Sunday, January 20, 2008

Deuteronomy 22 - 25: In Which Moses Reads the Fine Print

Moses' long farewell speech continues....

In the next four chapters, Moses continues laying down the law. As I talked about last time, it makes a lot of sense that he would be thinking about law at this point, as the Israelites are about to make a huge lifestyle transition without him around to guide them through it. But whereas in the proceeding chapters, he was concerned with the large-scale issues of maintaining an egalitarian society in a new context, at this point he is getting down to the nitty gritty. Deuteronomy 22 through 25 is basically a list of laws, some new, some from the earlier books. I will summarize them for your convenience.

Deut 22

  • If you see somebody's animal or property lying around, don't be a jerk: take it back to them. If you see somebody's animal in trouble, help it out.
OK, that was pretty straightforward. But now, a little social Conservatism for you:
  • 5A woman must not wear men's clothing, nor a man wear women's clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.
And then, something wildly obscure. We are definitely working through a grab-bag, here:
  • If you take chicks from a bird's nest, you can't take the mother bird at the same time.
The reason given for this is a kind of "because I said so" that is repeated several times in Deuteronomy: "so that it may go well with you."
  • Houses should have parapets, so nobody falls off the roof.
Then, what I think of as the autistic laws:
  • Don't plant two kinds of seed in the same field.
  • Don't put and ox and a donkey in a yoke together.
  • Don't weave wool and linen together.
  • Put tassels on the four corners of your cloak.
Next, some laws about sex. One notices that the Israelites do not necessarily consider sexuality a life-affirming celebration of mutual affection:
  • If a guy tries to get rid of his new wife by saying that she wasn't a virgin, but her father can prove she was, he has to pay a hundred shekels and can never divorce her.
  • However, if she really did have premarital sexual intercourse, the town should tie her up and throw rocks at her until she dies.
  • Adultery: Both parties die.
  • If a man has sex with an engaged woman in town, stone both of them to death. He is considered to have raped her, and she didn't shout for help.
  • If it happens in the country, though, only the man gets stoned to death; it's assumed that she shouted for help, but nobody could hear her.
  • If a man rapes a single girl, he has to give her dad 50 shekels and marry her with no chance of divorce.
  • Marrying your father's wife is right out.
Deut 23

Three kinds people may not enter "the assembly of the Lord."
  • Anyone who "has been emasculated by crushing or cutting."


  • Those rotten Ammonites and Moabites.
  • First or Second-generation Edomites or Egyptians.

  • Keep things tidy in a military camp. Dig a latrine.
  • Shelter fugitive slaves
  • No shrine prostitutes in this religion!
  • No charging interest on loans within the community (although you can feel free to stick it to foreigners).
  • If you swear to God, you better follow through.

And then, another great "don't be a jerk" law:

  • If you are in your neighbor's farm, you can pick a few grapes or kernals of grain, but don't start filling a basket or using your sickle. What were you, born in a barn?

Deut 24

  • If a couple is divorced and one of them remarries, they can't remarry each other again.
  • After a man gets married, he is exempt from military service for a year.
  • You can't accept a millstone as collateral, because the miller's livelihood depends on it.
  • Kidnapping and slaving of fellow Israelites is a capital offense.
  • Don't mess around with leprosy. See a doctor!
  • If you make a loan, don't be a jerk about claiming the collateral.
  • Pay your employees' wages promptly.
  • Parents and children can not be punished for each other's crimes.
  • Aliens, widows, and orphans must receive equal protection under the law.
  • Don't be overly thorough when harvesting; leave some produce in your fields for the poor to gather.

Deut 25

  • Guilt or innocence is to be determined by the court, and the court will mete out punishment. No more than forty lashes may ever be given.
  • 4Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.
  • If a man dies, his brother must marry the widow. If he doesn't want to, the town elders will sit down with him for a little counseling session. If he STILL won't marry her, this is what is in store for him:

    9his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off
    one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man
    who will not build up his brother's family line." 10That man's line shall be
    known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.

That will be a fun passage to remember next time you hear someone advocating a return to Biblical standards of morality. As will this one:

  • 11If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, 12you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
  • Don't cheat people by using inaccurate weights and measures.
  • And finally, don't forget that the Amalekites are a bunch of rotten bastards, and that God wants you not only to destroy them, but destroy their legacy so that they disappear from human memory!

