Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Dating Deuteronomy


Deuteronomy is often dismissed as a bellicose, legalistic book, irrelevant to New Testament theology.  However, efforts must be made to understand this book so often quoted by Jesus.  A critical reading helps us enter the world of the original audience, broadly accepted as 7th century Judah, but perhaps a more ancient Hebrew people or later Jewish exiles.  Thus, we may understand the message as it was intended: as a gracious covenant treaty between YHWH and all Israel.  While Deuteronomy contains preached law, it is structured not as law code but as an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) suzerain-vassal treaty.  I will attempt here to ground this document in Israel’s history so as to understand its message, in particular how the treaty genre is exploited to convey a theology of astounding divine grace. 


Deuteronomy is traditionally included in the Torah, but to what extent is it actually law?  Especially in chapters 12-26, there are casuistic and apodictic laws (Thompson, 1964, 17).  Deuteronomy heaps up synonyms like commandments, statutes, and ordnances (Deut. 4, 1-2; Boadt, 2006, 146).  Many laws corresponding to those in the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 20-30) are updated for a more advanced, urban context (ibid., 147; Kline, 1963, 33), possibly seventh century Judah.  Neither abstract nor esoteric, the clear, practical content is to be known by all Israel (Wright, 1996, 62; 85; 275).  It conveys an ethos for a covenant people, where human life is valued more than property (ibid., 82), and YHWH demands unswerving loyalty.  This law is anchored in Israel’s history, and is an appropriate response to his grace (ibid., 64; 261). 

Kline rightly claims that “the hortatory character [of Deuteronomy] exposes the inaccuracy of speaking of a Deuteronomic law code” (1963, 32).  Scholars concur that the urgent, sermonic style aims to elicit a response of commitment and obedience (Boadt, 2006, 141; Thompson, 1974, 17).  Homiletic devices include repetition, imperatives, exhortations and emotive phraseology (Boadt, 2006, 144; McConville, 2002, 19).  A key verb in Deuteronomy is ‘expound’ (Wright, 1996, 21).  Thompson describes the typical structure of apodictic laws, explained in legal language but expounded homiletically (1964, 31).  For example, in Deut. 15:1-11 on debt remission, a command is given, then explained procedurally and applied pastorally.  The style and content of Deuteronomy, as well as the structure if taken at face value, make clear that this is preached law.

However, covenant, not law, is at the heart of Deuteronomy (Boadt, 2006, 143; McConville, 2002, 20; 28).  Scholarly consensus is that the heuristic key to Deuteronomy lies with similarities to secular ANE suzerain-vassal treaties (ibid., 1993, 31).  This view was suggested by Mendenhall (1955), and developed by Klein (1963) for Deuteronomy in particular.  Typically, such treaties identify the Great King in a preamble before recounting historical details.  Then follow stipulations of the treaty, first in general and then specifics.  Suzerain-vassal treaties also detail in further sections how the treaty was to be read publicly, gods were invoked as witnesses, and finally curses and blessings were listed.  Such treaties are exclusive and binding (Wright, 1996, 110).  See table 1 for the way in which Boadt aligns Deuteronomy to the sections of a treaty. 

McConville aptly warns against taking the treaty structure too far.  Firstly, Deuteronomy is unique and does not follow the precise structure any one kind of treaty, Hittite or Assyrian (2002, 24; 59).  Kline too stresses that the structure is a “conceptual adaptation … of common formal media” (1963, 42), with deliberate innovations such as the absence of gods as witnesses (Boadt, 2006, 143).  In fact, altogether different structures can be discerned, with Wright comparing the book to a “rich fruit cake” that can be sliced in multiple ways (1996, 1).  Deuteronomy is also a series of three speeches, in the deathbed speech or fatherly wisdom traditions familiar in the ANE (ibid., 2; Thompson, 1964, 21).  There is a concentric literary pattern, moving from an outer and inner frame towards the core, and out again, with further examples of chiasmus embedded within (Wright, 1996, 4).  And within the book, there is an approximate ordering of material according to themes of the Decalogue (ibid., 5; 255).  By recognizing these structures also, a stereophonic message of law and grace for the covenant people sounds out.  But for whom, or by whom, was it written?


We now turn our attention to an evaluation of the mainstream view linking Deuteronomy with seventh century Judah, before considering Mosaic and exilic alternatives.  A seventh century composition was proposed by de Wette (1805) and developed by Wellhausen (1883) who suggests that an editor compiled a core Deuteronomy, Urdt, just before the reforms of 2 Kgs 22 (Thompson, 1974, 57).  If Deuteronomy is indeed the Book of Law discovered by Josiah, then its context is Judah after the Fall of Samaria.  People feared a similar fate for the southern kingdom, and while some saw political alliances as a solution, Josiah sought religious reform God (2 Kgs 22-23).  Unfortunately, the reform was short-lived and the pattern of evil monarchy and spiritual decline followed.  In this context, Deuteronomy would have profound political and theological implications.  Suzerain-vassal treaties were certainly known to the scribes in Jerusalem, who perhaps wrote Deuteronomy to assert politico-religious independence (ibid., 75).  The covenantal theism of Deuteronomy is better developed than pre-monarchic religious expressions (McConville, 2002, 22; ibid., 1993, 16).  As further evidence of a 7th century composition, there are parallels with Wisdom literature and its simplistic morality, and prophecy with its call to loyalty (ibid., 2002, 25; 44).  Deuteronomy certainly advocates elements of Josiah’s reform programme such as centralized worship, although Jerusalem is not mentioned by name (McConville, 1993, 17).  For other historical parallels, see table 2.

