Sunday, December 30, 2007

Deuteronomy 1 - 8: The Farewell Speech Begins

We're back. MRTB is rested, refreshed, and ready to venture further into the mysteries of the Old Testament. But first:

Procedural Notes

I blog for lots of reasons. I enjoy writing, and I like the thinking that you have to do when you're writing regularly. The communities that develop around blogs has been a huge and unanticipated bonus; it gets harder and harder to distinguish between "blog friends" and "real life friends," with the important exception that I always know what members of the latter group look like.

The original reason I started keeping blogs, though, was to light a fire under my long-term projects. Whether it's my reading list, my "Great Films" project, my quilting goals, or -- of course -- reading the Bible, blogging about it backs me into a corner. I've got to stick with my projects, or I'll look like an idiot. More of an idiot, anyway.

The problem is this: you reach a point where, between all of the projects and the write-ups, you start to have trouble getting enough sleep. I've reached that point, and need to do some cutting back. Am I going to abandon the Bible project? Absolutely not. It's a great project! But, it's not a very popular blog. It just doesn't get read very much, and it hardly gets comments at all. At the end of the day, there's just not enough happening to justify the amount of time I've put into it.

So with that in mind, for now I am going to continue but strip things down a little. Here's the plan:

  • No More Art. Finding the images has been fun and rewarding, but time-consuming; basically, it's been a whole side-project of its own. For now, we'll be text-only.
  • Bigger Bites. I've been averaging about four chapters per entry recently. I'm going to try to bump that up to six or seven chapters per entry.
  • Less Detail. It's hard, because there is just SO MUCH that's interesting. But I bet nobody will complain if I back off on some of the detail.
  • Schedule? I'm not sure if I want to stick to the Sunday night schedule or not. We'll see.

So that's the plan. Let's roll.

"Today, I consider myself the luckiest prophet on the face of this Earth."

The first 33 of Deuteronomy's 34 chapters -- I snuck a peek ahead -- turns out to be Moses' long goodbye speech. Chapter 34 describes his death. Since most of what he wants to talk about seems to be the events described in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, as well as the laws that were revealed in those chapters, there is clearly going to be some review going on.

Deut 1 - 3: How Did We Get Here?

You know those guys who show up at athletic events with signs referencing a single Biblical verse, hoping that they'll be caught on camera so that the entire viewing audience will be struck with curiosity and crack open the family Bible? They pick out verses that they think summarize their personal religious philosophy especially well, of course. Well, I often stumble across verses that are so incidental, so trivial, so devoid of spiritual insight, such obvious candidates for removal if the Bible had ever been edited, that the absurdist in me wants to slap them on a sign and head for the stadium. Such is the case with Deuteronomy 1:2, which reads as follows:

(It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.)

But I digress. In the first three chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the events of Numbers 10 - 36, from the point when the Israelites broke camp at Mt. Sinai. Despite that a full generation has passed since that time, he lays it on pretty thick with the guilt trips, continually reminding the assembly of times they let him, and God, down. Presumably, he is thinking of their parents, but what the heck. He's a very old guy by now, and likely a bit confused.

Deut 4 - 6: The Law

It looks like there is going to be a lot of recap of the law here in Deuteronomy. For now, Moses speaks generally about the greatness of God, the importance of obedience of God and of the Law, and the prohibition of idols. Also, the Ten Commandments are repeated, in exactly the same wording as they were originally presented back in Exodus 20. Particularly dogged readers might recall that I challenged the importance of these particular 10 injunctions back then, pointing out that there is nothing in particular in Exodus to indicate that they are any more crucial than the many other laws before and after them. That they are set aside and highlighted here in Deuteronomy pretty much shoots down that criticism.

Deut 7: Imperial Israel

Moses assures the Israelites again that God will deliver the Promised Land, as long as they honor him and his laws. They are, as we have seen before, not expected to be gracious to their defeated enemies. Make no treaty with them, exhorts Moses, and show them no mercy. (2) Their leaders are not only to be killed, but to have their names wipe[d] out from under heaven. (24) Their religious buildings and monuments are to be destroyed utterly, of course, but the people themselves are pretty much marked for slaughter as well: The Lord your God will send the hornet among them until even the survivors who hide from you have perished. (20)

Deut 8: Encore!

Chapter 8 discusses, again, how important it is to follow the law, to remember that God freed the nation from slavery and therefore deserves and expects submission to his will. This is the main point that Moses is making in his speech, of course -- the Israelites do not have the strongest of track records, obedience-wise, and he knows that this is his last shot at whipping them into shape. So, with the speech only one-quarter done, I'm guessing this is not the last time he will reiterate the point.

Next Time: Before television, a crowd could sit still while they were being read the legal code.


gl. said...

yay! it's back! i might be tempted to complain about lack of detail, but not very loudly, and only because you're such a great writer.

Anonymous said...

I started to type, "Oh, thank God you're back!" and then thought of all the ritual sacrifices I would have to make to atone. But what the hell. It's New Year's Day.

