2012. Eckart Otto , Deuteronomium 1,1 – 4,43; 4,44 – 11,32(HThK.AT, 2 vols.). Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 2012. xxii-1072 p. 17 × 23,7


These two commentaries form the first part of the four-volume commentary on Deuteronomy by Eckart Otto. These first two volumes are the outcome of a lifelong study of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) and especially the book of Deuteronomy. Eckart Otto is a very prolific author and developed his views in many books and articles over the past decades, which give his work and the commentaries on Deuteronomy a richness and a depth which will ensure that Eckart Otto and his views will remain with the scholarly community for a very long time.

One reviewer noted that these commentaries are milestones in Pentateuch and Deuteronomy research and once again stressed the importance of German as a scholarly language: ‘This work exemplarily shows that German will remain an indispensable language in biblical scholarship for the coming decades. No serious work on Deuteronomy can leave this commentary unconsulted’ (Merkl 2015:122). However, these commentaries as well as his other work on the same theme cannot be read and digested quickly but must rather be studied very meticulously page by page. Otto’s text is layered with meaning and to discover its richness it must painstakingly be peeled off (by reading and reading) just as in literary criticism. It is therefore impossible to do justice to Otto’s work in a book review but below some aspects of his understanding of Deuteronomy are highlighted which may encourage people to devote time to study the commentaries.

Otto and the UP

Eckart Otto is attached to the Department of Old Testament Studies at the University of Pretoria since 2000. He is still part of the Department, is co-organiser of Pro Pent (cf Le Roux 2012) and is also involved in the activities of Pro Psalms and Pro Prophets. His influence remains invaluable. It is perhaps also important to note that Otto showed appreciation to the colleagues of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria when he thanked them in the Preface for all the discussions over many years: ‘Schließlich danke ich meinen Kollegen der Theologischen Fakultät der University of Pretoria in Südafrika, die über mehr als ein Jahrzehnt meine Arbeit am Deuteronomium mit vielen Gesprächen und Diskussionen begleitet haben’ (Otto 2012a:16). This was not the first time because Otto also dedicated a very important book on Deuteronomy in 2001 to the Faculty (Otto 2001).

Why Deuteronomy?

One could indeed ask why Otto wrote a commentary on Deuteronomy. Perhaps the answer is that Herder Verlag commissioned him to do that but there is also another reason. One of his many valuable contributions is his emphasis on the connection between the Pentateuch’s growth and the burning theological and ethical questions with which Israel had to grapple (cf. Otto 1994:1–100; 1995:163–191; 1996:332–341; 1997:321–339; 1998:1–84; 2007c:26–37 ).

However, if one wants to detect these different layers and discover the intense theological-ethical debates underlying the Pentateuch, where must one begin? For many decades scholars have started with Genesis, identifying the sources or authors like the Yahwist and P (the Priestly author), but Otto resisted this. He believes that more is achieved when one starts with the book of Deuteronomy (cf. Otto 1995:163–191; 1996:332–341; 1999a:1–14). Deuteronomy is the cradle of the Pentateuch and therefore one should start there.

According to Otto, recent Pentateuch studies suffer from ‘Deuteronomiumsvergessenheit’. Pentateuch study should form part of Deuteronomy research and Deuteronomy needs to be interpreted as an integral part of the literary history of the Pentateuch. According to Otto, the Pentateuch owes its existence to the theological concepts and insights of Deuteronomy (Otto 2012a:238-248). In short, knowledge of the origins of Deuteronomy is indispensable for understanding the Pentateuch, the Archimedes point of all Pentateuch research (cf. Otto 1994:175–219; 1997: 21–339; 1999b:693–696; 2000b:43–83) and the post-exilic book of Deuteronomy forms the cornerstone of the Pentateuch (Otto 2012a:248-257).

Structure of contents

The commentaries are divided into subsections, which can serve as markers to unify all the information but also indicate how Otto explains and understands the text of Deuteronomy. First of all there is the Literatur: it is a remarkable feature of these commentaries that a detailed bibliography always precedes the exegesis of each pericope; even if the pericope consists of only a few verses an extensive bibliography is provided. Text: Otto gave his own translation of the text and also explained the reasons for his rendition. This is followed by Synchrone Analyse: Aufbau des Textes, which provides notes on the basic structure of the pericope and in the section titled Diachrone Analyse: Entstehung des Textes Otto described the historical origin and growth of the text. The last section, Auslegung, is a verse-for-verse exegesis of the text and an attempt to understand the text in a historical context.

