Deuteronomy directly addresses the problem of the historical distance between past and present, between tradition and the needs of the contemporary generation, between revelation and interpretation. In that way, it is a remarkably modern text that instructs its audience how to become more thoughtful readers of scripture. In narrative terms, Deuteronomy comes just as the Israelites, encamped on the plains of Moab, finally stand poised to enter the promised land. This entry into Canaan would provide the long‐awaited climax of the story that had begun with the promises to the ancestors in...
Deuteronomy directly addresses the problem of the historical distance between past and present, between tradition and the needs of the contemporary generation, between revelation and interpretation. In that way, it is a remarkably modern text that instructs its audience how to become more thoughtful readers of scripture. In narrative terms, Deuteronomy comes just as the Israelites, encamped on the plains of Moab, finally stand poised to enter the promised land. This entry into Canaan would provide the long‐awaited climax of the story that had begun with the promises to the ancestors in Genesis, and whose fulfillment had been delayed by the enslavement in Egypt and the wandering in the wilderness. Now, on the eve both of his death and of the nation's entry into the land without him, Moses, as Deuteronomy's speaker, arrests the narrative action in order to deliver a series of three speeches, grouped together as a long valedictory address. He reviews the nation's history, expounds upon their laws, and instructs them about the importance of loyalty to God. He also requires that the nation swear upon oath to uphold this combination of law and theological instruction as a covenant upon the plains of Moab, one that supplements the prior covenant of Horeb (Deuteronomy's name for Sinai; 29.1 ). Only after the conclusion of these discourses and a following appendix (chs 31–34 ) does the overall narrative line resume with the account of the nation's entry into Canaan in Joshua and Judges.
The English name of the book, based on the Septuagint (see 17.18n. ). That title reflects the early Jewish perspective that Deuteronomy is Moses' rehearsal of the earlier legal sections of the Torah. Despite this perspective and the text's own self‐presentation, however Deuteronomy is likely not Mosaic but originates in the seventh century bce. It has long been recognized that there are striking similarities between the distinctive religious and legal requirements of Deuteronomy and the account of the major religious reform carried out by Josiah, the king of Judah, in 622 bce (2 Kings 22–23 ). That reform had been inspired by the discovery in the Temple of a “scroll of the Torah” (2 Kings 22.8 ). Josiah's reform restricted all sacrificial worship of God to Jerusalem and removed foreign elements from the system of worship; it culminated in the celebration of the first nationally centralized Passover at the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23.21–23 ). So strongly do these royal initiatives correspond to the distinctive requirements of Deuteronomy that scholars, both traditional and critical, have long identified the “scroll of the Torah” discovered in Josiah's Temple as Deuteronomy.
Josiah's reform, with Deuteronomy as its catalyst, was much more a revolution than a simple return to older forms of worship. Previously, it was entirely legitimate to sacrifice to God throughout the land, as did Abraham at Shechem and near Bethel (Gen 12.7–8 ); Jacob at Bethel (Gen 35.1–7 ); Samuel at Mizpah, Ramah, Gilgal, and Bethlehem (1 Sam 7.9,17; 9.11–14; 10.8; 16.1–5 ); and Elijah upon Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.20–46 ). Indeed, earlier biblical law stipulated that God would grant blessing “in every place where I cause my name to be remembered” (Ex 20.24 ). Deuteronomy challenged that older norm, prohibiting sacrifice “at any place” (literally, “in every place”) and restricting it to a single site, implicitly Jerusalem (Deut 12.13–14 ). In this way, Deuteronomy's self‐presentation as a rehearsal or explication of prior law ( 1.1–5 ) or as a simple supplement to the prior covenant ( 29.1 ) obscures the extent to which Deuteronomy actually challenges and revises earlier law in support of its new religious vision.
A century of Assyrian imperial domination serves as the historical background of Josiah's reforms. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians in 722 bce (2 Kings 17 ). Continuing Assyrian incursions down the southeastern coast of the Mediterranean had all but reduced Judah to a rump‐state (2 Kings 18.13 ). In a desperate bid to preserve the nation's autonomy, King Hezekiah of Judah made a pact with Assyria (2 Kings 18.13–18 ), as had his predecessor Ahaz (2 Kings 16.7–8 ). The resulting military allegiances led to religious syncretism, as foreign forms of worship were introduced into the Temple (2 Kings 16.10–20; 21.1–6 ).
By the last quarter of the seventh century bce, however, Assyria's might was in decline. In this context, Josiah's religious reforms represented an important bid for Judean cultural, political, and religious autonomy. The monarch extended his reforms into the area of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 23.15–20 ), territory formerly under Assyrian control. Deuteronomy, apparently written sometime during this historical crisis, likewise reflects the desire to preserve Judean cultural and religious integrity. Its authors were convinced that older conventions of worship and social organization were no longer viable. If the religion of the Lord was to survive the crisis, renewal and adaptation were necessary. The collection of laws that form the core of Deuteronomy (chs 12–26 ) provides a remarkably comprehensive program for cultural renewal. The laws deal with worship; the festival calendar; the major institutions of public life (justice, kingship, priesthood, prophecy); criminal, family, and civil law; and ethics. These laws are presented as the requirements of a covenant between God and the nation, which the people take an oath to uphold, upon penalty of sanctions, while maintaining unconditional loyalty to their God. That covenant structure closely corresponds to Neo‐Assyrian state treaties that have been recovered from this period, the most famous of which is the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon (672 bce). At a number of points, the authors of Deuteronomy seem consciously to have patterned their covenant after such treaties, treaties that had been repeatedly imposed upon Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries. From this perspective, Deuteronomy is a counter‐treaty: Its authors turned the weapon of imperialism into a bid for freedom, shifting its oath of loyalty from the Assyrian overlord to their divine sovereign.
