Deuteronomy and the Literature of the Ancient Near East

Thesis and Scope

A central concern of exegetical pursuits is to discover the historical and cultural Sitz im Leben of the biblical text in order to properly interpret Scripture.  The field of comparative studies of the cultures of the ancient Near East is critical to understanding the historical-cultural and socio-political context from which the Scriptures were produced.  One very important aspect of this field of study is the analysis of the literary works of antiquity and to compare and contrast these works with the biblical text in order to obtain a clearer view of the setting from which the Scriptures arose and to better interpret how the biblical text would have been understood by the original audience (Tate, 30-31).

Toward that end, the purpose of this paper is explore the parallels and contrasts of ancient Near Eastern literature with the book of Deuteronomy.  Because of recent archaeological and academic advances, the modern exegete has access to an unprecedented body of literature from the ancient Near East.  Therefore, we will limit the scope of this study to the specific topics of kingship, legal texts, and the concept of the heart within the literary works of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version of the Holy Bible.


The central authority in ancient Near Eastern social structure was the office of king.  Although the governmental structure of the Pentateuchal period was theocratic, Deuteronomy prophetically looks forward to a time when Israel would set a king over her, and establishes guidelines for the conduct of the king within the sociopolitical milieu of the ancient Near East.

Kingship in Ancient Near Eastern Literature

Massive urbanization began in the Uruk period in southern Iraq (ca. 4000-3000 B.C.).  Recent archaeological excavations have focused on the expansion and colonization of Uruk due to the lack of natural resources in lower Mesopotamia required to support complex social systems (Chavalas, 129-132).  Although current conflict in the Middle East has brought these archaeological pursuits to a grinding halt, the cessation of digging has afforded opportunity to analyze the finds from previous years of research (Chavalas, 126).

One of the works to come out of ancient Uruk happens to be one of the oldest extant works of ancient literature in all of Mesopotamia, entitled The Epic of Gilgamesh.  This is a four-thousand-year-old tale of love, death, and adventure which is the world’s oldest epic (Foster, xi). There is also a Hittite version, and the epic spawned a series of Sumerian Gilgamesh poems dating to the Old Babylonian period (Foster, 99).

Dating back to at least 2100 B.C., The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Gilgamesh, the brash  king of Uruk who built the city’s walls and staged elaborate athletic competitions.  Due to his arrogance and superior strength, he tyrannizes his subjects who appeal to the god Anu for help against the oppressive king:

You created this headstrong wild bull of in ramparted Uruk,

The onslaught of his weapons has no equal.

His teammates stand forth by his gamestick,

He is harrying the young men of Uruk beyond reason.

Gilgamesh leaves no son to his father!

Day and night he rampages fiercely… (Foster, 5-6 )[1]

In response to the petition, the gods create a rival in the wild man Enkidu in order to redirect Gilgamesh’s attention away from oppressing his subjects.  Interestingly, there is no condemnation of Gilgamesh’s oppressive behavior by the gods.  As Foster notes, “Gilgamesh, at the apex of society, is supposed to act as shepherd of his subjects, but instead he mistreats them…” (xvii-xviii).

As in ancient Mesopotamia, the king in ancient Egypt was deemed to be a divine and all powerful monarch.  A work of narrative prose from the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history, the Tale of Sinuhe, tells the story of an Egyptian courtier who is forced to flee the land upon the death of the king because of his fear of the successor, the kings son.  It if of interest not only because it is an example of elevated prose comparable to that of the Pentateuchal narratives, but also, for the purpose at hand, it contains a poem or hymn composed to the king of Egypt which refers to his mighty acts of valor as well as his divinity:

He is a god without peer,

No other comes before him;

he lord of knowledge, wise planner, skilled leader,

one goes and comes by his will.

He was the smiter of foreign lands… (Arnold, 77)

Ultimately it is Sinuhe’s dread of turmoil of monarchial succession that sends him into exile in a foreign land.

