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The Rise and Demise of the Deuteronomistic History — An Excerpt from Trent Butler's "Joshua" Commentary (WBC)

Categories Old Testament Book Excerpts

9780310520450Since Trent Butler published the first edition of his newly revised Joshua commentary (Word Biblical Commentary series), he says many more questions have been raised than answered in subsequent research and publications.

One thing has been clear from the start, however: "The language of Deuteronomy reappears at many points within the book." (90) He says such language not only gives the book of Joshua its basic form, but also its meaning.

This reality is important for not only understanding the origins and composition of Joshua, but the first several books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as well. Such knowledge also helps exegetes grasp the major theological perspective of the book and how it ties to those preceding and following it.

Enjoy this generous excerpt below, where Butler explores this so-called Deuteronomistic history, and several theories behind it, in order to better understand this Hebrew book.

Research and publication since the first edition of this commentary have raised many more questions than they have answered. We can still establish one clear point as we seek to understand the formation of the book of Joshua. The language of Deuteronomy reappears at many points within the book. This stands in contrast to the book of Judges, in which Deuteronomistic language is minimal. This contrast has led to many new understandings of the origin of the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible as discussed in my introduction to Judges, WBC 8. Albert de Pury and Thomas Römer in their report on the history of research on the Deuteronomistic History conclude:

Research on DH . . . finds itself today in a paradoxical situation. At first sight, we get the impression that the “Deuteronomistic fact” is well established. But after a closer look, it turns out that the definitions of DH are legion and not always compatible with one another. How can we define what is Deuteronomic, Deuteronomistic, and what is not?

Römer and Marc Brettler offer a paradoxical answer: accept both a Hexateuch and the Deuteronomistic History. Deut 34:4, 10–12 represents a pentateuchal redaction incorporating the ancestors and linking them to the Exodus and legal materials. This creates a Mosaic canon that ties the Deuteronomic law to the ancestral materials, not the Deuteronomistic. Deut 34:7–9 becomes a joint Priestly/Deuterono- mistic venture, part of a D-P redaction of the Hexateuch. The Hexateuch redactor created Josh 24 to complete the Hexateuch. The book of the Torah of God is the Hexateuch, while the book of Torah of Moses is the Pentateuch. The Hexateuch was central at the time of Nehemiah’s reading but eventually gave way to the Pentateuch.

Martin Noth suggested that Joshua is part of a larger historical work, reaching from Deut 1 through 2 Kgs 25. Noth named this the Deuteronomistic History. The history itself may not be the product of one person, at one time. Rudolf Smend and his students Walter Dietrich and Timo Veijola attempted to demonstrate at least three stages in the Deuteronomistic writings, all completed in Jerusalem after 580, that is, during the exile. Frank Cross reduces this to a preexilic Deuteronomist under Josiah and an exilic Deuteronomist who recorded the materials after Josiah and added others. Thomas Römer working off Auld, Knauf, and Lohfink, explores the possibility of two works beginning in the time of Josiah—a propaganda piece covering the first version of Samuel and Kings and a conquest version of Deuteronomy and Joshua. He also speaks of a law collection including parts of Deut 12–25. The primitive version of Joshua would include Josh 5:13–14; 6:2a, 3, 4b, 5, 11, 14–15, 20b–21, 27; 8:1–2, 10–12, 14–16, 19b, 20–21, 23, 25, 27, 29; 9:3–6, 8b, 9–15a; 10:1–5, 8, 10–11, 16–27; 11:23. All this leads to the conclusion that the “so-called ‘conquest tradition’ is nothing else than an invention by Deuteronomistic scribes.” John Van Seters dismisses any compiler, early sources, or preexilic work. He points to an exilic Deuteronomist who invented the material and to a later P redactor.

A. D. H. Mayes is more cautious, and rightly so, as he speaks of the editing of Deuteronomy as “a process rather than an event or events.” He also notes that “there is no doubt but that the work of the deuteronomistic circle represents a process or movement which was not completed in the context of a single editing even incorporating Deuteronomy into the deuteronomistic history.” The exact nature of the Deuteronomistic History is a continuing discussion.

Alexander Rofé extends the Deuteronomistic editors’ work over a period of almost three hundred years. Michaël van der Meer rightly counters: “One may question Rofé’s conclusion that one should stretch out the Deuteronomistic school over such a long period.” Still, van der Meer decides that modern historical criti-cal research finds a pre-Deuteronomistic stage, a basic Deuteronomist narrative, a nomistic-Deuteronomistic redaction, and a Priestly redactional layer. In so doing he, basically following Smend and his students, has himself stretched the Deuteronomistic school over a rather long period of time and identified theological ten- sions within the “school.” Römer claims that most German-speaking critics of the Deuteronomistic History remain true to Noth in one point: Deuteronomistic edit- ing began with the exile and was limited to the period of the exile.

