The Deuteronomist


History, Structure, and Literary Form of Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy, like many of the Bible’s books, was composed in stages and by different authors living in different historical eras. Despite this fact, Deuteronomy displays a remarkable unity in its style, theology, and message. This is largely because the various revisions and additions that the book of Deuteronomy underwent were done by a specific scribal school, which we shall label as the Deuteronomic school, and its authors the Deuteronomists. This scribal guild was active during a lengthy period of time, from the late monarchal period of the 7th century BC, through the exilic period of the 6th century BC, and into the Persian period of the 5th century BC. Thus the making of the book of Deuteronomy was an accumulative process of increasing redactional activity that transpired over three centuries. Because these three centuries witnessed radically different historical crises, the Deuteronomic scribes freely amended the text in various ways so that it reflected the current concerns, beliefs, and needs of the communities for which they wrote. By far the most visible of the editorial changes made to the text are those done by the exilic Deuteronomist, who had to adjust the views of the pre-exilic or monarchal Deuteronomist in order to have the text now reflect and be answerable to the current historical reality that plagued the exilic community— that Jerusalem was destroyed, the land of Judah was no longer their possession, and its people were living in exile.

The book of Deuteronomy was composed around a core or base text which now makes up the content of chapters 12-26. This textual composition, identified as “the scroll of the covenant,” was allegedly found during renovations to the temple under the reign of Josiah, Judah’s king from 640-609 BC. As we shall see, this text has striking affinities with the religious and political policies implemented by Josiah as depicted in 2 Kings 22-23, and was most likely used and/or written to legitimate and endorse those policies.

There is still scholarly debate as to when this scroll was written. Some trace its roots back to a Levite circle in the north, at Shiloh, who expressed deep concerns about Israel’s lack of loyalty to Yahweh and its cultic practices worshiping other deities of Canaan. If this is the case then this scroll would have made its way to Jerusalem after the destruction of Israel in 722 BC and there it would have received additional reworking and editing by the scribes of Hezekiah in the late 8th century BC as well as those of Josiah’s court in the last quarter of the 7th century BC. Others, however, see Deuteronomy 12-26 as a product of Jerusalem scribes who reused the material of the north to create a composition that buttressed the religious beliefs and ideology of Judah under king Josiah. In any case, to this base text, Deuteronomy 12-26, later editorial revisions and additions were appended to have the text reflect the changing concerns and needs of the community it addressed or merely those of the scribal school it represented.

In its present form, the book of Deuteronomy reveals that its core text once had two different introductions, each of which is still present in the text as we have it (Deut 1:1-3:28 and 4:44-11:32). Each of these introductions was most likely penned as prologues to the core text, “the scroll of the covenant,” to give it a narrative and historical frame—that is, to place the stipulations enumerated in Deuteronomy 12-26 in the context of Moses’s final speech on the plains of Moab just prior to his death and Israel’s invasion and occupation of the promised land. The present form of the book of Deuteronomy also has two blessings and curses sections (Deut 27:11-28:14 and 28:15-68), each one intended as a separate conclusion to the laws stipulated in the core text. As we will see, these once independent conclusions were written in two drastically different historical eras that left their imprints on the text—a pre-exlic and post-exilic version. By far the most notable textual revisions to the text are those added after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, where “history” had to be rewritten in order to reflect and explain this catastrophic event which left Jerusalem desolate, Yahweh’s temple destroyed, and the Israelites in exile. Various appendixes were also added to produce the form of the book of Deuteronomy as we now posses it. Both the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and the Blessing of Moses (Deut 33) are non-Deuteronomic traditions that were later worked into the book.

The editing and rewriting of the book of Deuteronomy ended sometime in the 5th century BC and most likely in Babylon where many of the royal aristocracy, scribes, and priests lived during and even after the exile of 587 BC. There, the Deuteronomic scribes reworked the traditions that were handed down to them and updated them to reflect their current exilic condition and to express their hopes of returning to the land. A tradition now preserved in the book of Nehemiah, which was written in the 4th century BC, states that Ezra, a Levitical scribe of the mid 5th century BC, brought with him from Babylon “the scroll of the torah of Moses” (Neh 8:1). This scroll was most probably an earlier edition of what is now the book of Deuteronomy. The 5th and 4th centuries BC also witnessed the compilation of the Pentateuch, or the five scrolls of which Deuteronomy is the last “book.” Thus at some point in time the Deuteronomic scroll was annexed to another edited collection of scrolls, the JEP text, which was placed as a prologue to the Deuteronomic scroll.

These 5 scrolls, the Pentateuch, were kept in the temple precinct and when in the mid 3rd century BC they were translated into Greek, the title “Deuteronomy” was giving to the last of these scrolls. We should bear in mind that this title reflects how this “book” was viewed within its now larger context—that is the 4 “books” that preceded it. Deuteronomy in Greek means “the second law” and its Greek translators perceived Moses’ speech on the plains of Moab—Deuteronomy’s narrative context—as a second giving of the laws. In other words, the story spanning the five scrolls—the byproduct of the redactional activity of the 5th and 4th centuries BC that brought together the textual sources J, E, P, and D—told of two givings of the law: the Horeb event preserved in the Elohist source, now parts of Exodus 19-24 and 32-33, and the giving of the law on the plains of Moab in the Deuteronomic source. Thus the Greek translators logically named the last scroll “Deuteronomy,” the second law. As we shall see, however, from the Deuteronomist’s perspective this would have been utterly inaccurate; for there was only one giving of the laws and commandments of Yahweh, and that happened on the plains of Moab as our author repeatedly insists (#270). In other words, when this Hebrew scroll, originally named after its first word, “debarim” (“these words”), was translated to Greek and placed 5th in a sequence of edited and reworked scrolls, this new narrative framework and storyline demanded that this last “book” be understood and interpreted as a second giving of the laws, that is “Deuteronomy.” The combined narrative now presents the giving of the law as happening twice, well actually three times if we include the Priestly writers reworking of this tradition (#252). Thus in a bizarre irony of literary invention, the title of this book, “Deuteronomy” or the second giving of the law, contradicts the Deuteronomist’s own narrative construct which adamantly stipulated that there was only one giving of the law. In fact, the title “Deuteronomy” subverts the very message of the Deuteronomist—that the law was not delivered at Horeb but on the plains of Moab (#204). But wait a minute, Exodus does relate the giving of the law at Horeb/Sinai. How does the Deuteronomist refute this? As we shall see on numerous occasions, this is merely one way that the Deuteronomist himself subverts his earlier sources. And in fact, this is exactly what the Bible is—a series of textual rewritings or later interpretive frameworks that continually reinterpret and subvert earlier texts and traditions, both of which were collected together, codified, and labeled the Bible by later generations of scribes and readers.

