Introducing Deuteronomy: Setting the Stage

Deuteronomy is not an easy book to get into -- it doesn't have the same appeal that stories like the creation of the world and the crossing of the Red Sea, the family saga of Abraham and his descendents, the drama of the Flood and the forty years in the wilderness give to Genesis and Exodus. But it well repays a deeper reading, because Deuteronomy is a call for a people to remake itself, to accept a new way of living and a new relationship with one another, with God, with their environment and the land they are about to enter. Through it, a people's suffering through injustice is made the foundation for a deeper commitment to justice and to God. Thus it explores themes of relationship that have a deep resonance with us today.

The title 'Deuteronomy' comes from a Greek word meaning 'second law', a fitting description of this book. Presented as a series of addresses by Moses to the people of Israel on the verge of the Promised Land, about to cross over the River Jordan, it recaps some of their wandering and repeats a great deal of the Law (drawing more from the Covenant Code of Exodus than the Holiness Code of Leviticus). But the Deuteronomist did not simply repeat the Law, he re-imagined and re-presented it anew, as a new Covenant Code to bind the people together in relationship to the land, to one another, and to the foreigner, the slave, and the poor among them, to bind king and people together and bind both to God.

In its final form, Deuteronomy rounds off the five books of Moses, the Torah, and introduces the sacred history told in the books of Joshua through 2 Kings, setting the tone as well as the stage for the story of how the people claimed a land and lost it and entered into a covenant and betrayed it. Scholars think the core of Deuteronomy was written in the late 8th or early 7th century before the Common Era on the basis of already ancient tradition by a member of a Levitical school deeply influenced by the great 8th century prophets such as Isaiah and Hosea.

This was the time of King Hezekiah of Judah and his son Manasseh -- Hezekiah was a reformer who attempted to purify nation and cult from the injustice, corruption, idolatry, and other pagan practices that had been condemned by prophets in both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. He was reacting in part to the loss and destruction of the northern kingdom -- part of the prophets' message for both kingdoms was that Israel's failures to purify and reform would lead to destruction and in 721 BCE, Israel fell to Assyrian invaders. It was a shattering moment, leaving only Judah out of the combined kingdom that David and Solomon had once ruled, and causing many to doubt the reality of God, God's promises, and God's prophets. Manasseh, Hezekiah's son, rejected the call for reform and vigorously supported and participated in pagan practices, including child sacrifice.

Scholars speculate that it was in Hezekiah's reign that Deuteronomy was first written, to offer support to the desire for reform. It was likely in Manasseh's inimical reign that a copy of that first edition of Deuteronomy was concealed in the Temple for safekeeping. In 621 BCE, that copy was found; as described in the book of Kings, a scroll of the law was found in the Temple during the repair and reconstruction ordered by King Josiah, a great-grandson of Hezekiah, and was brought to the king. The contrast between the words of the scroll and the life of the kingdom and community caused a reaction that began with fear and panic and ended with a royal consultation of the prophet Huldah. After that, the king convened an assembly of all the priests and prophets and people at the Temple where he made a solemn covenant with God in which the people joined, "to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book."

Later Deuteronomy was revised to include an introduction to the sacred history which follows it and an epilogue about Moses and his death and burial and took its place as the fifth book of the Bible. Its continued influence can be seen in, for instance, the number of Deuteronomy manuscripts found at Qumran or its importance to Jesus, who reached into the Covenant Code of Deuteronomy for the answers that he needed to silence Satan in the story of his Temptations: "One does not live by bread alone," Deuteronomy 8.3; "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him," Deuteronomy 6.13; and "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," Deuteronomy 6.16. If it continued to have such relevance to movements at the margins of Judaism in the first century of the common era, imagine its influence at the core!

A phrase that is repeated many times in Deuteronomy is "Hear, O Israel" -- Listen, pay attention to what the story teaches, to what the law calls for and is based in. The urgency of this repeated call speaks volumes about the author's concern for the covenant community. He compiled these ancient traditions into a new vision of the Law for his own time and place, a time in deep need of renewal and recommitment. Let us listen to what the story has to teach us.

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