If you’re anything like me, when you’re using a source, you want to know its history.
So I’ve been using 1 Samuel as a source for an extended project I’m doing lately, which naturally made me curious about its textual history. It turns out the book is associated with a school or group of authors called the “Deuteronomists”, so named because the first Bible book associated with them is Deuteronomy, and who contributed the majority of pre-Exilic history — Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings — and, interestingly enough, Jeremiah. As a school, the Deuteronomists are associated with covenant theology, and almost certainly play a role in the 2 Kings account of Josiah discovering a book of the Law in Jerusalem’s archives (commonly understood to be Deuteronomy’s core), which motivates a period of Judahite religious reforms.
Deuteronomistic scholarship generally follows Martin Noth, with textual criticism (as is common in Old Testament scholarship) primarily focused on peeling layer upon layer of redaction apart, as well as focusing on Deuteronomistic theology, which is (a) reasonably well understood, and (b) is foundational to modern Jewish theology (for obvious reasons). Because of this, scholarship generally considers the bulk of Deuteronomist texts to the Babylonian Exile.
However — while I am in agreement that the texts would have been redacted during the Exile — it is my contention that the Deuteronomists’ textual core is older: that analysis of their historiography reveals political motives that could have only been in play between the fall of Samaria to Assyria in 721 BCE and that of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 BCE, a period of 135 years. It is also my contention that Jeremiah’s odd relationship with the rest of the Deuteronomist texts can best be understood in terms of political — not theological — disagreement.
Who Were the Deuteronomists?
According to Noth and his acolytes, the Deuteronomists were Yahwist priests who migrated from Samaria to Jerusalem after Assyria’s conquest of the former in 721 BCE. At the time, Yahwism was Israel’s state cult, and physical conquest in the early Iron Age was theologically understood to be the conqueror’s pantheon triumphing over the conquered’s; hence, from the perspective of an Israelite layman, Aššur — Assyria’s patron deity — had triumphed over Yahweh and there was no reason to continue the latter’s worship, especially in light of events of the day directly contradicting his law’s (at minimum) henotheistic demand. How could one obey the commandment “Thou shalt not have any other god before me” (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:7) when events of the day had made it quite clear that Aššur was, in fact, “before” Yahweh?
While this line of thinking might have been fine for a Samaritan layman, it was clearly not adequate for its priestly class, who soon migrated to Jerusalem. Deuteronomist scholarship suggests that this priestly class brought monotheistic Yahwism with it, implying that Jerusalem’s priesthood — at minimum — was henotheistically Yahwist (otherwise why accept Samaritan priests with open arms?). Over time, monotheistic Yahwism found favor with Judah’s landowning elite and eventually came to dominate the Temple, putting the Deuteronomists — descendants of the Samaritan priesthood — into positions of priestly power.
This Deuteronomist priesthood then began exerting political power after 640 BCE, when they and their aristocratic allies suppressed a coup that had resulted in King Amon’s death and installed Josiah on the throne. Priestly influence over Josiah — just eight when he assumed kingship — would eventually result in the finding of the Law during his reign and subsequent religious reforms, thereby permanently cementing Deuteronomist theological dominance over Judah.
This dominance would become permanent. After Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon in 586 BCE, according to Deuteronomist scholarship, the priestly class would collate a history to be added to the sacred texts, a history which would then be referred to in the composition of 1 and 2 Chronicles and the return from exile after Babylon’s fall to the Achaemenids in 539 BCE.
Exilic Composition — Problems
The major problem with exilic composition, especially in that era, is one of eclipsed legitimacy. Deuteronomist history is, at its heart, a statement of Israeli nationhood, and while conquered nations can and have produced works-in-exile (e.g. Sir Thaddeus, the great Polish verse novel/national epic, published in Paris due to Russian occupation of much of the Polish homeland), it is in an imperial nation’s best interest to integrate conquered peoples into the dominant mien, and one of the best ways to do that is to delegitimize pre-existing ideas of nationhood, something the Yahwists, with their insistence on henotheism (and later monotheism) in the face of vastly more powerful pagan empires, made quite easy.
