Sunday, February 24, 2008

Joshua 15 - 24: Dividing Up the Promised Land

Welcome back for the second half of the Double-Shot weekend of Michael Reads the Bible! It has been an excellent weekend here at Bible-reading headquarters; I hope you had a good one as well.

Joshua 15 - 21: A Thousand Words Are Worth a Map

With the conquest of the Promised Land essentially complete, Joshua begins a process of allocating the territory among the Israelite Tribes, and in many cases to the clans within the Tribes. The refuge cities are chosen, and the Levites, who are not to control a whole territory, are given towns from which to support themselves. It does not make for brisk reading. For each tribes, there is a verbal description of where the boundary of their territory runs, then a list of the towns and villages that lie within the boundary. It may well be that there is great symbolic or political significance to which tribes got what, but if so this is lost on me.

The Book of Joshua, which began as such an action spectacular, no longer seems at all cinematic. There is a brief narrative break in Chapter 15: Caleb's daughter's husband tells her to ask him for some good land, with springs. She rides her donkey over to her dad's place, and asks him. He says sure. That's it. That's the story. Kind of a letdown after the Battle of Jericho, don't you think?

The interesting detail in this section is that there are specific passages (15:63; 16:10; 17:10) that mention, as if in passing, cities or populations that the Israelites were not able to "dislodge," and who continue to live there after the Conquest. This little asterisk to God's promise to deliver the Promised Land in its entirety does not seem to be a cause of concern to the Israelites, but it is interesting to note that even Joshua's military juggernaut had its limits.

Joshua 22: East Meets West

With everybody slaughtered who is gonna be slaughtered, the tribes that elected to live east of the Jordan are free to go home. Tension erupts immediately, though, when the first thing they do is build a big altar on the east bank of the Jordan. This is a no-no, of course; Moses made it plentifully clear in Deuteronomy that all sacrificing was to be performed in one central location from now on, so the western tribes see this new alter as an unlawful branch office. They prepare for civil war.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevail and a delegation is sent to the Eastern tribes. "That's not an actual altar," explain the Eastern leaders, "it's a monument to the unity of the Israelites." They explain that they're afraid that future generations will come to see the Jordan as a natural divide, so they built the monument to remind everyone henceforth that Israelites on both sides of the Jordan share a commitment to the one altar of God, the one at the Tabernacle.

It's an interesting episode, with at least three interpretations:

  • The Eastern Tribes really did put up the monument for that reason, and it was misinterpreted by the Western Tribes.
  • The Eastern Tribes set up their own altar, then did some very fast talking when they saw that the more numerous Western Tribes had noticed and were willing to rectify their theological error by the sword.
  • The Eastern Tribes set up their own altar, but leaders of the Western Tribes convinced them of the error of their ways in a smoke-filled hut; the monument story mutually agreed on as the official story, as a face-saving measure for the Easterners.
Maybe I'm unduly cynical. But since orthodox practice is so clearly important to the Israelites and their identity as a people, the second and third stories seem as plausible to the first. And, if the point of the story was the construction of a monument of unity, wouldn't you expect the story to focus on the decision to build the monument, and the process by which it was built? The story of discovery, suspicion, negotiation, and understanding is conspicuously told from the point of view of Westerners in the center of power, however, rather than of the Easterners who actually built the thing.

Joshua 23-24: Joshua's Farewell Speech

Joshua, who was leading the Israelites into battle as long ago as Exodus 17, was no spring chicken at the beginning of the Conquest of the Promised Land. It is not clear how long the conquest takes -- it could be two months or thirty years, from all I can tell -- but by the end of the process he is old, tired, and ready to die. In Joshua 23, he makes a short and graceful farewell speech, exhorting the people to obey the laws of Moses and to stay true to God.

Joshua 24: 2-13 is interesting; it's pretty much a quick synopsis of the first six books of the Bible (I could have spared myself the effort!), as Joshua reminds his people of their history. Verse 13 makes clear why, after Jericho and Ai, the Israelites stopped burning the cities after they butchered the inhabitants:
So [God] gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.

