Introduction to Forthcoming Contradictions for Deuteronomy


DeuteronomyWe finally make it to the book of Deuteronomy—a book that in my view best exemplifies how later scribes, in this case the Deuteronomist, modified, rewrote, and even contradicted earlier tellings of Israel’s stories and traditions in an attempt to “up-date” these older traditions so that they better conformed with the religious and political views of their own historical circumstances.

But don’t take my word on this matter. Rather, take the author of Deuteronomy’s own words on the matter. In forthcoming entries we will be comparing the author of Deuteronomy’s own words with the words in these earlier tellings/traditions since they too were preserved in passages now found in Exodus and Numbers when later scribes compiled the texts and traditions that now make up what even later readers codified and labeled “the Bible.”

For instance, and we will be looking at specific textual data, Deuteronomy 1-11 presents Moses renarrating earlier stories/events from the wilderness period. Renarrating because these events were already narrated in the textual traditions that now make up the books of Exodus and Numbers. So unlike Genesis’ two creation accounts, where for example scholars “need” to argue that the 2nd narrative was penned by an earlier scribe who held contradictory views and beliefs about the nature and origin of the world (see my Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate for a persuasive treatment), Moses’ renarrations in the book of Deuteronomy can clearly be compared to the telling of these same stories/events per other, and earlier, tellings which now appear in the books of Exodus and Numbers. In other words, in these cases we clearly see an earlier telling and a later re-telling of these same wilderness stories/events. But, as we will see in forthcoming posts, the retellings in the book of Deuteronomy, which are presented from the mouth of Moses himself, differ in radical ways from these earlier versions.

Said differently, when the author of the book of Deuteronomy sat down to write his text, he used the character of Moses to renarrate the story of Israel’s past from the revelation at Sinai/Horeb to the current narrative setting on the plains of Moab. Renarrate because this “history” was already narrated in earlier textual traditions which, as we shall see, served as the Deuteronomist’s sources. These earlier texts now make up parts of the books of Exodus and Numbers, and scholars have identified them as belonging to the Elohist and Yahwist traditions. In other words, stories from these older traditions, which are now preserved in the books of Exodus and Numbers, were known and used as sources for the Deuteronomist when he sat down to write his composition.

Yet, as the forthcoming posts will make clear, on every single renarration of these stories/events, indeed of this earlier telling of “history,” by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, we visually see that “Moses” radically alters them—indeed outright contradicts them—claiming to say and do things he never said and did, and narrating things that never happened, or happened in a manner completely opposite of what he claims.

Just to offer up one example now, which we will look at in more detail later, in his renarration of the Horeb revelation, the Moses of Deuteronomy claims that Yahweh only gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites and no other laws were given. Deuteronomy 5:6-18 lists the Ten Commandments and then states: “These words [i.e., the Ten Commandments] Yahweh proclaimed to all your assembly at the mountain from the midst of the fire and the cloud and thick mist with a mighty voice, and he said no more!” This same conviction is expressed elsewhere in Deuteronomy and as we shall see is part of this author’s theological agenda in crafting his new counter-“history” of Israel’s past.

Yet as any close reader of the Bible knows, Exodus 20-24 explicitly present Yahweh giving the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-18) and a whole host of other laws (Ex 21-23), to which the people acknowledge their reception and willingness to obey (Ex 24:1-7). So while this textual tradition claims that Yahweh gave both the Ten Commandments and the law code at Horeb, the text of Deuteronomy, where Moses renarrates this event, claims that Yahweh only gave the Ten Commandments. (And this is momentarily setting aside all the sacrificial legislation “Yahweh” gave at Sinai in the book of Leviticus which Deuteronomy’s Moses forgets about or completely omits!)

What is furthermore shocking about this reinterpretive process is that the author of Deuteronomy has this older textual tradition in front of him as one of his sources!1 In other words, the Deuteronomist knows that in the tradition that he himself inherited, now preserved in Exodus 19-24, Yahweh gave both the Ten Commandments and the Laws to the people. Yet he composes a text wherein he has Moses renarrate this event in radically different terms, claiming that only the Ten Commandments were given at Horeb when clearly this was not the case, at least according to this earlier version. The Deuteronomist, in other words, has subverted, even falsified, his source; and his Moses has “lied” about what actually happened.

Again, I caution my Christian readers in bringing them to this shocking conclusion, to which there will be ample textual evidence in the forthcoming entries. Our goal as mature responsible readers is not to interpret away or neglect these textual differences and thereby squeeze them into our cultural and reader-imposed beliefs about these texts, but rather to acknowledge these different and competing retellings, authorial agendas, and messages, and to ask and understand why they exist. Why would the author of Deuteronomy do this, here and in numerous other places? What were later scribes attempting to do when they rewrote the traditions that they themselves inherited? And what does this tell us about the Bible, how it was formed, and particularly in this case how its authors viewed its texts? What were their beliefs about these stories/traditions—stories and traditions that these later scribes consciously modified and rewrote in contradictory ways?

So per my usual approach toward an objective understanding of this collection of ancient literature and how its texts relate to one another, our attention must turn away from reader-imposed beliefs about this collection of ancient texts toward the texts themselves, to their authors, and to their uniquely tailored messages, beliefs, and ideologies. To acknowledge and understand the texts are our goals—not to interpret them away and replace their authors’ competing messages and beliefs with those of later readers or of later interpretive traditions.

That said, the book of Deuteronomy also affords us the first opportunity to objectively examine and understand how a later scribe does in fact impose his beliefs and message onto an earlier textual tradition and furthermore claim that his retelling of that earlier tradition is nothing more than that—a simple retelling of the very tradition that he himself inherited! Moreover, this subversive re-telling is thus authenticated as tradition by having the spokesperson of that very tradition—Moses himself—renarrate it in such a manner that it presents itself as a simple and faithful retelling of that very tradition. In short, this is what the Bible is—a collection of earlier traditions and the subversive retellings of these earlier traditions by later scribes to suit ever-changing religious and political convictions. And to a large extent this is still an ongoing process. But I jump too far ahead here. . . .

For a more detailed treatment and introduction to what scholars label “the Deuteronomist”—that is the text, author, message, and historical context of Deuteronomy—see my post titled The Deuteronomist.


  1. See particularly Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (1997), whose work I will discuss in detail in forthcoming entries—in short, an excellent and textually honest reading of Deuteronomy and the aims and agenda of its author vis-à-vis his cultural context.

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