Reading Deuteronomy Theologically . . . and Critically – By Mark Leuchter

Mark Leuchter on Jerry Hwang’s The Rhetoric of Remembrance: An Investigation of the “Fathers” in Deuteronomy

Jerry Hwang, Rhetoric of Remembrance: An Investigation of the “Fathers” in Deuteronomy, Eisenbrauns, 2012, 290pp., $39.50
Jerry Hwang, Rhetoric of Remembrance: An Investigation of the “Fathers” in Deuteronomy, Eisenbrauns, 2012, 290pp., $39.50

For those who regard the Bible as sacred Scripture, the book of Deuteronomy delineates important dimensions of the divine-human relationship. But what is its value beyond theological readings? Why should contemporary readers regard its contents as important or care what it has to say about the individual, the community, and the unfurling of history?

These questions matter, because biblical texts are not just the basis of piety for religious audiences. They are repositories of culture and witnesses to the birth of enduring ideas. Scholars who have studied the Bible have always recognized that Deuteronomy, in particular, holds a special place in this regard. Despite the fact that religious tradition ascribes its composition to Moses, academics have generally accepted that Deuteronomy was the work of scribes living in Jerusalem sometime around the end of the seventh century BCE. These scribes — the great learned figures of their day — attempted to negotiate among diverse ideas, institutions, and memories, forging the book of Deuteronomy as a way to preserve essential features of Israelite identity that were at risk of being lost. As a political document, Deuteronomy is a master-class on nation building during political and social crises. As a work of literature, it is a masterpiece of ancient rhetoric.

The Rhetoric of Remembrance: an Investigation into the “Fathers” in Deuteronomy provides a detailed appreciation of Deuteronomy’s rhetoric, with an emphasis on its use of a single expression: “the fathers” — a reference to the ancestors of Moses’s audience within Deuteronomy poised to enter the Holy Land. Jerry Hwang explores how the “fathers” motif creates bridges between these various generations as part of a larger system of belief, where Israel’s deity YHWH progressively reveals new dimensions of his will to his people.

One of the merits of readings like Hwang’s is that they take seriously the final, canonical form of the book of Deuteronomy — the form any reader encounters when turning to its contents. The canonization of the Hebrew Bible took place over a very long period of time and in many stages, but at every stage, an authoritative group of scribes made conscious decisions about its contents, officializing a version of the past by rendering it fixed and authoritative. The lengthy process of canonization is especially important for identifying the role of “the fathers” in Israelite and early Jewish cultural memory: the final form of Deuteronomy provides a window into how those who canonized the work remembered and revered ancestry. As such, the final form of Deuteronomy can tell us how ancient readers received, read, and understood the work and sheds light upon conventions of ancient social and political thought.


By Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hwang examines how Deuteronomy uses references to ancestry to invoke memories of the past. But he views the memories not as those of the scribes who wrote Deuteronomy, nor those of the later canonizers of the book, but as those of Moses’s literary audience within the text of Deuteronomy. Hwang is not interested in addressing how these references relate to the experiences of ancient Israel as it lived in the land of Canaan during the Iron Age (ca. 1200-587 BCE), or how the text he examines preserves traces of memory from communities in that era or region. He restricts himself solely to the contents of Deuteronomy as they now stand, and as they stand in relation to other biblical works in their final form.

Final form criticism is by no means a problem in and of itself. There can be no doubt that a text may possess meaning irrespective of its process of composition, and the inner world of literary characters is worthy of serious exploration. Hwang does observe important rhetorical implications of the text he examines. But he makes a crucial error: though he opts for a literary study of Deuteronomy in its canonical form, he also assumes that this yields a better understanding of its theological richness than other methods — methods that attempt to identify sources and layers of composition within Deuteronomy. Hwang briefly evaluates a few studies by scholars who attempt to understand the composition history of Deuteronomy, only to discount the entire method these studies employ and argue that only a final-form analysis can succeed in revealing the theological heft of the work, one which “refuses” to be fragmented into compositional layers or sources.

