The story of how the Old Testament was written and compiled is one that is hinted at in some of the books it contains. If I were to ask you what is the most significant book in the Old Testament? then thinking from a Christian perspective the answer might be thought the Psalms, or Isaiah; but from a Jewish perspective the answer is Deuteronomy.
The significance of this book is found in the book itself but also in a story found in the Book of Kings (2 Kings 22-23). For during the reign of King Josiah we learn that an old scroll was discovered while some repair work was being carried out on the Temple. While it is not named, everyone believes that scroll contained a good portion of the Book of Deuteronomy. On the basis of what it contained Josiah began a reformation of the country, aware that the people’s religious patterns and social behaviour had severely lapsed from what had been expressed in the scroll. However, the reforms were not embraced by the nation and it wasn’t long after that the Babylonian exile took place. But while in exile that scroll did do its work.
But before I explain how, let me remind everyone that much of what was taught and passed down as community memory was oral in form; stories told and retold in homes and around campfires. Only the monarchy from the time of Saul, David and Solomon onwards would have kept court records in written form. Added to that by the time of the prophets their words were being written down by their followers and disciples. The words for worship, the psalms, the words of wisdom, the proverbs, would also be in written form.
The next figure of importance is a priest by the name of Ezra, who worked as the exile was coming to an end. He and his fellow-priests studied the scroll of Deuteronomy and made it the foundation of a task; to put down the history of Israel and Judah BUT told through the perspective of God’s commandments and laws as found in Deuteronomy. (Ezra 7:10, 25f).
In the Book of Deuteronomy there is an very early creed that begins with the words: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…’(Deut. 26:5ff) This became the skeleton upon which the story from Abraham to Joshua and the judges that followed would be fleshed out and written down.
According to Deuteronomy the whole institution of monarchy was suspect given the original intention of the covenant between God and the people, and so kings would be judged by whether they supported the covenant or not. A reading of the books of Samuel and Kings shows this editorial bias.
The prophets were recognised as men who had spoken truth to power recalling the nation to its standing with God, and warning of the consequences of not repenting and so were defenders of the Book of Deuteronomy.
In the Book of Nehemiah when the people return from exile, rebuild its walls and Temple, and re-inhabit the city of Jerusalem, the climax is reached when Ezra makes a pulpit and reads to the assembled population what he and his colleagues have achieved – basically the bulk of the Old Testament (Nehemiah 8), a story that has been conceived through the lens of one book.