Deuteronomy 21-22: A surfeit of regulations

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The next few chapters just throw oodles of mini-rules at us, so I’ll be combining these two chapters (which have more of a social focus), and then looking at Deut. 23-25 on Monday (since they have more of a cultic/humanitarian focus). I’ve also grouped them up a bit in a way that made sense to me, just because I find it easier to discussion them that way. The groupings are, of course, entirely artificial and would not have been intended by the original authors.

Social Order

The first rule regarding social order seems quite positive. If you see someone’s livestock wandering about, you must take it back to its owner. If you don’t know who it belongs to, you can keep it – but only until its owner comes looking for it.

The same applies to anything a person might lose, including a “garment” – which is a bit of a change from the Canadian method of propping the article of clothing up on the top of a snow bank or fence, but likely just as effective.

This is all a bit of a repeat of what we saw in Exodus 23:4-5, except, as my study Bible points out, it “is recast in terms of the Deuteronomic conception of brotherly love” (p.242).

The next rule forbids a woman from wearing “anything that pertains to a man” (Deut. 22:5), and vice versa. I’ve often heard this quoted in the context of telling women not to wear pants, but that’s always struck me as a little strange given that the idea of pants being men’s wear is culturally-determined. And if the little pictures of biblical patriarchs I coloured in Sunday School are any indication, the fashion was not in much prominence at the time the Bible was being written. In fact, if anything, I can clearly recall giggling because David was “wearing a dress.”

All this is just to say that I think it’s a little silly to think that this passage is only about the New Woman and her trouser-wearing scandalous behaviour. I do think that there’s probably an argument to be made that this falls within the realm of priestly concern for clear categories – something we saw much of in Leviticus. But Kenneth C. Davis has a much more interesting explanation in Don’t Know Much About the Bible:

The cross-dressing prohibition was apparently aimed at keeping Israelites from taking part in Canaanite practices where worshippers simulated a sex change, perhaps as a fertility rite.

Canaanite religion centered on worship of Baal, a fertility god responsible for rain, obviously a significant figure in an agricultural community that bordered the desert. The rains came, according to Canaanite belief, when Baal had sex, with his semen falling in the form of life-giving rain. Instead of a simple “rain dance,” Canaanite priests imitated Baal by having sex, apparently coupling with men, women, and beasts. Many of the Mosaic Laws were specifically aimed at sexually charged Canaanite worship that must have held enormous appeal for many of the Children of Israel. (p.143)

“Sexually charged Canaanite worship” aside, my study Bible does seem to be thinking along the same lines: “The distinction between the sexes is based on God’s creation and should not be violated in any way as, for instance, in the simulated changes of sex in pagan religions” (p.242).

In Deut. 21, there’s a discussion of plural marriage – specifically, what happens if a man has a favourite wife. The first son born must be treated as the first-born son for inheritance purposes regardless of his father’s feelings towards his mother. Even if she is “disliked,” the first born son is entitled to the status of his birth order. The difference being that a first-born son is to receive “a double portion of all that he [the father] has” (Deut. 21:17).

What’s interesting about this is that it curtails, to an extent, the patriarch’s power. Despite being the head of the household, the father does not have absolute power over his family because, at least in some respects, they have inalienable rights of their own.

Of course, this goes directly against the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25 and Genesis 27), where Esau is born first but is tricked out of his inheritance twice: first by promising it away himself, and the second time when his father unknowingly blesses the wrong son. What’s interesting about Jacob and Esau’s birth story in Genesis 25 is that God foretells that “the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23), and then Jacob is born grabbing Esau’s heel. I wonder if these details were added to the story to make it clear that their inversion of inheritance laws was a one-time, special thing.

I’ve seen it argued that this reference to plural marriage merely attempts to regulate, not condone, the practice. God wants marriages styled after the “Adam and Eve” model, and that passages like these are merely God’s acknowledgement of the practice of plural marriage within the cultural context of his audience. He doesn’t approve, but since they’ll be doing it anyway, he’ll at least offer up some rules to regulate it.

The problem with this line of argument is that the Bible has made no qualms whatsoever in forbidding what must have been common cultural practices elsewhere. If the God of Deuteronomy disapproved of plural marriage, we would have been hearing all about it (as we have been with, say, local shrines). Far more likely, as far as I am concerned, is that the practice of plural marriage fell out of favour with Hellenisation, and that this shift is reflected in the assumptions made by the Bible’s various authors.

The final portion I want to discuss under Social Order covers the treatment of women taken in war. When a hottie is taken captive during a “war against your enemies” (Deut. 21:10) and the man would like her as a wife, he can bring her to his house. Once there, she must shave her head and cut her nails, and be given a full month to mourn her parents. Only after the month is done may the man “go in to her” (Deut. 21:13), thus making her his wife.

If, after all that, the man decides that she really wasn’t what he was expecting, he must set her free. He cannot sell her and he cannot treat her as a slave.

I’m no fan of the idea that a woman can be taken during war and forced to marry someone against her will – particularly when that someone was among those who killed her family. But if we make the cringe-y leap of accepting that as the default situation, it’s at least nice that she’s given some time to grieve before being raped, and that she must be treated as a wife rather than just a slave (for what little difference there is between the two given the compulsory nature of her marriage).

As Brant Clements says on Both Saint and Cynic: “The situation seems cruel, but the regulations actually provide the woman with some small measure of protection.”

Moral Laws

A man is not to “take” his father’s wife, nor “uncover her who is his father’s” (which I assume refers to non-wedded concubines, or perhaps slaves). The context suggests that the father’s wife is not necessarily the addressee’s mother – so either another wife in a plural marriage, or a subsequent wife. Either way, this is something a repeat of the rules given in Leviticus 18:8 and Leviticus 20:11.

Moses, by Salvador Dali

Moses, by Salvador Dali

If a man “takes a wife, and goes in to her” (Deut. 22:13 – possibly the absolute worst way to refer to a wedding and the night-of festivities) and then accuses her of having not been a virgin, then the woman’s parents must “bring out the tokens of her virginity to the elders of the city” (Deut. 22:15). These tokens are later referred to as “garments”, so I assume that it refers to the soiled bedsheets. Except that they are later described as being “found in the young woman” (Deut. 22:20), which is a little confusing since, if we’re referring to the hymen, it would have been broken when her husband “discovered” that she wasn’t a virgin (according to internal logic – more on that later).

If the parents produce these “tokens,” the accuser is to be whipped and fined 100 shekels of silver (to be given to the woman’s father, since he’s caused her unjust shame). She will then remain his wife and “he may not put her away all his days” (Deut. 22:19). I’m sure that would have been a very pleasant situation for her – nothing like being completely dependent on someone who hates you and tried to have you sent off. Wouldn’t it have been better for him to be fined an amount that would have supported her for her entire life, and then separated them?

