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Deuteronomic Law

Within the narrative world of the Hebrew Bible, the laws contained in the book of Deuteronomy represent the fourth major collection of ethical ordinances in the Pentateuch—after the Decalogue (Exod 20:2–17), the Book of the Covenant (Exod 20:22—23:19; cf. sēper ha-bĕrît, in Exod 24:7), and the Holiness Code (Lev 17–26). I refer to these texts as Israel’s constitutional documents because they define the boundaries of Israel’s conduct before the deity (Yhwh), each other, and the outside world.

The Nature and Function of Deuteronomic Law.

Scholars do not agree on what constitutes Deuteronomic Law. Most limit it to Deuteronomy 12–26, often called the Deuteronomic Code (DC). However, some add chapter 28, while others limit the DC to explicitly legal prescriptions within these chapters. Indeed many scholars believe that the first task of students of this material is to peel away layers of later additions, especially the theological commentary, in order to isolate the original legal core, which presumably constituted the original Deuteronomic law book.

While some scholars think that some form of Deuteronomy inspired Hezekiah’s reforms at the end of the eighth century B.C.E., more consider the earliest version of Deuteronomy to be the product of Josiah’s reform—a view often linked with Martin Noth’s (1981) proposal for a Deuteronomistic History (DH). This is the scroll that Josiah’s workers reportedly “found” in the Temple (2 Kgs 23:8–20), and which the young king used to support his centralization of the cult, along with economic and judicial power in court-appointed officials in the late seventh century B.C.E. Around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Judeans to Babylon, editors transformed the legal document into a profoundly theological treatise. This edition highlighted the judgment of YHWH as the inevitable consequence of the nation’s rebellion against him. A second Deuteronomistic edition of the book of Deuteronomy was produced in the postexilic period (after 539 B.C.E.), the most notable additions being chapters 4 and 29–30 (for discussion, see Crüsemann, 1996, pp. 204–212; Preuss, 1982; on the editing of the DH, see McKenzie, 1992). While freely allowing for later editing, Eckart Otto (2012, pp. 231–257) has recently proposed a four-stage process: (1) the late preexilic law book, associated with Josiah’s reform (chs. 12–26, 28), revising and expanding the Book of the Covenant; (2) an exilic “Horeb redaction,” adding chapters 5–11; (3) a late exilic “Moab redaction,” adding chapters 1–4, 29–30; (4) a final postexilic edition, associated with the production of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch.

The relationship of chapters 27–28 to chapters 12–26 is unclear. In genre and content chapter 27 diverges significantly from chapter 26: a monologue by Moses (chs. 5–26) gives way to successive speeches by Moses and the elders (27:1–8), Moses and the levitical priests (27:9–10), and finally Moses alone (27:11–26). Although the move was anticipated in 11:26–32, apart from 27:9–10, chapter 27 directs the gaze across the Jordan to a future ritual on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. Since the opening of chapter 28 is linked thematically and stylistically with 26:16–19, it appears that chapter 27 was secondarily inserted in its present location. Even so, chapter 28 is distinct generically from chapters 12–26, consisting not of laws, but of blessings (28:1–14) and curses (28:15–68). Blessings are less common, but curses are more often associated with ancient Near Eastern treaties than with laws. Nevertheless, having blessings and curses follow the laws brings Deuteronomy into remarkable conformity with Hammurapi’s laws, which ended similarly (Kitchen and Lawrence, 2012, pp. 1:179–185; Roth, 1997, pp. 135–140).

Even so it is not clear that the Deuteronomic Law should be limited to chapters 12–26 and 28, and isolated from the surrounding materials. Admittedly the heading in 12:1, “These are the statutes and judgments …,” seems to signal a section break, and together with 26:16, which echoes the vocabulary of 12:1, creates a literary frame around 12:2—26:15. However, by this reasoning, chapters 5–11 should also be included in the Deuteronomic Law, since this section is framed by similar statements (5:1; 11:32). Furthermore, unlike the Book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code, and Deuteronomy 12–26, chapters 5–11 begin with a recitation of the Decalogue, the basic constitutional document (5:6–21). The editors of the book have reinforced the impression that chapters 5–11 belong to Deuteronomic Law by providing an otherwise unprecedented double heading before 5–11: “Now this is the Torah (ha-tôrāh) that Moses set before the Israelites. These are the stipulations (hā-ʿēdōt), decrees (ha-ḥuqqîm) and the judgments (ha-mišpāṭîm) that Moses spoke to the Israelites” (4:44–45). The expressions in verse 45 all have a legal flavor: (1) hā-ʿēdōt is cognate to Akkadian adê and Aramaic ʿdy, both of which are used in treaty contexts, hence “covenant stipulations” (HALOT, 791). (2) ḥuqqîm speaks of decrees prescribed and inscribed in writing by a person with power (cf. HALOT, 346–347). (3) While mišpāṭîm (“judgments”) may refer narrowly to casuistic laws (cf. Exod 21:1)—with the form deriving from precedent-setting legal judgments—in Deuteronomy and elsewhere the expression refers to divine judgments regarding appropriate behavior of God’s vassal, Israel. This impression is reinforced by suffixed forms of the expression (mišpāṭay/mišpāṭāyw, “my/his judgments”) and specific statements that punctuate chapters 5–11 (5:31; 6:1, 20; 7:11; 8:11; 11:1). Remarkably, while these terms had been introduced in 4:1 and 5, apart from the frame (12:1; 26:16) similar statements are missing in 12–26. Given these textual signals, to limit the Deuteronomic Law to 12–26 seems unwarranted.