NEXT UP: Blessings, Curses, Reggae....

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Deuteronomy 14 - 21: Moses Lays Down the Law, Again

We rejoin Moses in the epic-length farewell speech that is the Book of Deuteronomy....

Deut 14

This week's reading starts like this:

1 You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, 2 for you are a people holy to the LORD your God.

...and right away we know we are back in the quirky world of Old Testament law. Over the next several chapters, Moses will do less general sermonizing, and focus more on the specifics of allowable personal and social behavior. And while much of this is review of law that were laid out in Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, there is some new material too.

In Chapter 14, for instance, there is a concise little review of dietary laws (yes: ox, mountain sheep, ibex; no: rabbit, screech owl, bat), followed by a call for tithing that as far as I can remember is new in its details. You are expected to put aside a tenth of your crops, and the firstborn of your animals, and take them to the central place of worship for sacrifice. But now that everyone is not going to be in the same camp, there's a bow to practicality: if you live a long way from the central place -- let's just jump the gun and start calling it "The Temple" -- you can sell your tithe close to home, travel to the Temple, buy equivalent produce and animals, and sacrifice those. There is also a vague provision that, in every third year, the tithe ought to benefit the Levite priests, as well as the widows widows, orphans, aliens of the towns.

Now, that bit about supporting the poor people in the towns is interesting. Think about the situation as Moses is giving this pep talk; the Israelites are planning to make the transition from a nomadic to a settled agrarian lifestyle. For the last generation, they've all lived together in a sprawling mobile camp, but as soon as this Promised Land is conquered they are going to spread out and take up farming. The communal life of the camp has doubtless enforced some measure of social equality, and that's all going to go by the wayside as people prosper or fail according to their luck and skill as a farmer, and their luck and skill in getting their hands on the best chunks of land. Moreover, once you have farms, you will also have market towns and trade specialization, with the diversification of social class and function that will come along with them. Among many, many other things, this means that you will start to have a class of the poor and dispossessed, and that they will tend to wash up in the towns and cities. This tweak in the tithing rules sounds like a proactive attempt to deal with this new reality.

Deut 15

Chapter 15 introduces another law which is, as far as I can recall, new: at the end of every seven years, the Israelites must cancel all of their debts to each other. Moreover, if somebody asks you to lend them some money during Year Six, you can't be a jerk about it. "There should be no poor among you," says Moses (4) (although admitting almost immediately that "there will always be poor people in the land" (11)). Here again, we see a recognition that the new way of life is going to create winners and losers, and an attempt to set up a system where the losers will still be able to share in the wealth of the general community. We also see yet another of the countless ways that our modern way of life has nothing whatsoever to do with its alleged Judeo-Christian foundation. I may have to write to my mortgage holder about how it's God's will that all debts are cancelled after seven years, just to see what happens.

You have to release a servant after seven years of service, too, unless the servant really likes you and wants to make the arrangement permanent. In that event, you have him or her stand in your doorway with their head against the doorframe, and you drive an awl through their earlobe into the wood. The Israelites have a refreshingly hearty approach to labor law.

Deut 16 - 17

Mostly, Chapter 16 is Moses reminding the people to celebrate Passover and the other feasts. In Verses 18 to 20, there is the beginning of what you might call a mini-Constitution. In the new towns that are going to pop up, says Moses, you are going to need judges and local officials. Make sure they are fair, and don't let them take bribes. In Chapter 17, after an admonition on the familiar topic of how it is not OK to worship other gods, and you need to kill anybody who does, there is a provision for a sort of appellate court among the Levites, a body to handle cases that are too much for the local courts.

Finally, in 17:14-20, Moses gives instructions for the appointment of a king. The provisions are interesting: He has to be an Israelite, can't accumulate wealth, wives, or horses, and can't send people back to Egypt for any reason. He has to read a copy of these provisions daily, so he won't "consider himself better than his brothers" (20). He is clearly intended to govern a still quasi-egalitarian society, able to lead the people by their consent but limited in his economic means (wealth), family connections (wives), and military power (horses) from having excessive power to inflict his personal will. It really is an amazingly progressive vision of government that Moses is trying to set up for the Promised Land.