Just as the Ten Lost Tribes became “lost” (or better put, fully integrated) in the Assyrian mien, without a powerful national anchor, the Judahites would have become “lost” in the Babylonian mien. Yahwism would have become a minor historical oddity, that is, if any of its texts survived at all. No doubt some — possibly the majority — of the Judahites did Babylonize, but without a powerful national backstop, there would have been no reason for the Judahites to retain and maintain their traditions in the face of a hostile occupying power for an extended period of time.
What I am arguing here is that the Torah and Deuteronomist history was that backstop. However, if Deuteronomist history was meant to act like Sir Thaddeus, its themes and concerns would much more explicitly deal with the topical exile. They do not. 1 and 2 Chronicles, whose references to “Samuel the seer, Nathan the prophet, and Gad the seer” (1 Chron. 29:29b) and e.g. “the book of the kings of Israel and Judah” (2 Chron. 35:27b) are almost certainly references to Deuteronomist history as was known at the time; 1 and 2 Chronicles are also linked to Ezra and Nehemiah, both of which deal primarily with the exile and return from it. In other words, 1 and 2 Chronicles can be understood as being more in accord with the types of conditions that prompt composition of texts like Sir Thaddeus, while the Deuteronomistic cycle responds to an entirely different set of conditions: ones that occurred in Judah immediately prior to its conquest by Babylon.
Decline and Fall of the Assyrian Empire
As was previously mentioned, Assyria’s conquest of Israel in 721 BCE precipitated the priestly migration to Judah. For the next century, Assyria remained preeminent in the region, while theological differences between Samaritan and Jerusalemite Yahwists resolved in favor of the Deuteronomist school. Then, in 627 BCE, everything changed: Ashurbanipal, the last of Assyria’s great rulers, died, and between a series of problems, including serious overextension, Babylonian insurrection, Scythian and Cimmerian raiding, and Median incursion from the Persian highlands, the empire fell apart. Egypt reasserted its sovereignty, as did Babylon; by 609 BCE — a mere eighteen years later — Assyria was no more.
Coincidentally, King Josiah found the book of Law in the Jerusalemite archives in 622 BCE — just five years after Ashurbanipal’s death, and a period in which Assyrian hegemony in the Mediterranean was well and truly in decline — which sparked a religious and national revival. With Assyria bogged down in civil war and campaigns on two frontiers, its former vassal Judah reasserted its independence and reasserted the supremacy of its Yahwist cult.
But the Deuteronomists were not content with Judahite nationalism. They wanted more. Recall that they were Samaria’s Yahwist priests originally, and would have been familiar both with the shared lore of Judah and Israel and with Samaritan lore. With the region thrown into disarray, the priests, along with their landowning-elite allies, had the perfect opportunity to reclaim Israel. They just needed a narrative that would justify it.
Deuteronomist Historiography, Summarized
We can now turn to Deuteronomist historiography. This historiography begins with the Law Josiah uncovered — commonly understood to be the core of Deuteronomy — and continues with:
- an epic-scale conquest of Canaan (Joshua), fairly clearly meant to assert the supremacy of (Yahwist) Israeli landowning elites over a native (pagan) Canaanite underclass;
- a collation of pre-monarchical folktales (Judges), presented with the Deuteronomists’ own theological spin and thus meant to illustrate its theme in their country’s history;
- the consolidation of the Unified Kingdom’s monarchy (1 and 2 Samuel);
- legends associated with the Temple’s building (the first half of 1 Kings), meant to legitimize it as Yahweh’s cultic center;
- an account of Unified Kingdom’s bifurcation into Israel and Judah (the middle of 1 Kings), linking back to its formation (1 and 2 Samuel); and
- a summarization of the combined annals of Israel and Judah (the rest of Kings), bringing this mythic history into the present day.
Noticeably, Joshua, Judges, and Samuel are thematically unified texts, while Kings’ first part, in particular, is characterized by aetiological “clutter” before transitioning into the summarized annals section that takes up about 2/3rds of the combined book. The net result is that the first three books can be understood as a cycle of myths, with the last one managing the inherently-awkward historiography-history transition.
All that said, each of the three books between Deuteronomy’s Law and Kings’ aetiology represents a different part of the Deuteronomists’ agenda: Joshua justifies the (pre-Exile) status quo; Judges justifies Yahwist theology; and Samuel justifies … a political goal of reclaiming Israel.