If the parents can’t produce the tokens, the woman is to be taken to her father’s door and stoned to death. Because her having had sex is “evil [in] the midst of you,” but a man trying to to ruin a woman’s life by getting laid and then having her stoned to death is merely insulting the woman’s father. What happened to the rule in Deut. 19:18-19, where someone who makes a false accusation must be given the punishment the accused would have gotten?

So even taken on its internal logic, this whole bit is problematic. But beyond that, the idea that blood on the sheets or a hymen is proof of virginity is rather dubious. Perhaps the correlation would have been stronger in a milieu where horseback or bike riding wasn’t common and where girls might be kept home a bit more, but it’s quite common for girls to break their hymen long before they become sexually active. Not to get too far into TMI-land, I personally broke my hymen when I was around 7-8 years old, after a classmate kicked me in the crotch.

A hymen also may not break. Depending on how it happens to be shaped and how relaxed and aroused the woman is, her hymen could simply stretch around the penis, never tearing or bleeding.

So this whole assumption that there can be “tokens of virginity” rests on two assumptions: 1) That girls are all kept indoors and largely immobile from birth to marriage, and 2) That a woman’s groom is going to be rough and won’t pay attention to her comfort or pleasure. Plus a bonus 3) That all girls are born with hymens that are shaped in a uniform, predictable way. That’s a lot of assumptions.

There are those who would argue that virginity is an acceptable thing to demand from a woman, exemplified by Berend de Boer, author of Skeptic’s Annotated Bible Answered:

So what kind of sexual diseases might she carry? She might even be pregnant! Why would a man support her or her child in this case as he has been deceived?

He goes on about how the verse is actually “unfriendly” towards men because it means that they can’t just sleep around with virgins and then cast them off with impunity. Small comfort given the differences in standards of evidence and punishments.

But what about the diseases? Let’s say she truly isn’t a virgin and it is therefore conceivable that she may be carrying a sexually-transmitted disease, why is there no similar concern for her health? Where is it written that a woman who suspects that her husband may have been sexually active prior to their marriage can accuse her husband and have him stoned to death?

And what if he is tricked into raising another man’s child, so what? A child born to his home and raised by him is his. Is it truly relevant, especially in an age before DNA tests?

Of course, no mention is made of the possibility, if she truly isn’t a virgin, that her prior sexual encounters were non-consensual. If she was raped by her father, for example, she may have had no opportunity to present herself as anything other than a virgin to a potential suitor, but would still be stoned to death for the omission. And even that line of argument requires that we accept death as an acceptable punishment for sexual experience.

Yeah, I’m not a fan of this passage.

(For anyone interested, there’s a great discussion of virginity here.)

The last morality rule I want to talk about is, at least, a little more equitable, even if it is still rather on the barbaric side. If a man is found to be sleeping with a married woman, both are to be put to death. There is no penalty, apparently, for a married man who sleeps around, making it rather clear that the issue here is not extra-marital sex, per se, but rather the ‘theft’ of another man’s ‘property’ – much like taking someone’s car for a joyride.

Criminal Justice

Deut. 21 starts off with a bit of biblical CSI. If there’s been a murder and the killer is unknown, the elders and judges are to measure the body’s distance from the nearest cities to determine which has jurisdiction. The elders of the nearest city must take a heifer which has never been worked or pulled a yoke, then bring it to a valley with running water that is neither ploughed nor sown, and break the heifer’s neck.

That done, all the elders of the nearest city must wash their hands over the heifer and testify that they had nothing to do with the murder.

While the given for this ritual is to “purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst” (Deut. 21:9), I was interested in the similarity to a superstition in Medieval Europe that the corpse of a murder victim will begin to bleed if touched by its killer (I believe I first heard of this in Pat McIntosh’s Cunningham series, but here’s a source to confirm it). Certainly, the act of laying out hands while swearing innocence suggests that, at least in its root, the ritual had to do with eliminating suspects.

If the murderer is known, or for any other of the millions of things given the death penalty in this book, the body is to be hanged on a tree. By context, I assume this to mean that the corpse, once stoned or whatever form the death penalty is supposed to take, is strung up.

The corpse is hanged, but then taken down for burial later that same day – it is not to stay up overnight.

Next, a “stubborn and rebellious son” (Deut. 21:18) is to be stoned to death by all the men of the city. There isn’t really any specificity here about what it means to be stubborn and rebellious, except that it means that the son isn’t obeying his parents. There’s a bit further on when the parents accuse him before the city elders and they must accuse him of being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Deut. 21:20), which suggests that we’re not talking about a toddler refusing his bed time. Still, though, it doesn’t say specifically that this applies only to adult children who are drunkards and gluttons.

There’s also no mention of mitigating factors, such as that the elders might decide if the demands made on the son are reasonable or not, or if the son might have written off his parents after years of abuse. Having many friends who grew up in very conservative religious families, I’ve heard far too much about how this passage (and ones like it, since not all of them are Jewish or Christian) has been/is being used to shame them for moving away from emotionally abusive and unhealthy relationships.

There’s also no  mention of the possibility of rebellious daughters. Quite an omission, if my own history is any indication.

The last bit of criminal law I want to talk about has to do with unmarried women having sex. There are two distinctions being made in this discussion: the first between betrothed and unbetrothed women, and the second between sexual encounters that take place in the city versus those that take place in the open country.

The discussion of betrothed virgins takes place first. If the sexual encounter takes place in the city, both man and woman are to be stoned to death. The woman is to be killed “because she did not cry for help” (Deut. 22:24), the man because the woman is betrothed and therefore totally already belongs to someone.

Obviously, this rule completely ignores the many occasions when a woman (or girl, since children can be raped too) might very reasonably not cry for help during an attack. Just as an example, we might consider a situation where she is being threatened with a weapon, or a case where she is being raped by a parent or brother and may be very young. Perhaps she was gagged, or knocked unconscious. Or perhaps she did cry out and was simply ignored. Trying to distinguish between “legitimate rape” and consensual sex based on whether or not the woman cried for help or sustained injuries trying to fend off her attacker(s) is hugely problematic.

If the betrothed virgin has her sexual encounter in the open country, the authors of the Bible acknowledge that perhaps she may have cried for help and not been heard by anyone. Therefore, if she claims rape, only the man is to be put to death and “in the young woman there is no offense punishable by death” (Deut. 22:26).

If the virgin is not betrothed, the location no longer matters. Either way, the man is to pay the woman’s father 50 shekels of silver and take her as a wife, unable to ever divorce her. That’s all well and good if the sex was consensual, but seems rather awful for the victim in a case of rape.

No mention is made of the possibility that a woman might rape a woman, or that a man might rape a man. Nor, even, that the woman might have been the aggressor in the “betrothed / open country” situation.