Joshua leads the people through a ritual of re-dedication to God, calling them to witness to their own commitment, and setting up a large monument stone as a witness as well. The chapter and book ends with Joshua's death and burial; the apparently near-simultaneous death of Eleazar the priest, of whom we have heard very little since Numbers, if memory serves, is mentioned almost in postscript.

And that's the Book of Joshua! I read it in just three sessions over 10 days, very much a land-speed record for this blog. It is short enough not to not a synopsis, so we'll just keep rolling into:

Next Week: Judges, baby!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Joshua 9-14: Hack, Gouge, Stab, Spurt....

Time for part one of a weekend double-shot of Michael Reads the Bible!

Joshua 9

The next few chapters of Joshua continue the narrative of Joshua 1-8, so we'll continue with the summary.

You may remember from last week that the Israelites under Joshua moved in force over the Jordan River in those chapters, and commenced their conquest of the Promised Land by routing the armies of both Jericho and Ai, then slaughtering the civilian population, then reducing the cities to rubble as well. When news of this gets around, the neighboring kingdoms get mighty nervous. Many kings start assembling alliances, but the people of Gibeon decide to try working smarter, not harder.

The Gibeonites realize that the Israelites intend to continue their campaign of wiping out the existing population of their new home, but they have a plan. They outfit a team with their oldest gear, their moldiest bread, their most worn-out clothes, and send them out to meet the Israelites, who are camped about a three-day walk away. The delegation staggers into camp, and announce that they are from a distant land; the people of their country, the Gibeonites say, have heard about all of the wonders of the mighty Israelite God, and they have come to make a treaty with the Israelites. Joshua likes the sound of this, and both sides swear to a non-aggression pact.

The Israelites realize a few days later that they've been hoodwinked. The Gibeonites fess up when asked, admitting that this was the only way they could think of to save their hide. Joshua is pissed about how this all went down, but a deal is apparently a deal, and Gibeon gets set up as a kind of autonomous protectorate within the Promised Land. Surprisingly enough, treaty oath seems to trump Covenant.

Joshua 10Raphael, 'Joshua Stops the Sun.'

With Gibeon, an economically and militarily important city, having fallen under de facto Israelite control, five of the region's kingdoms combine forces to wrest it away from them. Joshua leads the troops on an all-night march and catches the allied armies by surprise. He puts them to rout, and God pitches in by pelting them with hailstones that kill more of them than the Israelite soldiers do. With the battle going so well, God makes the sun stand still for an extra twenty four hours, giving Joshua's troops more time for pursuit and mopping-up operations. Surely, reads the text in a rare exclamatory aside, the Lord was fighting for Israel! (14)

The five kings who put together the attack on Gibeon hole up in a cave, but Joshua finds them out and has them trapped in the cave while their armies are put to rout. Then, he has them rounded up and brought to him, where he uses them to illustrate an inspiring pep talk for the men about what God is going to do to their enemies. He has his commanders pin the kings by stepping on their necks, then beats them to death. After hanging their bodies from trees for the remainder of the afternoon, he has them cut down and thrown back in the cave. It's a grizzly episode, and somehow seems especially squalid after the fine miracle of the sun standing still in the sky.

At this point, the text goes on to describe more battles, more conquests, but as in many tales the writers seem to realize that they don't need to give us every detail of every battle. Instead, we are just given a short synopsis of Joshua's many successful city-busting campaigns:

    Nicolas Poussin. The Battle of Joshua with Amalekites. c. 1625.
  • Libnah: The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. (30)

  • Lachish: The city and everyone in it he put to the sword, just as he had done to Libnah. (32)

  • Horam, king of Gezer -- deploys troops in support of Lachish: Joshua defeated him and his army -- until no survivors were left. (33)

  • Eglon: They... totally destroyed everyone in it, just as they had done to Lachish. (35)

  • Hebron: They took the city and put it to the sword, together with its kind, its villages and everyone in it. They left no survivors. (37)

  • Debir: They left no survivors. (39)

  • the hill country, Negev, western foothills: He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breated, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded. (40)

Joshua 11

So, that last part of chapter 10 was the conquest of the southern part of the Promised Land. Chapter 11 covers the northern half, as Joshua continues winning every battle and capturing every city. At some point, he stops burning the cities, but he persists in an active program of what today we would call "ethnic cleansing," or "genocide," or perhaps "pathological serial mass-murder." In general, we think of these things in negative terms, but the mood here in the Bible is decidedly upbeat.

