1. Recollections of Horeb (1:6–18)

6 The Lord our God addressed us in Horeb, saying: you have remained long enough on this mountain.

7 Get ready and begin your journey and go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, in the hill country, and in the Shephelah, and the Negeb, and by the coast of the sea; that is, the land of the Canaanites and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.

8 Look! I have set the land before you. Go and take possession of the land which I promised by oath to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, to give to them and to their posterity after them.

9 And at that time I spoke to you, saying: Alone, I cannot take responsibility for you.

10 The Lord your God has made you grow in number, so that today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky.

11 May the Lord God of your fathers add to your number a thousand times as many as you are now and may he bless you just as he said to you!

12 Alone, how can I take responsibility for your burden, and for your load, and for your disputes?

13 Provide for yourselves wise, discerning, and experienced men among your tribes and I will appoint them as your leaders.

14 And you answered me and said: The thing that you have told us to do is right.

15 So I took the leaders of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and I appointed them leaders over you; commanders of thousands, and commanders of hundreds, and commanders of fifties, and commanders of tens, and officers among your tribes.

16 And at that time, I commanded your judges, saying: Adjudicate between your brethren and judge righteously between a man and his brother and his resident alien.

17 You shall not show favoritism in judgment; you shall adjudicate exactly alike for the small and for the great. You shall not be afraid of man, because the judgment belongs to God; and the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me and I will adjudicate it.

18 And at that time, I commanded you all the things which you should do.

The historical prologue, though it repeats material from the other books of the Pentateuch in shorter and sometimes different form, serves a particular purpose in its present context. The Near Eastern treaty, in its historical prologue, described the events underlying the treaty. In Deuteronomy, likewise, the historical basis for the covenant begins with the covenant promise made to Abraham and then it continues to the initial stage in the realization of that promise at Sinai/Horeb. 153  The importance of history has two focal points: (a) there is the covenant tradition of promise, from Abraham to Moses; (b) there is the experience of God in history working out in deed the content of the promise. Thus, for the renewal of the covenant described in Deuteronomy, the prologue recalls not only the covenant’s history, but also the ability of the Lord of the covenant to fulfil his promise. What God had done in the past, he could continue to do in the future. There is thus a presentation of a faithful God, whose demand was for a faithful people. In Deuteronomy, the historical prologue does not have the concise form of the treaty prologue, but it is developed in the address of Moses for an instructional purpose. Hence, a further theme in the prologue is that though God was faithful, the Israelites tended constantly toward unfaithfulness. Though the success in the past was cause for hope in the events that lay beyond the Jordan, the failures of the past provided a warning. The recital of history thus gave strength and warning to the people; the address of Moses solemnly prepares the people for the call to commitment and obedience that would be laid upon them. The address begins with recollections of Horeb/Sinai:

6 The Lord our God addressed us in Horeb. As soon as Moses begins his address, he quotes the words of the Lord; the quotation extends from vv. 6b-8. The syntax of the Hebrew sentence places the emphasis on the Lord our God, 1  thus providing a suitable introduction to the essence of Moses’ discourse. The words emphasize the covenant character of the God of Israel, for it is only on the basis of the covenant that Moses can say, identifying himself with his people, that the Lord is our God. But the covenant privilege carries with it heavy responsibilities, and the words of the Lord required action from the Israelites. You have remained long enough on this mountain. The events of Horeb were completed and it was time to move. The formation of the covenant at Horeb had made the Israelites potentially a nation; there could be no rest until that potential was a reality. Hence at Horeb, and again at Mount Seir, 2  and now in the plains of Moab, where Moses addressed the people, the call comes constantly to move on, until the promised land is the possessed land.

7 The call was to go toward the promised land; and the dimensions of it, as described in this verse, are enormous. Virtually all of Palestine and Syria are included by these terms, an area larger than Israel ever possessed in fact, even during the reigns of David and Solomon. The terms employed indicate the principal geographic divisions of the land. 3  The land included the hill country of the Amorites (viz., the central mountainous regions of Judah and Mount Ephraim), the Arabah (see 1:1), and the Shephelah, a range of low hills situated between the Judean mountains and the coast of the sea (viz., the plain in western Palestine bordering the Mediterranean). The Negeb is the dry land in southern Palestine, extending from north of Beersheba to the Judean mountains. All these areas can be placed under the general term, the land of the Canaanites. 4  To the north of the land of the Canaanites lay the Lebanon, and even further to the northeast were the upper reaches of the river Euphrates.

