As earlier posts make clear, the canonical order of the books of Scripture makes a difference in how we read them. Thus I want to explore the effect of Deuteronomy’s position in the Torah as the last book without repeating observations made in previous posts like Old and New Testament Torah, Prophets & Writings and The Way of Wisdom: The Canon and Cessation. If you have not read those posts, please do so before continuing with this one.
Simply put, the effect of putting Deuteronomy last is to make it the most important. This is reflected in later Scripture. For example, whenever the Prophets refer to Torah (or the longer form ‘Torah of Moses’) they are referring not to the canonical designation for Genesis through Deuteronomy but they are referring to the Book of Deuteronomy. The late Al Groves researched each of these references to “Torah” and concluded that every one of them was a reference to Deuteronomy. Moreover, the most quoted book of the Torah in the New Testament is Deuteronomy.
But it is actually a little more complicated than this. Deuteronomy shows us the shift from the spoken Torah of Moses to the written Torah of Moses. As noted elsewhere, not every word of the written Torah of Moses was written by Moses. In fact, the written Torah of Moses was undoubtedly edited later, has an updated vocabulary throughout, and has the extra poem and epilogue telling us about the death of Moses written from the standpoint of the cessation of prophecy. On the updated vocabulary Pete Enns notes as he reflects on the comments of an unnamed Old Testament scholar: “The specific point concerned the state of Hebrew in the 2nd millennium BC, and how no one living at that time (i.e., Moses) could have written the Pentateuch as we know it, as it reflects a state of Hebrew that did not develop until the 1st millennium” (see II). But for our purposes here, the effect is to highlight the editor(s)’ comments and especially the editor(s)’ conclusion. This is fitting for the gospel genre because the NT Torah was not written down by Jesus and so you will see this similarity between Deuteronomy and Matthew-John. Deuteronomy is most like John because it assumes you know the story (a point that I could develop further).
This same effect is observable in the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole because the Prophets interpret Torah and show more acts of God and then the Writings interpret the Torah and Prophets. Likewise in the New Testament as particularly the epistles (writings) interpret the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (gospels, NT Torah) and the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts, NT Prophets). Each Torah is foundational to the rest and so it is most important in that respect. Though no Christian would dispute that the effect of the Gospels coming later makes them more important. In the Old Testament, it is also clear that God spoke to Moses face to face but to the later prophets and especially to the writers this revelation becomes increasingly indirect. But we cannot underestimate the impact for those living just before and at the time of Christ to have the canon in this order. It was the Writings that showed you how to interpret the written Torah for your new situation.
We see this even in the Torah because what Deuteronomy does is show us the torah (instruction) adapted to a new generation. There are a variety of inconsistencies between the laws found earlier and found in Deuteronomy (many of which simply reflect a later situation, this cannot be said of all the differences). McConville notes in his commentary in the AOTC series that Deuteronomy is concerned to apply torah (instruction of Moses) to not only the Moab generation but also to all generations (cf. p.136). The point being that the book is concerned for transmission of the Decalogue and all the torah (instruction including law and history) of the Torah to future generations. As Deuteronomy itself demonstrates, this transmission requires teaching and interpretation (concerns highlighted by the editor of Deuteronomy who promotes the priests as teachers of written Torah).
So in summary the effect of Deuteronomy being the last book of the Torah is to make the equation of Deuteronomy and Torah. That is, Torah = Deuteronomy. And to emphasize that the Torah must be taught and interpreted for every new generation by wisdom teachers. Thus the spoken words of Moses are not nearly as important, even though the book consists of three major speeches, as the written book of Deuteronomy. And so we should pay careful attention and highlight any comments made by the editor(s) as we proceed through our investigation of this Torah especially noting his fascination with giants (something I remember Al Groves noting).
As a final point for now, just as when you read the New Testament and find the end of the story and then go back and re-read the Old Testament to see how it points to the end, you should also re-read the whole Torah from Genesis to Numbers after you have read Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is inviting you to do this. It is assuming that you know the story of Numbers in particular and is encouraging you to read it again. But it is also inviting you to compare the Decalogue in Exodus with the new presentation in Deuteronomy and so forth. May this observation keep you studying Torah in a loop so long as you keep seeing the one who is its subject: Jesus Christ.