The Action Flags

And suddently, the Book of Joshua, which has been such an action movie up to this point, suddenly starts looking a lot like the Book of Numbers. The narrative slams to a halt, replaced by a collection of miscellaneous documents sent over from the guys in Legal and Accounting. Joshua 12, for instance, is a list of all the various kings defeated by the Israelites under Moses and Joshua. Joshua 13 is essentially the minutes of a meeting between God and Joshua when Joshua was old and well advanced in years (1), discussing what areas of the Promised Land as granted by the Covenent still need to be conquered, and detailing how conquered land East of the Jordan is to be divvied among the tribes. Chapter 14 very briefly describes the division of land West of the Jordan. It also discusses the claim of Caleb, who was the scout back in Numbers 13 who wasn't a big chicken about trying to invade the Promised Land, and as a result is the only guy from the previous generation, besides Joshua himself, who is still alive. He is owed for services rendered, and is given the city of Hebron. It's freshly empty of inhabitants, but presumably he invites his buddies and clan-mates to move on in. (The last sentence of Chapter 14: Then the land had rest from war. (15))

Glancing ahead, it looks like all the rest of Joshua is more of the "miscellaneous documents" variety of scripture. I'll see what we can learn from it tomorrow, Day Two of the double-shot weekend, when Michael Reads the Bible!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Joshua 1-8: War Stories

There's a big shift in tone as we enter the post-Pentatuech book of Joshua. Suddenly, we're in an adventure story. God is still all over the page, but everything seems oddly less religious, and more about the affairs of men. There's lots of physical action, courage, and trickery; indeed, as I read through these first eight chapters, I kept imagining how it would be a great big-budget Hollywood screenplay. I'll give you the outline, the "storyboard" if you will, of the action.

Joshua 1: Moses has died. God tells Joshua to prepare the people to cross the Jordan and claim the Promised Land. Joshua prepares his officers, and reminds the three tribes that have decided to stay east of the river that they still need to send their soldiers to help in the conquest.

Joshua 2: Joshua sends two spies into the city of Jericho, where they take refuge with a prostitute named Rahab. Or maybe she's an innkeeper, says the footnote. Seems like a significant distinction, but whatever. The king of Jericho comes looking for them, but Rahab hides them and sends the king on a wild goose chase. "Listen," she tells the spies. "We've all heard about you Israelites, and we know you've got a powerful God on your side, and we're all scared to death. I saved you from the king, so please save me and my family when the invasion comes."

"OK," they say, and give her a marker to put in her window, telling her to gather her family there. They sneak out of town, take the long way around, and tell Joshua that it should be an easy fight, as morale is so low in Jericho.

Joshua 3-4: Now, everybody knows about the parting of the Red Sea, but I didn't know about the parting of the Jordan River! The Israelites prepare to march, despite the fact that the Jordan is at flood stage and shouldn't be crossable on foot. But, Joshua sends the Levites with the ark of the covenant into the river, and it stops flowing. They take the ark out to midstream, and remain there was the entire Israelite nation crosses over into the Promised Land without so much as getting their feet wet. Once everybody is across, they take some rocks out of the river channel to set up a monument, and then the bearers of the ark cross over and the river resumes its business as usual. The invasion has begun!

Joshua 5: Joshua chooses this moment to deal with a little religious problem. It seems that the Israelites haven't been circumcizing babies since they left Egypt, and since a generation has passed, that means that needs to be taken care of for all of the men. So, they take care of it, then rest up a few days. The site is named "Gibeath Haaraloth," or Hill of Foreskins. I am not making this up. Look it up yourself.

