I have been reading people who use Canonical Criticism to understand Scripture since I read Brevard Childs’ introductions to the Old and New Testaments in the late ‘80s, But I have been uncomfortable with this and related approaches even while finding value in the results.
Stephen L. Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy has had the same effect now that I have finished his commentary. I mostly agree with his exposition, but I worry about the ethereal nature of canonical shaping.
Many of his results agree with my own understanding. Deuteronomy has a setting in the late monarchy and into the exilic period. Therefore, it is not really the direct words of Moses nor is it a very good source for the history of the exodus and the wilderness experience of Israel.
This has the advantage of making the kill-them-all passages about the Canaanites and Amalekites mostly symbolic rather than historical.
One of the problems modern interpreters have to struggle with is the Hebrew Bible’s inhumane commands concerning non-Israelite people and the whole issue of Holy War. Not only pacifists, but supporters of just war theory as well, have this problem. Under no modern theory are the Hebrew wars of ethnic cleansing and extermination justified. However, there is good reason to question the way Deuteronomy and, especially, the Book of Joshua, claim these wars happened.
So Cook’s understanding of them as symbolic and reflecting a time when Canaan and Amelek were not real nations, is very likely on target.
I appreciate that Cook is no minimalist who thinks the Exodus and the whole Moses tradition is just fiction. He has a relatively conservative view of the historicity of biblical traditions. Yet, he sees Deuteronomy as reflecting concerns that are centuries later than Moses. And he makes a good case.
But he does so using the idea that Deuteronomy is a canonical shaping of the Moses tradition. There is an article here by Bill T. Arnold, “Deuteronomy as the Ipsissima Vox of Moses” that sheds some light on this approach. Arnold distinguishes between authoritative teachings and the transmission process that reinterprets these for new historical situations. The authoritative old traditions embedded in Deuteronomy would include the Covenant Code and the Ten Commandments. But interpreting these for Josiah’s day and later legitimately involve much editorial activity.
So, according to Arnold, what we hear in Deuteronomy is not the authentic words of Moses, but it is the authentic voice of Moses. This is close to the understanding that Cook has as well.
My question about this has to do with the transmission process. The tendency of canonical theologians is to attribute personality to the process. In one place Arnold says that the transmission process was “continually developing but always respectful of the authority of the traditions” (Bill T. Arnold, Deuteronomy as the Ipsissima Vox of Moses, Journal of Theological Interpretation 4.1 (2010), p. 68).
How can a transmission process, which is an abstraction not a person, be respectful? No doubt, if I pushed this, someone like Arnold or Cook would say that it was the scribes who handled the transmission process who were respectful. I worry about the idea that the final version of biblical book has authority because of a transmission process handled by anonymous scribes and editors. It seems to give a mysterious authority to a vague process.
Nevertheless, the canonical theory has produced results and become more and more influential. In regard to Deuteronomy, Arnold sums up what happened in a way that I take to be very similar to Cook’s position:
In sum, the deuteronomic authors set out to transform Israelite religion and society by means of relying on a prestigious and authoritative older text as a resource, not merely a textual source. Without refuting or appearing to supersede the Covenant Code, the deuteronomic authors attempted to centralize the cult by transforming the altar law (Exod 20:24) and transforming and centralizing Israel’s festival calendar as well as its entire judicial system, all while continuing to affirm the now outmoded Covenant Code (Arnold, pp. 69-70).
I am open to the possibility that Deuteronomy draws not just on the Covenant Code but on an extensive collection of traditions, some of which go back to the period of the Judges. Thus, using redaction criticism scholars might be able to see where the deuteronomic scribes have both respected and sometimes distorted authentic older traditions. Cook’s own understanding of the roots of Deuteronomy in the circles of the Levites and village elders–Hosea, Micah, the Psalms of Asaph, the Elohist, and oral traditions of the People of the Land–seems to me to go along with a redaction criticism approach.
A question I have is what role a priestly and family tradition at Anathoth might have played in the development of Deuteronomy. Anathoth was a village a short walk north of Jerusalem in Benjamin. Abiathar, one of David’s priests, had opposed Solomon’s succession. So he took refuge at Anathoth (1 Kings 1:26), where he had an estate and which was also a designated city of refuge.
This left the Zadokites as the Temple priests in Jerusalem. They saw the banishment of Abiathar as the fulfillment of a curse against the house of Eli, the priest of Shiloh. But Eli’s house descended from Moses! ( See 1 Samuel 2:27.) The Levites in the north and in the villages outside Jerusalem may have remained loyal to Abiathar. Generations later, Hilkiah and Jeremiah of Anathoth played roles in the Josiah reforms.
There is a big gap in our knowledge. Jehoida, the priest who overthrew Athaliah (2 Kings 11:4 ff.), does not appear in the list of Zadokite priests (1 Chronicles 6:4-15). So was he one of the Anathoth priests?
If there was a “transmission process” going on that would lead to Deuteronomy, a setting at Anathoth–sort of in the north and in touch with the villages of the land, but very close to Jerusalem–would eliminate some of the vagueness about the process. It would fit with the “umbilical theology” and kinship connections Cook sees as so important.
All this is speculative. What I most appreciated about Cook’s commentary was more practical. He did a good job of showing that Deuteronomy is about the formation of Israel as the people of God. It is not a rigid rule book, but a call for a change of heart.