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Consider the following text from the Torah (Deuteronomy, Chapter 17, Verse 14; it might be helpful to look up this text in a Bible and read the surrounding context):

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations around me.”

Now consider the questions from the Student Manual:

  1. Is it possible to identify the text or author of the passage?
  2. If so, to what period of the sacred history of the religion does the passage belong?
  3. Of what literary quality is the passage; that is, does the passage relate a tradition’s sacred narrative? Is it of a philosophic nature?
  4. Does the passage reflect a doctrinal context; for instance, does it pertain to a doctrinal debate within the tradition? Does it reflect an awareness of (response to, criticism of) another religious tradition?
  5. Are particular ethical teachings related in the passage?
  6. Does it deal with any ritual practices or festivals?

Identifying the text

The texts in the assignments are all from the assigned readings. If you do not recall reading an assigned text, search through Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology. There you will find valuable information on the text which will help you to reconstruct some of the essential features of its background. In this case the text is not found in Sacred Texts of the World however, other texts from the same collection are found there. This is a Torah text from the book of Deuteronomy. Look in the index of The Sacred Paths of the West to see if there is any further information about the character of the Torah (yes there is) and perhaps something about Deuteronomy (nothing directly listed). Check other available reference works including the chart above on this webpage for further information. For texts of the Bible there are many reference works available and some will contain specific discussions on the authorship and dating of your text. Try and define the basic contribution made by the Torah and the book of Deuteronomy to Judaism.

Identifying the author of the passage

Many religious traditions use sacred texts that are attributed to great heroes of the distant past or even to deities themselves. Now think about it, how likely is it really that the “first human being” composed a text that has been passed down through the generations? It is more likely that such an ascription of authorship is spurious and not reliable. Back to our text: many reference works of a theologically conservative “confessional” type claim that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Most modern specialists in the study of the Torah doubt this or deny it altogether, suggesting that the Torah is the product of a complicated process of editing involving the work of several authors. It is, of course, simple to just write “Moses wrote this” and move on, but such an answer will set you up to make serious errors later. For one thing, how natural is it for an author to refer to him- or herself by name? Would it not be strange for me to write “Mike Cheney said . . . ” instead of “I said”? If you have any doubts at this point about how to proceed with the text, review my suggestions above. Now let’s read the passage again carefully with questions of authorship in mind. Ludwig’s presentations on each religious tradition will be of great help in this connection. Pay particular attention to the highlighted words and phrases below and follow the links for further discussion.

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations around me.”

If so, to what period of the sacred history of the religion does the passage belong?

Notice that the question is asking when the text was written not when the events portrayed in the text were supposed to have happened. If I had written a story in 2004 which began with “President Kennedy sat behind his desk . . . ” you would not want to simply conclude that the story must have been written before 1963 (the year of JFK’s assassination). Of course, you could safely conclude that the story was written after JFK’s election. The normal case with biblical texts is that they are written long after the events that they describe took place. Avoid the temptation of thinking that some talented author sat on the camel behind father Abraham and wrote down everything that the good partiarch said and did! Think instead of when the issues raised in the text would have been most relevant. To take the case of Abraham again, archival notes on the life of Abraham would look rather different than a story about “our great Ancestor” written centuries after Abraham lived. In the first case, the text would be a biography and would be descriptive. In the second case, the text would be as much about the descendants of Abraham as it would be about the patriarch himself. In our sample text, the most important indication of a date is the mention of the king and the apparent distaste for the consequences of having a monarchy.

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations around me.”

Of what literary quality is the passage; that is, does the passage relate a tradition’s sacred narrative? Is it of a philosophic nature?

The best way to classify the literary quality of a passage is to begin with the broadest matters of definition and then work towards a more specific definition. Start by considering whether or not the passage is written as prose or poetry. If it is prose, does it tell a story about the past or does it provide instructions or describe a significant object? If it is poetry, does it provide a liturgy in which others are supposed to participate (by singing or reciting) or is it intended for quiet, individual contemplation. Is the text, prose or poetry, directed at a sacred object or personage or is it addressed to a human recipient? These are the sorts of questions that will help you come up with a satisfactory definition of the literary quality of the passage. Now, let’s look at our passage again:

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations around me.”

