Jewishsightseeing.com, 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.
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.
the book is written in the first person, recited by Moses.
The contents consist of:
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.
200 of the Torah’s 613 laws.
Rewards for following the laws, and punishments if not followed.
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.
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.”
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.
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
From that process, we moderns can appreciate that the editor preserved
“the variety of ancient Israelite belief, law, and literature.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
of the Law” is believed to be the core chapters (Ch. 12-19, 28) of
what later became Deuteronomy.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
contains numerous more examples such as already mentioned.
It focuses theologically more heavily than the first four Books on
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.