Deuteronomy has always struck me as an unusual addition to the Pentateuch. The book retells the biblical story from Exodus through Numbers. Even its name states that it’s a second (deutero) telling of the law (nomos). It wasn’t until I compared the structure of Deuteronomy with an ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaty (a legal covenant between a high king and a lesser king) that I began to understand how and why God included this book in Scripture.
Hittite, Aramaic and Assyrian suzerainty treaties all follow the same basic format, from preamble to provisions. Somewhere in the middle we find the formal stipulations—the things the suzerain (high king) requires of the vassal (lesser king). The language of the treaty indicates that the treaty also applies to future generations.
The book of Deuteronomy follows the format of a suzerainty treaty, such as the Sefire Inscription between the Syrian kings detailed in the table on the next page. Deuteronomy opens with a preamble and a historical prologue recounting God’s great works on Israel’s behalf. The remainder of the book contains mostly stipulations—the legal requirements.
Although the suzerainty treaties called for political loyalty and military support, Deuteronomy calls for spiritual loyalty and covenant love. The adoption of the treaty format helps explain the primary purpose of the book as a covenant-making document. Moses isn’t just retelling the law; he is formally presenting it to a new generation of Israelites and asking them to agree to this covenant, which means accepting God as Lord and agreeing to obey His laws—just as their parents did at Sinai (Exod 24:3).
Like the suzerain-vassal treaties, God’s covenant wasn’t meant for one generation. Near the end of Deuteronomy, Moses commands that the covenant summarized in Deuteronomy be regularly repeated and renewed for future generations. Deuteronomy is a reminder of God’s faithfulness—that He is willing to extend His love to a thousand generations (Deut 7:9).
Biblical references translated by the author.