As a student of Biblical Studies, I constantly grapple with the question of how this thing called the Bible fits into a modern context. Inevitably, when studying an ancient religious text that is followed by millions around the world today, one cannot stay confined to the historical realm, but rather must confront issues pertaining to the Bible today. Moreover, finding a middle ground between theology and scholarship that I can write about in this medium presents its own challenges. For this week’s post, I have decided to focus on Deuteronomy. Essentially, I am going to demonstrate why the scholarly arguments pertaining to this book are significant for faith, particularly for Christians. Here is my argument:
The Book of Deuteronomy represents Israel’s reevaluation of its relationship with God in light of new social and political realities. It is the solution to the conundrum of how to take ancient practices and religious beliefs and apply them to one’s modern context. First, allow me to present a little background information.
Deuteronomy is the final book in the Torah, before heading into the historical books section. The book itself is divided into sections, primarily an introduction and historical overview of Israel in the desert, a series of speeches from Moses in which the law is restated, a series of blessings and curses, and finally a farewell epilogue from Moses. For more on Moses’ death, read this article. The classic scholarly view is that Deuteronomy does not represent the end of the Torah, but rather the beginning of the “Deuteronomistic History,” a collection by a single author or authors, that moves from Deuteronomy through 2nd Kings. Moses did not compose Deuteronomy, nor was it written during the Mosaic time.
In a nutshell, the typical view encompasses the following. The Book of Deuteronomy, or at least the main portions of it, originated in the northern kingdom of Israel. After its fall to Assyria in 722 B.C, the material was brought to Judah where it was “rediscovered” by the Josiah administration in the temple, re-edited from a Judean point of view, and presented as the book of the law (2 Kings 22 & 23). Reading Deuteronomy places the reader within the milieu of Israel during the Babylonian Exile, as they reinterpret their past in the desert, evidenced in part by the constant use of the command and verb “remember” (zakar in Hebrew), a reminder to Israel of its religious history. At the time of its composition, it was therefore contemplating how to take the material (i.e. “history,” and religious requirements) of the older portions of the Torah and apply them to a time of Exile, away from the land. Examples include the new focus of a centralized system of worship (Jerusalem), a move towards a monotheistic understanding of the world, the deregulation of meat as sacrifice, as well as the push for the renewal of the Covenant, emphasizing love as an aspect to follow the partnership between God and Israel.
In short, the writer(s) of Deuteronomy took ancient traditions and rituals and reassessed them for their own time in, my opinion, an effort to give comfort to the people and bring relevance back to their practices. Maybe this is the lesson Christians of today should take from this ancient Judean text. If we are to assign significance to the text of the Bible, then perhaps we should give equal attention to the idea of reinterpreting the text to account for modern realities. Neither dogmatic adherence nor complete abandonment does anything to further understanding.
I should be clear about something else. I am not advocating that modern Christians should adhere to the commands of Deuteronomy. Indeed, this is the heart of the quandary of faith based on an ancient text, complicated by the writings of Paul in the New Testament. Some of the commands of Deuteronomy appear abhorrent to our modern context (e.g. the Law of Retaliation) and others still resonate strongly (prohibition of denying justice to foreigners, the vulnerable, etc.). With great works including the Shema and a recapitulation of the Ten Commandments, Deuteronomy has a multitude of significant texts.
My challenge to Christians is to stop using the Bible as a weight around one’s spiritual neck to halt modern ethical behavior. In place of condemning in the name of the Bible, perhaps we, as Christians, should contemplate ways in which we can bring the Bible into our modern world while still maintaining relevance. I think it is clear that ancient Israel, while viewing the stories as sacred to their own religious history and identity, did not see the narratives as static. Rather, with the realities of Exile and imperial domination, Israel knew that it had to reconsider how they viewed their past and their rich tradition. Christians, we should do the same. Thank you for reading.