Form-critical considerations support this conclusion. The book of Deuteronomy is dominated by three speeches attributed to Moses (1:6—4:40; 5:1B—26:19 and 28:1–68; 29:1 [ET 2]—30:20). Whatever the origins of these addresses, the structure of chapters 5–26 and 28 parallels ancient Near Eastern treaties: historical prologue (5:1–5), stipulations (5:6—26:19), blessings and curses (28:1–68). Assuming chapters 5–11 belong to the Deuteronomic Law, the covenantal nature of Deuteronomic Law is reinforced by frequent appearances of the word bĕrît in this second address (11 times), and an additional 16 times in the materials that frame this address (4:13, 23, 31; 28:69 [ET 29:1]; 29:8 [9]; etc.). However, unlike other ancient Near Eastern legal collections, Deuteronomy does not involve laws established by a king, but calls for loyalty to the divine king demonstrated through conduct involving all of life (a point that holds true for the Israelite king as well; see Deut 17:14–20). And unlike ancient Near Eastern treaties, Deuteronomy does not call for loyalty to a foreign ruler and/or his successors. Although bĕrît occurs only once in chapters 12–26 (17:2), treating this material as a separate document disconnected from its literary environment weakens its theological and covenantal force.

While chapters 5–26 contain many laws, retaining the link between 5–11 and 12–26 raises the question whether “law” is an appropriate designation for either. Several considerations argue against this. First, the term tôrâ, rendered nomos in Septuagint and generally “law” in English, does not mean primarily “legislation,” but “instruction, teaching,” which may occur in many forms (including historical reminiscences in chs. 1–4 and the Song in ch. 32). In Deuteronomy this word exhibits the same semantic range as Greek didachē or didaskalia (“teaching”). Second, although Moses is frequently portrayed as “commanding” (√ṣ-w-h) the people (1:18; 3:18; 12:21), the narrator’s locutionary expression for his verbal action is represented by √d-b-r, “to speak” (1:1, 3; 4:45; 31:1), or √ʾ-m-r, “to say” (1:5), while his illocutionary goal is represented as “teaching” (√l-m-d; 4:1, 5, 14; 6:1; 31:19, 22) or “setting [the Torah] before” (√n-t-n or √ś-y-m lipnê) the people (4:8, 44; 30:1, 15, 19). (On locutionary and illocutionary speech action, see Vanhoozer, 1998, pp. 207–259.)

Third, despite the new introduction in 12:1, neither the style nor tone of the address changes appreciably after chapter 11. Law-like commands are sprinkled throughout chapters 12–18, but the style of most of this material is scarcely more legal than chapters 6–11. Concentrations of laws do not occur until chapters 19–25, but even here motive clauses and God-talk contribute to a profoundly theological and parenetic flavor. Furthermore, chapters 12–26 contain the rhetorical features found in chapters 5–11: (1) the “I-you” form of direct address, along with the less personal third-person casuistic forms; (2) Numeruswechsel, the alternation of singular and plural forms, presumably for rhetorical effect; (3) appeals to Israel to keep alive the memory of their past and YHWH’S past grace (15:15; 16:3, 12; 24:9, 18, 22; 25:17–19); (4) references to past divine commands (e.g., 20:17: “as YHWH your God commanded you”), promises (“as YHWH your God promised you”; see, e.g., 12:20; 15:6; 18:2; 26:18–19), and oaths (“as he swore to you/your ancestors”; see, e.g., 13:18 [ET 17]; 19:8; also 28:9); (5) exhortations to self-watch and diligence in obedience (12:1, 13, 19, 28, 30; 13:1–3 [ET 12:32], 19 [ET 18]; etc.); (6) appeals to love (13:4 [ET 3]) and fear YHWH (13:5, 12 [ET 4, 11]; 14:23; 17:13, 19) and for wholehearted (13:4 [ET 3]; 15:7, 9–10; 17:17, 20; etc.) and full-bodied (13:4 [ET 3]; 26:16) devotion; and (7) a vast array of positive (12:25, 28; 13:18 [ET 17]; etc.) and negative (15:9; 17:17; 19:10; etc.) motive clauses. Other rhetorical—as opposed to legal—features continue as well: appeals to and quotation of divine speech (17:16; cf. 5:28B–31; 9:12–14; 10:1–2, 11), recollections of past events (23:4–5; 25:17–18; 26:5–9), and the introduction of interlocutors and prescribed responses (12:20; 15:9; 17:14; 18:21; 20:3; 26:3, 5–10, 13–15).

The didactic and parenetic tone of chapters 12–26 is reinforced by sensitivity to the people’s personal desires with respect to the consumption of meat away from the central sanctuary (12:15, 20–22) and the desire for a king (17:14–20). In sum, treating Deuteronomy 12–26 primarily as “law” and limiting “law” to this section obscures its theological agenda and invites readers to expect legislation like that passed in our own modern legislatures. The entire book is “Torah”—which is best understood as instruction in righteous living as defined by the spokesman (Moses) for the divine suzerain (YHWH). Chapters 12–26 cannot be rightly understood independently of Deuteronomy as a whole and separated from chapters 5–11; nor can the individual laws in 12–26 be rightly understood apart from the hortatory and theological comments within which they are embedded.

The Interpretation of Deuteronomic Law.

Through the years critical interpretation of the Deuteronomic Law has taken several different forms. The following are neither mutually exclusive nor necessarily sequential, but four different approaches may be highlighted. First, some have focused on the forms of the laws. Albrecht Alt (1967) distinguished between casuistic and apodictic law, the former being generally cast in the third person and in the “If … then” form, while the latter were cast as imperatives in the second person (“you shall/shall not … ”). Less helpfully, Alt argued that casuistic laws were rooted in the Canaanite legal milieu, while the apodictic laws were authentically Israelite (Alt, 1967, pp. 278–332). However, comparison with ancient law collections and treaty texts demonstrates that both forms were widely used from the early second millennium and often occurred within the same documents (Kitchen and Lawrence, 2012, pp. 3:267–276; cf. Weinfeld, 1973, pp. 63–75).

