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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Deuteronomy

Lawrence Boadt

The New American Bible and the Book of Deuteronomy

The introduction to the book of Deuteronomy in the NAB points to a number of significant aspects for any deep study of the book. First, its style is distinctive and not like any seen up to this point in the Pentateuch. It is more like a sermon with its urgent appeals to obedience and loyalty to God, and its thundering warnings of the dire consequences that will occur if the people do not follow the deuteronomic teachings. Second, the NAB notes that scholars believe it was written near the end of Israel's time as an independent kingdom, that is to say, about the seventh century BC, and comes not at all from the time of Moses. It actually looks back on Israel's history although written as if it looked ahead to their possession of the land. Third, the NAB notes how significant Deuteronomic theology is for understanding the New Testament world of Jesus. Fourth, the NAB gives us a simple outline of how to approach Deuteronomy.

We can expand on all of these to assist us in the study of the book, as well as add some reflections on three other points: (1) The particular theological and historical perspective the book offers on Israel's earlier traditions; (2) the theology of the covenant that permeates the book; (3) its connections to the wider grouping of the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, all of which seem to receive their inspiration from Deuteronomy. We will order these seven areas according to their logical development.

The Outline of the Book

The following detailed breakdown of the contents of Deuteronomy expands the NAB's outline and reorders it slightly to combine its parts I and II, and divide its part IV into two sections:

The outline shows that the basic structure is built around a new presentation of the Law that restates many of the earlier laws of Exodus through Numbers. There is further internal evidence from the original Hebrew text of the book that it was not all written at the same time. Some of the speeches in chapters 1 through 11 and 26 through 30 are addressed to the individual Israelites, “you,” while others are addressed to the plural “ye” or “you all.” Certain sections, such as chapters 1 through 3 are almost entirely in this plural form, while other sections, such as chapters 4 through 11 , are almost completely in the singular. This has led scholars to detect separate stages of development in the book.

It might be noted, especially, that the materials gathered in chapters 31 through 34 are not quite as tied to the laws as are those of chapters 1 through 30 . These last four chapters gather together all of the diverse traditions and long‐established works belonging to the memory of Moses that have not found any other place in the Pentateuch. These final chapters in some way form an appendix to the first thirty chapters.

The Covenant Structure of the Book

In looking at Exodus 1, 9–24 , some general similarities stood out between the description of how Israel received its covenant and the general shape of ancient secular covenants between kings. There were six typical parts to a covenant treaty, which are reflected in a vague way in the structure of the dramatic account of those chapters. These six parts were: (1) a preamble that identified the great king giving the treaty; (2) a historical prologue listing his gracious deeds to the lesser king; (3) the legal stipulations binding on the lesser king (the vassal); (4) the provisions for public reading of the document; (5) the list of gods who witnessed the treaty; and (6) the curses and blessings on those who break or keep the treaty.

The same pattern can be found in the book of Deuteronomy 1–30 :

  • • the great king's self‐identification (Dt 1, 1 )

  • • the historical prologue (Dt 1, 2–4, 43 )

  • • the laws binding on the vassal

  • • provisions for reading the law aloud (Dt 27, 8 )

  • • witness of the gods none

  • • curses and blessings (Dt 27, 1–28, 68 )

In examining this structure, it becomes certain that the final form of Deuteronomy is made to be in the general shape of an actual treaty document. As in the Exodus narrative, there is no suggestion of divine witnesses, since there can be no other gods beside the Lord to perform that role. But, in distinction to the Exodus story, this covenant account ends with a very long series of curses and blessings that fill chapters 27 and 28 . In this way it resembles the types of treaty covenants we know from the Assyrian period, especially in the seventh century BC, rather than the earlier Hittite models that perhaps influenced the Exodus accounts of the original covenant.