While it was very common for rulers throughout the ancient Near East to produce works attesting to their peacefulness and benevolence, the king was nevertheless a terrible figure who inspired fear in the heart of his subjects and oppressed them with a heavy hand and absolute domination.  This desire for men to wield power over and oppress other men is clearly portrayed in the Pentateuch, especially in Genesis from the fall of man to the flood.

Kingship in Deuteronomy

In literature predating and contemporary with Deuteronomy (ca. 1400-1200 B.C.), the king is typically presented as either fully or partially divine (e.g., Gilgamesh is presented as two-thirds divine and one-third human) (Foster, ix).  This is in sharp contrast to the portrait of the Israelite king as presented in the book of Deuteronomy.  In chapter seventeen God lays the standard for appropriate behavior of Israel’s king as radically different from the domineering conduct of the kings in the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu.         Israel’s king is a fully human bloodline descendant of Jacob, he is to be chosen by God (17:15); he is not to amass personal wealth in the form of gold, silver, or horses (17:16); and he is not to take many wives (17:17).  Moreover, he is to write for himself a copy of the law which he is supposed to study all of the days of his life “so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God… and not consider himself better than his brothers…” (17:19-20).

Unlike other ancient Near Eastern kings, Israel’s king is to be humble and on the same level with those over whom he is given authority.  The result of this humble servant-leadership will be the establishment of an enduring dynasty for him and his descendants (17:20).  The logical implication then, is that if he doesn’t rule over the people in an appropriate manner, God will depose him and his line will come to a rapid end; a reality which is thoroughly borne out in the history of Israel (e.g., Solomon, Rehoboam, Ahab, etc.).

Although kings in the ancient Near East wielded absolute power over their subjects, the authority of Israel’s king was to be circumscribed by the law.  Since Israel was originally a theocracy and the king was to rule the people in strict adherence to God’s standard of moral and ethical righteousness as defined in the law, it may be reasonably inferred that Israel’s monarch was, ipso facto, simply a proxy for God Himself who was to be a physical representation of God within the community as he justly wielded authority on His behalf.  As Hill and Walton put it, “A proper monarchy still had to function as a theocracy rather than replace it.  The king was to be viewed as the earthly head of God’s theocratic kingdom” (Hill and Walton, 220).

Although Deuteronomy gives clear instructions for the behavior of the monarch, Israel’s kings were grossly unsuccessful at putting the instructions in practice.  Had she heeded this one command, the others would have largely fallen into place as the king would have enforced adherence to the covenant and Israel would have greatly benefited from the leadership.  As history unfolded, the decay of the heart condition of the king was the catalyst for decay in the observance of the covenant, and thus for the ultimate demise and exile of the people from the land.

Legal Texts: Laws and Treaties

Central to Hebrew thought is the concept of law.  As Deuteronomy is largely a book of covenant reiteration and renewal, the stipulations of the law are a fundamental theme of the book.  The English concept of law is significantly narrower than Hebrew usage.  The Hebrew word translated as law is תֹּורָה which means “instruction, direction, law, Torah, the whole law” and is also used as a summary term of the various bodies of legal, cultic, or civil instructions of the Old Testament (Carpenter, Hebrew, CWS, 1220).

Due to the unity and cohesion of the Pentateuch, it is challenging to limit a comparative discussion of Hebrew law to the book of Deuteronomy since other books (e.g., Leviticus) may expound certain stipulations in greater detail.  Nonetheless, this approach is helpful as it focuses on the distinctive characteristics of the law as presented in Deuteronomy and allows for comparison not only to other bodies of law in the ancient Near East, but also to the corpus of  תֹּורָה as it is presented in other books of the Pentateuch.

Two important subcategories of law are casuistic or case law, “usually cast in a conditional ‘if… then’ formula, making reference to a specific hypothetical legal situation”; and apodictic law, which are direct affirmative or negative commands (Hill and Walton, 52-53).  Both types are common throughout the ancient Near East.

Law in Mesopotamia and Anatolia

The most famous collection of laws of Mesopotamian origin are the Laws of Hammurapi. Containing some 282 casuistic laws, an extensive prologue, and an epilogue, the code claims to have been created in compliance to the command of the god Marduk “to provide just ways for the people of the land in order to attain appropriate behavior” (Arnold, 112-113).