Second, for a time many scholars focused on searching for the origins of the laws. Three major responses emerged. (1) Deuteronomy and its laws originated in levitical priestly circles. In the spirit of Moses and cognizant of long-standing traditions they tried to revive a fidelity to YHWH demonstrated by abhorring all things pagan (von Rad, 1966, pp. 23–27; 1953, pp. 66–67). (2) Deuteronomic Law originated in prophetic circles. The portrayal of Moses as a prophet and Deuteronomy’s passion for social justice, critique of kingship, and passionate stance against apostasy have much in common with prophets like Elijah and the writing prophets of the eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E. (Nicholson, 1967, pp. 68–70). (3) Deuteronomic Law derives from courtly scribal circles. The emphasis on the fear of YHWH and wisdom, opposing themes of life and death and deed and reward/retribution, the disposition toward the natural order, and the portrayal of Moses as teacher recall the wisdom literature (Weinfeld, 1992). Given Moses’s traditional roots in the tribe of Levi (Exod 6:16–26), Deuteronomy’s explicit portrayal of him as a prophet (Deut 18:15, 18; 34:10), and his didactic method, none of these proposals should surprise us.

Third, some have focused on the relationship between the Deuteronomic Law and nonbiblical texts, particularly second millennium B.C.E. law collections like the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar, the Laws of Eshnunna, the Laws of Hammurapi, the Hittite Laws, and the Middle Assyrian Laws. Since a fragment of an eighteenth–seventeenth century B.C.E. legal text in Akkadian that resembles the Laws of Hammurapi has surfaced in Hazor (see Ebeling, 2013), we should in principle entertain the idea of a widespread Mesopotamian legal tradition that could have found its way to Israel. But how directly elements from that tradition influenced the Deuteronomic Law is debated (Otto, 1995). If the Book of the Covenant has directly borrowed and transformed the Laws of Hammurapi (Wright, 2009), then the possibility certainly exists for contact with Deuteronomy. However, demonstrating influence is not a simple matter, and the links may simply reflect long-standing and widespread legal traditions (Wells, 2006).

More recently the focus has shifted away from non-biblical law codes to non-biblical treaty traditions, especially from the Neo-Assyrian period. The discussions tend to focus on the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28, but the influence is thought to extend to the laws, especially Deuteronomy 13. Some have argued that the authors of Deuteronomy had access to a written record of loyalty oaths (adê) imposed by Neo-Assyrian emperors on their vassal states, and that the authors of Deuteronomy inverted such oaths by using their language to inspire unqualified and total loyalty to YHWH (see Dion, 1991; Otto, 1996). Appealing to the tablet containing Esarhaddon’s loyalty oath in the temple at Tayinat (see Lauinger, 2011), some suggest a copy of Esarhaddon’s loyalty oath was on display in the temple in Jerusalem (see Stackert, 2012).

But this interpretation seems unlikely. First, the lexical and conceptual links are too tenuous to argue for the Deuteronomic Law’s certain dependence on the Neo-Assyrian treaties (see Zehnder, 2009a). Second, since Neo-Assyrian emperors were heirs of a long treaty tradition extending back to the third millennium B.C.E. (see Kitchen and Lawrence, 2012, pp. 1:1–16; 2:5–9), it is unwise to associate the Deuteronomic Law exclusively with Neo-Assyrian treaties. In fact, many features of Pentateuchal covenantal texts exhibit a closer affinity with late second millennium Hittite treaties than with later Neo-Assyrian counterparts (see Berman, 2011; Zehnder, 2009b). However, given the geographic and cultural distance between the Hittites and ancient Israel, direct borrowing seems unlikely. Although no suzerain-vassal treaties have been discovered in Egypt, recent investigations recognize strong evidence for the conceptual, covenantal world of Deuteronomy in Egyptian texts from the later second millennium B.C.E. (see Morschauser). Geographically situated next door to Israel, Egypt could have mediated covenantal concepts that we recognize more clearly in Hittite texts.

Fourth, seeking to explain the evolution of the text, with keen redaction-critical eyes European scholars particularly have tried to identify layers of text within the Deuteronomic Law, peeling them off like an onion, until they arrive at an original core. Martin Rose (1994) identifies four strata in these materials: Stratum I (the legal core) derives from the time of Hezekiah (715–696 B.C.E. or slightly later). Stratum II modifies the laws slightly and is dated to the time of Josiah (639–609 B.C.E. or slightly later); Stratum III represents the older Deuteronomistic edition from the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.E.) and Judah’s exile. This “preacher” addresses the reader/hearer with plural pronouns, fixes the law in a historical situation (prior to crossing the Jordan), and emphasizes obedience to God. Stratum IV represents the younger Deuteronomistic edition from the end of the Babylonian exile (539 B.C.E.) to the early postexilic period. This editor concretizes the prohibitions on local cult sites and emphasizes the need for their destruction in the sharpest tones. While comprehensive and tidy, such atomization of the text often depends upon modern Western definitions of literary propriety and style, and obscures the rhetorical nature and force of the final canonized form of the second address.

A fifth approach currently gaining momentum explores how the Deuteronomic Law relates to other constitutional texts, especially of the Covenant and the Holiness Codes. Scholars generally agree that the Deuteronomic Law builds upon the Book of the Covenant (Levinson, 1998; Lohfink, 1996; Otto, 1994, pp. 160–196, esp. 192–196; 2012, pp. 231–238), but the nature of that relationship is disputed. Some identify the Book of the Covenant as a traditum (source text) that has been updated as the traditio (derived text) in the Deuteronomic Law to suit a new historical situation (Fishbane, 1985, pp. 5–19). Indeed some argue that just as the author of the Book of the Covenant intentionally borrowed from and subverted Laws of Hammurapi (Wright, 2009), so the authors of the Deuteronomic Law used the language and concepts of the Book of the Covenant, not to confirm or reaffirm the latter, but to subvert, marginalize, replace, and deny its legitimacy (Levinson, 1998, pp. 149–153; Stackert, 2007, passim; Stackert, 2009; but see LeFebvre, 2006, p. 71n54; Otto, 2012, p. 234). While many consider the Priestly law and the Holiness Code as antedating the Deuteronomic Law (Haran, 2007), recently some have argued that what the authors of the Book of the Covenant did to the Laws of Hammurapi, and what the Deuteronomic Law did to the Book of the Covenant, the authors of the Holiness Code have done to the Deuteronomic Law—that is, intentionally superceded, subverted, and supplanted the prior text even while using its language (Stackert, 2007; 2009; also Levinson and Stackert, 2012). However, it seems far more likely that successive constitutional documents would build on, supplement, and reinforce antecedent texts rather than replace them. Differences in detail often relate to changes in envisioned circumstances, rather than to fundamental and conceptual disagreements (McConville, 2000; Vogt, 2006, pp. 171–191 et passim). Furthermore, this approach involves an anachronistic view of the nature of textual authority (Najman, 2003). Even if the Book of the Covenant intentionally refuted the Laws of Hammurapi, a foreign text with alien views of deity and justice, or if the Deuteronomic Law intentionally subverts the Neo-Assyrian treaty tradition, it seems unlikely that one Pentateuchal source would deliberately repudiate the legitimacy of another—especially when both claimed divine authority.

