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Irv Jacobs


A Discourse on Deuteronomy, September 7, 2006

Editor's Note: Dr. Irvin Jacobs, M.D., recently delivered a discourse on the origins of Deuteronomy at Congregation Beth El, a Conservative congregation located in La Jolla, Calif.   We are pleased he shared it with us and offer it to our readers for review and comment.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. —The book of Deuteronomy, or Devorim, has mystified me for a long time.  I became interested, even suspicious, when I learned years ago that King Josiah in 622 BCE reported that his High Priest, doing repairs in the Temple, had discovered a long lost “Book of the Law.”  Was it a plant?  After all, the good King had an agenda to unify the country.

When was Devorim written?  How does it relate to the other four books of Torah?  It begins with Israel poised in trans-Jordan, about to cross the river to the West, about to enter the Promised Land. 

Stylistically the book is written in the first person, recited by Moses.   The contents consist of:

(a)        A recapitulation of what went on in the escape from Egypt.  Along the way, Moses gives three sermons and repeats the Covenant Code from Exodus, the Holiness Code from Leviticus, and various priestly laws from Numbers. In this text, the laws now demand a unified cult, with the festivals to be celebrated only at the Temple in Jerusalem.

(b)             200 of the Torah’s 613 laws. 

(c)              Rewards for following the laws, and punishments if not followed.

Of note, a version of Deuteronomy found in the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran is written in the third person!  Also the Samaritan Deuteronomy is decidedly different.

The prevailing problem with Devorim is that numerous stories in it are inconsistent versions of the stories and laws in Exodus through Numbers.  There is a rich literature on this, in commentaries both old and new.  For one, Dennis Prager makes a strong apology that Moses was an aging mortal who can be “cut some slack” if his memory was faulty.  The text is still “divinely inspired.”

The rabbis of the Middle Ages, and even to our time, developed a forced harmonization of the Torah’s inconsistencies.  They even formalized rules for doing so.

Today’s scholars, however, have concluded that multiple authors wrote the Book. A later editor harmonized the content as best he could, realizing that by that time (5th century BCE), much of the content had taken on a sacred identity and could not be manipulated greatly as was the case 3 and 4 centuries earlier.  From that process, we moderns can appreciate that the editor preserved “the variety of ancient Israelite belief, law, and literature.”

The writing style is seen to be identical with that in the subsequent six books of the Hebrew Bible (Joshua, Judges, Samuel I & II, and Kings I & II).  This has lead scholars to believe that the same “Deuteronomic divinely inspired writers” were responsible for all seven books.

Clues from Hebrew and Middle East history, now known through study of comparative archives and archaeology in Middle East, place the beginnings of Deuteronomy in Hosea, an 8th century prophet from the Northern Kingdom destroyed by Assyria in 722 BCE.  Hosea favored a centralization of the cult in a single place and universal humanitarian laws. 

Northerners escaped to the South and had an influence on King Hezekiah of Judea (715-687 BCE), who instituted “reforms” around 710 BCE.   He adopted a goal to unify his country in preparation for the ongoing advance of Assyrian forces.  Among various reforms, Hezekiah centralized worship and demanded undivided loyalty to the one G-d, with punishment for failure of loyalty.  By several coincident “miraculous” events, Judea did survive, to last 124 years more.

Hezekiah’s reforms lasted only during his lifetime.  His son and successor, Menassah quickly abandoned the reforms, and instituted paganism likely from fear of Assyria which controlled the area.  The Laws of Hezekiah were set aside, to collect dust for 65 years.  His “Book of the Law” is believed to be the core chapters (Ch. 12-19, 28) of what later became Deuteronomy. 

Two generations later, King Josiah (640-608 BCE) reported in 622 BCE that Hilkiah, his High Priest, on repairing the Temple rediscovered the concealed “Book of the Law (or Book of Teaching).”  By this time, Assyria was in decline and Judea had assumed control of much of the conquered Northern Kingdom.  This combination paved the way for a shift in loyalty among all of Assyria’s vassals from that ruler to each one’s local deity.

Josiah saw his opportunity to liberate his nation from the yoke of Assyria and create an enthusiastic return to G-d.  His impetus was to collect the ancient Jewish traditions and systematize our history.

Though the text of Deuteronomy is commonly called a recapitulation of the earlier four books of Torah, it has decided differences.  For one thing, it newly emphasizes education of society, with special emphasis on teaching the children, particularly in morality.  Good examples are the familiar first paragraph of the Sh’ma, from Deuteronomy, which states “teach them to your children, and speak of them when thou walkest by the way, etc.”  The writers of Deuteronomy were educated scribes imbued with wisdom and humanistic ideals.  They did not repeat the straightforward civil laws, which were expounded in Exodus and which were more or less typical of neighbor societies.  These writers focused on protection of the family and family dignity.

Only two laws from the civil section of the Book of Covenant are included in Exodus, the law of the slave and the law of seduction of a virgin.  Even here the focus is in moral contrast with the Exodus versions.  Where Exodus protected the rights of both master and slave, Deuteronomy is concerned only with the slave.  Where Exodus discussed the violated virgin in terms of money punishment, Deuteronomy is concerned with humiliation and moral degradation of the virgin and her future.  Deuteronomy also prohibits a creditor from entering the home of a debtor.

Even the Sabbatical year concept is dealt with differently in Devorim vs. Exodus.  In Exodus, the focus is on resting the land each seventh year.  In Devorim, the focus is on release of debt obligations.

Deuteronomy contains numerous more examples such as already mentioned.  It focuses theologically more heavily than the first four Books on seven items:  (1) the struggle against idolatry, (2) need for centralization of holy sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem, (3) on the exodus and its personal mandates on us, (4) the monotheistic creed, (5) observing the Law and remaining loyal to the covenant, (6) the gift of Eretz Israel, and (7) rewards & punishments vis-à-vis the commandments.

Richard Elliott Friedman, for 30 years a professor at University of California San Diego in Jewish Studies, wrote a best seller in 1987, Who Wrote The Bible.  He concluded that the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the time of Josiah and past the fall of the First Temple in 586 BCE, wrote all seven books attributed to the Deuteronomist writers. The device of the legendary Moses speaking autobiographically was important to lend authority to the agenda, namely centralizing the religion and humanizing the tradition.

Scholars suspect that much of Devorim was written before the four preceding books of Torah.  They also agree there was subsequent editing with addenda and revisions in the two centuries after Jeremiah, by priestly redactors in Babylon. 

One suspected revision is the insertion, at the end of Deuteronomy, of Moses’ blessings on the tribes, text believed to be transplanted from a much more ancient source to lend a profound religious status to Devorim.  This was intended to parallel an equally ancient poem at the end of Genesis. There the dying Jacob offered his last critical comments and blessings on his twelve sons.

Against all this, of course, is the traditional view that Moses wrote the Torah at G-d’s dictation, and specifically Moses wrote Deuteronomy as his final discourse.