Moses was the first exegete

The distinction between the first and second generation is ever-present in Otto’s commentaries. The first generation (who experienced the exodus and Sinai) died in the desert and Moses was now confronting the second generation (in the land of Moab) with the Sinai-torah. Moses’ role was now subtlety changed. At Sinai he mediated the law (‘These are the commandments and the ordinances which the Lord commanded by Moses to the people of Israel’—Num 36:13) but on the plains of Moab he explained them (‘Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law’—Deut 1:5). This exposition of the Sinai-torah occurred nearly forty years after the exodus from Egypt and the Sinai event (Ex 19ff ) and was delivered in Moab just before Moses’ death. And his addressees were the second desert generation who succeeded the first generation of fugitives from Egypt and the recipients of the Decalogue and the other laws at Sinai (Otto 2012a:304).

Moses thus was the first exegete explaining the laws that were received at Sinai (Ex 20:24-23:12) and thereby starting a process of interpretation reaching to our times. Otto was keenly aware that he was part of this long history of interpretation and therefore attempted to describe this history starting with De Wette.

A long road

In a very long section of nearly 170 pages Otto described the history of research from Wilhelm Martin Leberecht De Wette to Dominik Markl’s 2011 study of the people of God in Deuteronomy. This history is a unique feature, which makes these commentaries even more indispensable. According to Hans–Georg Gadamer all these interpretations of the past must not be regarded as meaningless or irrelevant. It can help us to understand and to discover forgotten aspects of the interpretation of the Pentateuch and Deuteronomy. A text cannot be understood on its own, and detached from previous interpretations it’s meaning cannot be comprehended. The Pentateuch’s/Deuteronomy’s long research history must therefore be appropriated and integrated in our understanding of Deuteronomy. Otto has brilliantly succeeded in showing how the many authors on Deuteronomy have shaped and formed his understanding of Deuteronomy.

Historical critical research of the Pentateuch and Deuteronomy began with Richard Simon’s emphasis on the tensions in the Pentateuch text and his denial of Mosaic authorship (Otto 2012a:62). With Astruc a new phase in the historical critical understanding of the Pentateuch was ushered in; it was the beginning of the ‘older documentary hypothesis’, which was developed during the nineteenth century into the ‘new documentary hypothesis’ and which dominated scholarship in the twentieth century. Wellhausen posed the question how Deuteronomy became part of the Pentateuch and Otto also addressed this problem in his commentary. However, Otto objected to Wellhausen’s ‘new documentary hypothesis’ and his tracing of sources in the Pentateuch and he abandoned this approach (Otto 2012a:83-87). Steuernagel became important to Otto because he already saw the flaws of the ‘new documentary hypothesis’ and emphasized an ‘Ergänzungshypothese’ (Otto 2012a:88-90). It was, however, Von Rad, which had the greatest influence on Otto because he emphasized that Deuteronomy had to be understood from itself by focussing on the text and to discover the ‘eigentümliche Note’ of Deuteronomy.

Otto concludes his research history with a remark about the link between Markl and Von Rad’s book from 1929. Both rejected the literary critical ‘dissections’ of the text but differed regarding approach: while Von Rad read the text diachronically by comparing the Book of the Covenant and Deuteronomy with each other Markl read the final text of Deuteronomy synchronically in a very consistent manner. This distinction is a very important one because Otto remarked how things have changed since 1929: between then and now the notion of the final text became and integral part of our scholarship and Otto grappled with this in his commentaries (Otto 2012a:227).

Synchrony and diachrony

Although the tension between synchrony and diachrony has not been solved in Old Testament scholarship yet Otto has incorporated both approaches into a unity (cf Kilchör 2015:15-17). This was a very deliberate decision that can be seen in his exhaustive history of research. He did not only highlight the historical critical or diachronic approaches to Deuteronomy but also devoted many pages to a synchronical reading (Otto 2012:62-230).

One reviewer stated that this commentary ‘is unique in its scope and intent’. It is also ‘the first commentary on Deuteronomy systematically to combine two hermeneutical perspectives that had seemed for centuries to be separate and irreconcilable streams of exegesis’. Although Otto ‘is deeply rooted in the tradition of German Protestant historical critical exegesis’ he also ‘embraced new trends in the literary analysis of the canonical form of the text which have precursors in often polemically anti-critical traditions of “orthodoxJewish and Roman Catholic exegesis (Markl 2014:119-122). At the end of his long research history Otto declared that he wanted to emphasise both a diachronical (describing the origin and growth of a text) as well as a synchronical approach (taking the final form of the text seriously) (Otto 2012a:230). What Otto proposed is not a new method consisting of definitive steps as we in South Africa have become used to but a way of thinking; of thinking synchrony and diachrony together and explore its possibilities for the understanding of Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch (Otto 2005:22-49).

