Bill T. Arnold, The Book of Deuteronomy, Chapters 1–11 (NICOT)

Arnold, Bill T. The Book of Deuteronomy, Chapters 1–11. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xxxix+660 pp. Hb; $60.00   Link to Eerdmans

Bill Arnold’s new commentary on Deuteronomy 1-11 replaces Peter Craigie’s 1976 commentary in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series. In 2020, Arnold joined Robert L. Hubbard as the editor of this important commentary series. Arnold is the Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary since 1995 and has contributed many articles and monographs on the Old Testament. He co-edited Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books (IVP Academic, 2005).

Arnold, Deuteronomy 1-11

In the eighty-seven-page introduction, Arnold suggests Deuteronomy can rightly be called a compendium of the most important ideas of the Old Testament. “It crystallizes the themes and messages of the first four books of the Bible, while at the same time it establishes the theological foundation for the books of history and prophecy to follow” (1). The message of the book is without question: the exclusive worship and faithfulness to YHWH Israel’s God.

Regarding literary genre, Deuteronomy could be classified as a law, covenant, or even a national constitution. Some suggest the book is an early Israelite catechesis. The book, however, considers itself to be Torah. Arnold argues for the unity of composition. The book uses a series of speeches employing distinctive phraseology and expressions such as “YHWH your God,” and “as YHWH commanded,” etc. But as he observes, citing Moses Wienfield, “the concept of composition is likely meaningless when applied to a book like Deuteronomy.” An ancient author was a collector and compiler rather than a creator of literature (11). Many hands worked on Deuteronomy over many years. He begins his discussion of authorship with a survey of Graf-Wellhausen and Martin Noth’s Deuteronomic History (critiquing Noth for isolating Deuteronomy from the other books of the Torah). Arnold concludes we cannot be dogmatic about authorship, but Deuteronomy claims to preserve a tradition of the “voice of Moses.”

But Deuteronomy is an exegetical enterprise. Ancient Israelite scribes preserved, updated, and reformulated traditions using a method of composition that may be fairly described as an “inner-biblical exegesis” (16). When did these scribes do the exegesis? Discussing the occasion of Deuteronomy, Arnold has two assumptions. First, there was an earlier form of Deuteronomy, but he also accepts the historical reality of Josiah’s reforms (24). But these kinds of reforms reoccur in Israel’s history (Hezekiah, for example); the exegesis of Deuteronomy could develop earlier

A second assumption is the parallels between Deuteronomy and Ancient Near Eastern treaty forms. First proposed by George Mendenhall and developed by Meredith Kline and K. A. Kitchen, there are clear parallels between Deuteronomy and ancient vassal treaties. But which treaties? When Craigie published his NICOT commentary in 1974, he discussed the format of these Hittite Vassal treaties and states, “The Hebrews adapted the treaty format for their own use” (Craigie, 23). But more recently, this thesis has been modified by comparing Deuteronomy to recently discovered Assyrian treaties (Esarhaddon, for example). Judean officials at the time of Josiah living in Jerusalem would know the Assyrian treaty forms and use them as they developed a core Moses tradition. Arnold suggests that such cohesive theology makes it easy to imagine a single mind behind Deuteronomy 12-16 and the poem in Deuteronomy 32. If so, the author “is one of the greatest biblical theologians of all time” (48).

Nevertheless, the book seems to fit Josiah’s reforms best. “Deuteronomy’s message of YHWH’s supremacy and its call for singular devotion to him alone would have been a bold and prophetic voice in the seventh century BCE, coming at the height of Assyrian imperialism, in perhaps the book’s penultimate edition” (32). Arnold observes that Josiah’s discovery of the Law suggests a “early form of Deuteronomy existed and was authorized by the prophet Huldah.” An additional factor is the impact of Deuteronomy on pre-exilic prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), so that Zechariah 1:4 can refer to the former prophets as an “already quasi-canonized set.” There are other hints that the book considered itself a canonical unit. For example, Deuteronomy 4:2, “do not add to or omit anything.” Arnold suggests this is a canonized self-awareness” (37).

With respect to the theology of Deuteronomy, Arnold begins with Shema: YHWH is one. This is the “cornerstone of an edifice constructed with the Ten Commandments, which houses the life-giving instructions for every facet of Israel society and daily life” (47). Deuteronomy serves as a kind of “Bible” for the rest of the Old Testament. Deuteronomy is also the first attempt to summarize the essential substance of the law (10:12-13). At the core of Deuteronomy is the conviction that Yahweh revealed himself at Sinai. The initiative for that revelation is God himself, and this establishes YHWH’s self-disclosure in God’s intervention in Israel’s history. The function of God’s revelation is to make YHWH’s gracious will known to Israel. Arnold divides the theology of Deuteronomy into two major categories, the God of Israel and the Israel of God. Here he is following John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology.

