The Deuteronomistic View of History (Part 1)

[Note: I just finished my PhD coursework three weeks ago, and after a very rigorous semester in which my blogging sank to an all-time low I am trying to get back into it. One of my problems is that any topic I have decent knowledge of and is interesting enough that others would care to read about, I save for seminar and conference papers, and attempts at publishing—though I rarely get around to polishing papers enough to send off to journals. So, in an attempt to write more I will be doing a series or two in the area of biblical studies (with a lens for theological interpretation and theology), which is not my “area.” I also hope to do some amateur posts on philosopher’s like Henri Bergson, whom I have been reading lately—again, something interesting to me, but slightly out of my “specialization” (though that may be changing…). I also have to say that the prolific and quality writing of my friends on AUFS as of late, as well as all of the good discussions going on these days on blogs has not exactly motivated me to publish my own posts!]

In 1943 German scholar Martin Noth published a seminal thesis in biblical studies: the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings originally constituted a single work, edited by a single redactor, and have a unified style, content, and vocabulary. The theology of Deuteronomy (themes of one God [Deut. 4:35], one people [Deut 7:1-11], and one centralized location for worship [Deut 12:1-13]) colors the interpretation of Israel’s history from the Exodus until the exile into Babylon.[1]Although his thesis has been challenged and revised continually, Noth set the ground for debates that will continue without any foreseeable end. In fact, theses that argue for multiple editions of the Deuteronomistic History (DH), or a plurality of authors—when they do not digress into arbitrary micro-projects—only make things more exciting, by showing how conflicting ideologies were left standing in this portion of the Hebrew bible. In my novice judgment I doubt there was a single author of these texts; they reflect differing perspectives, and it seems likely that an editor or school of editors incorporated the work of multiple authors/traditions with tensions intact.

So let me give three reasons for my interest in the DH:

First off, I find a parallel between the DH and Pauline writings: both are sets of texts, and cover a range of topics, which allow one to discern ideology and theology—patterns can be discerned in a manner not plausible in, say, the study of Mark, since it is the only book by that author we possess.  To the extent that “biblical theology” is viable, DH provides a relatively defined arena to probe within the Hebrew Scriptures, and soil from which one might develop some themes. St. Paul is not known for radical consistency, and neither is the Deuteronomist (to give one example, it is often said that the DH contains both pro- and anti-monarchic traditions). This should make us pause for reflection: what does it mean that a final redactor (or school) considered competing traditions as equally canonical (more to come on this later)?

Second, I find the creativity of the Deuteronomist worthy of respect. In all likelihood, he or she made up large portions of narrative “from whole cloth” (to use the wording of John Van Seters). But this need not be a bad thing: this is the work of a people in exile, trying to understand how and why they found themselves in such a plight, and creative history may have been their only resource for dealing with the situation. The DH is infamous for the brutal command for Israel to wipe out the Canaanites, a command ascribed to YHWH (Deut 7; Josh 4-7); however, all but the most conservative of scholars agree (with archeological support[2]) that no invasion of Canaan ever happened, and that no such acts of genocide were ever carried out.[3] Whether this makes the commands more palatable is a topic for another post (perhaps), but it seems to me that Judah in exile blamed the predicament on her failure to worship YHWH alone, and this liturgical sin was brought about my mixing with the Canaanites (Solomon is the paradigm for this, for he was led astray by his wives to worship other gods [1 Kgs 11]). This is theology done under the influence of Deuteronomy’s stringent monotheism and strict regulations against inter-marriage (e.g., Josh 23:12-14)—or, equally plausible, this created Deuteronomy’s ban of intermarriage. Either way, the Deuteronomist is doing theological interpretation of history. All of the kings are judged by whether they lead the people in right worship or not, and many of the narratives have an etiological function. While the DH includes brutal commands, the attentive reader can discern subversive strains of theology within the DH deconstructing the seemingly nationalistic and imperialistic theology present. As far as the commands for violence go, I am hesitant to pronounce quick judgment for the same reason I don’t rush to condemn liberation theologians for articulating the cries of the oppressed for swift and violent judgment of their oppressors. I must remember that I am more like the oppressors, and have a lot to learn from those on the underside of history (I think much of the DH is written from that vantage point).

