Deuteronomy: Origins and Purpose

 

Deuteronomy, the fifth book of our modern Old Testament, is an interesting text.

Like most of the books of the Old Testament, we have no firm idea about when it came into existence so much of modern scholarship on its dating and authorship is speculation. It’s contents and their structure in the text show a deliberate hand and structure. But let’s talk first about some of the speculation.

Origins

From, The Lexham Bible Dictionary,

The book of Deuteronomy has been an important focus for research on the literary history and formation of the Pentateuch for over 200 years (Levinson and Stackert, “Between the Covenant Code,” 123). The hypothesis that some form of Deuteronomy shaped the basis of Josiah’s “book of the Law” (סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה, sepher hattorah) in his religious reforms of the late seventh century has provided the chronological anchor for many arguments over the relative dating of pentateuchal sources (see Source Criticism; Documentary Hypothesis). Rofé explains the basic logic as follows: “Documents that are unaware of the unification of the cult must predate the seventh century, and documents that assume the unification of the cult must post-date it, from the time of the exile or the return” (Rofé, Deuteronomy, 4).

That paragraph seems to summarize the variety of positions that have been taken in scholarship, and we can break it down into two camps: pre-exilic and post-exilic. That is that Deuteronomy is believed to have been composed before the exile of the kingdom of Judah to Babylon in 586BC, most likely under the reign of Josiah, and after or even during the exile. Of course, the reasoning for such arguments is usually based on what is known as the documentary hypothesis, which puts forward the belief that the five books of the Pentateuch are the end result of a long process of editing of multiple sources. The argumentation draws upon evidences such as the ways that God is referred to, focus in the narrative, and other subtle variations in the text. Such arguments are often used to undermine historicity, as well as doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration.

This video is a lecture that I gave on the issue of inspiration:

While many of the proponents of the documentary hypothesis, I find that their conclusions are often unjustified or even jumps in logic. All of that to say, while we can see an editorial hand and even grafting of texts, it does not effect a well thought out doctrine of inspiration.

The Purpose of Deuteronomy

In a response paper, Benjamin Kilchör concludes with this comment in regards to the purpose of Deuteronomy,

I think Deuteronomy is a Mosaic model for interpreting God’s law. There will be no prophet like Moses for a lo ng time (Deut 34,10) who knows the Lord face to face. God has given his Torah on Mount Sinai, but Israel must learn to live according to his Torah by itself. There will not be a voice from heaven for every problem and legal case. So, in Deuteronomy, Moses gives Israel an example of how to interpret and apply God’s law in the future. Not in a subversive way, but in a dynamic way that is obliged to the principles and values of God’s law. Torah is not a statutory law, but the revealing of God’s will, of his justice, of his grace. The main point is not to live according to the letter of God’s law, but according to its spirit, its intention.

The foundation of the statutes of Deuteronomy are based upon the Decalogue. The Ten Commandments define the expectations of God to his covenant people as well as those who live within their borders, and is summarized by two statements: Love God and Love Your Neighbor. The laws are not so much statutory as they’re decisions. Many commentators, when they come to the laws, often note that they read like court decisions stemming from the plain statements of the Decalogue. There are certain definites that are not to be tolerated, but there is a certain dynamic aspect to the law, almost a prophetic expectation. We can see such demonstrated in the later traditions found in the Talmud and the Mishna.

Another source notes,

As [Deuteronomy] deals most explicitly with beliefs and attitudes, it plays a major role in Jewish theology. In the theological-ethical introduction of his digest of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides cites [it] more than any other book, starting with the command to believe in God and Him alone.

Deuteronomy’s overall purpose seems to be to operate as a gauge for the attitude of a person, the Israelite in history, and the Christian at any point in time. The absolute loyalty the text demands of those who place themselves under the name of Christ, who is the God who extended the covenant found in Deuteronomy, is displayed by how they relate themselves to the text and its requirements.

Conclusion

In an old study of the book, this statement seems fitting,

It should stimulate us to further study to know that [Deuteronomy] was not addressed to the religious leaders of Israel, but to the rank and file of the people. This characteristic distinguishes it from some of the other books of the Pentateuch….Deueteronomy was addressed to the people of Israel themselves has been described as “the central and peculiar interest of the book.”

(Donald F. Ackland, Studies in Deuteronomy, Convention Press. Nashville, TN. 1964.)

As a work of history, Deuteronomy represents a remarkable preservation of style and culture. It deserves careful study for that reason alone. But the Christian should approach the book with a desire to know what God has made known and the principles worked out in law for conduct within the covenant community. However the text was brought about is not nearly as important as the message that it conveys to everyone who has called upon the name of God in faith.

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