Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

This week we turn to the areas of source- and historical-criticism. In the case of a passage like Deut 32:1-43 it is useful to include both of these points of reference together in our study. Source criticism deals with the sources which may have been used in the composition of the book (or passage within the book); these sources can be of various kinds, including written documents and oral tradition. Historical criticism involves: (a) the historical background/setting of the events in the book (and its composition), as well as (b) the historical accuracy or reliability of events, words, and traditions recorded in the book, in relation to its composition. Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches to these areas of study, which may be summarized as:

    1. Traditional-conservative, and
    2. Critical

While study and analysis of the Scriptures can be referred to as “criticism” generally, the term “critical” is also used in a more specialized sense—to a mode of criticism which tends to ignore or exclude religious and doctrinal assumptions regarding the nature and character of the Scriptures. Let us examine each of these approaches (see my earlier article for more on the terms) as they apply to the Song of Moses (Deut 32), realizing that many commentators adopt a position somewhere between these two “sides”, combining elements of each approach.

1. The traditional-conservative approach tends to take the text, as it has come down to us, at face value, along with many of the well-established traditions regarding its authorship, etc. In the case of Deuteronomy, the book is seen as coming essentially from the time of Moses, and, indeed, from Moses himself. Many commentators would accept Moses as the author of the book, allowing for a small amount of later editing; but, at the very least, the core sections of Deuteronomy are viewed as an authentic discourse (or series of discourses) given by Moses as speaker. In this regard, the historical setting for the Song of chapter 32 is established simply in 31:19-22ff:

(YHWH to Moses:) “And now you must cut [i.e. inscribe/write] for them this song and make the sons of Israel (to) learn it; you must set it in their mouth(s), for the purpose [i.e. so] that this song may be for me a witness to the sons of Israel” (v. 19)
“And (then) Moses opened (his mouth and) spoke the words of this song in(to) the ears of all the assembled (people) of Israel unto their completion [i.e. the completion of the song]” (v. 30)

Thus for many traditional-conservative readers and commentators, there is no real question regarding the source of the Song—it is an inspired poem, composed and (originally) recited by Moses himself, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy more or less as he composed it. For those who admit that Deuteronomy has been translated into a more recent form of Hebrew (see below), the Song would then preserve language closer to Moses’ own (i.e. his actual words, the ipsissima verba). The purpose of the Song is also made clear in chapter 31: it was meant to bring to mind for future generations the teaching given by Moses (in the book of Deuteronomy), in relation to the covenant established with them by God (including their covenant obligations). A poem would make this easier to commit to memory and transmit from one generation to the next. Indeed, there is evidence that the Song of Moses was part of the liturgy from ancient times, as indicated by Jewish sources such as Josephus (Antiquities 4.303), the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 31a) and Talmud (j. Meg. 3:7, 74b). It is possible that one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutq) contained no more than the Song, in which case it might suggest a special use for reciting or learning/teaching the poem.

2. The critical approach attempts to examine the text objectively, without reliance upon tradition (regarding authorship, etc) or doctrinal suppositions (regarding the inspiration of Scripture, etc). When taken in its best, or ideal, sense, this approach is most valuable as it avoids religious preconceptions which can distort the original context and meaning of Scripture. In practice, however, it carries many serious flaws, since it tends to neglect or disregard important aspects of the text—namely, the unique and divinely-inspired character of Scripture—which have been accepted by those who read and transmitted the text over thousands of years.

The critical approach does also take the text of Scripture at face value, but in a different sense. In the case of Deuteronomy, scholars note that, on the whole, the language of the book differs relatively little from, for example, the books of Kings, which were written during the monarchy, down to the end of the period (c. 7th-6th centuries B.C.). Thus, if Deuteronomy genuinely comes from the time of Moses (13th century, or even the 15th century, depending on one’s chronology), it would have been significantly modernized and translated/updated into a more recent form of Hebrew. Many critical commentators believe, however, that the book, while perhaps drawing upon traditions which may extend back to Moses, was actually composed much later—i.e. in the time reflected by the language, the period of the monarchy. The similarities in thought and wording with the historical books (esp. Kings) suggested a definite relationship of some kind (see the note on the “Deuteronomic History” below).