I can't say that I watch Moses' departure with anything but a sigh of relief. As you have pointed out the ruthless and incidental passages in these long wanderings in the desert, I return to the question of whether God or Christians are good. Funny, but when I picture Moses as Charlton Heston I have no difficulty at all seeing him as something of a dogged old party wonk, an Old Testament tool.

Did I just call Moses a tool? The warnings of the OT seem to be having the opposite effect on me as was intended. I can't help recalling that the root of language is metaphorical, and we get into real trouble when we take the metaphors literally. Archetypal stories always illustrate that the hero rises, becomes the good king, and then becomes the despot if no one opposes him soon enough. King Minos and the (literal) bull that happens to him in the myth cycles of Crete come to mind. King Lear comes to mind as well.

As a woman, it's pretty hard to find yourself in these archetypes. I've long said that the only roles for women in academe are Cordelia and Cassandra. You may be the favored daughter, but if you are truthful rather than obedient (note that the two are not coincident in the literature) you will suffer. Likewise, you may be favored with the attentions of Appolo or some other powerful bloke, but if you refuse to play the role offered to you, you will be cursed. Yes, you're educated, you have knowledge and insight, but no one will listen to you.

Reading the OT is a little like living The Worst of Academe, honestly. There seem to be no roles for women other than as chattel, and any sensibility in the narrative that even remotely evokes truthfulness or refusal to fall into lock step with despotic practices is punished pretty severely.

I live in this little town in the midwest where the demographics can change overnight due to the multinational dealings of the local meat packing plant, Tyson. In one weekend, suddenly this little town that is already one-third Hispanic and not dealing with that as well as one might hope, now has thirty Somalian families. The racism and anti-Muslim sentiments come out immediately, and one of the things I hear in these voices is the same voice of self-righteousness in the OT. The fear and loathing is probably left out of, say, the punishment of the Midianites, but you can imagine that this is the way a burgeoning, wandering (aimless, shiftless) people with a sense of entitlement would achieve unity amongst themselves once a few thousand scapegoat members had been expunged: breed some hate on the neighboring people, who strike you as competition for resources. Especially the women.

It's interesting to me as well that I hear so many Americans speaking of the violent intolerance of Islam, and yet the OT seems pretty clearly extreme in the same ways. Do the people who want to live by the Bible LITERALLY really know what this means?

The New Testament is supposed to be exactly that: a new covenant. Not too aptly in metaphoir, it's supposed to throw out the (bloody) bathwater of the OT and keep the baby. After the people have been subdued (bludgeoned) by the law of Moses, they are supposed to be ready for the mercy of Jesus. With one sacrifice we're supposed to be at the end of the need for smiting. Yet, I never hear any stories making the news about guys who decide to live literally by the laws of the New Testament. Why is that? I could get behind the guy running the moneylenders out of the souped-up supertemples, the rich having to give up the notion of going to heaven, all that rather populist individualism.

Take us there, Michael! Lead us out of the Old Testament and into the New Covenant this year. On the eve of the next election, I need to feel a sense of progress toward a new conversation and some new tropes. Your sense of humor provides exactly the buoyancy needed.

Jennifer said...

After the comments of gl and anonymous, I certainly hope you see the point of the blog, whether or not you think it justifies the time put in it. Perhaps it's not the size of the readership but the quality of the conversation that's more important?

P.S. Anonymous, I keep waiting for the "Lysistrata" role to become popular in academe myself. :-)

Jennifer said...

P.S. Kudos on avoiding shaking a pedantic finger at us in your blog, which is more than I can say for the note I just posted.

Chance said...

Don't disparage yourself. I have two blogs from you up on my sidebar, and put this blog there even though the very first post I read said you'd be going on a two-month hiatus. Whatever you do is GOLD, baby!

Anonymous said...

I give thanks to the great tower of fire and the column of smoke that lead the chosen people through the desert, for this blog is back! This project of yours truly matters to me.

For the record, I think verses like Deuteronomy 1:2(which I am totally writing on a sign next time I go to a sporting event), are totally poignant. It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road. What a scene setter. It's like something out of Ursula LeGuin. It reminds me that the original purpose of this book may not have entirely been to tell the people of the far future how to be obedient to G-d. And how much more there is to learn from it. Where's Kadesh Barnea? Who wanted to go there? What was it like, the Mount Seir road? Was there another road one might have taken instead? Were there bandits? Was it eleven days on foot from one place to the other, or by camel? With five people, or five million?

Michael5000 said...

Aww... You guys are the greatest! It's more fun with y'all along.

Interestingly, not one comment here, nor a handful of remarks I got in person and by Email over the week, said "no, no, you can't leave out the art!" So that does it. No more art. You want art, go look at my quilt blog.

: )

Chuckdaddy said...

Glad it's back!

Also, keep in mind that with a blog like this the comment/readership ratio is not like a casual blog, where people are much more likely to just throw some comment in. I find it much harder to come up w/ something to say, because frivilous doesn't seem to fit in and I have no actual bible knowledge to add.

But you're probably also referring to the exact # of visits. And to that I say, fuck the masses! Do not stop givething us thus bible blog