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Deuteronomist Theology (Deuteronomism) & Blaming the Victims

If You're Suffering, You Must Deserve It

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The idea of Deuteronomist Theology is used more in academic discussions about the Bible, but it can be necessary for understanding modern politics and religion in America, too. Many of the principles of Deuteronomist Theology are also theological assumptions taken for granted by conservative Christians today. Thus understanding conservative Christian politics requires some understanding of their Deuteronomist assumptions.

 

What is Deuteronomist Theology & Politics?

Deuteronomist Theology refers, in its original and basic sense, to the theological agenda of the Deuteronomist editor or editors who worked on the Book of Deuteronomy as well as the books of the Deuteronomist History: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. It is, in fact, this theological agenda which has helped scholars today recognize the influence of a particular editor or editorial school in so many different books of the Old Testament.

The theology and politics of the Deuteronomist can be summarized with these principles:

  • Israel must be united under theocratic rule
  • Yahweh alone is sovereign
  • Yahweh alone should be worshipped
  • Worship must be centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem
  • The Israelites are Yahweh's chosen people
  • Yahweh has special concern for widows, orphans, and the poor
  • All Israelites are brothers and sisters and must answer for how they treat each other
  • Outsiders must be exterminated through war and conquest
  • The Israelites are granted ownership and control over all of Canaan
  • There is a formal covenant or treaty between Yahweh and the Israelites
  • The Book of Deuteronomy lays out the details of this covenant
  • The covenant is supreme above all else, including any kings and aristocrats
  • Prophets and Priests are Yahweh's representatives and guardians of the covenant
  • Yahweh is obligated to provide blessings to the Israelites on condition of obedience
  • The Israelites are obligated to obey and submit to Yahweh, otherwise they will be cursed

 

Origins of Deuteronomist Theology

The core of the Deuteronomist Theology can be reduced even further to a core principle: Yahweh will bless those who obey and punish those who disobey. In practice, though, the principle is expressed in reverse form: if you're suffering then it must be because you disobeyed and if you're prospering it must be because you have been obedient. This is a harsh theology of retribution: what you sow, you will reap.

This attitude can be found in multiple religions and the origin can probably be found in the relationship ancient agricultural communities had with their natural environment. Although they had to deal with unexpected disasters (drought, flood), in general there was direct connection between work and results. People who do a good job and who are diligent will eat better than those who don't work well and/or who are lazy.

 

Development of Deuteronomist Theology

As reasonable as this may seem, it becomes a problem when it's generalized to all aspects of life, not just farming. The situation gets worse with the introduction of an aristocracy and centralized monarchy, exactly what is described as occurring over the course of the Deuteronomic writings. The aristocracy and monarchial court don't work the land and don't produce food, clothing, tools, or anything else like that but they do extract value from the work of others.

Some therefore end up eating well no matter what they do while those who do work hard may not eat well because of how much they must turn over in taxes. The aristocracy benefits greatly from the reversed version of the above principle: if you are prosperous, it's a sign that Yahweh has blessed you because you've been obedient. Because of their ability to extract wealth from others through taxes, the aristocracy is always doing (relatively) well. It is in their interests that the principle stops being "what you sow, you will reap" and instead becomes "whatever you are reaping, you must have sown."

 

Deuteronomist Theology Today - Blaming the Victim

It's not hard at all to find statements and ideas today influenced this Deuteronomist Theology because there are so many examples of people blaming victims for their own misfortune. Merely blaming the victim, though, isn't the same as Deuteronomist Theology — it would be more accurate to say that the latter is a particular manifestation of the former.

There are two key elements that allow us to characterize something as being influenced by the principles of Deuteronomist Theology. First and most important is the involvement of God. Thus saying that AIDS is a punishment from God for homosexuality is Deuteronomist; saying that a woman was raped because she wore revealing clothing is not. In Deuteronomist Theology both prosperity and suffering are ultimately attributed to God.

The second element is the idea that one has a covenant with God which obligateds a person to obey God's laws. Sometimes this element is obvious, as when American preachers claim that America has a special relationship with God and that's why Americans suffer when they fail to obey God's laws. Sometimes, though, this element seems to be missing as when floods in Asia are attributed to God's wrath. In some cases the person may be assuming that everyone is obligated to follow God's laws and a "covenant" is implied.

 

Deuteronomist Theology as Flawed Morality

The key flaw in Deuteronomist Theology, aside perhaps from the propensity to blame the victim, is the inability to deal with structural problems — problems in the structures of social systems or organization which produce or merely reinforce inequality and injustice. If its origin does indeed lie with less rigid and less hierarchical systems of ancient agricultural communities, then its failure to meet the demands of our modern complex social structures is hardly surprising.

It's also no surprise that the use of Deuteronomist Theology is most common among those who are the least affected by structural injustices. They are the ones who tend to be the most privileged and/or who identify the most with the ruling classes. If they acknowledge that there are any problems at all, the source of the problem is always with individual behavior because suffering is always a consequence of God withholding blessings from the disobedient. It's never a consequence of flaws in the system — a system the modern "priests" (self-professed representatives of God) benefit from.

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