David M. Carr in Writing on the Tablet of the Heart demonstrates how Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (DH) in Joshua-2 Kings hold the oral and the written together.
Deuteronomy has much in common with wisdom literature. In the first chapter Moses appoints officials just as Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 also report. But unlike those books, Deuteronomy stresses that the officials were to be steeped in wisdom (Deuteronomy 1:13 and 15). Over and over again Deuteronomy talks about teaching and passing on tradition.
Carr looks at how the central part of Deuteronomy revises the Covenant Code from Exodus 20 ff. It adapts the code to new circumstances. For instance, now Israel has a king. So we have the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. That law requires the king to get from the Levites a scroll of the law. He is to read it constantly in order to keep its words.
This shows a process like that in Old Babylon and the Akkadian scribal tradition where master scribes first memorized the older material and then revised it and made it relevant to later circumstances.
In the DH Joshua starts off with the installation of Moses’ successor. In an odd phrase, the charge to Joshua includes that the “scroll of the law shall not depart from your mouth” (Joshua 1:8). This injunction shows the relation of the written and the oral. He has a scroll but its contents get recited or performed orally.
Late in the DH we have the discovery of the law scroll during Josiah’s kingship (2 Kings 22-23). Josiah goes beyond the rule in the law of the king that he read the scroll himself. He recites it publicly to the people. Thus he fulfills the role of Joshua by putting the scroll in his own mouth, using the scroll as an aid to give voice to the law.
Many critical scholars wonder if Josiah’s scroll is a fiction invented during the exile. The Deuteronomists were Utopian and sometimes departed from history. But we have epigraphic and archeological evidence of more scribal activity in the late preexilic period. We also have archeological evidence pointing to some of the Josiah’s Deuteronomy-based reforms. So Carr thinks the DH originally reached a climax with the discovered scroll and Josiah’s reforms and that the part of 2 Kings about the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and the beginning of the exile is an editorial addition.
Jeremiah was active in the time of Josiah. Shaphan, the scribe, was a supporter of Jeremiah. Moreover, Jeremiah’s message has several points of contact with Deuteronomy. The words in Jeremiah 8:8-9 about the “lying pen of the scribes” shows that there was interscribal conflict. The freedom of the master scribes to revise past traditions was subject to abuse and prophetic criticism.
There were other prophetic perspectives too. Carr discusses the material related to Isaiah. But I will have to move on to that in another post.