Victor Matthews has some interesting information about this passage in Manners & Customs of the Bible:

The Babylonian law states that a betrothed virgin who has been raped will be freed while her attacker is executed. The Deuteronomic law is more specific, making provision for the location of the crime, and using this as the basis for the punishment of the couple. If the crime took place within the city, both are to be executed, since the woman could have cried out for help. However, if the rape is committed in the “open country” where no one could hear her cries, she goes free, and only the man is executed.

The Middle Assyrian Law Code (ca. 1100 B.C.) also contains similarities to the biblical criminal code. MAL A.55 (ANET, 185) is concerned  with the rape of an unbetrothed virgin, who is still living in her father’s house. The rapist must pay a fine in silver to the father for the loss of his daughter’s virginity, and the father has the option of forcing this man to marry his daughter, with no possibility of divorcing her later. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is almost an identical version of this law. Here, the rapist must pay a fine of fifty shekels of silver, and marry the girl without later recourse to divorce. (p.120-121)


Then comes the “miscellaneous other” category that no attempt at clean boxes is ever without (much as Levites might love their blemish-free).

Speaking of the desire for clean divisions, the people are not sow their vineyard with two kinds of seed, or plough with an ox and an ass together, or wear mingled garments (wool and linen together being the example provided). All of this is largely a repetition of Leviticus 19:19.

Then, from Numbers 15:38-40, the people are commanded to wear four tassels on their clothing – one for each corner of a cloak. Unlike the passage in Numbers, the command here is presented without justification, whereas in Numbers 15 the tassels are meant to serve as a reminder of God.

When harvesting eggs, the people are to take only the eggs, not the mother along with them. There’s the obvious possible reason that leaving the mother alive means the possibility of more eggs later, but the resemblance to the rule about boiling a kid in its mother’s milk makes me think that there’s something more cultic going on.

Finally, the people are told that they must build a parapet on any new roof so that no one can be injured by falling from it. As my study Bible points out, this does indeed sound like a great idea when flat-roofed houses are the norm. And Brant, I don’t know about product liability, but it does remind me of having to build a fence around my swimming pool as a teenager because doing so drastically reduced out liability insurance premiums!

Deuteronomy 20: War and Holy War

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In this chapter, we hear about the different rules applicable to regular wars versus holy wars. But the preparation is common to both.

Moses assures his people that numbers and weaponry won’t matter because God is on their side. So the people should not be afraid if they see larger armies, even if they have horses and chariots. This is reminiscent of the story in Numbers 13 and Numbers 14, where the scouts bring back reports of giants and the people are punished for being hesitant to run in guns blazing.

Before going into battle, the priest first must give his inspirational speech: “Hear, O Israel, you draw near this day to battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint; do not fear, or tremble, or be in dread of them; for the Lord your God is he that goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory” (v.3-4).

After this, the officers are to send home any man who has:

  • built a new house and not yet dedicated it
  • planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its fruit
  • betrothed a wife but not yet “taken her” (v.7)

Just in case they should die and some other dude get their stuff.

They should also be sent home if they are “fearful and fainthearted” (v.8). According to my study Bible, this is because the numbers don’t matter, but faith does. Given God’s track record when it comes to doubt or reticence, this seems rather rational.


When fighting cities “which are not cities of the nations here” (v.15) – in other words, outside of the Promised Land – they must first offer terms of peace. Of course, these terms of peace aren’t exactly nice. If the city accepts the terms, they must open their gates and all become slaves.

If they refuse the terms, battle ensues. If (“when”) the Hebrews win, they must kill all the men, but they can keep the women, children, cattle, and “everything else in the city” (v.14) as spoils.

Holy War

When fighting against the current residents of the Promised Land, the terms are a little different. Here, nothing that breathes can be left, er… breathing. No terms of peace can be offered. The Hebrews are simply to attack and “utterly destroy” the people of the city.

The seizure of Edessa in Syria by the Byzantine army and the Arabic counterattack, from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes

The seizure of Edessa in Syria by the Byzantine army and the Arabic counterattack, from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes

The reason given in the narrative is concern that anyone left alive might then tempt Hebrews away from God – teaching them “their abominable practices” (v.18). Though I wonder how, say, a 2 month old baby would pose any such threat. The inclusion does make some distasteful sense, though, if written from the perspective of a scholar in King Josiah’s court. Coming from a future vantage point, and having seen so many years of attempts to squash local, non-authorised religious practices, I imagine that it must have seemed to them desirable that the Hebrews had just tabula rasa‘d the crap out of the country before settling down.

Regardless, it recalls the instructions in Deuteronomy 13 regarding cities that follow other gods. There, it’s specified that all the inhabitants and their cattle must be killed, and all their possessions burned. When this chapter says that “nothing that breathes” (v.16) can be left alive, I imagine that this would include the cattle as well. And, certainly, the situations do seem like enough to each other.

While I thought that this requirement had to do with discouraging accusations of heresy as an excuse for pillaging, here my study Bible argues that it has to do with offering up the conquered city as a sacrifice to God.

Berend de Boer, over at SAB Answered, argues that the reason for this is that God was using the Hebrews as an instrument to punish the people being invaded. Of course, the big problem with this line of reasoning is that the text was written by the victors. If a war’s winner tells you that they are guiltless because they were merely instruments of God in punishing evil, always be wary.

But there’s a big difference between this chapter and Deuteronomy 13. Here, while besieging a city, the Hebrews are not to destroy any fruit-bearing trees (they can eat the fruit, but not use the wood to build siege weapons). Only non-food trees can be cut down. Given how long it can take for a fruit tree to start baring fruit, it certainly makes sense that an invading army would want to keep those resources that are pre-existing.

Deuteronomy 19: Judicial Miscellanea

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Once installed in the Promised Land, three cities are to be set aside as cities of refuge, as opposed to the six mandated in Numbers 35. Why only three this time? My study Bible says that these are separate from “the three in Transjordan” (p.239). I suppose the logic would be that at this point in the story, the Hebrews have already taken the land to the east of the Jordan River and therefore already have those cities set up. In that case, Moses is giving instructions for the land to come.

But then, later in his speech, Moses says that the number of cities should be brought up to six once God expands their borders, “and gives you all the land which he promised to give your fathers” (v.8).

Maybe I am misunderstanding my study Bible notes, but it seems to me more likely that, in a divided kingdom, there might indeed be only three cities under Jerusalem’s control, and that the scribes are describing their current reality with the hope for a future reunified country.

The other big difference from the instructions in Numbers 35 is that we actually get an example of the sort of person who might legitimately make use of a city of refuge:

If any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with hi in time past – as when a man goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies – he may flee to one of these cities and save his life. (v.4-5)

Of course, letting murderers decide if they deserve to be punished or not may not be the most effective judicial policy. So if a murderer guilty of intentionally killing someone runs to a city of refuge, the elders of his city should send for him. He is then to be handed over to the “avenger of blood” (v.12).