Concerning its literary form, Deuteronomy presents itself as a set of orations or farewell speeches delivered by Moses on the plans of Moab shortly before he dies. In other words, the speech form is the Deuteronomist’s mode of communication; he uses speeches as a literary device to disseminate, and even authorize, his message. In the ancient world, historiography, like that of the Deuteronomist, largely entailed crafting speeches and placing them in the mouths of great personalities and ancestors of the past. This literary technique was used to lend authority to the particular ideology and aims of an author by placing that ideology on the lips of a heroic ancestor, even a deity. The speech form thus allowed the Deuteronomist to express his own ideology and beliefs by making Moses the mouthpiece for them. Indeed, the Deuteronomist presents Moses as authoring the very text he is writing. We will see the Priestly writer do the same thing when he sets out to change the texts that are his sources. This was typical practice in antiquity and can be seen in other ancient Near Eastern texts, Greek historiography, the writings of Josephus, and even Acts and the Gospels. The ancestral figure is used as an authoritative mouthpiece to promote the views and beliefs of a particular author or scribal school. In fact, this sort of literary technique does not stop with using Moses as a mouthpiece to express the particular theological positions and ideologies of our various biblical authors, but extends to the use of Yahweh as well. Many of the contradictions below and in the following chapters were created when later writers or editors changed, altered, or outright contradicted something Moses or Yahweh said in an earlier literary source. By forces then unseen to these authors, a later generation of scribes who sought to preserve both textual traditions compiled these once separate texts together to make the Torah, and left behind, as it were, the contradictions that are currently in the final form of what has come to be labeled as the Bible.

The speech form also allowed the Deuteronomist to subvert his earlier sources without raising an alarm. In their presentation, Moses’ introductory speeches (Deut 1-11) appear to re-narrate past events, the stories found in the JE tradition, as if to bring the audience up to the current point in the narrative, the encampment on the plains of Moab. But these speeches do more than simply retell material found in the Deuteronomist’s older sources. The literary device of having Moses re-narrate the past allows the Deuteronomist to shape, alter, and even contradict his sources in an unperceivable manner. This enables the Deuteronomist to re-tell “history,” or rather the historical narrative, in drastically different manners so that Moses now becomes the mouthpiece for the Deuteronomist’s own views, beliefs, and ideology, while nonetheless presenting this modified re-telling as just that—a re-telling! In other words, the Deuteronomist interjects new and contradictory material into the traditional narratives of the Elohist and Yahwist texts but in presenting this new material as a re-telling of previous events from Moses’ own mouth, he presents his innovations under the guise of re-narrated tradition. In fact, in the Deuteronomist’s earlier sources, Moses’ death has already occurred! Yet to substantiate his own views, the Deuteronomist must have Moses deliver a final speech on the plains of Moab. This is done by inserting the content that now makes up the book of Deuteronomy before the narration of Moses’ death (see #300).

Style, Vocabulary, and Message

Anyone who has ever read through the Pentateuch immediately notices that the book of Deuteronomy’s tone, style, vocabulary, theological message, and the mode of delivering that message are completely unique and different from what precedes it. Hebraists have remarked that the Deuteronomic style is not found in any biblical literature prior to the 7th century BC, and, apart from the Priestly literature of the post-exilic period, it is abundantly found in texts written after the 7th century BC. In fact, one might confidently claim that the voice and message of the Hebrew Bible in general can be boiled down to that of the Deuteronomist. It is the Deuteronomist’s voice that speaks the loudest out of the cacophony of voices represented in the Hebrew canon. This style displays itself through a unique set of phrases, theological emphases, and rhetorical devices. Phrases that are unique to the Deuteronomic literature include: “Yahweh your god”; “the place where Yahweh sets his name”; “listen O Israel!”; “listen to the laws and the judgements”; “listen to the voice of Yahweh”; “be watchful so that you’ll live”; be watchful to do the commandments that I command”; “be watchful that you do not forget Yahweh”; “lest you forget Yahweh”; “to go after other gods”; “to turn to other gods”; “to worship other gods”; “so that you may keep the land”; “so that you may live”; “that your days may long endure”; “that you may fare well upon the land”; “that you may prolong your days in the land”; “so that you days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land”; and “love Yahweh your god with all your heart and with all your soul.”1 As can be seen from this brief example, the law, the land, and sole allegiance to Yahweh are central concerns for the Deuteronomist.

Other themes and phraseology unique to the Deuteronomic corpus include its unyielding commandment to destroy every cultic altar, statue, or pillar throughout the land (Deut 7:5, 25; 12:2). There is only one altar and that is located at “the place where Yahweh sets his name,” Jerusalem. Along with the destruction of altars, the Deuteronomist advocates a pitiless annihilation of all the indigenous peoples of Canaan (Deut 2:34; 3:6; 7:2, 16, 24). This theology, more idealistic than historical, was created because according to the Deuteronomist the reasons behind why Israel lost its land to the Assyrians in 722 BC was because it worshiped, alongside Yahweh, other deities of Canaan at unsanctioned places (see below). This is the backdrop to the Deuteronomist’s exhortation to “be watchful lest you forget Yahweh” and his incessant use of such phrases as “to go after other gods,” “to turn to other gods,” and “to worship other gods.” Conversely, to love Yahweh your god with all your heart and soul is also a theme unique to Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic literature. In fact, Deuteronomy is the only text of the Bible that commands loving Yahweh. It is an expression of religious loyalty in the face of the immanent threat imposed by the presence of other Canaanite deities. In addition to this very specific vocabulary and theology, Deuteronomy’s style often includes the use of repetition, redundant infinitives, and other forms of parallelism. Common expressions include: “my commandment which I am commanding”; “inherit the land you are passing over to inherit”; “the work which Yahweh worked”; “keep what is to be kept”; “commanding you to do”; and “his charge and his statues, and his judgments.”

