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Rethinking Ethics in Deuteronomy

Reading Deuteronomy: A Literary and Theological Commentary

By Stephen L. Cook. Smyth & Helwys. Pp. 260. $32

Review by Don Collett

In a day when many struggle with the ethical issues raised by its teachings, writing a commentary on Deuteronomy is a challenging task. Interpreted against the backdrop of modern political attempts to justify wars of aggression and genocide for the sake of nationalism, the book’s teachings inevitably raise doubts about its status as genuine, canonical Scripture.

Would it not be better to cut the Gordian knot and humbly admit, for political and theological reasons, that Jews and Christians alike should excise the book from their Scriptures? Failing that, one could perhaps justify the book’s continuing role in Judaism and the Christian Church as a historical source of insight into Israel’s past and the primitive morality of the old covenant, but certainly not as an abiding theological witness to God’s character.

It is one of the many merits of Stephen Cook’s commentary to have avoided this boondoggle. Rather than interpreting the book in terms of contexts and agendas that typify modern political nationalism and its “wars of aggression over greed, control, insecurity, and revenge” (p. 154), he seeks to understand the book on its own terms. Reading Deuteronomy in terms of its own theological purpose and canonical frame of reference not only allows it to speak with its own voice, but also recovers its theological value as “a communal catechism focused on the molding of Israel as ‘children of the LORD’” (p. 20).

The commentary broadly divides the book into three discourses of Moses (1:1–4:43, 4:44–29:1, 29:2–30:20), followed by an epilogue focused upon the death of Moses and the Torah’s transformation (31:1–34:12). The introduction further subdivides these four rubrics, providing a detailed and helpful outline of book’s inner literary structure along with a discussion of its theology and message (15–21).

Cook dates the final form of Deuteronomy to the time of King Josiah in the late seventh century B.C., but also allows for the likelihood of a second edition that integrated later theological reflection on Judah’s exile into the first edition, along with additional editorial work that repositioned the book “as the Torah’s culmination” (pp. 14–15). It is important to bear in mind that the key sources of Deuteronomic theology did not arise out of thin air in the late seventh century, but reach back in the history of Israel’s traditions to a time prior to the Davidic monarchy.

What we have in the final form of Deuteronomy is not a book written in Moses’ day, but a Deuteronomy written in Josiah’s day, inclusive of earlier Mosaic traditions and expanded in light of the later historical contexts provided by Israel’s occupation of the land and its subsequent exile. As part of a long and flowing stream of tradition, the book not only speaks to its present, but also continues the authority of the history of God’s dealings with Israel through election and covenant. Therefore, it is wrong to construe the book as late seventh-century propaganda for Josiah’s religious reforms, or a political manifesto written by power-hungry priests seeking to shut down local sanctuaries by centralizing worship in Jerusalem (p. 11–13).

Cook observes that “Modern readers rarely grasp the workings of Deuteronomy’s vision of society due to unfamiliarity with decentralized societal organizations based upon kinship and lineage” (p. 67). In ancient agricultural societies rooted in kinship and lineage, preserving and upholding “umbilical” lines of support is crucial for the preservation of a people’s future in the land. In the case of biblical Israel, societal and familial commitments are further bound up with laws uniting Israel to the land’s unique purpose in God’s redemptive plan for the nations.

In the industrial and technological societies of the modern world, where church and state are typically distinguished and laws have a common rather than holy function, the consequences involved in the dissolution of such commitments are less immediate, comparatively speaking. As a result it is often more difficult to appreciate the ripple effects of idolatry, adultery, divorce, debt, and dissolute living upon a people’s future and their continuing tenure in the land (pp. 67–8, 130–33, 137–38, 148–49, 158–59, 165–66, and 200).

Without the social cushion provided by such buffers, however, the ripple effects of disobedience in the land are far more immediate and visibly consequential. As such, the severe character of many of Israel’s laws functioned as “stopgap measures” aimed at preserving her messianic future in the land, rather than moral models to be followed in all times and places (pp. 166, 172). Deuteronomy’s canonical function centers instead upon the theological significance of the death of Moses and the continuing importance of the formation of God’s people through communal catechesis, or religious instruction.

Recognizing that “the general sequence of chapters 12–26 arguably mirrors the sequence of the Ten Commandments” (p. 105), Cook interprets the application of the Decalogue in these chapters in terms of God’s unique purpose in gifting the land to Israel – namely, to provide a sanctuary space (Ex. 17:15; Ps. 78:53–5) so that Israel might pursue a journey of formation and discipleship through communal catechesis (Deut. 6:4–9; 11:18–21).

Gerhard von Rad characterized the Deuteronomic view of the Word of God as history-creating. For Cook, it is also community-creating, because it forms community through catechism (pp. 53–54, 59). The “effort” the book calls for on the part of its hearers should not be confused with “earning,” but rather an integral part of the cost of discipleship and the formation of community (p. 19).

The motif of divine testing in Deuteronomy is also to be understood within this theological framework, because “testing is one of God’s means of catechetical formation of a people who love God intimately with no other motive or basis than the joy of the relationship itself. It is a divine means of refining and proving the people so that they own, for themselves, a genuinely other-centered relationship with their divine Lord” (p. 89). By means of this testing God taught Israel that “the blessings of the covenant relationship are not primarily material but relational” (p. 91), for we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3).

Deuteronomy’s focus on the community-creating Word of God also dovetails with the canonical significance of the death of Moses (pp. 47–48, 53–54). The book interprets the intercession, suffering, and death of Moses as the instrumental means by which Israel enters into her promised inheritance in the land (p. 98). Although Moses died outside the land, the person of the prophet continues to speak in the midst of Israel through the canonical witness of Deuteronomy.