It is important to note at this stage, however, that the book as a whole—beginning with the first sentence and concluding with the notice of the great leader's death—combines a second format. It is framed as a farewell speech of Moses to the people. It might also be compared to an aging father's advice to his son so that the son might gain wisdom. Both forms are well known in ancient literature. Joshua 23–24 has been structured as a deathbed speech to the people, and 1 Samuel 12 serves as the prophet Samuel's farewell speech. In the New Testament, John's Gospel has gathered many of Jesus' words into a long farewell speech at the Last Supper (John 13–17 ). On the other hand, the form of both Proverbs 1–9 and the book of Ecclesiastes is that of a speech from an aged father who passes on the wisdom he has learned to his sons and disciples. Many Egyptian wisdom works also use this technique. Quite possibly Deuteronomy combines elements of both the deathbed legacy of the great leader and the wisdom of a father that is handed on to his sons.

The nature of the book as a covenant structure given by Moses himself, as well as its impassioned language of urgency, suggest that the authors saw it as a program for renewing the covenant by the people. Indeed, this will prove to be an important factor in trying to date the document to the seventh century BC.

The Unique Style of the Book

Deuteronomy has long been recognized as an independent source within the Pentateuch, which has no direct connection with any of the other three sources, J, E, or P. Not only is it entirely self‐contained, as a speech from beginning to end, but its vocabulary and phraseology are generally unmatched anywhere among those sources. A good flavor can be found by reading chapters 4 through 11 , where expressions such as the following occur repeatedly:

Deuteronomy has a repetitive style, which serves well the preacher's need to get a message across. The type of language, with its intense use of imperatives and rhetorical piling up of several synonyms in a row for the same idea, hardly qualifies as plain narrative. It is persuasive language, calculated to move an audience to decision or change. Similarly, it uses several rhetorical devices to emphasize its major theme of obedience in the land. On one hand, it rarely speaks of the land simply, but names it as the land flowing with milk and honey, a good land, a land that God swore to your ancestors, and other phrases of appealing description; and on the other hand, it constantly recalls all the good deeds of the Lord toward Israel that involve divine care and help in the land, especially against foreign opposition. The authors have a perspective that seems extraordinarily concerned with warning about misuse of the land through serving other gods and at the same time disobeying all of God's commands.

The Historical Development of the Book

Arguments for dating Deuteronomy sometime in the later part of the monarchy of Judah, rather than in the time of Moses, can be given briefly. These points will focus some of the background problems and crises facing those who put it together, so that the religious message can stand out more sharply for modern readers.

Second Kings 22, 1–23, 30 narrates the events of the reign of King Josiah (640–609 BC). In the eyes of the authors of Kings, by far the most important single action of the king was his decision to reform the religious practice of the people and thus renew the covenant commitment of the nation, as a result of finding a “Book of the Law” in the Temple during its rebuilding. The king immediately consults a well‐known prophetess, Huldah, who delivers a divine oracle (2 Kgs 22, 16f ) that can be compared to the list of Deuteronomic phrases in the previous section. Almost all of Huldah's words are duplicated in typical Deuteronomic passages. 2 Kings 23 then records the effects of Josiah's conversion and his decision to institute a major reform. What he did conforms almost exactly to the program laid down by the law code of Deuteronomy. Note the following parallels in the table on RG 145 .

2 Kings 23 Deuteronomy
23,4.6.7.14 abolition of the asherim 7,5; 12,3; 16,21
23, 4f destroy the host of heaven 17,3
23,5.11 end worship of sun and moon 17,3
23,7 stop sacred prostitution 23,18
23,10 end the cult of Molech 12,31; 18,10
23,13 tear down heathen high places 7, 5; 12, 2f
23,13 remove the foreign gods 12, 1–32
23,14 destroy the “pillars” 7, 5; 12, 3
23, 21f Passover to be observed only in Jerusalem 16, 1–8
23,24 forbid necromancy 18,11

According to the text of 2 Kings, the lawbook was found in Josiah's eighteenth year (622 BC) just as he became interested in reform. In a second version, told in 2 Chronicles 34 , he became interested in reform in his twelfth year (628 BC), and the book was discovered after the changes were well under way. In either case, the similarities between this lawbook, which was found in the Temple during Josiah's reign (and which led to or supported a massive reform), and the urgent preaching of Deuteronomy are too close not to refer to the same book. Scholars conclude from this that at least the core of our present book of Deuteronomy was known by 622 BC.

