Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Nathan MacDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism’ (Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 2. Reihe, 1; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003). Pp. ix + 271. Paper, €49,00. ISBN 3-16-148054-6.

This book has two aims. The first is to argue that the term “monotheism” is not useful for describing the doctrine of God implicated in Deuteronomy. The second is to examine what is meant by the Deuteronomic affirmation that “Yhwh is one” and its connected concepts. The argument is based on a synchronic interpretation of key passages in Deuteronomy 4; 6–10 and 32. These texts are dealt with repeatedly as the book focuses on the themes of oneness, love, memory, election, and the prohibition against images in respective chapters.

MacDonald (M.) begins his book with a survey of notable attempts in critical scholarship to write a history of biblical monotheism. In judging this interest as a function of modern thought anchored in the Enlightenment, M. highlights three ways in which the Deuteronomic confession of Yhwh's oneness results in a picture significantly different from the terms of reference connoted by monotheism. First, monotheism is an intellectual category that refers to a metaphysical claim. But Deuteronomy does not rule out the existence of other gods; its interest is to underscore the importance of Yhwh's exclusive claims on Israel. Second, just as placing Deuteronomy on some kind of scale between polytheism and monotheism fails to do justice to the book's theology, so does appeal to the categories of “universalism” and “particularism.” Deuteronomy's doctrine of election implies that other nations will receive any knowledge about Yhwh they may possess through Israel, but there is nowhere expressed any obligation for mission on Israel's part. Deuteronomy's message is always for Israel and about the devotion that Yhwh's election requires of it. Third, Yhwh's claim to be God is not primarily ontological but soteriological.

M. acknowledges that the critique he has undertaken is not new; it has been anticipated by a number of other scholars. But M. is correct in the claim that his book represents the most thorough attempt to call into question the meaningfulness of the concept of monotheism with respect to a specific biblical book. Of previous biblical theologies, M. thinks von Rad's comes closest to his own understanding: Israel's faith was confessional, not intellectual, and entailed a continual and demanding response of love and obedience to its saving and sustaining deity.

Nevertheless, it is debatable whether M.'s thesis completely escapes the interests of writing an intellectual history of Israelite religion. The biblical tradition was capable of making the claim that Yhwh was the only existing deity. Denial of the existence of other gods appears in a text interpreted by M. (albeit in an excursus, pp. 89-92). Where the Masoretic Text (MT) reads bny yśr’l in Deut 32:8, 4QDeutj has bny ’lwhym, a reading reflected in the Septuagint. M. claims an interest in interpreting the “received form of the Hebrew text” (one assumes he means the MT) without recourse to its compositional history (p. 1). But he is forced to acknowledge that the text has a history of reception in which there is manifestly an interest in denying the existence of other deities. The same issue also effects the transmission of Deut 32:43 (also admitted by M.) and can be found in the text history of other biblical books (e.g., many scholars consider the last two lines of Jer 50:2 as an addition that points to a theological correction of this kind). In other words, in the transmission history of the MT, an interest in metaphysical claims was not entirely absent. The development of the MT reflects an intellectual history which is properly the subject of modern categories of study, including the canon's witness to the emergence of the idea of a single, universal deity (i.e., monotheism).

It is also debatable whether some of the darker sides of Yhwh's exclusive claims on Israel are fully illuminated by M. This is apparent in his treatment of the command to exterminate the seven Canaanite nations in Deuteronomy 7. According to M., readers are to understand these instructions metaphorically, as an “expression of devoted love”. But the argument for a metaphorical reading is weak: according to M., a literal understanding of the command would only have limited duration (p. 111). But the same could also be said for the instructions on holy war in Deuteronomy 20, with their distinctions between the cities that are “far from you” and those in the land of inheritance (cf. 20:16-18). A synchronic view suggests that Deut 7:22 resolves the apparent contradiction between 7:2, with its command of extermination, and 7:3 which forbids intermarriage. Intermarriage with the Canaanite nations not yet destroyed was forbidden. There is reason (cf. Josh 10:40) to think that the ban on the Canaanites was intended just as literally as the instructions in Deut 6:6-9, which M. is at pains to show should be taken quite literally indeed.

But these criticisms should not be taken as indications that M.'s book is lacking insight. On the contrary, there is much that is noteworthy here. M.'s critique of the categories of universalism and particularism (mentioned above) and his close reading of Deuteronomy 4 in connection with the prohibition against images are but two examples of thoughtful work that warrants reflection. Even interpretation of the Shema benefits from M.'s approach. He draws attention to a connection between the statement that “Yhwh is one” in Deut 6:4 and Song 6:8-9, “my dove, my perfect one is one, to her mother she is one” (p. 74). The declaration that the beloved is “one” in Song of Songs does not preclude the possibility that there are other potential lovers, just as the mother may have other children; but the vocabulary of oneness underscores that she is unrivaled in the affections of the poet. The application of this usage to the interpretation of the Shema by M. is an important contribution. It calls attention to affective aspects of Yhwh's exclusive relationship with Israel which M. also explores elsewhere in this volume.

In summary, this is an informative and provocative book which would be a useful resource in graduate courses on Deuteronomy or biblical theology.

William S. Morrow, Queen's Theological College