What is the Deuteronomistic History, including its content, name, main theme, and some stories that illustrate that theme? What are examples of the two main types of wisdom literature?

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Biblical source criticism is the attempt to understand the original authors and editors of the Bible. In other words, it is a field of study that wants to know who wrote the various books of the Bible and who edited and compiled them. The Deuteronomistic History is one such theory, attempting to understand the composition and history of the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. It posits a single author, work, or source, referred to as “D,” behind all of these books.

In the nineteenth century, it was recognized by some scholars that these books shared themes and stylistic conventions. Martin Noth, a German Biblical scholar, took this a step further and argued that a single work was behind all of these books. Noth was building on an existing model called the documentary hypothesis, which was already beginning to look at the Torah, or first five books of the Old Testament, as the product of different traditions and authors edited together.

The theory gets its name from the Greek name of the first book in the series, the Book of Deuteronomy, which means “second law.” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 17:18:

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests.

A number of themes are reinforced throughout the Deuteronomistic History:

  • The struggle against idolatry
  • Jerusalem as the center of worship
  • Monotheism
  • Observance of the Law
  • Inheritance of the Land of Israel
  • Reward and retribution
  • The divine right of David and his lineage as kings

As the Deuteronomistic History covers the history of Israel and Judah, these themes are repeated throughout, and the picture is one of a singular, supreme god who has granted Israel to his people and ruled through a divinely chosen lineage, with blessings given for adherence to the Law and punishment given for disobedience to the Law. For example, Deuteronomy 28 lists out blessings and curses that will be given for obedience and disobedience, respectively.

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The Deuteronomistic History is a contemporary theory derived by Martin Noth arguing that the books of the Former Prophets of the Hebrew canon, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, all came from one literary work. Prior to Noth's theory, scholars believed that these books were a collection of works that had been edited to reflect primarily on Deuteronomy; however, later, Noth built on several of these older theories, noting the "similarities in language, style, and content" in all five books, and proposed his theory that they were at once all one unified work written during the period when the Israelites had been exiled from Israel and brought to Babylon (Oxford Bibliographies, "Deuteronomistic History").

The Book of Deuteronomy is understood to be a covenant between Israel and Yahweh; Yahweh has chosen the Israelis to be his people, and in turn, the Israelites must follow Yahweh's laws, as set forth in Deuteronomy. In fact, the name Deuteronomy was derived from a mistranslation in the Septuagint, meaning the Greek translation of the Old Testament, of a phrase found in Deuteronomy 17:18; the phrase was translated to mean "repetition of the law," but the actual Hebrew means "copy of this law" ("Deuteronomy: Introduction from the NIV Study Bible"). All in all, the Book of Deuteronomy was named to reflect Yahweh's laws as a part of the covenant.

What's also important is the laws make it very clear that, if the Israelites fail to follow the laws, then they will lose Yahweh's protection and the promised land he has given them, Israel. Noth saw the Deuteronomistic History as an account of all of the Israelites successes and failures to uphold the laws and the destruction that was a consequence of their failures, such as the Assyrians' conquest of Israel in 721 BCE and the Babylonians' conquest of Judah in 586 BCE. Hence, the main theme within the Deuteronomistic History is the successes and failures to uphold the laws and the ensuing consequences ("Deuteronomist"). This theme is manifested in the Book of Joshua, which narrates the Israelites' conquest of Canaan, the establishment of Canaan as the promised land of Israel, and the division of the land among the tribes of Israel. The theme is further manifested in the Book of Judges, which has its own cyclical theme: "the people are unfaithful to Yahweh and he therefore delivers them into the hands of their enemies; the people repent and entreat Yahweh for mercy, which he sends in the form of a leader of champion (a 'judge'); the judge delivers the Israelites from oppression and they prosper, but soon they fall again into unfaithfulness"--the cycle continues from there ("Book of Judges"). The cycle of rebelliousness, repentance, and Yahweh's deliverance can be further seen in the Israelites demand for a king in the books of Samuel and the books of Kings.

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