Spiritual formation is a term for the use of disciplines to advance religious or spiritual growth and sanctification . I have seen the term used by Catholics, Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Jews, and even new age Pagans. But I think it may have originated with the Catholic, Henri Nouwen. It usually refers to the use of things like set prayer, meditation, silence, readings, fasting, etc. to help people move to a more focused and mature spirituality.
In the introduction to Reading Deuteronomy, Stephen Cook suggests that Deuteronomy is about spiritual formation. He notices that the intended audience of Deuteronomy is the common people of ancient Israel. This contrasts with a book like Leviticus (although the Holiness Code in Leviticus 16 ff. is sometimes different) whose intended audience is a priestly elite. Deuteronomy is mostly about how ordinary Israelites and their families are supposed to practice devotion to YHWH. It occasionally includes instructions for priests or kings, but that is not its central thrust.
The word “Deuteronomy” means a second Torah. The reason for a second Torah was the need to renew the law of Moses for a later generation. Thus in Deuteronomy Moses is not the historical Moses but a literary Moses addressing the people embarking into the promised land.
“Properly understood, Moses’ role in Deuteronomy is not to impose a deadening conformity to a strict set of rules but patiently to teach God’s people a path of human formation that lives into God’s freely offered salvation. Deuteronomy is about the formation of renewed persons, newly graced with abundant, God-directed life.” (Some Kindle books now have page numbers. This one doesn’t seem to. The quote is from the introductory chapter).
As a book set in the midst of Israel’s pilgrimage, Deuteronomy speaks to people who see the spiritual life as a journey or pilgrimage. Its teachings aim to form God’s people in the midst of a trek. They have come out of slavery in Egypt and received the covenant at Horeb, but they have not crossed the Jordan to settle the land yet. Deuteronomy is addressed to Israel as they occupy the “liminal position” of a people waiting to move on and take up their true destiny.
For Cook, there was a proto-Deuteronomy found in the Temple as 2 Kings 22-23 records. However, he strongly disagrees with those who think this was a pious fraud, a book concocted just to further the political agenda of the Josiah party. It shares the tradition of the pained prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, who certainly were not spiritual frauds.
Rather Deuteronomy arose from several disparate sources that shared a heritage in a village-centered Israel. This goes back to his argument in the Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism that the institutions of landed gentry, village elders and rural Levites formed a counter movement to the royal bureaucracy–both administrative and priestly–in ancient Israel. These institutions lay behind the Elohist, the Psalms of Asaph, and the prophets Micah and Hosea. At last they “flowered” in Deuteronomy.
Proto-Deuteronomy came together sometime in the fifty years before Josiah. A limit to its antiquity is its familiarity with the Neo-Assyian Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon. Deuteronomy echoed these treaties, and sometimes used specific language from them, especially in the curses in Deuteronomy 28.
So Cook holds that a “covert coalition” of marginalized Levites and people of the land aligned with some important people in Jerusalem, like Hilkiah, to put together a key group or cell of scribes who assembled and edited proto-Deuteronomy (chapters 6-26 plus 28). During the dark years before Josiah “they kept their work under wraps.”
That is his basic theory. I have not summarized all his evidence for it. He has quite a lot. He may well be right. I would only point out that when he calls these scribes editors and assemblers, he leaves room for the possibility that much of the content of Deuteronomy is much older. This is what Adam Welch in his Code of Deuteronomy claimed (this old book was a reading project covered on this blog beginning in April, 2012). Welch claimed that the setting of some of the laws in Deuteronomy was as old as the time of the Judges. About this, his and Cook’s views do not necessarily conflict.
However, Cook is going to stress the final forms of Deuteronomy and their literary use as teachings about the formation of the people of God.