I finished Bernard Levinson’s Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation. In this post, I want to address two issues: courts, and the authors of the Book of Deuteronomy.
1. According to Levinson, in both ancient Israel (at one point) and the ancient Near East, sanctuaries were a place where ambiguous cases were judged. If there were no way to determine if a person was guilty or innocent, he was brought to a sanctuary, and inquiry was made of a god. We see this sort of thing in the Covenant Code. In Exodus 22:8-9, a master of a house is brought before Elohim so it could be determined whether or not he set his hands on his neighbor’s goods. Levinson holds that this sort of thing occurred at local sanctuaries.
But the agenda of the Book of Deuteronomy was to abolish the local sanctuaries, in favor of a central sanctuary. Because local sanctuaries had a judicial function, Deuteronomy had to find some way to address the issue of how to judge cases as it moved Judah towards religious centralization. In Deuteronomy 16-17, we see its solution: local judges were to be appointed, and they would evaluate cases, convicting people only on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Ambiguous cases, however, were to be brought to the central sanctuary, where a Levite would make inquiry (presumably of God) and pass sentence.
Did the local clan elders retain any legal authority under the program of Deuteronomy? Deuteronomy 21, 22, and 25 present them as having jurisdiction over family law, but Levinson thinks that this reflects a pre-Deuteronomic stratum (or, at least, he doesn’t view those parts as authentic to Deuteronomy). His reason is that Deuteronomy 16:18 states that the judges were to be put in the gates, which was where the elders sat (Deuteronomy 21:19; 22:15; 25:7; Job 29:7; Ruth 4:1, 11; Lamentations 5:14). I think Levinson’s point is that the judges and the elders can’t sit at the gate at the same time, and so the two judicial systems most likely weren’t operating simultaneously! That means that the program of Deuteronomy was overriding the clans in its pursuit of centralization.
I wish, however, that Levinson had interacted with Deuteronomy 21, in which both the elders and the judges appear together. They’re not both judging cases, mind you, but the elders are still around. Would Levinson say that they’re like the queen of England: they’re around, but they no longer have power?
2. Levinson says that there are proto-Deuteronomic contributions to the Covenant Code, but, at some point, the authors of Deuteronomy decided to stop revising the Covenant Code, and to instead write their own book to replace it altogether, for their program was so radical. I have questions about Levinson’s scenario. First of all, Levinson states that the Book of Deuteronomy was written by scribes in the court of King Josiah (page 145). Yet, those who wrote Deuteronomy wanted to limit severely the authority of the king, who, in Deuteronomy 17, is given no judicial function, or even that much power, for that matter. Levinson distinguishes between the authors of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomist—the latter being the author of the Deuteronomistic History. While the authors of Deuteronomy wanted a limited monarchy, the Deuteronomist cheered on King Josiah as the one who enforced religious righteousness throughout all Judah.
Why would scribes of King Josiah take stabs at royal authority? I’m not ruling it out, for, as Phillip Davies said, maybe scribes liked to complain about current events. But I find more reasonable the view that Deuteronomy was written in the North—where there was prophetic criticisms of the monarchy—and that it came South and inspired Josiah’s reformation. In this scenario, Deuteronomy did not equal Josiah’s reformation, but Josiah may have used Deuteronomy as an inspiration for his own agenda—which did not overlap with Deuteronomy in every detail.
Second, why, in Levinson’s scenario, did Deuteronomy propose an agenda of centralization, and why did Josiah pursue such a policy? Levinson states that such a policy was so “uncommon in the otherwise religiously tolerant ancient Near East” (144). What made the authors of Deuteronomy and Josiah wake up one morning and decide to enforce religious centralization? The closest I found to an answer in Levinson’s book came on 147, where he states that (before Josiah came along) Hezekiah pursued centralization in response to “neo-Assyrian ravages”, which meant that “older sureties could no longer suffice”, for “There was no place in it for a systematic treatment of the cultus or of judicial and political administration, including the monarchy, the priesthood, and the institution of prophecy.” Is Levinson saying that centralization occurred because a king felt that all of Judah needed to be on the same page in order to withstand the Assyrian threat? One solution I heard in a class: centralization occurred so that tithes and offerings could be brought to Jerusalem, so, were Jerusalem to be holed up again—as she was when Sennacherib besieged her—she would have enough food to outlast the siege.