(I would probably leave that part out of the screenplay, by the way.)

Joshua 5:13 - 6: Joshua is visited by either God or the Commander of God's army -- it's ambiguous -- and given instructions on how to capture Jericho. It is essentially a magical spell. The fighting men are supposed to march in a lap around the city every day for six days, carrying the ark led by priests blowing seven ram's horn trumpets. On the seventh day, they are are to march seven laps, after which they are to let up a great war cry, and the walls of the city will collapse.

As military strategy goes, it's not exactly Rommel in North Africa, but it gets the job done. The walls collapse, the Israelites charge the defenseless and demoralized city, and they set up a humane interim government over the people of Jericho. Ooops! Sorry, wrong notes. I meant to say, they
devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it -- men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys. (21)
They burn the city and everything in it, after appropriating the precious and industrial metals for the tabernacle. Joshua even puts a curse on the ruins against anyone who would rebuild the city. The sole survivors are the family of the prostitute (or perhaps innkeeper) Rahab, who we are told, surprisingly, lives among the Israelites to this day. (25) She must be getting on in years.

Joshua 7: The next city on the hit list is Ai. Joshua's spies tell him to send only a light force, but the people of Ai are well prepared, resist the attack, and end up chasing the Israelites of in ignominious defeat, killing 36 of them. Joshua is horrified, and asks God if he has abandoned his people. God tells him that he is enraged at the Israelites, because one of them stole some of the loot from Jericho that was supposed to go to the temple. The next morning, there is an elaborate process by which a guy named Achan is identified as the thief. He confesses immediately, admiting that he kept 200 shekels, a piece of gold, and an attractive robe that should have been turned over to the priests.

In light of his quick confession and repentent attitude, Joshua shows mercy and... oops, wrong notes again. Actually, Joshua has him stoned to death, and also his children and animals. Then they burn all of the bodies, along with Achan's possessions.

Joshua 8: Joshua has another go at Ai, and this time uses more conventional strategy than he employed at Jericho. Knowing that the Ai military is quick to press an advantage, he sends a small, mobile force for a feigned attack. They break off quickly, and the men of Ai leave the city to chase them again. This leaves the city ripe for picking by the larger reserve force that now decends from the other direction, occupies the city, and sets it on fire. Their enemy is now completely exposed, cut off, and hemmed in on both sides, and the customary slaughter begins.

Israel cut them down, leaving neither survivors nor fugitives. 23 But they took the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua.

24 When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. 25 Twelve thousand men and women fell that day -- all the people of Ai.

That leaves just the king alive. They hang him, leave him dangling for a while, then toss his body on the ruins of his city's gates. Then they build the alter of stone that Moses called for in his farewell speech, and renew the Covenant by reading out the whole of the laws of Moses.

Next: They are a hearty bunch, these Israelites! I wonder if they will mellow out and start being nicer to the neighbors as events progress? Somehow I doubt it!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Pentateuch at a Glance

Hey, I realize that all of you -- or both of you, or whatever -- are all excited about getting started with the Book of Joshua. Hell, I'm excited about getting started with the Book of Joshua too! But I'm going to make you wait for one more post.

The thing is, finishing up the Pentateuch last week was kind of a big deal. After all, those first five books are the Torah! The foundation of Judaism. And in the Christian tradition, too, those five books have a kind of authority, or at least a traditional prestige, that the rest of the Old Testament does not.

I sat down this afternoon and skimmed through in an hour the five books that I've spent the last year and a half reading up close and personal. It was worth doing. It was nice, for one thing, just to realize that I remember everything that's happened so far. But more importantly, stepping back and taking the quick skim made everything look a little more organized than it does when you are in there wrestling with the chaos of Biblical text.

In this post, I want to see if I can catch the big-picture sweep of the Pentateuch. Capsule summaries of the first five chapters, with a rough outline of their comments. Nothing fancy, but I think it will be a useful reference for me. Who knows, maybe it will be useful to you too.


