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The First Edition of the Book of Deuteronomy (First part)

Ashurbanipal

The book of Deuteronomy, as well as many other books of the Bible, has not been written straight away, as if it were the work of a single author belonging to a specific historical moment. Some literary features represent the clear proof:

  • the book has two prologues (chapters 1-3 and 5-11)
  • the book also has more than one conclusion (chapters 26, 27-28, 30-34)
  • the so-called deuteronomic code (chapters 12-26) which is located at the center of the book doesn’t presuppose in any way the prologues mentioned (in particular the historical introduction present in chapters 1-4 and 9-10, which have the function to integrate Deuteronomy into a wider historical perspective, i.e. the episodes in Exodus and Numbers).

On the stylistic level – as already mentioned – Deuteronomy offers similarities, at different points, with the language and the themes of the vassalage treaties, whose stipulation was very common in Assyria starting from the 2nd millennium BC. The central idea is to oblige the vassals to maintain absolute loyalty to their lord. The need to submit to the sovereign was often justified by final curses and blessings. Evidently, it is a theme that is very present in the book of Deuteronomy.

Particularly important are the so-called adè, or loyalty oaths of Esarrhadon, written in 672 BC. In particular, emphasis is placed on love for Ashurbanipal – successor of Esarrahddon – and on the need to keep the commandments. A small example will suffice to highlight the literary and thematic similarity between these oaths and Dt 6:4-7:

You will love Ashurbanipal … king of Assyria, your Lord, as you yourselves. You will listen to whatever he says and do whatever he orders; you will not look for any other king or lord against him. This treatise … you will tell your children and grandchildren, your seed and the seed of your seed that will be born in the future.

It has been said that the original code of laws of Deuteronomy opened with Dt 12:13-18, which deals with the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. This theme continues in chapter 13, where the same centralizing ideology is present. Among other things, in the oldest part of Dt 13 – hypothetically reconstructed by Römer and partly recognized in verses 2-10 – the main theme was betrayal of YHWH, which is considered an adaptation of Esarhaddon’s prescriptions:

If you listen to some malice, improper, bad word that is not decent or benevolent towards Ashurbanipal … from the mouth of your brothers, your sons, your daughters or the mouth of a prophet, an ecstatic or an investigator of oracles or from the mouth of any human being, do not hide it, but refer to Ashurbanipal … If you are able to capture them and put them to death, then you will destroy their name and their seed from the country.

Evidently, the author of Dt 13 – on the basis of the hypothetically reconstructed text – was inspired by texts like these to talk about the relationship between YHWH and Israel. This is not at all irrelevant but fraught with consequences. In fact, together with the language of Assyrian texts, the author also took other themes, applying them to the God’s relationship with his people: an absolute and exclusive loyalty and, above all, YHWH assumed the position of the Assyrian king.

Another important parallel is with the curses contained in Dt 28:20-44:

Just as rain does not fall from a brass sky, so rain may not come on your fields and on your lawns; instead of the dew may be burning coals on your country.

May Minuta, exalted among the gods, break down his cruel arrows; may he fill the plain with your blood and feed your flesh to the eagle and vulture.

May Sin, the splendor of heaven and earth, cover you with leprosy and forbid you to enter into the presence of the gods and of the king. Vagabond for the desert like the wild ass and the gazelle.

May Shamash, the light of heaven and earth, do not judge yourselves with justice. May you take your eyes off. Wander in the dark.

Römer thinks that – considering these and other important parallels – a copy of this treatise was perhaps present in Jerusalem and that it strongly influenced the first edition of Deuteronomy.

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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