Third (and final for this post), the DH has roots that would sprout later Messianism, and are important for understanding the development of Christology. 2 Samuel 7 is a founding text for messianic prophecy—containing YHWH’s promise that there will never be want of an heir on David’s throne.[4] The DH concludes with Israel and Judah in exile, and the line of David in danger of extinction. Nevertheless, hopes that an heir of David would return to the throne were not quenched, but grew and developed.[5] In Noth’s original thesis the DH is wholly pessimistic, offering no hope for Judah’s future, and Gerhard von Rad famously asked the pertinent question: why go through all that effort to write a history and offer nothing but doom? Von Rad believed that the DH ends with a messianic hope and not with final judgment, and Hans Walter Wolff modified this thesis to argue that the DH is open, calling for repentance, with no contractual rewards attached.[6] At any rate, the DH influenced later prophets/prophetic literature, and the creative/revisionist elements of the DH are the founding ideas of later messianic hopes, and there are numerous comparisons to be made between the DH and other interpretations of Israel’s history (the most obvious one being 1-2 Chronicles, which almost reproduces the DH, yet modifies and leaves out details, such as David’s affair with Bathsheba).

(As a final note, since I probably will not draw a massive amount of dialogue on this, anyone wanting a general overview of the DH so they can harass me can simply read the article on it in the Anchor Bible Dictionary)


[1] See Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History, 2d ed., trans. Jane S. Doull (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1943, 1991.

[2] See William Dever, “Archeology and the emergence of Early Israel.”

[3] See P. Gangloff , “Joshua 6: Holy War or Extermination by Divine Command?” Theological Review, 2004: 3-23.

[4] 2 Sam 7 is one of the most quoted and echoed texts in the Hebrew scriptures. For an over view, see Phillipe de Robert, “L’Avenir D’un Oracle: Citations Et Relectures Bibliques De 2 Samuel 7,” Etudes théologiques et religieuses 73, no. 4 (1998): 483–490.

[5] The definitive (although dated) study of this is Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, trans. G.W. Anderson (Reprint; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956, 2005).

[6] Hans Walter Wolff, “The Kerygma of the Deuteronomistic Historical Work,” in Reconsidering Israel and Judah: Recent Studies on the Deuteronomistic History, ed. Gary N. Knoppers and J. Gordon McConville (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000).

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4 Responses to “The Deuteronomistic View of History (Part 1)”

  1. Merle Says:

    We hear the DH theology quite a bit when a natural disaster strikes, (eg. Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans, hurricane destruction in Haiti) which is sad, especially for the “innocent “victims.

    I would be interested in hearing more about your 1st point of the connection between the DH and the Pauline writings.

    Interesting paper.

  2. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    merle:

    Thanks for the comment. As for the connection with Paul, I was not attempting to do more than point out the possibility of doing DH theology in a similar pattern as Pauline theology. Pauline theology is a way of doing NT theology with a little more coherence, or with multiple points to cross-reference (e.g. to discuss powers and principalities in the NT, Paul gives several instances of discourse on it), since Paul/Pseudo-Paul wrote more of the NT than any other author; similarly, the DH represents more texts than any other single author or set of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures–it just gives you more to go off of. Because these texts are so contextual, it seems to me that finding a set of texts dealing with multiple topics (law, history, ideology), covering different time periods, and including different genres (narrative, instruction, speeches) it gives one the ability to explore the thought of the DH editor/school without letting any single context determine the theology of the text in question.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I was also hoping for a different kind of connection. Damn it!

  4. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    Well, a contrast can be seen between the conditional covenant in the DH and the unconditional grace in Paul (the “two ways theology” of Deuteronomy vs. Paul’s gospel). And, of course, one can examine Paul’s usage of Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10.


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