Deuteronomy’s unique theological message and emphases—that Yahweh alone should be worshiped and at Jerusalem only, that one should maintain a strict allegiance to Yahweh alone expressed as love for Yahweh with all one’s heart and soul, an unyielding observance of Yahweh’s laws and commandments, especially those prohibiting graven or sculpted images and the worship of any deity at unsanctioned altars, and exhortations to completely destroy the indigenous population of Canaan—are intimately attached to what we might label as a theology of the land. Over and over again the Deuteronomic scribe has Moses or Yahweh express the importance of observing the laws, commandments, and precepts so that the Israelites may live and keep the land or prolong their days on the land. Failure to do so, the Deuteronomist claims, will unhesitatingly result in death and the loss of their land. Even though the Deuteronomist creates a narrative where such warnings transpire, narratively speaking, in the archaic past, this theology of the land was actually shaped by the historical events of the late 8th century BC. When the Assyrians came in and annihilated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, but left the southern kingdom of Judah untouched (at least for a time being), a theological interpretation of history was needed to make sense of these events. It must be borne in mind that the biblical scribes were not recording historical events per se, but rather creating a powerful historicized theology. And that historicized theology was written by the Deuteronomic scribes of the South. Moreover, the Deuteronomist used this occasion—the fall of Israel—to write an immensely influential piece of propaganda, which in short stated that Yahweh destroyed the northern kingdom because they forsook his laws and commandments, and conversely had chosen the southern kingdom to rule. As we will see below, Josiah used this theology to legitimate his ideological program of reconquering the northern territories lost when the Assyrians retreated from the region, and to assert political and religious domination through the centralization of the cult at Jerusalem. So the theological interpretation of the fall and destruction of Israel was that this was Yahweh’s doing. And therefore, theologically speaking, it must have been the direct result of not obeying Yahweh’s laws and commandments. Needless to say, this same theological lense which the southern Deuteronomists used to condemn the northern Israelites and to furthermore proclaim that Yahweh had as a result chosen them to rule, since the empirical evidence was Judah still possessed its land, was turned around and applied to Judah by the exilic Deuteronomist just two decades later when the southern kingdom fell to the Babylonians in 587 BC.

Lastly, the book of Deuteronomy is the first book of the Bible to make reference to its own textuality. In other words, and excluding the later work of the Priestly writer, the rest of the Pentateuch’s literature most likely had its roots in oral tradition. And even though the book of Deuteronomy’s narrative context is a speech given to the Israelites by Moses on the plains of Moab, it nevertheless refers to the legal content of this speech (Deut 12-26) as a written text, “the scroll of the law (torah).” As such Deuteronomy is the only book of the Pentateuch to use and to refer to its own textuality as “this torah,” this law, this instruction. In fact, Deuteronomy 31:9-12 claims that “this torah” was written by Moses himself. As we shall see however this is the work of an author living in the 7th century BC and writing to address the concerns and historical circumstances of the people of that time period. Although the Hebrew torah means “teaching” or “instruction,” it is quite possible that Deuteronomy 31:9-12 refers not to a specific teaching or instruction, but rather to all the teachings or laws now contained in Deuteronomy 12-26. Still, a later author or editor of Deuteronomy may have penned this verse to assert that the entire scroll of “this torah” was penned by Moses. And indeed this was exactly how later tradition was to understand these verses. Moreover, when the Pentateuch was formed in the 4th century BC, all the five scrolls were then referred to as the Torah of Moses, through this Deuteronomic influence.

The Yahweh alone movement

The Deuteronomic literature advocates a unique theological position that has often been referred to as the ‘Yahweh alone movement.’ Textual expressions of this ideology include: “Know that Yahweh alone is god; there is none beside him” (4:35); “Yahweh alone is god in heaven and on earth below; there is none beside him” (4:39); and “Yahweh our god is one, Yahweh alone” (6:4). It is here in this movement that scholars identify the origins of Israelite monotheism, or monolatry as some critics prefer, that is the sole worship of one god. In other words, Israelite monotheism had its roots in the 7th century BC at the tail end of Israel’s monarchy, and not in some archaic Mosaic past as portrayed by the biblical sources. It is, rather, the sole creation of the Deuteronomist. How do scholars arrive at this conclusion?

Contrary to the book of Deuteronomy’s divine proclamation “to exterminate,” “devour,” “put an end to,” and “utterly destroy” all the peoples of Canaan and their shrines and altars, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings present a different picture: the Israelites are portrayed as repeatedly practicing Canaanite ritual practices and worshiping Yahweh and the gods of Canaan interchangeably at the high places, and even in the temple. This in itself, we must recall, is completely contradictory to Deuteronomy’s strict legislation of a single altar and place of worship at Jerusalem (#322). More specifically, the books of Kings openly recognize that the worship of Yahweh along with other Canaanite deities at local altars and high places was a common and repeated occurrence in both the northern and the southern kingdoms from Solomon to Josiah. These types of cultic practices were labeled as apostasy by the Deuteronomist. Even the good kings of Judah, those “who did good in the eyes of Yahweh,” left the altars of the high places with their Canaanite, and Yahwistic, cultic practices undisturbed. All this was to change however with Josiah’s religious reforms in the last third of the 7th century BC. Josiah, we are informed, was the only king of Judah to have destroyed the high places and to have centralized the cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem as part of a systematic religious reform (see below). The ideology behind this religious reform may be identified as the Yahweh alone movement.

