Why does the book of Deuteronomy have such a weird name?

29 Aug

Related imageYesterday, I introduced the book of Deuteronomy as a bold, risky, truth-telling book.  But what in the world is this name Deuteronomy all about?

To answer that question, we first need to find where Deuteronomy is located in the Bible.  Deuteronomy is, in fact, the fifth book of the Bible. Starting with Genesis, we continue through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and arrive at Deuteronomy.  As a group, those first five books get their own special name, The Pentateuch, which means “The five books or five scrolls.”  Let’s take a look at the names of those fives books.

Genesis is word meaning beginnings, which makes sense because Genesis talks about the beginning of the creation and of the people of Israel.

Exodus is a word that means the going out from, and that makes sense because it tells the story of how Israel went out from slavery in Egypt.

Leviticus has the Hebrew word Levi in it.  Levi was the priestly tribe, and much of Leviticus deals with religious regulations.

Numbers…well, open up the book of Numbers and leaf through it, and you’ll see pretty quickly where it gets its name.

But what in the world does the word Deuteronomy mean?  Take a look at Deuteronomy chapter 17.  Scroll down to verse 14, and what do you find?  Moses is still having his fireside chat with the people.  In this particular section, he is reminding them of God’s wishes for what should happen in the future when the nation arrives in the Promised Land, and they want to have a king over them. They’ve had numerous encounters with kings in the past, and those kings have been abusive, power-hungry, ego maniacs. Israel has not seen a real, live example of what a godly king should be. God wants something so much for better for Israel, and for the whole world.  He told Israel’s forefather Abraham that Abraham was going to be the father of a great nation, and through him the whole world would be blessed. One way Israel could be a blessing was to give the world an example of godly leadership.

Therefore in verse 18, and we read this:

“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, [the king] is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests.”

The king is to write out his own copy of the law! My hand would be killing me if I had to write all that. Even typing that would take a long time.  But God saw this as a wonderful discipline for the king, desiring the king to keep his copy of the law…

with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.”  

Now that is a description of leadership that the whole world needs.  Sounds pretty relevant even today, doesn’t it?  As we study Deuteronomy, we’ll eventually make our way to chapter 17, and then we’ll talk a lot more about godly leadership.  The reason I bring this up is to focus on that phrase, “copy of the law”.

The book of Deuteronomy was written in ancient Hebrew, the language of the Jews.  There are two Hebrew words in verse 18 that form the phrase, “a copy of the law”.  Mishneh, meaning “second” or “copy” or “repetition” and Torah which means “law.”  The King was to write out his own Mishneh of the Torah, his own copy of the law. That sounds a lot like what Moses is doing in the whole book of Deuteronomy, giving the people a review or repetition of the law, a Mishneh of the Torah. Because of this, Jews simply call this book, The Mishneh.  Considering how many Hebrew words we commonly use in the Bible, it would make sense for us to also call this book The Mishneh.

But we don’t call it that.  We English speakers call it Deuteronomy.  Here’s why.

When the Greeks conquered the Ancient Near East many centuries after the days of Moses, the Greek language became widespread.  Heard of Alexander the Great? He wanted to inject anything and everything Greek into the lands he conquered, and was he ever successful at this task. Greek architecture, culture, philosophy and language are still found, 2000+ years later, all over Europe and the Middle East. Books were translated into Greek so people could read them, including the Old Testament.  The most famous OT Greek translation, called The Septuagint, gave Greek titles to the various books, and that is where we get the word “Deuteronomy.”  As you might have guessed, “Deuteronomy” also means “a copy of the law” or “second law”.  In that Greek translation, in Deuteronomy 17:18, the section that talks about the king making a copy of the law, we read that the king is to make a “deuteronomia”, a second law, a copy. Isn’t it interesting that the Greek title is what stuck for us English speakers!

Our goal in this sermon series will be to look at this Second Law and how we learn about our great God, who he is, what his heart is like, and how he can impact our lives.

One Response to “Why does the book of Deuteronomy have such a weird name?”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Would your family wait 500 years for God to fulfill his promise? (Surveying the history of Israel up to the time of Deuteronomy) | Let's Talk About Sunday - August 30, 2017

    […] scenario is essentially the historical context of Deuteronomy.  This is a story of a family that is waiting a long, long time for God to bring his promise to […]

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