An interesting feature of this code is the differing standards of justice based on the social classes of the parties involved, the AWILU being of higher social standing than commoners and slaves (Pritchard, 166).  For instance, “If an AWILU should blind the eye of another AWILU, they shall blind his eye.  If he should break the bone of another AWILU, they shall break his bone.  If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh and deliver sixty shekels of silver” (Arnold, 113).  Again, there is a harsh penalty in the instance of a slave striking a member of the AWILU class, “If an AWILU‘s slave should strike the cheek of a member of the AWILU class, they shall cut off his ear” (Arnold, 113).

By way of contrast, Deuteronomy summarily condemns partiality in judgment (1:7, 10:17, 16:19) and calls for exacting justice with no regard to social standing.  Moreover, Deuteronomy sets strict limits for penalties, not allowing them to exceed the loss suffered by the victim, yet maintaining the gravity of the offense by prescribing penalties of appropriate severity with unwavering commitment to justice (19:21).

Predating Hammurapi are the Laws of Ur-Nammu who was the founding ruler of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (Ur III, ca. 2112-2004 B.C.) (Pritchard, 523).  While the extant copies are badly damaged, the prologue and close to forty laws remain intelligible (Arnold, 104).  Law #25 is of particular interest for comparative studies of Deuteronomy in that it is a prohibition against false witness, “If a man appeared as a witness (in a lawsuit) and was shown to be a perjurer, he must pay 15 shekels of silver” (Pritchard, 525).  While this law follows the casuistic formula, the parallel prohibition in Deuteronomy is purely apodictic (5:20).

While this penalty may at first seem to be more humane (Carpenter, BBC, 147), there is a practical issue with the Ur-Nammu formulation of the code, in that the 15 shekel monetary penalty could serve as a break-even point at which the potential gain for bearing false testimony could far outweigh the risk of the fine (especially in the case of bribery), which could be an obvious enticement to the ethically bereft.  In Deuteronomy, however, it is an absolute prohibition bearing the penalty that the malicious witness should suffer the punishment which the falsely accused defendant was in jeopardy of, up to and including capital punishment (19:15-21).  This would have been a strong and effective deterrent to the perversion of justice.  Although similarities exist in the Laws of Hammurapi[2], this level of retribution, and ergo protection, is only extended to the AWILU class.

Ancient Near Eastern law commonly addressed the issue of adultery.  A case in point is law #4 of the Laws of Ur-Nammu, “If the wife of a man, by employing her charms, followed after another man and he slept with her, they ( i.e., the authorities) shall slay that woman, but the male (i.e., the other man) shall be set free” (Pritchard, 524).  Deuteronomy, however places equal culpability on both adulterer and adulteress, prescribing capital punishment for both parties (Dt 22:22) which is a far more just and equitable solution, especially given the social standing of women in the male dominated, patriarchal societies of the ancient Near East.

Like the code of Hammurapi, Hittite law also utilized social stratification in their judicial system.  For instance, if a Hittite man slept with a woman who was captured in war as well as her mother, this was not considered to be incestuous, as it would have been had the woman been a Hittite (Yenner and Hoffner, 62).  By contrast, this type of incestuous affair was explicitly forbidden in the תֹּורָה carrying the penalty of death by burning (Dt 27:23; Lv 18:17, 20:14).

Deuteronomy also sets forth a very specific process for dealing with women captured in battle.  Unlike the Hittites, who seemed to have viewed the captives as objects for sexual pleasure, if a Hebrew man were attracted to a captive woman, he must take her into his home, care for her, and give her ample time to mourn her father and mother.  After this process had been completed, the man may take her as a wife, but if he was not pleased with her, he was not permitted to treat her as a slave, but must set her free (21:10-14).

From time to time, captives of the Hittites would escape and take refuge in neighboring countries which were not allied with the Hittites.  Yenner and Hoffner explain that, “In the royal annals the king is portrayed as demanding from such neighboring countries the return of his [slaves], or a submissive neighbor is portrayed as promising their return” (Yenner and Hoffner, 65).  In Hebrew law, however, the slave was not to be returned to his master; he was to be given refuge in the city of his choosing, and he was not to be oppressed (23:15).