It is not surprising that these two programs are the two essential features of the book of Deuteronomy. That is, part and parcel to this new Yahweh alone movement were the systematic destruction of all local shrines and altars where Yahweh and the other gods of Canaan were worshiped and the implementation of one authoritative cultic center at Jerusalem. These two religious innovations are only spoken of for one king in the monarchic period, king Josiah. It is true that Hezekiah, his scribes, and other court officials may have ushered in the Yahweh alone movement at the end of the 8th century BC and implemented a program to centralize the cult of Yahweh at Jerusalem as well, but only Josiah is accredited by the Deuteronomist with destroying the high places. In other words, before Josiah’s religious reforms of the late 7th century BC—legitimated by the text that expressed that ideological program, Deuteronomy—local shrines and altars, rooftop shrines, and cultic practices at the so-called high places to both Yahweh and other Canaanite deities were all part of the popular religious landscape of Israel and Judah. Yet the biblical authors, the Deuteronomists in particular, label this old popular tradition as apostasy. And we, its readers, have unknowingly bought into the Deuteronomist’s propagandistic views. 

It is important to remember that the religious program propounded in the book of Deuteronomy to worship Yahweh alone and furthermore at Jerusalem alone was the product of an elite religious guild, educated Levites who may have been far removed from the religious practices of the people on a local level. Indeed, as some scholars have suggested, they may even have misunderstood local religious practices all together.2 In either case, the portrait they paint in the biblical literature is not a pretty one. Furthermore, according to the theological interpretive lens through which these elite scribes viewed history, it was these popularistic cultic practices that incurred Yahweh’s wrath which led to the people’s destruction by foreign superpowers in the region; two historical events were particularly interpreted through this theological lens: the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and the destruction of Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC. It is no wonder that the Deuteronomist labeled these popularistic practices as apostasy—an apostasy created by the Deuteronomist as a means to scapegoat the real historical causes of each one of these destructions and, as the theology dictated, to accredit them to Yahweh himself. It was in all intents and purposes a way, a theological way, of making sense of the destruction and loss of land occasioned by the Assyrians and Babylonians, whose real and historical reasons for their brutal invasion and annihilation of both Israel and Judah respectively were that each of the kings decided to stop paying tribute to their foreign overlords.3

Yet contrary to the Deuteronomist’s derogatory and damning view of these sorts of popularistic religious practices, there is evidence from the Bible itself, archaeology, and inscriptions dug up throughout the whole monarchal period that make a rather strong case for understanding such practices as normative religious practices. It was how religion was practiced by the Israelites up to the religious reforms prompted by Hezekiah’s scribes and the Josianic Deuteronomists, who propounded a new religious movement, the Yahweh alone movement, and legitimated that movement by textually retrojecting it into the past as the ideal and pure state of Israelite religion as it was intended and as it had been practiced in the archaic past. Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman have written extensively on this topic:

The existence of high places and other forms of ancestral and household god worship was not—as the books of Kings imply—apostasy from an earlier, purer faith. It was part of the timeless tradition of the hill country settlers of Judah who worshipped Yahweh along with a variety of gods and goddesses known or adapted from the cults of neighboring peoples. Yahweh, in short, was worshipped in a wide variety of ways—and sometime pictured as having a heavenly entourage.4

The archaeological as well as biblical evidence for this widely accepted claim among archaeologists are first: numerous bull figurines and fertility goddesses have been unearthed at every late monarchic site in Judah, indicating a widespread and normative syncretic cultic practice across Israel. Second, there have been a number of inscriptions found in sites from the 8th century BC archaeological layer with the formulaic expression, “Yahweh of Sameria and his Asherah.” In Canaanite religious lore, Asherah was the consort of the high god El. Yahweh eventually came to be described in similar terms as El, and even apparently adopted his consort Asherah.5 Other inscriptions have additionally been unearthed that mention Yahweh along side of El and Baal. In the cultic sphere, the worship of El, Baal, and Yahweh were indistinguishable. Bull iconography was likewise associated with El, Baal, and Yahweh. Third, there is even biblical evidence that some sort of syncretic cult of Yahweh and other Canaanite deities flourished in the monarchal period in Jerusalem. The prophetic literature, although advocating a Yahweh alone policy, clearly suggests that Yahweh was being worshiped at Jerusalem together with Baal, Asherah, and even the deities of Israel’s neighbors (see 1 Kings 11:5; 2 Kings 23:13; Jer 11:13; Ezek 8). Noteworthy as well, we are told that Josiah removed many of these deities’ cultic figures from Yahweh’s temple when he started his religious reforms in the late 7th century BC (2 Kgs 23:4-5). The point is that none of the earlier sources preserved in the biblical literature criticize or deem these practices as inappropriate until the Deuteronomist writes his history in the second half of the 7th century BC. Given this evidence, together with the Deuteronomist’s strong polemic against such religious practices, scholars have come to conclude that this syncretic form of worship was an older normative tradition prior to the elitist Yahweh alone movement of the Deuteronomists. With the emergence of the Yahweh alone movement in the late 8th century BC, however, this age-old religious practice was condemned as apostasy by 7th century BC Deuteronomic authors. To cite Finkelstein once more: “What can only be called an extraordinary outpouring of retrospective theology, the new centralized kingdom of Judah and the Jerusalem-centered worship of Yahweh was read back into Israelite history as the way things should always have been.”6 In short, this was the intention of the book of Deuteronomy. 

The exclusive allegiance to Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, is best voiced throughout Deuteronomy in terms of the covenant. In fact the book of Deuteronomy is the covenantal document par excellence that defines this allegiance and stipulates the conditions of the allegiance as well as its punishments (curses) if the covenantal demands are broken. On the flip side of this demand for sole loyalty to Yahweh and his covenant is the systematic program to utterly destroy the Canaanites. “You shall doom them to destruction. You shall grant them no terms and you shall not spare them” (7:2); “you shall devour all the peoples whom Yahweh your god delivers to you. You shall show them no pity” (7:16). This utter extermination of all the peoples of Canaan coincides with Josiah’s 7th century BC religious reform of destroying all local altars and other non-Yahwistic altars, as defined by the Deuteronomic ideology promulgated from Jerusalem. This is merely one way in which the text of Deuteronomy supported and legitimated the ideological program of Josiah in centralizing the cult of Yahweh around one shrine located in Jerusalem and exterminating all other Yahwistic and non-Yahwistic cultic sites. In reality the holy war against the Canannites and the divine decree to utterly exterminate them never happened. It was an idealistic program meant, theoretically, to eradicate the root or causes of apostasy: Canaanite cultic altars and statues. In practice, however, this never happened. Indeed many scholars have wondered if it ever happened under Josiah’s reign since once again the archaeological record indicates uninterrupted layers of cultic figurines and graven images throughout the monarchal period, even through Josiah’s 7th century BC reforms.

