Deuteronomistic History: Sin, Punishment, Repentance and Deliverance

“History is a sequential and systematic reconstruction of the past.” (“Historiography” Claude Mariottini)  In the case of Deuteronomic History, this reconstruction had specific agenda with a message to the people. The message was simple and deliberate, and the fate of Israel depended on its people understanding where they’ve come from…so that their future is secure. YHWH’s covenant with the people of Israel meant they were to be faithful to YHWH and faithful to the Torah. To worship other gods and violate the tenets of Mosaic law, meant not only a withdraw of divine protection, but a destructive and deadly wrath by the same God who brought prosperity and safety.

The following passages from the Hebrew Bible illustrate this pattern:

Deuteronomy 28:1-68
The listeners are reminded to obey God’s commandments, and as a result, he will set them high above the other nations. They will also receive blessing of children, livestock and food. They will be known as God’s people, the “top of the heap” and not the tail. But if not, their cities, fields and wombs will be cursed. Panic, frustration, disaster and pestilence will cling to them and you’ll be driven off their land.   To break the covenant with YHWH meant YHWH would cause them to be defeated before their enemies, and… their finance’s will cheat on them! Additional humility will befall them as their property, sons and daughters are taken from them. “The Lord will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth to swoop down on you like and eagle a nation whose language you do not understand,” (v 49) scattering them to serve other gods. This despair and destruction will actually cause them to eat their own children.

Joshua 23:1-16
These passages call into remembrance the faithfulness of YHWH when the people were faithful and observed Moses’ laws. They were rewarded by possessing the enemy’s land. But the warning that came from the success of conquering foreign land was clear: Don’t turn your back on YHWH and worship foreign gods, and definitely don’t intermarry with the enemy’s survivors. They’re going to want to…but it’s a trap…stay the course and continue to take over their land. And again, the pattern repeats, don’t become unfaithful to the covenant, or YHWH will destroy you.

1 Samuel 12:1-25
In this selection of scriptures, the historiographer recounts how the worst nightmares of the people came true: because the people forgot YHWH, they were sold into the hand of the enemy. They had not heeded the warnings and had brought YHWH’s wrath upon themselves. However, in this account, the author tells of the turn and repentance experienced by the people. This brought about the forgiveness and rescue of YHWH and the restoration of promise and future to generations.

2 Kings 17:5-18
As forewarned in previous accounts of Deuteronomistic stories and repercussions the unfaithful will experience, this scripture describes the horror of the Assyrian invasion, and the capture of the Israelites. The explanation of these events points to the sins of the people. They refused to listen to the warnings of the prophets, and began to worship false gods, and do things “in secret” that were against God’s covenant with them.

2 Chronicles 36:11-21
The final repercussions brought the downfall of Jerusalem. Jeremiah had warned the people that their unfaithful behavior would bring down the house of YHWH and burn the palaces to the ground. And just as the prophet had foretold, the people were taken into captivity.

Deuteronomistic narrative allowed the people to understand what happened to them, why it happened and how they could go about keeping it from happening again. “In Deuteronomy’s covenant theology they found an interpretive principle that explained their recent experience as the inevitable result of their failure to live up to the terms of their relationship with Yahweh.” (Stanley, p. 258) This behavior modification and enforced moral code, provided YHWH’s people with an explanation of how and why they should remain faithful, what would happen if they didn’t and, ultimately, that YHWH would renew a relationship with them, when they repent from their disobedience and realign with YHWH’s covenant. And so, the Deuteronomistic History is, “essentially a call to repentance. It urges the exiles to turn from their disregard of God and change their fundamental disposition.” (Bandstra on the Prophets)

Are these claims intelligible in light of the way we understand the world today? The messages and stories recorded for the ancient Israelites allowed them to make sense of events that happened in their lives, and understand YHWH’s interaction with them. Our faith has now developed to see God not as a vindictive and vengeful being, but One who will be present in healing and hope after humans have brought destruction upon themselves.

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