Defending Deuteronomy

There’s some ideas about the Bible that have become unaccountably popular amongst some LDS scholars, and principally among them are those of Margaret Barker. Her ideas of a ‘Temple Theology’ prior to the Babylonian exile that was suppressed, with King Josiah and the ‘Deuteronomists’ as the chief villains, has proven attractive to some, but I’ve been unconvinced by it for a long while. For one thing, I believe it has serious metholodogical issues, as Barker attempts to use sources like Pseudoepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls to examine the beliefs of many centuries earlier. But I also believe that it has significant flaws from an LDS perspective that in many cases have been overlooked, and which have serious implications. Since the Interpreter has decided to do a couple of articles on it (one from Bill Hamblin, disagreeing with at least part of the thesis, and Kevin Christensen, supporting it), I thought I’d explore at least some of those, principally in addressing some of the arguments used by Kevin Christensen.

Deuteronomy and the Book of Mormon

The implications of this argument should be apparent to anyone who reads Christensen’s article. Large parts of the Bible are held to be the responsibility of the ‘Deuteronomists’, supposed reformers working at the time of King Josiah, and whom, if they are suspect, make their works suspect, especially since there’s no direct evidence of the very existence of Deuteronomists – their existence is inferred from these works. There’s the Deuteronomistic History, from Joshua to 2nd Kings, which many biblical scholars claim was composed as an integrated work by drawing upon and redacting earlier sources. Then there is the Book of Deuteronomy itself, which has been associated with the ‘book of the law’ found in 2 Kings 22:8-11, and which many biblical scholars claim was even written at the time to justify the reforms (I see a number of problems behind that claim, but I’ll leave it to one side for now). Thus this would question the inspiration and canonicity of those biblical books.

And Christensen appears to follow this argument, alleging several sections of Deuteronomy itself (he singles out Deuteronomy 4:6, 4:12, 29:29 and 30:11-12) as contradicting the teachings of this alleged temple theology. Since Christensen believes the Temple theology not only existed, but was true and part of the background for the Book of Mormon, that implies that Deuteronomy is not just mistaken on these points, but false. While Christensen admits to extensive harmony between ‘Jeremiah and Josiah’, he also sees these points of significant tension, and believes they exist ‘between Deuteronomy and Lehi’ as well. And these are not minor matters – Barker paints this as a serious suppression of what was taught before, and so does Christensen, who says they ‘touch the heart of the temple’. In short, Deuteronomy is the product of an apostate movement.

Yet there are serious difficulties with this from an LDS perspective. Let alone the fact that the Saviour quoted Deuteronomy with great frequency (along with Psalms and Isaiah, the most quoted biblical texts by Jesus in the Gospels), there are huge problems with summoning the Book of Mormon as some sort of prosecution witness. The Book of Mormon not only describes the Plates of Brass as containing ‘the five books of Moses’ (1 Nephi 5:11), but also explicitly quotes from Deuteronomy. 1 Nephi 22:20 & 3 Nephi 20:23 (both quoting Deuteronomy 18:15-19) are the clearest examples of this, but 2 Nephi 11:3//Deuteronomy 19:15 also has a clear connection, as does possibly Mormon 8:20//Deuteronomy 32:35-36. This is explicit quotations alone (that is, places where the Book of Mormon makes clear it is referring to an outside source), let alone other connections. The ideological connections between the two books also seem clear, with both books clearly marking out blessings and cursings attached to a land, depending upon the righteousness of the people. Christensen argues that ‘“Nephi qualifies remarkably well as a representative of the wisdom tradition as Barker reconstructs it”’, but I am unconvinced, and moreover see Nephi’s emphasis on the importance of keeping the commandments of God and attendant blessings as being much more closely aligned with Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history than Christensen appears to allow.

Mischaracterising Deuteronomy

The specific points upon which Barker and Christensen criticise Deuteronomy also seem to misunderstand Deuteronomy in those specific passages. Thus Deuteronomy 4:6 (“Keep therefore and do them [the statutes and judgements of the Lord]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”), is not substituting the Law for wisdom – but emphasising the wisdom of keeping the commandments, that real wisdom lies in obeying God. After all, the Book of Mormon makes similar comments, that “O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God.” (Alma 37:35). Likewise Deuteronomy 4:12 does not directly contradict Exodus 24:9-11, because the former is addressed to all Israel, not the seventy elders of Exodus 24. Nor does Deuteronomy 30:11-12 deny revelation, but rather emphasises (again in the context of obedience) the accessibility of the the commandments – ‘it is not in heaven’, but neither (in v. 13) is it ‘beyond the sea’, because ‘the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it’ (v.14 – the emphasis on doing it being present in both verses 12 & 13 also)!

