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.

1 comment:

gl. said...

happy Pentateuch!