Re-interpretation and actualization

If there is one important reason why South Africans should take Eckart Otto’s commentaries (as well as his other work) very seriously then it is exactly this notion of re-interpretation and actualization. Otto wanted to show how Israel made sense of their own world before and during the exile as well as thereafter by means of this re-interpretation and actualization of their history and their traditions of faith. Whether it was Otto’s depiction of Deuteronomy’s exodus and entry narratives (Otto 2012a:284-403) or Moses’ prophecy regarding Israel’s future (2012a:508-592) or the golden calf story (Otto 2012b:922-1002) he always endeavoured to make the past present, to make history relevant for Israel as well as for today by highlighting this constant process of re-interpretation.

And Otto ‘succeeded’ in showing this by distinguishing between two time slots: narrated time and time of narration. The first refers to an ‘original’ or ‘earlier event’ and the second to the time of re-interpretation, re-application and reliving of the past (Otto 2000f:237–243; 2002b:29–32). This can be explained by means of Otto’s clever juxtaposition of the golden calf story and the time of the exile. The Deuteronomic authors of the exile brilliantly relocated the time of the exile (or the time of narration) to an earlier event (the narrated time), to the time of Moses and the events at Sinai, the giving of the Decalogue, the golden calf episode, Moses’ intercession and the reissuing of the Decalogue (Dt 9:9–21; 10: 1–5) (Otto 2012b:959-960). This sequence of events underscores the fact that despite the earlier people’s transgression of the main commandment God forgave them and His covenant of Horeb remained intact. This basic story line of this past event was then used to give the exiles the exiles hope (Otto 2012b:720-725). .

They ‘accomplished’ this by means of relating two time slots, ‘narrated time’ and ‘time of narration’, to each other; by relating their own exilic time to that of Moses. The first time slot (‘narrated time’) referred to Moses (Sinai, the Decalogue, the golden calf, the reissuing of the Decalogue) and the second to the exile, which also formed the narrative perspective of the time of the exile. In this way transparency between the two time slots was created so that the exiles could re-enact the time of Moses (Sinai/Horeb, Decalogue, golden calf, etc.) in their minds, relive it in their exilic context and become involved in the events of the past. In this way narrated time and time of narration overlapped and the exiles could identify with the predicament of the people in the time of Moses; they could discover themselves in this generation and start reshaping their lives (Otto 2012b:966; see also 1997:321-339; 2000g:43-83; 2007a:19-28).

This bringing together of past and present, interpretation and re-interpretation makes a thorough study of Otto’s commentaries (and his other work) worthwhile. He showed how the relevance of the Old Testament for today must not first of all be sought for in modern theories but in the Old Testament itself. In the creative way Israel grappled with their own suffering and despair and how they have overcome many problems.


Otto’s commentaries on Deuteronomy will keep influencing Pentateuch studies for many years to come and scholars will constantly discover new dimensions of understanding in his work on Deuteronomy. It will, however, be no easy task because Otto does not ‘open up’ that easily and much is expected of the reader. He/she will have to read sentences over and over again and more often than not still not understand the author’s intention. Then he/she will have to refer to Otto’s earlier work or to previous sections in the commentaries and experience that reading Otto can be a very slow process. However, for those who persist a new world will be opened which will influence their scholarly understanding of the Pentateuch/ Deuteronomy decisively.


(Below some works of Otto are mentioned which can be of some interest to the readers of www.teo.co.za)

