God’s greatest spokesman in Old Testament times was Moses, and what was communicated to and through Moses is summarized in the book of Deuteronomy. This book can be considered the heart of the Old Testament. Jesus and the religious leaders of his day agreed that the Old Testament could be summarized in two short sentences:
1. Love God with all your heart.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.
These statements of the essence of man’s responsibility to God and man appear in Deuteronomy, spoken by Moses on behalf of God.
Old Testament scholars seem to agree that Deuteronomy, along with the rest of the Pentateuch, was in its present literary form by about 400 B.C. However, for the dating of its original composition there are two options to consider.
The view that Deuteronomy was written by Moses, who lived in 1,400/1,300 B.C., is expressed in the New Testament by Jesus and the apostles. In written form Deuteronomy was regarded as authoritative for the Israelites from the time of Moses and for the Jews of Jesus’ day.
The other view, one widely popular in Old Testament scholarship, is that Deuteronomy was written in the time of Josiah, king in Jerusalem about 600 years before Christ. Whatever in it can be attributed to Moses was transmitted orally during the course of at least six centuries and then written in what is known as the D document. Through creative editorial efforts the book of Deuteronomy achieved its present written form when the Pentateuch was completed, by about 400 B.C.
Considering Deuteronomy as a religious communication, let us examine these two options. First we shall consider Deuteronomy as a seventh or sixth-century document written during the days of Josiah.
Deuteronomy has been a focal point of scholarly interest for nearly two centuries. The D document identified with Deuteronomy as early as 1800 by the noted German scholar De Wette. By the end of the nineteenth century the D document was firmly fixed in the theory of Old Testament literary criticism as a component part of the Pentateuch along with documents J,E, and P. In an intellectual climate in which Hegelian dialecticism and Darwinian evolution dominated scholarship, Julius Wellhausen launched the interpretation of the Old Testament commonly known as the Graf-Wellhausen theory in 1878. He confidently asserted that the D document of the book of Deuteronomy was not by Moses but was compiled by an author in the seventh century. This then dated Deuteronomy in the time of Josiah and identified the historical context for the writing of the D document more concretely than that of any of the other documents. Wellhausen’s theory of the origin of the Pentateuch—that it came into being as a literary composition after the time of Solomon—became the ruling theory for Old Testament interpretation.
The Graf-Wellhausen theory was based on two premises: (1) that literary analysis of the Pentateuch revealed four basic documents; (2) that Israel’s religion evolved from animism into monotheism. According to this theory, Israel’s history was divided into three periods that reflected religious progress from the simple to the complex: (1) the early preprophetic period; (2) the prophetic period, beginning with Amos about 760 B.C. and ending with the exile in 586 B.C.; (3) the priestly period. According to this analysis, the law came after the prophets; but this idea has been untenable since the discovery of the code of Hammurabi in 1901.
The vast resources of archaeology made available since the turn of the century have revolutionized the attitude of many biblical scholars and have led to a questioning of the two basic tenets of the Wellhausen theory. The outstanding linguist and archaeologist William F. Albright has had an extraordinary influence on Old Testament studies. His stimulating scholarship in classroom and public lectures and in publications has done much to bring Old Testament criticism into a state of flux so that it had to make room for new insights.
In a chapter in The Bible and the Ancient Near East (1959), edited by George E. Wright, John Bright of Union Seminary in Richmond says that thirty-five years ago no one would have thought that the results of higher criticism would ever be subjected to question. In appraising the attitude in Old Testament studies in the late fifties, Bright asserts that “few are left today who would find a melioristic [i.e., toward the better] evolution a sufficient explanation of Human history—and, by the same token of Israel’s history. Deprived of its philosophical rationale, the critical structure was left vulnerable.” Consequently he abandoned the second basic tenet of the Wellhausen theory, namely, that the religion of Israel evolved. He did, however, retain the first tenet, the theory of literary partition of the Pentateuch. In the same year H. H. Rowley asserted that in common with the majority of scholars he still accepted Wellhausen’s view of the origin of the Pentateuch.