I do like that it is the city elders who must send for him and not, say, the family of the victim. It shows an attempt at getting a neutral third party to make the call. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of the possibility that the city elders may themselves be in the victim’s family, or that the victim’s family may be powerful or wealthy enough to get the murderer summoned to them whether he really is guilty of intentional killing or not.

Still, I can appreciate the concept of the city of refuge for what it is – an attempt to rein in the disastrous blood feuds that can easily arise in these sorts of tribal societies. Even if the whole thing is put into the terms of the murder or the murderer “shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel” (v.13), nor is there any mention of why an intentional murder might have been committed, nor the way in which intentionality is even to be established.


Moses slips in a little note about not removing a neighbour’s landmarks, “which the men of old have set” (v.14). According to my study Bible, this refers to boundary stones, so a prohibition against moving them makes a lot of sense.

To specify only that the boundary stones set by “the men of old” makes some sense as well, given what’s been said before about land returning to its original owners at every Jubilee. I imagine that there would have been little respect for new arrangements and changes.


At least two or three witnesses are needed to prove any crime. Fine, I get it, you don’t want people abusing the legal system by making false accusations, but there are just so many problems with this.

JusticeThe first is that numbers are no guarantee of anything. As a kid, I was bullied quite a bit. I was the friendless loser, and the bullies had all the social power. When teachers tried to figure out the situation, what do you suppose happened? The bullies claimed innocence, sometimes even claiming that I had been the aggressor. Since they were many and I was one, I was punished more than a few times for things I hadn’t done – or that had been done to me. Simply requiring more than one witness does not actually get around the “my word against his” situation. If anything, this requirement presented without qualifications only serves to ensure that those without social power have no access to justice.

The other issue, of course, is that many crimes do not have many witnesses. Child abusers and rapists, for example, aren’t generally likely to attack their victims in crowded streets. Once again, the requirement that two or more witnesses come forward effectively puts justice out of reach for those members of the society who are the most vulnerable to abuse.

The requirement is only the more odious when compared to Numbers 5, where it is specifically stated that a man has only to have a vague suspicion that his wife may have been unfaithful for him to bring her before a judge.

We then move on to the issue of malicious witnesses. If a malicious witness makes an accusation, both parties must appear “before the Lord” (v.17) – that is to say, before a tribunal in Jerusalem. If the accuser is found to have provided false witness, then he must receive whatever punishment the accused would have gotten for the alleged crime.

Again, I can understand the rationale of this rule. Again, though, it has some rather glaring flaws. The first may just be a linguistic issue, but how can the witness be known to be malicious if he hasn’t yet been found to have made a false testimony? Since he would only be brought to Jerusalem if he is malicious and would only have been found to have made a false testimony by the court in Jerusalem, I feel like we’re missing a step.

As with the number of witnesses, this rule takes a lot of power out of the hands of the most vulnerable. Coming forth after a rape is difficult enough in a society where an unmarried non-virgin loses all her prospects. How much more difficult must it be if – unable to prove to the satisfaction of an unknown judge – she may then be punished for having come forward at all? This is the sort of argumentation that can easily lead to things like the treatment of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow. Or, closer to home, what happened in Steubenville.

Anyone lacking in social power, anyone making a claim that would rock the boat, would have no reason to come forward with such a threat attached to the justice system.

Perhaps the silliest and most naive claim comes near the end, when Moses says that when word of the punishment gets out, “the rest shall hear, and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you” (v.20).

The chapter closes with a repetition of the lex talionis: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (v.21).

Deuteronomy 18: Of Priests and Prophets

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Levites are to get a portion of the sacrificial offerings (the shoulder, two cheeks, and the stomach of an ox or sheep, the first fruit offering of grain, wine, and oil, and the first fleece from sheep). The context is a little unclear, but it seems to be saying that all priests are entitled to this whether they serve at the Temple or not, but it’s unclear how that would actually work in practice.

In addition, all Levites have the option of packing up and serving in the Temple instead of in their local communities – though, again, the context is a little unclear. Previously, we’ve read that Levites can serve in the Temple but not the sanctuary. Is this now allowing any Levite (and not just the descendants of Aaron) to serve in the inner sanctuary?

Either way, I imagine that this would put additional strain on an already tenuous relationship. We’ve seen evidence throughout the books of Moses of the little put downs between the Levites and the Aaronide priests.

False Prophets

Still concerned about false prophets, Moses gets back to the subject.

When the people finally reach the Promised Land (whenever this marathon of a speech finally ends), Moses tells them not to follow any of the local practices. The resident cultures, he warns, practice all sorts of nasty things, such as burning their children in sacrifice, divination, soothsaying, auguring, sorcery, wizardry, and necromancy. “For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominable practices the Lord your God is driving them out before you” (v.12).

It’s worth noting that “burn[ing] his son or his daughter as an offering” (v.10) may not actually refer to a “kill them dead” sort of sacrifice. My study Bible gives an alternate translation: “Makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire,” and notes: “The meaning of the first practice is uncertain but probably refers to an ordeal of passing through the fire as a test of devotion of Molech, the god of Ammon” (p.238). In other words, it would be something more of a symbolic sacrifice, like circumcision. If that’s the case, it casts some doubt on most (all?) of the strong anti-human sacrifice passages that we’ve read so far.

falseprophetsMoses promises that “the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren – him you shall heed” (v.15). It’s unclear who Moses (or, you know, the future scribes writing as Moses) is referring to, or even what kind of timeline he has in mind. Does he mean Joshua? Does he mean Jesus? Does he mean someone in between?

Either way, it’s a dangerous assertion for social order. Surely, the authors (even if we take that author to be God) would want the right prophet(s) to be recognized and acknowledged, but without leaving the population vulnerable to scam artists and missionaries from other religions. So they have to qualify it – how can the people know that someone claiming to be a prophet actually is one?

In Deuteronomy 13, we were told that anyone claiming to be a prophet for another God was a liar, and that making accurate predictions was just God’s way of testing the faithful.

Here, we’re told that the people can tell that a prophet is false if “the word does not come to pass or come true” (v.22).

It feels like God/Moses is trying to have it both ways. If a prediction comes true and person claims to be from God, it’s a legitimate sign of God’s power. If a prediction comes true but the person claims to be from a different god, that’s totally not a sign of that god’s power.

Unfortunately, there’s no word on hit/miss ratios or how vague/specific the prediction needs to be. Try as they might, the authors left plenty of room for charlatans.

Deuteronomy 17: Of gods and rulers

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This chapter begins with a prohibition against sacrificing either an ox or a sheep with a blemish.

Seeing other gods

Still very concerned about the possibility that his people might diddle around with other gods, God – via Moses – orders that if anyone is suspected of worshipping other gods, the matter is to be thoroughly investigated.

If the claims are found to be true, the person (and it’s specified that it could be either a man or a woman) should be brought to the town gates and stoned to death.

