The biblical book Deuteronomy (lit. “second law”) presents itself as an account of the last day of Moses (according to Deut 1:3, this is the first day of the eleventh month in the fortieth year [after the Exodus]). At the end of this day Moses dies (Deut 34). However, the main task of the book’s narrator is to introduce the (long) speeches of Moses. Moses speaks to the people of Israel on the plains of Moab just prior to their entry into the Promised Land. Above all, Moses teaches Israel a law (Deut 12:1—26:16). The people must learn this law and keep its commandments in the land. Only then may they live there permanently and not be destroyed or forced into exile.

Literary Development of Deuteronomy.

It is impossible to address the meaning of Deuteronomy without distinguishing between at least the main stages of the book in its literary development. Three main stages are to be distinguished.

Preexilic edition.

Most scholars agree that the Deuteronomic authors used preexilic sources, such as the Middle Assyrian laws, the Covenant Code (Exod 20:22—23:19), and the Neo-Assyrian Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon and/or ancient Near Eastern treaty material in general. There are several differing proposals concerning a preexilic edition of Deuteronomy. Some scholars propose the existence of a preexilic edition of the “Deuteronomistic History” with an edition of Deuteronomy as its first part (Cross, 1973). Levinson and Stackert (2012) argue for Deuteronomy as a seventh-century B.C.E. composition, whose authors reacted against the Covenant Code. The majority of scholars propose the existence of a Deuteronomic law collection originally connected with the religious reform of King Josiah as narrated in 2 Kings 22–23. Furthermore, some scholars argue for the existence of a preexilic Deuteronomy–Joshua conquest story of the land with (Braulik, 2011) or without (Finsterbusch, 2012b) the Deuteronomic law.

Exilic edition.

The existence of an exilic edition of Deuteronomy is most likely because of the many references to the situation of the exile throughout the book (e.g., Deut 4:25–31; 28:63–67). The exilic edition is regarded either as an expanded version of a presumed preexilic edition (thus the majority of scholars) or as a new composition using preexilic sources (e.g., Pakkala, 2009; Finsterbusch, 2012a; Nicholson, 2012). The exilic edition included supposedly most of Deuteronomy 1:1—31:13 plus a story of Moses’s death.

Postexilic transformation.

In the Persian period separate sources were compiled and redacted into a single literary composition, the (proto-)Pentateuch (Knoppers and Levinson, 2007). When the originally independent edition of Deuteronomy was included in this composition, it became the “fifth book of Moses.” During the process of inclusion some Deuteronomic texts were adapted and revised and some new texts and passages were inserted that are clearly related to the Pentateuch (e.g., Deut 32:48—34:12 contains so many references to the previous books that it could serve as a literary conclusion not only of Deuteronomy but also of the whole Pentateuch). Most importantly, however, distinctive Deuteronomic texts, topics, and concepts reread in the new literary context received new meaning and significance.

Theology of the Exilic Edition of Deuteronomy.

The religious profile of the exilic edition of Deuteronomy and the aims of its authors can be explained by analyzing its striking rhetoric, its innovative conceptions (especially its legal conception in relation to the conception of covenant), and its distinctive concepts (especially monotheism and election). At first the question of the intention of Deuteronomy should be addressed.

Rhetoric of identification.

The book gives no hint whatsoever as to what the addressees should actually do with it. Clearly, the book is not a novel about the last day of Moses (too many paraenetic sections); neither is it a law book for specialists (too many narrative parts), nor is it a book of propaganda like King Hammurabi’s Code (lack of “hero”). One of the most striking features of Deuteronomy is its rhetoric, which allows the exilic addressees to identify themselves with the Israelites in the world of Deuteronomy: for example, Moses continuously addresses Israel in the second person singular “you.” The exilic addressees, hearing or reading this frequent “you,” may easily feel addressed themselves. The typical Deuteronomic “today” (in the world of Deuteronomy, the 11/1/40; Deut 1:3) is transparent for the “today” of the addressees (e.g., Deut 5:1; 6:24; 9:1; 29:27). This rhetoric indicates that the exilic edition of Deuteronomy aimed at defining anew the collective identity of an insecure and suffering Israel after the catastrophe of 586 B.C.E. Using the model of an Israel still outside the Promised Land and the authoritative voice of Moses, the authors depicted (in their view) essential religious dimensions of Israel’s present and future existence.