Hwang’s assumption that deep regard for a text’s theological meaning is the only right way to read a text is problematic. Critical scholarly examinations that attempt to find the sources and methods used by the compilers and shapers of ancient texts are by definition not theological inquiries. They ask entirely different questions — and equally legitimate ones. Most critical scholars do not deny that Deuteronomy may have a theological message in its final form, but they are more concerned with the stages of development leading up to the end result. To criticize these scholars for not appreciating the theological depth of Deuteronomy is a bit like blaming an apple for not being an orange, or an opera for not being a sporting event. What comes out of critical investigations of biblical texts often has important implications for theologians who interact with trends in the broader academy. But critical scholars do not allow theology to dictate what they should be looking for in a biblical text; that would be to place artificial limits on how the text can be mined for information, which in turn compromises the integrity of a scholarly examination.

Hwang also fails to consider how scribes operated in antiquity and the degree of tremendous skill they possessed. Because Deuteronomy is a literary and rhetorical masterpiece, he argues, it cannot be fragmented into earlier or later layers of composition or different sources wrought by different or successive scribal contributors. But he underrates the ancient scribes by supposing that redactors and compilers were incapable of producing literary masterpieces. We know that this is not the case. The Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, for instance, developed through several stages spanning many centuries; its scribal authors incorporated a variety of ancient sources into their work. The end result is the literary masterpiece in its mature form. If one imposed Hwang’s logic upon the study of the Gilgamesh epic, one would have to argue that Gilgamesh was written all at once, by one author, and never underwent any stages of development. No serious scholar would ever adopt such a view. To do so would require one to willfully ignore all the evidence to the contrary found not only in alternate versions of Gilgamesh but within the classic form of the epic itself.

Likewise, no serious critical scholar can adopt such a view regarding Deuteronomy. It possesses many internal signs pointing to its development at the hands of learned scribes who worked with great care and skill, and who were entirely as capable as the Mesopotamian scribes behind the Gilgamesh epic. And like Gilgamesh, an abundance of external evidence (embedded in other biblical texts) suggests that Deuteronomy did grow over time into the text we currently possess. To be sure, Hwang periodically draws attention to these other bits of evidence, but he explains them as part of a broader and consistent theological system in which Deuteronomy is a cornerstone. There can be no doubt that we can read these other biblical texts together as the basis for a systematic theology. Jews and Christians have done this for a very long time. But to do so requires a great deal of additional interpretation and assumptions beyond what the actual text of the Bible allows. In other words, to harmonize Deuteronomy and the biblical texts that precede it requires that it be viewed as part of a religious doctrine that exists beyond the pages of the Bible, however firmly the roots of that doctrine may be planted therein.

On the other hand, if the a priori assumption of theological consistency is removed, other options for reading and appreciating these texts immediately emerge. One might notice, for example, that Deuteronomy’s law regarding the observance of Passover (Deuteronomy 16:1-8) directly contradicts the version we encounter in the book of Exodus (Exodus 12), or that Deuteronomy completely eliminates the place of Jethro in its retelling of the establishment of Israel’s juridical system (Exodus 18; cf. Deuteronomy 1:15-18). One must also note the dissonance between the covenantal promises to the Patriarchs in the book of Genesis and Deuteronomy’s claim that the covenant between God and Israel is explicitly dissociated from earlier generations: it occurs in the very present of Moses’s (and, one might argue, the text’s) audience, not with their ancestors (Deuteronomy 5:1-3). Even the Ten Commandments — the ultimate symbol of divine law in the Bible — are presented in Deuteronomy with important changes from the earlier version preserved in the account of the revelation at Sinai (Deuteronomy 5:5-17; Exodus 20:1-13). These and other important differences suggest not theological consistency throughout these works but a conversation or even a debate between traditions in ancient Israel preserved in the biblical record. And this invites a different sort of engagement with the biblical text that leads to a deeper appreciation of its complexity and brilliance.

Critical scholarly studies do not detract from Deuteronomy’s theological value. They simply point to how — and why — the authors and redactors of the book created such an enduring masterpiece that obtained theological significance. Deuteronomy is surely a great moment in the history of literature that makes a major contribution to biblical theology for contemporary communities of faith. But it also tells us about how cultures navigate crises, how new visions of society transform older traditions, and how foundational literary works evolve to remain meaningful to the changing needs of new audiences. For those reasons, Deuteronomy still demands the attention and interest of all readers, irrespective of religious belief.

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