A cursory reading reveals that it is prose and examining the surrounding context indicates that this sentence is a part of a much larger speech Moses made to the children of Israel as they were poised to enter the promised land. Moses is teaching the Israelites how to remain faithful to their God and warning of the pitfalls that may cause them problems. One of those problems will come in the form of the tyranny of kings and the religious disobedience of kings. The text is addressed to the children of Israel in the situation the text imagines. It is therefore fair to say that the text was addressed to the Kingdom of Israel as a whole during the time in which it was written which was, in fact, much later than the time of Moses. It would also be possible to suggest that this text contained a special message for those in power in ancient Israel, kings in particular.

Does the passage reflect a doctrinal context; for instance, does it pertain to a doctrinal debate within the tradition? Does it reflect an awareness of (response to, criticism of) another religious tradition?

As we have already noted, this text focuses on kings and their misdeeds. Review Ludwig’s discussion of “The promised land and the kingdom” (pp. 334–335). Reflect on the problems that surrounded the transition between the tribal life of the Israelites as seminomadic pastoralists and their life in an increasingly centralized kingdom. What debates occurred concerning the kings and their powers? How does our sample text contribute to this debate?

More observant responses will also note that there is a connection between the Israelite idea of the monarchy and the idea of the Messiah, which later exerts important influences on both Christianity and Judaism. You will not want to make too much of such a connection (after all, this text does not focus on the idea of the Messiah), but mentioning that the idea of monarchy in Israel is connected with later Messianic thinking is a good idea. If you have dated this text to the period after the fall of the monarchy in Israel, you may want to consider what perspective is being advanced on divine approval of the monarchy. To clarify this, consult Ludwig (pp. 335–336).

Are particular ethical teachings related in the passage?

Does this passage make any ethical demands on those directly addressed? How do these demands of the speaker, Moses, relate to the later audience during the time in which the passage was written? The most common mistake made in response to this question occurs when students go far beyond the plain meaning of a text in search of ethical implications. Suppose for example, that we were interpreting a text about a great heroic founder of a religion, Xerxes, and the text included a statement: “Xerxes walked.” It is remotely possible, thought not very likely, that readers might take this as a recommendation and suggest that “the ethical teaching of the text is that walking is good. Xerxes, the great hero who is to be emulated in all things, walked; therefore all who respect him should do the same.” Such an interpretation would be what experts call eisegesis or reading a meaning into the text that was never intended. For a text like our imaginary text to have an ethical teaching, the text needs to address the reader in a more direct way like: “And one day, Xerxes walked, he and all of his followers with him. From that day forward all of his followers walked, they did not ride horses. This is our tradition, blessed be the one who hears and walks.”

It is usually fairly easy to spot ethical teachings by the sort of direct address that they use. Either the audience is addressed in the imperative: “do this” or “don’t do that” or the recommended actions are explicitly described as right, just or holy. If a text that you are interpreting does not do this, then it probably does not contain ethical teachings. If you suspect that it may nevertheless, check a commentary and see if the religious tradition has consistently associated ethical teachings with that text.

Thus, in the case of our sample text, there are no ethical teachings.

Does it deal with any ritual practices or festivals?

This question is two-sided. Many festivals or practices are re-enactments. If your passage is describing an event that is celebrated in a festival, then you should note that connection in your response. For example, in a passage on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, one would want to mention the observance of Good Friday in the Christian tradition. Some passages may also mention particular festivals or practices that already exist. Some passages in the Tanakh, for example, mention the observance of kosher regulations or the celebration of Pesach. It is important to note such instances in your response as well.

Our sample text, does not refer to any specific religious practices or festivals.

When you have come into the land and have taken possession of it and settled in it

Scan Ludwig’s Sacred Paths of the West in the chapter on the History and Sacred Story of Judaism. When was the land settled by the Israelites? What relevance does this have to the question of the authorship of the text? Could this text have been written after the possession and settlement described? What do you think is most likely? Why?

. . . and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations around me”

Check Ludwig’s The Sacred Paths pp. 332–335 for the approximate dates of the Exodus and the United Kingdom. Is it likely that Moses would have been concerned about the monarchy in Israel before it even existed? Is it more likely that this text (which goes on to address questions related to the proper religious behaviour of kings) reflects some of the nations bitter experiences with the tyrants that ruled it? Skim Ludwig pp. 335–338 to get a sense of the overall impression made by the monarchy on the religion of Israel? Imagine that you were an anti-monarchist in ancient Israel who had some literary talent; would it make more sense for you to make your case against royal abuse of power yourself or to use Moses as your mouthpiece? In light of these considerations, what sort of person would you suggest wrote this text?