The volume of scholarship advocating Deuteronomy’s link with Josiah’s reform is overwhelming, yet more recently the link has been weakened.  While maintaining a seventh century date for Deuteronomy, some advocate earlier, northern origins.  Boadt (145; 2006) points out ambivalence to monarchy (Deut. 17, 14ff), and parallels with Hosea (e.g. Deut. 32, 21).  Moses, not David, is the key figure, and the covenant is tied to Ebal and Gerazim (Deut. 27).  These Sinaitic and amphictyonic traditions may have been brought to Judah by refugees following Samaria’s fall in 722.  Certainly, Hezekiah attempted reform in the earlier part of the 7th century, himself witness to the fate Samaria and Sennacherib’s failed siege on Jerusalem (2 Kgs 18-20).  The whole of the 7th century was a traumatic time of soul-searching, and a likely context for the emergence of Deuteronomy. 

Others advocate a much earlier date.  Thompson synthesizes evidence for material stemming from the period of the judges (1974, 43).  Perhaps the central sanctuary is not Josiah’s Jerusalem at all, but a succession of resting places for the Ark of the Covenant, such as Shechem, Bethel and Shiloh of the old Israelite amphictony.  Agricultural and patriarchal laws reflect pre-monarchic society (ibid., 52).  Arguments against such an early date are easily countered.  For example kingly material need not preclude pre-monarchic origins, since kingship was familiar throughout the ANE (Deut. 2, 24-3, 11).

Perhaps, after two centuries of biblical criticism set on a 7th century date, even a Mosaic reading is again possible. Without insisting on Deuteronomy as Moses’ ipsissima verba, ancient voices can be traced back to the second millennium, close to the time depicted in Deuteronomy of a people entering Canaan (Wright, 1996, 7).  Second millennium Hittite treaties may be closer to Deuteronomy than later Assyrian texts (Kline, 1963, 41).  It is in these earlier treaties that historical prologues feature most strongly (Deut. 1-3; 4, 44-5, 3329, 1-8).  Thompson explains that references to settled life could stem from captivity in Goshen (1974, 55), and warns that scholars should not summarily dismiss references to Moses’ writing (ibid., 56).  McConville too sees an ancient basis to Deuteronomy (2002, 38).  Difficulties such as the narrative of Moses’ death could be considered as editorial additions to a ‘substantially Mosaic legacy’ (Wright, 1996, 7).

One significant alternative deserves consideration, namely a utopian exilic or post-exilic composition.  Deuteronomy has parallels with late writings including Malachi and Nehemiah (Thompson, 1974, 78).  The main argument for such a late composition is the warning of exile (Deut. 4, 27) and the promise of restoration (Deut. 4, 31), as well as a generally pessimistic tone.  Simultaneously, Deuteronomy is idealistic in its social standards, and contains themes relevant to returning exiles, e.g. anti-cultic theology of the heart, entering the land, and having a second chance.  McConville (2002, 42) successfully integrates this (post-) exilic relevance within his early dating of Deuteronomy by suggesting that there are late glosses, but that even in Moses’ day the people were notoriously disobedient.  Therefore, the exile remains a valid interpretive horizon even supposing a primarily second millennium composition.


So far, we have established that Deuteronomy follows a suzerain-vassal covenant treaty structure rather than law code.  We have also considered various dates as interpretive horizons.  Now we arrive at theological content.  Many avenues could be explored, such as the nature of sin, or ethics.  However, the undergirding theme of this book is in fact divine grace.  Here we look at four aspects of grace, namely election, rescue, land, and unconditional promise including the hope of restoration.

While Hittite and Assyrian kings made treaties with multiple vassals for their own political expediency, YHWH chooses only one people.  God binds himself to Israel as his treasured possession (Deut. 7, 6; 14, 2; 26, 18).  Thompson (1964, 35) and López (2004) demonstrate how the vocabulary of Deuteronomy, full of love and heart language, is different to secular treaties, especially in the unique use of chesed.  Israel is reminded that she was neither bigger nor better than other nations (Deut. 7, 6-8; 9, 4-6).  Election is not based on merit, nor on any quid pro quo, but out of sheer grace, ‘because I loved you’ (Deut. 7:8; Thompson, 1963, 6). 

