such. They are, indeed, guiltless with respect to the failure to enter the land at the first command. They, therefore, become recipients of the promised gift of land, and will ‘inherit’ it. Their own tests of faith, however, are still to come.

The section ends with the logical conclusion of the disqualification of the Horeb generation, namely a command to ‘set out and go’ towards the desert, and the Reed Sea; that is, the way by which they had come. The language of the command is very similar to that in v. 7, yet the force of it is a grim parody of the former, where the land had lain open before them. Their way is no longer forward, but a retreat. For them, the door of opportunity is now closed.

41-46. The sense of irony and parody is now heightened by the people’s belated attempt to go into the land (the account parallels Num. 14:39-45). Formally, the intention expressed in v. 41 looks entirely right. There is a confession of sin (the only one in Deuteronomy), and a resolution to ‘go up’ and fight in obedience to God’s command. It is made clear, however, that this confession has no effect (cf. Jer. 3:22b-24), and that the new resolve does not come from obedience to God. (The point is stronger than in Numbers, for the prohibition that follows, reversing the original command [42], comes directly from God, rather than from Moses [cf. Num. 14:41-42].) The crucial development is that he is not ‘among’ them, literally, in their midst, an idea that is common and important in Exodus-Numbers, esp. Exod. 32-34 and Num. 14. The issue in each case is whether the Lord is among his people and therefore whether or not they can proceed towards the land (Exod. 33:3, 5; 34:9-10; cf. Exod. 17:7; Num. 14:14, 42 [44]; and see Moberly 1983). Deuteronomy picks up this idea, specifically from Num. 14:42, 44, though without the imagery of camp, tabernacle and ark that prevails in the earlier narrative. (See also Deut. 6:15; 7:21; 23:14 [15]; 31:17.)

The attempt to ‘go up’ without God is then characterized (43) as an act of great rebelliousness, by an accumulation of verbs: you did not obey (lit. hear, cf. 6:4); you rebelled (cf. v. 26); you acted arrogantly. Whereas before it was rebellion not to go up, it is now rebellion to go. The logic of the Holy War is also set in reverse, and the inhabitants of the land (the Amorites again being a general designation for these, contrast Num. 14:45) deliver a humiliating and costly repulse to Israel (44). Hormah was a Canaanite city in the Negev; the name, however, also carries an interesting and ironic echo of the idea of ḥerem, namely the ban of destruction to which Israel was to put the Canaanites (cf. 2:34; 3:6; 7:2). The motif of reversal continues (45) with the people’s ‘returning’, and the twice repeated assertion that God did not ‘hear’ their cries of anguish, an echo of their refusal hitherto to hear him (43).

The long but unspecified period spent at Kadesh following the abortive attempt to take the land (46) is a return to what has already been designated a halfway house between Egypt and Canaan (2). The chronology is left somewhat open (lit. ‘many days’, though the phrase can equally mean ‘years’). It is sometimes held that Deuteronomy’s chronology regarding Kadesh is in tension with the data in Numbers, which speaks expressly of only one sojourn there (and which, it is said, JE dates early in the forty years and P dates late; Num. 13:26-27 JE; S. R. Driver 1895: 32-33; Budd 1984: 217). Deut. 2:1, indeed, seems to presuppose a long period of wandering in the area of Seir, in a passage that may take its cue from Num. 14:25. However, it is difficult to piece together a satisfactory chronology concerning Kadesh from any of the proposed sources (note the obscure datum in Num. 20:1). Deuteronomy obviously supposes that Israel came to Kadesh twice, before and after its failed attack on Canaan. (2:14 could refer to the first of these. S. R. Driver [1895: 32] thinks that a double visit may even be deduced from Numbers, though he does not think this solves the problem.) It is not very concerned otherwise with chronology. The importance of Kadesh is simply that it is not the land; Israel hovers between Egypt, the place of deliverance, and the land of promise yet to be fulfilled.


