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.


Chuckdaddy said...

As I read this blog, the thought that continually enters my head, is how in the world does anyone see this as a holy document? Call me blasphemous, and don't mind me as I look over my shoulder in case of a lightening bolt, but, really, ibex over rabbit? Killing cows after an unsolved murder?

I don't know, maybe it's just my heathen atheism speaking out, but I'd just expect God to inspire a much more important story. For every 1 decent parable, there are 3 repeated laws and an convaluted wandering story. Couldn't God have hired those Isrealites a better editor?

Anonymous said...

Actually its widely accepted by most scholars that scribes of King Josiah actually wrote the book of Deuteronomy and claimed that it was written by Moses. Most of the laws in the book coincidentally coincide with reforms that King Josiah wanted to re-enact. Its funny cause I know people that take the Bible for a piece of pure truth, yet I'd bet my left nut they they have truly looked into laws that govern the Christian religion.