R. I. Thelle, Approaches to the Chosen Place: Accessing a Biblical Concept

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Thelle, Rannfrid. I., Approaches to the Chosen Place: Accessing a Biblical Concept (LHBOTS, 564; London: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. xiv + 240. Hardcover. US$140.00. ISBN 978-0-567-46807-9.

This book offers a fresh interpretation of the concept of the “chosen place” in Deuteronomy. The author's stated aim is to do so by breaking away from the powerful legacy of historical criticism, which has in her view distracted scholars from understanding the concept in the context of the terms and interests of Deuteronomy itself, as well as of its literary and theological setting in the Old Testament. She is critical, therefore, of the view that understands Deuteronomy from the perspective that it, or a form of it, was the “book of the law” discovered in Josiah's time, and particularly that it was composed to promote such a reform. She also calls in question the theory of the Deuteronomistic History (DH). Her grounds for taking these positions are her perception that the function of the “chosen place” in Deuteronomy is different in a number of ways from that (or those) in DH, especially in Kings.

In pursuing her argument, she adopts an approach that is basically “final form” (based on MT), though she does not thereby abandon historical aspects. She first undertakes a comparison of “chosen place” in Deuteronomy with “chosen city” in Kings—noting other pertinent texts en passant, such as Josh 9:27—and highlights the disparity in the terms used in each case (ch. 2). If Deuteronomy's concept is supposed to be manifested in DH, one would expect greater consistency (p. 41). She conducts a closer reading of Deut 12 (ch. 3), and concludes that it chiefly aims to make distinctions between what is right for Israel in contrast to other nations, and to organize the space within which the laws have validity (pp. 79–80). She goes on to show how the narrative regarding both the “chosen place” and Jerusalem goes through stages from Deuteronomy to Kings, noticing for example the role of Shiloh in Joshua and Samuel (ch. 4). Chapter 5 considers Deuteronomy's portrayal of cultic matters in relation to concepts found in the preceding books of the Pentateuch, as well as in DH. Here she argues both that Deuteronomy is closer to the other Pentateuchal source P on the altar and centralization than is often allowed (pp. 105–6), and that in matters cultic it only has “tangential” affinities with Samuel–Kings (p. 127). In chapter 6, the question is asked whether Deuteronomy's concept of centralization is foundational for Josiah's reform as depicted in Kings. The argument here is two-fold: first, that Kings develops its own distinctive interests in its build-up to the account of Josiah, in which notably the motif of the bāmōt plays a key part, and that the account of the reform is not about “centralization” as such; and second, that there is a vital distinction between the notion that the author of Kings may have read and applied the law of Deuteronomy, and the idea that Deuteronomy intended to be taken in the way in which Kings takes it (pp. 168–9). Chapter 7 explores the context of the “chosen place” in Deuteronomy's theology of election, and highlights in doing so its focus on Torah and on the underlying premise of the exodus from Egypt (pp. 175–8). This is shown to be in contrast with the approach to election in Samuel–Kings, with their interest in David, Jerusalem and the temple. Psalms 78 and 132 are also cited here for their affinities with Samuel–Kings in this respect (182–5). A final chapter (ch. 8), on kingship, reviews the story of the rise of the monarchy in Samuel, goes on to consider the attitude to kings in Kings, and finally compares and contrasts these pictures with the law of the king in Deut 17:14–20. The latter “does not coincide with any ancient Near Eastern royal ideology, whereas Samuel and Kings seem much closer to such ideologies” (p. 199).

The value of the thesis lies in the recognition that the question of the “chosen place” raises a number of distinct but related questions, which have all somehow to be integrated into an overarching thesis. This was the great strength of the Wellhausen hypothesis which is here called into question. Thelle is correct, I think, to insist on reading the various books in terms of their own form, theme, and theology. She is strong on her analysis of Deut 12, and especially her concluding remarks about its capacity to structure the life of Israel in relation to both time and space (pp. 79–80), though undoubtedly more could have been made of this. She is right to draw attention to the variable ways in which the concept of the “chosen place” is actually taken up in the books that follow Deuteronomy, militating against any simple relationship between the altar-law and Josiah's reform. And she makes the sound logical point that the adoption of the Deuteronomic law in Kings tells us nothing about the meaning of the law as it may have been conceived in Deuteronomy (pp. 168–9). (The important text, 2 Kgs 21:4, should have been more directly addressed in this respect, however.)

For these reasons, the book makes a substantial contribution to the question addressed. It seems to me to fall short of a cogent integration of the strands of the argument, however. Thelle underestimates, in my view, the extent to which Deuteronomy presents a formidable challenge to ways of thinking that are deep-rooted both in the Old Testament and in the ancient Near East (see, e.g., on pp. 1–2 n. 2). She underplays certain distinctive features of the book, for example in her account of the cultic regulations, where she tends to harmonize with other Pentateuchal material, arguing for instance that Deuteronomy says little on certain ritual matters because it takes much for granted (p. 112), and underestimating the issues raised, e.g., by B. M. Levinson (although his work is noted on p. 104).[1] And her appreciation that Deuteronomy differs from Samuel–Kings, and some Psalms, on issues of election, peoplehood, sanctuary, and kingship might have led to a deeper understanding of Deuteronomy as a comprehensive programme for a society governed by Torah. The belief that Deuteronomy enshrines a kind of “constitution” for Israel, with profound and lasting political implications, as theorized by S. D. McBride, F. Crüsemann and others, finds little echo here.[2] This may be because the observation, correct in itself, that the refusal of Deuteronomy to name the “place” makes it significantly different from the literature that promotes Jerusalem, is addressed rather too narrowly at a literary level. In one place she thinks of this non–naming as “abstract,” in contrast to named places (p. 179). But this is a mistake. Deuteronomy's programme is grounded and highly political, its very openness on the “chosen” location allowing for its adaptation into numerous concrete situations. In this respect, it would also have been good to see a more focused consideration of questions such as whether Deuteronomy “demythologizes,” or “spiritualizes,” questions which tend to be adumbrated only tangentially, but which cannot be separated from an interpretation of “place” in the book.

Even so, this volume offers a welcome and fresh approach to a set of questions on which old habits die hard, and deserves to take its place in the scholarly literature.

J. Gordon McConville, University of Gloucestershire

[1] B. M. Levinson, Deuteronomy and The Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). reference

[2] S. Dean McBride, “Polity of the Covenant People: the Book of Deuteronomy,” Int 41 (1987), 273–94; Frank Crüsemann, The Torah: Theology and Social History of Old Testament Law (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996 [original German 1992]), 234–49. reference