1-5. The theme of the passage is the words of God to Israel through Moses, given at particular times and places. Thus the opening phrase, ‘These are the words’, unobtrusively introduces the most prominent idea in the book. The character of the word is gradually refined in these verses. It recurs as God’s ‘command’ to his people through Moses (3), and finally as ‘this law (Torah)’ (5). The word is thus God’s authoritative word, which in Deuteronomy will often be expressed in specific commands: the Decalogue itself (5:6-21), and the various laws of chs. 12-26. The specification of the word as Torah, however, suggests the purpose of instructing and guiding. The word of God, while often formally consisting of command and sanction, has the positive purpose of forming the people. This explains why so much of what God speaks through Moses in Deuteronomy will be in the form of exhortation.

The meaning of the word must also be fleshed out, however, by considering the data of time and place. The passage clearly locates the words of Moses within the history of God and his people since the encounter between them at Mt Horeb. The compressed, even cryptic, allusions to the journey to this point show that the story of Exodus-Numbers will be presupposed in what follows here. The effect of this is to establish a connection between the words of Moses that are here announced as imminent and the words of God that have already been given at Horeb, a connection that will be forged elsewhere in the book (5:2-3; 29:1 [28:69]).

Nor is it simply that the words of Horeb are merely repeated or reinforced here. Rather, word, or Torah, is connected in a deep sense with the journey of Israel. The giving of Torah is cast in narrative form, such that history itself belongs to it. Law and history are not to be put apart in Deuteronomy. That is, the ‘Torah’ in Deuteronomy involves recalling God’s deliverance of the people from Egypt, his guidance through the wilderness, a hint of their rebellion, which made an eleven-day journey take forty years, and at last the beginning of the conquest, the firstfruits of the promise of land (Gen. 12:1-3; Exod. 3:7-10) fulfilled in the defeat of Sihon and Og in Transjordan. Finally, it is essential to the concept of Deuteronomy that the encounter between God and Israel at Horeb was not final, but that there must be further encounters in Israel’s history with him. The setting of the words in a journey expresses this, and the subtle fusion of the words once given and those about to be given reinforces it. The sense of expectation established in v. 1 is a permanent fact in Israel’s moral and religious life. Knowing the word of God, it nevertheless always awaits it.

6-8. This important passage sets the present generation of Israel in its context, namely the history of God with his people. God’s ancient oath to the patriarchs (or ‘fathers’) had led in time to the covenant with Israel at Horeb, and on into the present. There is thus a certain solidarity in Israel spanning the generations. The present generation is the ‘seed’ of Abraham, which is about to enter the land once promised to him.

However, the present moment is not an end but a beginning. The first command recorded in the book is to move away from Horeb into the land, a command that came to the generation before the present one, but has not yet been completely carried out, since the people still stand in Moab, outside the land. The ancient promise thus points still into the future with a command. This tension typifies the logic of Deuteronomy. It both affirms God’s unqualified faithfulness to his promise, and poses the question whether and how far it can be realized, because it places Israel before the responsibility to ‘go in and possess’. The reality of this ambivalence will be catalogued in the latter part of the present chapter.

9-18. In the account of the organization of the administration of Israel, Deuteronomy draws on existing accounts, but makes its own emphases. Brettler (1995: 66) notes a greater emphasis on Moses and on wisdom. The underlying idea, however, is God’s blessing of Israel. Moses cannot ‘bear’ them alone because God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham to make them a great nation. Following on from v. 8, this passage thus brings together two great elements of the promise, namely land and numerical increase. This attitude to the people’s growth is notably more positive than in Num. 11:11-17 (Brettler 1995: 69).

The nature of the organization is consistent with Deuteronomy’s theology of the people. Its members are described as ‘brothers’. Where translations obscure this (perhaps for reasons of inclusive language, as nrsv: ‘members of your community’, 16), something important is lost theologically. The idea of brotherhood has been construed somewhat negatively, as ‘nationalism’ (Mayes 1979: 124). Its real spirit, however, emerges clearly here, as a principle that guards the dignity and right treatment of each individual, in a world in which hierarchical and oppressive social structures were the order of the day. True, the idea is applied primarily within Israel. But this is not in principle exclusive, as the extension to the ‘resident non-Israelite’ shows. This openness modifies the strong military aspect of Deuteronomy. With this underlying idea, the judges are instructed to exercise their offices with righteousness, a concept that recognizes this equality in principle of all people. Furthermore, justice is ultimately God’s, and those who judge (and, we may say, govern) bear a responsibility to him. Thus, the institution of a system of administration belongs to God’s purpose of creating a people according to his own standards. The judging is to be seen as an application of the word or Torah of God to the people’s daily life.