Likewise, while Deuteronomy 32:8-9 according to a reading found in the Dead Sea scrolls does read ‘sons of God’ instead of ‘sons of Israel’, it does not follow if that reading is correct (Christensen assumes it is, which since he assumes Deuteronomy is the product of those ‘suppressing’ ‘temple theology’, raises questions as to how it somehow expresses the suppressed theology) that what it is necessarily describing is an apportioning out of the nations to different gods, nor does it necessarily follow that ‘the LORD’ (‘Yahweh’) in verse 9 is being described as one of the sons of ‘El Elyon’ (‘the most High’, since verse 8 actually only uses the word ‘Elyon’), since it could easily be read as an alternative name for ‘the most High’). Here Christensen may be influenced by the tendency amongst Latter-day Saints to believe that ‘Yahweh’ – ‘the LORD’ in the KJV, but also anglicised as Jehovah, must refer to Christ. However, this distinction in names is a modern LDS practice, and quickly falls apart when applied to scripture. Thus Psalm 110:1, quoted by Christ in relation to himself (in Matthew 22:44 and Luke 20:42), reads: “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” As Christ himself applies the verse, ‘my Lord’ (‘Adonai’) is a reference to Christ, which means that ‘The LORD’, ‘Yahweh’, can only apply here to the Father. Likewise Deuteronomy 6:4 (‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD’) quickly becomes nonsense if Elohim is taken as referring only to the Father and Yahweh only to the son, while in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, Lord (presumably an equivalent term) is used seemingly interchangeably or applying to both, while in Abraham 3:27 (and throughout that chapter), Lord is clearly referring to the Father.


A major part of Barker’s and Christensen’s thesis depends on supposed indications that Jeremiah opposed at least a portion of the Deuteronomistic reforms, and that Jeremiah did not condemn practices supposedly part of this ‘temple theology’. Thus Christensen appeals to Jeremiah 1:18, which speaks of Jeremiah becoming ‘…a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land.’ This is to my mind some of the best evidence for this supposed tension between Jeremiah and Josiah. There are several problems however. Such a description can more easily be applied to Jeremiah’s relationships with Josiah’s successors who – at least from the perspective of the Deuteronomistic historian, who described them as wicked – did not follow Josiah’s ideas. Indeed much of the book of Jeremiah describes his relationships with those kings, with little for Josiah himself.

Christensen also appeals to several parts of Jeremiah to claim some condemnation of rejection of hidden wisdom on the part of the Deuteronomists. Yet Jeremiah 8:8-9 is in the context of a condemnation of idolatry (see v.2 and v.17 of that chapter), acts hardly encouraged by the Deuteronomists (indeed, Barker and Christensen think they went too far with that act!). Jeremiah 9:12-13, meanwhile, far from strengthening his argument possibly undermines it with its concern for law, as the words ‘Who is the wise man, that may understand this?’ are followed in the following verse by a condemnation that begins ‘And the Lord saith, Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein;’ (my emphasis)

Christensen also argues that Jeremiah’s condemnation of those burn offerings and make cakes to the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah 44:17-19 should be compared ‘with his complaints about those who trusted in the temple without taking care to “thoroughly amend your ways and your doings,” that is, trusting ritual without repentance and sacrifices without personal obedience.’ This is an extraordinary claim, suggesting that Jeremiah saw nothing innately wrong with the worship of the Queen of Heaven, and indeed by the analogy that ‘Jeremiah does look forward to valid worship in the house of the Lord’, that such worship is in fact divinely authorised. He misses Jeremiah’s far more pungent denunciation of such practices in Jeremiah 7:18-20:

The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.

Do they provoke me to anger? saith the Lord: do they not provoke themselves to the confusion of their own faces?

Therefore thus saith the Lord God; Behold, mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the ground; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched.

Jeremiah here is clearly not describing this as an otherwise acceptable practice. Likewise from an LDS perspective have such practices ever constituted an acceptable act? Quite the opposite, as made clear repeatedly, for as Doctrine and Covenants 20:19 states, God gave mankind ‘commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship.’ Likewise, trying such things will quickly get you excommunicated today. Similar comments apply to Christensen’s claim that Lehi ‘had his vision of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8), the great symbol of wisdom that Josiah had recently removed from the temple and burned (2 Kings 23:5).’ Not only do I highly doubt Lehi would have equated his vision with Asherah, but the typo here of 2 Kings 23:5 is highly entertaining (v.6 is clearly intended), since verse 5 refers to Josiah putting down the priests that ‘that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven’ – all part of the parcel with the Asherah worship. Likewise, the Asherah itself was only placed there in the reign of King Manasseh, Josiah’s father (2 Kings 21:7).

