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Theological revolutions in the Old Testament

Original Date
October 16, 2009

Deuteronomys Theological Revolution 1/3

King Josiah of Judah instituted a religious reform in 622 BCE that scholars refer to simply as Josiah’s Reform. It might well be called the Deuteronomic Reform. Israelite religion would never be the same.

As the Bible tells it, in the course of repairing the Temple, which had apparently been considerably neglected, the high priest at this time, one Hilkiah, “found” an important scroll. The biblical text calls it the “Book of the Law” (Sepher ha-Torah) (2 Kings 22:8). In a later retelling of this event, in Chronicles 34:14, it is called the “Book of the Law of the Lord given by the hand of Moses” (Sepher Torat Yahweh b-yad Moshe). [1] Virtually all scholars agree that this book (or, more precisely, this scroll) was a form, probably an early version, [2]  of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Pentateuch.

The name Deuteronomy derives from Greek and means a second telling of the law. The name is appropriate because Deuteronomy repeats the law and history contained in the other four Pentateuchal books (sometimes called the Tetrateuch), presented as a long farewell speech by Moses. As we shall see, however, some radical changes are introduced into this second telling.

The Book of Deuteronomy incorporates significant changes in both beliefs and worship as well as in social and moral values. The full impact of these changes can best be appreciated by comparing them to parallel provisions in earlier non-Deuteronomic texts.

Josiah’s Reform was mainly concerned with centralizing worship in the Jerusalem Temple. All outlying shrines were ordered dismantled and destroyed. This centralization of the cult in the Jerusalem Temple was itself a sweeping innovation of revolutionary proportions. The Levites who served in the provincial towns lost their status after the reform. Whether out of humane or political considerations, the Deuteronomic legislator allowed dispossessed Levites to continue to serve, but only at the Jerusalem Temple, where they were to receive equal shares with their Jerusalem fellows (Deuteronomy 18:6–8); the provincial Levites were also included in the benefits of the holy feasts and gifts in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:12, 18, 14:27, 29, 16:11, 14).

More importantly, sacrifice was no longer allowed outside the chosen place, that is, the Temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifice lay at the basis of every ancient religion. With Josiah’s Reform, however, Israelite religion in the provinces was freed from its dependence on sacrifice. This vacuum in religious worship paved the way for a religion of prayer and book. Worship thus underwent a transition from sacrifice to a kind of abstract worship. Sacrifice continued in Jerusalem until the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, but Josiah’s Reform was the first step in its elimination.

The transformation of Israel’s religion into a more abstract religion may also be seen in the laws of Deuteronomy. Together with a centralization of worship in Jerusalem, we discern in Deuteronomy an effort to curtail and circumvent the cult rather than to extend or enhance it.

Deuteronomy repeatedly describes the Temple as “the place where Yahweh chose to cause his name to dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:11, see also Deuteronomy 12:21, 14:23–24, 16:2, 6, 11, 26:2). This expression “to cause his name to dwell” (lsáaken sámo)—reflects a new theological conception of the deity. It is intended to combat the popular ancient belief that the deity actually dwelled within the Temple. That it is the name that dwells in the sanctuary, rather than the deity, is followed in a very consistent manner without the slightest deviation. This is true not only of the Book of Deuteronomy but of the entire Deuteronomic literature [3] . There is not a single example in this literature of God’s “dwelling in the Temple” or of the building of a “house of God.” The Temple is always the “dwelling of his name,” and the house is always built “for his name.”

In 2 Samuel 7, the prophet Nathan, at God’s prompting, tells King David that he is not the one to build the Temple. Scholars have identified Nathan’s words as coming from an earlier, pre-Deuteronomic text that does not know the “name” theology: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Are you [David] the one to build a house for Me to dwell in? From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day, I have not dwelt in a house [but in a tent]’” (2 Samuel 7:5–6). However, in a subsequent verse attributed to the Deuteronomist, we learn that David’s issue will “build a house for My name” (2 Samuel 7:13). (This actually contradicts the ancient prophecy that considers it illegitimate to build a permanent house for God.) Similarly, the original account of the Temple’s construction and the ancient story of its dedication speak of building a house for God (1 Kings 6:1, 2, 8:13), while the Deuteronomist always describes the Temple as built “for the name of God” (1 Kings 3:2, 8:17, 18, 19, 20, 44, 48).

The clearest expression of this theology is in Solomon’s long prayer at the dedication of the Temple, which is recognized as a Deuteronomic composition.  There the Temple is not God’s dwelling place; on the contrary, when Israelites and foreigners come to pray at the Temple, Solomon asks that their prayers be heard in heaven: “Hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place” (1 Kings 8:43).

Calling on the Lord, Solomon asks that when Israel takes the field against its enemies and prays “in the direction of the house that I have built for thy name, then hear their prayer in heaven” (1 Kings 8:44–45).

In Deuteronomic texts, whenever the expression “your dwelling place” is used, it is accompanied by the word “in heaven” (1 Kings 8:30, 39, 43, 49). The Deuteronomist is clearly disputing the view implied by the ancient song that opens the prayer (1 Kings 8:13):

I have now built for You
A stately House,
A place where You
May dwell forever

Similarly, the original account of the Temple’s construction and the ancient story of its dedication speak of building a house for God (1 Kings 6:1, 2, 8:13), while the Deuteronomist always describes the Temple as built “for the name of God” (1 Kings 3:2, 8:17, 18, 19, 20, 44, 48).

In this original ancient song, God’s dwelling place refers to the Temple. The Deuteronomist is attempting to alter this concept and thereby wrest the song from its original sense. This theological corrective—the addition of the words “in heaven”—also appears in Deuteronomy itself. In Deuteronomy 26:15, the text imagines how an Israelite will pray when he reaches the Promised Land; his prayer-confession will include a plea to the Lord to “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven.” The addition of the words “from heaven” seems to be an explanatory gloss intended to prevent misconstruing the expression “holy habitation” as a reference to the Temple.

This abstract view of the deity’s heavenly abode is also reflected in the Deuteronomic account of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. In the Exodus account, the Lord actually comes down upon the mountain: “Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire” (Exodus 19:18, 20). In Deuteronomy, however, the theophany shifts from the visual to the aural; God himself remains in heaven: “From the heavens, he let you hear his voice…; on earth he let you see his great fire; and from the midst of the fire you heard his words” (Deuteronomy 4:36).


[1] In Joshua and Kings this book is referred to as the “Book of the Law of Moses” (Sepher Torat Mosheh) (Joshua 8:31, 23:6; 2 Kings 14:6).
[2]  It probably consisted of an introduction, a law code (certainly chapters 12–19, which embody the principles of the reform) and the admonition in chapter 28 regarding the rewards for obedience and punishments for violation of the “terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites” (Deuteronomy 28:69).
[3]  Scholars attribute to someone—or perhaps a school—called Deuteronomic not only the Book of Deuteronomy but also the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. These books are called the Deuteronomic History. They incorporate the same viewpoint and philosophy as the Book of Deuteronomy and reflect the thinking of what is often called the Deuteronomic School.


BCE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - Babylon and the Second Temple Period

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