Law in Egypt

Although the idea of law did not play a prominent role in Egyptian literature there are some interesting references to law in the didactic literature.  One reference from The Instruction of Ptahhotep reads:

People’s schemes do not prevail,

God’s command is what prevails. (Lichtheim, 65)

Although this is not a reference to law in the strict sense of the word, and it obviously is not referring to the command of Yahweh, it is a fascinating view of the theological underpinning of Egyptian thinking in the literature of the ancient near Eastern sophist tradition.

Law in Deuteronomy

There are striking similarities between Deuteronomic law and the forensic codes of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, yet there are also very distinct differences.  While some of the codes, such as Hammurapi, were purported to be created by men at the command of the gods, Scripture is consistent in asserting the oracular origin of the Deuteronomic law (5:4-22, 30-31), and explains that the Decalogue was inscribed on stone tablets by the very “finger of God” (9:10).

In many instances where capital punishment is prescribed as the penalty for an infraction, it appears with the formulaic statement, “You must purge the evil from among you” (13:15; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21,24; 24:7), which functions as a motive clause for the execution of the judgment.  While capital punishment for these crimes is often a more stringent penalty than was appointed in other ancient Near Eastern codes, it testifies to the fact that God intended to form a moral, ethical community marked by holiness, and that all evil must be eradicated in order to form the righteous community He desired.

Another distinctive of Hebrew law is that throughout the Pentateuch it is presented within a specific narrative setting which produces a unique historical and theological context; a fact which testifies to the broader instruction aspect of the תֹּורָה rather than a narrow forensic view (Alexander and Baker, 500).  In other words, the entire Pentateuch is covered by the term תֹּורָה which indicates the didactic nature of the complete narrative, rather than limiting it to the sections of the text which are specifically casuistic or apodictic law; a fact which, among other things, explains the variance in motive clauses between the Decalogue as recorded in Exodus 20 and its reiteration in Deuteronomy 5 (i.e., Ex 20:11 cf. Dt 5:15).  Thus it is critical to interpret Hebrew law within its peculiar narrative setting.

While the codes of the other ancient Near Eastern societies are largely casuistic, there is a much greater emphasis on apodictic law in Deuteronomy.  The Decalogue, for instance, is made up entirely of apodictic commands which can be divided into two categories: commands 1-4 which deal with man’s duty to God, and 5-10 which deal with man’s interpersonal relationships.  Although the laws regulating interpersonal relationships in other cultures are primarily for the promotion of social harmony, in Deuteronomy, they are chiefly for the purpose of living in holiness before Yahweh since mankind is made in His image.  Arnold sums it up well when he says, “…in Israel, all offenses were ultimately against God.  In the Bible, law is revelatory since it is God given and prescribed for the people; in Mesopotamia the law was approved and sanctioned by the gods, but was only descriptive of what a well ordered society should be like” (Arnold, 104).

Hebrew תֹּורָה  is also comparatively egalitarian and socially progressive when contrasted with other contemporary bodies of law.  Unlike the laws of Mesopotamia which hold a higher standard of justice and privilege for the upper class, Israel is instructed to show no partiality in judgment because God shows no partiality, and has no regard for social stratification.  Indeed, He is the defender of those who are oppressed and marginalized in society, and Israel is to empathize with them on account of her alien sojourns in Egypt (10:17-19).

Finally, Hebrew law was to serve a very distinct purpose.  Observance of the law was to be a demonstration of Israel’s wisdom and understanding before the nations (4:6), it was to show the close proximity of God to His people (4:7), and it was to exhibit the stark contrast between a society ordered by a thoroughly righteous and holy body of laws and decrees, and the decayed social systems of the surrounding pagan cultures.  Insomuch as Israel was obedient to the תֹּורָה she would be an exemplar of God’s purposeful design for His kingdom.  The תֹּורָה as presented in Deuteronomy then, is chiefly and unabashedly theological in essence.  While other ancient cultures observed law out of the fear of punishment and to promote social order, Israel was to observe the Deuteronomic law out of love for God.