The first fifth of Genesis is a collection of very spare stories that deal with either the direct creation of the world (in two slightly differing versions) or the origins of the human condition (Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; the Tower of Babel; and perhaps Noah and the ark). The remainder of the book is an increasingly detailed account of four generations of patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. God promises these men, often in direct personal conversations, that their descendants will be his Chosen People, and will be given a large chunk of the eastern Mediterranean as their homeland.

Almost all of Genesis is narrative, in the form of stories or historical accounts. The only exception is the roughly four chapters of genealogical information.

The Chapters of Genesis

1: Creation, version 1
2: Creation, version 2
3: The Fall of Man
4: Cain and Abel
5: Genealogy
6-9: Noah and the Flood
10: Genealogy
11: The Tower of Babel; Genealogy
12-25: Abraham
(18-19): Sodom and Gomorrah
21-22, 24-27: Issac
27-35: Jacob
36: Genealogy
37-50: Joseph
(38): Judah & Tamar

Everything After Genesis

When I started this project, I don't think I fully realized the stature of Moses relative to, say, Jacob, Abraham, or Noah. Moses is huge! Almost every other figure of the Pentateuch has to settle for a piece of Genesis; but Moses gets the next four books basically to himself.


After a brief introduction to the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, we are shown the birth and early experiences of Moses. Charged by God with leading his people to the Promised Land, he calls down a series of plagues to threaten and impress the Egyptian court. Escaping Egypt, he leads the people across the Red Sea to a mountain in the Sinai, where God appears to him in person to provide him with a wide-ranging collection of civic and religious laws. After the incident with the Golden Calf, the Israelites renew their commitment to God and build the Tabernacle, a mobile temple, according to his exact specifications.

The first half of the book is highly narrative; from chapter 20 on, though, it is largely in the form of lists interrupted by occasional narrative passages.

Chapters of Exodus

1: Introduction
2: Birth of Moses
3: The Burning Bush
4-6: Preparation of Moses
7-11: The Plagues
12-19: The Exodus and trip to Mt. Sinai
20-23: Laws
24: Narrative
25-31: Instructions on how to construct the Tabernacle
32: The Golden Calf
33-34: Moses' personal encounter with God
35-40: Constructing the Tabernacle


Laws, laws, laws. Leviticus continues the long list of laws revealed to Moses by God. For the most part, this book focuses on religious practice, including the complex laws governing animal sacrifice and ritual cleanliness, the role of the priesthood, and holidays.

Leviticus is mostly structured in the form of lists of laws.

Chapters of Leviticus

1-7: Laws of Animal Sacrifice
8-10: the Priesthood
11-15: Laws of Ritual Cleanliness
16: The Day of Atonement
17-20: Laws and Punishment
21-22: Laws of the Priesthood
23-27: Holidays and Religious Laws


Numbers is a grab-bag of a book that reads like a handful of papers grabbed randomly from Moses' desk. It begins with the details of a census of the Israelites, drifts into instructions on religious procedure, and accounts for the contributions of the various tribes (all exactly the same) to the Tabernacle project. At this point, the narrative kicks in again as the Israelites leave Sinai, but are unable to enter the Promised Land due to the rebelliousness of the people. After some chapters on sacrificial and religious laws and the long, tangential story of Balaam and his donkey, there is a second census, some short bits of narrative, and more chapters of law.

Chapters of Numbers

1-4: The First Census and the Tribal Structure of the Israelites
5-6: Religious Procedures
6-10: Tabernacle Records
11-14: Narrative
15: Sacrifice Law
16-17: Narrative
18: Religious Laws and Procedure
20-21: Narrative
22-24: The story of Balaam
25: Narrative
26: The Second Census
27: Narrative
28-30: Miscellaneous Religious Procedures
31-34: Narrative
35-36: Laws


Deuteronomy, as I have said so often in the past few months, is essentially Moses' farewell speech to the Israelites before they cross over into the Promised Land. It is a mixed bag of a speech, and includes retrospection, some general preaching and exhortations about the greatness of God and the importance of obedience, and the recapping and expansion of the laws covered in previous chapters. At the end of the speech, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor, makes predictions about the future of the Israelites, and blesses each of the tribes in turn. In the final chapter, Moses dies.

