On misunderstanding Deuteronomistic History.
The moniker “Deuteronomistic History” (DH) is most often meant to refer to the work of M. Noth, a German theologian and Hebrew scholar who first conceived the theory in 1943. Under the assumption of the DH, the Book of Deuteronomy is not actually part of the Pentateuch, as is traditionally believed. Rather, it is an introductory work, of sorts, to a larger corpus of Scripture that encompasses all of the biblical material through the end of 2 Kings. In his studies, Noth determined that the correlations between the books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings were indicative of a “single literary complex” formulated by a single editor who reassembled older material with a “singular theology and intent.”1 Accordingly, the Deuteronomistic Historian “did not write his history to provide entertainment in hours of leisure or to satisfy a curiosity about national history,” Noth himself contends, “but intended it to teach the true meaning of the history of Israel from the occupation to the destruction of the old order.”2
To purport an overriding theological framework as not only the guiding interpretive principle but also the prevailing authorial motivation brings to bear the fundamental fact which every biblical scholar must hold in tension — namely, that the schema of Scripture upholds both historiography and theology. The historical narratives of the Old Testament are, indeed, history. However, they also progress the divine workings of God throughout humanity’s (specifically Israel’s) story. The DH offers a method of understanding the diverse ways in which God involved himself in the establishment of the nation of Israel, from the recapitulation of the Mosaic code (Deuteronomy), to the occupation of Canaan (Joshua), to the span of Judges (Judges; Ruth), to the rise of the monarchy (1 Samuel, 2 Samuel), to the epoch of kings. (1 Kings, 2 Kings)3
Nevertheless, the DH is laden with formulaic errors, not the least of which is Noth’s assumption that the theological premise in which the Deuteronomistic Historian operated was God’s justice for his covenant people’s rebellion. Contrarian scholars argued that the DH failed to consider the themes of hope, mercy, grace, and recovery that peppered the Pentateuchal and Historical narratives of the Old Testament. This is most predominantly seen in his exclusion of the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:1–17), which, F. M. Cross argued, brought “a theme of grace to the Deuteronomistic History — a theme embodied in the divine promise of a never-ending kingdom.”4 “Noth’s strictly ‘negative’ view of the Deuteronomistic Historian’s agenda,” S. L. Richter continues, “had compelled him to expel this positive report regarding the monarchy on presuppositional rather than empirical evidence.”5 Such is the DH’s prevailing weakness: its failure to account for the inimitable grace of God interwoven through varied literary types and progressions.
Even through the seeming tedium of covenantal policy, the work of God in the world was still progressing. “Deuteronomy is not a mere addition of new material to that which was already known,” J. G. McConville asserts, “but a re-presentation and inculcation of the requirements of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel.”6 One is not needful of a “single literary complex” in order to aver the divine intent of Scripture. Through even tedious literature, the unceasing faithfulness of God is chiefly seen and known, a trait of the Lord that still speaks to weary souls. Thus, one is made to see that the agenda of Deuteronomistic History was not “retributive,” but redemptive.
S. L. Richter, “Deuteronomistic History,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 220.
J. G. McConville, “Book of Deuteronomy,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 182.