While the demand that the claim be thoroughly investigated first, even this had some – I imagine – unintended consequences. Not to mention the morality of killing people for beliefs.

For evidence, two or three witnesses are necessary. A single witness is not enough. Furthermore, the witnesses have to be the ones to throw the first stones. I imagine that the purpose of this was to test their conviction.

Once the witnesses throw their stones, the whole community must join in. Making the killing separates prohibited murder from judicial killing, in a similar way to how exceptions are made for killing in battle. It also, in a way, turns the victim into a sort of sacrifice in order to “purge the evil from the midst of you” (v.7).

On difficult cases

In the next part of the chapter, Moses demonstrates that he is putting the use he received from his father-in-law, Jethro/Reuel/Hobab (even though he didn’t give the poor guy any credit in Deuteronomy 1), and he covers much of the same advice he received in Exodus 18:21-22.

If a case arises that is too difficult for judgement, “you” must go to the Temple for a verdict. It’s unclear whether Moses means that the entire community is to go, or just the local judge, or perhaps just the affected parties. In either case, “you” must go and subject yourself to the verdict of whomever happens to be “in office in those days” (v.9). The special mention of this is, I am sure, to safeguard against picking a judge that you might think sympathetic to your case.

Whatever verdict is given must be followed. Failure to do so gets the death penalty, “And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again” (v.13).

Given the emphasis on this last part, I wonder how much of an issue it was that people would go all the way to Jerusalem for a verdict and then decide not to take it. It makes me wonder if, perhaps, people were having very negative experiences with the judges in Jerusalem, perhaps feeling that the cases weren’t being properly heard, or that the sentences were too harsh or not adequate. Or, perhaps, the judges were breaking the rule about not taking bribes mentioned in the last chapter.

On kings

Once they arrive in the Promised Land, the people will eventually declare: “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me” (v.14). That has got to be the most singularly poor reason to have a king that I have ever heard. Though, according to me Study Bible, may not be historically inaccurate: “In the view of the Israelite tribal confederacy, presumably formed at Shechem (Jos. ch. 24), kingship was alien to the theocracy (Jg. 8:22-23). Israel’s monarchy represented an attempt to be like all the nations, whose kings claimed absolute power (1 Sam. 8:4-22).

Elvis PresleyOnce they decide that Bobby next door has one and therefore we should be allowed to have one too, however, God has a few restrictions for the kind of king that the Israelites may have. First, of course, he must be chosen by God. Of course, there’s no instructions for how the people could tell who was chosen by God and who was not.

The king can’t be a foreigner. Given Judah’s recent history (assuming that Deuteronomy was composed in the time of King Josiah), this is a pretty obvious request. Israel – the Northern part of the Promised Land once it split into two kingdoms – was at that time ruled by the Assyrians. The threat of being deposed and replaced by foreign rulers would have been all too real.

The king may not have many wives, “lest his heart turn away” (v.17). In other words, there seems a concern that the more wives the king has, the more likely it might be that at least one of them worships other gods and might convince the king to leave the exclusive worship of God.

Next, the king may not have many horses, nor may he “greatly multiply for himself silver and gold” (v.17). Of this, Collins writes:

The most remarkable assertion of control, however, concerns the king, in 17:14-20. The king may not be a foreigner. He must not “acquire many horses,” which would be necessary for building up an army, nor acquire many wives (as Solomon would do), nor acquire much gold and silver. Instead, he should have a copy of this book of the law and read it all the days of his life. The king must be subject to the law. Even though Josiah was very young when he began to reign and was presumably subject to his advisers for a time, it is difficult to believe that he would have promulgated such a restrictive law of the kingship. Most probably, this passage was added later to the book, after the kingship had definitively failed in the Babylonian crisis. (A Short Introduction, p.89)

To this, Brant Clemens of Both Saint and Cynic adds:

Deuteronomy 17:14-20 says that when Israel selects a king, that king must be God’s chosen. He must not not have too many horses or too many wives. Foreign wives will lead the king into idolatry. Since these rules seem to address so specifically the cases of King Saul, who was not God’s chosen, and King Solomon who had many horses and many foreign wives, I have to suspect that Deuteronomy was written only after Israel’s united monarchy had fallen apart.

The king also must not cause the people to return to Egypt. I imagine that this prohibition would have been written either to address kings selling people to foreigners as slaves, or would have been a response to the Assyrian exile – as the Assyrians were scattering many of the people in the Northern kingdom to foreign lands.

The last rule regarding kings specifies that he must write for himself in a book “this law” (v.18), and read it every day. At first, I thought that it was referring specifically the the laws regarding kings that we read in this chapter, but my internet readings seem to unanimously believe that it refers to the whole of Deuteronomy.

I can’t say that I am much opposed to the idea that a king should focus on wisdom (let’s, for a minute, accept theocratic law as a form of wisdom – at least insomuch as they are both being represented by a book) rather than the accumulation of wealth or armies.

Deuteronomy 16: The cultic calendar


Most Deuteronomy 16 is a repeat of the cultic calendar we’ve seen before several times. The main changes, of course, have to do with the location of the feasts. You guessed it, they are to take place at the Temple. Three times a year, everyone is supposed to gather in Jerusalem. It’s hard to imagine that this was ever practicable.

Feast of unleavened bread

In the month of Abib, the people must keep the Passover. Everyone should offer a sacrifice (from the flock or the herd). This sacrifice can’t be left out over night. It has to be fully eaten on the day of the sacrifice. The passage mentions twice that this sacrifice absolutely cannot be made locally – it can only be made at the Temple.

They also should not eat leavened bread for seven days, with the seventh day spend in “solemn assembly” (v.8).

Feast of weeks

Seven weeks “from the time you first put the sickle to the standing grain” (v.9), the people are to make a freewill offering. The worshipper is to “rejoice before the Lord your God” along with his relatives, servants, local Levite, sojourners, orphans, and widows.

The term “rejoice with” has been used a number of times in relation to making a sacrifice. I’m assume that it means that the sacrifice must be shared with those people.

Feast of booths (or tabernacles)

The feast of booths lasts seven days, taking place around the time that threshing and wine-making is done. Once again, the rejoicing of the feast must involve relatives, servants, the local Levite, the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow.

Commenter Abbie at The King and I points out that no mention is made of living in booths during the feast, despite the name. According to her, this is “keeping with the theory that that practice was a post-exilic novelty added late to Leviticus.”


It’s the attack of the killer choppy scribe again, because the last few verses go off on a completely different subject that would fit better in Deut. 17.

The first part talks about appointing judges to oversee each town. We’ve already seen the judges before, as well as the demand that they judge without partiality, and without taking bribes.

The next bit prohibits the planting of trees “as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God which you shall make” (v.21). I doubt that they would mention this unless it had happened, in which case it seems that a second god was being worshipped in the Temple. That’s pretty interesting. Even more interesting is the name, since Asherah is a mother goddess who is variously seen as consort to other gods. In other words, did God have a wife?

