Encoding the Covenant Law in the Bible (Part 4 of 4)
The compilation of written law codes in the ancient Near East is well known. Several Hittite treaties have clauses requiring their periodic reading in public, and the same would be true of what Moses wrote (cf. 31:24). In the treaty between Suppiluliumas and Kurtiwaza, for instance, the code was to be read “at regular intervals.” The precise extent of what Moses actually wrote is debated. It is unnecessary to suppose that he wrote the entirety of the Torah as we now have it (especially the account of his own death), but it is equally unnecessary to suppose that everything was recorded later from oral tradition, as some scholars have suggested (or was made up later and does not even date back to Moses). Linguistically, we have only sparse indications of the state of the Hebrew language at this early period, and whatever form Moses used, it may well have needed updating later. Indeed, the Hebrew text of Moses’ song contains more than a dozen hapax legomena as well as some complicated syntax which remain as challenges for any translator. However one wants to speculate on exactly what Moses wrote, the text clearly indicates that he wrote some form of the covenant law and delivered it to the priests and elders for safekeeping and periodic reading. There was to be a public reading every seven years during the Festival of Booths “at the place God would choose” (cf. 15:1ff.; 16:13-15).
There are even some passages describing Moses as writing, such as, Dt. 31:9, which refers to an unspecified section of law codes, Dt. 31:19, 22, (referring to chapter 32), and 31:24ff. (probably 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 law” (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”, so apparently Joshua, also, had a hand in the composition of the Torah (cf. Jos. 24:25-26). Even later references also cite the “Book of the Law,” 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 were 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 an oral memory or reference to a written code is unclear.
These, then, are some of the factors that must be considered when assessing the earliest written documents in the Bible. As Christians, we believe that God superintended this production, which is what we mean by the term inspiration. At the same time, these biblical texts bear the stamp of history so that it can be fairly said that this is the Word of God in the words of humans.