Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bible in a Year: Deuteronomy 7-34

I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I've been studying Deuteronomy 7-34, thus concluding the book and also the Torah. But Deuteronomy is also the beginning book of the so-called Deuteronomistic History, the hypothesized source that extends through 2 Kings. So we're ending the section of the Bible most sacred for Jews and also opening to what Jewish Bibles name "the Former Prophets."

I wrote a lot about the book last week. The Jewish Study Bible introduction points out that significant aspects of Judaism derive from Deuteronomy, like the tzitzit, the teffilin, the mezuzah, the Shema, and of course the covenant itself (p. 358). Deuteronomy is written as Moses’ reiteration of the covenant, the mitzvot, and final admonitions as he and the people stand on the plains of Moab just outside the Promised Land—a land that Moses, the last of the generation who fled Egypt, will not enter. The word Deuteronomy means “second law."

The Deuteronomic Code of chapters 12-26, much longer than the Book of the Covenant in Exodus, includes laws (some new, some found in other Torah books) about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabbatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on (chs. 29-30). While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (chs. 32-33).

Deuteronomy likely existed independently of other law codes and narratives that we now find in the other four Torah books. The narrative of Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 22-23) is a key to its origins and eventual canonical shape. (Josiah was king in 641–609 BCE). The book may have originally consisted of the laws of chapters 12-26 along with an introduction and an oath of loyalty (chapter 28) (Jewish Study Bible, p. 358-359). The king hoped to renew the covenant and preserve religious and social traditions in light of a dual threat: the Assyrians, who had already conquered the northern Israelite kingdom, and also the growing threat of Babylon to the east. Among Josiah's reforms, sacrifices were restricted to one site instead of several: previously sacrifices were made at Bethel, Mitzpah, Gilgal, Mount Carmel, and other places, but Deuteronomy 12 authorizes one place, i.e. Jerusalem (p. 357).

When Babylon did indeed conquer Judah in 586 BCE, material of Deuteronomy was likely added to the “Deuteronomistic history” of Joshua through Kings, and all of it expanded with other traditions. Then, in the period after the Exile, Deuteronomy was added to Genesis through Numbers, which already form a unit from Creation to the outskirts of the Land (pp. 357-359). Further transformation of the text reflects the needs of the post exilic Second Temple period, including the unequivocal monotheism of the Shema (pp. 360-361).

That same essay points out that the book, in effect, has Moses speaking to each new generation. The long monologue delays entry into the Land, which Moses himself cannot enter—and the fact that the Torah itself closes outside of the land has the effect of keeping readers outside the land, too (p. 359). There is a story arc connecting us back to Genesis. Abram was promised the Land to his descendants (Genesis 12), but Abram (Abraham) himself only owned a small area of land as a grave for his wife. Moses does not even have that, and he is buried in an unknown location in Moab near Beth-peor (Deut. 34:6). “Ancient editors have deliberately defined the Torah as a literary unit so as, first, to accommodate the addition of Deuteronomy and, second, to sever it from its logically expected fulfillment. The possession of the land is diverted instead into the next literary unit, which is to say, into the future. So profound a reconfiguration both of the patriarchal promise and of the overall plot is conceivable only in light of the historical experience of exile, which profoundly called the possession of the land into question. Had possession of the land remained central to the covenant, Israelite religion would have collapsed. The fulfillment of the Torah is thus reductional redefined as obedience to the requirements of covenantal law rather than the acquisition of a finite possession” (p. 359).

Deut. 1:1-4:43 is the first discourse of Moses, reviewing the historical circumstances and urging the people to obey the Lord. Deut. 4:44-28:68  is Moses’ second discourse, which contains the “legal corpus” of chapters 12-26. Moses recounts the Ten Commandments (chapter 5), expounds on the first commandment (6:4-25). This week, I've studied:

Chapter 7: The war of conquest and the special status of Israel
Chapter 8-10: Moses urges the people not to be proud and self-centered as they live on the land; God has shown many past mercies, even when the people broke the covenant; and so obedience is required for living in the land.
Chapter 11: Additional reminder to practice and teach God’s commandments, for the sake of blessing and not of curse.

The Deuteronomic Law Code for the people’s future
Chapter 12: Sacrificial worship in a single place of worship (rather than multiple places)
Chapter 13: Loyalty to the Lord rather than idolatry
Chapter 14: Clean and unclean animals, and the tithe of produce
Chapter 15: Laws relating to slaves and the poor: economic justice
Chapter 16:1-17: The Passover and other festivals, which also have roots in justice and in God’s blessing.
Chapter 16:18-17:20: Laws concerning courts and an eventual king
Chapter 18: Priests and Levites
Chapter 19: Criminal laws
Chapter 20: Laws of war
Chapter 21-26: Various laws

Chapters 27-30: The renewal of the covenant
Chapters 31-34: Moses’ final words, Moses’ song, his death and burial, the people’s grief.

