Deuteronomy Week 1 Reading Guide

Deuteronomy, Introduction

Deuteronomy 12–26

Deuteronomy is filled with interesting issues. Deuteronomy 16:18—19:21 in particular deals with public order and will be important for this course. Next week we will focus more on issues pertaining to women. The following week we will focus more on economic policies and property. Later we will get to purity, including consequences of unsolved crime (Deut. 21:1–9). Tithing will come up again in the context of the Priestly sacrificial system. Child sacrifice will come up again when we get to Genesis 22. There are many other issues we will not dwell on, unless there are questions or they develop into paper presentations. These include development of the calendar, validity of testimony, capital punishment, just war, religious tolerance, citizenship, treatment of animals, etc.

The key theme of Deuteronomy’s conception of an ideal society (a reform expressed as the way God intended it all along) is centralization. This is most obvious in the elimination of all shrines except the one in Jerusalem, and the direct consequences thereof. The theme of centralization also applies to the regulation of civil authority. The “center” is not the king or even the temple, but the Law itself. There is also centralization of identity, such that the category “Israelite” displaces other categories of allegiance, such as family and tribe. The words “brother” and “neighbor” apply to the whole nation (an issue still discussed in the New Testament).

Consequences of closing local sanctuaries

Furthermore, the reorganization of the judicial and political system is a form of centralization, as discussed particularly in the reading from Levinson.

2 Kings 22–23

As Collins discusses, Josiah’s response to finding the scroll matches perfectly what Deuteronomy says. Consequently, scholars understand the scroll to be a form of Deuteronomy, at least its core (chapters 12–26). This provides an anchor for the date of Deuteronomy at 622 BCE, although earlier and later elements can be identified.

They may have “found” the ideas in their experience of tradition and divine inspiration. However, reason indicates that they did not find the scroll having already been written generations earlier. The language and circumstances of the exact words reflect the time of Josiah, not the time of Moses. We may have time to discuss the ancient practice of writing in the voice of an ancient authority, sometimes called “pseudepigraphy.” That term means “false attribution” and may suggest lying or reverse-plagiarism. While modern authorship values originality, ancient authors placed a higher value on continuity with received authorities. These writers may have honestly believed they were emulating, channeling, or reconstructing what the ancient authority would have said, even though the text with those words never existed before. Today, we may try to distinguish the words of the original author from our interpretation, such that we know historical fiction from history, and what-would-Jesus-do from the gospels. However, the line is blurrier than it may first appear.

It is interesting to me that the person who “finds” the scroll in 2 Kings 22:8 is the high priest Hilkiah. The first verse of the book of Jeremiah identifies Jeremiah as the son of Hilkiah, of a priestly family. Jeremiah lives about a generation later, and is very much influenced by Deuteronomy. It would be impossible to know how common the name Hilkiah was, but it remains an intriguing possibility that Jeremiah was the son of the person who “found” the base version of Deuteronomy.

Collins, Chapter 8, “Deuteronomy,” pp. 97–108

Hammurabi is only one example of an ancient text relevant to understanding Deuteronomy. Blenkinsopp and Collins will be your sources for the relevance of Assyrian vassal treaties and loyalty oaths. In particular, the idiom to love the lord as yourself echoes with a very similar meaning but a very different object.

Collins and Blenkinsopp do a good job of introducing major issues in scholarship on Deuteronomy. They are both trying to reflect a general scholarly consensus, but they invariably differ in the occasional opinion, formulation, or emphasis. If any of their disagreements seem significant we can discuss the different positions and clarify or adjudicate as best we can.

Collins touches on the relationship between Deuteronomy and “wisdom,” which is one of the larger themes of Blenkinsopp’s book. Significant as the similarities and overlap may be, I still find a basic distinction between wisdom in ordering society and wisdom in personal choices.

Collins’ section on the relationship between D and P is important, even though it may be confusing since we haven’t yet really covered the Documentary Hypothesis (the idea that the Pentateuch was redacted together from four distinct documents with four distinct historical contexts and compositional spheres). This might make more sense after we cover Collins’ Chapter 2 in a few weeks. The four sources, often referred to by their first letters, are the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly sources, and the Holiness Code is a subset of P. Collins generally favors brevity in summarizing scholarship, but on this point he gives more of a flavor of the ambiguity and complexity entailed in putting texts in historical relationship and context, which is the heart of historical-critical scholarship.

Collins, end of Chapter 14, “The End of the Kingdom of Israel,” and “Judah in the Assyrian Crisis” pp. 179–184

Together with Blenkinsopp, these pages should give a sense of the historical context of the composition of Deuteronomy. Recall that the Kingdom of Israel is the northern ten tribes, excluding the Kingdom of Judah, the southern two tribes. It is worth remembering the events in the day of Hezekiah (c. 722) and Josiah (c. 622), and then the Babylonian Exile a generation later (two waves in 597 and 587).

Blenkinsopp, “Deuteronomy,” pp. 107–119

Blenkinsopp covers several important issues, and pays particular attention to the historical context and development of the book. He rightly points out that Josiah’s reform was not the first or last stage in the composition of the book (although I would still call it central). Levinson (below) might give the impression that those responsible for the Deuteronomy are at odds with the monarchy. It is true that Deuteronomy regulates the arbitrary authority of the king, but Blenkinsopp is correct to say Deuteronomy is most likely the product of scribes attached to the royal court (p. 115; perhaps scribes concerned about a king who was too young to rule without an authoritative written guide, as was the case with Josiah).

Levinson, “The First Constitution” (Cardozo Law Review 27, 2006) (PDF)

Bernard Levinson is a biblical scholar with a secondary position on a law faculty. This article is from a law journal and is addressed to an audience without prior knowledge of biblical scholarship. Besides the main argument, Levinson does a good job of introducing some basics that I may not have been clear on, such as explaining the historical-critical method on page 1857.

Section II illustrates an example of the compositional strategy of Deuteronomy as a revision and reform of received legal traditions. Later parts of the Bible interpreting earlier parts is sometimes called inter-textuality or inner-biblical interpretation. That is something of a digression, however, since the main point of the section (the point that fits the overall point of the article) is that Deuteronomy differs from ANE laws in providing an origin myth of the judiciary in the text of the law, rather than an origin myth of the text of the law from the king.

The following lists some of the reforms to the judicial structure proposed by Deuteronomy, particularly as seen by Levinson. Whatever parts seem unclear or not quite right we can discuss in class.

Levinson is certainly correct to emphasize that the program was never really implemented, and Deuteronomy is not a snapshot of a daily life in ancient Israel. However, that does not mean that the “draft constitution” had no lasting effect. The idea of subordinating monarchy and temple to a text is an idea that allowed the Israelites to survive in the absence of monarchy and temple. Judaism developed as the first religion of a book. More often than not, Judaism is well described as organized under the authority of the text, with priests, scribes and rabbis claiming authority largely through the authority to interpret the text (the same is true of early Christianity, far more than is widely recognized).

If anyone has background on the Magna Carta it might be good to hear more about how that fits into the history of the ideas of the separation of powers with an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.