History and Structure of Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy, like many of the Bible’s books, was composed in stages and by different authors living in different historical eras. Despite this fact, Deuteronomy displays a remarkable unity in its style, theology, and message. This is largely because the various revisions, additions, and rewritings that the book of Deuteronomy underwent were done by a specific scribal school, which we shall label as the Deuteronomic school, and its authors the Deuteronomists. This scribal guild and its redactional activity spanned a lengthy period of time, from the late monarchal period of the 7th century BC, through the exilic period of the first half of the 6th century BC, to the Persian period of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Thus the making of the book of Deuteronomy was an accumulative process of ever increasing redactional activity that transpired over three centuries. Because these three centuries witnessed radically different historical crises, concerns, and needs, the Deuteronomic scribes freely amended the text in various ways so that it reflected the current concerns, beliefs, and needs of the communities for which they wrote. By far the most visible of the editorial changes made to the text are those done by the exilic Deuteronomist, who had to adjust the views of the pre-exilic or monarchal Deuteronomist in order to have the text now reflect and be answerable to the current historical reality that plagued the exilic community—that Jerusalem was destroyed, the land of Judah was no longer their possession, and its people were living in exile.

The book of Deuteronomy was composed around a core or base text which now makes up the content of chapters 12-26. This textual composition, most probably identified by its author(s) as “the scroll of the covenant,” was allegedly found during renovations to the temple under the reign of Josiah, Judah’s king from 640-609 BC. As we shall see, this text has striking affinities with the religious and political policies implemented by Josiah as depicted in 2 Kings 22-23, and was most likely used and/or written to legitimate and endorse those policies.

There is still scholarly debate as to when this scroll was written. Some trace its roots back to a Levite circle in the north, at Shiloh, who expressed deep concerns about Israel’s lack of loyalty to Yahweh and its cultic practices worshiping other deities of Canaan. If this is the case then this text would have made its way to Jerusalem after the destruction of Israel in 722 BC and there it would have received additional reworking and editing by the scribes of Hezekiah in the late 8th century BC as well as those of Josiah’s court in the last quarter of the 7th century BC. Others, however, see Deuteronomy 12-26 as a product of Jerusalem scribes who reused the material of the north to create a composition that buttressed the religious beliefs and ideology of Judah under king Josiah. In any case, to this base text, Deuteronomy 12-26, later editorial revisions and additions were appended to have the text reflect the changing concerns and needs of the community it addressed or merely those of the scribal school it represented, the Deuteronomist.

In its present form, the book of Deuteronomy reveals that its core text once had two different introductions, each of which is still present in the text as we have it (Deut 1:1-4:40 and Deut 4:44-11:32). Each of these introductions were most likely penned as prologues to the core text, “the scroll of the covenant,” to give it a narrative and historical frame—in other words to place the stipulations enumerated in Deuteronomy 12-26 in the context of Moses’s speech on the plains of Moab just prior to his death and Israel’s invasion and occupation of the promised land. The present form of the book of Deuteronomy additionally has two blessings and curses sections (Deut 27:11-28:14 and Deut 28:15-69), each one intended as a conclusion to the laws stipulated in the core text. As we will see, each one of these conclusions was also written in two drastically different historical eras that left their imprints on the text—a pre-exlic and post-exilic version. By far the most notable textual revisions to the text are those added after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, where “history” had to be rewritten in order to reflect and explain this catastrophic event which left Jerusalem desolate, Yahweh’s temple destroyed, and the Israelites in exile. Various appendixes were also added to produce the form of the book of Deuteronomy as we now posses it. Both the song of Moses (Deut 32) and the Blessing of Moses (Deut 33) are non-Deuteronomic traditions that were later worked into the book.

The editing and rewriting of the book of Deuteronomy ended some time in the 4th century BC and most likely in Babylon where many of the royal aristocracy, scribes, and priests lived during and even after the exile of 587 BC. There, the Deuteronomic scribes reworked the traditions that were handed down to them and updated them to reflect their current exilic condition and to express their hopes of returning to the land. A tradition now preserved in the book of Ezra, which was also written in the 4th century BC, states that Ezra, a Levitical scribe of the mid 5th century BC, brought with him from Babylon “the scroll of the torah of Moses.” This scroll was most probably an earlier edition of what is now the book of Deuteronomy. The 4th century BC also witnessed the compilation of the Pentateuch, or the five scrolls of which Deuteronomy is the last “book.” Thus at some point in time the Deuteronomic scroll was annexed to another edited collection of scrolls and textual traditions, the JEP text [see here], which was placed as a prologue to the Deuteronomic text. These 5 scrolls, the Pentateuch, were kept in the temple precinct and when in the mid 3rd century BC they were translated into Greek, the title “Deuteronomy” was giving to the last of these scrolls. We should bear in mind that this title reflects how this “book” was viewed within its now larger context—that is the 4 “books” that preceded it. Deuteronomy in Greek means “the second law” and its Greek translators perceived Moses’ speech on the plains of Moab—Deuteronomy’s narrative context—as a second giving of the laws. In other words, the story spanning the five scrolls—the byproduct of the redactional activity of the 5th and 4th centuries BC that brought together the textual sources J, E, P, and D—told of two givings of the law: the Sinai event preserved in the Elohist source, now parts of Exodus 19-24 and 32-33, and the giving of the law on the plains of Moab in the Deuteronomic source. Thus the Greek translators logically named the last scroll “Deuteronomy,” the second law. As we shall see, however, from the Deuteronomist’s perspective this would have been utterly inaccurate; for there was only one giving of the laws and commandments of Yahweh, and that happened on the plains of Moab as our author repeatedly insists. In other words, when this Hebrew scroll, named after its first word, “debarim” (“these words”), was translated to Greek and placed 5th in a sequence of edited and reworked scrolls, this new narrative framework and storyline demanded that this last “book” be understood and interpreted as a second giving of the laws, that is “Deuteronomy.” The combined narrative now presents the giving of the law as happening twice, well actually three times if we include the Priestly writers reworking of this tradition. Thus in a bizarre irony of literary invention, the title of this book, “Deuteronomy” or the second giving of the law, contradicts the Deuteronomist’s own narrative construct which adamantly stipulated that there was only one giving of the law. In fact, the title “Deuteronomy” subverts the very message of the Deuteronomist—that the law was not delivered at Sinai but on the plains of Moab. But wait a minute, Exodus does relate the giving of the law at Sinai. How does the Deuteronomist refute this? As we shall see, this is merely one way that the Deuteronomist himself subverts his earlier sources. And in fact, this is exactly what the Bible is—a series of textual rewritings or later interpretive frameworks that continually rewrite and subvert earlier texts and traditions, both of which now exist side-by-side so to speak in the present form of this “Book” that is in truth a compilation of many contradictory book [refresher course here].

This entry was posted in Deuteronomy, Studying the Bible, The Torah its Authors and its Contradictions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to History and Structure of Deuteronomy

  1. Roselee Johnson says:

    Why do some African Americans believe that Deut 28 is the prophecy of the transatlantic slave trade? Was Judah taken to Babylon by boat?

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