The Deuteronomic Covenant as Loyalty Oath between Sovereign and Vassal

A prominent feature of the book of Deuteronomy that has supported its 8th to 7th century BC date of composition is its similarities with Assyrian vassal treaties of the same period. Professor Moshe Weinfeld, who devoted much of his career to the book of Deuteronomy, has convincingly noted several similarities between the Deuteronomist’s presentation of the covenant and the Assyrian vassal treaties of the 8th and 7th centuries BC. In fact, it would seem that the Deuteronomist modeled his covenant between Yahweh and his people in both form and content on the Assyrian vassal treaty, which would have been familiar to court scribes of this time period, since indeed both Israel and Judah were vassal states to their Assyrian overlords. Thus, according to Weinfeld and other biblical scholars, Deuteronomy is basically a loyalty oath between its sovereign, Yahweh, and his vassal, Israel. It transfers the strictly political Assyrian loyalty oath articulated in the vassal treaties of the 8th and 7th centuries BC into a religious oath expressing complete devotion and loyalty to one god.

In form the presentation of the Deuteronomic covenant and the Assyrian vassal treaties display remarkable similarity. The vassal treaty is a pact, covenant, or loyalty oath between a foreign overlord and the petty states that he has conquered. It stipulates the conditions of the treaty or pact between sovereign and his tributary state or vassal, as well as what may befall the vassal state if it breaks the loyalty oath. Conversely, the vassal state is under the protection and administration of its sovereign provided that the stipulations of the treaty are kept. This basic outline is followed by the Deuteronomist in presenting the covenantal oath between Yahweh and his people. For example, both documents commence with a historical prologue that reiterates a previous generations or ancestors commitment to the oath. Both recall whether its ancestors were loyal or rebellious, and if loyal attempt to reiterate the terms of the oath on the precedent of the ancestors. Next is a list of the actual stipulations or commandments of the treaty; this is equivalent to Deuteronomy 12-26. Then both documents invoke witnesses: the gods, earth and heaven, or even the ancestors. Following the invocation of witnesses, whose sole role is to bear witness to the vassal’s assent to the covenant/treaty stipulations, comes the listing of blessings and curses. The blessings are those beneficial things accorded to the vassal by the sovereign on account of its allegiance, the most primary being keeping the land; while the curses are the threats of what will happen if the covenant or treaty stipulations are forsaken. There are even striking similarities between the Deuteronomist’s curses, placed on the lips of his god, and the those uttered by the Assyrian overlord in the vassal treaties. Finally, both treaty and Deuteronomic covenant end with a decree to place the document in the sanctuary at the god’s feet and to have it periodically read and assented to by the people. Thus in both cases, the emphasis is placed on the perpetual validity of the treaty/covenant through subsequent generations.

The Deuteronomic literature is the only literature of the Hebrew Bible that commands the people to love their god “with all their heart and soul.” Love, as critics have noticed, is the language of loyalty in the ancient Near Eastern political arena. Thus when a sovereign demands loyalty, the vassal often responds claiming that he will love the king as himself. Weinfeld has argued that the Deuteronomic expression to love Yahweh “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” corresponds to the way political loyalty is depicted in the vassal treaties.7 The stipulation demanding exclusive loyalty to one king in political treaties is strikingly similar to the stipulation demanding exclusive loyalty to one god as portrayed by the Deuteronomist. The Deuteronomic scribe merely transfers that love from the political to the religious sphere.

This exclusive loyalty and the negative outcome for those who breech this exclusivity is pronounced the clearest in Deuteronomy 13, where a citizen who even utters the name of other deities and suggests that they too should be propitiated is to be immediately stoned to death. In this context, the political undertones of exclusive loyalty come through; it is an act of sedition to breech that exclusivity. This is precisely the manner by which the Deuteronomist judged the earlier monarchs of Judah and Israel. Those who due to geopolitical forces beyond their control were coerced into signing vassal treaties with Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon were viewed by the Deuteronomist as unloyal to Yahweh, who, according to our author, demanded exclusive allegiance. Indeed that meant no treaty or covenantal relationship with any other nation or sovereign other than Yahweh himself. Look, for example, how the Deuteronomist presents Hezekiah, Josiah, and their contrary, Manasseh, in 2 Kings 18-23. This exclusivity is indicative of the Yahweh alone movement in general, and even spurs martyrdom movements in later time periods (see Daniel).

Another common feature found between the vassal treaty and the biblical covenant is the reason ascribed for evils befalling a city. If evil, a catastrophe, or even annihilation by a foreign regional power, befalls your city, in a theology of retrospection this is accredited to the violation of the covenantal/treaty stipulations. “Why is it that such evil has befallen Arabia? Because we did not observe the solemn treaty of the god Ashur” states one ancient source. A Babylonian cylinder seal of the 6th century BC also expresses this same theological interpretation. The destruction of Babylon by the Persians in 539 BC is attributed by the scribe to the providence and will of Marduk, who raised up Cyrus to destroy the Babylonians because they had forsaken his will and commandments. This retrospective theology can be found throughout the ancient Near East. The biblical scribes were no different; they shaped their own literary traditions from this larger ancient Near Eastern cultural perspective. Both the fall of Israel in 722 BC and that of Judah in 587 BC were attributed to Yahweh’s doing because the people forsook the stipulations in the covenant. This theology is most apparent in the book of Deuteronomy and other Deuteronomistic literature, including the books of Kings and Jeremiah. Thus even when a nation was utterly destroyed by a more powerful foe, the vanquished nation, whether Israel, Moab, Babylon, or Egypt, theologically explained the catastrophe as a willful act implemented by their own god because the people had forsaken the deity’s laws.