In order that Israel might live into the fullness of her inheritance and the purpose for which it was given, the book now functions as a surrogate presence for Moses and the true embodiment of his teachings (p. 204). The movement from prophet to book also discloses the book’s canonical function and theological significance for future readers: “After the death of Moses, Israel should move on to a mode of discipleship centered on the inscribed word of God—on its ongoing centrality and continual reinterpretation” (p. 196).

To his credit, Cook has not skirted the hard questions raised by Deuteronomy. The land is a sanctuary place specially set apart for communion with the Lord in order to nurture Israel’s formation, a holy territory and new Eden set apart for the purpose of revealing a new form of communal life on earth (pp. 30, 37, 65, 95). Like the motif of testing and the death of Moses, the controversial practice of observing kharam (total destruction) is also to be understood within this theological framework (Deut. 7:2).

Idolatry is a threat to the distinctive identity and life God has planned for Israel, as concretely stated in the Torah. Such a life cannot form in a world of polytheism or diffuse pantheism, nor can it flourish in a land where child sacrifice is rife (2 Kgs. 17:15–20; Jer. 19:5; Ps. 106:34–42). God gave the land to Israel to fulfill a special life-giving purpose in the world at large. Therefore idolatry and the death-dealing practices it fosters, along with those who insist on promoting such horrors, must be driven out, in order that life in the land may flourish.

However, in dealing with the concept of kharam and texts associated with it (Deut. 2, 3, 7, and 20), Cook emphasizes that driving out idolatrous nations from the land did not involve literal warfare or bloodshed. Rather, texts in Deuteronomy that call for totalizing warfare against the enemies of Israel have “co-opted” the divine warrior or combat myth from their ancient Near Eastern environment for a late seventh-century audience under threat from Assyria (pp. 81–5, 153). Taken together, these observations require us to conclude that the Canaanites and Amalekites Israel is being called to vanquish have been transformed into a mythical construct representing the forces of chaos and death in the world, rather than a particular people.

While this offers a possible reading of the concept of kharam in the book, it also faces difficulties. Texts that command Israel to “occupy the land” must be reinterpreted as anachronistic metaphors designed to implement the book’s teaching for a much later audience (p. 93). In like fashion, the blessing of Moses upon the tribes of Israel in chapter 33 also raises questions of relevance for a seventh-century audience that has witnessed the fall and deportation of the northern tribes (p. 241).

Cook is of course aware of these objections and addresses them at various junctures in the book. Along the way, however, he makes a number of statements that cohere rather nicely with the outlook and assumptions at work in pre-critical and historically conservative readings of the book. Consider for example his insightful passage on page 118: “The values of God’s reign sometimes depart sharply from those of modern secular culture. How hard might today’s readers need to work to recover this alien value scale? What would it take for them to appreciate Deuteronomy’s utter rejection of all enslaving idols — even that most relevant of modern false gods, the preservation of human life at all cost? What is of unrestricted value for the book of Deuteronomy is not biology’s life-breath but following the one true God who both kills and resurrects (Deut. 32:39), holding on to the God of resurrection, cost what it will (Deut. 13:4–5).”

Likewise, in his discussion of the purity laws of Deuteronomy 22, he writes that “Deuteronomy bucks our contemporary assumptions about the autonomy of life. But its laws are not for implementation by modern secular culture. Rather, they constitute the internal catechesis of an ancient community discovering wells of life within an intricately bounded and ordered creation, supple and sensitive at all points” (p. 166).

Pre-critical readings of the book also agree that the laws of kharam in Deuteronomy must not be implemented in the secular world, their proper application being limited in scope to Israel’s entrance and establishment in the land. Theologically speaking, the function of kharam was to provide a uniquely figural foreshadowing of the final judgment yet to come, when believer and unbeliever will be separated from one another at Christ’s second advent (Matt. 25:31–46; Rev. 20:11–15).

Given its unique and non-repeatable character, it neither serves as a warrant for territorial expansion prior to Christ’s first advent, nor as a moral model for the Church to follow between Christ’s first and second advents. The homeland God gave to Israel in the Old Testament thus served a unique purpose, and the context in which kharam applied was tied to this purpose. Rather than offering a moral model to be followed in all times and places, it functioned exclusively in the limited context of establishing Israel in a land filled with idolatry, warfare, violence, and child sacrifice. On the traditional reading, therefore, one might also argue that “these texts do not celebrate violence, but limit it” (p. 152).

Cook’s reading of the function of kharam, while plausible, raises the question of the nature of retrospective editing at work in the book. Approaches to Deuteronomy’s formation history that assign too much intentional freight to retrospective moves have a tendency to undercut the theological pressure exercised by earlier traditions upon the book’s final form. This is not to argue, of course, that mythical or idealized elements play no role in Deuteronomy’s presentation of kharam.

Nor is it to suggest that the book’s formation history came to a close prior to Israel’s monarchy. The idea that the Mosaic traditions preserved in Deuteronomy bear witness to a complex history of development and redaction of the kind envisaged by Cook strikes me as plausible. Rather, it is simply to raise the question whether the literary and theological elements in question have been rightly proportioned in a way that does full justice to the canon’s presentation, such that its concerns with the problem of Canaanite religion are taken seriously rather than erased in the name of retrospective appropriations of mythical traditions.

It is doubtful whether any devoted student of Old Testament can fully explain, let alone justify, the justice and ways of God portrayed in the Book of Deuteronomy. However, it must also be said that Cook’s commentary clarifies many of issues at stake and does so with striking insight, grace, and wisdom. His observations on the mysterious character and inexplicable power of God’s love provide the reader with but one of a number of examples (pp. 95–96). Written in accessible language aimed at reaching a broad audience, the effort and time put into reading this commentary will richly repay its readers. Take up and read.

The Rev. Dr. Don Collett is associate professor of Old Testament at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.


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