Deut 18

Chapter 18 covers some specifics of how the Levites will be supported, and issues a stern warning against anyone taking up the "detestable practices" of other peoples: child sacrifice, witchcraft, communication with the dead, or divination. However, says Moses, God will eventually elevate another prophet who, like Moses, will be able to communicate God's will to the people. If somebody claims to be that prophet, says Moses, it will be pretty easy to test them. Does what they say will happen actually happen? If not, that's not the prophet I'm talking about.

Deut 19

The "Cities of Refuge" concept is revisited: three cities are to be set aside as safe havens for anybody who has accidentally killed someone and is afraid that their victim's relatives will kill them. In an interesting appendage, Moses adds
8 If the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your forefathers, and gives you the whole land he promised them, 9 because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the LORD your God and to walk always in his ways—then you are to set aside three more cities.

This is the first we've heard explicitly that all those Covenants from Genesis might be contingent on good behavior.

Deut 20

Deuteronomy 20 is all about war and how to conduct it. It implies that, for the Israelites, military service is kind of like jury duty -- if you have a good excuse, or just kind of whine a little, you can get out of it easy enough. Next, Moses instructs the Israelites to always start with an offer of peace. This is new, and quite different than the rock-em-sock-em rhetoric of chapters past. Mind you, the offer of peace is really an invitation of surrender into slavery, but still. If this offer is declined, the standing orders are still to split up the women and children, but to put to the sword all the men. (13)

Wait! I read it wrong the first time through! On closer examination, Moses is actually only telling the Israelites to offer peace to enemies outside of the Promised Land. The competing locals are indeed, as we have read before, are to be slaughtered: in the cities of the nations the Lord you God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. (16)

Finally, Moses tells the people not to cut down fruit trees around a city they are besieging because, duh, you'll want that fruit!

Deut 21

Finally, Deuteronomy 21 provides some miscellaneous laws, all of them new. If there's an unsolved murder, kill a cow in a complicated manner and have the elders of the nearest towns wash their hands over the cow to atone for the sin. If you fall in love with an enemy woman, you can marry her after a one-month cooling down period; but if you change you mind, you can't treat her like a captive. If you have a wife you love and a wife you don't, you can't favor the children of the wife you love. If a child is totally out of control and the father and mother tell the town they can't deal with him any more, everybody joins in stoning the child to death. And, when you hang someone, don't leave them out overnight. All of these are new, I think, and I don't see any particular logical connection between them. File under Laws, Miscellaneous.

Next Week: More Laws, Miscellaneous.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Deuteronomy 9 - 13: The Speech Continues

When we left the action last week, Moses was well into a long speech that serves both as his farewell address and a pep talk to the Israelites, who are will shortly be crossing the Jordan and commencing their conquest of the Promised Land. I predicted last week that he would be returning frequently to the subject of obedience to God. I was right. Obedience has not exactly been a strong suit for the Israelites, and Moses is running out of time for convincing them to mend their ways, so he passes no opportunity to press the point.

In Deuteronomy 9 - 13 the sermon continues as it did in the first eight chapters, with a loosely organized blend of exhortations to obedience, reminders about specifics of the legal code, and recountings of events from recent history.

Deut 9: 1 - 6 -- Just because y'all's the chosen people, you ain't so great

Just because you are God's chosen people, Moses tells the people, don't get to feeling all high and mighty about yourself. He makes an interesting distinction: God is not going to enable the Israelites to conquer nations that are more powerful than them because they are righteous, he says, but because those other nations are evil.

It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going
in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these
nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you....

Now, this is interesting. We usually think of concepts like evil/wickedness and goodness/righteousness as existing on something of a continuum, with most people being somewhere in between those two poles. For myself, I seldom think of an acquaintance as being unambiguously righteous or completely evil. I see flaws in the best people, and mitigating factors in the worst, and I think most people are like me in this.

But God and Moses seem to disagree with this way of looking at things. In my own perceived realm of relative righteousness, there's not much difference between saying "the Israelites will prevail because they are righteous" and "everybody else will be put to the sword because they are wicked," because either way it is the relative virtue of the two that saves one and damns the other. The only important factor is that the Israelites are enough higher on the righteousness continuum to be above what we might call the Smiting Point.

God and Moses, on the other hand, appear to be laying out a binary, or possibly a three-level, definition of morality. There is righteousness and there is wickedness. The Israelites are not righteous, and should not get to thinking they are. Everybody else in the neighborhood is wicked, and is about to pay the consequences. The Israelites are either wicked, but excused from extinction by special dispensation (binary model), or they are in a intermediate, not-wicked, not-righteous category (three-level model).

