The Bible in and as History: Deuteronomy

So here I am, at the end of the Torah, the books traditionally held to be written by Moses.  Modern scholarship generally considers the books to have varying origins, with Deuteronomy being seen as a work composed in the 8th century BC in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah after the Assyrian destruction of Samaria.  With the book experiences various modifications until reaching it’s final form in the Babylonian Captivity.

A read-through of this book immediately after the previous two made me understand biblical scholarship to a degree and why it had emerged.  Deuteronomy repeats alot of what both Numbers and Leviticus have already said.  It serves as a bit of a narrative, with Moses going over the fourty-years of wandering in the wilderness.  It than goes through and highlights various elements of the law.  Some similar to that outlined in the previous books, but others different, or unmentioned.  It made be aware of how different some elements of law were.  In a society where the word of three people that they had seen you worshipping foreign gods could result in being stoned to death, the commandment to not ‘bear false witness’ becomes all the more powerful.  

Deuteronomy as a source of law is an interesting look into the legal principals and underlaying moral standards of a Bronze age people.  The patriarchal structure of the thing is obvious; where women intersect with the law they principally do so as more limited agents or the fundamental out-right property of their fathers or husbands.  The most obvious case of this is in the example where-in a man who rapes a virgin pays her father silver and than gets her as a wife.  The obvious inference is that a crime has been committed against the father in so far as ruining her value as a wife, not necessary a crime against her.  

Other moral differences or what I would consider examples of differing moral principals from the ‘modern’ day:  If a son is disobedient to his parents he can be brought before the elders to be stoned to death.  The law presumes that a woman who is raped within a city can’t really be raped since she would scream and thusbe rescued.  Hence the legal principal that in this instance both man and woman are to be stoned to death, while if it happens outside a city walls, because the woman may have screamed but had no-one to help her, you only stone the man in question.  

Since the text covers the military occupation and absorption of the Canaanites and other peoples, it also covers some interesting territory there.  There is a direct command to destroy the Canaanites holy places and shrines for example.  Another example of what amount to a near-genocide commanded by God via Moses.  What you get is a people living in a brutal environment, who engage in rather brutal behaviour.  In this it reminded me in parts of other Bronze age civilizations I have read about.  The Sumerians, Greeks, Egyptians.

It can’t be forgotten however that the text itself is not just a record of history but has a particular historical purpose by it’s authors, editors and redactors.  I think again that purpose is to outline the law, to continue the establishment of priestly authority, and to suggest that even in the event  of catastrophe and having lost great, that one could renew the covenant.  This last of course comes from the Babylonian Captivity, in which a justification for the defeat of the state of Israel was required that did not diminish priestly authority.  If you associate your gods power with victory, than a loss and occupation by a foreign power brings with it the notion that foreign gods are more powerful.  Thus the Israelites(or more properly the Israeli priesthood) develop a theology where-in there is a covenant with god that the people have broken, and that thus God is punishing them and will restore them to prominence if they return to ‘moral’ ways.  It’s an undeniably powerful theology for a defeated people, and for a priesthood of such a people to retain it’s place of social prominence.  

I don’t have a lot to say about the King James translation or it’s place in modern history.  In this regard it’s not terribly different from Numbers and Leviticus.  A host of rules that Gentiles have never felt the need to follow.  Deuteronomy outlines dietary restrictions, and gives the rule on not eating pigs or rabbits, something that those working on the KJV were undoubtably not keen on.  It gives some insight and some base theology. It certainly leads into the belief of a divinity that directly punishes in this life those who are not righteous and THAT has vast historical importance.  Plenty of people have used such a doctrine to justify social stratification, or to imply that horrible events, diseases, natural disasters, or man-made disasters, are the results of divine wrath.  “If we return to the penitent path, this will not happen again!”

Well for the next while I’m into the Prophets, and into much shorter books, at least until I hit Proverbs, which given it’s structure I might break up a bit.  This next part of the bible is more I know very little about and I’m not sure I’ve read anything beyond perhaps a single line here and there, so it should prove interesting.

Next week; What do you have to say Joshua?


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