Chapters of Deuteronomy

1-3: Retrospective
4: Preaching and Exhortation
5: Law
6-11: Preaching and Exhortation
12-18; 26-27: Laws of Religious Procedure
17; 19-25: Laws of Civil Procedure
28-30: Preaching and Exhortation
31-33: Wrapping Up: Predictions and Blessings.
34: The Death of Moses

This is Probably Crazy, but...

If you've ever been tempted to read along with MRtB, the start of the books after Deuteronomy would be a logical place to jump in. I'll probably start with Joshua 1-8 for the next post. Let me know if you are interested.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Deuteronomy 26 - 34: Curses!


We cross two big thresholds tonight. First, this is the 50th post of Michael Reads the Bible, an arbitrary distinction but one worth mentioning. More significantly, I have also now finished the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible that comprise the Torah.

Actually, there's three big landmarks if you include finishing Deuteronomy, but that's kind of implicit in finishing the Pentateuch.

Deuteronomy 26 - 34

If you've been following along, you will not be especially surprised by what happens in the final nine chapters of Deuteronomy. Moses finishes the long speech he has been making over the course of the book, and then, in the final chapter, dies.

The back end of the speech is pretty rhetorical in nature. Unlike last week, Moses doesn't add a ton of new law, but instead reitterates in a number of ways the importance of remembering and obeying the law that has already been established. He touches on the rewards that will come to the Israelites if they obey, but really goes on an on and on about the punishments awaiting them if they screw up. Threats and curses abound; these are not chapters to go to for the joyful side of Christianity. This is more along the line of the classic fire-and-brimstone preacher.

Here, I'll walk you through it.

Deut 26

Instructions on giving the offering of firstfruits and on titheing. If I am reading this right, the idea of the tithe is that you give a tenth of your produce or earnings for charity every third year. I'd never heard the "every third year" part before.

Deut 27

Moses tells the people that, once they have crossed the Jordan, they should create a stone alter and set up several large, flat stones, on which the law can is to be written. The idea, it seems, is to make the law both accessible to all and consistent. If it is literally set down in stone, anybody who has a friend who can read can go check on what it says any time; it won't change or be misremembered.

Once the altar is complete, everyone is to gather around for a long call-and-response chant. It is to go like this:

14 The Levites shall recite to all the people of Israel in a loud voice:
15 "Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol—a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman's hands—and sets it up in secret." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"
16 "Cursed is the man who dishonors his father or his mother." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"

...and so on. For each of the acts of malice or disobedience chanted by the Levites, "then all the people shall say, 'Amen!'" (The passage would work really well as reggae lyrics, it seems to me.) They work their way through land fraud, deceiving the blind, oppressing the weak, sleeping with your mom, sister, mother-in-law, or livestock, murder, and so on. These are prohibitions, so it makes a certain amount of sense that they are couched in the negative, but this is an example of how punishment for the disobedient is stressed over reward for the obedient.

The function of this ritual is clearly the same as that of writing out the laws on a public monument: to make sure everyone knows the rules. The whole community is making a very visible show of buying in to the laws in this ritual; after all the people have said "Amen!" so many times, no one will be able to plead ignorance of the law, or to break the law unintentionally out of ignorance.

Deut 28

The first thirteen verses of this chapter promise extravagant rewards to the obediant, summarized like so: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. (3) The final 54 verses lay out the punishments awaiting the disobedient: You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country. (16) The punishments start as symetrical opposites of the blessings, but eventually get a little nuts, with loss of property, bad harvests, wayward children, boils, and women who plan ahead to eat their children when times get hard. It's gonna be bad.

