Monday, April 4, 2016

Moses, Deuteronomy and Josiah: Part 3 of 3

          Hilkiah, a priest, made a critical discovery relatively early in the reign of Josiah of Judah. The discovery of a scroll during repairs to the temple suggests that it might have been a foundation document (2 Kg. 22:3-8//2 Chr. 34:8-16). Foundation texts were well-known in the ancient Near East, documents including royal inscriptions and information to any king who might undertake a restoration of the building in future days. The Book of the Law might have been enshrined in such a foundation box or concealed in the temple walls. Alternatively, it could have been found in the temple archives. In the Kings record, it was simply called the “book of the Torah,” a title that is somewhat ambiguous, since presumably all the books of Moses were single scrolls (2 Kg. 22:8-10; cf. 2 Chr. 34:14ff.). However, when the scroll was read to Josiah and later read and interpreted by the prophetess Huldah, the king’s reaction was immediate and visceral. It was apparent from what was rehearsed that the national life of Judah was in serious violation of the statutes contained in this scroll, and the contents of the scroll became a powerful incentive for Josiah’s reforms, including a heart-felt renewal of the ancient covenant (2 Kg. 23:1-3). In accord with what was written in this scroll, Josiah directed a nation-wide purge of pagan elements. He burned all the implements dedicated to Ba’al and Asherah and did away with their priests. He dismantled all vestiges of the astral cult. He destroyed the shrines and altars of paganism, smashing them to bits, and he even carried his reforms beyond his national borders to the ancient high places of northern Israel. Finally, he instituted a Passover celebration that was unlike anything the citizens of Judah had seen since the period of the judges. All this sweeping reform was prompted by “the requirements of the Torah written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of Yahweh” (2 Kg. 23:4-24). The assessment of Josiah’s work was that “neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to Yahweh as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the law of Moses” (2 Kg. 23:25).

          While no title to the newly discovered book of the law was given in either 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles, virtually all interpreters conclude that it must have been some form of Deuteronomy. None of the scrolls of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus or Numbers seemed likely to have caused such distress. The king’s anguished reaction to its contents, especially the threat of severe divine reprisals for disobedience, seem consonant with the curses of Deuteronomy 28. Further, the language “book of the Torah” is used in Deuteronomy about itself (Dt. 28:58, 61; 31:26; cf. Jos. 1:8). The law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 made the king liable for maintaining moral leadership for the nation. Combined, all these factors makes Deuteronomy the most likely candidate for what was discovered by Hilkiah. The fact that the assessment of Josiah’s reforms was framed in words directly taken from the language of Deuteronomy 6:5 (cf. 2 Kg. 23:25) only strengthens this conclusion.

          How came this book to be deposited in the temple and effectively lost? Here, there are several theories. Some suggest that technically it was not lost at all but was a fresh composition. Collins and others bluntly conclude that “the finding of the book [was] a fiction, designed to ensure its ready acceptance by the people.” While he concedes that some earlier material may have been edited and incorporated into the book, the larger composition was the product of Josiah’s own scribes. Both Deuteronomy and the traditions in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were either composed or edited from a Deuteronomic perspective at this time, and the process went on for some years even after Josiah’s reign ended at his death. Such a reconstruction not only would provide a rationale for Josiah’s reforms, it would explain the similarities between the Book of Deuteronomy and the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, which are from about the same period.

          Other scholars, however, are reluctant to sever Deuteronomy so completely from the older traditions. Some suggest that the larger corpus of Deuteronomy was composed earlier in the northern kingdom before its Assyrian exile. Here, Deuteronomy’s origin was believed to be among priestly Levites or northern prophets who, in light of what was happening in the north, set down traditions in opposition to the prevailing Ba’al cult in order to stem the tide of apostasy. Fleeing southward after the fall of the northern kingdom, they brought with them their text, which was hidden in the temple, possibly during the dark days of Manasseh’s kingship in Judah, when Manasseh’s so thoroughly reversed the reforms of his father Hezekiah (cf. 2 Kg. 21:1-9). Indeed, during Manasseh’s reign, Jerusalem was filled “from end to end” with the innocent blood of all who opposed him (2 Kg. 21:16), which certainly would have been an understandable context for hiding a Torah scroll whose very existence might have meant life or death. The scroll presumably was hidden in the temple for preservation and only rediscovered during the safer period of Josiah’s reign when workers were refurbishing the central sanctuary.