Decalogue (Deut 5:6–21) and Deuteronomic law (Deut 12:1—26:16).

It is not a coincidence that a law forms the center of Deuteronomy. Law is an excellent instrument to construct the identity of a group. A growing number of scholars assume that the major topical units of the Deuteronomic law are arranged according to the order of the commandments of the Decalogue quoted in Deuteronomy 5 (e.g., Kaufman, 1978–1979; Braulik, 1991; Otto, 2005). However, there are too many problems with this assumed correspondence (Rüterswörden, 2005). The problems can be solved by a division of the law into seven major textual units, of which three units correspond to two commandments of the Decalogue (e.g., the unit Deut 19–21 corresponds to the fifth and eighth commandments; Finsterbusch, 2011b). The correspondence indicates clearly that the Deuteronomic law was intended as an interpretation of the Decalogue, which is valid everywhere and at any time, under the specific conditions of life in the land of Israel (the Deuteronomic law is valid inside the land; Deut 12:1).

Divine law.

Law in the exilic edition of Deuteronomy is divine law (unlike classical ancient Near Eastern legal collections, which have a royal author): according to Deuteronomy 5, God gave at Horeb/Sinai (in Deuteronomy, Sinai is called “Horeb”) first the Decalogue (Deut 5:19), followed by the Deuteronomic law. Because of the fear of the people (Deut 5:23–27), God told the Deuteronomic law to Moses alone and instructed Moses to teach it to the people (Deut 5:31). Moses fulfills this task in the world of Deuteronomy “today” (Deut 5:1; 6:1). With the theological construction of the twofold legislation of the one God, the authors provided in all likelihood for the specific situation of their addressees: Israel outside the land (thus Israel in the world of Deuteronomy “today” and the Israelite groups in the Babylonian Exile) should keep the Decalogue (and learn the Deuteronomic law). The ideal Israel inside the land (thus Israel in the world of Deuteronomy “tomorrow” and a reunited Israel in the future, according to the hopes of the authors) should in addition keep the commandments of the Deuteronomic law.

Features of the Deuteronomic law.

In the following, only four features of the Deuteronomic law will be mentioned. First, its most conspicuous feature is the limitation of sacrificial worship to a single sanctuary (see Deut 12). The concept of “centralization,” intended as a replacement of the antecedent legal stipulation in the Covenant Code (Levinson, 1998), has far-reaching consequences, e.g., for the (re)shaping of the pilgrimage festivals (Deut 16:1–17): three times a year all Israel should undertake a pilgrimage to the central sanctuary in Jerusalem (and not to nearby local sanctuaries).

Second, the Deuteronomic law contains a unique social program. According to the authors, ideally no (permanently) poor human being should be among the Israelites (Deut 15:4): if temporary difficulties befall an Israelite, he or she should be alleviated. For example, in the seventh year of each seven-year-cycle creditors should remit debts owed to them (Deut 15:1–11). If a man or a woman (lit. “your brother or sister”) must sell him- or herself due of debts, then he or she must be set free after six years and given capital as help to start living an independent life (Deut 15:12–18). Notoriously vulnerable social groups like widows, orphans, and strangers should be provided regularly with the tithe in every third and sixth year (Deut 14:28–29; 26:12–15). To underline the importance of this social program, the authors repeatedly inserted in the relevant commandments a theological incentive: those who make the required economic sacrifice will not meet with economic hardship but, on the contrary, shall be blessed by Yahweh (Deut 14:29; 15:10, 18; 24:19).

Third, the Deuteronomic law displays a remarkable “democratic” tendency: the addressed “you” may or may not (!) appoint a king (Deut 17:14–15). Furthermore, the “you” should appoint judges (Deut 16:18), whereas traditionally the king is responsible for justice (Levinson, 2008, pp. 77–78; however, interesting parallels to the Deuteronomic model can be found in the Greek world; Hagedorn, 2004, pp. 117–127). Often, the “you” in the Deuteronomic law includes women (e.g., men and women may present sacrifices; Otto, 1998; Braulik, 2001, pp. 241–248; Finsterbusch, 2011c, pp. 425–430). The entire people, men and women (and not only a spiritual, intellectual, or clerical elite; Tigay, 1996, p. 498), must learn and know all commandments (Deut 31:12).

