Deuteronomy was probably written ca 550 BC, in Egypt, by the descendants of the Jews who went down to Egypt with Jeremiah. Despite appearances, it is not based on a speech by Moses (ca. 1200 BC), nor is it the mysterious Book of the Covenant “discovered” by King Josiah in 623 BC, as many scholars believe. It was a book that had its own value in its own time, but it is a literary construct reflecting a rather limited vision of the future, not a work that has timeless value for either Jews or Christians.

Not dictated by Moses

Deuteronomy presents itself as being an account of Moses’ speech to the people, delivered just before the Israelites entered Canaan. However, this should be understood as a literary device: it is not historical.

The centralization of worship required in Deuteronomy 12 was neither practical, nor implemented until it was attempted by the kings Hezekiah and Josiah.

The formal limitation of the priestly role to the tribe of Levites, implied in Deuteronomy, dates from the time of king David. It was not in place from the beginning, even though it is assumed in Deuteronomy 18. For example Gideon of the tribe of Manasseh, the great advocate of the worship of Yahweh, built a “proper altar” and sacrificed a bull on it as an offering to Yahweh, even though he was not a Levite.

Rather than placing Deuteronomy in Moses’ time, it is better to view Moses’ speeches in this work as the free invention of the author of this work, being an attempt to continue the reforms that had begun to take place under kings Hezekiah and Josiah. In particular, it saw the centralization of worship in the Jerusalem temple as being the ideal arrangement. It also imagined a world in which the prophetic voice of Yahweh would be unmistakable. There is no ambiguity in Deuteronomy’s view of the future. All would be perfect, provided the Israelites were obedient to Yahweh’s words, and to those of his prophets.

Not discovered by Hilkiah

For many scholars, most of whom are not content to accept Moses’ “authorship” of this work, it has seemed obvious to consider Deuteronomy as the trigger for the reforms of King Josiah. Yet this is also not in accord with the evidence they cite in its favour. Their case is built on 2 Kings 22 and 23, where it is reported that Hilkiah, the high priest, found a book / tablet / scroll of the Torah in the temple. This happened when Hilkiah was undertaking a refurbishment of the temple paid for by King Josiah. Hilkiah could not read the text, so he gave it to the scribe Shaphan (rather than just to a younger priest with better eyesight), who was able to read it.

It is quite unlikely that the chief priest of a significant kingdom, like the kingdom of Judah with its literary traditions such as found in the Psalms, would have been illiterate in Hebrew. Hebrew was not a new script at this time, since writing in Hebrew had been invented 400 years earlier. While there was a hereditary element in taking this office, a level of superior knowledge and basic literacy would have been a pre-requisite for such a high and important office.

Rather than the high priest, Hilkiah, not being able to read Hebrew, we are entitled to conclude that the “thing that he found” was written in another language, or an old script, or at least in something that required a special interpreter. Since we know that Akkadian tablets survived from the Egyptian period through to the Babylonian captivity, we are entitled to draw the obvious conclusion that the “thing found” was a cuneiform tablet, written in Akkadian cuneiform, and that this tablet contained the covenant established at the Mountain of God. The content of this tablet would have been close to the text we can find in the E Source narrative of the exodus events.

On this basis, Shaphan the scribe read to King Josiah the (mostly) ethical commands of Exodus 21 to 23 v.19, which promised blessings upon the people. Yet it was only implied in these commands that these blessings of the people were conditional upon their obedience to these commands. It was not explicitly explained, as is done in Deuteronomy, that curses upon the people would follow their disobedience.

In this text, it was not expected that the whole nation would reject or ignore the covenant commands. However, individuals might fail, and to deal with this situation the covenant including a strict rule relating to those who worshipped other gods.

Whoever sacrifices to any god other than Yahweh must be destroyed.

However, the import of both this explicit command and the implied loss of blessings in the case of disobedience were not lost on King Josiah, even though this was something quite new to him. Like the former kings of the southern kingdom of Judah, it appears that King Josiah’s religious devotion were not based upon the words of this original covenant. Instead, his religious devotion had been built around the formalities of worship in the Jerusalem temple.

Therefore, King Josiah was shocked to discover that the people of the kingdom Judah had not been in lock-step with this covenant established at the time of Moses.

So the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of Yahweh with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets — all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the covenant, which had been found in the temple of Yahweh. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of Yahweh — to follow Yahweh and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant that were written in the tablet. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.

