Review of Thomas Rmer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Thomas Rmer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction (London/New York: T & T Clark, 2007).  Pp. X + 202.  Paper, US$29.95.  ISBN 978-0-567-03212-6.


Rmer’s thesis regarding the Deuteronomistic History emerges around the end of Chapter 2 as follows: What we call “DH” is the product of a small scribal group or “school” (first at court and then presumably as part of government bureaucracy)—whose time was spent managing archives and taxes, keeping track of main events, and developing propaganda—who maintained material in a small set of court scrolls that were revised at three moments: late 7th century (neo-Assyrian); early 6th century (neo-Babylonian): and early later 6th or early 5th century (Persian period). 

The case is built, as the title suggests, by bringing to bear general historical and archeological information (particularly regarding the imperial cultures), sociological frames and information (e.g., information on scribes and their likely roles in constructing memory), and “old” literary information (primarily redaction method, genre considerations, and comparative narrative material).

Before getting to the meat of the study, Rmer summarizes efficiently the earliest questions around the coherence of the books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings, showing them generally unified by style, vocabulary and content (Chapter 1).  Next comes a succinct review of the “DH hypothesis,” starting with pre-critical Rabbis and Christian scholars who evince little awareness of or interest in the question and following up with Renaissance and Reformation commentators who did note threads of coherence and pose new questions.  “Pre-Nothians” laid some groundwork for the Noth hypothesis, which emerged to claim: the work in question is Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets; the interest is more on transmission issues than sources; the question is to show how D-language is visible in FP (in speeches and in narrative summaries); the date of composition ranges from 8th to 7th century to early in the exile period; the author was a Judean individual, ruminating on and explaining the massive defeat of Judah.  Rmer moves quickly to cover the main 20th century reactions to the thesis (Cross and Smend), to show those ramified by various others to the point of questioning of virtually all pieces of the thesis.  From the shards Rmer suggests that the best way forward (a compromise) is with Provan and Lohfink who see work on FP starting not sooner than neo-Assyrian times and continuing into Persian period, in three editions (all in Chapter 2).  Why a compromise is best Rmer does not explain; if the goal is to “save” the hypothesis, then Rmer has indeed managed deftly.

The thesis is illustrated most fully in Rmer’s Chapter 3, where he demonstrates how the centralization law in Deuteronomy 12 can be seen to show a triple redaction: vv. 13-18 are neo-Assyrian; vv. 8-12 are neo-Babylonian (exilic); and vv. 2-7 and 20-27 are early Persian.  A first edition addresses landowners and herders in the late 7th century and talks about slaughter in practical terms: some can be done outside of Jerusalem and without priests, but no northern shrine is legitimated.  A reworking addresses concerns of those living in exile with no access to a temple;  this work de-legitimates Mizpah or Bethel as cultic sites.  A third refinement is concerned with the practices of those returning to the land in the Persian period and makes the case for clear separation from others.  The argument advanced in Chapter 4 demonstrates when the first edition was likely assembled:  Hezekiah (in a time of shrinking and greater neo-Assyrian domination) is less likely than Josiah.  Josiah’s fit is not simply based in 2 Kings 22-23 but on what is knowable about neo-Assyrian weaknesses from 640 on. 

The rest of the book demonstrates specifically what material in each of the seven present books comprising DH was included, shaped, and re-shaped under those three sets of conditions. The main point was that Judah is the real Israel, and the worship site there is the legitimate one.  The detail is rich, so one illustration will need to suffice: I will take the re-shaping of the material on Solomon from 1 Kings 1-11 as the sample.

Rmer says bluntly that a Solomonic era in the 10th century is wholly implausible historically, despite its ongoing popularity.  The royal figure, he suggests, is constructed from the model of new-Assyrian kings (Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal) and designed to be a temple-founder, a wise leader, a patron of the arts.  Solomon’s Phoenician contacts are neo-Assyrian, and the references to labor forced on Solomon’s people may arise from the circumstances pertaining in the 7th century.  This seventh-century “edition” is modified in the neo-Babylonian period at 1 Kings 9, where jarring notes are introduced: Solomon’s religious infidelities provide the explanation for the eventual expulsion from the land that will happen—that has happened by the time the “exilic” edition is being produced.  Rmer is distinctive, perhaps, in seeing an edition later than exilic: The evidence in the Solomonic material includes the possibility that YHWH’s power is not limited to the land of promise or to the Jerusalem temple, and that other peoples might revere Israel’s God as well (1 Kings 8: 41-45).  This exilic material is less well-developed than the other two moments in the book.            

I found the book well-conceived and scoped and clearly presented.  Rmer’s vast erudition and his long engagement with the material enables him to select and present with clarity.  That the topic perhaps resists such clarity may be a problem: in a book of this size, the argument remains general and alternatives cannot be discussed.  I have to confess to being unconvinced by the redaction layers, primarily because I don’t think that sort of detail is reconstructable.  Rmer’s effort is wholly plausible, but I would say the same about other constructions as well.  My doubt is simply a major disagreement between scholars about method and possibilities.  I found interesting and helpful the sociological material, particularly the information about scribes and scrolls.  Rmer’s identification of the scribes as a “mandarin” caste, distinct from priests and prophets and responsible for the construction of the story, is useful. There are helpful historical pieces of information new to me as well: that the “finding of the law” motif familiar to many from 2 Kings 22 is common in ANE literature; an explanation for the death of Josiah; the claim that the period of the judges is a sheer invention on the part of the neo-Babylonian re-workers.  The title of the book remains somewhat puzzling to me, since it rings in my ear a negative note possibly not intended.  I concluded that “so-called” modifies both “Deuteronomistic” and “history,” and cues readers that an investigation of what “Deuteronomistic” entails and what some of the problems in calling it a “history” include are what’s being offered. 

Barbara Green
Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union
Berkeley, CA 94708