Christensen also accuses Josiah and his reforms of the killing of the prophets (again emphasising that he does not merely see Josiah and Jeremiah as having mere disagreements), claiming that ‘Jeremiah had also described the violence against prophets as something very public: “Your own sword hath devoured your prophets like a destroying lion . . . also in thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the poor innocents: I have not found it by secret search but upon all of these” (Jeremiah 2:30, 36)[sic – actual source is 20:30 & 34]’, and that ‘the most conspicuous account of extensive public violence conducted by the people in power is that of Josiah’s reform in 2 Kings 23:20‘. Yet Christensen again misses King Manasseh, the likely reference, who ‘shed innocent blood very much’ (2 kings 21:16, cf. 2 Kings 24:4), which not only shares the idea of innocent blood being shared, but whose reign Jeremiah himself explicitly states is the reason for the forthcoming exile: ‘And I will cause them to be removed into all kingdoms of the earth, because of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah king of Judah, for that which he did in Jerusalem.’ (Jeremiah 15:4)!

Looking beyond the mark

Christensen also appeals to Jacob in the Book of Mormon, noting particularly Jacob 4:14:

But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.

Yet there are problems with Christensen’s appeal here. He describes Jacob as a ‘temple priest’, a rather overwrought description considering Jacob is described as teaching one sermon in the temple (Jacob 2-3, as described in Jacob 1:17, 2:2, 2:11), and in fact specifically mentions in the latter reference that Jacob was commanded ‘get thou up into the temple on the morrow, and declare the word which I shall give thee unto this people’. Teaching at the temple has a long scriptural history – it doesn’t make those figures ‘temple priests’. Such a description however highlights what I suspect is both a major reason for the appeal of Barker amongst some LDS scholars, and a major part of the problem; namely the desire of some to find similarities to current LDS temple worship in previous dispensations.

What’s aggravating about this is that there is little to no need to do this. As Doctrine and Covenants 84:23-25 states, in reference to higher priesthood, and the ordinances by which ‘the power of godliness is manifest’ (v.20) of which the temple ordinances are part:

Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;

But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.

Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also;

The Israelites as a whole (there were individual exceptions) did not have access to the higher priesthood, nor the associated ordinances of the temple. Likewise, while it is likely that (having no Levites among them), the Nephites priesthood authority was that of the Melchizedek priesthood (Alma 13:6-9), there is nothing in the Book of Mormon to suggest that Nephites generally had access to temple ordinances as we’d understand them before the coming of Christ – they used them like the Israelites did, to perform the ordinances of the Mosaic law (Mormon’s comments relative to the Saviour’s teaching on Malachi 4 in 3 Nephi 26:8-11 suggest things changed at that point). This shouldn’t surprise us – that such things weren’t available or were unknown earlier is part of the very point of this dispensation (D&C 128:18). Yet it seems some scholars’ eagerness to find evidence for something we shouldn’t expect to find there leads them to project present day LDS temple worship on previous dispensations (as here too). This should be very much avoided, not just because its mistaken, but we should also be careful to avoid the possible danger of gospel hobbies. The temple serves vital purposes, but it is not the sum total of the gospel, and we shouldn’t expect to see it everywhere we look.

This applies likewise to Jacob’s very own words. Christensen argues  ‘Jacob’s “mark” must be a reference to the anointed high priest of the first temple. Those who received the anointing were those who took upon themselves the name of the anointed, the Messiah.’ Yet there is no must about it. The evidence strained: Barker is appealing to the Babylonian Talmud, which is over a millenium later than the first temple period. Even if one were to accept that as relevant, why should a diagonal cross be decisively associated with the Messiah? Jacob’s words do not require a temple-centric reading here. To return to Jacob 4:14:

But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble. (My emphasises)

There is no need here to understand the mark here as a sign, but rather as a target, goal or object, who is Christ. The danger portrayed here is not that of scriptures being ‘edited during transmission’ as Christensen alleges, but of looking beyond the simple and seeking  things ‘they could not understand’ – desires which God ultimately granted, but giving them ‘many things which they cannot understand’. This not only hardly tallies with an accusation against Deuteronomy (where the clear emphasis on obedience and covenantal loyalty is simple, especially compared to the temple theology expressed by Barker), but seems to warn in the other direction.  The most important things are simple, and plain, it warns – and we should refrain from trying to overcomplicate it for our own intellectual amusement or God might grant us our wish.

Edit: Edited to clarify re gospel hobbies.