Deuteronomy is the final book in the Pentateuch, containing Moses’ last sermons, as well as poetry regarding Israel’s future. Moses pleads with Israel not to repeat their past mistakes, such as falling into idolatry. They must keep their covenants and keep the law given by Yahweh, or else they will lose the Promised Land. What does that mean for Latter-day Saints today? We’ll discuss that, and much more, on today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”
Deuteronomy is the final book in the Pentateuch, containing Moses’s last sermons as well as poetry regarding Israel’s future. Moses pleads with Israel not to repeat their past mistakes such as falling into idolatry. They must keep their covenants and keep the covenant given by Yaweh or else they will lose the promised land. What does that mean for Latter-day Saints today? We’ll discuss that and much more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.
My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow here at the institute and each week we discuss the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.
Today we are joined by Dr. Avram Shannon, an assistant professor of ancient scripture here at BYU. Avram was educated at BYU, the University of Oxford, and The Ohio State University and is a specialist in Rabinic Judaism, Jewish Studies, and Ancient Biblical Interpretation. Among his recent publications is the edited volume, Covenant of Compassion: Caring for the Marginalized and Disadvantaged in the Old Testament, published by the Religious Studies Center here at BYU. He is currently at work on an introduction to the Old Testament for Latter-day Saints with Dr. Joshua Sears.
Joseph Stuart: Welcome to the podcast, Avram.
Avram Shannon: Thanks so much. I’m happy to be here.
Joseph Stuart: We are thrilled to have you here. If we could begin, could you tell us how you introduce Deuteronomy to your students?
Avram Shannon: Sure. When I talk of Deuteronomy with my students, one of the things I make very clear is in some ways what we are getting is right there on the ten. Deuteronomy comes from Greek and it means a second interpretation of the law. And so in Deuteronomy we’ve had Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. We’ve had these discussions of law, law code. Deuteronomy does it all over again. So we start by saying, okay guys we are going to do this again, that means there’s going to be some distinctive elements here as we work through what’s going on in Deuteronomy. The name just says it all for us when we start it.
Kristian Heal: So I was struck that Robert Alter says that Deuteronomy is the most sustained diplomat of rhetoric in the Bible and another commentator Von Rad calls it “preached law”. What is it that makes the book so rhetorically rich?
Avram Shannon: So one of the things about Deuteronomy as it’s this repetition of the law. It’s making an argument. It tells a story, the end of the forty years in the wilderness, Moses gets up on the mountain and says, okay Israel, let’s talk. Let’s do this again. We are going to go through this. So this idea of repicking the law means that Deuteronomy is telling the stories and it’s doing so in a way that it’s got one point of laws to be lived and who God is. It’s making a point about Israel’s relationship to God. We see similarities in the points at various points in the Old Testament. But Deuteronomy from start to finish, is the product of a single view on our relationship with God and that makes it distinctive in scripture where we will often get multiple voices and things coming in as we read in the various scriptural books.
Joseph Stuart: Deuteronomy begins with a recap of Israel’s history to a new generation of Israel sort of like when you are watching a season of television, the second one it recaps what happened in the first. How does Deuteronomy use history to reach its audience?
Avram Shannon: Deuteronomy is again, a book where this notion of law, throughout all of the Bible, but especially Deuteronomy lies fundamentally about Israel’s relationship with Jehovah. With Israel’s relationship, with Yaweh and who he is and what he does and how the Lord interacts with them. It’s going to start with and we see this in terms of its connections with ancient covenant making procedures. They’re all through Deuteronomy. It’s got this historical prologue where God says, look! Look at all the great things I did for you. I took you to Egypt, I brought you here and it says and here’s what you’re going to do for me! And then it moves forward and says, and look at all the great things I’m going to do for you. So Deuteronomy’s history is both backwards looking in a sense, that it shows Jehovah’s covenant relationship with Israel, but it’s also forward looking in the sense that if Israel keeps it up then things will still be good but again it shows in Deuteronomy that if Israel doesn’t than things are going to go bad. And of course, that becomes to be significant as the Bible reaches its final form of composition because things indeed, go bad.