It’s a fascinating topic and one that I’d like to do a little more research on. If anyone can recommend reading materials, that’d be fantastic!

And, lastly, Moses tells the people that they “shall not set up a pillar, which the Lord your God hates” (v.22). Odd that God should suddenly hate these pillars when the patriarchs spent a good deal of Genesis building them.

Deuteronomy 14-15: A barrage of rules

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These two chapters cover several rules, all repeats of what we’ve heard before but with some rather significant changes.


When mourning, the people are not to cut into themselves or to “make any baldness on your forehead” (Deut. 14:1). This harkens back to the pronouncement in Leviticus 19:28, which forbade cutting into themselves or “print any marks upon you.” A similar rule can be found in Leviticus 21:5, where the priests are told not to “make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh.”

In both cases, the rules are presented around the rules for mourning, though the context is a little difficult. In Lev. 21, for example, it seems that the rules against shaving and cutting the flesh are general rules, separate from the rules around mourning that come before it. Similarly, only self-mutilation is mentioned as specifically being a part of mourning in Lev. 19:28, whereas the passage just before it talks about cutting the hair, as a rule separate from mourning.

Yet here, these two passages seem to have been conflated with their surroundings. If so, it could be a simple error of interpretation combined with the observation that some cultural/religious groups do shave their hair as a sign of mourning. Or maybe I’m just misunderstanding.

Dietary Laws

The dietary laws are much the same as they were in Leviticus 11:2-23. The only significant difference that I noticed was that Deut. 14:19 forbids the consumption of all winged insects, whereas Lev. 11:20-23, which allowed for the consumption of locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers.

The people are not allowed to eat anything that died itself. That’s a fairly reasonable request given the possibility that what killed it could kill the people eating it. Plus, if you find a dead deer out in a field, it can be hard to know exactly when it died.

But then Moses says that it’s okay to give or sell it to a non-Hebrew to eat. Well, okay, I guess giving consumers a choice isn’t a bad thing, except that there’s no requirement that the buyer be told how the animal died. It seems  like a ripe situation for exploitation, and possibly poisoning.

Lastly, we get the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk that we saw in Exodus 23:19.


More taken from Leviticus, this one from Lev. 27. The deuteronomical twist is, of course, in the attempt to make tithing a little more manageable in a centralized cultic system. Specifically, firstlings can be sold for cash, and then the money is brought to Jerusalem (at which point it can be used to buy any foodstuff that the worshipper feels like eating).

It’s interesting to note that there’s no mention here of the priests’ portion. The people are told merely to spend the money on “whatever your appetite craves and you shall eat it there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household” (v.26). As Bruce at The King and I points out, this is quite different from the version of tithing that I’m familiar with, where the entire portion goes to the church.

There is a reminder not to “forsake the Levite who is within your towns” (Deut. 14:27), but again it’s unclear what this might look like. Are the Levites still to be given their portion of the offering? Or are they to be supported in addition to the usual tithing?

The section on tithing also adds that, every third year, the tithes are to be put into a communal pot from which the people on the social fringes – the Levites, sojourners, orphans, and widows – can take from it. There’s no mention of a staggering, and without such a system it would mean that the poor widows and orphans may only eat every third year. Even so, it’s a lovely idea.


Every 7 years, creditors must release all debts held by Hebrews. A neat idea, except that it applies only to Hebrews. Lenders are free to just send any non-Jewish debts over to collections.

If we assume that the Promised Land belongs exclusively to Hebrews, this sort of makes sense. It often makes for bad blood to be lending money to relatives, friends, or neighbours, and there’s certainly a sense that the Hebrew community is to be one small community in which everyone knows each other by default (hence the language of “neighbour”). Yet at the same time, there’s an acknowledgement that the same rules aren’t necessarily followed by merchants from foreign lands.

Someone who is always borrowing from neighbours without ever paying back to the funds will quickly find himself suffering some social consequences. A foreign merchant, however, can avoid the social penalties by simple fact of living elsewhere. Therefore, an allowance for collections makes sense.

But all of this presumes a homogeneous society, something that has never been the case in Israel. The result of legislating based on this ideal is that a Hebrew living in Rome is treated as more of a member of the community than a Canaanite living next door.

Next, Moses tells the people that “there will be no poor” if they follow the rules (Deut. 15:4-5). Morf Morford uses the phrase to illustrate a much darker point that is well worth reading:

Jesus was correct; we don’t want those poor people ‘among us’ – we want them far from us – or at least out of sight.

We want them to work for us, clean up after us, go to war for us, and fill our prisons, but we don’t want to see them.

Click through to read the whole thing.

Knowing that the people will break the rules, and therefore there will be people in poverty (whether through prescience, reflection on the wilderness adventures, or benefiting from the composing scribe many centuries later), their existence is addressed. “For the poor will never cease out of the land” (Deut. 15:11).

If there are any poor, “you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but shall open your hand to him” (Deut. 15:7-8). Not only that, but you should lend him whatever he needs and forgive any remaining debt in the seventh year. You shouldn’t withhold, lest “he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you” (Deut. 15:9).

I love this. It’s wonderful, and very refreshing to see such intense dwelling on morality (as opposed to cultic purity). It also makes me wonder how many Republicans have actually read the Bible so many of them spend such time thumping.


Rules regarding Hebrew slaves are fairly similar to what we’ve seen before, particularly in Exodus 21:2-11. Essentially, Hebrew slaves are only to serve for 6 years, and then go free in the seventh. If, at the end of his service, a slave declares that he’d rather stay, the master is to take an awl and put it through the slave’s ear and into his front door. I think the symbolism there is rather obvious.

But there are some crucial differences. The first is that the slave isn’t just to be set free in the seventh year, but is actually to be sent off with lots of stuff. The master is to “furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your wine press; as the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” (Deut. 15:14).

Another significant difference is that the distinction between men and women from Exodus 21:7 is gone. Throughout the passage, ” a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman” is specified, and this includes the rule about granting freedom (whereas Exodus presumes that a female slave is in concubinage).

Moses also tells masters that they shouldn’t begrudge their slaves choosing to leave or getting lots of stuff, “for at half the cost of a hired servant he has served you six years” (Deut. 15:18). I’m not sure if this means that slaves are actually to be paid, or if Moses is merely estimating the costs of food and housing.


Firstling animals aren’t to be used for labour or shearing, they can only be eaten. A firstling entirely without blemish must be sent to Jerusalem, whereas blemished firstlings can just be eaten at home.

Deuteronomy 13: What to do with missionaries

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A few years ago, I was speaking with a religious relative who was a Muslim Young Earth Creationist. I asked her how her faith handled evidence like dinosaur bones, and she explained that God had put fossils and bones into the ground as a means of testing believers’ faith.

