Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review
Richard D. Nelson, Deuteronomy. A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville--London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), pp. ix + 424. ISBN 0664219527. $ 44.95.
The Old Testament Library (OTL) aims to "explain in a highly readable format the most significant historical, linguistic, literary and theological features of the biblical text." In a previous generation of OTL Deuteronomy was interpreted by Gerhard von Rad (English translation of Alte Testament Deutsch in 1966). More than thirty years later the same task has been given to Richard D. Nelson, a well-known expert on the deuteronomistic texts (Double Redaction of the Deuteronomistic History, 1981; commentaries on Joshua, Kings and Historical Books in several series, etc). Therefore, expectations are high when the book cover promises that the commentary "provides one of the most sophisticated explanations to date of the compositional process that produced Deuteronomy, presenting that process as a combination of large-scale redactional activity and 'micro-redaction'."
This volume contains a limited bibliography, a rather short introduction (twelve pages), a new translation with textual notes and a commentary on the text. Nelson's basic view of the writing process is that the final text of Deuteronomy contains material that can be divided into three categories. The oldest layer is the pre-deuteronomic law tradition (like Deut 20:5-7; 21:12b-13a) which was collected and edited into the form of a law book by national and theological dissidents during the reign of Manasseh and finally published during the "friendlier domestic and international climate of Josiah's reign" (p. 8). Then a limited circle of scribes, who were affected by "aristocratic families, elements of priesthood and those schooled in wisdom" (p. 8), created the text in a gradual process with small steps ("micro-redaction"). This circle of writers shared their views and style so deeply that the signs of the process are visible but the individual steps cannot be separated anymore, because current "tools of traditional historical criticism are too blunt" (p. 8). (Unfortunately in the commentary section Nelson doesn't try to apply or test this view. On the contrary he comments on the redaction in detail on just a few occasions.) According to Nelson, there are also some blocks of text that can be considered later additions to Deuteronomy. This third text layer in Deuteronomy contains widely agreed sections like Deut 4; 9:7-10:11; 20:15-18; 27; 32. Further identification is usually left open: texts are "later supplements" or "exilic."
Nelson dates Deuteronomy in the first three-quarters of the seventh century. The major reason for this dating is the connection between Deuteronomy (chapters 13 and 28) and Assyrian treaties. Also the complex, but still existing, association between Deuteronomy and the reform of Josiah gives certain elements for dating.
In the commentary section Nelson explains the given translation and explores textual variants in notes. Other parts of the commentary are dedicated to plot, structure, and analyses of individual expressions and phenomena. On some occasions, Nelson also gives space for larger themes like centralization, treason against Yahweh, purity laws, or war and violence.
Does Nelson fulfill the expectations? Readers whose interests are focused on the redaction process of Deuteronomy (either in the large or micro scale or both) will not find much challenge in this commentary, because Nelson either limits his perspective to the well agreed larger blocks or refuses to try to open the text of the scribal collective. The term "micro-redaction" sounds somewhat strange in this context. The term is launched as one of the key issues of the commentary, but it is not used beyond the introduction to comment on the text. On the other hand "micro-redaction" sounds very similar to gradual writing process (many European dtr. researchers) or rolling corpus (McKane). Does it mean that in principle Nelson accepts a pluralistic redactional solution, at least in Deuteronomy and also abandons the idea of deuteronomistic double redaction, but doesn't want show it in detail? And if "micro-redaction" seems to be the best model in Deuteronomy why not also in Deuteronomistic history?
The most enjoyable sections in the commentary are those in which Nelson assigns more "textual space" so as to comment on the social life reflected in text, like his treatment of the war laws (Deuteronomy 20). There, Nelson follows the conventional way of commentary writing, concentrating on explaining the text as a mainstream insider. Only the most obvious violence or purity laws are questioned but in a mild and understanding way. Apart from a few exceptions, Deuteronomy is discussed without connecting it to issues of socio-political reality and practically none of the comments are related to current social reality.
Concerning Nelson's dating, it is clear that Assyrian political and religious impact offers an important mirror to some texts in Deuteronomy (like chapters 13 and 28). These connections do not, however, exclude the possibility of later dating but show the earliest possible one. Actually the exilic origin of many essential and structural parts of Deuteronomy offers even a better solution that explains the motive for collecting traditional law material and presenting it interwoven with deuteronomistic theology.