Monday, April 4, 2016

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.

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