Although most critical scholars associate the Deuteronomic Law either with the reforms of Josiah or Neo-Assyrian treaty forms, some have recently argued that the laws of Deuteronomy derive from the Persian period. Among the factors that supposedly point to a Persian era provenance for the Deuteronomic Law are the following (see Pakkala, 2009): (1) The monarch plays no role in Urdeuteronomium (17:14–20 is deemed a later addition). (2) Assuming no state infrastructure or state administration, texts like 12:14 (bĕʾaḥad šĕbāṭêkā, “in one of your tribes”; cf. also 12:5) presuppose tribal structures. (3) It lacks specific references to Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple (bêt yhwh in 23:19 [ET 18] is vague). (4) It projects a vision of the future, rather than the present—YHWH “will choose” (yibḥar) the place to establish his name (12:5, 11, 14; etc.). (5) The so-called name theology suggests a time when the temple no longer existed. (6) The Elephantine papyri (fifth century B.C.E.) seem oblivious to any cult centralization program, as envisioned in Deuteronomy 12.

However, given the emphases in other postexilic writings on right worship in Jerusalem, the state of the Davidic house, and Judah (1–2 Chronicles, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi), it seems unlikely that a postexilic author as profoundly theological as the author of Deuteronomy would have been silent on all these matters. By presupposing a date as late as the Josianic or Persian period, we have eliminated an equally plausible explanation for these features, namely, that the Deuteronomic Law antedates the monarchy, and to the extent that it speaks of them, they are perceived as future realities. However, only a minority of scholars accepts this interpretation.

Some Postulates of Deuteronomic Law.

If we reject Deuteronomy’s own statements regarding its origin (cf. Sonnet, 1997), we may freely speculate how or under what circumstances the Deuteronomic laws were produced, but our conclusions remain just that—speculations. In the end the best clues to the laws’ significance reside in the ordinances and the contexts in which they occur. If we interpret the Deuteronomic laws as we have them, that is, embedded within a profoundly theological and hortatory composition that includes chapters 5–11, and is cast as Moses’s second oration, we may identify a series of postulates that undergird them. Some of these are unique to Deuteronomy; others reflect perspectives expressed either in earlier legal collections or in the Sinai narratives.

First, Deuteronomy views the law as a divine gift. Not only does Moses speak according to all that YHWH commanded him (1:3; 4:5, 14; 6:1), but also the revelation of the covenant stipulations, ordinances, and judgments (ʿēdōt, ḥuqqîm, mišpāṭîm) is presented as a gracious divine act—along with the rescue from Egypt and the gift of the land promised to the ancestors—for Israel’s good, their survival, and their assurance of divine approval (6:20–25). Indeed their receipt of the law at Horeb is presented as a unique event in human history (4:9–14, 32–36), and their possession of the Torah makes them the envy of the nations, because it symbolizes the deity’s nearness and because of its uniquely righteous character (4:5–8).

Second, Deuteronomy envisions a community based upon covenant rather than on law (cf. Mendenhall, 1975). Because the Deuteronomic Law ties law to covenant it differs significantly from ancient Near Eastern legal collections, but carries forward and strengthens the Book of the Covenant. As noted earlier, the notion of covenant underlies the structure of the book, but the covenantal foundation of Deuteronomic Law is also highlighted by the elevenfold use of the word bĕrît in the second address, the identification of the Decalogue as “the tablets of the covenant” (lūḥôt ha-bĕrît; 9:11, 15), and the reference to the sacred container as “the ark of the covenant of YHWH” (ʾărôn bĕrît yhwh; 10:1–8; 31:9, 25–26). Even more significantly, Deuteronomy is laced with covenantal vocabulary in its description of YHWH’s relationship to Israel and of the Israelites’ relationship to each other (Weinfeld, 1992, pp. 74–110): (1) adaptations of the covenant formula, “I will be your God and you will be my people” (26:17–18); (2) ubiquitous references to YHWH as “your God” and “our God”; (3) special designations for Israel: “a holy people belonging to YHWH” (7:6; 14:2, 21; 28:9); “his treasured people” (ʿam sĕgullāh, 7:6; 14:2; 26:18); YHWH’s “very own possession” (ʿam naḥălâ, 4:20; cf. “YHWH’s portion,” ḥēleq yhwh, 32:9); YHWH’s “sons” (bānîm ʾattem la-yhwh, 14:1; cf. 8:5); (4) special verbs expressing suzerain-vassal relationship: “to serve YHWH” as his vassal (√ʿ-b-d, 6:13; 10:12, 20; 11:13; 28:47); “to fear YHWH” (√y-r-ʾ, 6:2, 24; 10:12, 20; 14:23; 17:19); “to demonstrate love for YHWH” (√ʾ-h-b, 5:10; 6:5; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:4; 19:9; cf. 30:6, 16, 20) as YHWH has demonstrated love for Israel (4:37; 7:13; 10:15, 18; 23:6 [ET 5]); “walking in YHWH’s ways” (√h-l-k + bidrākāyw, 5:33; 8:6; 10:12; 11:22; 19:9; 26:17; 28:9; cf. 30:16), or “walking after YHWH” (√h-l-k + ʾaḥărê yhwh) as opposed to walking after other gods (6:14; 8:19; 11; 28; 13:3 [ET 2]; 28:14); “to act with/keep covenant faithfulness” (√ʿ-ś-h + ḥesed, 5:10; √š-m-r ’et ha-ḥesed [of YHWH]); “to keep the covenant” (√š-m-r + ha-bĕrît, 7:9, 12 [of YHWH]), as opposed to “breaking” YHWH’s covenant (hēpîr ha-bĕrît, 31:16, 20 [of Israel]), or “abandoning it” (√ʿ-z-b, 29:24 [ET 25]); “holding fast to YHWH” (dābaq bĕ-yhwh, 4:4; 10:20; 11:22; 13:5; cf. 30:20), as opposed to “abandoning him” (√ʿ-z-b; 28:20; cf. 31:16); and, of course, “keeping and doing” his commands (√š-m-r + √ʿ-ś-h) or “keeping his commands by doing them” (šāmar laʿăśôt; 4:6; 5:1; etc.). Unlike the treaties imposed by Hittite and Assyrian emperors on lesser vassals, either through conquest, or by cowing them into submission, YHWH redeemed his people from the brutality of Egypt and invited them to a covenant relationship that has as its goal their good, their life, and their well-being.

