Moses starts off the chapter by reminding the Israelites to keep all the ordinances that they’ve been given, and that doing so will ensure their peace in the promised land. It wouldn’t be the Bible with all carrot and no stick, so he reminds them that they’ve seen what God does to people who fail. The ones who are still around to listen to this speech have so far squeaked by: “you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive this day” (v.4).
Then Moses does something that he hasn’t done before – he praises the ordinances themselves. In the past, the ordinances are not (as far as I can remember) ever said to be good. They are merely commanded, and must be obeyed due to God’s power in enforcing them. This time, the ordinances themselves are praised:
Keep them [the ordinances] and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day? (v.6-8)
The Euthyphro Dilemma, named after its explanation in Plato’s play Euthyphro, is the question: “Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, should the Israelites follow the ordinances merely because God says so, or should they follow them because they are good in their own right?
Up until this point, the answer has been rather clear. God is mighty, God has done nice things for the Israelites, so the Israelites should follow his rules. But Deuteronomy seems to be coming from a rather radically different theological perspective.
This is reinforced later when we get what I think may be the first reference to love as something that God feels, rather than just something he demands from the Israelites: “And because he loved your fathers and chose their descendants after them” (v.37). The fact that God loves the Israelites (in addition to having chosen them, saved them, and shown them mercy), he is deserving of worship.
Of course, this isn’t a love that I would recognize as such since it’s paired with the fear of a god who is “a devouring fire, a jealous God” (v.24).
Moses then goes into a bit about idolatry. Spoilers: it’s bad. He reminds the Israelites that God has appeared to them as a mountain that “burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (v.12). To attempt to capture God in any “earthly” form would be a huge no-no.
The fact that the Israelites “saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb” (v.15) is the reason why he should never be captured in any depiction.
Moses also makes a special prohibition against the worship of “the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven” (v.19). We know, of course, that making idols in the form of humans or animals was common at the time (the Egyptians, for example, are rather known for their nifty anthropomorphic deities). That heavenly bodies would get a special mention as well suggests to me that there must have been a rather lively astrological cult around that time as well.
Moses warns the Israelites that if they, or any of their descendants, mess up and “act corruptly” by making graven images or failing to obey the ordinances, they will be killed and driven out from Canaan. Of course, this is pretty much what King Josiah – who “found” and probably commissioned much of Deuteronomy – was seeing. His reign began less than a hundred years after the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians.
But there’s a hopeful note there too: Once scattered, the people will turn back to God, and “he will not fail you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers which he swore to them” (v.31).
This somewhat mirrors what King Josiah was experiencing. By the time he came to power, the Assyrian empire was starting to collapse, leaving a power vacuum in the Near East. It was thanks to this that “Jerusalem was able to govern itself for the time being without foreign intervention” (Wikipedia).
It seems to me that Deuteronomy is an attempt to understand and interpret the fact of foreign occupation and the belief of being a chosen people of God. Such a situation leaves only two options to the faithful: Either God is not nearly as powerful as he claims, or we’ve done something to make him turn his back on us. Clearly, Josiah’s camp chose the latter. It’s no stretch, then, to interpret a return of self-agency as a return of favour. (With the added bonus that interpreting political events in this light serves to reinforce adherence to those behaviours approved of by the State.)
I’ve pointed out a few times that God talks about himself as the “best,” rather than the “only.” If anything, he seems rather anxious in some passages that the people might not be wow’d enough by his magicks, so they might find some other more powerful god to worship.
In Deuteronomy, we see yet another theological shift. For the first time, we start talking about actual monotheism: “Know therefore this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (v.39).
The cities of refuge
Moses reiterates the instructions from Numbers 35 regarding cities of refuge. If you remember, these are to be havens for people who have committed manslaughter (killing someone accidentally).
We had found out in Numbers 35 that there were to be a total of six such cities, three on either side of the Jordan. Since the east side is already conquered, Moses takes the opportunity to appoint the cities:
- Bezer, in the wilderness, in the lands of the Reubenites;
- Ramoth, in Gilead, in the lands of the Gadites;
- Golan, in Bashan, in the land of the Manassites.
It’s strange to think that unintentional killing would not only be so common, but that it also would be so unforgiven by the victims’ kin. Of course, in a tribal society like Ancient Israel, not avenging one’s kin would be a betrayal. In this case, simply passing a court ruling of manslaughter would not dissuade the avenger without bringing in some religious magicks (in this case, Numbers 35 uses the death of the current high priest as the slate cleanser).
Then, very suddenly, the writing shifts. Up until v.44, the chapter has been narrated in Moses’ voice, as though he were giving a speech and it was being quoted.
But now, the narrative has very suddenly reverted to the third person narrator that we’ve been seeing so far in the other books. The narrator is just there to tell us, once again, about how the Israelites totally killed King Sihon and King Og – the two kings of the Amorites.