Treaty Parallels in Ancient Hittite Literature

The parallels, in both form and function, between the book of Deuteronomy and Hittite Suzerain-Vassal treaties has been well documented.  The Hittite treaty followed a standard form which included six main sections: (1) a preamble introducing the speaker, usually the suzerain, (2) a historical prologue emphasizing the suzerain’s benevolence, (3)stipulations detailing what is expected of the vassal, (4) a statement regarding the the documents display, storage, or terms for its recital, (5) a list of witnesses, usually deities, and (6) curses or blessings to be effected by the gods according to the performance of the stipulations (Hill and Walton, 132-33).

This pattern has been identified in the book of Deuteronomy where Yahweh is introduced as the Suzerain and Israel as the vassal.  The speaker/Suzerain (Yahweh) is introduced in 1:1-5, the historical prologue is found in 1:6-3:29, extensive stipulations are recorded in chapters 4-26, documentary statement is located in 27:2-3, the witnesses are recorded in chapters 31-32, and the extensive blessings and curses are enumerated in chapter 28 (thematically, blessings and curses are also utilized extensively throughout Mesopotamian literature[3]).  While not an exact correlation in sequence, each of the sections of the Hittite treaty are found in Deuteronomy (Hill and Walton, 133).

Another interesting feature of the stipulations section of Deuteronomy is that a broad section of it (6:1-26:15) can be analyzed as an elaboration of the Decalogue where each of the commandments are expanded as follows:

Commandment 1 (6-11)

Commandment 2 (12)

Commandment 3 (13:1-14:21)

Commandment 4 (14:22-16:17)

Commandment 5 (16:18-18-22)

Commandment 6 (19-21)

Commandment 7 (22:1-23:14)

Commandment 8 (23:15-24:7)

Commandment 9 (24:8-16)

Commandment 10 (24:17-26:15) (Hill and Walton, 134)

This parallel is of keen interest to conservative scholars in that it not only serves to identify Deuteronomy as documentary evidence of a formal relationship between God and Israel, but also counters attempts by liberal scholars to date the book to the latter part of the seventh century B.C., as the structure of the Suzerain Vassal treaty reflected in Deuteronomy is best dated between 1400-1200 B.C., contemporaneous with the exodus event and the traditional dating of Deuteronomy (Hill and Walton, 134; Carpenter, BBC, 3).

The Heart

The concept of the heart plays a pivotal role in both Deuteronomy and the literature of ancient Egypt.  While in Israel the heart was used figuratively and metaphorically, in Egypt the physical organ was also tied intimately to religious issues and cultic ritual (Carpenter, BBC, 98).  By comparison, Israel and Egypt are much more concerned with the heart than other contemporaneous cultures.

The Heart in Ancient Egyptian Literature

It would be impossible to overestimate the influence of Egyptian culture on the the background of Pentateuchal history, as the Pentateuch itself contains some forty-five Egyptian loan words.  Having sojourned in Egypt for some 400 years, Jacobs descendants would have been throughly acculturated into Egyptian civilization and would have been very familiar with their theology and literary works (Hill and Walton, 54).  Moreover, having been adopted by a daughter of Pharaoh, Moses would have been educated in the Egyptian court until adulthood (Alexander and Baker, 571).

The condition of one’s heart was of immense importance in ancient Egypt as it was a critical factor for entering into eternal life.  Egyptian religion taught that at death the heart was weighed by Anubius on a scale and if it was heavier than a feather, the deceased could not enter  eternal life (Alexander and Baker, 382).  Moreover, the heart of the Pharaoh was the key to his thinking and behavior (Carpenter, BBC 78).  Accordingly, references to the heart are ubiquitous in ancient Egyptian literature.