This verse, and others like it, paint the Bible into a bit of a corner. The ratio of 4 parts punishment to 1 part reward sets a grim tone, for one thing, and doesn't do anything to inspire the mood of joyful worship that God is apparently, according to some passages, going for. But beyond that, we have millenia of history now to show that Moses' threats and promises, as recorded in Deut 28, were entirely bogus. Neither the success of nations in general, nor the fortunes of the Jews in particular through the ages, have had much to do with how faithfully they happened to be following the laws of Moses. As a giver of law, Moses has done an exemplary job, but as a literal prophet, he has done no better or worse than anyone else who has taken a crack at predicting the future.

[In all likelihood, incidentally, this was all written during or after the Babylonian captivity, by someone trying to advance a conservative religious agenda by blaming the fall of Israel's power on failure to obey God's laws. People have been playing that card for a long, long time.]

Deut 29

The Covenant, God's promise of a homeland for the Israelites, is a contract that has been signed and sealed at least a dozen times throughout the Pentateuch. In this chapter, it is reaffirmed, with Moses making sure everyone understands that they are individual parties to the contract. Every individual Israelite gets the benefit of the Promised Land, but must obey the laws in return.

Again, there are threats involved. Moses says that if the laws are disobeyed, God's punishment will be so brutal that people from other lands will travel to look at the devastation, and marvel at the destructive power that had been unleashed on the former Chosen People. The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur -- nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing in it. (23)

Individuals who reject the Covenant, meanwhile, will be subject to misfortune, disaster, and a multitude of curses, and thus the Bible again paints itself into a corner. Any adult who thinks that disaster and misfortune will fall disproportionately on people who ignore Biblical law needs to get out there and have some life experience. Or for that matter, read more of the Bible. Even in the context of Biblical literature, it is hardly the case that the bad things happen only to the disobediant people. Book of Job, anyone?

Deut 30

More about how the Israelites really ought to obey the law. In Verse 13, Moses "calls heaven and earth as witnesses" of the commitments that the Israelites have made to the law. He has given them a choice between the life of obedience and the death of rebellion, he says, and urges them to "choose life."

[There are a couple of passages in this verse about how, if the Israelites ever lose the homeland and get dispersed or taken into captivity or anything, God will get them back to the Promised Land eventually. More evidence peeking through that this stuff was written during or after the Babylonian captivity, much, much later than the events it describes.]

Deut 31

Joshua is appointed as Moses' successor. He is called to a meeting with God and Moses in the Tent of Meeting, where they have an extremely interesting conversation. "I already know that the people are going to turn against me and start worshipping foreign gods," says God. On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. (17)

God teaches Moses and Joshua a song to teach the people, which describes his revenge against a people who become to successful and fail to follow the laws. The people will pass this song down from generation to generation, he says, so that several generations hence the song will still be around and people will understand from it why their situation is so terrible: God has forsaken them because their parents and grandparents screwed up.

Taken literally, this is pretty chilling reasoning on God's part. Even as he is about to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, he is planning on sending them into exile from it in punishment for future crimes. [On the other hand, it makes total sense in the context of post-captivity rabbis trying to explain what went wrong.]

Deut 32

The song mentioned in the previous chapter. An angry, vengeful little tune.

Deut 33

Moses blesses each of the twelve tribes in turn. Actually, he praises the individual sons of Jacob, from whom each tribe is said to have descended. You can imagine each of the tribes roaring their approval in turn as he gets to "their guy." Give it up for Naphtali!

Deut 34

Moses dies at 120, in good health up to the end. He is buried in Moab, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. (6)

Looking Ahead

We've been with Moses for a long time, through Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and through the long, long speech of Deuteronomy. It seems like the Bible will almost HAVE to be different without him. Indeed, the very fact that the first five books are collectively considered the Pentateuch, the Torah, suggests that all books following them will be... something else. I honestly have only the vaguest notion of what happens from here, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

But, I also want to process the first five books in a more big-picture way than I've been able to so far. I haven't decided yet whether I want to do that before moving forward into the Book of Joshua, or to just keep moving so as to not lose momentum. I'll let you know.