A traditional key was found in the notice regarding the discovery of the “Book of Instruction (Torah)” found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 22:8ff; 23:24-25), which most commentators today identify with some form or version of the book of Deuteronomy. A rather skeptical (even cynical) critical explanation held that the book was composed during Josiah’s reign, in order to support his program of reform, and was then “found” in the Temple. A more honest analysis recognizes the book discovered in the Temple as an older version of Deuteronomy, or, perhaps, an ancient document which served as the source of the later book. On this basis, a moderating critical view, held in some fashion by a good number of scholars today, posits that an initial version of Deuteronomy, drawing upon the “Book of Instruction” as well as other sources, was composed in the 7th century, at a time corresponding to the reign of Josiah; the book was further edited/updated during the exile or around that time.

The critical approach toward the Song of Moses is, understandably, a bit more complex than the traditional-conservative view. A careful examination of the language and style of the poetry has suggested a date corresponding to the early monarchy, or even the Israelite confederacy (i.e. period of the Judges), perhaps the 11th or 10th century B.C., making it, on the basis of the preserved language alone, one of the earliest portions of the Old Testament. The surviving Canaanite poetry from Ugarit (14th-13th century), along with poetic (and prosodic) elements in other early Semitic texts and inscriptions (Phoenician, Moabite, etc), allows scholars to make extensive comparisons with various segments of Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament. Poetry tends to preserve older and archaic elements, even when transmitted to later generations speaking/writing in a more recent form of the language, and as a result, undergoes less modernization during transmission, or when included as a source in composition.

The critical view might be summarized as follows: the Song of Moses, as we have it, could conceivably go back to the 13th century and the time of Moses, but more likely was composed in a later period (11th-10th century?), before being included as a source in the book of Deuteronomy as written in the 7th century. As a source, it is clearly distinct from the discourses which make up the core of the book; it is often thought that these chapters (4:4129:28) relate more directly to the older strata of the book (and to the “Book of Instruction”), while the introductory portions (1:1-4:40), and chapters 30-34 were added at a later point, drawn from separate lines of tradition.

Having summarized the two distinct approaches to the book of Deuteronomy (and the Song of Moses), it is easy to see the ways in which they differ, and also how both are valuable and useful for a proper study of the text. Questions and difficulties raised by the critical approach ought to be considered carefully, and not ignored or disregarded on a priori doctrinal grounds. In all of the notes and studies on this website I have tried to balance the available evidence and analyses to provide a fair and accurate picture of the issues involved for believers studying the text today. In the next session, I will try to demonstrate how the various areas of biblical criticism we have examined—text-, form-, source- and historical-criticism—relate to a careful and in-depth study of the Scripture as it has come down to us. It will not be possible here to go through every verse in detail; instead, we will focus on a number of selected verses and lines, to demonstrate how criticism relates to interpretation.

Note on the s0-called “Deuteronomic History”

In light of the discussion above on the source and historical criticism of Deuteronomy, it is worth mentioning here a common (critical) theory regarding the composition of the book. Many scholars and commentators today hold that the book of Deuteronomy, as we have it, is actually just one part of a much larger work—a great history of Israel, extending from the time of Moses to the exile. It is usually referred to as the “Deuteronomic (or Deuteronomistic) History”, and is thought to be comprised of Deuteronomy–Judges and Samuel–Kings. The older version (or core) of Deuteronomy served as the inspiration for the work, often believed to date from the time of Josiah (see above), and updated to cover the period ending in the Exile of Judah. This critical theory was effectively introduced and popularized in the mid-20th century by German scholar Martin Noth, whose work is best accessed (in English) as The Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Supplement (Sheffield Academic Press: 1981 [subsequent editions 1991, 2002]). F. M. Cross has a valuable summary, along with his own modification of the theory, in the now-classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 274-89.

For a good moderate critical treatment of the book of Deuteronomy, and the Song of Moses in particular, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society: 1996), pp. xix-xxviii, 508-18.