Revisiting Deuteronomy #1

There are two subjects that have tended to animate me on this blog. The first is the scriptures: particularly on the ways that Latter-day Saints should approach them. The second is that ideas have consequences, often important ones, and that it is vital to understand the important consequences of ideas and not be distracted by those details that are merely interesting.

This is why, from time to time, I turn my attention to approaches to the scriptures (among Latter-day Saint scholars and members) that seem inconsistent with what the scriptures, and particularly the Book of Mormon, actually teach. An example of this would be the neglect of the Old Testament, something that, as I have shown, sits at odds with the Saviour himself and ancient Prophets say we should be doing, and that deprives us knowledge not only of what that scripture has to teach us, but of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon also. It’s also why I feel the “so what?” question is so vital, both in our study of the scriptures – asking ourselves what we should do in response to what we have just read – and in asking what what accepting certain ideas may inevitably entail.

This is perhaps a necessary prelude as I revisit a topic I covered a few years ago, in response to an article just published on the Interpreter website. Neal Rappleye has just published an article reading Laman and Lemuel as ‘Deuteronomists’, which – as some will remember if I have any readers with long memories – draws upon the argument I addressed here. This was the argument (begun by Margaret Barker, and elaborated on by people such as Kevin Christensen) that Josiah’s reform really represented the suppression of an earlier – and true – ‘temple theology’, suppressing worship of a female consort to the Lord, concepts of visions and revelations and messianic ideas. It further postulates that Lehi, Nephi and prophets such as Jeremiah were, at least in part, in opposition to such reforms and were even persecuted by the architects of said reform, the ‘Deuteronomists’, so named as they are held by biblical studies to have had a hand in composing the book of Deuteronomy (usually identified as ‘the book of the law’ found in the Temple in 2 Kings 22:8-10) and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’, namely the books from Joshua to 2 Kings. In doing so, they altered things that passed through their hands to suppress older ideas and bolster their own.

I find severe problems with such ideas, and said so when I last addressed the topic. I believe the historical reconstruction is false, founded as it is on a highly speculative method involving sources in some cases dating over a millennia later (such as the Babylonian Talmud). I believe (and my earlier post aims to show) that it mischaracterises Josiah’s reform movement, as well as the teachings of Deuteronomy. As I likewise aimed to show, I believe it is also inconsistent with what we learn from such sources as Jeremiah, who is misread into supporting practices both he and Josiah opposed. And I believe it is inconsistent with the use in the Book of Mormon of Deuteronomy in particular, as well as (as I briefly address here and here) what the Book of Mormon actually claims happened to the Bible.

However, I also object to what appear to be the inevitable implications of these ideas, and am to some degree astounded that the proponents of such ideas appear to have given so little thought to these implications. That the ‘Queen of Heaven’ was worshipped by ancient Israelites is well known: it’s outright stated in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:17-20), and archaeology appears to confirm this. But the implication of ideas such as those such as Christensen is that such practices were true and valid, despite Lord’s condemnation in Jeremiah (Christensen, as I point out, misreads Jeremiah and fails to recognise this), something that – if true – would have significant implications for LDS practices today, and if false significant consequences for the soul of someone trying to following the idea all the way through. Likewise the apparent attributing of the book of Deuteronomy and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ to a group associated by Christensen with killing prophets, inevitably impugns the scriptural status of books quoted by the Saviour himself.

It’s against this backdrop that I turn to Rappleye’s work, of which I can’t help but be inevitably critical. However, trying to focus primarily on his argument, rather than the background he has assumed, I find the article has several key weaknesses. I outline some general problems with the article below, and then will address problems in his specific arguments in two following posts.

Uncritical use of secondary sources

One rather serious issue with Rappleye’s work – particularly in view of the problems with the whole paradigm at hand – is that Rappleye quite frequently appears to use the mere invocation of secondary sources as proof of the point he is trying to make. Part of this is unavoidable, as the basis of his article is that he is attempting to use ‘the social context surrounding the Deuteronomistic reforms, as reconstructed by Margaret Barker’. However, there is little indication that he recognises that Barker’s ideas are hardly uncontested. The closest (aside from a reference that some scholars regard it ‘as idiosyncratic’) is the following:

The many scholarly attempts at reconstructing the full nature and extent of these reforms often differ in details. Barker laments, “We can never know for certain what it was that Josiah purged or why he did it. No original versions of the actual texts or records survive from that period, but even the stories as they have come down to us in various sources show that this was a time of major upheaval that was not forgotten.”

The problem can be seen in the way he passes over the issues over the nature of the reform, to accepting Barker’s rather more specific claims of uncertainty of what Josiah purged and why, implicitly accepting a Barker model of suppressed texts. The problem is clear: were someone to state that it is was unclear who David Richards had attacked, and why, the natural assumption would be that I had attacked somebody. The idea that key texts were purged may well be attractive to Latter-day Saints, but it should be noted, as I have mentioned before, that the Book of Mormon does not have the removal of any plain and precious things from biblical writings until after the scriptures have passed into the hands of the Gentiles (1 Nephi 13:25-28).

When it comes to some of the details, however, of the supposed ‘Deuteronomists’, Rappleye’s tendency to cite other scholars as if that were a conclusive argument is particularly glaring, particularly where it is based on apparent suppositions. Thus Lehi ‘may not have been in complete agreement with Josiah’s reforms’, something which is readily taken as granted based on Brent Gardner’s speculation. Very rapidly in the next paragraph we find that Lehi’s persecutors ‘were likely supporters of the reform’, and that ‘the gate-keepers of Jewish “orthodoxy” just prior to the exile were the Deuteronomists’. Much of this is not argued or demonstrated – rather Rappleye often simply references or quotes Gardner, Christensen, Barker and few others, as if they had conclusively demonstrated their cases. This would be a problem anyway, but it’s particularly a problem here because they have not. And not only is this a far too uncritical a use of these secondary sources, but it leads to supposition being built on supposition. The argument rapidly resembles an intellectual house of cards. I’m not opposed to speculation per se, so long as it is clearly labelled as such when resting on such slender threads. But this heaping of speculation upon speculation seems unwise when the conclusions reached appear to carry such significant consequences.

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2 thoughts on “Revisiting Deuteronomy #1

  1. Pingback: Revisiting Deuteronomy #2: Laman and Lemuel as supposed ‘Deuteronomists’ | David's random ramblings

  2. Pingback: Revisiting Deuteronomy #3: Deuteronomy in 1-2 Nephi | David's random ramblings

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