Third, the primary objective of Deuteronomic Law is the creation of a righteous society. This goal is declared in slogan form in 16:20: “Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue.” Since this statement follows immediately after the charges to appoint judges and the warning not to distort justice (mišpāṭ, vv. 18–19), most translations and commentators render ṣedeq ṣedeq in 16:20 as “Justice only justice.” However, this interpretation overlooks the shift in vocabulary and the variegated nature of Deuteronomic Law. The word ṣedeq refers to behavior in accord with an established standard, in this instance the covenant stipulations as defined by Yhwh (Vogt, 2006, pp. 211–216; cf. Panamuwa and Bar-rakib’s fidelity [√ṣ-d-q] to Tiglath-pileser, their overlord, in COS 2:36, 38). Elsewhere Deuteronomy applies the root √ṣ-d-q to YHWH—who always acts perfectly, justly, faithfully, and uprightly (32:4)—and to the ordinances and judgments, whose righteous character is acknowledged by the nations (4:8). According to 6:25, YHWH acknowledges full obedience as righteousness (ṣaddîqîm), while 24:13 identifies returning a debtor’s cloak at nightfall as a specific act of righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ). Although social justice is rightly viewed as a dimension of righteousness, the types of actions cited immediately after 16:20 involve religious behavior (16:21—17:7). Within chapters 12–29 ṣedeq applies to fidelity to the divine judgments (ha-mišpāṭîm) regarding right behavior in relationship to YHWH (e.g., 16:21—17:7), one’s family (e.g., 24:1–5), the community (e.g., 24:17–22; 25:13–16), and even to the environment (22:6–7).

Fourth, Deuteronomic Law is especially concerned to protect those who are economically and socially vulnerable from abuse at the hands of those with economic and social power. This is evident in the Deuteronomic version of the Decalogue. Addressed primarily to the heads of households, the Decalogue seeks to rein in their propensity to exercise authority in self-interest rather than the interests of the household. This is reflected especially in the Deuteronomic version of the sabbath command, which grounds the ordinance, not in the divine pattern of creative work and rest (Exod 20:11), but in the need for rest by all—including animals—who work in the domestic unit, and reminding the heads of households of Israel’s own experience of abuse in Egypt (Deut 5:12–15). Deuteronomy’s modification of the commands on coveting represents part of the same trajectory (Block, 2012). The same concern is reflected in frequent appeals to care for widows, the fatherless, aliens, and Levites (10:18–19; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17–22; 26:12–13), as well as particular instructions for charitable treatment of indentured servants (15:1–18), a foreign wife taken in battle (21:10–14), the son of the unloved wife in a bigamous household (21:15–17), domestic animals (22:1–4), a wife who is wrongfully divorced (24:1–5), and the widow of a man who has died without an heir (25:5–10), to name just a few.

The instructions on kingship (17:14–20) are part of this picture. In the ancient world kings were thought to have three primary roles: (1) to ensure the administration of justice within the kingdom; (2) to secure the nation’s well-being in the face of foreign threats; and (3) to patronize the national cult in order to promote the goodwill of the gods of the land by building temples for them. However, this paradigm often degenerated to exploitation of royal power over citizens in self-interest. Deuteronomy’s law of the king is not critical of kingship in principle, but seeks to curb royal excess. These instructions declare that the primary responsibility of Israel’s kings was to embody covenant righteousness by submitting to the Torah, fearing YHWH, walking in his ways, and remembering that they are brothers within the Israelite population. Like heads of households and other leaders, kings exist for the well-being of those they lead, rather than the reverse.

The remarkable notion of king as brother of his subjects suggests to some that egalitarian ideals distinguished ancient Israel from the nations around (Sparks, 2008). Significantly, the Deuteronomic Law does not restrict this notion to royal authorities. Although the term ʾāḥ often refers to actual brothers (13:7 [ET 6]; 25:5–9), the expression usually applies to fellow Israelites, as opposed to non-Israelites (15:3; 23:20–21 [ET 19–20]; 24:7, 14). According to the Deuteronomic Law all leaders must treat the rest of the Israelites as “brothers”: kings (17:15, 20), levitical priests (10:9; 18:2, 7), prophets (18:15, 18), judges (1:16); and those with economic power are “brothers” to their servants (15:2–3, 7, 9, 11–12; 23:20–21 [ET 19–20]; 24:7, 14). From a sociological perspective, this egalitarian impulse may derive from the simple origins of the people or the peripheral contexts in which the Israelites lived—constantly threatened by outside powers (Sparks, 2008, p. 118)—which makes it even more remarkable that simple people living in such peripheral contexts should have produced such profound literature in general and such sophisticated laws in particular.