          An even more conservative alternative to the above scenarios is the suggestion that Deuteronomy was composed in the time of Solomon as a direct rebuke to Solomon’s self-exaltation and apostasy (cf. Dt. 17:14-20; 1 Kg. 11:1-13). Deuteronomy is clear: the king of Israel must not elevate himself (he must be a “brother” Israelite), he must not amass a large chariot corps, and he must not surround himself with a large harem. All these things Solomon did! Deuteronomy, by contrast, shows that power in Israel would not be concentrated in any single individual, but spread through other officials, such as, judges (Dt. 16:18), priests (Dt. 18:5) and prophets (Dt. 18:15) as well as a king (Dt. 17:14ff.). Those who held offices as judges or kings were to be appointed by the people themselves, not some central figure (Dt. 16:18; 17:15), and the real authority for the nation lay not in any single person, but in the Torah itself (Dt. 31:10-13). Hence, the nation of Israelites was to be a true brotherhood living under the covenant of Torah. This primacy of the Torah explains the central role of Moses, who mediates God’s will by his speeches (cf. Dt. 4:14), and it is to be carried out by the people within their families (Dt. 6:7-9). Such a setting for Deuteronomy would be earlier and different in orientation than the context of the Josianic reforms. That Deuteronomy fulfilled an important role in Josiah’s reform need not be discounted, but the ideas in Deuteronomy are older and more primitive than a 7th century BC context.

Moses, Deuteronomy and Josiah: Part 2 of 3

The upshot of all this is that there are several theories about the date of Deuteronomy’s literary composition, some of them compatible with a high view of Scripture and some not so compatible. Until the modern period, the Jewish and Christian consensus was that it was composed in the Mosaic Period, either by Moses himself or by those close to him. Indeed, when Hilkiah found the “Book of the Torah” in the temple, the Hebrew text describes it as having been given “through the hand of Moses” (2 Chr. 34:14). Only since the late 18th and early 19th centuries has this consensus been seriously questioned. Many conservative scholars still maintain this position, especially since Christ and other New Testament writers cite Deuteronomy as simply “Moses” (e.g., Mt. 19:8//Dt. 24:4; 1 Co. 9:9//Dt. 25:4; He. 10:28//Dt. 17:6). Of course, such references would still be true, even if Deuteronomy was compiled at a later date, so long as the historicity of the sayings were not called into question.

A second theory is that while Deuteronomy probably contains substantial units that go back to the time of Moses himself, the final form of Deuteronomy was not achieved until perhaps the time of Samuel or David. It is in this period that the centrality of the priest disappears and the centrality of the king appears (cf. Dt. 17:14-20). The political union of the Israelite tribes under a single king made the centralization of worship both possible and desirable, perhaps inevitable (cf. Dt. 12).

The third theory is currently the most widely accepted among historical-critical scholars—that Deuteronomy belongs to the 7th century BC, where it became the motivating force behind Josiah’s reform. While many scholars hold to this position, they do not all carry the same assumptions. Some continue to attribute substantial portions of Deuteronomy to the time of Moses, preserved by oral tradition, and finally supplemented and compiled in the 7th century. Others, more negatively, regard Deuteronomy as a pious fraud—that the speeches of Moses essentially were concocted and put into his mouth. Either way, the similarity between the suzerainty structure of Deuteronomy and the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, who also was in the 7th century, lend weight to this conclusion. The laws concerning the king (Dt. 17) and the centralization of worship (Dt. 12), not to mention the blessings and curses (Dt. 28), figure prominently in Josiah’s reforms. As mentioned earlier, some scholars argue that much of Deuteronomy was composed by Levites in the northern kingdom and brought to Judah after the exile of the northern tribes. Others theorize that it was composed in the south.

The most radical theory is that Deuteronomy was composed after the exile of Judah. Here, Deuteronomy is viewed as an idealistic, imaginative work composed after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah no longer existed. In reaching a conclusion about Deuteronomy’s author and date, two factors are very important to conservative scholars. While the book is formally anonymous (i.e., it does not name its composer outright), the essential historicity and authenticity of its narratives and speeches must be maintained. Such a view seems essential for regarding Deuteronomy as divinely inspired. To be sure, evangelical scholars are not opposed to seeing oral or written sources that may underlie the present form of Deuteronomy as well as the rest of the Pentateuch. Indeed, they are not necessarily opposed to an editorial process that extended from the time of Moses into the late monarchy. Still, they are not free to bring into question the historical claims of its content. If Deuteronomy says that Moses said such and such, then Moses said it. One should not assume, of course, that the words attributed to Moses are the equivalent to some sort of tape recording. It is more important to acknowledge that we have the voice of Moses in Deuteronomy if not the precise words of Moses. Perhaps an appropriate analogy may be found in the gospel sayings of Jesus, which vary from gospel to gospel and originally were uttered in Aramaic, though we have them in Greek. We accept that we have the voice of Jesus if not always the precise words of Jesus. Whenever and however Deuteronomy reached the final form in which it has been passed down to us, conservatives remain committed to the Mosaicity of the Pentateuch in general and Deuteronomy as a constituent part of it. J. Barton Payne, an older evangelical scholar but one who was sensitive to the broader issues, is representative when he says, “The term Mosaicity may refer to those parts composed by Moses—whether actually written down by him or not—such as the address in Deuteronomy 1:6—4:40 or the song in 33:2-39.” And again, “Still, it means that the rest of the words, which Scripture does not specifically assign to Moses, need not be attributed to him. These include [among other things]…the description of his death.”

