Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation

By Sprinkle, Joe M. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation


Sprinkle, Joe M., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation. By Bernard M. Levinson. New York: Oxford University, 1997, xiv + 205 pp., $39.95.

A comprehensive revision of the author's dissertation under M. Fishbane at Brandeis, this erudite work utilizes the methods and assumptions of the source-critical approach common since Wellhausen to explain how the 6th-century laws of Deuteronomy employed and transformed earlier laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exod 20:22-23:33). This transformation, according to Levinson, is part of a radically new program of cult centralization in which Jerusalem's temple came to be considered the only legitimate sanctuary. His thesis is that the authors of Deuteronomy reused and reworked the older material in order to lend their innovations the "guise of continuity with the past and consistency with traditional law" (p. 21), all while in fact essentially abrogating the original intent of those older regulations. Thus, although Deuteronomy purports to be a reaffirmation of the conventional religious law, the reaffirmation camouflages what is in fact a fundamental departure, according to Levinson.

Levinson begins his thesis with the altar law of Deuteronomy 12 in comparison with the older altar law of Exod 20:22-26. The latter assumes the existence of altars of earth and stone in addition to the tabernacle/temple's bronze altar. Whereas conservatives have argued either that Deuteronomy 12 does not in fact exclude secondary altars (cf. the stone altar of Deut 27:4-8 on Mt. Ebal), or else that it is predictive of a distant, future day when there would be a centralization of worship, Levinson is dismissive of all such attempts to read the Pentateuch's laws synchronically as a coherent unity. He holds, instead, that under the guise of a prediction Deuteronomy in fact represents a retrojection into the past of a modernistic transformation of the data. Accordingly, Levinson insists that the contradictions are real, frequent and explainable only on diachronic, source-critical grounds.

Subsequent chapters argue that the cult centralization had ramifications for Passover, converting it from a local, family-based slaughter to a pilgrimage. …

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