The Deuteronomistic history.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 June 2019

How some of the books of the Old Testament share a theme—and likely an author.

When I was growing up, I was a little curious about who wrote the books of the bible. Supposedly Matthew wrote Matthew and John wrote John and the three letters named for him (plus Revelation) …but Timothy didn’t write Timothy, and since Samuel was dead way before the end of 1 Samuel, it stands to reason he didn’t write 2 Samuel. Naturally I wanted to know who did write the books, but none of my Sunday school teachers knew. One of ’em speculated it was Solomon.

Fact is, people back then people didn’t put their names on their writings. Even David didn’t put his name on his psalms: Whoever compiled the psalms together, added his name to the psalms which had traditionally been ascribed to him. It’s a safe bet David did write ’em. But the other anonymous books of the bible: We don’t know who put them together. The authors felt the story, and God, was way more important than their own names.

Anyway. In 1981, bible scholar Martin Noth theorized the books which Jews call the “former prophets”—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings—and more than likely the book of Deuteronomy along with them, are all part of one large history, edited together by one person. Or one group of people. Noth named it “the Deuteronomistic history,” named of course after Deuteronomy.

It was a very short period of time before a lot of bible scholars signed on to Noth’s theory. It makes perfect sense. Though many conservative scholars (myself included) don’t agree Deuteronomy oughta be included in the Deuteronomistic history. Even though Deuteronomy does repeat a lot of commands found in the previous three books. There are good reasons Deuteronomy is bundled together with the Law, not the Prophets; and good reasons the Deuteronomistic history is inspired by that book, and not just prefaced by it.

People tend to refer to its author (or group of authors) as “the Deuteronomist.” Since—for no good reason—Christians have traditionally assumed Samuel wrote Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, if not half 1 Samuel, I’ll call the Deuteronomist “Sam” for short.

The theme: Gotta follow the Law!

In Noth’s theory, Sam gathered the many historical stories the Hebrews had and shared about their God-experiences. He compared them with Deuteronomy, and interpreted them through that lens. The principles of Deuteronomy are that Israel has to follow the Law, and thereby retain the LORD’s blessings. Or, if they ignored or violated it, they’d be cursed, and be driven from their homeland by Israel’s enemies. They could still repent and go back to being blessed; God’s always gracious like that. But don’t go turning cursed/blessed/cursed/blessed into some sort of twisted cycle, okay?

But this is precisely what happened by the end of 2 Kings: Judea’s leaders were dragged off to Babylon, and the remnant were left harassed by their pagan neighbors. (Meaning, obviously, Sam wrote the Deuteronomistic history by some point in the 500s BC, after the Babylonians conquered ’em.) Since people of the day were likely asking, “Why oh why is God letting this happen? I thought we had a deal with him!” Sam wrote his history to tell the Hebrews exactly why: “We broke our covenant with the LORD. And we’ve been breaking it regularly for the past 900 years.”

’Cause Sam believed, and taught throughout his history, Israel was meant to be a covenant people: They had a special relationship with God. They lived in a special land, promised to them and their ancestors by their God. All they had to do was remember their relationship, and follow God instead of rejecting him in favor of the popular Canaanite sex religions. Had they done so, the many disasters throughout Israel’s history—namely the destruction of the temple 2Ki 24-25 and the exile of the nation—would’ve been totally avoided.

Or as Sam put it:

2 Kings 17.7-20 KWL
7 This was because Israel’s sons sinned against their god, the LORD.
He’d brought them out of Egypt’s territory, out from under the hand of the Pharaoh (Egypt’s king).
They’d feared other gods. 8 They’d walked by pagans’ rules.
The LORD dispossessed them as Israel’s sons watched, yet that’s what Israel’s kings still did.
9 And Israel’s sons secretly followed teachings which weren’t consistent with their LORD God:
They built sacred sites for themselves in every one of their towns, from watchtowers to major cities.
10 They set up phalluses and orgy-groves on every high hill, under every green tree.
11 They sacrificed there, at every sacred site, like the pagans whom they watched the LORD drive out.
They followed evil teachings, and angered the LORD.
12 They served idols, about which the LORD said, “Don’t make them.”
13 The LORD warned Israel and Judah by the hand of every prophet and seer,
saying, “Come back from your evil ways.
Guard my commands, my inscriptions, all the Law which I commanded your ancestors,
which I sent you by the hand of my servants the prophets.”
14 But they wouldn’t hear it. They were stiff-necked,
like the necks of their ancestors who didn’t trust their LORD God.
15 They rejected his rules, his relationship he “cut” with their ancestors,
the testimonies he warned them of.
They followed silly things, and became as empty as the pagans which surrounded them,
about whom the LORD commanded, “Don’t do as they do.”
16 They abandoned every command of their LORD God.
They made two metal statues of calves, made orgy-groves,
worshiped every heavenly warrior, served Baal.
17 They put their sons and daughters through Molech’s fire. They practiced augury and hydromancy.
They sold themselves to do evil in the LORD’s eyes, to anger him.
18 The LORD was very angry with Israel, and turned them away from his presence.
Nothing was left—except only the tribe of Judah.
19 But even Judah didn’t keep the commands of their LORD God.
They followed the inscriptions which Israel had.
20 The LORD rejected all the seed of Israel.
In response, he gave them into the hand of plunderers till they were thrown away from his presence.

Theory is that the Deuteronomistic history was originally one work, but later divided into the four books found in the Hebrew scriptures (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). Later when the bible was translated into Greek, the Greeks made ’em six books, dividing both Samuel and Kings in two. All these books follow the Deuteronomy-influenced theme. Jews include them in “the Prophets” because their leaders—Joshua, the judges, David, Solomon, and Josiah—all fulfilled prophetic roles. And when leaders didn’t, God raised up other prophets to challenge those kings, like Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah.

Basically, if you wanna understand why God (and Sam) objected so regularly to the Hebrews’ doings, make sure you’ve first read Deuteronomy. That book’s the key.

New idea. But not necessarily wrong.

Yes I realize this is a relatively new interpretation of the Old Testament. So there are gonna be Christians who balk at the idea. If it’s true—and we Christians have all been following the Holy Spirit since the first century, right?—shouldn’t he have clued us in long ago? But I don’t see why the Spirit would need to. It shouldn’t make a lick of difference in the way we follow Jesus, love God, and love one another. It’s just a simple insight into how to understand the bible.

Which is a valid insight whether you believe one person wrote all these books, or not. Much of the bible, in one way or another, is influenced by Deuteronomy. All the historical books, not just those of the Deuteronomistic history, have Deuteronomy and the Law in the back of their minds. All the prophets. All the apostles, who grew up having the Law drummed into their heads. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy a bunch, and arguably his Sermon on the Mount is his interpretation of that book.

Basically the whole bible makes more sense if you know Deuteronomy. So whether you believe this theory or not, read it just the same.

But most people’s hangup about the theory is ’cause they grew up hearing popular Christian culture’s guesses about who wrote what: Samuel wrote this ’n that, Isaiah wrote a few things, and so on. They don’t like the idea there’s some anonymous author of the bible whom they’ve never heard of. Or they grew up in one of those Fundamentalist churches which suspect biblical scholars (especially scholars who teach in university) are probably liberal and usually heretic. For them, they’d rather stick with the theories they grew up with, not some new one they read about on some blog. I get that. It’s based on fear and paranoia, and therefore isn’t of God, but it’s very human, so very understandable.

Either way, read Deuteronomy.