Close examination of the contents of Deuteronomy, however, reveals that it has strong similarities with many ideas and books, which came down from the Northern Kingdom of Israel when it was destroyed in 722 BC by the Assyrians— almost exactly one hundred years earlier. It shares a strong interest in the love of God, the covenant as relationship, and the imagery of a father leading a son, all of which made the northern prophet Hosea so unique. It has a strong polemic against Baal and the gods of Canaan, a major temptation for Israelites who lived in the northern area nearest Tyre and Sidon; it has a fierce, warlike campaign strategy against Canaanite religion typical of some of the stories told of the northern prophets Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 10 . Moreover, its attitude of doubt about the king's faithfulness in chapter 17 is more typical of a northern viewpoint than of the kingdom of Judah where the house of David ruled. It also strongly supports the role of Moses as a charismatic leader, much in the style of the northern E source in the Pentateuchal traditions of Exodus and Numbers. One could also point to the location of the covenant ceremony of curses and blessings in Deuteronomy 27–28 at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, the traditional centers of the Northern Kingdom.

Could there be a northern origin to the earliest level of Deuteronomic traditions? The answer is a possible yes if we look to a passage in 2 Kings 18, 3–7 , in which the authors state that King Hezekiah of Judah began a similar reform to that of Josiah around the time he became king, perhaps 715 BC. But did Hezekiah already know of the teachings of Deuteronomy back then? Again, it is possible that the refugees from the north brought down the fundamental Deuteronomic laws and traditions with them as they fled the Assyrians a mere seven years earlier, and it was these that Hezekiah decided to put into practice even in Judah.

What happened to the book of Deuteronomy between Hezekiah and Josiah is unknown. According to the book of Kings, King Manasseh, who ruled for most of the intervening years, violently opposed all reform (2 Kgs 21, 1–15; 23, 26f ) and probably persecuted its leaders. They in turn either hid the already‐written book, or kept their teachings to themselves until a more favorable king came to the throne in Judah; then they had them written down.

The Development of the Religious Perspective of the Book

With such a long and complicated history behind Deuteronomy, we must be cautious in trying to answer what particular point of view it represents. Possibly it developed in the following manner:

  • 1. When the Northern Kingdom went its own way after the death of Solomon about 930 BC, this kingdom claimed that it was more faithful to the older covenant of Moses and was opposed to the claims of the house of David in Jerusalem—through which royal promise to David God redirected the covenant in 2 Samuel 7 . The new northern kings, however, quickly adopted all sorts of Canaanite practices and allowed devotion to Baal, Asherah, and other deities to exist alongside the worship of the Lord. This violated the fundamental law of the covenant that there must be no god beside the Lord. The most likely source for sustained opposition to these policies came from the circles of prophets around Elijah and Elisha who violently opposed any compromise with the cult of Baal, and from among the Levitical priests charged with teaching and maintaining the covenant demands. They began to put together a new statement of the law centered on the warning that if Israel did not do better and keep its covenant, it would lose its land.

  • 2. The defeat of the north by Assyria in 722 BC proved these reformers right, but it also left them homeless. Many fled to Judah, and there the terrible lesson that disobedience led to disaster impressed Hezekiah and his Judean priests. They tried to implement the Deuteronomic reform ideas in Judah, which did not really take hold at that time because Judah felt little need to reform after the miraculous escape from an Assyrian invasion in 701 BC, during the later years of Hezekiah. The people of Judah credited this to God's promise to David to never abandon his dynasty nor his city, Jerusalem. The Southern Kingdom became convinced God would protect them no matter what they did.

