Narrative Law

When the Pentateuch was edited into its present shape, probably in the late sixth or early fifth century BCE, the legal material surveyed on pp. 9-10 above was placed in its 'correct' historical context. The Book of the Covenant and the Holiness Code were presented as part of the divine revelation given to Moses at Sinai, the Deuteronomic law as part of his final address to the Israelites in the plains of Moab, just before they were to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. This had the effect of integrating law and narrative in a way that has been critically important for Judaism ever since. The finished Pentateuch itself came to be called the Torah or Law, as though all of it-not just the legal portions—had the function of 'law' (or guidance) for Jewish life. The historical narrative thereby took on the character of moral instruction, beginning the tendency to treat historical incidents primarily as moral examples which has been common in both Judaism and Christianity (Barton 1986:15478). (This is the ancestor of the 'moral sense' in medieval biblical interpretation.) On the other hand, law (in the literal sense) was anchored firmly to the foundation narrative of the Jewish people, so that it could not be treated as a human construction but must be accepted as divine revelation given through Moses, the greatest lawgiver and prophet Israel had ever known.

The fixing of the Pentateuch also established that the formative period for Israel should be seen as ending when the revelation of the Torah ended-with the death of Moses. From now on the Pentateuch, which before had perhaps run on without a break into Joshua and the subsequent histories, formed a separate entity—an account of the classic age of Israel's origins. One feature that may strike the modern reader as odd about this is that this age then ends before the conquest of Canaan, for at the end of Deuteronomy the Israelites are about to enter the land; it is not until Joshua that the entry actually occurs. It has been plausibly suggested (Sanders 1972) that this is theologically significant, and reflects the experience of the generation that compiled the Pentateuch. Living in exile, no more able than Moses himself to enter the promised Land, the compilers deliberately left the Torah as an open-ended work, addressed to readers who might indeed hope to return to the land, but had certainly not yet done so. One consequence was to make the occupation of Canaan the beginning of the second great block of narrative, the Deuteronomistic History, which lost its original connection with Pentateuchal materials and came to begin with the book of Joshua.

For the early post-exilic generation both the Pentateuchal and Deuteronomistic historical narratives belonged firmly in the past. They were accounts of the first and second epochs in the Israelite story, both of which had ended. The profound sense of discontinuity between then and now is a highly characteristic element in the post-exilic view of reality, which both encourages and is encouraged by the recognition of these writings no longer just as national records but as the community's Scripture, closed to all possibility of correction or supplementation (cf. Barton 1986:115-16). Much later, Josephus will say that no scriptural book was written 'from the death of Artaxerxes to our own time' (Against Apion 1:37-43)—which means in practice after the time of Ezra, whose work marked the decisive inauguration of the Second Commonwealth of Israel in the fifth century BCE. That belief was not yet present when the Pentareuch was being edited, probably somewhat before the work of Ezra; but its spirit is quite close to that of the early post-exilic community. Revelation, whether of law or of history, lay for them in the past. Such an attitude was an essential part of the acceptance of ancient writings as 'Scripture'. It also, as we shall see, affected what sorts of new writing could be produced.

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