Admit it: even to the most seasoned pastors, Bible-readers and devout believers, the first few chapters of Deuteronomy are boring. Packed with references to various tribes, the book starts by telling how God’s chosen people wander in the desert with some divine help. During this time, God fights with the vanguard, clearing out these foreign peoples for the Israelites. Eventually all these -ites blur together, and Deuteronomy really doesn’t pick up steam until Chapter 12, where the book shifts to the “statutes and ordinances” that the Israelites must observe. God (mostly) stops talking in the third person (an annoying habit, I must say) and finally gets down the actual business of worshipping. So what’s going on here?
Perhaps an (imperfect) analogy will help. Say you are a student, assigned to write a ten-page paper. You write your said paper on your designated topic, but it only takes up seven pages. What are you to do? Change the fonts and margins? No, the teacher is too clever for that. Instead, you have to add a bunch of filler. How about a longer introduction? And can’t you extend those “conclusions” even more? Maybe add a few more lengthy citations, too?
This, essentially, is what happened with Deuteronomy: chapters 12-26 form the core of the book, and are generally held by scholars to be the oldest portion of the text. The rest was most likely added afterward. Instead, chapters 12-26 were originally a “scroll of the torah” (See 2 Kings 22:8), or “the book of law,” with Josiah’s “statutes and ordinances” and a very short introduction and conclusion. In other words, your seven page paper. Later editors and writers incorporated the “book of the laws” into the so-called “Deuteronomistic History” (say that five times fast). The DH was basically a continuing narrative that starts with Deuteronomy and continues with Joshua all the way through Second Kings. (Check your Bible: that’s a long history.) Presumably, thanks to some textual clues, most of this history was added post-exile—after the Jews escaped from Babylon (or well after the time Deuteronomy supposed to take place). The “clues”? The text seems a little too good at predicting the future—the “book of laws” and other portions of the text show knowledge of Israel’s future (Deut. 4:25-31; Deut. 28:47-56; Deut. 30:1-10).* The book we have today is the extended, puffed-up ten-pager that you’re hoping will pass the teacher’s BS detector.
Unfortunately, as upcoming posts will show, Deuteronomy doesn’t pass that test. In it, we’ll find some inconsistencies with the rest of the Pentateuch, and, well, some more ridiculous things. Stay tuned.
*A rule of thumb for the Old Testament: if the text correctly predicts the future, you can guess it was written at a much later time, when no prediction was necessary.