The Myth of a Unified Kingdom
Neither archaeological nor extrabiblical evidence supports Samuel’s account of a unified Israel kingdom c. 1000 BCE. Instead, archaeological evidence shows the development of two Yahwist kingdoms, those which we now call “Judah” and “Israel”; the northern kingdom is referred to in e.g. Assyrian documents by the exonym “land of the Omrites”.
The implication is clear. The Omrites’ founder, i.e. Omri, was understood to have founded the northern kingdom, most likely by unifying ten of the twelve tribes. In calling itself Israel, this kingdom also laid claim to Judah, but its independent consolidation into a unitary state centered around Jerusalem (rather than the presumed transition from a tribal confederation to a kingdom underlying Omri’s consolidation) made it a permanent thorn in the Israelites’ side.
Myths of a unified kingdom thus likely developed around Omri’s consolidation and the fraught relationship Israel and Judah had with each other. We don’t need to look back to the Bronze Age; indeed, doing so would be less than informative in this context as Bronze Age-era legends would have been Canaanite myths, and as Joshua reminds us, the Canaanites were a permanent underclass under their Yahwist feudal lords. Instead, considering its relative size, myths involving the development of a “unified kingdom” are almost certainly associated with consolidation of the northern kingdom under the Omrites.
The implication, then, is that the Deuteronomists moved most of Omri’s legendarium onto David, perhaps completing a mythic replacement that had been ongoing in oral legends since the Omrites’ fall, leaving to the northern kingdom’s unifier just the bits at odds with their theological beliefs.
Why would they do this? Consider the current events around the time Josiah pushed through his reforms and entrenched the Deuteronomist priesthood. Assyria was in serious trouble, and no part of the empire was more more remote from Nineveh than the Samaritan region. Judah under Josiah was an island of peace and stability in the midst of a rapidly-disintegrating empire; the time was right to attempt a reunification of Yahwist lands. But, unlike the northern kingdom, which had laid implicit claim to all of Israel from its inception, with its very chosen name, Judah have never laid claim to anything beyond their ancestors’ own tribal lands. By transposing Omri’s legendarium onto David, Deuteronomists are giving Judah an implicit claim over all of Israel.
This is the reason the Deuteronomist core must predate the Exile. There is no reason to create a story whose ultimate goal is to lay claim over a fallen kingdom during the Exile; instead, the David legends are responding to a window of opportunity granted by Assyria’s fall by restructuring Judah’s own history to make the conquest of Israel a moral obligation on the their kings’ part.
This story also has other theological and political considerations. David’s mini-empire, with the neighboring kingdoms all in hock to a Yahwist overlord is, by early Iron Age standards, tantamount to a statement of Yahwist superiority over all comers. Not only that, but the state Samuel describes is one large enough to, at minimum, counterbalance Egypt, and possibly even work with them to keep the Mesopotamian powers in check — in short — the transformation of the tiny post-tribal kingdom of Judah into a regional power over the lower Levantine. A seductive dream! And one that may have been attainable … for all of about twenty years.
Jeremiah’s Relationship with the Deuteronomists
Now that we have an overview of the aims of Deuteronomistic historiography — (1) justification of the proto-feudal status quo; (2) justification of Deuteronomistic theology in the context of pre-monarchical folktales and legends; (3) justification of the importance of Jerusalem’s temple and hence their role in Judahite society; and (4) justification of an expansionary agenda for Judah by reframing their history as being half of a fallen “unified kingdom”, we can begin to analyze the odd relationship Jeremiah has with the other Deuteronomist texts.
Jeremiah was a theological Deuteronomist. That is, he (a) placed special emphasis on adherence to the Law as arbiter of divine favor and (b) emphasis on the preeminence of Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood as arbiters of the Law and its interpretation. In this, he would have also supported the status quo, of a minority Yahwist feudal elite controlling the country’s affairs.
However, he does not go so far as supporting the Deuteronomists’ geopolitical agenda as outlined above, and in his first, most famous, and indisputably authentic (in terms of being the oldest textual layer) prophecy — that of the fall of Jerusalem (Jer. 2-6 incl.) — he predicts the inevitable outcome of the failure of an expansionary agenda, such as the expansionary agenda the Deuteronomists were pushing.