Kristian Heal: It reminds me of Moroni’s promise, another historian saying before you do anything new with God, remember all the things in the past that happened with God so this recapitulation becomes vital soul preparation.
Avram Shannon: Absolutely. You can even feed that in with something in when Nephi talks about the purpose of scriptures to expand your memory. This idea that you’ve got to place your current relationship in connection with the other relationship and the previous relationships with God.
Kristian Heal: So as you’ve worked through and taught Deuteronomy and studied and looked at it in your own research, do you feel that there’s a particular spiritual worldview that’s being articulated in this book and in particular, theology or to see it have a particular special interest in social justice for example?
Avram Shannon: Yeah, so Deuteronomy certainly focuses on some very key things. One, Deuteronomy is of all the legal books, the most focused on this notion of Jehovah alone. We call it monotheism, that’s of course an antenistic term, for what’s going on in Deuteronomy. But this focus on you only worship, Israel’s only relationship is with Jehovah and all this other stuff is not for Israel. Now Deuteronomy still allows and says, if they want to worship other Gods, that’s fine, God it actually says in one place, God actually gave them those Gods, they can worship them but Israel, you don’t. The covenant relationship is as Deuteronomy frames it, an exclusive covenant relationship and because of that Deuteronomy will use marriage language, God loves Israel, Israel loves God. It will use these kinds of very focused views on that and with that it includes things like Deuteronomy is very convinced it says, there is one place you worship. And so, one of the major themes is this centralization practices, centralizations of the temple ordinances in one place. The place in which God will put his name is the Deuteronomistic phrase for that. It’s got all these laws about what you’re not supposed to do about Cannanite religion. Again, not that those are necessarily bad for them as such, but if Israel does them, that’s going to be a real issue. There’s a lot of boundary maintenance. One of the things we see as we read the Bible is that many of the practices forbidden by Deuteronomy seem to be okay in other places. For example, Deuteronomy forbids the setting up of standing stones. But when Jacob goes to Bethel, he has his dream, he sees God, he steps into heaven and Jacob’s ladder, and the first thing he does? He sets up a standing stone, pours oil on it and says this is Jehovah’s house. And so you find that Deuteronomy is so concerned with this strict covenant relationship that even things that were previously okay, are no longer okay in Deuteronomy’s perspective. The notion of social justice is intriguing because the whole law is concerned with it. Deuteronomy does have places in it —this has been an argument scholarship is more concerned with it. It does talk a lot about widows and orphans. Part of that, is that it has a lot because of some of the things reforms it makes in the temple. Now, Levites and priests outside the centerplace are protected persons and they are going to be one of the major audiences of Deuteronomy. So part of the emphasis there is when you’re an out of work priest, suddenly the concern for out of work priests becomes more important. But actually it moves focus on you take care of the poor, widows, orphans, this is something that to live God’s law, to be God’s covenant people you cannot leave people on the margins.
Joseph Stuart: Thinking also about how when I tell a story, even sometimes to the same audience, I’m going to have a little bit of a different frame or a different inflection. Is there a unique view or a different way of seeing the law as taught in Deuteronomy?
Avram Shannon: Certainly singular in the sense that Deuteronmy is, as I think about the various law codes in the bible, you have Exodus, you’ve got Leviticus, and as you read them you’ll notice that they don’t always agree. The great example of this is the slave laws. Exodus in Exodus 20:21, says you have a slave and after seven years you let them go. If they want to stay, you can let them go without anything. They go free, but you don’t give them any gifts or anything like that. Leviticus actually says you can’t make Israelites into slaves but it’s legal fiction, you can make them indentured servants who serve for seven years. It’s the same thing, but the ideology in Leviticus is a little bit different. Deuteronomy is a very close to the law in Exodus. You have a slave, they serve for seven years. You let them go, but then it says but you give them gifts. They do not go empty handed. You set them up after you let them go, which reflects something about what we talked about in terms of the social justice idea, this idea that you take care of the slaves even after they are no longer your slaves. But what I think about these differences in Deuteronomy in particular and just in general, I think of it as what we have in the Old Testament is like seeing different layers of the handbook of instruction side by side. Where if you read the handbook of instructions, or its equivalent from the 1960s or the 1980s and even in the early 2000s, which you can actually still get the legacy edition and the current edition on the Gospel Library App and compare them you say, there are lots of things that are the same. There are lots of things that are different and that kind of comparison. So in Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy’s view of law and it’s all part of this covenant relationship in all the places. But for Deuteronomy, it’s that singularity of purpose that really makes Deuteronomy’s view of what God’s law is, what that covenant relationship is. Its this single mindedness towards Jehovah.