This large vision of the land is a reflection of the patriarchal covenant; the promise made to Abraham was that the Lord would give to his descendants the land from “the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18).

8 Look! 5  I have set 6  the land before you. The charge the Lord gives to his people is one that requires vision, but now it must be vision that prompts action: Go and take possession of the land. In 1:7, the land was described according to its geographical divisions. Here it is described as a part of the plan and promise of the Lord: the land which I promised 7  by oath to your fathers. The vision required of the people of the Lord is one that sees more than the mundane, physical regions of the land; it is the significance of the land in the promise, soon to be realized, that provides the strength necessary for commitment and obedience.

9 Moses, having begun by citing the words of the Lord, now resumes his address and recalls how, prior to leaving Horeb, 8  it had been necessary to undertake some organization of the Israelites. Alone, I cannot take responsibility for you (lit. “I cannot bear/carry you”). The responsibility, which was both a privilege and a burden, was to be distributed among others.

10 The reason for the need to delegate responsibility was directly related to the Lord’s fulfilment of his promise; thus, these verses on the practical organization of the Israelites are directly related to the earlier quotation of the words of the Lord and the reference there to the promise made to the patriarchs. The Lord … has made you grow in number—hence, it became an increasingly difficult task for Moses, by himself, to undertake all the aspects of the leadership of his people, both judicial and military. The growth, so that now the Israelites had become as numerous as the stars in the sky, was in part a fulfilment of the promise of the Lord: “Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them. Then he (the Lord) said to him (Abram): so shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5; see also Gen. 22:17).

11 The Lord God of your fathers. Earlier in the discourse, the divine titles have indicated primarily relationship (the Lord our God, 1:6; the Lord your God, 1:10). Now the emphasis lies in the continuity of relationship, stressing once again the theme of the covenant with the patriarchs. The Lord was “their God” and he is “your God,” Moses is saying, and his request was that the promise made to the fathers, already fulfilled in the sons, might be fulfilled still further in the sons’ sons. Moses’ request for further increase and further blessing makes it clear that his need to delegate responsibility, stated already (1:9) and to be repeated more emphatically (1:12), was in no sense a complaint.

12 The statement of 1:9 is repeated here more emphatically by indicating the nature of Moses’ responsibility for the Israelites’ burden, load, and disputes. 9 

13 Moses therefore requests the people: provide for yourselves 10  … men—the people would select men and then Moses would formally appoint them, or commission them, to their new tasks. The men chosen, however, were to have certain essential qualifications. They were to be wise, discerning, and experienced 11  that is, they were to have the benefit of acquired knowledge (wisdom), and the ability of discernment, together with the knowledge that can come only with experience. Their task was a difficult one, and the required qualifications were high.

14 The people readily agreed with Moses’ plan. Perhaps Moses reminded the people of their agreement, since the newly appointed men were those to whom the people would now owe their immediate obedience. All might agree on the need to obey God. and his representative Moses, but such obedience was distant and the immediate demand for obedience would come from the officers lower down in the organizational structure. Yet, in the conquest lying beyond the plains of Moab, obedience would not be a lofty theological concept, but an immediate demand made by the officers immediately over the people.

15 With the agreement of the people, Moses proceeded to appoint leaders. 12  The first group, commanders (śarîm), had primarily a military function, for beyond Horeb, and indeed beyond Moab, the people were to launch into a battle for the land promised to them. The divisions (thousands, hundreds, fifties, tens) refer to units of different sizes rather than to specific numbers. 13  Although there was not yet a “standing army” in Israel, such as was to be formed during the monarchy, the Israelites as a whole were, in effect, the army of the Lord. The word officers (shōṭərîm) probably indicates a more administrative than purely military function; it might be equivalent approximately to the modem term “quartermaster.” 14 

16 Moses also appointed judges (shōpəṭîm); this term, too, may have both judicial and military implications (as in the book of “Judges”), though here the reference is specifically to those appointees who would assume a judicial office. They were to judge righteously; that is, there was a “righteous law/judgment” (Deut. 16:18) which was to be applied by them. It applied not only to the full Israelites (i.e., between a man and his brother), but also to the resident alien (gēr). The resident alien was a foreigner who resided with the Israelites under their protection, and though he was not equal in all respects to the Israelites, under the law he was treated as they were. The Israelites knew from bitter experience the status of an alien in a foreign land (see Deut. 10:19); their own resident aliens were not to be treated as they were in the land of Egypt, but they were to have the same status in law as a freeman.