Heart plays a prominent role in The Memphite Theology, a copy which appears on the Shabaka Stone (ca. 710 B.C.) although the original composition was during the Old Kingdom period of Egyptian history (ca. 2650-2135 B.C.) (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 51).  The reference to the heart is profound in section 54, “Thus heart and tongue rule over all the limbs in accordance with the teaching that it (the heart..) is in every body and it (the tongue…) is in every mouth of all gods, all men, all cattle, all creeping things, whatever lives, thinking whatever it wishes and commanding whatever it wishes” (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 54).  This rendering demonstrates semantic parallelism between Egyptian and Hebrew concepts of the heart as the locus the rational thinking process.

In Egyptian thought, the tongue repeats what the heart formulates while the heart gathers information form all the senses (Carpenter, BBC 78).  While The Memphite Theology teaches that the heart and tongue rule over the limbs, thereby rendering man subject to its whims, Deuteronomy teaches that God’s word is resident in the heart and mouth, so that it may be obeyed (30.14).

A work of didactic literature dating from the latter part of the Sixth Dynasty (ca. 2300-2150 B.C.), The Instruction of Ptahhotep, contains several fascinating references to the heart:

The wise is known by his wisdom,

The great by his good actions;

His heart matches his tongue,

His lips are straight when he speaks… (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 73)

Clearly this alludes to a man’s honesty and integrity as a mark of wisdom which flows forth from the heart and although it is beyond the scope of this study, this is strikingly similar to Jesus’ assertion that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34).

In the epilogue of this work we find:

He who hears is beloved of god,

He whom god hates does not hear.

The heart makes of its owner a hearer or non-hearer,

A man’s heart is life-prosperity-health! (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 74)

In context, the hearer is one who listens to the counsel of his father; the obvious parallel being the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother…” (5:16).    Not only does Ptahhotep identify the heart as the source of a son’s ability to listen to his father, but it also clearly links the condition of the heart to whether or not the son is loved by their conception of a god, presumably Horus.  Any hint of determinism here is quickly countered by the assertion that it is a man’s own heart that determines his behavior (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 80).

Near the end of the epilogue, Ptahhotep praises the good son saying, “He will do right when his heart is straight…” (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 76).  This assertion clearly links obedience to the condition of one’s heart; a concept which is paralleled throughout Deuteronomy (10:12-16, 11:13, 30:2, 30:10, 30:14, et al.).

Interesting uses of heart occur in the prologue of Ptahhotep as well, where the son is warned, “Do not be proud of your knowledge…” (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 63), literally, “Do not let your heart be big.”  As Lichtheim points out, “Ptahhotep distinguishes between ‘big-hearted’ in the sense of ‘proud, arrogant’, and ‘great-hearted’ in the sense of ‘high-minded, magnanimous’” (Vol. I, 76).

Elsewhere, in the literature of the Middle Kingdom period (ca. 2040-1650 B.C.), readers are exhorted to “cleave to His Majesty [the king] in your hearts” (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 128)[4] which is reminiscent of the King James rendering of Deuteronomy 10:20: “Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave…”  Likewise, the benevolent deeds of the gods are attributed to their hearts, “I repeat to you the good deeds my own heart did for me…” (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 131)[5] and culpability for evil is placed on the hearts of men, “I made every man like his fellow; and I did not command that they do wrong.  It is their hearts that disobey what I have said” (Lichtheim, Vol. I, 132 ).[6]

The Heart in Deuteronomy

The word heart (לבב) occurs more frequently in Deuteronomy than in any other book of the Pentateuch.  As is true with standard English usage, the word heart in Hebrew can be used to refer to the seat of human emotions.  Yet the Hebrew semantic range is broader as it is also used to “describe the place where the rational thinking process occurs…” (Carpenter, 537) and is thus seen as the locus of the mind, knowledge, wisdom, thinking, reflection, memory, determinations of the will, moral character, and courage of man (Brown-Driver-Briggs, 523-24).

In Deuteronomy, heart (לבב) is commonly accompanied by the word soul (נפש).  The soul is considered to be the seat of emotion, appetite, desire, passion, and acts of will.  In fact there is significant overlap in the semantic range of these two terms indicating the intrinsic unity of these concepts as they represent the totality of the inner man in Hebrew thought (4:29, 6:5, 10:12, 11:13, 13:13, 26:16, 30:2,6, 10).  Accordingly, God’s people are expected to seek after Him with all their heart and soul, their entire being.