Kristian Heal: You’ve given us a really great sense of what’s in Deuteronomy. It would be useful to reflect back on the context of Deuteronomy perhaps how it fits into the ancient world. Some scholars have suggested for example, that this is a relationship between Deuteronomy and wisdom literature. So what’s the literary context of Deuteronomy in the ancient world?
Avram Shannon: Again, the connection, so wisdom literature, we see it actually several genres showing up in this part of the covenant of Deuteronomy, this sustained rhetoric we talked about earlier. We see, for example, this notion that one, law code, and has connections through near eastern ancient law code. These are the things you do, thou shalt nots, and the thou shalts. These kinds of commandments we see that are frankly just laws at this point. We seek connections to treaties, we’ll talk about this idea of covenant and this idea of Israel’s covenant. In the ancient world, though the covenant form is often found in these vassal suzerain treaties, where a king says, look at everything I’ve done for you. Look what I’m doing for you right now, this is what you do, these are the stipulations you do and in return for that I’ll protect you. I’ll give you good things. If you don’t do that, I’ll destroy you utterly. And you find that in Deuteronomy, it’s the exact same thing. God says, look what I’ve done for you, here’s our relationship we are setting up. If you do the right things, then I’ll protect you, if not, I’ll destroy you utterly. But we also see elements, which I also think relates to this notion of the social justice. Wisdom literature is very much concerned of humanities role in the world. What do humans do, how do humans interact, how do we interact with God, what do we do with this kind of thing? Very pragmatic in that sense and especially vis a vis, say Leviticus or Exodus, some scholars have suggested it’s almost humanistic, that’s again an acronism of course. But this idea focused on lived religion right now is a major theme in Deuteronomy. You see that even in you know he says, here Israel, this great theological the Lord is, Lord is one. And he says, I want you to talk about this, when you go to bed, when you get up, teach you kids, the notion of didactic. Teaching your children is a huge part of wisdom literature. So you have this law, this treaty, and that didactic nature and you teach this to your kids.
Joseph Staurt: Some scholars have connected the final form of Deuteronomy that we have now with the period of Josiah’s reforms of Israel’s cultic practices as described in Second Kings 22 and 23, and Second Chronicles 34 and 35. How is Deuteronomy reframing Israelite worship?
