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The Core Curriculum

Unknown

641 BCE – 609 BCE
Dates are approximate

Moses Viewing the Promised Land from Afar (Deuteronomy 34:1–5), by James Tissot, c. 1896 (Wikimedia Commons)Moses Viewing the Promised Land from Afar (Deuteronomy 34:1–5) by James Tissot, c. 1896 (Wikimedia Commons) Situated last among the five books of the Pentateuch or Torah, Deuteronomy presents itself as Moses’ final words to the Israelites as they stand ready to cross the Jordan into the promised land. In the Jewish tradition, the book’s opening phrase, ’elleh haddevarim, or “These are the words” (1:1), serves as its title, and is often shortened to just Devarim or “Words.” The English title Deuteronomy derives from the Septuagint’s mistaken rendering of 17:18 as to deuteronomion touto, or “this copy of the law” or “this repetition of the law.” Its title thus suggests that Deuteronomy should be read as a recapitulation and expansion of the laws revealed to Moses at Sinai.  To the extent that the oldest portion of the book (chapters 12-26) presents a body of law known as the “Deuteronomic Code” that is founded upon God’s earlier revelation, this understanding of the work is appropriate. 

In spite of its connections with the rest of the Torah, however, Deuteronomy is distinct from the previous four books in important ways.  Most apparent to the work’s readers is the personal, hortatory style in which it is written.  Deuteronomy’s laws are presented in an oratorical, even sermonic fashion: moral and historical motivations supplement particular injunctions, while the proper attitude in which laws should be followed is often specified.  The frequent use of the second person further heightens the sense of personal address conveyed throughout the work, and thus the need for personal response.  Additionally, while the Deuteronomic Code faithfully reiterates many of the laws revealed at Sinai, it substantially revises – or simply omits – others, while also containing a number of original innovations.

These differences, along with other variations in vocabulary, have contributed to a broad scholarly consensus attributing Deuteronomy to a single literary tradition separate from the other sources from which the Torah is constructed.  Identifying this tradition, the achievement of W.M.L de Wette, has proven decisive for interpreting the text. In a dissertationpublished in 1805, de Wette identified a “book of the law” discovered in the Temple of Jerusalem in 621 BCE with an early version of the Deuteronomic Code (see 2 Kings 22:8).  This places Deuteronomy’s composition in the 7th Century BCE, most likely during the reign of king Josiah of Judah (r. 640-609 BCE).  In this context, the impact of major political and religious reforms Josiah oversaw on the main body of law in Deuteronomy becomes visible.  Josiah’s reforms prohibit worship of gods other than Yahweh along with sacrifice outside of Jerusalem, and distinguish between true and false prophets.  In addition, they subordinate the authority of heads of families and the king himself to the law, regulate the role of priests and the celebration of Passover and address a variety of humanitarian concerns including the treatment of slaves, the poor and of enemies in war.  In sum, the reforms reflected in the Deuteronomic Code entail a radical centralization of political and religious authority.  The distinctive oratorical style of Deuteronomy, along with the story of its rediscovery in Jerusalem, thus serve as tactics for convincing Josiah’s subjects to accept his reforms.

The two discourses of Moses that introduce the work (1:1-4:43; 4:44-11:32) further justify exclusive worship of Yahweh through reference to history.  Moses begins his address to the Israelites by providing a reminder of their journey from Sinai to Moab that culminates in an evocative retelling of God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai.  The tone throughout is didactic:  Moses continually emphasizes the rewards of obedience to and remembrance of God and, conversely, the adversities resulting from disobedience and forgetfulness.  In doing so, Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the Promised Land with renewed commitment to their covenant with God and a powerful reminder of God’s uniqueness, power and justice when compared with the gods of other nations.

This reference to history reveals the political dimensions of Moses’ introductory speeches.  The use of history as a motivational tool to ensure adherence to laws echoes the Vassal Treaties of King Esarhaddon (r. 681-669), which contextualize Assyrian suzerainty by referring to past deeds.  Deuteronomy’s copious use of idioms borrowed from the Vassal Treaties suggests not that the text should be read as an actual treaty document, but that its persuasive project includes a powerful injunction on the Israelites to pledge their loyalty to Yahweh. Such a reading of Deuteronomy is bolstered by the historical situation of the kingdom of Judah, which had itself only recently thrown off Assyrian domination.  Moses’ opening discourse not only declares Judah’s independence from Assyria, but also asserts its unity through exclusive worship of Yahweh.  Moses’ commands to “love,” “fear,” “serve” and “pay heed to” God unite the Israelites as one people bound together by their unique relationship with God.

 

Written by Daniel del Nido, Core Lecturer, Religion, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted:

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha.Fourth Edition. Ed. Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010

The Harper-Collins Study Bible Including Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books with Concordance. Revised Edition. Ed. Harold W. Attridge. New York: Harper One, 2006.

Encyclopedia Britannica: Deuteronomy (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Deuteronomy)

Jewish Encyclopedia: Deuteronomy (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5132-deuteronomy)  

Collins, John H. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014

Schmidt, Werner H. Old Testament Introduction. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell and David J. Reimer. Fifth Edition. New York: de Gruyter, 1995

Walzer, Michael. In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012