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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking about the interesting point that it is not because of the Israelites' righteousness or their integrity that they were going
in to take possession of others' land; but on account of the wickedness of these other
nations. What I recall of WWII-era dogma seems to reflect this concept. It is never hubristically extended that America is chosen and great, thus righteous in their liberation of Europe and the South Pacific. Rather, it is because the Axis powers are evil.

Note the difference here in the age of the "axis of evil" and other Shrubbisms. (We should use lots of Molly Ivins terms in remembrance of her passing in 2007.) Today it seems that the other nations are evil, and also that America is portrayed as righteous liberator. We go in to possess these nations because we have a right to do so. Were the nations' evil sufficient unto itself, we would merely participate in an alliance of powers--say, the United Nations, or something like "The Allies," a team that sounds like it would definitely have good tee shirts. But no, we have a need to do it all ourselves, because this is the price of being chosen, special, reliant upon God to drive the forces of iniquity from the face of the earth.

Very interesting, this little shift in perception. One cannot help but wonder how the history of the Jews would be different if they had adopted the more hubristic stance, scripturally, instead of all this guilt for transgressions. As a life-long fan of the Chicago Cubs, I've been told by more than George Will's essays that such an allegiance has circumscribed my life in low expectations. A Yankees fan expects to win, and more often does, perhaps because she does the things that one might do in order to expressly "win" rather than being satisfied with having a hot dog in her belly, a team to root for, and a stadium over her head. I can't help thinking that we have reconfigured Christianity (once we amalgamated it with a lot of other religions, including the comitatus thane/retainer hero-king of the Anglo Saxons)into a religion for winners that is built on massive justification for privilege.