Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Otto, Eckart, Deuteronomium 1–11: Erster Teilband: 1,1-4,43; Zweiter Teilband: 4,44-11,32 (Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament; Stuttgart: Herders, 2012). Pp. 624; 480. Hardcover. €100.00; €75.00. ISBN 978-3-451-26808-3; 978-3-451-34145-8.

This review covers the first two volumes of Eckart Otto's commentary on Deuteronomy published to date (chapters 1:1–4:43 and 4:44–11:32). Thus, because not all volumes have been published yet, this review provides a preliminary discussion on the work done by the author. Most notably, comments on the legal materials and a number of aspects of the concluding chapters of Deuteronomy are still forthcoming. This said, the volumes on chapters 1–11 do allude to the ways in which the author interprets these chapters as well.

The commentary starts with an overall bibliography on Deuteronomy and an excellent, thorough introduction that begins by summarising the history of Deuteronomy scholarship within the context of pentateuchal scholarship. Importantly, the author's review of scholarship makes the point that there have been proponents for an early, midpoint and late dating for the book:

Dennoch sind auch heute noch nach fast einhundert Jahren die damaligen Alternativen zur de Wetteäschen Hypothese des literarischen Ursprungs des Deuteronomiums im 7. Jahrhundert nicht aus der Diskussion verschwunden. So lebt die Spätdatierung des Deuteronomiums in der Nachfolge G. Hölschers eben so immer wieder auf wie eine Frühdatierung in der Nachfolge von T. Oestreicher (p. 186).

The author then outlines how recent research has moved from diachronic considerations towards synchronic readings of the book. The introduction goes on to provide a summary of the author's model of the formation of Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch, or, rather, the Hexateuch, as the author follows a theory of the Hexateuch as, for example, against a concept of a Deuteronomistic History. The commentary then proceeds to comment on each chapter or textual unit. The treatment of each textual unit is divided into a bibliography, translation of the text, textual commentary, synchronic-literary analysis of the text, diachronic analysis, interpretation and finally a theological-synchronic overview summary of the text. An excursus is sometimes included, such as the one about the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5. An important point about the author's own approach is that it combines diachronic and synchronic considerations of Deuteronomy, as the chapter division also demonstrates.

The main model that the author espouses on the diachronic development of the book is summarised on p. 256: the author sees Deuteronomy, and then Deuteronomy and Joshua as broadly developing separately from Genesis–Numbers. It was only at a later stage that these two entities were combined to form a Hexateuch (Hexateuch redaction), and then even later Joshua was separated from the Pentateuch (Pentateuch redaction). As part of the process of the formation of Deuteronomy and its combination with Joshua, two important stages should be distinguished: An original Horeb redaction which places the events of Deuteronomy at Horeb, and a subsequent Moab redaction that adds the scene of the plains of Moab to the book and also ties Deuteronomy with Joshua. Then there is the issue of exactly when these stages took place. For the author, the original sources go back to the preexilic time, but the Horeb and Moab redactions are exilic-postexilic, and the hexateuchal and pentateuchal redactions postexilic. The author also espouses the view that some independent narratives could have been added to the developing work at various stages. Also, in this model, sources that could be used at a particular stage in the formation of the work could be reutilized at a later stage, with the author often speaking of sources of sources (die Quellen der Quellen). In addition to this source-critical and redactional-layering approach to the formation of the book, another important characteristic of the author's approach is the distinction between “narrated time” and “time of narration.” A significant point for interpretation is that, as part of its narrative strategy, Deuteronomy cleverly conflates the implied audience of the book with the intended audience, that is, the hearers or readers of the book are in a sense always standing in the plains of Moab with Moses addressing them.

The extent of research put into the work is, in a number of ways, remarkably thorough. Discussions are generally extremely well formulated. There is considerable focus on and preferential treatment accorded synchronic readings of Deuteronomy, even if they are embedded in the context of a postulated diachronic development of the text. The focus on synchronic considerations is notable in the context of pentateuchal scholarship over the past two hundred years or so that has often concentrated on source-critical issues and, at the very least, arguably provided atomistic readings of the text(s). Textual observations and connections within Deuteronomy and between Deuteronomy and the rest of Genesis–Joshua and other biblical books are, as far as I can see, thorough and astute. There is consistently good reference made to many ancient Near Eastern materials, especially Assyrian, and also Ugaritic, Egyptian and Hittite materials in these two volumes. The theology of Deuteronomy also comes through extremely well in the presentation. In many ways the commentary sets a very high standard of biblical scholarship for others to emulate. All in all, there is a massive amount of detail in the 1,000 pages of these two volumes. The sheer amount of work and detail is in itself already overwhelming and disarming in terms of any potential criticism against the volumes. They should be recommended reading for anyone working on Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch.

