Style, Vocabulary, and Message

Anyone who has ever read through the Pentateuch immediately notices that the book of Deuteronomy’s tone, style, vocabulary, and theological message are completely unique and different from what precedes it. Hebraists have remarked that the Deuteronomic style is not found in any biblical literature prior to the 7th century BCE, and, apart from the Priestly literature of the post-exilic period, it is abundantly found in texts written after the 7th century BCE. In fact, one might confidently claim that the voice and message of the Hebrew Bible as a whole can be boiled down to that of the Deuteronomist.

The Deuteronomist’s style displays itself through a unique set of phrases, theological emphases, and rhetorical devices. Phrases that are unique to the Deuteronomic literature include: “Yahweh your god”; “the place where Yahweh sets his name”; “listen O Israel!”; “listen to the laws and the judgements”; “listen to the voice of Yahweh”; “be watchful so that you’ll live”; be watchful to do the commandments that I command”; “be watchful that you do not forget Yahweh”; “lest you forget Yahweh”; “to go after other gods”; “to turn to other gods”; “to worship other gods”; “so that you may keep the land”; “so that you may live”; “that your days may long endure”; “that you may fare well upon the land”; “that you may prolong your days in the land”; “so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land”; and “love Yahweh your god with all your heart and with all your soul.” As can be seen from these brief examples, the law, the land, and sole allegiance to Yahweh are central concerns for the Deuteronomist.

Other themes and phraseology unique to the Deuteronomic corpus include its unyielding commandment to destroy every cultic altar, statue, or pillar throughout the land (Deut 7:5, 25; 12:2). There is only one altar and that is located at “the place where Yahweh sets his name,” Jerusalem. Along with the destruction of altars, the Deuteronomist advocates a pitiless annihilation of all the indigenous peoples of Canaan (Deut 2:34; 3:6; 7:2, 16, 24). This theology, more idealistic than historical, was created because according to the Deuteronomist the reasons behind why Israel lost its land to the Assyrians in 722 BCE was because it worshiped, alongside Yahweh, other deities of Canaan at unsanctioned places. This is the backdrop to the Deuteronomist’s exhortation to “be watchful lest you forget Yahweh” and his incessant use of such phrases as “to go after other gods,” “to turn to other gods,” and “to worship other gods.” Conversely, to love Yahweh your god with all your heart and soul is also a theme unique to Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic literature. In fact, Deuteronomy is the only text of the Bible that commands loving Yahweh. It is an expression of religious and political loyalty. In addition to this very specific vocabulary and theology, Deuteronomy’s style often includes the use of repetition, redundant infinitives, and other forms of parallelism. Common expressions include: “my commandment which I am commanding”; “inherit the land you are passing over to inherit”; “the work which Yahweh worked”; “keep what is to be kept”; “commanding you to do”; and “his charge and his statues, and his judgments.”

Deuteronomy’s unique theological message and emphases—that Yahweh alone should be worshiped and at Jerusalem only, that one should maintain a strict allegiance to Yahweh alone expressed as love for Yahweh with all one’s heart and soul, an unyielding observance of Yahweh’s laws and commandments, especially those prohibiting graven or sculpted images and the worship of any deity at unsanctioned altars, and exhortations to completely destroy the indigenous population of Canaan—are intimately attached to what we might label as a theology of the land. Over and over again the Deuteronomic scribe has Moses or Yahweh express the importance of observing the laws, commandments, and precepts so that the Israelites may live and keep the land, or prolong their days on the land. Failure to do so, the Deuteronomist claims, will unhesitatingly result in death and the loss of their land.

Even though the Deuteronomist creates a narrative where such warnings transpire, narratively speaking, in the archaic past, this theology of the land was actually shaped by the historical events of the late 8th century BCE. When the Assyrians came in and annihilated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, but left the southern kingdom of Judah untouched (at least for a time being), a theological interpretation of history was needed to make sense of these events. It must be borne in mind that the biblical scribes were not recording historical events per se, but rather creating a powerful historicized theology. And that historicized theology was written by the Deuteronomic scribes of the South. Moreover, the Deuteronomist used this occasion—the fall of Israel—to write an immensely influential piece of propaganda, which in short stated that Yahweh destroyed the northern kingdom because they forsook his laws and commandments, and conversely had chosen the southern kingdom to rule. The 7th century BCE king, Josiah, used this theology to legitimate his ideological program of reconquering the northern territories lost when the Assyrians retreated from the region, and to assert political and religious domination through the centralization of the cult at Jerusalem. So the theological interpretation of the fall and destruction of Israel was that this was Yahweh’s doing. And therefore, theologically speaking, it must have been the direct result of not obeying Yahweh’s laws and commandments. Needless to say, this same theological lens which the southern Deuteronomists used to condemn the northern Israelites and to furthermore proclaim that Yahweh had as a result chosen them to rule, since the empirical evidence was Judah still possessed its land, was turned around and applied to Judah by the exilic Deuteronomist just two decades later when the southern kingdom fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.

Lastly, the book of Deuteronomy is the first book of the Bible to make reference to its own textuality. In other words, and excluding the later work of the Priestly writer, the rest of the Pentateuch’s literature most likely had its roots in oral tradition. And even though the book of Deuteronomy’s narrative context is a speech given to the Israelites by Moses on the plains of Moab, it nevertheless refers to the legal content of this speech (Deut 12-26) as a written text, “the scroll of the law (torah).” As such Deuteronomy is the only book of the Pentateuch to use and to refer to its own textuality as “this torah,” this law, this instruction. In fact, Deuteronomy 31:9-12 claims that “this torah” was written by Moses himself. As we shall see however this is the work of an author living in the 7th century BCE and writing to address the concerns and historical circumstances of the people of that time period.

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