Finally, both the Assyrian vassal treaties and the Deuteronomic covenant express similar curses for disobeying the stipulations of the document (#331). Some of these include: incurring the wrath of the deity if the stipulations are broken; curses of diseases and leprosy; famine, and eating one’s offspring as punishment brought by the deity; and promises by the deity to utterly destroy and cause to perish the people and their seed. By large, however, exile and the loss of land were common punishments for breaking a treaty throughout the ancient Near East, and the Deuteronomist certainly shared these ideas. Some scholars have additionally demonstrated that many of the curses in Deuteronomy 28 which do not seem to be presented in any specific order are in fact modeled after the order of curses found in the 7th century Assyrian vassal treaties of Esarhaddon.

The Deuteronomist and Josiah’s religious reforms of the 7th century BC

Since de Wette’s study on Deuteronomy, subsequent biblical scholars have independently confirmed the thesis that the core of Deuteronomy was written under the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC) and used to legitimate the king’s religious reform. Indeed, the core covenantal law code of Deuteronomy (Deut 12-26), the “scroll of the covenant” allegedly found during renovations on the temple during Josiah’s reign, may actually be a literary creation under Josiah. Regardless of the date one assigns to the Deuteronomic law code, the larger literary work called the Deuteronomistic History (the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) was most certainly written during Josiah’s reign and was an expression of the sheer optimism which permeated under his rule, most likely a result of Assyria’s retreat from the region and the reassertion of the southern kingdom’s independence. Deuteronomy was thus composed as propaganda to legitimate Josiah’s religious reforms, re-conquest of the former territory of the northern kingdom, and centralization of the cult—events that could have only happened with the withdrawal of Assyrian forces from the region in the mid 7th century BC. This power vacuum was the catalyst behind Josiah’s assertion of religious and political independence.

The core text, Deuteronomy 12-26, reflects the religious and political policies endorsed by Josiah in the 7th century BC. Josiah’s reign was unique in the period of the monarchy because other than the hyperbolic presentation of the glorious and independent kingdom of Israel under Solomon, it was the only period in time when Israel and/or Judah were not vassals to their larger and more politically powerful neighbors, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Both biblical and extra-biblical sources confirm that the kingdoms of Israel, Judah, Moab, Aram, etc. were all vassal states to the mighty Assyrian empire variously between the 9th and early 7th centuries BC. In other words they were vassal states paying tribute to their Assyrian overlords. But in the 7th century BC, with the rise of Babylon, the Assyrians were forced to withdraw their presence from Palestine. This in and of itself ushered in a new optimism and claimants of independence, which ultimately found their expression in the literary production of this time period, and notably by the Josianic Deuteronomists. Furthermore, the literature produced in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 7th century BC and the message it proclaimed were a direct result of the destruction, and for the most part disappearance, of Israel in 722 BC and the withdrawal of Assyrian political power and sovereignty from the whole region in the mid 7th century BC. With Assyrian lordship gone, and Israel no more, the Judahite scribes of the south were able to produce a powerful literary masterpiece of political and religious propaganda.8

To unify his political reach Josiah also advocated a new innovative religious practice— centralization of the cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem. No longer were people allowed to worship Yahweh at local altars, of which the archaeological record attests there were many. No longer could judicial hearings be practiced at these local altars as well; now they must be brought before Yahweh in Jerusalem. No longer could Passover be celebrated at home or at local shrines; now a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was required. No longer could alternative forms of worship to Yahweh be practiced as was common in the north. Now all sacrifices and festivals were to be carried out at Jerusalem —the new political and religious capital of a reunified Israel. In addition to these Deuteronomic laws, the Deuteronomist’s stern claim, placed on the lips of Yahweh himself, that all Canaanite and Israelite cultic shrines and altars were to be utterly destroyed and burned (Deut 7 & 12) is no where paralleled in any of the accounts of the kings of Judah except for Josiah, and Josiah alone.

The king [Josiah] commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of Yahweh all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them outside of Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron. . . He removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun at the entrance to the house of Yahweh. . . The altars on the roof of the upper chamber of Ahaz which the kings of Judah had made, and the altars that Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of Yahweh, he pulled down from there and broke in pieces, and threw the rubble into the wadi Kidron. The king defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the mount of Destruction, which king Solomon of Israel had built for Astarte the abomination of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. He broke down the pillars in pieces, cut down the sacred poles, and covered the sites with human bones. Moreover, the altar at Bethel, the high place erected by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin, he pulled down that altar along with the high place. He burned the high place, crushing it to dust; he also burned the sacred pole. . . Moreover, Josiah removed all the shrines of the high places that were in Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made, provoking Yahweh to anger; he did to them just as he had done at Bethel. (2 Kgs 23:4-5, 11, 12-14, 19)

All these syncretic cultic practices, and the worship of Yahweh and other gods and goddesses from the Canaanite landscape, was regular and normal cultic activity practiced by the kings and people of Israel and Judah until Josiah and the Deuteronomist labeled this as apostasy in the 7th century BC!

Apart from parallels between the Deuteronomist’s religious program and Josiah’s policies, both religiously and politically, there are other parallels that have buttressed the claims of scholars that Deuteronomy was written for, or in support of, Josiah and his religious reforms. For example, Josiah is accredited with performing the only public reading of the law in the whole history of the monarchy (2 Kgs 23:1-2) as indeed commanded by the Deuteronomist through the lips of Moses himself (Deut 31:9-11). And Josiah is the only king to have celebrated the Passover—”for no such Passover had been kept since the days of the Judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah” (2 Kgs 23:22)—as is decreed in Deuteronomy 16:1-8. Professor Richard Friedman has noted even more striking parallels between Deuteronomy and Josiah:9 1) the phrase “and there arose none like him” is only applied to two people in the Hebrew Bible—Moses and Josiah—and apparently by the pen of the same author, the Deuteronomist; 2) only one person in the Hebrew Bible is cited as fulfilling the Deuteronomist’s commandment “to love Yahweh with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”—Josiah; 3) Josiah subordinates himself to the Levite priests in matters of the law, as decreed in Deuteronomy; 4) Josiah does “what was right in the eyes of Yahweh; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” as also decreed by the Deuteronomist in respect to the following of its commandments; 5) the “scroll of the torah” is only mentioned in two places: the torah that Moses writes and the torah that Josiah finds—both penned by the Deuteronomist; 6) the public reading of the torah exacted through the phrase “read it in their ears” only occurs in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic account of Josiah’s ordering of the reading of the scroll of the torah; and 7) in relation to the smashing and burning of pillars and other cultic statues, only Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic account of Josiah’s eradication of Israel’s cultic centers uses the phrase “smash it thin as dust.” 