I go into all this because many religious people get so very exercised in opposition to the idea of "relative morality." Well, here in Deuteronomy 9, God and Moses seem to concur.

Deut 9:7 - 10:10 -- The Ten Commandments (reprise)

As an example of how the Israelites (or at least, as I pointed out last time, their parents) have been disobedient to God, Moses tells the story of how, while he was receiving God's laws on Mt. Sinai, the unpleasant business with the Golden Calf went down. It is interesting that the retelling here, although it does not absolutely contradict the telling in Exodus 32, is quite different in its details. Here are the key events, in sequence:
  • God tells Moses that the people have built the calf, and that he will destroy them. (Exodus & Deut)
  • Moses then begs God to spare them, and God agrees. (Exodus version)
  • Moses goes down the mountain, sees the calf, and breaks the tablets. (Exodus & Deut)
  • Moses lies prostrate & fasting for forty days, begging God to spare the Israelites. God agrees. (Deut version)
  • Moses destroys the calf, reduces it to a powder, mixes it in water, and makes the people drink it. (Exodus version)
  • Moses destroys the calf, reduces it to a powder, and dumps the powder in a creek. (Deut version)
  • Moses has the Levites, who reject the calf, kill about 3000 calf-worshipers. (Mentioned only in Exodus)
  • God strikes the people with a plague. (Mentioned only in Exodus)
  • Some time later, Moses goes up the mountain again, witnesses God, and comes back with a second set of tablets. (Exodus & Deut)
So, not radically divergent, but divergent enough to make you wonder why the two accounts are different.

Deut 10:12 - 11 -- Obey!

Much talk about how the Israelites must obey God, along with, for a change of pace, warnings about how they should not disobey God. Very much in the style of a sermon.

Deut 12: Places of Worship

Deut 12 begins with a warning against adopting any of the religious practices of the people that the Israelites will find in the Promised Land. Any places where other gods have been worshiped, for instance, are to be destroyed utterly. The Israelites are obviously forbidden to adopt new gods, but they are also warned here against adopting any foreign religious practices as a way of worshipping their own god (which is to say: God).

It's an interesting prohibition. Through human history, whenever people of one religion conquer another, it is a commonplace that the sacred sites of the conquered religion become sacred sites for the conquerors, and that the rituals of the old religions have a way of sneaking into the new. Many of the churches of Europe and Latin America rest on the foundations, sometimes quite literally, of older "pagan" places of worship, and many of those churches have seen centuries of Christmas trees, Easter eggs, and many other Christian or quasi-Christian rituals of non-Christian origin.

Moses seems fully aware of this phenomenon, and wants nothing of it. Destroy the holy sites of the others, he tells the Israelites; God will tell you where to locate a central place for His worship. There will be just one place that God "will choose as a dwelling for his Name," and that will be the only proper place to go for sacrifice.

At this point, there is a long digression into exactly what kinds of sacrifice will be limited to this one central place, but the general point has been made, and the idea of the one holy place seems to prefigure the Jerusalem temple in which the Ark of the Covenant will be kept.

The chapter ends with a reiteration of the warning not to adopt the religious ritual of other peoples. 31 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. This seems like a ridiculous piece of bronze-age slander, an unsubtle attempt to demonize the enemy people that the Israelites are about to take up arms against. Except that, from what I've read, there is archeological evidence that ritual sacrifice of children by fire actually was practiced by some Middle Eastern tribal peoples. Icky.

Deut 13 -- Troubleshooting

For yourself, the important thing is to obey God's laws. If anybody else starts worshipping other gods, though, it is your duty to set them straight. In most cases, the best way to do this is to kill them. Any prophet who appears and suggests that you follow other gods is to be ignored, even if he has really good miracles. If your best pal, your spouse, your child, or your parent suggests a change of religion, you are to kill him or her immediately; it's best to do this by leading your neighbors in stoning him or her to death, as this is good for building community and consensus. (6-11) If a town changes its religion, it should be destroyed and left a ruin in perpetuity, with all its residents slain and all of their belongings burnt. Tolerance is decidedly not considered a virtue in the Mosaic world view.

Next Week: Obedience in General, Obedience in Specific