Make no mistake, this oracle is very much a break between Jeremiah (and likely a cadre of Deuteronomists he led) and the rest of Jerusalem’s priestly class. It informs us that Jeremiah and his acolytes were creatures of the Temple, trained by the Temple to be part of its priestly and administrative class, likely had risen to positions powerful enough to glimpse the upper echelon’s political machinations (i.e. pressuring Josiah and his descendants to press the Judahite claim over Israel implicit in Samuel’s Unified Kingdom narrative), and were well enough aware of world events to understand the price and consequence of failure.
It also informs us, by making this oracle as a rhetorical device, that Jeremiah thought such an agenda was doomed to failure — in other words, that pressing the claim would result in Judah’s military defeat and conquest by an outside power. Why he thought this does not seem to have come down to us (two of several possibilities: (1) he overestimated Assyria’s strength, or (2) he was well enough aware of world events to know of Babylon’s rise), but it seems Jeremiah’s oracle concerning the fall of Jerusalem is a statement that either (a) Judah’s opportunity to press a claim on Israel had come and gone, or (b) such a claim was foolhardy to begin with.
In any event, the reason Jeremiah is associated with the Deuteronomists but at the same time distinct from the rest of their works is because of his break with their political agenda, whatever his reasons for doing so may have been. Because he was cut from the same theological cloth as the Deuteronomists, he carried their priestly authority in his prophecies; by setting himself as in opposition to their expansionist program, he positioned himself in a strong position for his oracles’ future veracity. Jerusalem, as it turned out, did fall to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, 64 years after Josiah’s ascendancy to the throne in 640 BCE, and Jeremiah himself, according to his lore, died in exile in Egypt.
I hope this essay gets the point across why I think Deuteronomistic literature represents not an Exilic narrative in composition, but a unified historiography associated with a late Judahite state, and so the cores of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings should be understood as having been in circulation sometime between 640 and 586 BCE.
To date, Deuteronomist scholarship has focused excessively on their theology; by recognizing this theology as part of a broader program that includes (a) a justification of the status quo (Joshua, Kings), and (b) a literature meant to justify an expansionary agenda (Samuel), we can glean a better understanding of the world the Deuteronomists lived in, and the circumstances driving them to write as they did.
This interpretation is also supported by Jeremiah’s Deuteronomist connections, which justify reading him as being in broad agreement with their theology and social structure, but opposed to their expansionary agenda — an agenda that the prophet saw as suicidal for the Judahite state.
Did Judah fall because of ill-advised attempts at expansion? This seems unlikely: there are no late stories of warfare in Kings or Chronicles, and indeed, Jerusalem’s fall, according to Kings and maybe accorded in extrabiblical sources, occurred due to a popular revolt against Babylonian vassaldom.
However, for a period, howsoever brief, there was an opportunity for Judah to expand, reclaiming Israel, and from a historiographical standpoint it is impossible to read Samuel as anything but a justification for doing so. Indeed, the Deuteronomists’ vision, as articulated by Samuel, is of Judah becoming a regional power on par with the Omrists’ plans for Israel, bringing the neighboring small kingdoms of Moab, Edom, Ammon, Philistia, and Aram-Damascus to heel, a state able to marshal enough resources to defend itself from Egyptian and Babylonian/Assyrian influence.
This is not the vision of an exiled people. It is the vision of a people enjoying a nationalist resurgence — which is exactly what was happening in Judah during Assyria’s spectacular, and spectacularly rapid, decline and fall.
Ultimately, however, along with the Torah, this Deuteronomistic history was foundational to the development of the Judahites into early Jews during the Babylonian Exile. Israel’s ten tribes were lost, and without the literature handed down from Judah, no doubt the same would have happened to the Judahites. Instead, due to the power of the literature, the theology, and the community, the Babylonian exile metamorphosed Judahites into the first expression of — Jews.
And it could not have been done without the Deuteronomists’ historiographical collation, texts that responded to conditions present not during the Exile but rather during Assyria’s rather spectacular decline and fall.