Even though the evidence and arguments for the Wellhausen theory have been called into question, the documentary hypothesis—in its modified and improved form—advocating a late composition of the Pentateuch and dating Deuteronomy in the time of Josiah is still used as a basic perspective for Old Testament interpretation. What J. Kaufmann observed in 1960 seems still applicable in part:
Biblical scholarship, while submitting that the grounds have crumbled away, nevertheless continues to adhere to the conclusions.… Equally unable to accept the theory in its classical formulation and to return to the practical views of tradition, biblical scholarship has entered upon a period of search for new foundations [The Religion of Israel, University of Chicago Press, p. 7].
In a recent book J. K. Kunz asserts:
The Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis is still with us. On occasion its doom has been proclaimed, just as the end of the world has been foretold. It seems however that in both instances we have a mistaken prophecy on our hands in which some rejoice and others lament [The People of Ancient Israel, Harper & Row, 1974, p. 52].
Now let us turn to the other option, that the book of Deuteronomy originated in written form in the fourteenth or thirteenth century B.C. Important here is the study by George E. Mendenhall entited Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East. He points out that striking parallels exist between the covenant at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 20) and the international suzerainty treaties of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C.
Meredith Kline finds the five parts of ancient suzerainty treaties—preamble, historical prologue, stipulation, treaty ratification, and succession arrangements—in the literary structure of Deuteronomy (Treaty of the Great King  and The Structure of Biblical Authority ). Suzerainty treaties of the seventh and sixth centuries do not parallel the literary structure of Deuteronomy.
Considered inductively, the book of Deuteronomy is a renewal of the Sinai covenant forty years later under Moses with the new generation of Israelites. As was done in treaties of his time, Moses identifies the parties involved in the covenant in the preamble (1:1–5). In the historical prologue (1:6–4:49) he reviews the relation between God and Israel since the covenant was made at Sinai. He lays down the stipulations for Israel in chapters 5–26. Covenant ratification by this new generation and the implications of curses and blessings are plainly set forth in chapters 27–30. Moses then arranges for succession by the appointment of Joshua to insure continuity of the covenant. Other scholars who concur in identifying Deuteronomy with fourteenth-to-thirteenth century suzerainty treaties are K. A. Kitchen and R. K. Harrison.
Could Moses have written Deuteronomy when he summarized the communication that had come from God to Israel? The Wellhausen dictum that Moses could not possibly have written Deuteronomy was based on the widely held theory that before the time of David, writing was uncommon and limited to specialists. But contrary to this view writing was in extensive, almost universal use in the ancient Near East. This is now evident from the mass of cuneiform tablets, ostraca, and papyri uncovered by archaeologists. At least five scripts—Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sinaitic pictographs, Byblian alphabet, Akkadian cuneiform, and the Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform—were in use in the biblical world of the patriarchs and Israel, extending throughout the fertile crescent from the Persian Gulf through Palestine down into Egypt.
How important was written material in the ancient Near East? What was the relation between written material and oral tradition? How was material that would be valuable to coming generaions passed on to them? Kenneth A. Kitchen makes the following observations:
For transmission of anything important to posterity, the Ancient Orient insistently resorted to written rather than oral transmission. This is sufficiently illustrated by the hundreds of thousands of clay tablets from Mesopotamia and the acres of hieroglyphic texts and scenes from Egypt covering all aspects of life. The pompous annals of energetic kings and the cuneiform litigation or humble hieroglyphic stelae of citizens of very modest means alike show that neither national traditions nor the repute of individuals was left to the care of campfire bards in the ancient Near East [Ancient Orient and Old Testament, InterVarsity, 1966, p. 136].
Oral transmission was commonly used to spread information from the written copy to the populace, since there was no way of producing written materials for mass distribution. But to see oral tradition as the means of transmitting important material from generation to generation seems unwarranted.
The finding in recent decades that treaty communications between suzerain and vassal were carefully committed to writing in the fourteenth to thirteenth century B.C. provides a basis for considering Deuteronomy inductively in its historical, cultural setting. Since Deuteronomy presents a God-to-man communication, it seems all the more probable that Moses provided a written copy so that future generations would have an accurate and authoritative account. The priests were responsible for depositing the written copy of the law with the ark of the covenant. Through oral communication—reading the law publicly every seven years—the priests reminded each generation of its responsibility to live in accordance with God’s agreement with Israel (Deut. 31:9, 10).
The book of Deuteronomy is an outstanding religious communication for all times. We have good reason to believe that the original communique from God to man has been faithfully transmitted to us today.
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