After this Josiah set about purging all the non-Yahweh elements of cultic observance from his kingdom. Furthermore, he declared that the Passover must be celebrated in accordance with the covenant (possibly in regard to the sacrifice not being carried over to the next morning – Exodus 23:18, or the seven days of unleavened bread – Exodus 23:15). Josiah believed that the Passover had never been celebrated in accordance with these rules.

In carrying out these reforms, it is not necessary for scholars to assume that Hilkiah, or someone else in the temple community, invented the text of Deuteronomy, and then pretended to have discovered it in order to introduce these reforms. (Where is the evidence?) The words of the original covenant, as discussed above, were sufficient to bring about all the reforms instituted by Josiah. Even the centralization of worship in Jerusalem implemented by Josiah did not need Deuteronomy as its inspiration. This was just the resumption of the work of a predecessor, King Hezekiah, who had destroyed the old regional altars (the high places) before they were rebuilt by Hezekiah’s successor, Manasseh.

The proposal put forward here, namely the discovery of old Akkadian cuneiform tablets in the temple precinct, is entirely feasible; it should not to be dismissed as unlikely. In fact, it deals with the evidence is the most believable manner.

Not written by Jeremiah

Some have thought that Jeremiah might have been behind Josiah’s reforms, and by extension, also responsible for the text of Deuteronomy. Yet, despite the obvious similarities between the book of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah’s prophecies, the two works have quite different visions for the future.

Jeremiah was a great prophet of Yahweh. He was seized with the vision of Yahweh’s rebuke to the people of the kingdom of Judah for their faithlessness. Jeremiah was well-read, and in delivering Yahweh’s judgment he related the history of the Israelite nation to them, listing the many failures to remain true to Yahweh. He observed that, despite these failures, the Israelites considered they should still continue to receive Yahweh’s blessings. Apparently the Israelites were complaining that Yahweh was not looking after them as he had promised.

Jeremiah said to them, “Yahweh declares, ‘Why do you bring charges against me? You have all rebelled against me! In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction. Your sword has devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.'”

Jeremiah was unimpressed by the results of Josiah’s reforms, and his reading of the covenant, dating from Moses’ time:

Jeremiah said, “Ah, Sovereign Yahweh, how completely you have deceived this people and Jerusalem by saying, ‘You have peace,’ when the sword is at our throats.”

The issue for Jeremiah was that the covenant established in Moses’ time assumed that the people would be obedient.

The people appear to have thought that the open-ended promises in the Mosaic covenant offered Yahweh’s blessings despite their faithlessness.

Jeremiah believed that relying upon the security offered through worship in the temple of Jerusalem was not helpful to them.

Yahweh says to you, “Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh!'”

Jeremiah considered that Josiah’s reforms, specifically relating to the Passover celebration, did not complete the reforms required: obedience to the whole covenant was required. Jeremiah told the people:

Yahweh, the God of Israel, says, “For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command, ‘Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways that I command you, that it may go well with you.'”

Yet Jeremiah had to deal with the situation that the covenant that he was citing only had the expression, “Obey me!” It did not follow it up with the explicit punishments. Compare the simple “Obey me!” of the original covenant with the explicit curses that are a feature of Deuteronomy.

Deut. 11:16-17: Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then Yahweh’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce.

While Jeremiah’s message was similar, in that he delivered Yahweh’s judgment on the people, he claimed to be delivering a message that he had received directly from Yahweh. He was not relying upon a text, least of all Deuteronomy. He could not have done so, since Deuteronomy had not yet been created.

In addition, we can say that Jeremiah would never have created a work like Deuteronomy, since it cuts across part of his vision, namely a people who did not need a covenant like the one given by Moses, but who had Yahweh’s thoughts written on their hearts, just as they had been written in his. It is impossible to imagine that Jeremiah thought that a new strictly covenant was the answer to the failures of the people.

To claim that Jeremiah was influenced by the book of Deuteronomy, or even to have been its author, is to misunderstand the genius of Jeremiah’s message.

Indeed, Jeremiah’s vision for the future of a people led by the Spirit of God only came to be fulfilled in the giving of the Holy Spirit to ordinary Christian believers.

Jeremiah and Deuteronomy

The Babylonians put Zedekiah, the third son of Josiah, on the throne of Judah. After reigning for eleven years, Zedekiah rebelled, bringing destructive war upon Jerusalem. The kingdom of Judah was brought to an end by Nebuchadnezzar, who appointed Gedaliah, the grandson of Shaphan, as governor of the towns of Judah. (Why should we doubt that this Shaphan was the Shaphan who read the covenant to King Josiah? There is little evidence for frequent re-use of names in the Israel.) If he was the grandson of the same Shaphan who read the covenant to Josiah, then it is likely that the Babylonians had deliberately appointed someone who could read Akkadian cuneiform, and who also was well informed on the religion of Israel, and the demands of Yahweh.