That’s pretty much the theology at work at the beginning of Deuteronomy 13.

The whole chapter is about various types of people who might try to lure believers into the worship of other gods, and describes how to handle each type. The first being the false prophet.

False prophets, Moses warns, may give a “sign or a wonder” that “comes to pass” (v.1-2), but that shouldn’t be counter as an argument in favour of his gods (even though it’s totally sufficient to give God credibility).

Still from the movie The Life of Brian.

Still from the movie The Life of Brian.

But how do we explain those signs and wonders coming to pass? In previous books, God’s right to exclusive worship came from his greater power. When he had Moses and Aaron battle the Egyptian magicians in Exodus 7, for example, their magic existed independently of God, and God showed himself to be stronger than their gods.

This seems rather different by the time of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 4, for the first time (as far as I can tell), God’s ordinances are praised as worthy independently from God simply wanting them followed and having the power to enforce his demands. In Deuteronomy 6, he prohibits the people from testing his power, whereas he had previously been very quick to use demonstrations to give himself credibility.

I think this shows a shift in how God is conceived, something toward monotheism. Here, the prophets of other gods can give “signs and wonders” only because “the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (v.3).

No matter how impressive the prophet may be, if he tells people to worship another god, the people must “purge the evil from [their] midst” (v.5).

Loved Ones

It may be that a loved one tries to persuade you to worship a different god – a brother, a “son of your mother,” a son, a daughter, a wife, or even a friend “who is as your own soul” (v.6).

If this happens, a member of the people should not “yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him” (v.8). Even more, when they are stoned to death – as they must be – “your hand shall be first against him to put him to death” (v.9).

This sort of attitude is, unfortunately, still alive and well.

Over at Skeptic’s Annotated Bible Answered, the author tries to defend these passages:

The Israelites had to kill a murderer of the body. Surely, if someone who kills the body is punishable by death, how should someone be punished who wants to murder someone’s eternal soul? To lead a person from the good path unto the path that leads to eternal damnation. So serious is this sin that it was punishable by death in old Israel.

Which is a good answer, though a decidedly Christian one (and, thankfully, he does say that “this law was applicable only for a specific location and a specific time”). I think that within a deuteronomical context, the danger posed by people suggesting other gods to worship would be to the social order of the whole community, rather than to the salvation status of the individual.

Other cities

If a member of the faithful hears that some people in another city have started worshipping other gods, they are to investigate “diligently” (v.14). If it turns out to be true, they must “surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, destroying it utterly, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword” (v.15).

Do all the inhabitants have to be worshipping other gods? Or is there a percentage that tips it from the stoning of the individual to the razing of the city?

Once all the inhabitants and their cattle are killed, all their stuff is to be piled up in the city square and burned along with the city itself. Even the land is “destroyed” in the sense that the attackers can’t build over the burned town.

This sounds extreme and rather distasteful, but I think I can see the reasoning behind it. If it were just a matter of finding a handful of worshippers in a city, what would stop bandits from finding religious justification in going around the countryside sacking and pillaging nearly at will? Want some extra cattle, or land, or stuff? Find yourself a couple heretics and it’s yours!

So while I obviously don’t like the “raze it to the ground and salt the fields” mentality, I think I understand what it’s supposed to prevent. I suppose it’s the lesser of two evils.

Deuteronomy 12: Reining in the cult

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I’ve mentioned King Josiah a few times already (for example), but to summarize, Deuteronomy is characterised by a need to bring the people back into the fold, to “remind them” of Moses’ laws after they’ve been conquered, intermarried, and generally done what normal populations do and shifted in their beliefs from the “pure” religion of the priesthood. A big concern for the authors of Deuteronomy is to centralize worship in Jerusalem, and therefore keep cultic power under focused control. King Josiah is relevant as having “found” this supposedly authentic text that reveals Moses’ will (which just so happens to align perfectly with Josiah’s interests). The story of his having found a lost book can be read in 2 Kings 22.

I bring this up again because it’s a fairly prominent feature of Deuteronomy 12. In this chapter, Moses continues with the rules the people are to follow once they settle in the Promised Land.

Tear down their altars

The first rule of Deuteronomy 12 tells the people that they “shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods” (v.2).

While I get that these other symbols of worship present a challenge to the power of the Jerusalem Temple, this sort of stuff just makes me feel sad. Imagine how different the work of archeologists would be if they weren’t always being hindered by the intolerances and penchant for destruction of our ancestors…

The place God will choose

The second rule involves the centralization of worship. The people are only to give their offerings in “the place which the Lord your God will choose” (v.11).

King Josiah, by Anna Edelman

King Josiah, by Anna Edelman

Of course, while this would certainly benefit the Temple priests, it would have some pretty dire side effects. The first issue is dietary. In Leviticus 17:3-5, we read that all butchering had to be done cultically. If you wanted some steak for dinner, you had to take your cow to the local altar and have the priests slaughter it. That’s all well and good when there’s a priest/butcher in every village, but it would be absolutely awful for a non-vegetarian nation to have to go all the way to Jerusalem for every lamb stew.

In concession, Deuteronomy gives permission to slaughter animals for food outside of the cultic context. And, since God is out of the equation, ritual cleanliness is no longer mandatory for eating the meat (v.15).

The rules relating to blood still stand, however. Rather than eat the blood, the people must “pour it out upon the earth like water” (v.16).

With such an enmeshed aspect of cultic life removed, the deuteronomical revision would significantly change the expression of religion. Or, as Collins puts it: “Some sacral activities were now treated as profane, and cultic rituals would henceforth play a much smaller role in the lives of most of the people” (A Short Introduction, p.88).

Centralization would also essentially starve all non-Temple Levites. As we found in our reading of Numbers 35, Levites cannot inherit land. In a mostly-agrarian society, this poses a problem – a problem Numbers solved by paying the Levites a cut of all offerings. If offerings are now only to be made at the Temple, all the rural Levites will starve.

I’m not entirely certain what the deuteronomical arrangement is supposed to be (can anyone enlighten me in the comments?), but the people are told to “rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you” (v.12). Then, later, Moses adds: “Take heed that you do not forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land” (v.19).

So is the hint here that the people are to support the Levites as they would support their dependants (servants and children)?

No praying around

Moses, ever fearful with all those coquette deities around, reminds the people not to go be “ensnared” by the gods of the nations that they are about to dispossess (v.30).

As part of the warning, he tells the people that “ever abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (v.31).

It’s worth noting that God isn’t against child sacrifice, per se. In fact, he requires that all first born be consecrated to him (Exodus 13:2). The difference is that he allows a substitution for his own ritualistic sacrifices, whereas the other gods – supposedly – are still literal-minded.