The authors of Deuteronomy were thus tutored in international treaty conventions, and elsewhere reveal their knowledge of the literary traditions of ancient Near Eastern law (see 15.1–18n.; 17.8–13n.,14–20n.; 22.13–30n. ) and wisdom literature ( 1.13n.; 4.2n. ). The authors of Deuteronomy made use of another common ancient Near Eastern convention as well. They did not directly attach their name to their composition or write in their own voice; instead, they attributed their composition to a prestigious figure from the past. By employing Moses as their spokesperson, they established a link with tradition at precisely the time when tradition, for the sake of survival, had to be transformed. This convention of ascribing a text to an ancient personage, technically called “pseudepigraphy,” is particularly well known in the later literature of the Second Temple period; examples include Jubilees, 4 Ezra, the Testament of Abraham, and (among the Dead Sea Scrolls) the Temple Scroll.
It is important to note that Deuteronomy has its own internal literary history as well, preserving several layers of tradition within itself: The structure of three different speeches given by Moses, with an appendix, already suggests a process of literary growth. That growth is closely connected to the gradual formation of the Hebrew Bible. To appreciate what is involved, it helps imaginatively to turn the clock back to the time before the Bible achieved its present form.
When Deuteronomy was first promulgated, it would not have been part of any larger whole. Instead, it would have been complete by itself as a “scroll of the Torah” (i.e., the “book of the law” in 2 Kings 22.8 ). It would have consisted of most of the laws of chs 12–26 , framed by a relatively simple introduction and conclusion. This form of Deuteronomy presented itself as a treaty concluded between the nation and its God in a formal ceremony whereby each citizen took an oath of loyalty under penalty of strict sanctions ( 28.1–46 ). This was very likely the preexilic form of Deuteronomy.
At a later stage, presumably sometime during the exile in the mid‐sixth century bce, Deuteronomy would have been incorporated into the Deuteronomistic History (the books of Joshua through 2 Kings) to serve as its introduction. At this point, the Deuteronomistic editors would have given the book its literary frame ( 1.1–4.40; chs 31–34 ), while also adding to the collection of laws, selectively tying its promises or expectations to the later historical material. Expansions in Deuteronomy that reflect the Babylonian exile may derive from this stage (see 4.25–31; 28.47–56; 30.1–10 ).
At a still later point, in the exilic or postexilic period, Priestly editors appended Deuteronomy to the newly formed Pentateuch, to serve as its conclusion. Ironically, the decision to conclude the Pentateuch with Deuteronomy separated the overall narrative plan of Genesis through Numbers from its logical fulfillment in an account of the conquest of the land. This narrative climax was delayed to the books of Joshua and Judges.
In the final chapters of Deuteronomy, these three viewpoints operate simultaneously, creating a complex interplay of perspectives. The legal section is brought to its conclusion with a formal ratification ceremony involving the swearing of an oath to assume the penalties for transgressing the covenant (chs 29–31 ). At the same time, other editors worked to embed Deuteronomy in the Deuteronomistic History. Still other editors tied the book to Genesis‐Numbers and thus make the creation of Torah—no longer the occupation of the land—the climax of the newly created Pentateuch. The three perspectives operate concurrently, spinning like Ezekiel's vision of “a wheel within a wheel” ( 1.16 ).
Part of the continuing relevance of Deuteronomy is that it does not permit itself to be read literally or passively. It challenges its readers actively to confront the problem of the relation between revelation and interpretation and breaks down conventional boundaries between scripture and tradition. It makes paradox central to its structure: The book distinctively narrates the process of its own formation ( 31.1–12 ) while also anticipating its existence and completion ( 17.18; 28.58; 30.10 ). Interpretation is directly and indirectly a theme of Deuteronomy (see 1.5 ). At many points, the authors of Deuteronomy reinterpret earlier narratives (see 6.1n. ) and laws (particularly from the Covenant Collection or Covenant Code in Ex 20–23 ). Moreover, the process of the book's editing intentionally preserves conflicting perspectives on a full range of issues central to Israelite religion: on whether the revelation of the Decalogue at Mount Horeb (Deuteronomy's name for Mount Sinai) was direct or required the mediation of Moses ( 5.5n. ); on the stature of Moses relative to other prophets ( 34.10n. ); on the nature of divine punishment for sin ( 5.9–10n.; 7.10n. ); on whether God rules as head of a pantheon or is the only God who exists ( 4.7–8n.,15–31n.,35n.; 32.8n. ); and even on Deuteronomy's own setting in time and place ( 1.1n.; 2.12n.; 3.11n. ). These mutually exclusive positions preserve an ongoing ancient debate about fundamental religious assumptions. The editors of Deuteronomy opted against closure: They preserved these different schools of thought in their full integrity. Accordingly, there is in Deuteronomy no access to God in the covenant without entering into this debate. The modern reader of Deuteronomy must become, like the authors of Deuteronomy, an interpreter.
Chapter. 28526 words.
Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies
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