These connections help buttress the claim that the core text of Deuteronomy, chapters 12-26, was written to support Josiah’s centralization of the cult and judiciary at Jerusalem, the eradication of all other cultic sites in Israel, his military campaign to repossess lost northern territory, and in general to proclaim optimistically Israel’s new state of independence and loyalty to Yahweh and his laws as exemplified in Josiah himself. Thus the original scroll, “the scroll of the covenant” (Deut 12-26), was used to legitimate and promulgate Josiah’s religious innovations—now no longer seen as innovations but as tradition harkening back to Moses! This is how political and religious programs are authenticated and legitimated in the ancient Near East—by means of texts that retroject these policies into the archaic or mythic past. In sum, the Deuteronomic text was optimistic and culminated in Josiah’s religious and political leadership (whether real or merely a literary construct) that unified, or attempted to reunify, northern and southern kingdoms.

However to this base text were added other and later material that reflected a different tenor. Merely two decades after Josiah’s death Judah was to suffer the same fate as her northern brethren did in 722 BC, only now at the hands of the Babylonians. The scroll that the Josianic Deuteronomist wrote, glorifying Judah, had now to be rewritten in order to reflect the new historical conditions: loss, exile, despair, and the longing for return. These sentiments were interjected into the text in the exilic curses section (Deut 28), which, unlike its pre-exilic counterpoint that presented Israel as still having a choice between life on the land or death and exile, presented this reality in prophetic guise as unconditionally prescribed (#331). The Israelites were destined to loss their land and end up in exile, “as it is this day” as the exilic Deuteronomist laments (Deut 29:27). The point is that the celebatory and optimistic tenor of Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms hailing in a new and righteous era of Jewish Torah, sole loyalty to Yahweh, and social and ethical reform was short lived primarily because Judah’s existence as an independent state was short lived. The Babylonians not only soon exerted their control, both politically and to a lesser degree religiously, but when the Judaen state under Zedekiah refused to honor this vassalage by refusing to send tribute, the Babylonians marched into Judah and burnt it down, burnt down the city of Jerusalem, Yahweh’s temple, and took many of the aristocracy and priesthood into captivity in Babylon. There, scribes, elites, and priests had to contend with the new historical circumstance: they were exiled from their land, which now lay desolate, and their cult and temple, which were also utterly destroyed.

To the Josianic Deuteronomic pre-exilic text, new exilic additions were now added that explained why and how they ended up as exiles in Babylon. Thus the Josianic exuberance and optimism in the core text was interjected with new prophetic passages that ominously foretold of the ensuing doom that was the all too real reality of the scribes who actually penned these passages from their exiled condition in Babylon. The ending chapters of Deuteronomy (28-30) are a harsh description, presented in the guise of prophecy from Moses’ mouth, of the exilic Deuteronomists’ current plight. In sum the destruction of Jerusalem and the people’s loss of their land necessitated a whole new reinterpretation of history so that the Josianic Deuteronomic text now took into account where history actually did end: in captivity in Babylon, exiled from land, the temple, and their god.

The Deuteronomist and his sources

The book of Deuteronomy is a composite text, created from a scribal guild that was active during the 7th to 5th centuries BC. Yet these various authors, editors, and compilers shaped their compositions from earlier texts and traditions. We know this because the biblical text itself in its final form informs us of this very fact. Formal study of the Torah, for example, has revealed that it is in fact a compilation of at least four distinguishable sources, each of which were written and composed independently and underwent long complex compositional histories. In many cases, biblical scholars are able to see that later texts actually engaged with and made use of earlier sources, both of which were later collected together, preserved, and authenticated as scripture. The Priestly writer, who we will look at in the next chapter, writes his composition as a direct ‘corrective’ of the JE narrative, going so far as to even weave his composition into the JE text in order to give it the message and direction that the Priestly authors deemed necessary. Although the Deuteronomist was also compelled to change the JE text so that it conformed to his own ideology and religious beliefs, his mode of editorial revision actually amounted to the composition of a completely new text that in all likelihood was meant to replace the JE (or parts of the JE) narrative. The list of contradictions in this chapter are the result of having both the JE text and the Deuteronomic text preserved together when the Torah was formed.

It is important to realize the differences between modern ideas of authorship and those of the ancient Near East. Ancient scribes were rather collectors and compilers of earlier traditions, and saw their compositions as expanding on or presenting anew an already existing tradition. None of these texts were signed by their scribes, and authorship, that is the text’s authority, was associated with an already existing authoritative textual tradition or accredited to an ancestral hero or deity. Additionally, older texts were often rewritten when historical circumstances changed and dictated a re-telling of the tradition or, as is the case with Deuteronomy, a new political direction or regime came to power. It is clear from the text itself that the Deuteronomist made use of earlier textual traditions at his disposal. These earlier traditions are namely what are now identified as the Yahwist and Elohist sources. The Deuteronomist at times cites his sources verbatim, but at other times uses them to shape his own version of the tradition. However, as we shall see through the numerous contradictions in this chapter, in his re-presentation of Elohist and Yahwist material now found in the books of Exodus and Numbers, the Deuteronomist modifies, alters, and even contradicts the JE material in order to have it now express and come into line with his own religious and ideological aims. In other words, the Deuteronomist presents his composition as a reiteration of an already existing and authoritative tradition. But the Deuteronomist’s re-narration, as we shall see, is fraught with subversive literary techniques that actually negate and contradict the very traditions he claims to re-present. Professor Bernard Levinson has discussed this hermeneutic technique in his book Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation. He explains that

retelling ‘history’ then becomes a process of setting forth a new, contemporary and innovative reading of the past for religious and/or political agendas contemporaneous with the author, but indeed this is presented and packaged as not authoring a new story but retelling the authoritative tradition. Thus innovation is clothed with the subversiveness of denying innovation, authorship, and originality10