Moses, Deuteronomy and Josiah: Part 1 of 3

Evangelicals have long had a struggle with the authorship of the books in the Pentateuch. Because they are called the “Books of Moses” and because various passages in the New Testament quote from them as “Moses”, they bristle when there is any suggestion that Moses may not have written every word or that the final form of these books may have had a lengthy redactional history. I remember when teaching at William Tyndale College, where I taught the course on the Torah, that this was a perennial issue fraught with uneasiness, not only from students coming from fundamental churches, but also from their parents and pastors. Unfortunately, even sincere Christians with a Biblicist point of view do not always pay attention to the actual texts themselves, sometimes giving a knee-jerk reaction that betrays a less than careful reading.

It should first of all be understood that a distinction should be maintained between historical events themselves and the documentation of those events in writing. The two may or may not be coincidental. If, for instance, a 21st century writer sets down the history of India during the British Commonwealth, the modern reader would not suppose that he had fabricated his material out of thin air just because he was not old enough to have seen it personally. Similarly, there is no necessary requirement that the narratives about Moses and his teaching must have been codified while he was still alive or necessarily set down by Moses himself. Indeed, there are reasons for thinking this might not be the case, not the least of which is the account of his death at the close of Deuteronomy (cf. 34). Further, the closing verses of Deuteronomy that “since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses” presumes a hand later than Moses (34:10-12).

Sometimes, the point of view in Deuteronomy is as though the writer were standing in the mainland of Israel and looking over to the Transjordan, a perspective that seems to assume entry into the land. This point of view is especially to be seen in the handful of “across Jordan” passages that seem to speak of the land to the east of the Jordan as across the river (cf. 1:1, 5; 3:8; 4:41, 46-47, 49). Such language seems to presuppose occupation west of the Jordan, which of course could not have been possible until after the death of Moses. At the same time, there are even more passages using the same Hebrew expression that reflect the vantage point of standing in Moab to the east of the Jordan (cf. 2:29; 3:20, 25, 27; 4:14, 21-22, 26; 6:1; 9:1; 11:8, 11, 30-31; 12:10; 27:2, 4, 12; 30:18; 31:2, 13; 32:47). What should be recognized is that both these perspectives are embedded in the same book, the former in narrative sections that seem to have been written after the entry into the land, and the latter in speech sections that quote words that Moses said. This is no more than what one would expect for a document that describes the speeches of Moses but was compiled after Moses died.

The language in the covenant renewal section (Dt. 29) suggests that at least the exile of the northern kingdom was already complete when this passage was codified.


Therefore, Yahweh’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. In furious anger and in great wrath Yahweh uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.

                                                                                                Dt. 29:27-28


The editorial clause “as it is now” (literally, “as on this day”) clearly suggests a time far removed from Moses. Hence, it is not required that Deuteronomy be composed as a literary piece by Moses for it to contain authentic history about Moses.

At the same time, there are some passages describing Moses as writing, such as, 31:9, which refers to an unspecified section of law codes, 31:19, 22, (referring to chapter 32), and 31:24ff. (likely referring to the Decalogue). Such references suggest that portions were written out as smaller segments prior to the compilation of the whole. The rabbinical custom of referring to everything in the Pentateuch as the words of Moses, of course, was adopted by the writers of the New Testament, but this convenience of speech does not necessarily support the view that Moses personally penned the entire corpus. One can only speculate how long elements in Deuteronomy and other books in the Pentateuch may have been preserved as oral tradition before being codified. A generation later, Joshua is commanded to obey the “book of the Torah” (Jos. 1:7-8), a reference that seems to refer to the contents of Deuteronomy 5-26 or 5-30. Joshua is familiar with the law code that altars were not to be fashioned using an iron tool (Jos. 8:31; Dt. 27:5), and indeed, the whole ceremony in the Shechem Pass is based on the anticipation of this ceremony as described in Deuteronomy (Jos. 8:30-35; Dt. 27). Even later, Joshua is said to have drawn up decrees and laws which then were recorded in the “Book of the Law of God” (cf. Jos. 24:25-26), so it seems that Joshua, also, had a hand in the composition. Even later references also cite the “Book of the Torah,” expressions that clearly seem to refer to at least portions of Deuteronomy (cf. 2 Kg. 14:6//2 Chr. 25:4; Dt. 24:16). Certainly some of the prophets knew of law codes that are preserved in Deuteronomy (cf. Hos. 5:10//Dt. 19:14; Am. 8:5 and Mic. 6:10ff.//Dt. 25:13ff.; Am. 4:4//Dt. 14:28; Hos. 4:4ff.//Dt. 17:12), but whether all these things were from oral memory or references to a written document is unclear.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

