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Covenants - objections to early dating

As discussed on the other pages of this section, there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that Deuteronomy is in the style of a mid-second millennium BCE treaty form. This is, of course, the era that internal indications of the time of the Exodus would place the composition of this document. However, there are challenges to this theory. To some extent these are simply based on the assumption that one or other variation of the Documentary Hypothesis is correct, in which case Deuteronomy is presumed to have been drafted during the monarchy period, usually in the reign of Josiah. The other books of the Pentateuch are presumed to have been assembled over a considerable period of time from different building blocks. This hypothesis is reviewed in depth elsewhere (Under construction), but some brief comments are made below. However, as well as this prior supposition of late and composite authorship, there are a few concrete claims often made to support the assertion of late dating, and these will be looked into here.


There are a number of main areas of challenge: These allegations will be considered in turn.

The words are of late origin
This has now been entirely refuted following studies of textual material form elsewhere in the ancient Middle East. Berit occurs in material from Ugarit (14th/13th century BCE using conventional dates) and then appears in Egyptian writing shortly after. 'Edut is first found a couple of centuries later, but in a context indicating it had been in use for a considerable time already.

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The treaty form is of late origin
There are several variations on this theme. First, the claim has been made that the absence of the historical prologue in 1st millennium treaties is not important. However, it is striking that within each group of treaties, the pattern is entirely consistent. This claim is tantamount to saying that the form itself is unimportant.

Second, it has been suggested that the prologue has simply been lost from the 1st millennium examples. Although this might have been defensible at first, the pattern has been reinforced with additional examples, particularly where they are less damaged. Since this formal element occurs near the start of the document, its absence would be quite noticeable.

Next, it has been pointed out that some of the Deuteronomy curses are the same as those found in Assyrian treaties, hence suggesting that Deuteronomy derived from them. However, the curses themselves are in many cases quite standard, with a long history predating any probable date for a book written around the time of the Exodus. Both Deuteronomy and the Assyrian treaties simply drew on a pre-existing body of such material. A related contention is that the number of curses in Deuteronomy is rather larger than in any existing nonBiblical treaty. Whilst true in numerical terms, as a proportion of the whole, Deuteronomy fits exactly with the ration expected of the Middle form. The external treaties of this kind have about 10-20% of their whole making up curses and blessings, whereas the Assyrian first millennium ones have about half the content for curses. Deuteronomy has between 10 and 15%. Additionally, the later forms do not list blessings for keeping the treaty, whereas the late 2nd millennium ones (and Deuteronomy) do.

Finally, various other first millennium forms have been suggested as forming a basis for the Deuteronomy form. These are normally presented on the basis of one or two points of similarity and in support of a pre-existing belief about the text. Treaties have continued to be made in the middle east from well before the time of Abraham until the present day, and naturally certain features persist. However, when a thorough study is undertaken of all the features present in the Deuteronomy text, no other form bears so many or so close similarities with the structure we have.

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The phrasing used is closer to first millennium usage than second
This line of argument is often linked with the name of Weinfeld in 1965. A general response is that Weinfeld and others have picked out ideas that are in fact common to treaties in both the first and second millennia, and hence are of almost no use in establishing a time period.

For example, the claim is made "the emphasis on the treaty as binding on all generations coincides with the description of the treaty scene in the Esarhaddon treaty". The following quotes are taken from a variety of first and second millennium treaties:

Clearly the framework of explicitly referring to children and grandchildren, with other future generations more vaguely in view, is a common theme, and is not specific to either Deuteronomy or Esarhaddon's treaties.

A second related claim is that the content of the curses is similar to those of the Esarhaddon treaties, and so shows extensive borrowing from documents of this era. This claim is not accurate. The main motivation seems often to be that the number of curses in Deuteronomy is broadly similar to that in the Esarhaddon treaties. This, however, is misleading. The Esarhaddon treaties are much shorter documents, yet the curses take up around half the content. In proportional terms the Deuteronomy curse section is extremely small in comparison - much more in keeping with the Middle Hittite or Law Code form. See the overview page for a graphical depiction of this. However, a study of the actual curses themselves is also indicative.

The following table considers the curse sections in each of Deuteronomy, Hammurabi's law code, and the Esarhaddon Vassal treaties. All descriptions are taken directly or with brief paraphrase from the NIV and ANET versions of these documents. They are not presented in order, nor has there been a systematic attempt in this table to align corresponding statements. The curses are divided into categories as shown:

