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Theological revolutions in the Old Testament-2

Original Date
October 17, 2009

Deuteronomys Theological Revolution 2/3

Pre-Deuteronomic texts invariably speak of the danger of seeing the deity: “[M]an shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Similarly, in Genesis 32:31, after wrestling all night with someone who turns out to be divine, Jacob expresses his surprise at surviving even though he saw him face-to-face; Jacob names the place Penuel, which the text tell us means “I have seen God face-to-face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:31).

Deuteronomy, by contrast, cannot conceive of seeing the divinity. In Deuteronomy the Israelites see only “his great fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), which symbolizes his essence; God himself remains in his heavenly abode. The danger in Deuteronomy is not in seeing the divinity, but in hearing his voice: Has any people heard the voice of God speaking out of the midst of a fire, as indeed you have, and survived?” (Deuteronomy 4:33, also 5:23).

Deuteronomy’s endeavor to eliminate the corporeality of the traditional divine imagery also finds expression in Deuteronomy’s conception of the Ark. In the traditional imagery, the Ark not only houses the tablets of the law, but is part of God’s throne, on which he sits between the cherubim while the Ark serves as his footstool. Two three-dimensional cherubim were placed on the Ark (Exodus 25:18–22), thereby endowing the Ark with the semblance of a divine chariot or throne. We have already noted how Deuteronomy insists that the deity dwells in heaven, not in the Temple. That God’s habitation is in heaven is expressed emphatically in order to eradicate the belief that the deity sat enthroned upon the cherubim in the Temple. In a number of non-Deuteronomic texts we find the Ark, with its cherubim, as a kind of divine throne. See, for example, Psalm 80:2: “You who are enthroned on the cherubim” (see also Isaiah 37:16; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2).

In pre-Deuteronomic texts the Ark is hauled out to signify God’s presence. In Numbers 10:33–36, the Ark leads the Israelites from Mt. Sinai on their desert journey as they moved from camp to camp; it would scatter the enemies of the Lord.

In Deuteronomy, by contrast, the specific and exclusive function of the Ark is to house the tablets of the covenant; no mention is made of the cherubim.

In Deuteronomy, the Lord still leads the Israelites in battle, but this is not associated with the Ark. It is interesting to compare a passage in Numbers with a similar passage in Deuteronomy. At one point the Israelites decide, in opposition to God’s instruction, to try to enter the Promised Land from the south instead of going all the way around, east of the Jordan River, and attacking Jericho from the east. They are defeated at a place called Hormah. In accounting for the defeat, the text of Numbers tells us that the Ark of the Covenant had not stirred from the Israelite camp (Numbers 14:44), somehow relating this to the defeat. In the Deuteronomic account of the defeat at Hormah, no mention is made of the Ark (Deuteronomy 1:42–44).

Similarly, in a pre-Deuteronomic text in 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites bring the Ark of the Covenant to the battle with the Philistines at Aphek/Ebenezer. The Israelite soldiers greet the Ark with a great shout so that the earth resounded.” The Philistines cry out in fear:God has come to the camp” (1 Samuel 4:7).

In Deuteronomy God is still a divine presence in the Israelite camp, but no mention is made of the Ark (Deuteronomy 23:15).

Deuteronomy also seeks to eliminate angels from Israelite theology. Again, the contrast between the other four books of the Pentateuch and Deuteronomy is revealing. In Exodus 23:20–23, for example, the Lord sends an angel to guard the people and lead them to the Promised Land. The Deuteronomic parallel, based on this passage in Exodus, omits any reference to an angel (Deuteronomy 7); the Lord himself performs the angelic function.

The same comparison can be found with regard to the Exodus itself. In Numbers 20:15–16, the Israelites at Kadesh recall how, in Egypt, they cried out to the Lord and he “sent an angel” to lead them out of the land. Not so in Deuteronomy: He himself, in his great might, led you out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 4:37).

As noted earlier, after Josiah’s Reform sacrifice was limited to the Jerusalem Temple. But, even here, Deuteronomy transforms the significance of sacrifice. In Deuteronomy God has no need of the sacrifice itself; it is only an expression of gratitude to the deity; this constitutes its entire significance. In Deuteronomy we do not hear of the “pleasing odor” (ryh nyhuah) of the burnt sacrifice; no mention is made of the “food of God,” as is found, for example, in Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17, 21:6, 8, 17, 21. Neither is there any mention of the sin-and-guilt offerings designed to atone for involuntary sins, ritual impurity, etc. (Leviticus 4–5).

In Deuteronomy, prayer, rather than sacrificial offerings, expiates sin. Thus, in a ritual for absolving the community of guilt for an unsolved murder (Deuteronomy 21:1–9), the neck of a heifer is broken; the elders of the community are to wash their hands over the heifer and declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood [of the murdered victim], nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel whom you redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel.”