On further reflection, sometimes the presentation is a little unclear in its details, even though in at least some of these cases this perception may have had to do with this reviewer's standard of German. Whatever the case, any obscurity is a minor issue; the overall thrust is always perfectly clear. There is also a fair bit of repetition, but this is actually rather characteristic of any good commentary. The material is probably best appreciated by scholars, but it can also be appreciated by pastors, and, at least in the explanatory sections, by informed laypeople. A few minor errors appear in the volumes, but these are minimal and insignificant; in other words, the publishers have also done a very good job.

On synchronic readings, which to my mind most readers will generally find easy to agree with, one may ask the question of how Deuteronomy relates to the legal hermeneutics (Rechtshermeneutik) of the Pentateuch, an issue to which the author pays a lot of attention. One perspective on this, if post-Deuteronomic and post-Priestly redactors integrated the materials in their final form, then, from a narrative standpoint, Deuteronomy is the “final word” of the Pentateuch. If that is the case, it would seem to mean that Deuteronomy supersedes the Priestly material in case of conflicts. If one then follows the idea that Deuteronomic laws are earlier than the Priestly laws, one will have to postulate a move from Deuteronomy to Priestly material, and then back to Deuteronomy in the final form. How would this then affect interpretation? That is, for example, it would seem that the final editors would not have found it a problem to see Deuteronomy as “modifying” Priestly laws (at least in some way). If so, why not for example consider the possibility at the outset that Deuteronomic laws were already “from the start” (or equivalent) meant to build on Priestly laws, which then of course would bring in an additional consideration when trying to establish the relationship of the main legal codes? And, if one were to argue that the Priestly laws (incl. H) might be seen as having been incorporated in a Pentateuch that already had a narrative frame, why would they have been integrated into a “middle” position, to be superseded by Deuteronomy in a narrative sense, if Deuteronomy comes first chronologically? (Of course, one may challenge such an “expectation” of the postulated logic that the authors used.) This all relates to the question of how the Pentateuch (or Hexateuch) might have been composed and, from the standpoint of legal hermeneutics, why it was composed in the way it was. Whether one takes a source-critical view, a redactional-layering approach, or some other hypothesis, these questions seem to keep begging for an answer. Furthermore, we are still left with the question of why we have the differing legal materials that are in tension with each other. I will be looking forward to what the author has to say in his final two volumes in relation to these issues, among many other things (his discussion of the Ten Commandments in the present volumes does give some foretaste on the matter).

The question of “narrated time” versus “time of narration” that the author emphasises throughout the volumes is worth reflecting on further. The author proposes that Moab and Horeb and the related generational shifts represent two layers of redaction in the dimension of “narrated time.” Moab then also ties in with the “time of narration,” in that what is said in Moab by Moses for the second generation applies to the “time of narration” as well (see esp. Deut 29:28). In other words, Deuteronomy asks its readers to identify with the second generation. However, it is interesting that many novels and (modern) movies also present flashbacks, and this could be the case here as well, and, as such, in my view does not necessitate two separate redactions. In relation to this, for those who might consider an earlier date for Deuteronomy, Deut 29:28 certainly implies an exilic setting as the “time of narration.” However, this could be the case for this verse alone, and e.g., for Deut 4:27–31, with the book otherwise possibly dating from an earlier period. And, interestingly, chapters 4 and 29–30 seem to be less tightly integrated into Deuteronomy than some other parts. But, if one were then to postulate an earlier date for the majority of the book with some material seen as late, a redactional approach would also be warranted, and the question would become one of which material were to be dated when. All this would actually be quite well in line with the approach of the author and most current scholars, at least mutantis mutandis. We do of course know that the earliest parallels come from Hittite materials in the Late Bronze Age, which coincides with the claims of the narrative, and that becomes the terminus a quo for the materials. The author's review of scholarship in the introduction includes scholars, even if in the minority, who advocate an essentially early date for the book, that is, the late second millennium b.c.e. So, if one were to think of a possible alternative provenance for the materials—and this also includes the option for a later origin than that suggested by the author—the question to ask would revolve around two main poles: are there motifs that can be traced to an early period and were then passed on until they were worked into something like a book at a later stage? Or was it rather that late motifs were incorporated into something that had essentially taken shape earlier. Interestingly, the fact that the Ten Commandments are not identical, even though the differences could easily have been smoothed over by redactors, as pointed out nicely by the author (see commentary on Deuteronomy 5 and the related excursus), clearly suggests that adherence to exact wording was not the hallmark of the authors and redactors and/or receiving communities. Moreover, we do know from other examples in the ancient world that changes could be made at least at some level when a work was transmitted (e.g. the Gilgamesh epic). We also have textual differences attested by postexilic and later textual witnesses to consider, and the author analyses these throughout the commentary (as is of course broadly done with most if not all commentaries).