Avram Shannon: Okay, great. With this notion of this idea of suddenly there is one place you worship. There is one kind of centralizing emphasis and that’s going to change everything. Because again, you read Exodus and Exodus says in Exodus 20 the altar. Anywhere you want to build and altar, you build an altar. Anywhere you think, read Genesis, I didn’t even know God was in this place Jacob says and he builds an altar and he builds a place there and of course those sacred places remain important. Bethel becomes where Jerabom the first builds one of his national shrines when Israel and Judah splits. So the centralizing focus, this focus that you got to come to Jerusalem and we’ll say mixed view of kings. He says, you get a king or you could be a king, but you got to be a certain kind of king. Of course, no king we see in Kings is like that. But Josiah seems to be trying to be like that. You also see a formulation in things like prophets. Deuteronomy 18, the rule of the prophets says that if any prophet says anything about the future and it doesn’t come true, that’s a false prophet and you kill them. Honestly, the function of that law is to basically stifle prophecy. That’s what it does. So even though Deuteronomy likes prophets it’s kind of saying, we got to control this. And in a lot of ways the sense of Deuteronomy is things were wild and holy before. Let’s try and bring them down, let’s try and put a ??? (14:04) around it. And it seems to reflect, again, Deuteronomy in its original formulation seems to be older than Josiah. I say seems there because there’s lots of discussion there as we talk about it. It certainly reflects elements that predate the monarchy. We can see elements in Deuteronomy that go all the way back. It also reflects elements of the spinal formulation reflecting this kind of josianic reform. And really part of the reflection seems to be these are the troubles Israel is facing now that suddenly they are thrust on the world’s stage. When you’re a bunch of tribal chieftains living by yourself in the middle of nowhere as you see in Judges or early Samuel. David and Saul are kings, they really jumped up to chieftans in terms of how we would see them as warlords, it’s the best kind of comparison that you’ll get in early Israel. But now they are centralizing, the new eastern empire has huge cultural influence on there and suddenly the question is: how do we stay Israel when we have all this stuff around us? Deuteronomy seems to reflect a lot of those things in its final formulation, these questions of this is how we stay faithful to Jehovah now that these things have thrust onto the world stage.
Kristian Heal: Thanks. Those are wonderful insights, bringing the richness of this book, making it much more clear for us as we consider it as we look at it. It feels like Deuteronomy has an outsized influence on scripture more broadly. One of the ways as it seems to shape the next few historical books, the former prophets in the sort of Jewish cannon, Joshua through Kings. Why is that? What’s going on there?
Avram Shannon: Really what’s going on there is it looks like it’s being shaped by the same kinds of people who are concerned with what’s in Deuteronomy. So our major historical record, again this Joshua, Judges, not Ruth, but Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Samuel, Kings, Kings again we in scholarship call that the Deuteronomistic history because our earlier question we talked about the lens of history: this is what’s going on before, this is what’s going to happen. Basically, Joshua through Kings is at least redacted but probably composed by people who were viewing their history through the theological lens of Deuteronomy. It’s worth noting of course as we think of the history of the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew is not a language until about 1000 BC. We don’t even see Hebrew as a language until roughly around the time of King David and so we don’t see literary productions. Again, we know the writing, we know they are certainly doing things orally. There’s so much oral stuff that’s going on. But we don’t see these kinds of literary productions happening until fairly late in Biblical history, right around Josiah. We start seeing the same thing. We see prophets like Elijah and Elisha, they don’t write anything. We get into the 8th century and 7th century and suddenly people like Hosea. Hosea is one of our earliest prophets, and then they start writing things down. This idea of literature comes into Israelite History. We see it earlier in things in Restoration Scripture, things like the Book of Moses. They are writing things, but really this starting of writing history in Israel happens right about the same time that we see the rise of the Deuteronomists, in terms of their influence on Israelite thinking. So what this means then is, the story they tell us, the story we have is largely Deuteronomistic. We know they have earlier sources. Like Mormon, we see evidences of sources and redaction again the same way that Mormon takes from Alma and the large plates and weaves it together. Mormon’s point is this book is about Jesus to remember your covenants and so he’ll pick things that say, remember your covenants and think about Jesus. We don’t know, we don’t know. We are pretty sure Alma wrote lots of stuff. But Mormon is going to pick those things that really focus on his message of Jesus Christ. In the same way, we know that there are other versions of Israelite history. We know part of that because of something like Chronicles. We have another version of it that takes DTRH and rewrites it. So, we know this is happening in the ancient world, we just get to see it. So this is the version that goes forth. Again, King books and some Chronicles and some things like that, and then they give them a directors perspective which is if I worship God in the right way and if you don’t, bad things are going to happen. Again, we talked a bit earlier, bad things are coming. The final redaction of DTRH happens at the very beginning of the Babylonian Exile. So in some ways, what we are seeing in Joshua through Kings is them looking back and saying, how did we get here? What happened? And they frame it in terms of not keeping the covenants as laid out in Deuteronomy. Like I just