Among these laws are major social concerns: protection against false accusation (Deut. 5:20, 19:15-21); protection for women (Deut. 21:10-14, 22:13-30); protection of property (Deut. 22:1-4); everyone should get the fruit of their labor (Deut. 24:14, 25:4); everyone should have a fair trial (Deut. 16:18-20); people should not be oppressed if they are in property or disabled (Deut. 23:19, 24:6), and other protections and guarantees. My NRSV Harper Study Bible has a list of all these social concerns with references to several Torah mitzvot (p. 274).

This week I studied a book I really love, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: William Morrow, 1997). Here are a few of his insights.

Commenting on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, he writes, “To study Judaism is a moral imperative, because to be good one has to know what one’s duties are and what goodness entails… and this requires study” (p. 489). I wish more Christians considered study as an imperative! So many of us Christians have a high opinion of the Bible as God's word, which in effect substitutes for actual knowledge of Bible content. We also get our views about society from our politics--as if being a Christian and a Republican or Democrat were identical--rather than studying biblical commandments and social models to inform our world views.

Deuteronomy 16:20 reads, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (NRSV). Telushkin writes that the emphasis on "justice" in this sentence reflects God's will expressed in the Torah. He notes that although this mitzvah is particularly directed at judges,  “‘Pursuing justice implies that one should become personally involved when hearing about an injustice that one is capable of ameliorating” (p. 492).

Deuteronomy 21:15, 17 et al. stipulates that certain advantages go to the firstborn son---and yet this is not borne out in biblical stories. Think of Bible heroes who were not firstborn sons: Isaac, Moses, David, Solomon and Joseph (the eleventh son). Also, think of Bible heroes who weren't sons at all!  “As in the case of polygamy, it is clear that although the Bible occasionally acquiesces in a deeply rooted tradition (such as favoring the firstborn), when it find such a tradition to be morally dubious, it finds a way to make its disapproval known” (p. 498).

Deuteronomy 22:6-7 et al. adjoins the humane treatment of animals. Telushkin notes that we find this compassion right away in the Bible: Genesis 24, when both Eliezer and Rebecca express concern for camels. Although humans are allowed to eat animals beginning with the end of Noah’s flood, kindness toward animals is urged throughout the Torah, as in Leviticus 22:28, Deut. 25:5, Jonah 4:11, and elsewhere (pp. 500-501).

“Most people associate biblical law primarily with rituals. Few are aware that one of the Torah’s 613 laws obligates homeowners to make sure that their roofs are safe.” referring to Deut. 22:8. He likens this to putting a fence around a pool: we're being faithful to the Bible when we ensure that our homes are safe places!

Telushkin notes that some Torah laws are problematic, notably those regarding rape. “Torah law is much less severe regarding rape than modern sensibilities would expect. Although the Torah never adopted the sexist view that a sexually abused woman was in some way ‘asking for it,’ it also did not impose a particularly harsh punishment on the rapist” (p. 505). But the violent responses of family members in Genesis 34 and 2 Samuel 13 reflect “considerably less equanimity” toward rapists than we find in the law itself (p. 505). It is a horrible crime that requires justice and support for the victim.

Regarding the charging of interest (Deut. 23:20-21), he notes that Jews are forbidden to charge interest on loans to follow Israelites though not to foreigners, but the Torah warns against harassing people who are laid in paying, and being cruel to people in need (Deut. 24:10-14, also Lev. 25:35-36). The rabbi comments that Shakespeare’s Shylock is a slander toward Jews.

The Torah contains a traditionally numbered 613 laws. A rabbi friend of mine tells me that about 300 can still be followed today, and all are studied and reflected upon. Here is a site that lists them: The 613 laws of the Torah are set forth and discussed in Telushkin's book (pp. 513-592 and passim), and in William J. Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (New York: Paulist Press, 2002).

Here are the parshiyot, Torah readings, and haftarot readings.

Va'etchanan                  Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11                  Isaiah 40:1-40:26
Eiqev                            Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25                Isaiah 49:14-51:3
Re'eh                            Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17              Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Shoftim                        Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9                Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Ki Teitzei                     Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19              Isaiah 54:1-54:10
Ki Tavo                        Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8                  Isaiah 60:1-60:22
Nitzavim                      Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20                Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Vayeilekh                     Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30                Isaiah 55:6-56:8
Ha'azinu                       Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52                II Samuel 22:1-22:51
Vezot Haberakhah        Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12               Joshua 1:1-1:18(Joshua 1:1-1:9)

In my own reflections on these scriptures, I think of an odd connection: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the commandments and to remind future generations of God’s mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times.

And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God’s mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart. In the Christian affirmation, although Christ’s final victory lies in the future, that victory is assured. In a variety of ways, the Old and New Testaments affirm God's own faithfulness! So we can follow God with confidence. 

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