Within the narrative world of Deuteronomy, this egalitarian notion derives from several sources. First, as suggested by the extensive use of the word ʾāḥ, “brother” (40+ times), Deuteronomy perceives Israelites in the main as ethnically cohesive, sharing descent in a common ancestor, Jacob/Israel. This conviction is reflected also in references to Israel as bĕnê yiśrāʾēl (“sons of Israel”) in 23:18 and 24:7, and in references to “your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (6:10; 9:5, 27; cf. 1:8; 29:13; 30:20; 34:4) in allusions to the patriarchal traditions, especially to YHWH’s covenant with the fathers (5:3; 7:12; 8:18; cf. 4:31; 29:25; 31:16, 20; 34:4), his promise/oath of land to the fathers (12:1; 19:8; 26:3, 15; etc.), and the “creedal” recognition of the ancestral narratives (10:22; 26:5–10). However, this sense of “brotherhood” extended beyond Israel. The ordinance of 23:8 [ET 7] forbids abhorring an Edomite, because he is Israel’s brother, alluding to the portrayal of Esau, the eponymous ancestor of the Edomites, as Jacob’s brother in the patriarchal narratives (cf. 2:8; Gen 25:19–34).

Second, the Deuteronomic Law grounds this egalitarian vision in the Israelites’ shared experience of slavery in Egypt (5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:6, 11 [ET 5, 10]; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22; etc.), redemption/rescue by YHWH (4:32–40; 11:2–4; 13:6, 11 [ET 5, 10]; 15:15; 16:1; 20:1; 21:8; 24:18; 26:8), survival of divine judgment at Horeb (9:7–26), and testing in the desert (8:2–16; 11:5–6; cf. 4:3–4; cf. 29:4–5 [ET 5–6]).

Third, although the Deuteronomic Law does not use the language of imitatio dei, 10:17–19 calls on the Israelites to extend egalitarian compassion to resident aliens (gēr); like YHWH they are to demonstrate covenant commitment (√ʾ-h-b) to them with concrete acts of love, remembering that once they too were aliens in Egypt (v. 19; cf. 23:8B [ET 7b]; 24:22). Indeed the Deuteronomic Law extends the prescribed compassion for marginalized natives (widows, fatherless, Levites) to resident aliens (10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:19–21; 26:12–13), as well as the prohibition on oppressing Israelite hired servants (24:14). Elsewhere the Deuteronomic Law calls on Israelites to offer asylum to fugitives fleeing slavery under a foreign master (23:16–17 [ET 15–16]).

A fifth postulate is that Deuteronomic Law reflects a profoundly democratic impulse. The egalitarian impulse acknowledged above should not be confused with modern egalitarianism, which understands the concept in profoundly sociopolitical terms, that is, people enjoy equal status and equally free access to positions of power. Nor should we anachronistically impose our notion of democracy (one person, one vote), as opposed to autocracy, on this postulate. The social world of ancient Israel was pervasively patricentric, which meant that male heads of households governed domestic affairs, and elders, a collection of male heads of households, governed the affairs of the community. Accordingly, the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5, and most of the charges in 6–11 and ordinances in 12–26 are addressed to the heads of households, whom the Deuteronomic Law holds primarily responsible for the pursuit of “righteousness, only righteousness” (ṣedeq ṣedeq, 16:20).

Many understand 16:18—18:22 as a sort of politeia, a utopian constitution with a strong centralized government able to enforce conformity to the Deuteronomic Law (Halpern, 1981, pp. 226–233; McBride, 1987; Nelson, 2002, p. 213). This section is also significant for those who suggest Deuteronomy was composed to bolster royal agendas of centralization and secularization of Israelite society (Levinson, 1998, pp. 98–143; Weinfeld, 1992, pp. 233–236, 168–171). It deals successively with judges and legal administration (16:18—17:13), the king (17:14–20), levitical priests (18:1–8), and prophets (18:9–22)—institutions perceived as instruments supporting centralized power. Most scholars believe that 17:14–20 actually curbs royal behavior, but the king’s position as head of state is taken for granted. In 16:18 judges are viewed as professionals who would replace priests at local sanctuaries, with the tribunal at the central sanctuary assigned the task of resolving insoluble cases (Weinfeld, 1992, pp. 233–236). The law concerning priests in 18:1–8 supposedly reflects the elimination of local sanctuaries, conceding to those who served there a role at the central sanctuary.

On closer inspection it is difficult to see how this politeia bolsters royal power or supports a revolutionary agenda of centralization. None of these sections is actually addressed to the office holders, as if they are now the focus of attention. Concerning judges, not only are the people charged to appoint them (16:18A), but also the instructions on the administration of justice that follow (vv. 18B–19) are addressed to the people—that is, heads of households, who are ultimately responsible for each community’s well-being. Furthermore, the central tribunal in 17:8–13 is not portrayed as a group of magistrates who reinvestigate difficult cases (a sort of Supreme Court of appeal), but as a continuation of the tradition of Moses, who submitted the most difficult cases to YHWH for an oracular decision (Exod 18:13–23). As for the royal ordinance, it authorizes the people to install a king whom YHWH chooses, and then describes for the people’s benefit how the king is to conduct himself (17:14–20). Similarly, the ordinance concerning the priests (18:1–8) is not addressed to priests—they are spoken of in the third person—the addressees (“you”) continue to be the heads of households, if not the Israelite population in general. This ordinance has less to do with new status for levitical priests than challenging the population to ensure their well-being. How the instructions regarding prophets (18:9–22) support either a centralizing or secularizing agenda is not obvious. Admittedly prophets like Samuel and Nathan supported the kings, particularly David and Solomon, but they had no real political power, and unlike other ancient Near Eastern prophets, in Israel they are often depicted as functioning in opposition to kings. Furthermore, the intent of this ordinance is to guide the people in their disposition toward prophets and to reassure them that YHWH would provide persons who would carry on the prophetic work of Moses. This focus on heads of households as the locus of government and guardians of orthodoxy (12:29—13:19 [ET 18]) and right ethical conduct continues through chapter 26, and extends to the blessings and curses in chapter 28. Rather than interpreting the alternation of singular and plural forms (Numeruswechsel) as evidence of divergent sources, this literary phenomenon serves a rhetorical function. The use of the singular in the Decalogue suggests this form involves individual Israelites, while the plural addresses Israelites as a whole (Römer, 2000, pp. 118–119; Tigay, 1996, p. 62; McConville, 2002, “Singular Address,” reverses the significance of the singular and plural forms).