John 3, New Birth, and the Rabbis

Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:3-5 NKJV)

When I was a teenager, I remember my pastor, O. C. Crabtree, teaching about the "new birth" passage in John 3 and emphasizing the confusion experienced by the Jewish leader Nicodemus about this powerful metaphor. Nicodemus asked "Must a man reenter his mother's womb?" Jesus chided Nicodemus' response:

"Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?"
(John 3:10 NKJV)

Seeing a teachable moment, the Rev. Crabtree asked his listeners, "Why should Nicodemus have been expected to understand what it means to be born again?"

I immediately - and I think unexpectedly - answered that Jesus borrowed the language of renewing by water and Spirit from the prophecies of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 36 and 37, the prophet utilizes the language of cleansing water and resurrecting spirit to describe the restoration of the exiled Israel.

That was a pretty good answer - except that it missed the first and guiding metaphor of John 3 - birth, or more specifically, rebirth.

Historically, most exegesis of the "new birth" passage centers on biblical images of bodily resurrection - thus my reference to Ezekiel 37 (The Valley of the Dry Bones). This is the most obvious biblical parallel, but resurrection is not exactly the same thing as rebirth. While there is certainly no suggestion of reincarnation found in the Hebrew Bible, the image of rebirth seems - at least to me - to be a richer concept than just reanimation of the physical body.

A closer parallel comes from the Jewish rabbis of the second century C.E. Rabbi Yose - no doubt Yose ben Halafta, the student of the great Rabbi Akiva and the teacher of Rabbi Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Mishnah (circa 200 C.E.) - offers this insight regarding converts to Judaism.

A proselyte who has converted [to Judaism] is like a child born (i.e., a newly born child).

Quite simply, the Jewish convert is "born again."

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud taught that the proselyte performed or submitted to three distinct acts of conversion: offering sacrifice, circumcision, and immersion in water (a washing ceremony for ritual purity).

Rabbi Yose seems to imply that such conversion brought a brand new start to the life of the convert. That is, the legal status of the convert completely changed. The convert is no longer accountable for past transgressions, neither is he any longer bound by former family obligations. Normal familial ties were severed - the convert was no longer considered the offspring of his biological parents, but now a child of Abraham and Sarah - thus a child of promise, a full participant in covenant blessing and obligation.

This proclamation was so bold - so revolutionary and potentially socially disruptive - that later rabbis were forced to add "restrictions" on this complete realignment of social relationships. Specifically, the rabbis restricted marriage to "former" family members even though these social ties had been severed.

The "born again" imagery of Rabbi Yose seems to parallel Jesus' teaching about the coming kingdom of God and the severing of family ties.

Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You." But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?" And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35 NKJV)

So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time-houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions-and in the age to come, eternal life." (Mark 10:29-30 NKJV)

Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."  Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:59-60 NKJV)


While the parallel between the "newly born child" imagery of Rabbi Yose and the sayings of Jesus in John 3:3 regarding "new birth" is interesting and perhaps even informative, I must offer one caveat.

In seeking parallels between New Testament writings and rabbinic Judaism, there is always the prospect of anachronism. The New Testament was written between 30 and 100 C.E., whereas the first written records of the rabbinic teaching is the Mishnah around 200 C.E. and the final collection occurred with the assembly of the Babylonian Talmud around 600 C.E.

Clearly, the collective rabbinic writings refer to Jewish teachers before 70 C.E. (the destruction of the Jewish Temple). Specifically, we know of Hillel and Shammai (and the "houses" of their followers) as well as Gamaliel who is also referenced in New Testament writings. But Jacob Neusner, the great scholar of rabbinic Judaism, reminds us that we cannot know the exact form or language of the teachings of these early rabbis. All records of these rabbis came from later writings which expand, elucidate, and comment on their teachings. Neither the Mishnah nor Talmud attempts to recover the "historic rabbis" in their pre-70 C.E. context nor in the exact language of their teachings.

So New Testament parallels with rabbinic teaching can be suggestive and informing - but one should never solely interpret any New Testament passage by later passages from the Mishnah or Talmud.