Deuteronomy

The last book of the Pentateuch is the book of Deuteronomy. Its importance lies in the fact that it is often thought to present the theology that typifies and organizes the next group of biblical books, from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings.

This latter group of books in effect represents biblical history as seen from the perspective of the editor of Deuteronomy and is called Deuteronomic History (DH). Martin Noth first made the claim concerning this particular biblical perspective, but now it is the consensus of most scholars of Israelite history and religion.

Deuteronomy comes from the Greek term meaning the "second law". The law in this book then is a reformulation of the Torah law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, but it is not really the classic formulation of legal code. Rather, it is expressed as if it were a sermon or homily, not action-oriented but attitude-oriented.

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy are speeches and exhortations that stir up the reader to stay faithful to the Jewish law given to Moses, especially the law of monotheistic worship. The book consists of three speeches, plus some appended materials at the end, all purporting to be the last will and words of Moses given before entrance to the promised land of Canaan.


Some speculate that the first four chapters display an introduction to the whole DH, while the next few chapters provide an introduction to the book of Deuteronomy. The book, perhaps in its primitive form, was apparently lost for a while, but it was recovered by King Josiah of Judah in 621 b.c.e., who tried to bring about the sort of revival envisioned by the later writer(s) of the DH.

According to scholars, the DH starts with the material of Deuteronomy and crafts the subsequent narrative, speeches, annals, and records so that the reader never loses sight of the same lesson. They notice a repetition of language, style, and theme throughout the subsequent books of the Jewish scriptures until 2 Kings, and they believe that there is a deliberate purpose and editorial design that qualify all the books to be called the Deuteronomic History.

Basically the DH tends to take a pessimistic view of Israel’s history: Israel’s behavior is frequently unfaithful to its divine covenant as expressed in the laws of the Torah, especially in the area of idolatry.

If this hypothesis is accurate, DH probably qualifies as an early effort to produce a canon of the Bible. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy is the caution not to add to or take away from the written words, a natural injunction if the book is thought of as canonical.

Scholars differ as the date of Deuteronomy and DH, but most tend to read it as an edited collection written after Nebuchadnezzar II’s expulsion of the people of Israel in 587 b.c.e. David Noel Freedman sees Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, as the one responsible, but others simply find a perspective that represents the north (of the Israel and Judah divide) and the prophets found there.

This canon would stand in contrast to two other strands of the Bible discerned by scholars, namely, the Priestly books (largely the Torah) and the Chronicler books (the later histories of the Bible and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah). Because the DH is a rather late compilation, it would frequently represent in veiled ways the Babylonian captivity. In fact, there are passages in other books, not in the DH, which reflect the attitudes of the DH.