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Bringing Deuteronomy to Life
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Martin Noth
The Deuteronomistic History (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Series 15) (Sheffield, England:  JSOT Press, 1991.  145p.)

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I bought this book in 1997 when I ran across it accidentally in a university book store.  I picked it up because of the topic.  I did not get around to reading it until 2003, when I had planned a systematic study for of the Old Testament.

This selection was a thrilling topic to read, though somewhat pedantic in format.  This made a good contribution to my awareness of Old Testament details.  I originally picked up the book out of interest in the topic, not being familiar with this author.  I only vaguely recognized Noth's name.  Since buying the book, and before reading it, I had learned from other sources that Noth is the premiere authority on the Deuteronomic writings of the Torah.

When I finally got around to reading it, I was rewarded with his deep devotional commitment to the message and spirit of the Torah.  Noth is not only considered a pre-eminent scholar on the Deuteronomic sections of the Torah, but writes with a fervor and commitment to the writings.  He seems to thrill in exploring the ancient scriptures and bringing them to life in the context in which they developed.

Bringing it to Life
He probes and analyzes for every small clue to give us insight on how these writings came to be, what situations they were addressing, how they were written, the communal concerns they address that are so different form our day and expectations.  Noth also drew upon historical contexts from culture.  I could envision a real community of people struggling with real life and trying to understand life and their relationship to God in a real situation in history.

That situation is not always what the standard, lowest-common-denominator simplified story of our growing up makes it out to be.  Our modern stock form of so many of these old stories is too easy, too simple.  When you actually read the Old Testament stories, you find there is just too much missing from our popular versions.

We See What We Want
I guess most people never actually really read the original!  On the other hand, what we think keeps us from seeing what is really there.  I have been amazed to sit in a Bible study and watch and listen dumbfounded as someone would read a verse, then comment on it by saying something totally contradictory.  I wonder – do people not listen to what they say?  It is hilarious, except for the fact that these people are so serious!

The Hidden Heart of the Story
Well Noth is serious too, in a good way.  He opens up the text on its own terms, and probes the hard parts to see what was behind this, the unstated context those people knew that is now lost to us in our culture.

We gloss over the hard parts, and don't spend time trying to work out the things that don't seem to fit.  This is often where we get the real clues to the deeper picture behind the flowing narrative or the reflective speech by a leader to the people.  We knock off the rough edges to make all the odd-shaped parts in our understanding fit nicely into our pre-shaped cultural expectations.

The heart of the story is often lost.  Noth won't let us lose the heart of the story, where the real people lived and interacted with an encounter with the divine in their own culture and life context!

The Oral Context
I could relate to his references to Oral literature and oral cultures, which I have worked with most of my life.  One great limitation to the Western literate culture is that they have lost contact with the concept of oral transmission.  In recent years classical studies and various disciplines have gained new insight into the oral nature of old cultures until our recent history.

Even the ancient Greek literature was written for reading, for telling, much of it as a drama to be enacted.  Even philosophy was written as dramatic dialogue.  We think of it in our terms of high literacy, and limit the concept of knowledge or truth to writing.  In reality, most people of the world are oral by nature, writing being a tool for capturing the living knowledge to pass on.  The passing on is often oral.

Knowing is Relating
This is how the Israelites were – along with all the other Semitic peoples of the ancient world.  Noth focuses on the characteristics of this oral world, alive with action, meaning, interaction and relationships.  Knowledge was not an external commodity.  Knowledge is understood in terms of relationship.

I had previously observed that in the Old Testament, and even in the New, Knowing someone is being related to them.  Knowledge is much more related to persons and character than.  This is the context in which Jesus says "I am Truth."  Truth is being related to Jesus.

Truth is not information or fact.  Truth is relational not intellectual.  Everything centered around relationships and community.  This is the historical and cultural context of the Deuteronomic history of the Bible.

During the last century, literacy so took over the perspective that all of history, including religion, faith and culture, are seen in terms of a literate culture.  It is hard for modern literates to understand the format and content of much of the Old Testament, even some of the New Testament, because the culture context was so different.

But it also because styles are so different in Oral Literature and Literate Literature (note how even the technical terms are skewed to or derived from the Literate perspective).  It was good to see a warm-hearted scholar tenderly, lovingly handle and probe the holy texts for their cultural life and human impact in that context, drawing out threads and gems that brought to life the setting and life-events that led to and are represented in the texts of Deuteronomy and the related sections of the Torah.

Bridging the Gap
Noth is a thoughtful, committed writer, who writes not just for knowledge, for faith.  He is able to bring to life a section of the Bible that most modern readers find boring and useless.  At best it is hard to understand, because there are so few similarities.  I found in Noth's writings, the human reality of these people in their cultural context lent understanding, and allowed a sympathy with their setting.

Just that helps in the understanding.  Deuteronomy and the related writings do not read like our modern writing.  These were not our modern people.  This was not our modern culture.  The writing is not in our modern style.  That is the value of it.  Noth bridges that gap.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] Dagon and the Ark:  The Ark of the Covenant in Cultural Context
[TXT] Different Literacy – Different World
      (Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?)
[TXT] Eye Learning or Ear Learning?
[TXT] God and Literacy    
[reviews] Jubilee Now!   New
[TXT] Literacy – A Modern Phenomenon
[TXT] Orality, Literacy and the Bible
[TXT] Storytelling for Learning and Teaching
[Review] Refreshing Current Outlook on the Old Testament
[TXT] Stories and Storytelling: Reclaiming our Oral Heritage
[Review] What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?:
            What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel

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First reading notes written 2003
This review written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 28 December 2006
Reviewed on Amazon 26 February 2009
Last edited 9 Octoebr 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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