Parashat Shoftim 5778

Rabbi Pete Tobias – 17 August 2018

Who Wrote the Book of Deuteronomy?

This week’s portion has some fascinating regulations that were meant to be the basis of the just society that the sages of ancient Israel and Judah wanted to see implemented. Rather than focus on them, however, I’d like to take a look at the structure, origins and purpose of the biblical book, Deuteronomy, of which these laws are an integral part.

The book of Deuteronomy is the last of the five books of the Torah. Unlike the previous four books, it shows a consistency of authorship and theology, suggesting that it was the work of a single school of scribes, if not an individual scribe. That same level of consistency continues through the subsequent ‘historical’ books, retelling the story of the Israelite settlement in Canaan from the perspective of the Babylonian exile. The author(s) detail(s) the expectations and requirements of the people’s behaviour in the land, as well as the consequences of failing to meet them. Then each ruler of Israel is measured against those expectations and requirements, then, in the style of ‘1066 and All That’1 and a decision is made whether or not s/he was a good ruler or a bad ruler. Bad rulers were deemed to hasten the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, while good ones delayed it.

Deuteronomy has a very clear structure. The first 11 chapters portray Moses addressing the people as they stand (probably rather impatiently!) on the borders of the Promised Land. The Greek name of this biblical book is based on the fact that it is intended to be a kind of repetition (Deuteronomion, literally “second law” from deuteros ‘second’ + nomos ‘law’) of the Israelites’ history since leaving Egypt and their journey through the desert. The Hebrew name Devarim simply means ‘words’. After 11 chapter of words reminding the Israelites of their experiences and those of their parents, the book changes style. Chapter 12:1 – 26:15 is a series of very precise laws and instructions. This week’s portion sits exactly in the middle of this section, and contains some important regulations intended to establish a just society – the standard to which the future residents of Israel and Judah are supposed to aspire. There is a clear difference in style here: this is a legal document. The laws are just listed, with occasional explanations or elaborations. Nowhere is the name of Moses mentioned in this section.

Moses reappears after the list of laws is completed. The style changes again from chapter 25, verse 16 onwards. Now the list of regulations has been delivered, the Israelites are warned by Moses of their obligation to observe them and the consequences of not doing so. These consequences are particularly emphasised in chapter 28, which anticipates the exile in Babylon (and many other unpleasant things). There is dramatic irony here (which is completely lost if we believe that these words actually did emanate from Moses’ mouth), because the authors and their audience are already in exile in Babylon. The book then concludes with the death of Moses and the succession of Joshua.

In a brilliant literary twist, the authors of the books that run from Deuteronomy to II Kings actually incorporate the law code in the centre of the book in a later narrative. Biblical scholarship refers to these authors as Deuteronomists(!); my belief (and that of others) is that they were the family and followers of the scribe Shaphan, who appears in chapters 22 and 25 of the second book of Kings and its equivalent in Chronicles, chapter 38). The story of the law code that became chapter 12-26 of Deuteronomy in the Torah is in chapter 22 of II Kings:

8 ‘Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the Temple of the Eternal One.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. 9 Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the Temple of the Eternal Oneand have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” 10 Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.’

Chances are that Shaphan himself, or a member of his family/scribal group, placed the ‘Book of the Law’ in the Temple, in order that it would be ‘found’. These laws then became the basis of the reforms introduced during the reign of King Josiah, only for them to be reversed by his sons, bringing divine punishment to Jerusalem in the form of the Babylonians. And the rest, as they say, is history.

1 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1930.

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