Sixth, Deuteronomic Law demands exclusive and unqualified allegiance to Yhwh. This perspective contrasts starkly with the religious situation outside Israel, where patron deities willingly tolerated their devotees’ simultaneous worship of other gods. In this respect chapters 12–26 carry forward the principal agenda of chapters 5–11, which had repeatedly called for love and service of YHWH with all one’s heart/mind (lēb), being (nepeš), and resources (mĕʾōd; 6:4–5; 10:12–13; 11:13; cf. 13:4–5 [ET 3–4]), and which had identified “the evil” (hā-raʿ) as violating the covenant and going after other gods (4:25; 9:18; cf. 17:2–7). The notion is expressed most emphatically in the severe warnings against apostasy in chapter 13. Whether they be a prophet, a close relative, or anyone else in the community, anyone who encourages defection from YHWH to another god is to be executed to purge the evil from their midst (v. 6 [ET 5]), and in the last case, the offender’s entire village is to be utterly destroyed (√ḥ-r-m; verses 16–19 [15–17]).

The Deuteronomic Law’s program of centralization of worship is fundamental to this commitment. Introduced in chapter 12, the concept keeps recurring, being alluded to by references to “the place that YHWH will choose for his name,” a formula that occurs six times in this chapter and 15 times hereafter (14:23–25; 15:20; 16:2, 6–7, 11, 15–16; 17:8, 10; 18:6; 26:2; cf. 31:11). The policy demands destruction of all Canaanite shrines and the obliteration of the names of the gods of the land from their installations (12:2–3; cf. 7:1–5). Instead of worshiping YHWH in a multiplicity of places, the Israelites are invited to make pilgrimages to the place he will choose to establish his name. Some view this call for centralized worship as a theological revolution, replacing notions of real divine presence, symbolized by the kābôd (“glory”), with a more abstract view of God, symbolized by “the name of YHWH” (šēm yhwh; Weinfeld, 1992, pp. 190–209). However, this interpretation has recently been challenged from several directions. Not only are worshipers invited “to the [very] presence of YHWH” (lipnê yhwh; 12:7, 12, 18; etc.; Wilson, 1995, pp. 66–73), but also YHWH’s choice of a place “to put his name” is best interpreted more concretely, alluding to the practice of officials imprinting their names on land they claimed and deities imprinting them on the places they had chosen for their residence, that is, the temple (Richter, 2007, pp. 342–366). The idiom has less to do with the nature of divine presence manifested than with YHWH’s claim to ownership of the land and his desire to meet with Israelites in worship. Here Israelites could come to see the face of YHWH (31:11; cf. 16:16); hear the Torah read (31:11); learn to fear YHWH (14:23; 31:9–13); rejoice before YHWH (12:12, 18; 14:26; 16:11–12, 14; 26:11); eat before YHWH (12:7, 18; 14:23, 26, 29; 15:20; 18:6–8); present their offerings/sacrifices (12:11, 26–27) and tithes (14:22–27); consecrate the firstborn of the herd or flock (15:19–23); celebrate the three annual pilgrimage festivals of Passover (16:1–8), the Festival of Weeks (Pentecost, 16:9–12), and the Festival of Booths (16:13–17; 31:9–13); receive the divine verdict on insoluble legal cases (17:8–13); recall YHWH’s saving and providential grace (26:1–11); share gifts of charity with those marginalized (26:12; cf. 10:12–22); and demonstrate communal solidarity in worship (12:12; 14:27–29; 16:11). This was also the place where Levites served in the name of YHWH (18:6–8).

It is commonly thought that the Deuteronomic Law’s vision of centralization was absolute, supposedly abrogating and replacing the altar law in Exodus 20:24, which seems to authorize simultaneous worship in more than one place (Levinson, 1998, pp. 28–34). When the Israelites have destroyed every Canaanite shrine in the land (12:1–3), YHWH will choose a place to which he will invite his people to eat and celebrate in his presence—a place, in short, for ongoing fellowship with him (12:5–12). The impression that after that ritual activity elsewhere will be strictly forbidden seems to be strengthened by 12:13–14: Israelites are not to offer burnt offerings in every place they see, that is, wherever they like.

However, the vision of a centralized cult may not have been as absolute as we have thought. First, although some interpret “burnt offerings” [ʿōlōt] in 12:13 as representative of all types of offerings (Tigay, 1996, p. 123), it is possible the word is intended more narrowly. Not all offerings were totally consumed on the altar. Furthermore, the lists of offerings relating to the central sanctuary in Deuteronomy all omit šĕlāmîm, offerings of well-being.

Second, the instructions that follow seem to open the door to sacred observances in the towns where the people live (vv. 15–27). The verb √z-b-ḥ, which in Deuteronomy always and elsewhere usually refers to sacral slaughter, suggests that the Deuteronomic Law views any consumption of meat as a sacrifice of sorts (Vogt, 2006, pp. 181–83; contra Levinson, 1998, pp. 35–38). This interpretation is reinforced by 14:1–21, which identifies the Israelites as “sons” (bānîm) of YHWH their God, a holy people (am qādōš lyhwh), chosen from all the nations to be God’s treasured people (ʿam sĕgullāh), and then authorizes for human consumption the flesh of the kinds of creatures that YHWH accepts as sacrifices. This provision may be rooted in the people’s status as a holy people (ʿam qādōš lyhwh, 14:2), which recalls the inscription on the High Priest’s medallion (Exod 28:36).

Third, Deuteronomy 16:21 anticipates people building an altar of YHWH for themselves. Strictly speaking the text prohibits a sacred pole (ʾăšērâ) next to the altar. The expression, “for yourself” (lāk), seems to assume the legitimacy of private altars, in contrast to the altar at the central sanctuary. The statement also contrasts with Exodus 20:24–25, which consistently speaks of the altar as built for YHWH.