Tying in with these observations, in terms of external considerations, the author largely applies the use of archaeological data to the postexilic period, in line with his view that much of Deuteronomy 1–11 dates to this period. Those who wish to argue for an alternative provenance might wish to suggest that the archaeological data could also point to other periods in Israel's history. For example, the term “beyond the river” (Akk. eber nari) refers to geographic divisions that were essentially permanent (the river Euphrates), and the term (which is not used in Deuteronomy, nor even in the Persian documents themselves, even though it appears in postexilic Hebrew and Aramaic) is already attested in Neo-Assyrian documents. Furthermore, Gaza was already known as an important centre in the Late Bronze Age. Also, considering the relatively small amount of actual archaeological reference points in Deuteronomy, using archaeology as an external reference may not lead to conclusive arguments in terms of the provenance of the book.

In any case, even if one were to disagree with the author about the date of the book and about the ways the material has been put together redactionally, there are other points with which one would agree. Source and redactional questions are clearly an important set of considerations, even if any reconstructions must remain hypothetical, so at least a certain degree of related analysis should be palatable to anyone wishing to examine the book in detail, also keeping in mind differences between the various pentateuchal legal codes. Already broadly in this context within Deuteronomy itself, even if one wished to favour more synchronic approaches, the ideas that the narrative of Deuteronomy has been built around the laws rather than the other way around and at least partially has a different provenance are reasonable and plausible (even if such a view might already be appealing, even self-evident based on other considerations). Also, the question of “narrated time” versus the “time of narration” is absolutely pertinent. In relation to this, even if one were to argue for an earlier date for the book, the book would have been used by later generations, and for them the time of exile and after would have provided an uncanny resemblance with an earlier time, most notably the time of settlement in the land, the narrative setting of the book. On this train of thought, considering any likely retouching in the exile and afterwards, any comments by the author about exilic and postexilic redaction and interpretation would be easily applicable, even if only as adaptation of the book for the Judean community in the changing times. Here one may ask, and perhaps this is an important reason why there have been differing views about the provenance of the book, was the exile and return a time of re-adaptation and reuse of the book in a situation where history more or less repeated itself, or does the book involve a creation of a history in a distant past (and here one may ask to what extent the book reflects that distant past) in order to address the circumstances of a community in momentously changing and threatening circumstances? Whatever the case, the book is a narrative construction and thus any narrative analysis will equally apply, even if mutantis mutandis.

The author's interpretation of Deut 4:35–39 as representing the latest stage in a move towards monotheism within Deuteronomy (esp. p. 801) is certainly possible, and yet, a monolatristic reading would still seem possible in light of Deut 4:34, which mentions other gods just prior to v. 35. If so, one could read vv. 35–39 as proclaiming the uniqueness of Yahweh and therefore his preeminence and exclusivity for Israel. In addition, on e.g. Deuteronomy 7 and the problem of ḥerem, it would have been interesting to have the author engage a bit more with possible postcolonial readings of the book. This said, the comments made by the author on ḥerem on pp. 887–89 are very interesting. As regards the use of parallels with other biblical books, these have been very nicely elucidated. As to how much these can be used for dating may be more of a moot point, that said, the comments made by the author in the context of his own views on the setting(s) are very well made.

In sum, this is very thorough and stellar work as a whole that in very many ways sets a dauntingly high standard of scholarship for others to emulate and, if possible, to improve on. So, all in all, this reviewer is very impressed by these volumes and awaits the ones still to appear in print. Altogether, even if one were to completely disagree with the conclusions made by the author, these volumes would still be very worthwhile reading.

Pekka Pitkänen, University of Gloucestershire