Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Canonical Shape of Deuteronomy

The Book of Deuteronomy plays a decisive role within the theological purpose of the canonical editors. Regardless of its actual original function (part of the reform program of Josiah?), within the present shape of the Pentateuch it functions to reinterpret the events of Sinai for the future generation of Israelites. In a series of speeches Moses explains and recapitulates the meaning of the Sinai law, and he does so on the plains of Moab before a new generation about to claim the promises of God. Childs (1972) lists three points that are made:

1) The original covenant concerns the later generations as much as the first. God's covenant was not tied to past history but was offered to all the people of God.

2) The interpretation of Moses is future-orientated: after the realization of the promises Israel is to respond obediently.

3) The purpose of Deuteronomy is to inculcate the Law in the heart of the people. The issue is a matter of life and death and Israel is to choose.

Childs argues that the Deuteronomy functions to provide a theological norm for how the Law is to be understood. The "spirit" of the Law is summarized in terms of "loving God with heart, soul, and might," a decisive check against legalistic abuse.

To summarize, Childs states,

Once again, and in a way different from either Genesis or the middle books, the canonical editors have shaped the material into a theological witness to be used by later generations of Israel. By removing Deuteronomy from its canonical setting and seeking to interpret it from an allegedly original historical context of the seventh century, the decisive function which the canon has assigned this material is lost."


dave b said...

Phil--in my latest post there is a link to a paper that I presented today. In light of this series of posts you are writing, I am curious what you think about alternatives to the traditional kind of readings that historical criticism has produced. My paper doesn't deal specifically with the Pentateuch but I think you will see the kind of direction I am going in.

Phil Sumpter said...

(I've posted this response on your blog, but I'll post it here too).

Thanks for your invitation to comment Dave. I'll try to briefly point out where I think Childs is coming from and how this relates to what you've written here (I've noted the essay, but I'm afraid I won't have time to read it – time!).
It looks as if Childs/Seitz's 'canonical approach' starts from a different premise to that of Josipovici (though I'm not sure, I haven't read him). Their starting point is a theological one: God has elected for himself a concrete people and relates to them is space and time. This historical relationship has brought into being the text of Scripture, a text which has the function of 'witness' to God. Just as our four different gospels are diverse textual witnesses to the one Gospel, so the whole of scripture testifies in diverse ways to the reality of the one God, the Gospel, or Jesus (or however you wish to define the text's ultimate subject matter). This kerygmatic function of the text means that its reality is not self-contained. Though one can posit a world 'in' the text as a useful hermeneutical tool, it is not the case that the world in the text exhausts the truth of the text. That text is part of a greater whole which points beyond itself to what really matters: 'divine reality', Jesus, or whatever. This is how I understand Vanhoozer's statement about theological interpretation: it is interpretation oriented to the knowledge, not of the text (literary approaches), nor of historical circumstances (historical critical approaches), but of the God who called the text into being in the first place (JTI vol. 1).
As a result, theological interpretation must be more than literary interpretation. We need to be piercing 'through' the text to its ultimate subject matter. This subject matter is outside the text (I'm not sure I would say 'behind' ... ), it is the ultimate subject matter of the text, what the text is really all about and what should be the object of our exegetical activity.
This frees the Christian from what Childs calls 'biblicism', the need to reduce the reality of God to the level of the text itself. Because the Bible is not about itself but about God, it is OK if there are contradictions and disjunctions at the surface level, and I mean real contradictions, not just artfully placed ones that actually fulfil some subtle literary purpose. The unity of the Bible is not a literary unity, but rather a theological unity. It lies in the subject matter to which the text points. The one Gospel to which the four point is where the unity should lie, not in attempts to reconcile contradictions amongst the gospel witnesses themselves.
As such, focussing on the text in the literary fashion that Josipovici recommends is just one part of the overall activity of theological exegesis. The literary approach of Josipovici is useful only to the degree that it helps us understand the kerygmatic intentionality of the text of Judges or Job. Using it as a tool to iron our tensions is fine to the degree that it gives an adequate account of the text itself (as I'm sure you will agree). But I think it bears pointing out that a theological approach, at least the one that Childs recommends, does not require us to get rid of editorial additions and surface level contradictions. It's the kerygmatic intentionality of the whole that matters.

Does that make sense? Push me to clarify or justify myself if you want – I'd be more than happy to oblige.

A final word about how I've come to be able to slowly accept Childs' approach. As a evangelical I'm committed to the historicality of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As such, approaches which reject the historicality of the biblical texts in general were hard for me to stomach. However, since wrestling with Childs, I've come to see that he has the same theological commitment to history. It does matter what happened, and authorial intention is significant. However, what needs to have happened, and the role of authorial intentionality, take their place within a broader eschatological horizon which relativises their significance in the light of something more ultimate. It's finding the balance that counts (see Childs' section on 'Methodological Considerations' in his Biblical Theology).

No doubt that sounds confusing ... I'm still trying to figure things out myself.

For the record, I think Sternberg does a good job of providing a literary approach which takes seriously the historical world 'behind' the text. Childs cites him approvingly (1992: 65).