Devarim: Deuteronomy as tool of transformation


Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Isaiah 1:1-27

Unbelievable as it may seem, there was a time when ancient Israelites owed their allegiance to another country. The Israelite king paid homage to the conqueror's gods. A foreign deity was erected in the Temple. Israelite monotheism was compromised by alien cult activities that flourished in local shrines throughout the country. Sacred prostitution, a fertility cult practice, was tolerated, even within the Temple; divination and magic were in vogue; the barbarous rite of child sacrifice was permitted.

Had these practices been allowed to continue, our faith as we know it today would have been a polytheistic religion.

The Judean monarch presiding over this apostasy was King Manasseh. Not only did the author of the Book of Kings have no good word to say about him, but he suggested that Manasseh was the worst king to have ever sat on King David's throne. According to the biblical account, his sins were so overwhelming that he would never be forgiven (II Kings 21:9ff).

All of Manasseh's abominations occurred during the period in which the Assyrian Empire maintained a stranglehold over the Israelites. The loosening of Assyria's grip was followed by independence in 621 BCE, setting the stage for sweeping reform and spiritual renaissance. Manasseh's corrupt practices were totally reversed by a new king named Josiah.

To the biblical chronicler, Josiah's reformation overshadowed any of his other accomplishments. He established Jerusalem as the center of Israelite religion. The Temple underwent renovation, purification and a thorough purging of all foreign cult practices. Monotheistic practice, thought to have been all but destroyed, was returned to its former pre-eminence.

The central event of the restoration of Israelite monotheism was, however, the putative discovery of an ancient book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, which was actually written in this period (II Kings 22:3-8). The fabrication of recovering Deuteronomy, an ancient, yet forgotten book, was designed to lend Josiah the credibility and legitimacy he needed to spearhead his reformation.

Deuteronomy, largely a restatement of the book of Exodus, is filled with nostalgia for the covenantal relationship that had formed the basis for national existence. Under royal leadership, this reactivation of the covenant attempted to return the religion to old traditions, keeping in mind the new practices that had since developed. Josiah's reformation found powerful support among the prophets of his day. It also mirrored the lone voices of Isaiah and Jeremiah, who had denounced pandemic idolatry and cultic practice.

Deuteronomy was written so that the entire Torah could be accessible to the layman. The other four Torah books were testimonies and memorials rather than books of study. Exodus (24:4-7) records that Moses read the Book of the Covenant to the people. The stone tablets were a testimony of God's laws and were stored away from the people in the ark. Only the priests knew and handled matters of priestly law.

Conversely, Deuteronomy presented the Torah as the possession of the people — the book of study and teaching. It required interaction with the precepts, that they be bound on the hand and written on doorposts and gates (Deut. 6:7ff, 11:18ff). Deuteronomy democratized what had been an exclusively priestly cult. The king was now required to write a copy of the Torah and read it all his life (17:18ff). He was to display it in public (27:3,8), and the priests were to read it to all the people every sabbatical year (31:10ff).

But of all of Deuteronomy's contributions to the reformation of Jewish practice, the one with the most enduring consequences was Moses' appointment, at God's command, of knowing and discerning leaders, versed in the law and its interpretation (1:9-18).

What distinguishes the Deuteronomistic institution of teachers and legal interpreters is its origin in divine command. The same God who revealed (or inspired) the Torah at Sinai also charged Moses with appointing interpreters of that law. The seemingly rigid view of Deuteronomy, "You shall not add to any word that I command you, nor shall you take anything from it (4:2)," was embellished by a court-based legal system.

Thus, Torah does not restrict change but rather serves as its foundation. Interpretation becomes the handmaiden of revelation, establishing the foundation for later rabbinic Judaism, which produced the Talmud, the greatest compendium of interpretation of divine law.

By allowing the Law to become the basis for change, the Deuteronomist set the paradigm for problem-solving and leadership, preventing Judaism from becoming stagnant and fossilized. This has allowed Judaism to develop from the days of desert wandering to the high-tech era of the 21st century. This is the Deuteronomist's most enduring contribution.