  • 3. In the days of Josiah, Judah began to expand and retake the old Northern Kingdom of Israel because the Assyrian empire was falling apart. To win over the half‐believing northerners to his side, Josiah wanted something to unite the country in faith. Once he became aware of Deuteronomy's program, from the discovery of the book in the Temple, he decided to use it. It was at this stage that the book was enlarged to its present size, except for a few chapters at the beginning and end.

  • 4. This new setting in the kingdom of Judah led to the particular southern emphases in the book on (a) a single place of worship where God's name would dwell ( 12, 1–14 ), and (b) the frequent use throughout of the verb “choose” to describe the place God has chosen to set the divine name. The Hebrew verb is used to describe God's choosing David and is thus a kind of sacred term for the royal dynasty in Jerusalem—that God chose them—stressing God's special choice of both the house of David and the Temple of Jerusalem.

Important Themes of Deuteronomy

The development of its historical and religious perspective led Deuteronomy to give great stress to certain areas of faith over others. In reading the long introduction in chapters 1–11 and looking at the particular points that the body of laws covers in chapters 12 through 26 , note these frequent themes:

The Importance of the Covenant

Deuteronomy is edited in the form of a covenant treaty between God and the people, but it is also a speech of Moses, which recalls all the covenant benefits that God has done for Israel in the desert. There is also an emphasis throughout the book on the love of father and son as a way of speaking about God and Israel. The Deuteronomic authors borrowed this from standard covenant treaties of the times, which used the motivation of love to encourage loyalty between the parties. It can be said that for Deuteronomy, covenant love and fidelity are everything!

The Law Is Not Simply Laws, but Total Commitment

Another way of approaching Deuteronomy's message is to say it demands a full commitment of heart and mind and strength to God. It is no accident that the most important statement in Deuteronomy (6, 4f) has become the daily prayer and faith confession of Jews everywhere; it was cited by Jesus himself as the greatest commandment for Christians: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

Even the piling up of words for law, “the commandments, the statutes and decrees” ( 6, 1 ), or “ordinances, statutes and decrees” ( 6, 20 ), and similar phrases, emphasize that the great multitude of laws really points to a deeper and more permanent commitment to the Lord that lies beneath.

There Is Consistency to God's Dealings with Israel

One of the significant elements in Deuteronomy's presentation is the recital of Israel's history and the looking forward to still more problems that the people will face in the years ahead. The book sees a design in how God works in history. The pattern can be summarized briefly in this challenge: There are two choices before you—the first is to obey God, follow his ways, and be loyal with all your heart, then you shall receive the blessing of prosperity and long existence on the land. The second is to abandon God, follow the ways of the pagan gods such as Baal, and receive divine punishment and God's curse by which you will be thrown off the land and subjugated to your enemies. This pattern is given very concrete form in chapters 7 and 8 , and again in 30, 15–20 . A corollary of this choice is that God's wrath blazes out against any idolatry on the part of Israel.

God's Blessing Is Conditional on Israel's Response

One of the themes that sets Deuteronomy apart from earlier thinking in Israel is that God's promises either to Moses or to David are not simply guarantees that God will stand by this people with protection and help, no matter what they do. Earlier theologies of God as a divine warrior who always fights for his people is now transformed into a new view of a God who will uphold the covenant and all of its terms, including blessing and curse, according to how Israel keeps its part of the treaty. The stress falls on both faithful worship and social justice as ideals for Israel. Repentance and change of heart are often required if Israel is to return to covenant loyalty. In this way, Deuteronomy represents its call for fidelity to be a turning point that can reverse the judgment against the nation.

The Land Itself Is Conditional

Deuteronomy stresses that the covenant is tied to life in the land; misuse of the land, failure to create a just society, and dishonest policies of rulers will cost Israel its right to the land. One reason why the authors put the book into the form of a farewell speech from Moses in the desert is that it makes the warning come from a time when they had no land yet, and it hints that this may happen again if the people do not heed his words. Perhaps the book became most influential once the exile began (598–587 BC), since the readers could then recognize that they were now indeed in their sorry state because they had not obeyed the Lord as Moses had warned. It spoke to their misery and to their repentant hearts!

