Deuteronomy: the clue to dating the beginning of the Pentateuch
During the time of Hezekiah, King of the Southern Kingdom (715-687), the prophets were already losing their power and influence. The scribes and the priests of the tribe of Shiloh were in the ascendancy. Shiloh, in the north, was the most important centre in the tribal federation, and was the temporary capital of Israel before the first Temple was built in Jerusalem. Israel and Judah developed their own distinct cultures and had different traditions. The Levites were followers of the Mosaic tradition – of Moses and the Exodus. Israel was more fertile and richer than Judah, but when the northern kingdom was destroyed, the people fled to the south.
Jeremiah was edited heavily in the fifth century BCE and is one of the most heavily edited books in the Bible. It looks back from the exilic period. The Bible itself was also heavily edited by the post-Exilic scribes, and the figure of Moses grew into an iconic ancestor per medium of the tribe of Levi. There were many poor Levites who really struggled, especially in the country. The mention of Israel and the Deuteronomic concern for the Levites and the poor suggests that its origins lay in the Northern Kingdom (Israel). This theology represented an attempt by the priests of Shiloh to get rid of the old gods and make Jerusalem a cultic centre, thereby cementing their own influence after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722.
But when the Northern Kingdom fell, not everyone went into exile. Some fled to the hills and neighbouring territories, and the Temple of Beth-el served those who remained. At Manasseh, they worshipped Yahweh and the Semitic goddess Anat. The theology of the priests at Shiloh was based upon the premise of a conditional covenant with its principal tenet being obedience to the Law, the penalty for breach being the Northern Kingdom’s fall. This metamorphosed into the beginning of the Pentateuch. A radical monotheistic vision of Yahwism came to influence the religion of Judah. All priests were Levites before the exilic period and claimed to trace their ascendancy direct to Moses. However, the priests of Shiloh expressed concerns that the priests of Beth-el were not Levites, so they took refuge in Jerusalem in the south and were happy to have Jerusalem become their centre of worship.
The scribes of Deuteronomy viewed Moses as their ancestor and patron. The figure of Moses, like the motif of the Exodus, was at home in the religious traditions of the Northern Kingdom. If both eventually became part of the Judean heritage, it was through the agency of this disenfranchised clergy who had found refuge in Judah after the fall of Samaria. The scribes to whom we owe the Book of Deuteronomy are presumably from priestly families in Israel. They traced their origins back to Levi and developed a profile as scholars. For several generations, these families had been living in Judah, yet they still maintained a distinct identity through their focus on Moses and the Exodus tradition. Their scholarship embraced both the oral and the written Torah which for them was a way of life and a certain vision of history. They belonged to the social establishment and since they were deported to Babylonia, they must have been part of the leading elite of Judah.
As noted previously, it is a debated point among critics whether Moses was actually mentioned in the first edition of Deuteronomy at all. Many authors believe he entered the scene only in the second or third editions, but if indeed the figure of Moses was present in the first edition, he was certainly not a prominent character. His role in the subsequent editions is far more significant, and the Torah edition offers a good starting point in this regard. He was a prophet and the scribes of Deuteronomy considered themselves likewise as prophets. In the various editions, Moses metamorphoses from prophet to teaching prophet to the role of teacher.
So, the Book of Deuteronomy as we know it from the Hebrew Bible is the work of several generations of scribes. The whole process of settling anew in the south and writing the text took more than a century, giving the scribes time to think about why the Northern Kingdom had fallen, and they began to revolutionise their own line of thinking. The idea of Yahweh as the jealous god began in the 7th century BCE, whose origins we see in Deuteronomy.
The essence of this theology was centralisation, characterised by the abolition of all other cults, the destruction of the high places, the idea that all the sacrifices now had to be carried out solely at Jerusalem, the recasting of the festivals (Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles) with an Exodus Provenance, the mandating of attendance at the Jerusalem Temple 3 times a year for all able bodied males and the origin of dietary regulations distinguishing between clean and unclean foods.
Schechem and Shiloh had already been destroyed and the advocates of this theology, the Levite priests, wanted to close down all the other sites, notably Beth-el, and the fact that everyone had to come to Jerusalem to worship only served to increase their power. In other words, the canonical foundation for these reforms derived from the Law Book “found” in the Temple, the first edition of Deuteronomy.
For almost two centuries, the text – viewed as a relic from the Mosaic age – existed in a single copy, renewed only when the material condition of the scroll had deteriorated to a point incompatible with the dignity of the text. Each subsequent edition entailed a revision of the entire manuscript; the scribes added each time a new interpretive framework, inserted some new material and rephrased the text as they had received it.
In this way, the Book of Deuteronomy bridges the period between the late monarchy and the Persian period. Starting out from a revision of the written law inherited from the mid-monarchic era (the Covenant code), Deuteronomy takes us to the time of Ezra, who held out the Torah as the ultimate form of wisdom: Ezra 7:14, 25. Deuteronomy thus provides the link between Ancient Israel, Judah and Second Temple Judaism.
The foundations of modern Judaism therefore stem from the post-exilic period when the Pentateuch blossomed in the form of a rumination upon the disaster which had befallen the people of the Southern Kingdom, and before that, the north, and the reasons why.
 This is an edited summary of material from Dr Susanne Glover’s WEA Hebrew Bible in Crisis course (2012)