This ritual actually emphasizes the difference between sacrifice in Deuteronomy and in the rest of the Pentateuch. The rite does not consist of a ceremonial slaughter with blood sprinkling, but calls only for the breaking of the heifer’s neck in an uncultivated valley. Although the priests are present, it is the elders, not the priests, who perform the entire ritual, including breaking the heifer’s neck; the priests’ only function is to guarantee the religious aspect of the ceremony by presiding over it. The elders cleanse their hands only as a purificatory expression of their innocence. There is no laying of the hands on the heifer or transference of the sin to it, as in the case of the ritual scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21). [1]  Absolution comes directly from God without recourse to any priestly intermediary (compare this to the common priestly expression in the Book of Leviticus “and the priest shall make atonement for him”).

Sacrifice, according to Deuteronomy, is not an institutional practice but a personal one, which has two principal objects: the first is humanitarian, to share the sacrificial repast with the destitute; the second, to fulfill a private religious obligation to express one’s gratitude to the deity by means of a votive offering (Deuteronomy 12:6, 11, 17, 26, 23:22–24). Deuteronomy has not so much as a word to say about the presentation of communal sacrifices—the daily and seasonal offerings—that constituted the principal mode of worship at the Temple. [2]  Deuteronomy takes for granted the performance of daily ritual in the Temple; however, the fact that the author does not even allude to this regular sacrifice shows that he is indifferent to it.

Deuteronomic sacrifices are consumed in the sanctuary by the people who offer them; in addition, however, they are to be shared with the slave, the Levite, the alien resident, the orphan and the widow. When you make an offering, “you shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst” (Deuteronomy 16:11). One gets the impression that one of the principal purposes of the offering was to support the destitute elements of Israelite society.  [3] Deuteronomy itself alludes to his when, after prescribing that the joyful nature of the festival be shared with the personae miserae, it goes on to say, “You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt”  (Deuteronomy 16:12).

A similar theme is sounded in Deuteronomy’s formulation of the command to observe the Sabbath, the fifth commandment. It differs somewhat from the formulation of this commandment in Exodus. In Exodus the rationale for the Sabbath is that God worked six days in creating the world and rested on the seventh (Exodus 20:11, see also Exodus 31:17). By Sabbath rest, man reenacts, so to speak, God’s rest on the seventh day. Like the formulation in Exodus, Deuteronomy’s commandment requires everyone, including male and female slaves, to rest on the Sabbath; but in Deuteronomy the reason is different: not because God rested on the seventh day, but because “you were slaves in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 5:15). The Israelite is obligated to rest on the Sabbath to provide a respite for his servants. Alongside this social motivation appears the religious one: “The Lord your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15). In short, Deuteronomy derives the Sabbath, not from the creation, but from the Exodus; although the social motivation existed alongside the sacral, the two could easily coexist.

There are many other differences between the theology and law found in Deuteronomy and in earlier texts. Deuteronomy always presents a more abstract, moral, rational, even more democratic face, whether dealing with tithes, the Passover sacrifice, the laws of slavery, the sabbatical year, the laws of asylum or the notions of holiness. In short, Deuteronomy marks a turning point in Israelite religion. It is not too much to call it a theological revolution.


[1]  True, the custom originated as an elimination rite (see D.P. Wright, “Deuteronomy 21:1–9 as a Rite of Elimination,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 [1987], pp. 387–403). In the present form, however, nothing is said about removal of impurity or sin by the priest (as in Leviticus 14:53, 16:22) or about the transferal of evil to the open country (Leviticus 16:22 and Mesopotamian incantations [cf. Wright, “Deuteronomy,” p. 402]).
[2]  Ritual detail is apparently of no importance to Deuteronomy’s author; it is possible that he deliberately ignored it because it did not accord with his religious frame of mind. This is reflected in the only passage in Deuteronomy (12:27) that describes the manner in which sacrifices are to be offered. The verse differentiates between nonburnt offerings and burnt offerings (‘olah) and ordains that the flesh and blood of the burnt offering be offered entirely on the altar, whereas the blood of the nonburnt is to be poured upon the altar and the meat eaten. Surprisingly, the author makes no mention of the burning of the suet, the fat piece that is set aside for God, thus rendering the meat permissible for priestly and lay consumption (1 Samuel 2:12–17). The blood and fat were deemed to be the food of God (cf. Ezekiel 44:7), which is why the priestly literature forbids the eating of fat, just as it forbids the “eating” of blood (Leviticus 7:22–27) (cf. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Anchor Bible 3 [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1991], pp. 214–216). The author of Deuteronomy completely ignores that the suet was to be offered upon the altar, the very reason for offering the sacrifice at the Temple.
[3]  On the distinction between the poor and those deprived of inheritance—the slave, the Levite, the alien resident, the orphan and the widow—see N. Lohfink, “Opfer and Sakularisierung im Deuteronomium,” in Studien zu Opfer und Kult im Alten Testament, ed. A. Schenker (Tübingen, 1992), pp. 32–35.


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