The repeated rehearsals of OT Heilsgeschichte are another feature of grace.  Unlike earthly kings, YHWH does not act in history to conquer, tax and exploit, but to redeem and bless (Wright, 1996, 55).  Deuteronomy emphasizes the exodus tradition, rooting laws and community identity in historical experiences.  God reminds Israel of his provision and protection in the wilderness (Deut. 8, 2-4), and promises to fight the Canaanites on their behalf (Deut. 9, 1-3).  While an historical prologue is expected in a Hittite treaty, Deuteronomy’s sheer amount of reiteration of history is striking.

As with other OT covenants, land is God’s tangible gift (cf Gen. 12; 17; Ex. 19).  Wright discerns that the land is both God’s gift to Israel, yet also his to take back (1996, 280).  This apparent tension can be understood thus.  The land, like election, is not merited by obeying the law; it is a gift.  However, the land can only be enjoyed when living God’s way, or to use Wright’s word, appropriated.  God’s preferred plan for his people is prosperity, not in the distorted ‘prosperity gospel’ sense, but through social justice and reflecting God’s character in their lives.  References to early apostasy (Deut. 1, 26; 9, 7) ensure that Israel consider the land as gift, not reward.

How can this message of grace be squared with the curses of punishment and exile?  Is grace conditional?  No, for punishment does not mean the covenant is annulled.  Although Assyria crushed Jerusalem in 722 CE for Jehoiakim’s non-payment of tribute to Nebuchadnezzar and his pro-Egyptian agreement (2 Kgs, 24), God’s treaty with Israel stands forever.  The message of chapter 30 is that the prescribed curses will pass and Israel can return to God as well as to the land.  Thompson (1974, 38) locates the first biblical mentions of (re)turning in Deuteronomy (e.g. 4, 30).  Deuteronomy contributes to OT theology that God’s covenant relationship is eternal and, although punishment may be necessary, repentance and restoration are always possible (McConville, 2002, 42).


That Deuteronomy is a covenant between God and Israel, based on secular suzerain-vassal treaties of the ANE, seems beyond doubt.  This treaty form has been used flexibly, with repeated historical rehearsals and disallowing other gods as witnesses.  It is difficult to tie Deuteronomy to one date, for while it was most probably used in Josiah’s reform, there is likely much material originating far earlier in the second millennium. Deuteronomy has been reinterpreted and related to generations throughout Israel’s history.  An early form probably did inspire the occupation of Canaan under Joshua, perhaps as oral tradition.  The same story became the story of Israelites and Judahites struggling to resist idolatry and injustice in the eighth and seventh centuries.  And the message of urgent choice, total commitment and the curses brought about by apostasy would have spoken bitterly to the exiles, as well as those returning to a land with no king or temple in the late sixth century BCE.  The very difficulty in dating Deuteronomy is surely the reason for its enduring significance, that its message of grace is relevant to God’s people in every generation.



Table 1: Parallels between Josiah’s Reform and the message of Deuteronomy (adapted from Boadt, 2002, 145)

Reference in 2 Kgs


Reference in Deut.

23, 4; 6; 7; 14

Abolition of the asherim

7,5; 12,3; 16, 21

23, 4f

Destroy the host of heaven

17, 3

23, 5; 11

End worship of the sun and moon

17, 3

23, 7

Stop sacred prostitution

23, 18

23, 10

End the cult of Molech

12, 31; 18, 10

23, 13

Tear down heathen high places

7, 5; 12, 2f

23, 13

Remove foreign gods

12, 1-32

23, 14 

Destroy ‘the pillars’

7, 5; 12, 2f

23, 21f

Passover to be observed only in Jerusalem

16, 1-8

23, 24 

Forbid necromancy

18, 11



Table 2: Treaty structure of Deut. 1-30

(adapted from Boadt, 2002, 143)

Great King’s self-identification
Historical prologue
1,2 – 4, 43
Laws binding on the vassal: introduction
4, 44 – 11, 32
Laws binding on the vassal: detailed law code
12, 1—26, 19
Provisions for reading the law aloud
27, 8
Witness of the gods
Curses and blessings
27, 1 – 28, 68



 Boadt, L.  (2006)  ‘Deuteronomy.’  In The Catholic Study Bible, eds. Senior, D. and

            Collins, J.J.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Kline, M.G.  (1963)  Treaty of the Great King.  Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock.

López, R.  (2004)  ‘Israelite Covenants in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern

            Covenants.’  In Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1,

            Spring 2004.  Accessed online at

   [accessed 29th August


Mendenhall, G.E.  (1955)  Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East. 

            Pittsburgh: Biblical Colloquium.

McConville, J.G.  (2002)  Deuteronomy.  Downers Grove, Illinois : Intervarsity Press.

McConville, J.G.  (1993)  Grace in the End: A Study in Deuteronomic Theology.  Grand

            Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

Thompson, J.A.  (1963)  ‘The Significance of the Ancient Near Eastern Treaty Pattern.’ 

            In Tyndale Bulletin 13, pp 1-6.

Thompson, J.A.  (1964)  The Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the Old Testament. 

            London: Tyndale Press.

Thompson, J.A.  (1974)  Deuteronomy.  Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press.

Wright, C.J.H.  (1996)  Deuteronomy.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.

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