Gedaliah began well. The Israelites who had fled to the neighbouring countries to escape the destruction brought by the Babylonians returned to Israel. All looked to be going well, but Gedaliah’s naivety led to his murder by someone commissioned by the Ammonites (across the Jordan). Many of the leaders of the remnant of Israel died at the same time.

Terrified by these events, the remaining leaders fled to Egypt, against Jeremiah’s specific and stern warning to them that they should remain in Israel. What is more, they took Jeremiah down to Egypt with them. While Jeremiah prophesied destruction for this “Egyptian remnant,” both before he went down to Egypt, and afterwards, at least a faithful few survived these events. Our only evidence for this is the survival of the book Jeremiah, but it is quite convincing evidence since the book includes a segment dealing with Jeremiah’s “Egyptian period.”

It is ironic that those who loved Jeremiah and his message were responsible for the creation of the book of Deuteronomy, since the evidence points to this happening in Egypt.

The direct parallels between passages in Jeremiah and Deuteronomy show direct borrowings, with verses from Jeremiah 11 appearing throughout Deuteronomy. In addition, whereas Jeremiah had strained to convince the people of the kingdom of Judah that punishment would follow their failure to obey the covenant, this was explicitly stated in Deuteronomy. Since it has already been shown that Jeremiah did not rely upon Deuteronomy, and that Deuteronomy had nothing to do with King Josiah’s reforms, the direction of borrowings is clear – Deuteronomy borrowed from Jeremiah.

In addition, Deuteronomy is mostly made up of a speech put into Moses’ mouth, talking about the conquest of Canaan. This speech has more relevance to a time when reconquest was necessary than when the Israelites were already settled in Canaan, namely, after the Babylonians had ended the kingdom of Judah.

Deuteronomy was a programme for the retaking of the land. This time the “mistakes” of the past were not to be repeated. Rather than just winning military victory over the kings of the land, as Joshua had done, the writer of Deuteronomy now demanded that the Israelites kill every one of the inhabitants of the land. (Fortunately, Yahweh never allowed the returning Israelite refugees to implement this programme!)


Scholar composing a textDeuteronomy can be considered to be a scholar’s version of Jeremiah’s reforming prophecies. It has the fierceness and strictness that is the usual preserve of a minority movement.

In addition, despite his allegiance to Jeremiah’s message, the writer of Deuteronomy seems to have been somewhat idealistic and impractical in his attitude to the prophetic office, at least as Jeremiah saw it:

Jeremiah said, “Then Yahweh reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth.'”

Throughout Israel’s history, a prophecy began its life when a prophet was seized with an understanding of what Yahweh wanted him (or her) to say to the people. The prophet believed that when he spoke he was delivering Yahweh’s words, since Yahweh had “put God’s words into his mouth,” as Jeremiah himself reported. It was not always a perfect process, as Ezekiel admitted in regard to his prophecy of the destruction of Tyre (Ezekiel 29:18), which did not come to fulfilment.

So it happened that an unintended consequence of the rising popularity of the book of Deuteronomy was the termination of the prophetic voice in Israel. Whereas we can see that it was the practice of prophets to speak as they believed Yahweh was inspiring them, now it was being demanded that everything that they said as a prophet had to be guaranteed to come true. So the author presents Moses as declaring:

“You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by Yahweh?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of Yahweh does not take place or come true, that is a message Yahweh has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

Not properly understanding the prophetic process, the author of Deuteronomy replaced it with his idealistic (and unrealistic) vision of Yahweh’s direct communication with the prophet.

His understanding of the appropriate response to a military emergency (Deuteronomy 20) was also idealistic and naive, and one that Jesus directly contradicted in his instructions in regard to the spiritual battle in which they were to become engaged.

Furthermore, the writer did not have Jeremiah’s vision of a people who would be transformed in their hearts (even though he repeated Jeremiah’s words about being circumcised in the heart).

Yet the writer of Deuteronomy was not without spiritual insights of his own. His selection of ten commandments was taken up by the editor of the Pentateuch (Ezra), who including them in his version of Exodus. This selection has also stood the test of time, being repeated in Christian worship even today.

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