Fourth, some commandments demand extraordinary radical action. According to Deuteronomy 20:15–18 (part of the commandments about warfare), Israel should proscribe the “seven nations of Canaan” during its conquest of the land (see as well Deut 7:1–5). This prescription is not only opposed to the often expressed friendly Deuteronomic attitude toward strangers (see the second point above and Deut 10:19); it is also peculiar because in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. those nations no longer existed. It may well be that the authors used the “seven nations of Canaan” as a kind of metaphor for all “foreign” religious influence that threatened or could threaten Israel’s existence. Furthermore, several commandments contain the genuine Deuteronomic biʿartā formula: Israel should “sweep out” evil from its midst (e.g., Deut 13:6; 17:7; 19:19). People who did “evil” by committing a capital crime, like worship of other gods or murder, should be executed. Obviously, the authors considered these “evil insiders” to be so threatening to the whole community that they did not allow measures of social or religious reintegration.

Deuteronomic Torah.

One of the most central religious terms in the exilic edition of Deuteronomy is “torah” (Finsterbusch, 2011a). The authors used tôrâ apparently for the first time in the history of ancient Israel in relation to a substantial collection of commandments (Braulik, 2006). “Torah” is the “book within the book” (Sonnet, 1997) including the following texts: first, the text of the Decalogue and the story of the provenance of the Deuteronomic law (Deut 5); second, large paraenetic sections in which Moses explains the importance of keeping the law (Deut 6–11); third, the legal core, i.e., the Deuteronomic law (Deut 12:1–26:16); fourth, blessing and curse (Deut 28). According to Deuteronomy 1:5 (bēʾēr ʾēt hatôrâ hazʾōt), Moses’s main task is “to give legal force to this torah” (Braulik and Lohfink, 2005, p. 247). The process of enforcement includes three steps: first, Moses’s public promulgation of the torah text (Deut 5:1–26:16; 28:1–68); second, Moses’s making a covenant on behalf of God (Deut 28:69–30:20); third, Moses’s writing of the covenant document (Deut 31:9).

Moabite covenant, Sinaitic covenant, covenant with the forefathers.

According to the authors, the covenant in Moab, which is not mentioned in any other text of the Hebrew Bible, should be understood as a later addition of the covenant at Sinai (Deut 5:2–3; 28:69). In the exilic edition of Deuteronomy, the covenant document of the Sinaitic covenant is the Decalogue and the covenant document of the Moabite covenant is the torah with its legal core. As the Deuteronomic law intends to interpret the Decalogue, the main content of both covenants is virtually identical. For the exilic addressees this covenant conception provides, on the one hand, an “explanation” for the catastrophe of 586 B.C.E.: Israel went into exile because it had broken the covenant(s) in the land (Deut 29:27). On the other hand, it is a literary instrument that underlines the importance of keeping the commandments of the Decalogue and the Deuteronomic law “today” and “tomorrow,” respectively: this is the only way Israel could avoid a second “586” in future. How is it that after the break of the covenant(s) in the land a future for the “sinful” Israel is at all possible? The Deuteronomic covenant conception includes yet a third covenant. According to Deuteronomy 4:31, exiled Israel will have a second chance only because the merciful Yahweh remembers his covenant with the forefathers.

The Torah and the future generations.

To ensure knowledge and understanding of the Deuteronomic law for all future generations, the authors developed a detailed and (in the Hebrew Bible) unique teaching and learning program (Finsterbusch, 2005). It is not by chance that the profile of the Deuteronomic Moses is that of the teacher of Israel, who teaches the entire people the law (Deut 4:1, 5; 5:1, 31; 6:1) and commands the Israelites to teach and to learn themselves. For example, parents should tell their children the foundation stories of their normative past like the Exodus and God’s revelation at Horeb/Sinai (as if they were eyewitnesses; Deut 4:9–10; 6:20–25); they should teach their children the text and the meaning of the law in everyday life (Deut 6:7; 11:19; 32:46); every seventh year during the Feast of the Booths the Torah book should be read publicly in Jerusalem so that all Israel learns regularly (Deut 31:12).

