Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The biblical books of Deuteronomy through Second Kings tell a version of Israel’s history starting from the plains of Moab on the desert fringe just across the Jordan to the exile in Babylon on the far side of the same great desert. The Deuteronomistic History (DtH), the story told within these books, is one of the three major narrative texts of Israel’s past, along with the Pentateuch and the historical work of the Chronicler.
"You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul..."
(Deut 11:18)

 In the next couple of weeks I would like to present some comments on each one of the books that compose the DtH as a brief introduction to the reading of these books. Let's begin reflecting on the Book of Deuteronomy. 


Deuteronomy provides the hermeneutical key to the DtH: keeping the commandments, precepts and statutes of the covenant will bring the promises made to Abraham to fulfillment (Gen 12:1-3; 15: 7-21; 17:1-14). On the other hand, being unfaithful to the covenant will bring judgment and misery to Israel. I would say that this idea is not based in legal formalities, but rather in expressing religiously and culturally YHWH’s relationship with his people. God does not impose himself as he reveals his presence. On the contrary, he calls on his people to choose him as his ruler (11: 26-28; 30:15-20).

Deuteronomy is also regarded by many as a long speech from Moses, a sort of testament (Deut 1-30), followed by his last actions and the report of his death (Deut. 31-34). The core of the speech is found in chapters 12-26, containing a collection of diverse laws. The first part of this collection (Deut 12-18) includes regulations which are mostly concerned with the 'ideology of centralization.' According to this perspective, there is only one legitimate sanctuary in Israel which corresponds to the Jerusalem Temple (although the city is never mentioned either in Deuteronomy or in the whole Pentateuch). Cultic centralization also implies a systematization of economics and politics, as shown by the laws collected in Deut 13-18. Chapters 19-25 contain a mixture of private and public rules and do not have, at first glance a clear structure.

It also seems to many that Deut 12-26 is preceded by two introductions (Deut 1-4 and 5-11). The first introductions contain a recapitulation of events from the period of the wanderings of the people in the wilderness, including the refusal of the exodus generation to conquer the land as ordered by YHWH, and the report of the occupation of the Transjordanian territories. These events are also related, often in a more explicit way, in the Book of Numbers. Deut 4 insists on the invisibility of Yahweh as he revealed himself to Israel and praises his gift of the law to Israel after he took his people out of Egypt (4:33-34).
Moses leads the Israelites
The second introduction is more directly related to the subsequent legal collection, since it encloses numerous motivations to respect the divine law transmitted by Moses. Deut 5 opens this section with the Deuteronomistic version of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, which may have been conceived as a kind of summary of the entire legal corpus. This second introduction also includes a story recalling how Israel broke the covenant that YHWH concluded with them on the mountain of Horeb (9:7-10:11; the account of the golden calf, which has a parallel in Exodus 32). This introduction ends with a statement proposing people blessings or curses depending on the choice of observance or non-observance of YHWH’s laws (Deut 11, esp. 11:26-32).

Blessings and curses are also presented at the conclusion of the law collection in Deut 27-28. Chapters 29-30 conclude with Moses’ testament; here he confronts his audience with an alternative: life or death. The audience is of course invited to choose life, that means to keep the LORD's covenant and to respect his mandates.
Deut 31-34 comprises the installation of Joshua as Moses’ successor, a song that predicts Israel’s rejection of the LORD after entering the land, Moses’ blessing of the twelve tribes and finally in ch. 34, his death and his burial by YHWH himself.

It is evident then to conclude that the Book of Deuteronomy is a composite in which a rather large legal corpus is highlighted. Nonetheless, Deuteronomy can easily be understood as “instruction” on how to live as God’s people corresponding to his love and faithfulness (4:29; 6:4.32-30; 11:1). This correspondence to God’s love is exercised through a willing and joyful obedience (30:11-14), embracing the LORD as the only God (6:13-15; 8:9; 9:7-12; 30:15-20) and taking care of those who are disadvantaged in the community (10:12-15. 18-19; 14:28-29; 15:1-18; 24:14-15; cf. Mic 6:8).  

The joyful obedience that brings blessings and prosperity is a positive way of portraying life under God’s care and directives, even though the book also announces Israel’s unfaithfulness. However, even if YHWH’s people fall short in keeping the covenant, they will find God’s mercy as he brings them again into the land (30:1-10). 

Juan Miguel Betancourt
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