  •   Gadamer, H.G., 1990, Wahrheit und Methode, JCB Mohr, Tübingen.
  • Kilchör, B., 2015, Mosetora und Jahwetoradas Verhältnis von Deuteronomium 12–26 zu Exodus, Levitikus und Numeri, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden.
  • Markl, D., 2014, ‘E. Otto, Deuteronomium 1, 1–4, 43; 4, 44– 1, 32’, Biblica 96(1), 119–122.
  • Otto, E., 1996, ‘Die nachpriesterschriftliche Pentateuchredaktion im Buch Exodus’, in M. Vervenne (ed.), Studies in the book of Exodus, pp. 61–111, Peeters, Leuven.
  • Otto, E., 1997, ‘Das Deuteronomium als archimedischer Punkt der Pentateuchkritik. Auf dem Wege zu einer Neubegründung der de Wette’schen Hypothese’, in J. Lust & M. Vervenne (eds.), Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Literature, Festschrift, C.H.W. Brekelmans, pp. 321–339, Peeters, Leuven.
  • Otto, E., 1998, s.v. ‘Bundesbuch’, in H.D. Betz & D.S. Browning (Hrsg.), Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 4th edn., vol. 1, pp. 876–887, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen.
  • Otto, E., 1999a, s.v. ‘Dekalog I. Altes Testament’, in H.D. Betz & D.S. Browning (Hrsg.), Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart , 4th edn., vol. 2, pp. 625–628, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen.
  • Otto, E., 1999b, Das Deuteronomium: Politische Theologie und Rechtsreform in Juda und Assyrien, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.
  • Otto, E., 1999c, s.v. ‘Deuteronomium’, in H.D. Betz & D.S. Browning (Hrsg.), Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart , 4th edn., vol. 2, pp. 693–696, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen.
  • Otto, E., 1999d, s.v. ‘Ethik III. Biblisch, I. AT’, in H.D. Betz & D.S. Browning (Hrsg.), Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 4th edn., vol. 2, pp. 1603–1606, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen.
  • Otto, E., 1999e, ‘Die Ursprünge der Bundestheologie im Alten Testament und im Alten Orient’, Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 4, 1–84.
  • Otto, E., 2000a, Das Deuteronomium in Pentateuch und Hexateuch: Studien zur Literaturgeschichte von Pentateuch und Hexateuch im Lichte des Deuteronomiumrahmens, JCB Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tubingen.
  • Otto, E., 2000b, ‘Mose und das Gesetz. Die Mosefigur als Gegenentwurf Politischer Theologie zur neuassyrischen Konigsideologie im 7. Jh. v. Chr.’, in E. Otto (Hrsg.), Mose, Agypten und das Alte Testament, 43–83, Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, Stuttgart.
  • Otto, E., 2001a, ‘Die Tora in Max Webers Studien zum Antiken Judentum. Grundlagen fur einen religions- und rechtshistorischen Neuansatz in der Interpretation des biblischen Rechts’, Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 7, 1–188.
  • Otto, E., 2001b, Die Tora des Mose: Die Geschichte der Vermittlung von Recht, Religion und Politik durch die Mosegestalt, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen. (Berichte aus den Sitzungen der Joachim Jungius-Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften Hamburg, 19/2).
  • Otto, E., 2002a, Gottes Recht als Menschenrecht: Rechts- und literaturhistorische Studien zum Deuteronomium, Harrasowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden. (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte, 2).
  • Otto, E., 2002b, Max Webers Studien des Antiken Judentums: Historische Grundlegung einer Theorie der Moderne, JCB Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.
  • Otto, E., 2002c, ‘Politische Theologie in den Konigspsalmen zwischen Agypten und Assyrien. Die Herrscherlegitimation in den Psalmen 2 und 18 in ihren altorientalischen Kontexten’, in E. Otto & E. Zenger (Hrsg.), ‘Mein Sohn bist du’ (Ps 2,7). Studien zu den Königspsalmen, pp. 43–83, Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, Stuttgart.
  • Otto, E., 2004, ‘The Pentateuch in synchronical and diachronical perspectives: Protorabbinic scribal erudition mediating between Deuteronomy and the Priestly Code’, in E. Otto & R. Achenbach (Hrsg.), Das Deuteronomium zwischen Pentateuch und Deuteronomistischem Geschichtswerk, pp. 14–35, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.
  • Otto, E., 2005, ‘The Pentateuch between synchrony and diachrony’, in E. Otto & J.H. Le Roux (eds.), A critical study of the Pentateuch: An encounter between Europe and Africa, pp. 22–49, Lit, Münster.
  • Otto, E., 2006, ‘Das postdeuteronomistische Deuteronomium als integrierender Schlußstein der Tora’, in M. Witte, K. Schmid, D. Prechel & J.C. Gertz (Hrsg.), Die deuteronomistischen Geschichtswerke: Redaktions- und religionsgeschichtliche Perspektiven zur Deuteronomismus-Diskussion in Tora und vorderen Propheten, pp. 71–102, De Gruyter, Berlin.
  • Otto, E., 2007a, ‘A hidden truth behind the text or the truth of the text: At a turning point in biblical scholarship two hundred years after De Wette’s Dissertation Critico-Exegetica’, in J.H. le Roux & E. Otto (eds.), South African perspectives on the Pentateuch between synchrony and diachrony, pp. 19–28, T&T Clark, New York, NY.
  • Otto, E., 2007b, ‘The pivotal meaning of Pentateuch research for a history of Israelite and Jewish religion and society’, in J.H. le Roux & E. Otto (eds.), South African perspectives on the Pentateuch between synchrony and diachrony, pp. 29–53, T&T Clark, New York, NY.
  • Otto, E., 2009, ‘Die Erzählung vom goldenen Kalb in ihren literarischen Kontexten. Zu einem Buch van Michael Konkel’, Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 15, 344–352.
  • Otto, E., 2012a, Deuteronomium 1–11, Teilband: 1, 1–4, 43, Herder Verlag, Freiburg.
  • Otto, E., 2012b, Deuteronomium 1–11, Teilband: 4, 44–11, 32, Herder Verlag, Freiburg.
  • Otto, E., 2014, ‘Deuteronomiumstudien IV: Das nachexilische Deuteronomium: Ein prophetisches Buch’, Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 20, 141–146.