In The Code of Deuteronomy Adam Welch spent a good deal of space refuting now-forgotten scholars. Most of those scholars tied the laws in Deuteronomy to the reforms of Josiah as documented in 2 Kings 23. Rather than getting into the details of these scholar’s reasoning, a quote from Welch may give a more vivid sense of his skepticism. About the cities-of-asylum law in Deuteronomy 19 he says:
“Nor is it easy to suppose that the Deuteronomic law was issued at the time of Josiah. The men of that time, in dealing with a question of civil order, might have ignored the priesthood and its influence, but they could not readily have passed by the centralized authority of the king and left the decision of murder and private war to be determined by local authorities. Already in the time of David a woman was finding it natural to appeal to the royal justice for protection against the horrors of the blood-feud, and already, what is more significant, the king was prepared to accept this responsibility [2 Samuel 14:1-8]. The authority of Josiah would scarcely have been ignored by men who were looking for his help in connection with the reform they were zealous to institute” (p. 143).
The scholars Welch refuted here had a kind of conspiracy theory that a little cabal of reformers wrote the laws of Deuteronomy and passed them off to the king as an ancient document. But note that Welch’s argument works also against the theory that the laws came into existence earlier in the Judean monarchy, say under Hezekiah, and reappeared at the time of Josiah.
During the time of both Hezekiah and Josiah, the pressure from Assyria and then Babylonia had caused Judah to become a smaller kingdom centered around Jerusalem. But most of the laws of Deuteronomy, according to Welch, do not fit that situation. They contemplate a much more decentralized situation where tribes and clans still administer their own justice, maintain their own sanctuaries, and raise their own militias.
So Welch draws conclusions that I would summarize this way:
1. The only law that requires the centralization of worship is in 12:1-7, and a Jerusalem-centered priesthood may have misinterpreted even this law. It may have originally just meant that Israel must have nothing to do with pagan sanctuaries.
2. The burden of the code is to keep the people away from the influence of the surrounding fertility religions. Both the place of worship and the character of worship must be Yahwistic.
3. Devotion to Israel’s God involves all of life, not just what happens at the sanctuary. Therefore the laws regulate civil life in the clan, the village, and in the household. They allow for a monarchy, but not of the autocratic kind experienced under Solomon.
The Levites guide what we would consider secular affairs as well as religious affairs. The prophets stand in the tradition of Moses and continue to speak from God. This justifies the claim that these laws are the instruction of Moses.
4. As far as the cult and its sanctuaries and rituals are concerned, Deuteronomy’s laws are very conservative. They do not admit new elements to come in from Canaanite culture.
5. As far as ethics are concerned, the code may seem advanced to us in its concern for the poor. That is because the code derives its laws from the character of Israel’s God. It helps explain the rise of prophets like Amos and Hosea who seem to stand in continuity with the movement that produced the code.
I find Welch’s approach eye-opening. But I don’t agree with it all. I will do a final post on the book to evaluate it.