Monotheism, election.

The Deuteronomic authors emphasized the uniqueness of Israel with two remarkable theological concepts. (1) Monotheism. At first glance, the authors did not deny the existence of foreign gods (e.g., according to Deut 5:7 and 12:29–31, Israel is not permitted allegiance to other deities; MacDonald, 2003). However, the first important statements about God in Deuteronomy furnish the lens through which the entire book is to be read: according to Deuteronomy 4:35, 39, there is no God except Yahweh in heaven and earth. Thus, the exilic addressees are ensured that Israel’s God is indeed the true and mighty God (and not a deity who let his people go into exile because of a lack of power; Deut 10:17). Israel’s exclusive knowledge of Yahweh (Deut 6:4) need not be shared by other nations: Yahweh has explicitly allotted them heavenly beings as legitimate objects to worship (Deut 4:19). (2) Election. The other exclusive difference between Israel and other nations in Deuteronomy is expressed in terms of divine election (Deut 7:6; 14:2): Yahweh chose Israel in spite of its small size and because of his love for its forefathers (Deut 7:7–8). The concept of Israel as chosen people (which does not mean that other nations are automatically “condemned”) should help Israel keep its identity: the authors encouraged their addressees not to follow foreign religious customs (Deut 7:1–5; 14:1, 21).

Theology of the “Fifth Book of Moses” in the Persian and Hellenistic Period.

The transformation of the independent edition of Deuteronomy into the “fifth book of Moses” affected most significantly the meaning of torah and covenant. Two main changes can be distinguished.

Torah and covenant within the Pentateuch.

As intensive research on the subject of the legal hermeneutics of the Pentateuch still needs to be done, only some preliminary remarks can be offered (cf. the hitherto existing positions of Lohfink, 2005; Otto, 2007; Finsterbusch, 2011a). Readers of the (proto-)Pentateuch in the Persian Period could only relate the covenant at Horeb/Sinai mentioned in Deuteronomy 5:2 and 28:69 to the narrative in Exodus 24:3–8. Therefore, in the world of the Pentateuch the Covenant Code (and not exclusively the Decalogue) constitutes the terms of the covenant at Sinai. Furthermore, Pentateuch readers understand torah in Deuteronomy in light of Exodus 24:12: after giving the Covenant Code and making the covenant, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai, and there God gave him “the torah.” In the future this “Sinaitic torah” should be taught (lit. “instructed,” yārâ)—however, not by Moses, who does not “instruct” in the world of the Pentateuch. Based on the Hebrew key terms tôrâ (torah/instruction) and yārâ (to instruct), Pentateuch readers could understand the “Sinaitic torah” as referring to Exodus 25:1—31:17, Leviticus 1–27, and the Deuteronomic torah texts. In the world of the Pentateuch this “Sinaitic torah” is the covenant document of the Moabite covenant. Thus, the Deuteronomic torah is no longer an independent covenant document but only the last part of the “Sinaitic torah.”

The Pentateuch as Torah.

In the Hellenistic period, the (proto-)Pentateuch was accepted as authoritative literature by all groups and communities of ancient Israel/early Judaism. As a designation, the term “torah” was commonly used (and alongside it, “Torah” finally became the main religious concept of Judaism). In light of this usage, the meaning of torah in the Deuteronomic texts changed again significantly: as ancient textual witnesses show, the expression bēʾēr ʾēt hatôrâ hazʾōt in Deuteronomy 1:5 was now interpreted in the sense that Moses is going to explain “this Torah” in his following speeches (this interpretation of the verb bʾr is late; Levinson and Stackert, 2012, pp. 127–128). Moses became the first religious commentator in Israel, and (major parts of) Deuteronomy became the first theological summary of, or commentary on, the “Torah” within the “Torah.” The importance of the “fifth book of Moses” (which as such indeed does display a narrative integrity of its own; Sonnet, 2012) is reflected, for example, in the high number of manuscripts found in the Qumran caves, in the intensive reception of special texts (like Deut 6:4–9) and ideas (like Torah study) in emerging Judaism, and in the many quotations of and allusions to Deuteronomic texts in the New Testament.




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Karin Finsterbusch