Deuteronomy Hammurabi Esarhaddon
Physical illness
Diseases Days few in number Disease, exhaustion, sleeplessness, ill-health
Wasting disease, fever, inflammation Sudden death Leprosy
Boils of Egypt, tumours, festering sores, itch Pouring out of life like water Take away eyesight
Severe and prolonged illnesses Cut off from among the living Not grant fatherhood or old age
Diseases of Egypt Denied an heir An end to your life
Every kind of sickness and disaster Grievous malady Extinguish your life
Knees and legs afflicted by boils Evil disease Put an unhealing sore into your body
Fearful plagues Serious injury that never heals Uprooted from the living
  Will not receive a name Chased from both shade and sunlight
  Will not beget a male descendant Breath stinks
Mental or spiritual anguish
Madness, blindness, confusion of mind Curse his fate Worries
Sights drive you mad Deprived of knowledge and understanding Grievous sin and indissoluble curse
No repose, no resting place Led astray Decree an evil unpropitious fate
Anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, despairing heart Not accorded rights Not intercede for him
Suspense and dread Ways confused Not have a fair judgement
Grope about like blind men Evil omens sent Not be granted mercy and forgiveness
Cursed in the city and the country His shade thirsts for water Put illness and weariness into your heart
Cursed when you come in and go out Heavy guilt all his life The gods strike you down
Curses, confusion, rebuke   The gods look with disfavour on you
Become a thing of horror, an object of scorn and ridicule   Spirit deprived of libations
Worship other gods   Days sombre and years dark
    Life ends in sighs and sleeplessness
    Evil spirits live in your houses
Natural disasters on the land
No fruit of your womb Misfortune leading to ruin An end to birth-giving
No crops of your land A reign of woe An end to vegetation
No calves of herds and lambs of flocks Ruin of land Land hit with severe destructive downpour
Scorching heat and drought, blight, mildew Destruction of people Locusts devour crops
Sky bronze, ground iron Rivers dammed up at source No sound of grinding-stone or oven
Rain turned to dust and powder No grain in the land Barley rations disappear
Carcasses will be food for birds and beasts Blight Pestilence planted
Sow much but harvest little, locusts devour it Deprived of rains from heaven Hunger, want, famine, pestilence
Plant/cultivate vineyards but not drink wine or gather grapes, worms eat them Deprived of floodwaters from springs Lice, caterpillars and other pests eat up your land
Olive trees grown but the olives drop off Land falls to destruction through want and hunger Flood rise from the earth to devastate you
Locusts take over trees and crops Thunder over city Reduce soil to be narrow as a brick
Basket and kneading-trough cursed Land turned to desolation of flood Soil turned to iron
Hunger and thirst, nakedness and poverty Day turned into night Neither rain nor dew on fields and meadows
  His people burned Burning coals rain on head
    Rivers, springs and wells flow backward
Military defeat and its consequences
Destroyed and come to sudden ruin Revolts incited against him Felled with divine arrows
Defeated by enemies Kingdom overthrown The plain filled with your corpses
You will come from 1 direction and flee in 7 Destruction of city Wives lie in the embrace of enemy before own eyes
Pledged to be married but another will ravish her Disappearance of name/memory from the land Foreign enemy dividing your possessions
Build houses but not live in them Weapons shattered Offspring and descendants eradicated from the land
Plant a vineyard but not enjoy it Confusion and revolt Your bow broken
Ox slaughtered but eat none of it Warriors struck down Your arms tied
Donkey forcibly taken Delivered into hands of enemies Made to crouch at the feet of enemy
Sheep given to enemies Cut off with weapons Delivered into hands of avengers
Young of livestock and crops of land devoured Body broken into pieces Caught by hand of your enemy
They will leave no grain, new wine, oil, calves of herds or lambs of flocks Deprived of glory of sovereignty Avengers chase and kill you
They will lay siege to cities Sceptre broken Offpsring and descendants burned
You will eat the fruit of your womb Foundations of nation crumble Flee from enemies
Harsh and prolonged disasters Deprived of crown and throne of sovereignty Name, offspring and descendants disappear from the land
Few in number Reign end in woe and lamentation Blood of family members sweet in your mouth
Unsuccessful, oppressed and robbed, none to rescue you Burden of sovereignty multiplied You and your family slaughtered like kids
Alien will rise higher, you will fall lower   Cities ploughed up
Alien will lend to you but not you to him   Squashed like a fly by your enemies
Alien the head and you the tail   Your chariots spattered with your own blood
Other people eat what you produce   Swords consume you
Conquered by a nation from far away   In hunger eat brothers, sons and daughters
    Carnage planted
    Eat flesh of own children
    You and family strangled by a cord
Sons and daughters given to another nation Dispersion of people  
You and king driven to an unknown nation Transfer of kingdom  
Uprooted from the land Carried away in bonds to a hostile land  
Scattered among nations    
Return to Egypt    
Sell selves as slaves but none will buy    
Sons and daughters go into captivity    
Physical mutilation
    Dogs and pigs eat your flesh
    Flesh given to eagles and vultures
    Given deadly water to drink
    Entrails of sons and daughters rolled around feet
    Your figure burned in fire and submerged in water
    Your insides made empty
    Flesh of you and family used up like chameleon
    Holes pierced through flesh of you and family
    No wax, oil or balsam for wounds
    Waterskins become slit, you die of lack of water
    Shoe slit in a terrain of thorns
Social division and distress
    Mother bar door to daughter
    One man eat another and clothe himself in his skin
    Not return to your women
    You and your family bitter towards each other
    Sons not having authority over your house
    You and your women plot to cut each other's throat
    You and your family never rest or sleep

This table shows the following. First, there are a number of themes which recur throughout the time period - for example various kinds of physical illness, mental distress, natural disasters or military conquest by enemies. However, there are some themes that are not uniform. Exile is a curse-area that is evident in the Hammurabi code but absent from the Esarhaddon treaties. It is also a prominent Deuteronomy theme. Conversely, physical mutilation and social/family distress are strongly present in Esarhaddon but absent from Hammurabi and Deuteronomy. In passing, the theme of mutilation also features strongly in the late law code punishments, in which cutting of various facial features is common.

