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

The Layers of Tradition

DEUTERONOMY PRESERVES SEVERAL LAYERS of tradition within itself: The structure of three different discourses with an appendix already suggests a process of literary growth. That growth is closely connected to the gradual formation of the Hebrew Bible. To appreciate what is involved, it helps imaginatively to turn the clock back to the time before there was an assembled, complete Bible as we now know it.

  • 1 When Deuteronomy was first promulgated, it would not have been part of any larger whole. Instead, it would have been complete by itself as a “scroll of the torah” (i.e., the “scroll of the Teaching” in 2 Kings 22.8 ). It would have consisted primarily of some form of most of the laws of chs 12–26 , framed by a relatively simple introductionand conclusion. This form of Deuteronomy presented itself as a treaty concluded between the nation and its God in a formal ceremony whereby each citizen took an oath of loyalty under penalty of strict sanctions ( 28.1–46 ). This was very likely the preexilic form of Deuteronomy.

  • 2. At a later stage, presumably sometime during the exile (586–538 BCE), Deuteronomy would have been incorporated into the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua through 2 Kings) to serve as its introduction. At this point, the “Deuteronomistic” editors would have given the book its present literary frame ( 1.1–4.40, chs 31–34 ), while also adding to the legal corpus, selectively tying its promises or expectations to the later historical material (see 12.8 n. ). Expansions in Deuteronomy that reflect the Babylonian exile may derive from this stage (i.e., 4.25–31; 28.47–56; 30.1–10 ).

  • 3. At a still later point, in the postexilic period, Priestly editors appended Deuteronomy to the newly formed Pentateuch, to serve as its conclusion. Ironically, the decision to conclude the Pentateuch with Deuteronomy separated the overall narrative plan of Genesis through Numbers from its logical fulfillment in an account of the conquest of the land. This narrative climax was delayed until Joshua.

The insertion of Deuteronomy into these larger literary units makes an important theological statement. Following the insertion of Deuteronomy into the story of the promise of the land to the patriarchs, the enslavement in Egypt, the exodus, and the wilderness wandering, Deuteronomy's last chapter (ch 34 ) brings to a close both the book and the Torah. But that formal conclusion now separates not only Moses but also the reader from access to the land whose covenantal promise was the basis of the entire narrative (Gen. 12.1 ). Early on, from the vantage point of the Judean hills, Abram viewed the panorama of that promised land, as it extended in every direction of the compass (Gen. 13.14–17 ). But at the end of his life he was constrained to bargain for a small plot of land where he might bury his wife, Sarah (Gen. 23.1–20 ): poignant testimony that Abraham never gained possession of the land promised him. So too, now, closing the circle, does the Torah conclude with a panorama that symbolizes dislocation and loss, as Moses looks out over Canaan from the heights of Mount Pisgah. Prohibited from entering the very promised land to which he successfully led his people, he finds his only access in that forlorn prospect.

As with Abraham and Moses, so, too, the reader. Ancient editors have deliberately defined the Torah as a literary unit so as, first, to accommodate the addition of Deuteronomy and, second, to sever it from its logically expected fulfillment. The possession of the land is diverted instead into the next literary unit, which is to say, into the future. So profound a reconfiguration both of the patriarchal promise and of the overall plot is conceivable only in light of the historical experience of exile, which profoundly called the possession of the land into question. Had possession of the land remained central to the covenant, Israelite religion would have collapsed. The fulfillment of the Torah is thus redactionally redefined as obedience to the requirements of covenantal law rather than the acquisition of a finite possession.

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