said, because it’s sort of framed in terms of, it comes together and is really promulgated, we know it has much earlier stuff there going back to the various points while living the Sinai covenant, this is the version of the law that we find as Israel really beings to write. It’s all through Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses Deuteronomistic language throughout. It’s all through finding places of it in parts of Isaiah especially in the latter parts in the books of consolation, Isaiah 40 and following. We see a lot of Deuteronomistic language. Hosea looked the other way around. Hosea seems to be informing Deuteronomy in the final formulation of it as much as the other way around. It’s this kind of prophetic voice that then says we need to do something with this. When the Israelites come back from Babylon, during the Persian period, we get things like Chronicles. Chronicles is Perisan so there are other notions for this, this explanation for why this happens because we didn’t worship Jehovah properly, basically carries the day. And so suddenly this becomes the matrix through which the returning exiles understand the relationship, understand the rebuilding of the temple, understand everything moves forward afterwards, this notion that we messed up serving Jehovah properly, we’ve got to figure out how to do that. And that question of how do we do this properly pushes the Bible forward and pushes into early Judaism. It becomes really, really important. How do we make sure that none of that happens again? Which gets messed up in DTRH. DTRH is why did it happen? And here’s how we’re going— sorry, DTRH is a way of saying Deuteronomistic History it makes a little bit shorter. I think I mentioned that previously. But then it does. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is in fact one of the most quoted books in the New Testament period. In fact the three most quoted books in the New Testament are Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah. So when they are quoting law, in New Testament times, they are quoting Deuteronomy and there are a number of reasons for this. One, is that because recapitulation of the whole thing. It’s nice and compact in how it frames things. But two, as I said, it kind of carries the day in terms of how Israel and how later Judaism, thinks about their relationship, their covenant relationship with Jehovah, thinks about what the temple is, how the temple, you know. The famous verse, Hear oh Israel the Lord is one. This becomes the foundational statement in Judaism and Deuteronomy. When they ask Jesus, what’s the great commandment? Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, might, mind and strength. He modifies it a little there but he’s quoting Deuteronomy right there. He quotes Leviticus which shows that there’s these other laws are still a part of their scripture, but it’s Deuteronomy and this notion of loving God with all your heart, might, mind and strength that really carried the day. This is the scripture. When Jesus reads scripture, he’s reading what we would call the Old Testament and the most important scripture in the Old Testament from an ancient perspective, is the law and Deuteronomy is kind of—Leviticus is the other most important but those are for different reasons and the focus on purity laws or focusing on things that Deuteronomy focuses on.
Joseph Stuart: The encyclopedia of Mormonism, which was approved by the First Presidency when it was published, states that Latter-day Saint scriptures are replete with Deuteronomy teachings. How do you use Deuteronomy to help teach the Book of Mormon?
Avram Shannon: That’s a really great question and of course, Deuteronomy kind of placed in its final redaction is right in the Josianic reform, starting at the reign of King Josiah which is within Father Lehi’s memory. This is still very much an ongoing conversation. The Nephites depending on when you want to date how old he is, but we don’t know that but again, the kings just before Zedechiah so this Deuteronomistic reform, these Deuteronomistic questions are very much on the minds of the Lehites as they leave Jerusalem, as they leave and some people suggested the evidence goes one way or the other, but some have suggested that part of the difficulty between Laman and Lemuel because again they say these people are righteous, they keep the law. Laman and Lemual were Deuteronomistic and Nephi and Lehi were not. Again, the evidence is not strong there, but it is suggested perhaps the very first thing we see Lehi do, he travels three days out, and he builds an altar. So there seems to be some sense that Lehi does not need to be pulled into this notion of one place. Nephi goes to the promised land, the first thing he does is he builds a temple. Nephis seems to be not be hold in Deuteronomistic understandings. Well this where for Laman and Lemuel is actually where the problem is. Its very clear that they are not __(23:06) On the other hand, and this is where things get fun. On the other hand this notion of, if you keep my commandments you will prosper in the land, that’s the Deuteronomic proposition. That’s the whole thing the law is saying, so you see what I did, you do what’s good, not you’ll be cut off. So Book of Mormon theology is framed around the Deuteronomic proposition. Keep my commandments and you’ll prosper in the land. So again, previous Book of Mormon scholarship has seen actually a lot of Deuteronomy. David Seeley over in my department, BYU has done some really good work describing this. In my own scholarship there are other sources that work their way into it in terms of what’s going on there, but definitely Detuteronomy’s understanding of law is in the air as the Book of Mormon starts and that seems to feed in certainly Nephi’s understanding although again, specific propositions, Nephi and Lehi are free to disagree with. This is distinctive. But even again, this notion of how you deal with not being in the land, right? This is part of the question that Jacob has to ask. How are you not Israel when you are not in Israel? Again, even in responding to it they have to respond to the notion of what does the land mean, what is land theology. It’s in the Book of Mormon even when it’s disagreeing with Deuteronomy is still responding to Deuteronomy.