Fourth, although Deuteronomy 27:5–7 involves a pre-settlement context, it calls for the erection of an altar on Mount Ebal for whole burnt offerings to YHWH and well-being offerings, which the people are invited to eat as they celebrate before YHWH (lipnê yhwh). Several factors suggest that this place was not intended as “the place that YHWH would choose to set his name”: (1) YHWH will not identify that place until the people are secure in the land (12:10); (2) the instructions for constructing the altar and the ceremonies at the site recall Exodus 20:24–26, on the one hand, and 24:5, on the other, rather than the altars associated with the tabernacle or the temple; and (3) the tabernacle, which represented the central sanctuary in premonarchic times (Josh 22:19, 29), is nowhere in view.

Fifth, the Deuteronomic Law frequently speaks of the Levites “in your gates” (12:12, 18; 14:27, 29; 16:11, 14; 26:12) or “from any of your gates out of all Israel” (18:6). Since “your gates” represents metonymically the towns of ordinary Israelites, apparently levitical priests were not restricted to levitical towns (cf. Num 35:1–8; Josh 21:1–42; 1 Chr 6:39–66 [ET 54–81]; 13:2). Inasmuch as 18:1–8 assumes that levitical priests who go to the central sanctuary have access to the priestly perquisites there, we may reasonably suppose that in the outlying communities Levites were also serving “in the name of YHWH,” tending to the spiritual needs of the people. This would involve a host of religious and ritual exercises, including instructing the people in the Torah (Deut 33:10), ministering at critical moments in villagers’ lives (marriage, births, deaths), and officiating at local religious observances. It is doubtful the people’s religious fidelity could be maintained with only three mandated annual festivals at the central sanctuary, and difficult to imagine them routinely going to the central sanctuary to worship from the farthest corners of the land—since for many people this would have been a three or more days’ walk (Weinfeld, 1992, p. 218).

Sixth, while biblical narratives do not speak explicitly of levitical priests’ involvement at local cult centers, anecdotal evidence in the DH suggests that altars dotted the landscape. Many of these were legitimate. Samuel began priestly service at Shiloh, the central sanctuary (1 Sam 2:18—3:21), but he also built an altar to YHWH at Ramah (7:17), pleaded with Israel to repent of their sin (7:3–4), prayed for them (vv. 5, 8), led the people in water rituals and fasting before YHWH (v. 6), presented whole burnt offerings to YHWH (vv. 9–10), and led the people in commemorative rituals of thanksgiving (v. 12). Later he performed sacrificial rituals at the high place in Zuph (9:11–14), and hosted a sacrificial occasion with Jesse and his family in Bethlehem (16:1–5).

Without criticism, elsewhere we read of altars at Ophrah (Judg 6:24, 26), the threshing floor of Araunah (2 Sam 24:18–25), Gibeon (1 Kgs 3:4), and on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18:30–35; cf. Elijah’s references to YHWH’s altars [pl], 1 Kgs 19:10, 14). These installations contrast with illegitimate altars at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12:32–33; 13:1–5), in the cities of Samaria (1 Kgs 13:32), and those associated with Ahaz (2 Kgs 16:4) and Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:3–5), etc. In light of these texts, it seems that within the Deuteronomic framework acceptable worship to YHWH could be conducted away from the central sanctuary.

In sum, while scholars have interpreted the Deuteronomic vision of centralized worship and Josiah’s reforms as absolute, this image should probably be modified. Centralized worship by the entire nation would have united Israel in their memory of YHWH’s saving actions and bolstered a faith that claims that “YHWH alone is our God” (Deut 6:4–5). However, life happened in homes and communities. Among other functions, it seems the levitical priesthood was instituted to promote faith and ethical living throughout the land of Israel. Although the Deuteronomic historian holds the kings largely responsible for the nation’s demise, particularly for their introduction of pagan practices to the central sanctuary, the book of Judges suggests that spiritual recidivism did not always happen from the top (Judg 3:7; 6:25–27; 17–18). Indeed the case of Micah and Jonathan, the grandson of Moses (Judg 18:30), proves that in outlying regions the temptation to apostasy and compromise on matters of faith and ethics was strong. Ultimately the nation’s abandonment of YHWH resulted in their exile, in fulfillment of the curses of Deuteronomy 28:15–68.

The Afterlife of Deuteronomic Law.

The influence of the Deuteronomic Law on the rest of the Hebrew Bible and on the New Testament is well documented. In the first instance, the generic designation for this part of Deuteronomy (“the Torah Document” [sēper ha-tôrâ], 28:61; 29:20; 30:10; 31:26; known outside the book as “the Torah of Moses” [tôrat mōšeh], Josh 8:31–32; 23:6; 2 Kgs 14:6; 23:25; Neh 8:1; Dan 9:11, 13; Mal 3:22 [ET 4:4]), was extended to the entire book of Deuteronomy and ultimately to the Pentateuch as a whole (Matt 5:17; Luke 24:44; Acts 28:23; Rom 3:21; etc.). While scholars debate the direction of influence, literary and conceptual links with the Deuteronomic Law pervade the Psalter and the prophets, and extend to the New Testament. It is widely recognized that in the Gospels Jesus cites the book of Deuteronomy more than any other book in the Hebrew Bible, and that allusions to Deuteronomy occur throughout the epistles, both Pauline and General. Indeed it could be argued that with Jesus’s dyadic adaptation of the Shema and Leviticus 19:18 in “the Great Commandment” he captured the heart and covenantal essence of the Deuteronomic Law: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37, 39; Mark 12:29–31; cf. Luke 10:27).




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  • Stackert, Jeffrey. “The Treaty of/and Deuteronomy Once Again.” Paper presented to the Society of Biblical Literature, Chicago, 17 November 2012.
  • Tigay, Jeffrey. Deuteronomy. Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.
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  • Zehnder, Markus. “Building on Stone? Deuteronomy and Esarhaddon’s Loyalty Oaths (Part 1): Some Preliminary Observations.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19, no. 3 (2009a): 348–351.
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Daniel I. Block

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