Monday, August 28, 2006


Authorship of Deuteronomy

It is Deuteronomy's "catch-phrases" that helped generate the Documentary Hypothesis in the first place, but one of Deuteronomy's catch-phrases, "Levitical Priests" does not quite seem to mesh with that hypothesis, except in its crudest form, which hardly is compatible with normative Jewish thought.

So does the concern with the plight of Levites who are not "Cohenim" indicate, as many of those who proposed modern source criticism held, a late date for the centralization of worship in ancient Judea, which would also mean that much of the Priestly source is of a similar late date and the two sources must have been rivals in their proposed method of implementation? I guess the idea is that the P-school pushed centralization and the D-school responded: "we'll go even further with this centralization than you will but what about the Levites who loose their jobs?"

Somehow, though -- and I might be biased -- this doesn't jibe. The D-school is clearly interested in a future, which might not (and it turns out did not) include centralized Temple worship, so why would they be pushing a new centralization? Were they hoping a religious revival would assuage God's wrath? Funny, the big D-man Jeremiah himself just doesn't seem all that sanguine.

So what to make of this concern with a surplus of Levites (a surplus that, if it still existed at the proposed time of the Deuteronomic School, the Exile, Return, etc., took care of as, by the end of the Second Temple, various sources of evidence, including the Parable of the Good Samaritan, indicate that there was quite a shortage of Levites except for the Cohenim, who were in relative surplus)? Perhaps the story behind Deuteronomy's true after all? It was found rather than written out of whole cloth? Or if it was written by a late Deuteronomic school, it incorporated some very old sources from like-minded people writing at the time of centralization: "it's all very good, and we support it even more than the Cohens do, but what about the extra Levites?"

Or does the emphasis on Levitical Cohenim just reflect an understanding of the fragility of the social changes induced by centralization of worship? Various subtleties in the Torah indicate that the Levites were originally an untouchable caste of priests and priestly assistants, punished for "ancestral sins", much like the Osu among the Ibos. The centralization of religious worship, necessary for the unification of Israel out of the disparate tribes of Jacob, had many winners and losers. The powerful "first born" tribe of Reuben was a loser in the deal, and this had to be explained, and much of the E-source is dedicated to compiling into a single volume the mythos that could explain this as well as the ascendancy of the "Rachel tribes" (in some ways, the E, J and even P sources tell "just-so" stories -- in particular, J and E are glosses of a far more extensive Hebrew mythology,which J and E assume is known to the reader and substituting for this lack of knowledge on the part of modern readers is a critical function of midrash which provides the new mythology necessary to keep the Bible readable, which is not a bug but rather a feature -- which perhaps explains why religious conservatives who take the Bible as literal truth are altogether too accepting of "just-so" stories in other contexts, e.g. in their acceptance of bubbe-mieses pretending to be "evolutionary psychology" even as they reject real evolutionary studies, including serious evolutionary psychology).

One clear winner was the Cohens among the tribe of Levi, who saw their status rise from that of untouchable priests to being the pinnacle of society. The Cohenim were not (at least not at first) grauber but rather they recognized from whence they came, and the Priestly Code reflects an interest in wealth distribution to benefit all by benefiting the poor. But the economy of scale in worship centralization meant that there were suddenly a bunch of poor, untouchable Levites out of what jobs they had. This urban underclass was maintained, along the lines set out in the Priestly Code, so long as Judah and Israel were strong nations. But could this particular support of an underclass continue in the diaspora? The Deuteronomists, like modern liberals, wanted to indicate that it not only could continue but, for the sake of the people of Israel, must continue.

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