Jacques Briend devotes an intensive study to the literary formation of Josh 1–12. He claims the first twelve chapters of the book were a separate written document with its main points in chaps. 3–9, introduced by 1:1–2 and later extended by chaps. 10–12 and then by chap. 2. A postexilic Deuteronomistic redactor then added an all-Israel perspective and a vision of violence showing hatred to the cities and their kings through the introduction of the ban language.

For Robert Coote, Deuteronomy and Joshua have no connection with an original Tetrateuch but begin the new Deuteronomistic History. Joshua’s appearances in the Tetrateuch come from additions by scribes in the court of Hezekiah or Josiah. The story of Joshua thus seeks to coerce and intimidate all of Josiah’s opponents to submit to the king.

Ernst Axel Knauf provides a short list of arguments against any existence of the Deuteronomistic History. The books show a Deuteronomistic way of composition but were not conceived by one author or by a homogeneous group. Thus many, particularly continental scholars, posit a theory resembling that of Becker, who claims that at the beginning of the development of the book of Joshua the book was not part of a Deuteronomistic History but part of a “Hexateuch” that did not include Deuteronomy and probably not Genesis. Joshua then became part of the Enneateuch.

Paul House argues for a single author because the books in the ultimate his- tory are linked together by death reports, because use of sources brings expected diversity to any history book, because ancient historiography expected one author who used different types of material, and because the one-author approach retains scholarly attractiveness that is based not on a preference for source criticism but on the text itself.

It still appears to me that the evidence points more to a single Deuteronomistic hand than to successive Deuteronomistic editors and that Judges was not involved in the Deuteronomistic editing. In fact, van der Meer notes that “proposals to dismiss the so-called ‘Deuteronomistic History’ altogether are becoming more and more numerous.”

One such proposal to dismiss the Deuteronomistic History comes from Reinhard Gregor Kratz. He finds traditional narratives from before 720 BCE in the early parts of Josh 6 and 8. The seventh century brought three additional works, in Kratz’s outline. The exodus narrative stretched from Exod 2 to Josh 12, but from the current book of Joshua only parts of chaps. 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11, and 12 were included. This created a “Hexateuch” without Genesis. Editors in the exilic period connected the original part of Deuteronomy to the exodus narrative, followed by the Decalogue. Still later an original Deuteronomistic History developed including parts of Samuel and Kings. The addition of the Deuteronomistic History, Judges, and other Deuteronomistic materials to the exodus narrative created the Enneateuch. That editing incorporated small parts of Josh 1, 5, 6, 11, 12, 23, and 24. Still later came chaps. 13–22. Knauf outlines a similarly tedious process of growth in his commentary. See Redaction History above.

Text-critical study reveals a process of editing, but nothing as elaborate as this. Israelite theologians, seeking to interpret the holy traditions for the people of God, were continually at work under the leadership of God, but they did not start with half verses and add small bits and large bits until the process was finished. Such a process of redaction criticism simply takes critical studies to the brink of the unbelievable.

K. L. Noll cites an extensive bibliography and argues for the improbability of the Deuteronomistic History. He defends the thesis that the “Deuteronomistic History belongs to the history of Jewish and Christian interpretations and not to the history of composition and redactional growth.”

Noll reduces Noth’s arguments to three issues: the summary speeches, the shared chronology, and the prophecies and fulfilled predictions. End-of-era speeches are a “mixed bag,” often having no careful structure. Other speeches do not promote the Deuteronomistic program. The chronologies of Judges and Kings do not agree, while Joshua and Samuel are unaffected by the chronology. Many of the prophetic stories do not fit the prophecy/fulfillment pattern. Concerning Noth, Noll notes: “There is no reason to think that the Former Prophets were created as a history narrative. Eventually, they were interpreted as something similar to Greek history writing, but they were not created with this purpose in mind.” Noll shows how, beginning with Noth, large and then even larger parts of each of the books have been denied to the Deuteronomist. This means defenders of the Deuteronomistic History must find a new, much later setting, redefine a Deuteronomistic agenda, and describe anew how to identify Deuteronomistic elements.

