Study notes: Deuteronomy

My study notes on Chapter 11 of ‘The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible’ by Stephen Harris and Robert Platzner.

The book of Deuteronomy has a major impact on the rest of the bible, first postulating what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History. This historical thesis can be summarized as follows:
If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above the nations of the earth; . . . But if you will not obey the Lord . . . then all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you: . . . The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies, . . . You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.

(Deut. 28:1, 15, 25)

In summary, the favour of God hinges on Israel’s strict obedience: any major wavering and God not only takes away His favour but also punishes them accordingly. The reader will come to realize that Israel far more often than not comes short of divine expectations and often disobeys its God, thus being punished as postulated by the Deuteronomistic view on history.
Legal revisionism is supposed to come to an end with the book of Deuteronomy: nothing is to be taken away from the “statutes and ordinances” that Moses apparently incorporates into the book (4:2).

Josiah’s reign

Many scholars believe that the book of instruction found in the Temple under King Josiah’s reign is the very book of Deuteronomy itself. Following the finding of the book in the temple, Josiah is very much impressed and begins a thorough religious reform based on many of the ordinances of the book of Deuteronomy, including centralization of worship, destruction of altars and shrines, etc.

The sympathy towards strict Torah observance and to the Prophet Jeremiah expressed by the family of Shaphan may provide a clue to the creation process of the book of Deuteronomy. I will have to study this further. [may need to come back to p.185 later]

Moses

The author-redactors, no matter how they produced Deuteronomy, were clearly keen on presenting Moses more vividly and memorably to the general audience than ever before. Many long speeches are attributed to him (these are presumably read to the masses regularly). According to Deuteronomy, Moses was the greatest Prophet that ever was, though this view was not shared by some later biblical writers.

King and vassal

The presentation of the legal codes and ordinances in Deuteronomy, in both language and structure, is similar to the speeches and decrees Near Eastern kings presenting their conditions of rule to newly formed vassals. Here, however, the king is in fact God, and Israel is to be His obedient servant- although God frees them from the shackles of men, they must conform to the will of the divine creator, of whom there is no equal. Deuteronomy has a strongly monotheistic tone.
It is possible that the legal codes of Deuteronomy were brought together because of the Persian administrators’ demands of a written law document when Israel was allowed to return to Jerusalem.

Law

Many of Deuteronomy’s ordinances are actually less restrictive than earlier legal codes like in the book of Exodus. For example, in Exodus, the male servant is allowed to leave after six years of service, but the female is not: Deuteronomy grants the privilege to both sexes. Even more importantly, Deuteronomy forbids freeing a slave without having given them adequate provision to fend for themselves first (Deut 15:13-15). Interestingly, God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt is cited here, so that people remember God’s favours on them and are prompted to be generous.
It is not enough that God’s laws be kept materially: they must be accepted and followed by Israel “through the heart and soul”. See Deut 6:4-9 (very famous passage: even Jesus quotes it many centuries later, expecting his audience to recognize it instantly).

Keeping the covenant

As noted before, for God to keep His promises to Israel, they must keep their promises with Him as well. What happens if they fail to? Punishment, but there is still a chance of reconciliation: “… if you turn back to him and obey him heart and soul in all that I command you this day, then the LORD your GOD will show your compassion and restore your fortunes. He will gather you again from the countries to which he has scattered you. Even though he were to banish you to the four corners of the world, the LORD your GOD will gather you from there, from there he will fetch you home.” Note the interesting foreshadowing of the exile. Later prophets view the idea of this national restoration as not only possible according to God’s own word but also as a natural result of His mercy.

Views of God

Deuteronomy is very much for a transcendent (as opposed to anthropomorphic like some of the earlier books) deity.

Somewhat puzzling is the rules of war. Mass slaughter without distinction between innocent and warrior is no longer invoked here, instead there are some regulations in place that say that the Israelites must first offer peace, and if it comes to war, women, children and non-essential vegetation must be spared. Oddly enough, the older concept of kill-everything is expressed, yet is only reserved for Israel’s neighbouring nations. These contradictory ideas may indicate a compositional authorship.

Prophet-hood

Deuteronomy gives guidance on how to decide who is a Prophet:

  1. Their predictions must come true
  2.  Their preaching must not be encouraging the worship of other gods.

Not much else to write for this chapter. I’m waiting for my annotated translation of the bible so I can read along. I’m missing out a lot of details by not reading the bible alongside the discussion in the textbook. Anyway, I’ve finally finished with the 5 books. Now we move on to the rest of the canon! To be honest, thematic/content study is boring to me (although I must learn it). I like the historical-critical and literary study aspect of biblical studies. I need to buy myself a few books in Qur’anic studies to read on the side.

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