Deuteronomy in Context (Deut. 1-34)

Occasionally on Holey Books, I like to add a little context before we get too far into a particular book. (See earlier posts on Exodus and Numbers). It is often easy to start reading a book of the Old Testament (especially the Old Testament) and assume many things about it, probably, if you were raised in certain Christian or Jewish faiths, assuming many veracities of it without understanding the period in which it was written or developed. (This is often, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems with general Bible studying—the lack of historical understanding.) Deuteronomy, the last book of the Pentateuch, perhaps, more than its four prior fellows, begs for some context.

Generally falsely assumed to be a text written by Moses,* Deuteronomy (the English name of the book, meaning roughly “second law”) was actually composed during the administration of King Josiah, who reigned over Judah in the 7th Century BCE. Josiah was an extensive reformer, who later shows up in the Book of Kings. He was on the throne during a very tumultuous period in Jewish history, and faced issues with the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, and even Ancient Egypt (apparently the Egyptians just don’t leave the Israelites alone).

So, you might ask, if Josiah doesn’t appear until later on in the Bible, until many years after Deuteronomy supposedly takes place, why is it likely that the text of this putatively older book actually stems from a much later period? Well, the words Moses speaks in this book—the law he gives—bear a very striking resemblance to Josiah’s reforms. So striking, in fact, that they seem to be nearly identical teachings. How, one should ask, could Josiah “reform” many Israelite practices if Moses had established them a long time ago? The answer, of course, was that Moses did not set the law as it is delineated in the book, but Josiah’s reforms were later veiled as things Moses had earlier instructed. Importantly, this false attribution, often referred to in Biblical exegesis as “psuedopigraphy,” was not seen as the same kind of immoral forgery that we do now—it was often a traditional way of adding importance to one’s beliefs, regardless of whether it was technically true. Maybe more akin to the current practice of ghostwriting—although that provides an imperfect comparison. It is also important to note there are no copies of Deuteronomy—actually there are no extant fragments of any book of the Bible—that are older than Josiah’s reign.

Among Josiah’s reforms were the changes in restricting sacrifice from any place to a single site (Deut. 12:13-14). This was a rather major change. Josiah also pushed the exclusive worship of Yahweh, and by “pushed” I mean “outlawed all other forms of worship.” It’s hard to underestimate his importance of the development of Judaism. (And recall earlier when we noted that it appeared the Israelites were not monotheistic, but monolatrous.)

So remember as we push through Deuteronomy: this book is really the text of a religious reformer, and the words are Josiah’s, not Moses’, meant to help convince the Israelites to go with the king’s reforms. Properly read in context, Deuteronomy should be seen more as a piece of propaganda than as an historical account.

*This applies to all of the five books of the Pentateuch. In a future post, as we reflect on all five books, we’ll explore the Moses authorship myth.

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  1. Pingback: The Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12-26) | Holey Books

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