Kristian Heal: This is so valuable. I think all throughout work on the Old Testament and on this podcast part of our message has been the Old Testament informs everything we’re reading in the New Testament, everything we are reading in the book of Momron, everything we’re reading in the Doctrine and Covenants even. This is the kind of foundation of our scriptural literacy and the big ideas are just flowing through being worked out either in response to or follow it and so it’s just a reminder that the Old Testament is a good place to begin all of our study of scripture. And that kind of brings us to these last questions that we’d love to ask you and that is, what do we do with Deuteronomy as Latter-day Saints? How have we looked at it as Latter-day Saints and how can we apply it and think about it and learn from it in our own studies and in our own lives today?
Avram Shannon: That’s a really good question. It’s always the question of —I love what you said about the Old Testament being foundational to Latter-day Saint thought, Latter-day Saint, you know our scripture is all built around it. Again, it’s worth noting, the Old Testament is an old book and so sometimes you’re going to read things and be like, huh, what do we do with this? This is what I was talking about previously about this idea of Deuteronomy as a book of social justice and sometimes you’re like, really? Having slaves, is this particularly just? So part of it is remembering that it’s an old book and not trying to make it do things it’s not trying to do. That’s always, for any of the Old Testament, don’t try to make it do something it’s not trying to do. Don’t turn it into a 21st century book. Actually with that, something that I think is really key is this notion of likening. I often ask my students this. I’ll say, how is an apple like an apple and kind of stare at me for a second and say why are you being weird Dr. Shay and another student will say and apple is not like an apple, it is an apple. And I say exactly. When you liken things, you’re acknowledging that they’re different. You don’t liken things that are the same and so when we liken scriptures to ourselves, the first things we are doing is acknowledging that they’re different. So I think that’s a huge part of it, but I really think for Deuteronomy and for how it informs what we’re doing and how we’re thinking through it is one, take those ethical things and just run with them. God meant it when he said take care of widows and orphans. He meant it when he said you can’t actually be my people unless you take care of all my people. He meant it and we need to be serious about that. We need to be intentional about that. Again, Deuteronomy is a great example of likening, we need to do it in the way Deuteronomy says to do it. We probably shouldn’t do it as Deuteronomy says to do it but we are in a totally different set of circumstances but that suggests that there is more than one way to do what god wants us to have done. The other thing that I think is so important for Deuteronomy is again, it’s right there after the shmaw, the hero of Israel it can be in Shmiestreal, our Jewish friends will call that verse the shmaw. Part of one of their prayers, as I said, when you’ve done this, talk about it. Put it on your house, put it on your arm, you put it on your forehead, you talk about it when you go to bed, you talk about it when you get up, you talk when you go out, you talk when you come in. This idea that when scripture and God’s commandments and how we take care of each other and how we live this commandment is something that we should be doing all the time. And that’s just something I love about Deuteronomy, this notion of you go out and you say look at this cool thing, look at this. The idea of God’s covenant and God’s covenant relationship with Israel is always there with you and for me, that’s one of the great things that Deuteronomy has to teach us.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s a great place for us to stop today. Thanks so much Avram for joining us. Have a blessed week y’all.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)