Deuteronomy 10-11: Circumcised Hearts


The scribe who makes poor partitioning decisions strikes again, and Deuteronomy 10 opens in the middle of the Golden Calf story from the last chapter. In this version of the story, Moses takes the credit for making the stone tables (blank, for God to write on) and the ark (Deut. 10:3). I’m sure that, if he were still alive, Bezazel would have loved to hear that.

Moses then talks about going to Moserah, where he says that Aaron died. He may be losing his memory a mite in his old age, though, since Num. 20:27-28 and Num. 33:38 are quite clear that Aaron died on mount Hor.

There’s some issues with the itinerary, as well. Deut. 10:6-7 has the journey going Beeroth Bene-jaakan > Moserah > Gudgodah > Jotbathah. Numbers 33:31-33, on the other hand, had the journey go Moseroth > Benejaakan > Horhagidgad > Jotbathah. Moses may be a fine prophet, but he’d be a terrible travel agent. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere about this explaining the whole ’40 years in the desert’ thing, too, but I think that dead horse has been well-flogged.

According to Moses, it’s at Jotbathah that God “set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name” (Deut. 10:8). Of course, he’d done this way back in Numbers 3 (and arguably as early as Exodus 32:28-29), long before Aaron died and the people arrived at Jotbathah.

Flaws aside, the historical review we’ve just gotten is Moses’s way of setting the stage. He is explaining, in essence, why his listeners should care about what follows.

The Rules

Now that his listeners know why they should care about this God character and what he has to say, Moses moves on to give them some of God’s rules.

I was somewhat shocked that Moses begins his recitation of the rules by saying: “And if you will obey my commandments which I command you this day” (Deut. 11:13). Am I reading too much into this? Because it looks an awful lot like Moses is conflating himself (and his authority) with God – the same hubris that may or may not have spelled his death in Numbers 20 (depending on variation and interpretation, of course).

Moses and the Burning Bush, Bréviaire de Paris dit Bréviaire dit de Charles V [Breviarium Parisiense]

Moses and the Burning Bush, Bréviaire de Paris dit Bréviaire dit de Charles V [Breviarium Parisiense]

Moses next gives the reasons why the people should pay attention to and follow God’s/his rules. Firstly, because it’s “for your good” (Deut. 10:13). Of course, this brings to mind a twist of the Euthyphro dilemma – are the rules good for the people in their own right, or because of the punishment/reward system that God himself has created? Of course, that question is largely answered in Deut. 11, when we hear about all the nice things that the people will get in return for following the rules (v.8-12), and the punishments for failing to do so (v.16-17).

The easy rebuttal would be, I am sure, that if God has created the universe, then the natural consequences of an action would be every bit as much his imposition as an active reward/punishment. For example, stealing would only victimise someone because God has created a universe in which this is so. So I suppose that you have to have at least one foot in the naturalist philosophies before this discussion is even remotely interesting.

The actual rules that Moses felt were worthy of getting another mention include the hilarious: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of you heart” (Deut. 10:16). Even more hilarious is that my Study Bible, which has allowed so many weird passages to go unaddressed, felt that this needed an explanation: “[It] means to open the mind, to direct the will toward God” (p.228). Yes, thank you, that was rather obvious. Or, as I interpreted it, it means that the outward expressions of worship aren’t enough. They must be accompanied by an internal devotion.

But I can just imagine the Study Bible planning committee meeting when they got to this line and someone said “Yeah, people are going to notice this one…”

Another rule that gets a mention is to: “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). As I’ve argued before, this is a lovely sentiment – really awesome! – but what it looks like in practice is more complicated. I discussed the problem at greater length when looking at Numbers 15.

Moses also gives the rule: “by his [God’s] name you shall swear” (Deut. 10:20). I may be wrong, but I think that this may be the first positive mention of swearing in God’s name. People are described as swearing or having to swear elsewhere, such as in Numbers 5 where women suspected of adultery must swear that they will suffer physical ills if they have been adulterous, but looking strictly at the mentions of swearing in God’s name, other mentions have always been proscriptive (such as the ordinance against swearing falsely in God’s name, found in Leviticus 19).

As far as I can think of, this is the only instance where people are told that they must swear, if they are to swear, in God’s name.

At the end of Deut. 10, Moses tells the people: “Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude” (v.22). It seems that Moses considers the promise to Abraham to be fulfilled at this point, either as the people sit on the border looking into the Promised Land, or at least once they’ve taken hold of it.

Dathan & Abiram

It wouldn’t be the Bible without a bit of gloating over fallen enemies. In Deut. 11, Moses reminds his audience of what happened to Dathan and Abiram, two of the men who rebelled way back in Numbers 16.

What’s really interesting about this passage is that the Numbers 16 version begins to tell a story about three rebels, Dathan, Abiram, and Korah. About midway through, Dathan and Abiram just disappear, and the rest of the chapter is all about Korah and Korah’s followers getting their comeuppance.

Here, however, Dathan and Abiram are the only rebels mentioned, with Korah nowhere in sight.

It’s a good reminder that, while I’ve been thinking of Deuteronomy as the latest of the Pentateuch books, the Bible is just not quite that simple. While the history recaps of the last few chapters have made clear that the authors of Deuteronomy had access to many of the same stories that we’ve covered in previous books, the errors make it clear that they did not have the texts as we have them now.

Abby, a commenter posting on the King and I project, brings this back around to the documentary hypothesis:

“You know what he did for you in the wilderness as you journeyed to this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, son of Reuben, when the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them in the sight of all Israel, together with their households and the tents and every living thing in their company.”
YEP thats a retelling of the J story, absent ANY detail from P’s.

In other words, the authors of Deuteronomy had a proto-Numbers, or perhaps just an isolated story, that hadn’t yet received a Korah injection.

I find it fascinating to think of the Bible as a living culture composed of many living units, each going through their lives, changing, growing, and coming together to form the whole that we’ve (some of us, at least) come to believe is a fossilized whole – written in stone, sometimes literally.

System of Magic

In Deut. 11, Moses compares Egypt to the Promised Land. While Egypt required irrigation – which involved watering crops through some amount of manual labour – God will take charge of crop watering in the Promised Land. Suddenly, God is wearing the mantle of a fertility/rain deity, promising a land that “drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land which the Lord your God cares for” (v.11-12). If God is displeased, he will “shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit” (v.17).

It makes God look an awful lot like other sorts of sky gods, like Hadad (who, according to wikipedia, could also be referred to as Ba’al).

There’s another interesting bit later on where Moses says that he “set before you this day a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26). The blessing, of course, is all the good stuff that will happen for following the rules. The curse is the opposite. But then Moses starts talking about taking the blessing and setting it on one mountain, and setting the curse on another mountain, as through they were physical objects that would be carried around by the people.

We’ve seen similar ways of imagining blessings/curses before, such as in Genesis 27. In that story, Isaac confuses his two sons and accidentally gives his blessing to the wrong one. Even once the error is exposed, the blessing has been unleashed and therefore can’t be recalled.

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