Hence, a closer investigation of the details of curse contents shows that Deuteronomy bears a much stronger resemblance to the style of Hammurabi than Esarhaddon. As mentioned above, where there are resemblances between Deuteronomy and Esarhaddon they tend to be in areas that in fact are common stock throughout both first and second millennia. The claim that Deuteronomy resembles the Esarhaddon vassal treaties and so should be dated in the mid first millennium is not correct when studied more closely.

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Prophetic use of the words suggests a late date
Under construction.

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Composite authorship
One model of Old Testament authorship which has been prevalent for a little over a century is often referred to as JEDP, the initials of (alleged) authoring schools each contributing part of a whole. This hypothesis is considered in more depth elsewhere, but the effect of the book of Deuteronomy follows. There are several proposed schemes for decomposing this book (differing in detail from each other but broadly agreeing), but one current model divides the whole into 5 authorship blocks - Dtr1, Dtr2, Other, E and P. P is supposed to contribute least, only 3 verses near the end. E is given 3 small sections, all drawn from the concluding 4 chapters. 'Other' contributed the second half of the stipulations (the detailed elements) and parts of chapters 32 and 33. Thus, in terms of the five divisions of the book (Preamble, historical prologue, stipulations, curses and blessings, and renewal/succession arrangements), Dtr1 and 2 are left as the joint contributors of the remaining three sections and the main stipulations. Most is in fact allocated to Dtr1, with Dtr2 contributing what might be termed summing-up additions - small sections of the historical prologue, annotations to the blessings and curses, and small portions of the overall conclusion.

It will be noticed that little or no recognition of the treaty structure is allowed by this process. The detailed stipulations are presumed added by a quite different author to the primary ones. The concluding sections relating to renewal, succession, witnesses etc are even more separated from the main body of the text. This is quite at odds with what has become evident about the treaty form. The passage from primary to secondary treaty terms is entirely normal, and the inclusion of what might be termed administrative details is a necessity. In short, this segmented documentary hypothesis is untenable once the origins of Deuteronomy as a covenant renewal document are accepted.

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Some additional thoughts
Deuteronomy is, of course, not presented as the original establishment of the covenant. This happened at Mount Sinai some 40 years earlier, as narrated in Exodus 20-25. Rather, Deuteronomy represents a formal committal of the covenant, and a renewal event with the immediate stimulus being the forthcoming transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Another renewal is described briefly in Joshua 24. The concern over succession emerges strongly in later stages of the book, though as mentioned elsewhere it is a normal matter of emphasis within treaties of this kind. There are additional traces of a change of circumstance of the people, in that certain stipulations are relevant to the anticipated situation of settled life in Canaan rather than nomadic life in the desert.

Two other factors are also relevant to the structure - firstly the influence of the law-code form, and secondly the mode of delivery as a series of thematically linked speeches rather than a single formal document. Some features of the order of sections in Deuteronomy are best understood as a fusion of law and covenant, rather than a product of just one - in particular the way of phrasing the requirements owes a considerable debt to the law-code form. The construction of the whole from a series of addresses leads to some portions restating and overlapping with others, rather than being stated once only.

As well as the documentary form used in Deuteronomy, there are other pieces of evidence suggesting that this period of Israelite history is the most suitable one. Covenant documents, though expected to be renewed and re-affirmed at regular intervals, were drafted not as a regular ritual but in response to specific events or changes in circumstance. Thus the emergence of Israel as a people-group out of Egypt is a good candidate. Another candidate would be the commencement of the monarchy. However, the succession arrangements are entirely devoid of dynastic ideas or royal anointing. The start of the monarchy period had priestly anointing (as a visible sign of divine choice) as such a central feature it would be extraordinary if the book of Deuteronomy originated at this time but failed to make any allusion to it. During the monarchy period (united and divided) there were no dramatic social changes of the kind one would expect if a covenantal document was to be drafted. The return from Exile would have been such a transformation, but (quite apart from the documentary form being inappropriate for this era) the social conditions outlined in Exodus and Deuteronomy do not fit. There is a strong emphasis on a tribal society and a transition from nomadic to settled life. Although regular gatherings of the people are expected, the central place assumed by the Temple is absent. Thus, all things being considered, the Exodus period is the most reasonable placement for these books.

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