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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Historical Context and Literary Background

THE ENGLISH NAME OF THE BOOK, based on the Septuagint (see 17.18 n. ), means “second law.” That title reflects the perspective that Deuteronomy is a Mosaic rehearsal of law that was previously given in Exod. chs 19–23 . Despite this perspective and the text's own self‐presentation, Deuteronomy is likely not Mosaic in origin. More probably, the core of the book was written sometime during the 7th century BCE by educated scribes associated with Jerusalem's royal court. It has been long recognized that there are very striking similarities between the distinctive religious and legal requirements of Deuteronomy and the account of the major religious reform carried out by King Josiah in 622 BCE. That reform had been inspired by the discovery in the Temple of a “scroll of the Teaching” (2 Kings 22.8 ). Josiah's reform restricted all sacrificial worship of God to Jerusalem and removed foreign elements from the system of worship (technically, the “cultus”); it culminated in the celebration of the first nationally centralized Passover at the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings chs 22–23 ). So strongly do these royal initiatives correspond to the distinctive requirements of Deuteronomy that scholars have long identified the “scroll of the Torah” discovered in Josiah's Temple as Deuteronomy, and thus have assigned the book a 7th‐century date.

Josiah's reform, with some form of Deuteronomy as its catalyst, was much more a revolution than a simple return to older forms of worship. Previously, it was entirely legitimate to sacrifice to God throughout the land, as did Abraham at Shechem and Bethel (Gen. 12.7–8 ); Jacob at Bethel (Gen. 35.1–7 ); Samuel at Mitzpah, Ramah, Gilgal, and Bethlehem (1 Sam. 7.9, 17; 9.11–14; 10.8; 16.1–5 ); and Elijah upon Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.20–46 ). Indeed, even earlier biblical law, associated with the revelation at Sinai, stipulated that God would grant blessing “in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned” (Exod. 20.21 ). Deuteronomy challenged that older norm, prohibiting sacrifice “at any [or, every] place” and restricting it to a single site, understood to be Jerusalem (Deut. 12.13–14 ). In this way, Deuteronomy's self‐presentation, whether as an explication of ( 1.1–5 ) or as a supplement to ( 28.69 ) the prior covenant, does not address the extent to which Deuteronomy actually challenges and revises earlier law.

The historical background of Josiah's reforms was the increasing threat of imperial domination. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen under the Neo‐Assyrian invasion a scant century before (722 BCE; 2 Kings ch 17 ). Continuing Assyrian incursions down the coastal littoral had all but reduced Judah to a rump‐state (2 Kings 18.13 ). In a desperate bid to preserve the nation's autonomy, Hezekiah had already made a pact with Assyria (2 Kings 18.13–18 ). Subsequently, Judah's political and religious independence seemed to hover uncertainly between the threats presented by Assyria and resurgent Babylon (2 Kings 20.12–15 ). The resulting military allegiances led to religious syncretism, as Judean officials introduced various foreign forms of worship into the Temple (2 Kings 16.10–20; 21.1–6 ).

In this context, Josiah's religious reforms represented an important bid for Judean cultural,political, and religious autonomy. The monarch extended his reforms into the area of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel and thus implicitly into territory under Assyrian control (2 Kings 23.15–20 ). Deuteronomy, apparently written sometime during this historical crisis, likewise reflects the desire to preserve Judean cultural and religious integrity. Its authors had the conviction that older conventions of worship and social organization were no longer viable. If the religion of Yahweh was to survive the crisis, renewal and adaptation were necessary. Deuteronomy's legal corpus (chs 12–26 ) provides a comprehensive program for cultural renewal. It addresses worship; the festival calendar; the major institutions of public life (justice, kingship, priesthood, prophecy); criminal, family, and civil law; and ethics. The law is presented as a covenant between God and nation, which the people take an oath to uphold, upon penalty of sanctions, while maintaining unconditional loyalty to their God. That covenant structure closely corresponds to the Neo‐Assyrian state treaties that have been recovered from this period, the most famous of which is the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon (672 BCE). At a number of points, the authors of Deuteronomy seem consciously to have patterned their covenant after this treaty tradition, which they could have known either directly or in Aramaic translation. From this perspective, Deuteronomy represents a counter‐treaty: Its authors turned the weapon of imperialism into a bid for freedom, shifting its oath of loyalty from the Assyrian overlord to their divine sovereign.

Thus tutored in international treaty conventions, the authors of Deuteronomy elsewhere reveal their knowledge of two additional important literary genres from the ancient Near East: the legal collection ( 15.1–18 n.; 17.8–13 n., 14–20 n.; 22.13–23.1 n. ) and wisdom literature ( 1.13 n.; 4.2 n. ). Moreover, they also employed a convention of authorship familiar in their time. They did not directly attach their name to their composition or write in their own voice. Instead, they attributed their composition to a prestigious figure from the past. By employing “Moses” as their spokesperson, they established a link with tradition at precisely the time when tradition, for the sake of survival, had to be transformed. This convention of ascribing a text to an ancient personage, called “pseudepigraphy,” is well known in the literature of the Second Temple period; examples include Jubilees, 4 Ezra, the Testament of Abraham, and (among the Dead Sea Scrolls) the Temple Scroll.

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