Noll offers his own simple definition of Deuteronomism as: “the presence of words and phrases from the book of Deuteronomy that seem to affirm the ideology affirmed by Deuteronomy.” This at first glance appears to reflect Weinfeld’s Deuteronomic vocabulary lists, but Noll adds the concern for ideology, which he demonstrates is a deadly weapon against an extensive Deuteronomistic History. Noll uses Weinfeld’s list to isolate glosses (including Josh 4:24; 5:1, 6; 9:27; 10:8; 12:6–7; 14:8–9, 14; 18:3; 21:43–44) from a “very late period.”

Noll then offers his own theory. Following Knauf and Lohfink, he speaks of the intermingling of Deuteronomistic and Priestly language and of instances where Deuteronomistic language does not express Deuteronomistic theology. For Noll, this means, “This interesting tendency of the language to intermingle with priestly idiom and to serve multiple theological agendas suggests that the language was not generated by a single ‘movement’ or ‘school,’ nor was it all the product of a single, unified redactional plan (or even a succession of one, two, or three individuals). Rather, it was added to pre-existing texts on an ad hoc basis at a time when pas- sages reflecting priestly idiom could be added as well.” This theory is built on Lohfink’s claim that “books” went through two stages: one copy controlled by the author and only much later multiple copies with some circulation. For Joshua, Noll dates the first stage in the Persian period and the second in the Hellenistic. This leads to the further conclusion that the Former Prophets “did not constitute a semiofficial Jewish tale of origin until Roman times.”

One must reply that such extraordinary linguistic theory dismisses any talk of authentic oral tradition, ignores scribal institutions during the monarchy, and leaves Israel without an identity until they have become totally controlled by a distant nation. The language, apart from a few possible poetic examples, had been standardized at some point, quite possibly in the exilic/Persian period. Standardization of a half century or more of linguistic development does not present a conclusion that all literature was composed in the standardized language, only that copyists used the written idiom of the day to record ancient materials.

Noll’s solution to this objection is that “the Former Prophets existed for centuries in a predeuteronomistic form.” This would relegate this form of the Former Prophets to the stage of author control for centuries, rather than seeing a temple or palace institution responsible for maintaining and updating historical writings and national identity. Such institutions may have saved one official copy of the written materials, but certainly they also had copies with which educators taught future scribes. If the books were in any manner tendential or propagandistic, then the writers sought to disseminate them, not simply hold on to past writing for the sake of one’s ego or enjoyment. The one-copy-for-centuries idea had to have a social or political function. Noll’s retort is that a small group of “like-minded intellectuals” used the books as conversation pieces for their own enjoyment. But how did such conversation continue over centuries, and who was responsible for preserving and overseeing the editing of the one master copy? The theory is interesting but is built on too many assumptions and stands too far from reality to attain wide acceptance.

With respect to Joshua proper, Noll sees construction projects unearthing mammoth Bronze Age structures for which storytellers provided an explanation. Following Van Seters, Noll maintains that Joshua began as an anthology of these stories, emulating Assyrian propaganda. The stories were in no way associated with the Moses tradition. Much later in Noll’s first stage of redaction, the narratives became Deuteronomistic and Priestly. Noll’s understanding then “divorces the origins of the book of Joshua from any memory, however clouded or unreliable, of actual Bronze Age or Iron Age I battles.” The earliest, pre- Deuteronomistic Joshua consists, then, of 3*; 5:13–15; 6*; 8*; 9*; 10*; 11*; 24*, and perhaps a few stray verse fragments.

If we insist on disposing of such theories, we must account for the Deuteronomistic language which gives the book of Joshua its basic form and meaning. Such language is most obvious in 1:1–18; 2:9b–11; 3:7, 10; 4:10, 12, 14, 24; 5:1, 5–6; 6:21, 26; 7:7–9, 11*, 15*; 8:18, 26, 29, 30–35; 9:9b–10, 24aB, 27bB; 10:25, 40; 11:3, 11–12, 14b–15, 20b–23; 12:1–13; 13:1–14, 32–33; 14:1–5, 14–15; 15:13–15; 17:3–6; 18:1, 7; 19:51; 20:8–9; 21:1–3, 43–45; 22:1–6; 23:1–16; 24:1, 11aB, 12b–13, 24, 31–32.

The presence of such editorial interpretation built around material from oral tradition is extremely important theologically. It gives us insight into how the inspired canonical writer understood and interpreted the sacred traditions transmitted by the community of faith. These verses unite the book theologically and tie it to the biblical works that precede and follow. They provide the major theological perspective of the book. And they apparently come from a single hand.

Joshua 1-12

By Trent C. Butler

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Joshua 13-24

By Trent C. Butler

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Joshua (2 Vol. Set)

By Trent C. Butler

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