Following the repetition of the account of the Decalogue (5:6-21), Moses tells of the intense fear the people had for God as a result of the encounter, as they pleaded with Moses not to  have this direct experience with God again.  God in turn answers, “Oh that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always…” (5:29) expressing an intense longing that their hearts would be marked by proper reverence toward Him and consumed with zeal for holiness as revealed through the law.  While Egyptian literature suggests an element of determinism by the gods, Yahweh’s desire is for the hearts of His people to always be inclined to fear Him.

Not only are the hearts of God’s people to reflect appropriate fear and reverence for Him, they are also to love Him.  At the center of Deuteronomistic theology lies the Shema (6:4-6).  Verse 4 asserts the essential unity and coherence of God (a radical concept when contrasted with the numerous gods worshiped in the Egyptian pantheon), while verse 5 is an imperative for God’s people to love Him with all their heart, soul, and strength.  Moreover, God’s commandments are to be upon their hearts which would naturally impel the people to pass them on to their progeny, to talk about them, and to meditate on them.  This intense focus on God’s commandments would then be reflected in the moral and ethical life of the community.

As noted above, there are numerous parallels between Hebrew law and the laws of the ancient Near East, in ancient Egyptian literature, however, the concept of law gets very little attention.  A fact which is probably due to the veneration of Pharaoh as semidivine and his word having been viewed as divine decree.  As Arnold explains, “There was, therefore, no need for a legal code that approved him before the gods and validated his performance as king – which was the function of such codes in Mesopotamia” (104).  There did exist in Egypt, however, a sizable corpus of writing in the tradition of wisdom literature.  This literature contained numerous maxims, proverbs, and pithy sayings, and it is replete with reference to the heart.[7]

In Deuteronomy, the people are also warned against the danger of forgetting Yahweh and becoming prideful in their hearts, taking credit for the wealth the Lord has bestowed upon them (8:14, 17) or believing that God had driven out the nations of Canaan due to the merit of the Israelite’s righteousness rather than expelling the nations on account of their own wickedness (9:4, 5).  This concept of the “prideful heart” is also closely paralleled in Egyptian literature as noted above.

In summary of Yahweh’s expectations for His covenant people, Moses explains that they are to fear Yahweh, to walk in His ways, to love Him, to serve Him with all their heart and with all their soul, and to observe His commands and decrees (10:12-13, 11:13).  The promised result of this complete love and service is fertility for the land God is giving them, which directly equates to blessing for the ancient Israelites and their agrarian economy.  On the other hand if the hearts of the people are deceived and they turn from the one true God to the worship of idols, Yahweh will withhold the rains and the land consequently will yield no produce (11:16-17).  While climactic control was attributed to the gods in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, or even to Pharaoh in Egypt, “in Israel, spiritual/moral beliefs merged to a degree not evident in other ancient Near Eastern laws or worldviews” (Carpenter, BBC, 102).  In Deuteronomy, the key to God’s blessing of the land was, essentially, to possess hearts that were morally and ethically upright before God.

Although circumcision was not common in ancient Egypt, it was practiced to some extent as early as the third millennium B.C.  However, while the Hebrews amputated the prepuce of the penis, the Egyptians merely incised the foreskin so as to expose the glans (Carpenter, BBC, 98-99).  For the Israelites, circumcision was the physical, external sign of the Abrahamic covenant (Ge 17), yet in Deuteronomy God makes it clear that circumcision was intended to be the outward sign of the inward reality of a circumcised heart (10:16) as a circumcised heart leads to voluntary and volitional obedience to God’s will through love and service.  It is also promised that following the prophesied banishment, when the people have taken the trials and tribulations of the banishment to heart, God will restore them to the land and will circumcise their hearts so that they will be enabled to love Him with all their hearts and with all their souls, and live (30:6).