There Is To Be One Sanctuary

An important part of the program of Deuteronomy was to center the people's attention on Jerusalem and away from the local shrines and cultic centers, which too often had connections to pagan beliefs and practices. It was an attempt to make the people think as a single mind about unified obedience to the Lord, a unified commitment to each other as a people, and a unified source of all blessing. The kingship of the Lord over the land will then be recognized by all, so that the land, the law, and the people will finally be united as one.

Deuteronomy Updates the Covenant Law

A final point worth noting is how often the laws listed in the outline of Deuteronomy match those of the earliest law code in Israel, the “Covenant Code” found in Exodus 20, 22–23, 33 . In each case, however, the older laws are stated in a way that makes them more adapted to life in the towns and cities of a kingdom in the eighth to the sixth centuries BC. They accent the obligations of citizens and members of the covenant to one another and to the weak and dispossessed so that justice can be done.

In your own study, compare the two sets of laws listed here to see if you can tell the differences:

Connections of Deuteronomy and the Historical Books

Scholars in this century have stressed the strong connection between the theology of Deuteronomy listed above and the viewpoint that can be found throughout the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The same emphasis on having a choice to obey or disobey, with the resulting blessing or curse, seems to underlie how these books evaluate each major historical period and each individual leader. In comparing the book of Deuteronomy to the historical books, read together the beautiful passage in Deuteronomy 6, 3f about loving the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength, and the statement made at the end of the books of Kings about King Josiah: “Before him there had been no king who turned to the Lord as he did, with his whole heart, his whole soul, and his whole strength, in accord with the entire law of Moses” (2 Kgs 23, 25 ). Note also the echoes of Deuteronomy in the praise given to King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18, 5f . These are enough to give a flavor of how Deuteronomy's thought pervades the historical accounts. For further study, look also at these key passages in the histories that reflect Deuteronomy most strongly:

  • Jos 1, 11–15 The promise

  • Jos 23–24 The covenant renewal at Shechem

  • Jgs 2, 11–23 The pattern of sin and curse

  • 1 Sm 12 Samuel's final warning on fidelity

  • 2 Sm 7 The promise to David

  • 1 Kgs 8–9 The conditional promise to Solomon

  • 2 Kgs 17 The reason for the fall of the North

  • 2 Kgs 23, 25–27 The final evaluation of Judah's kings

Deuteronomy and the New Testament

The NAB lists two important citations of Deuteronomy used in Matthew's Gospel to explain the temptation in the desert and to answer the question of which was the greatest commandment. We can, however, see a much greater influence of Deuteronomy than merely these two direct quotations from the book itself. It is in the overall attitude. The heart of Deuteronomy is covenant loyalty, and Deuteronomy stresses the idea of God's fatherhood and love for the people as his children. Deuteronomy also focuses on wholehearted obedience that does more than the minimum required. It sees all of life as a walking in the ways of the Lord. And finally, of course, it understands life to be full of choices made by faith; to obey or disobey. These are all the themes of Jesus' own life. Some scholars have called Luke's Gospel a new Deuteronomy, but this could be truly said of any of the Gospels. If we understand the demand of Deuteronomy for single‐mindedness, together with its vast vision that all of life must be an integrated whole, we will be prepared for a deeper reading of the New Testament.

Conclusion

Deuteronomy sits last in the Pentateuch, and so sums up in a “Second Law” (from the Greek deutero‐nomos) the essential message of the earlier Pentateuchal stories for Israel's existence as a kingdom rather than as a tribal alliance in the desert. It also looks ahead from the time of Israel's beginnings to that later life as a kingdom, which is told in the historical books. Thus, it serves as both a conclusion to the desert period and a preface to the possession of the land. It links the Pentateuch traditions with the works of the historians of its own school that put together Joshua through 2 Kings. A diagram brings this out, and so prepares us to take up the study of the historical books themselves. See diagram above.

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