Israel and the Assyrians was born of musings on the curses in Deuteronomy 28—a sideline of sorts whilst I was in the midst of my work on The Making of Israel. What started as a seminar paper soon turned out to involve such a complex combination of questions that it required a full-blown monograph to address.
The book revisits the question of Deuteronomy’s relationship to the ancient Near Eastern treaty tradition. Since the discovery and publication of Assyrian treaties in the middle of the twentieth century, this relationship has been widely understood as subversive, with Deuteronomy’s author(s) pirating the Assyrian treaty form in order to undermine Assyrian imperial authority, by placing YHWH in place of the Assyrian king as the one figure to whom loyalty is due.
My suspicions were first raised when I compared Deuteronomy 28 to the Assyrian texts it was meant to be cribbing. I had the advantage of reading these texts side by side—and I still had to squint to see their supposed similarities. Did we really think that Deuteronomy’s ancient audience would have recognised them?
Rather than comparing the texts of Deuteronomy and the Assyrian treaties in the rarefied atmosphere of a scholarly office, I wanted to test the idea of Deuteronomy’s subversive intent against the social context in which that it would have actually functioned—subversion in real life, in other words. What would it take for Deuteronomy to have worked as a subversive text? To answer my question I turned to literary and contemporary film studies, whose theoretical work on adaptation and allusion provided the foundation for a discussion of subversion and its detection. I then went hunting through Deuteronomy, especially chapters 13 and 28, in search of clues that it had been written in order to subvert Assyrian imperial power. No dice.
By thinking through Deuteronomy’s relation to other ancient Near Eastern curse and treaty traditions in the historical context of its author(s) and its audience, the book undermines the popular interpretation of Deuteronomy as an anti-imperial, subversive tract—and problematises our assumptions about the Israelites’ relationship with the Assyrian Empire more generally. In the process it also challenges one of the major touchstones for the pre-exilic dating of Deuteronomy; if we want to argue that some form of Deuteronomy existed before 586, it will have to be on other grounds.
As part of the SBL’s open-access Ancient Near East Monographs series, the book is available to download for free from the SBL website. If (like me) you prefer to read your books in hard copy, it’s also available in paperback and in hardback.