The people are also warned that when they select a king there are several stipulations that should be put in place in order that his heart might be guarded.  He is not to “multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (17:17), which would ultimately be the undoing of Solomon as he took wives in order to establish political alliances with foreign states and these wives brought with them their foreign gods.  The king is also instructed to write for himself a copy of the law and to carry it with him and study it for his entire life so that he may learn to fear God and so that “his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen” (17:20).  Unlike all of the other nations of the Ancient Near East who ruled their people from a position of aristocracy, Israel’s king was to be humble in heart and not consider himself better than his brothers.  This humble heart condition would result in a long lived dynasty for the family.

To sum up, the heart is the moral, ethical, and religious center of a human being in Israelite thought.  Consequently, the condition of one’s heart is of paramount concern to Yahweh; a fact which is abundantly clear in the sermonic expansion and exposition of the covenant as presented in the literary context of Deuteronomy.


Why should we be interested in the literary parallels and contrasts in ancient Near Eastern Literature?  Tate puts it well: “…one of the cardinal rules of exegesis is that the interpreter must always approach and analyze a text in part or whole within contexts: historical, cultural, geographical, ecclesiastical, ideological, and literary” (3).

Clearly, the nation of Israel did not exist in a vacuum, but within a sociopolitical milieu rich with influence from flourishing cultures in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, et al.  It is the goal of the modern exegete to, as much as possible, assume the worldview of the original audience in order to properly interpret and apply Scripture today.  Comparative study of the literature produced by these cultures helps move us toward a better understanding of the competing worldviews of Near Eastern antiquity and the experience of the ancient Israelites as those worldviews converged to exert pressure on the cultural and unique theological worldview of the fledgling nation.

Only through comparative study can we understand the full extent the uniqueness of the biblical portrait of kingship.  Clearly, no other ancient literature expected humility from their king in the way commanded in the book of Deuteronomy.         When we compare the biblical law against the legal corpora of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, an unprecedented picture of justice, equality, and righteousness quickly emerges.  Far from the egalitarian, open, and socially progressive law of Deuteronomy, laws in other cultures are uniformly protectionist against aliens and afford a higher degree of justice relative to the social sphere of the plaintiff.    Although the parallels between the prominence of the heart in ancient Egypt are striking, Deuteronomy is again unique in the depth of the use of the metaphor

Yet Deuteronomy’s uniqueness extends beyond mere cultural and literary concerns, as its essential distinctive quality is theological.  Deuteronomy is unique because it is the revelation of the righteous and immutable creator of the universe as he lovingly guides and directs those made in His image.

Works Cited

Alexander, T. Desmond and David W. Baker. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003.

Arnold, Bill T. and Bryan E. Beyer. Readings From the Ancient Near East. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Brown, Francis, and S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1906.

Carpenter, Eugene E. Deuteronomy: Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting and Parallels. Unpublished  ms., 2008.

Carpenter, Eugene E. and Comfort, Phillip W. Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words. Nashville:   Broadman & Holman.

Chavalas, Mark W. and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., ed. Mesopotamia and the Bible. Grand Rapids:   Baker Academic, 2002.

Foster, Benjamin R., ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Norton, 2001.

Hill, Andrew E. and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2000.

Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Berkley:  University of California Press, 1975.

Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.II: The New Kingdoms. Berkley:      University of California Press, 1975.

Pritchard, James B., ed.  The Ancient Near East Vol I: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Pritchard, James B., ed.  Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd Ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Tate, W. Randolph. Biblical Interpretation, An Integrated Approach. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997.

Yener, K. Aslihan and Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., ed. Recent Developments in Hittite Archaeology and History. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

[1] Tablet 1.

[2] See Pritchard, 166, laws 1-4.

[3] cf. the occurrence of blessings and curses in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the epilogue to the Code of Hammurapi, the Lipit-Ishtar Lawcode, etc.

[4] Stela of Sehetep-ib-re.

[5] A Spell from the Coffin Texts.

[6] A Spell from the Coffin Texts.

[7] e.g., The Instruction of Ptahhotep among many others.

One thought on “Deuteronomy and the Literature of the Ancient Near East

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.