17 Likewise, in the administration of justice, no distinction was to be made between the small and the great, that is, the poor and the rich, the unimportant and the important. Nor were the judges to be afraid of man, if untoward pressure was brought to bear on them, for the measure by which they adjudicated was that of God. The principle that judgment belongs to God was enormously important, 15  for it removed the basis and the authority of the law from the human realm and placed it firmly on an absolute principle of divine authority. But there would still be cases too hard for the judges; the principle of law may be clear, but the application of the principle to situations where evidence was unclear or contradictory could be very difficult. Such cases were to be referred to Moses for his adjudication.

18 The section closes with a summary statement referring to all the legislation given at Horeb; the function of the historical prologue is such that only selected recollections were described, insofar as they fitted into the purpose of Moses’ address.



 1 Here, the subject is placed first in the sentence, whereas normally in Hebrew it follows the verb. The words Lord our God, and variations such as Lord your God, occur frequently in Deut.; see G. A. Smith, The Book of Deuteronomy (1918), p. 6. While the words may be an indication of the style of Deut., they are primarily a further indication of content (cf. “all Israel” and the comment at 1:1). The centrality of the covenant in Deut., together with its nature as being principally an address of Moses, make these forms of divine reference particularly suitable.

 2 See Deut. 2:3, where the same Hebrew idiom is used (with a different verb).

 3 On the geographical terms, see Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible, pp. 37f. On some of the implications of this description of the promised land, see Gordon, UT, p. 459 (19.1899).

 4 See the discussion in J. C. L. Gibson, “Observations on Some Important Ethnic Terms in the Pentateuch,” JNES 20 (1961), pp. 217–238.

 5 MT has rʾh (singular); and later imperatives in this verse are plural, so that one might expect a plural form for the first imperative. A Qumran fragment gives grounds for reading rʾw, the plural (see DJD III, p. 61); this reading is strengthened by the renderings of Sam., LXX, and Syriac.

 6 Heb. nāṯattî (“set”; the verb has also the sense “give” and is used, in the context of the covenant promise, of that which would be “given” to the descendants of the patriarchs [1:9]).

 7 MT nishbaʿ yhwh (“the Lord promised”); the reading suggested by Sam. and LXX (nishbaʿtî), “I promised,” is more likely since the verse is a part of the address of the Lord to Moses and the people.

 8 The expression used is at that time, occurring here and in vv. 16 and 18. It is an expression used commonly in the historical section of Deut.; see S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, p. 15; S. E. Loewenstamm, “The Formula bʿṯ hhwʾ in Deuteronomy,” Tarbiz 38 (1968/69), pp. 99–104.

 9 Burden (tōraḥ) is uncommon in the OT; see its use in Isa. 1:14. Your load is derived from the verb used in the first part of the sentence (nśʾ, “to carry, bear”). Disputes (rîḇ) implies legal cases, as will become evident in the following verses; see also the commentary on Deut. 17:8.

 10 The grammatical construction is the so-called dativus commodi; GKC § 119 s.

 11 Experienced (yəḏuʿîm), from yāḏaʿ, “to know”; see the discussion in J. A, Emerton, “A Consideration of Some Alleged Meanings of ydʿ in Hebrew,” JSS 15 (1970), pp. 145–180, esp. pp. 175f.

 12 The “leaders” (lit. “heads”) could have both judicial and military responsibilities; for a detailed study, see J. R. Bartlett, “The Use of the Word r’sh asaTitle in the OT,” VT 19 (1969), pp. 1–10.

 13 See the general discussion in R. deVaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (21965), pp. 216f.

 14 The meaning of the root, by analogy with its Semitic cognates, is “write”; Assyr. šaṭâru, Arab. saṭara. In Exod. 5:6–19, the role of the shōṭərîm (RSV “foremen”) was to keep tally of the building supplies.

 15 For an examination of the implications of the principle, in the area of legal theory, see J. Ellul, The Theological Foundation of Law (1969), pp. 37–45.

 153 Note, however, that the themes are not presented in strictly chronological fashion; the covenant with the patriarchs is a theme interwoven into the narrative, which begins with Sinai/Horeb. See Buis and Leclercq, Le Deutéronome, p. 35.