The positive light in which this provision is cast appears not only from the fact that Moses’ declaration, ‘I cannot bear you alone’, is in thanksgiving more than in complaint, but also from the omission here of a direct reminiscence of the motif of grumbling or contention against God (differently from Num. 11). In Deuteronomy’s organization of the material, that will follow the report of the spies.

19-46. The narrative of the spies conveys Deuteronomy’s theology of history in nuce. It continues the movement of the ‘journey’ begun in the opening verses, and lets it function as a story of faith. The approach to the land takes the form of both command and promise; the task of ‘going up’ is both the challenge to faith and the prize. The topic of faith is at the heart of the passage. Crucial to the success of the enterprise is the presence of God with his people (42), or, in the journey idiom, going ahead of them (30-33). The destiny of Israel depends on their belief that this is the reality of their situation, a belief that must be given expression in action that carries risk and demands courage. The conflict set up by the need to enter the promised land is the classic conflict between faith and ‘sight’ (cf. Heb. 11:1-3). When the people rely on their own evaluation of circumstances, courage gives way.

The journey metaphor shows that the people have every reason to believe. The God who commands them to go up to the land is the one who has brought them out of Egypt, testifying there to his power dedicated to their salvation (30-31). They are therefore without excuse in their failure of faith. Their guilt is further emphasized by their perversion of God’s good intentions for them into bad, his love into hate (27). Their fear is thus ‘untrue’ in the deepest sense, and an offence against God.

The characterization of the exodus generation as faithless is of great importance for the book’s portrayal of Israel. Deuteronomy takes over from Numbers the basic structure of the ‘spies’ episode. That is, it explains the long delay in entering the land as arising from the guilt of the exodus generation, which is allowed (with a few exceptions) to die out without seeing it. However, there is a tension in our account between this structure and a perspective that begins to emerge strongly here, namely the solidarity of Israel in unfaithfulness. This is clear because Moses recalls the history of unfaithfulness in the context of an address to the new generation that stands at Horeb, as if that history were their very own. This is consistent with the view expressed elsewhere in the book that the people that is invited into covenant with God is deeply prone to unfaithfulness (Deut. 9:4-6).

The opening narrative, therefore, is no mere ‘historical prologue’, nor can its function be separated from that of the laws. It is rather an overture to the theology of the book. Its evocation of Israel in the wilderness has been called a typology of the centuries of Israel’s sin (N. Lohfink 1998). The ‘many days’ of 1:45-46 have been taken as an indication of a long impending exile (in Babylon), even after the people’s repentance (Wolff 1976: 100). However, the picture of Israel’s condition is balanced and open, rather than pessimistic. Even in the wilderness Yahweh has been gracious (2:7). And the failure of faith and understanding shown here becomes the prelude to a story of success under God’s guidance in Deut. 2-3. In the same way, the religious and moral poverty of Israel in the golden-calf episode, in which the people are characterized as habitually faithless (9:4-6, 22-24), leads directly into its final approach to the border of the land (10:11), which, in the concept of the book, they are about to enter (cf. N. Lohfink 1998). In this pattern of grace after failure lies the hope that Deuteronomy offers, in a theological ‘illogicality’ that resembles the new-covenant theology of Jer. 30-33.

Finally, the historical paradigm is no mere metaphor for the life of faith. Since Noth, Deut. 1:19-46 has been interpreted in the context of the exilic/ post-exilic community, and the problems arising from the loss of land. In Mayes’ view (1979: 127), ‘the present time of exile is the result of lack of faith and disobedience to the will of Yahweh. The promise of the land, which is a good land, remains in force, however, even if only for the next generation.’ This is to make Deuteronomy’s history a kind of paradigm for preaching, in the context of a spirituality informed by issues of faith and unbelief. It is true to say that in Deuteronomy history is written for its capacity to bear meaning afresh. However, the belief that it has no interest in history as such depends too heavily on the idea of an exilic setting.