Regarding the God of Israel, Arnold suggests we let Deuteronomy speak for itself and keep the New Testament (and Trinitarianism) out of Deuteronomy’s theology! What sort of God was revealed at Sinai? First, Yahweh is absent from the other gods of the Ancient Near East. Israel does not adopt a Canaanite god, nor is there anything in Canaanite mythology quite like YHWH. He is deeply compassionate, longing to be worshipped, and therefore a jealous God who has a fiery passion for his people Israel. He expects to be obeyed by Israel and loved by all. Yahweh demands exclusive loyalty because of his great love for his people. This holy, loving God is in many ways, present with his people. For example, in Deuteronomy 4:7, “God is near to those who pray.” There are also many references in the book to God placing his name among his people. This is often described as a “Name Theology,” which demythologizes an earlier theology, which thought of God as dwelling in the Tabernacle or sanctuary (56). Arnold thinks name theology has been seriously overstated. It is simply not an accurate reflection of Deuteronomy’s theology.

The introduction also discusses more briefly the main themes of the book, such as Torah, covenant, prophecy, retributive justice, centralization of the cult, education, individualism, warfare, exile, and poverty.

Each unit in the commentary’s body begins with a new translation of the pericope with extensive textual notes comparing the Masoretic text to the LXX, Syriac, Vulgate, Targumim, etc. Readers who are not interested in these issues can easily skip the notes. Following the translation is a brief introduction summarizing the contents and connecting it to the proceeding unit. The commentary proceeds verse-by-verse as much as possible. The commentary is on the Hebrew text, but all Hebrew appears in transliteration. Comments concern lexical issues (what words mean) and syntax (how words are used), but this is not so technical a read without extensive Hebrew training will follow the discussion. Arnold uses footnotes for extensive interaction with secondary literature, but this is not a commentary on what other commentaries say.

There is some synthesis in the commentary itself. For example, commenting on astral bodies in 4:19b, Arnold suggests that there are two broad categories in dealing with the meaning of “astral bodies.” Some take this as a reference to a monotheizing process in ancient Israel so that the mention of other gods does not imply their reality. Others take the gods as real and rightly worshipped by other peoples. However, YHWH is the only deity for Israel. Arnold presents these two broad categories with notes to representatives in the secondary literature.

Arnold’s comments on the difficult passage in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 merit comment here. Although this text is often associated with the so-called Canaanite genocide, Arnold focuses on the entire chapter and its emphasis on the election of Israel as God’s people based on divine love. It is somewhat astonishing therefore, to find the command to completely destroy the Canaanites in this passage. This command is an absolute obligation, using the word herem, devoted to YHWH, and there are to be no survivors. As he suggests, this is the single most morally and theologically problematic problem in the Old Testament (437). It is, in fact, a theological problem even if Israel never fully carried out the command. Arnold suggests that this is a rhetorical technique reconstituting an ancient battlefield strategy. The command is a metaphor. There “is no literal command envisioning the taking of human life” (438). However, as I read these verses, it does not read like a rhetorical strategy or a metaphor. And Israel does, in fact, take human lives in Jericho “under the ban” in the book of Joshua. This issue is, of course, extremely complicated, and there are several published monographs on holy war in the Old Testament (see the recent Charlie Trimm, The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation, Eerdmans, 2022).

More helpful is Arnold’s reading of this text within the context of Deuteronomy 7. This chapter is about the election of God’s people. He tells them not to make a covenant with the Canaanites nor are they to intermarry with them. Both commands are in line with the absolute loyalty that Yahweh demands. The reason Israel cannot make covenants or intermarry with the Canaanites is that they will turn them away from Yahweh. Although it is surprising to read, “exterminate all the Canaanites because Yahweh loves you,” that is, in fact, what Deuteronomy 7 says.

Conclusion. Many surveys of “top commentaries on Deuteronomy” consider Peter Craigie’s commentary one of the best available. Bill Arnold’s new volume is a worthy replacement in terms of additional depth and broad engagement with both the text of Deuteronomy and vast secondary literature. As is usually the case, Arnold’s volume is far more detailed than the Craigie volume it replaces. Arnold devotes 660 pages to the introduction and first eleven chapters of Deuteronomy; Craigie’s commentary was 424 pages for the entire book of Deuteronomy. Will Peter Craigie’s popular commentary in the NICOT move to the Eerdmans Classic Commentary series?

Bill Arnold’s Deuteronomy 1-11 is worth the investment for students of the Old Testament, and I look forward to volume 2.


Other Commentaries in the NICOT Series:


NB: Arnold uses YHWH for Yahweh in the commentary. Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


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