In re-presenting the narrative of his sources, the Deuteronomist re-tells it to suit his own agenda and needs, changing the traditional version, but nevertheless presents the new telling as part of the tradition that has already become authoritative for the community. Thus, in putting forth completely new and innovative religious practices and beliefs, the Deuteronomist actually subverts the tradition that he is using as his source by presenting these innovations as original to his source. One literary technique that aids in this is to present this new composition, the book of Deuteronomy, as authored by the earlier source, traditionally accredited to Moses. “Later innovative traditions present their innovation on prior textual authoritative traditions thereby subverting the previous authoritative tradition while nevertheless claiming the innovation as the ‘real’ authoritative tradition.”11 What may even be more surprising to the modern reader is that the Deuteronomist’s free re-presentation and alteration of his source, which now exists along side the Deuteronomist’s text in the Bible, is not the only example of this to be found in the Bible. There are numerous other examples. The Bible is a compilation of texts that sought to rewrite and replace earlier textual traditions, both of which were then later preserved.

We will look at these alterations and contradictions in a moment, but presently the very fact that an author can modify, change, and even misrepresent an earlier textual tradition may seem alarming to modern readers who often harbor misconceptions about these texts being unalterable. Certainly that happens at a later date, when Israel’s many textual traditions are collected together and authenticated as scripture. But at this stage in the game, texts were constantly being rewritten and changed to agree with the agendas of its authors or editors. Indeed, words were even written and placed in Yahweh’s and Moses’ mouth which contradicted earlier texts and traditions. We shall see that the Deuteronomist was not the only writer to misrepresent earlier texts and traditions. The Priestly writer also reinterprets, modifies, and contradicts his earlier sources. All three of these traditions narrating the giving of the law—Exodus 20-24 (E), Deuteronomy 5-30 (D), and the book of Leviticus (P)—have both Moses and Yahweh saying various and contradictory laws and commandments. Even the place where these laws were revealed is narrated differently in these three sources (#204, 356). So what were these ancient authors doing when they used earlier authoritative traditions in their own compositions, but consciously changed or misrepresented them?

We might acknowledge that ancient texts were written not only to address the needs and concerns of specific historical communities, and since these communities changed with the changing geopolitical world so too must texts be rewritten to address a communities’ changing needs and concerns, but they were also written to advocate and legitimate a particular elite group’s agenda, whether that be of the monarchal court or a priestly guild. We will see that it is no coincidence that in the Priestly composition of the book of Leviticus for example both Yahweh and Moses command laws which in fact represent the very position and beliefs of the Aaronid priestly guild that is authoring this very composition, and conversely Moses and Yahweh often command things that denounce the views and beliefs of an earlier and different secular composition written by a group of Levites, now known as the Deuteronomic source. Likewise, when the Levite author of Deuteronomy uses his earlier Elohist source for his composition, he alters both the commandments and laws given by Yahweh to Moses in the Elohist source to reflect, legitimate, and propagate his own beliefs and concerns. So we find that in Deuteronomy, although our author presents Moses as re-narrating the events found in the earlier Elohist source, the Deuteronomist actually has Moses make different claims, and even pronounce completely contradictory commandments.

We may preliminarily conclude that the Deuteronomist saw himself rewriting, reshaping, and altering the stories narrated in his earlier sources so that they reflected and reinforced his own theological and ideological program, even to the point of altering what Moses and Yahweh were claimed to have said in those earlier sources. He may even have seen his own composition as one that would replace his earlier sources, the textual traditions of the Yahwist and Elohist. Indeed, presenting Moses as the author of his text goes a long way in accomplishing just that. If this were the case, namely that the Deuteronomist was re-presenting tradition and crafting a new story in order to replace the earlier JE text with his version, a second edition if you like, then it is only due to an irony of literary history that we now find his text and the text he meant to replace existing side-by-side in a book created by a later generation of scribes in an effort to authenticate Israel’s literary traditions.


  1. For a comprehensive list of Deuteronomic features see Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, 9, 14-15, and 24-25.
  2. In particular see William Dever, Did God Have a Wife?
  3. In fact, it could be argued that the Yahweh alone movement lead to Israel’s and Judah’s destruction, since in its most strict articulation, it meant that covenants or treaties with other sovereigns other than Yahweh was not permissible. But literature is a miraculous thing in itself, especially the use of literature to support monarchal or state policies—propaganda in short. Hezekiah’s scribes certainly had a flare for this as they extolled him as devotedly loyal to Yahweh alone, which resulted in his refusal to pay tribute to his Assyrian overlord, which then resulted in the Assyrians utter destruction of the land of Judah and besieging of Jerusalem. Yet the biblical authors relate this story as a triumph for the Yahweh alone movement by narrating how Jerusalem was “miraculously” spared because Hezekiah put his trust in Yahweh alone. However, we know from archaeological and extra-biblical material that Hezekiah finally acknowledged his Assyrian overlord—contrary to the stipulations of the Yahweh alone movement—and paid him a handsome tribute. See the Assyrian annals of Sennecherib.
  4. Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 241-242.
  5. For a lively treatment see William Dever’s recent book, Did God Have a Wife? See also #26.
  6. Ibid, 249.
  7. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Eisenbrauns 1992), 351.
  8. For a good read on this topic in greater detail see Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 279-313.
  9. Paraphrased from Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (HarperOne 1987), 111-114.
  10. Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (Oxford 1997),…
  11. Ibid

2 thoughts on “The Deuteronomist

  1. I have read about biblical history on Wikipedia. It is quite good but at times contradictory and sometimes not cogent. I have also read Richard Friedman’s book but it is a bit much for me.
    Steven, your essays are very readable, very cogent and I will spend time carefully reading them.
    Thank you for the time taken to publish this website.

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