Blogging about a commentary is not easy. I found it rewarding, though, when I used Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus commentary as a reading project. So I now find myself seeking to give you a sense of the argument in Stephen Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy. This will mean passing over a lot of detailed discussions.
Cook believes there is a sense in which Deuteronomy belongs among the prophetic books.
The lines between law and prophecy shade into one another in Deuteronomy. Moses is the voice one hears. Moses is a prophet and speaks for God (Deuteronomy 34:10). The argument that came out of the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate about whether the Moses really wrote or spoke it misses the point. The structure of the book is built around discourses of Moses. This is not about later writers being sneaky and trying to give the book a legitimacy it would not otherwise have. The book continues the work of Moses who did not speak for himself, but taught the mind of God.
So before Deuteronomy we have a prophetic tradition that claimed a prophet had led Israel out of Egypt (Hosea 12:13). At the end of Deuteronomy we have the claim that
No prophet ever again arose in Israel like Moses, who knew the Lord face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10 NET Bible).
Then after Deuteronomy there continued a prophetic tradition that remembering the teachings of Moses was central to Israelite faith (Malachi 4:4).
Thus the scribes built Deuteronomy around three great discourses of Moses.
The first of these is in 1:1-4:43. This retells the history of Israel’s journey so far–how they came to be on the Moabite plane across the Jordan from the land God had promised them. The pilgrimage of the people had been complex and fraught with rebellion. Cook likes the sense that the NET Bible gives to 1:2-3:
“Now it is ordinarily an eleven-day journey from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by way of Mount Seir. However, it was not until the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year that Moses addressed the Israelites just as the Lord had instructed him to do.”
I like this too, because it gives some sense to the little geography note in verse 2 that otherwise seems out of context. The straightforward choice offered by the prophets and Deuteronomy was for the people to choose God and follow his teachings for a fulfilling life. But long experience showed that the people had a hard time turning away from infidelity. So the troubles in the wilderness are also the troubles the people continued to experience on their journey toward formation as the authentic people of God.
Cook thinks this point would have hit home with the people who knew how king Manasseh had undone much of Hezekiah’s reforms. They could see that the journey was not a straight line.
Cook insists that a value in the Book of Deuteronomy is its recognition that the journey of faith is subject to all kinds of mistakes and breakdowns. It is complicated so that unchangeable, rigid rules do not apply. Deuteronomy recognizes that law cannot be black and white. Law has to be adaptable to the contingent events that occur along the way.
Cook thinks this is why this first discourse of Moses ends in 4:41-43 with the designation of cities of refuge:
Then Moses selected three cities in the Transjordan, toward the east. Anyone who accidentally killed someone without hating him at the time of the accident could flee to one of those cities and be safe (41-42 NET Bible).
In tribal society families and clans often exercised vigilante justice. But such justice is subject to excesses. It does not recognize that even such an outrageous thing as homicide can be gray rather than black and white. So the law must be flexible, not rigid.
So even though these verses seem an awkward fit at the end of this discourse, Cook thinks they have the purpose of introducing a note of realism about human nature and the realities of life on pilgrimage. All kinds of things can happen. Maintaining fairness of judgment amidst the contingencies of the journey is a challenge.
Deuteronomy situates itself at the heart of this challenge, its authors pressing hard to engage and extend earlier ‘laws of Moses,’ such as those of the Covenant Code (Exodus 21-23), readying them for the here and now.