In this chapter, God warns the people not to allow the comforts to come in the Promised Land to make them lax in their dedication to him.

He begins with yet another historical summary, in which he confesses that he made them spend 40 years in the wilderness so that he “might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not” (v.2). Did they pass or fail? Subsequent history and the perspective of the authors show that the people did indeed neglect the commandments, yet God allowed them into the Promised Land anyway, so I’m having trouble seeing the point of the trial.

I can conceptualize the idea of a test of worthiness, but the idea is that those who fail don’t get the grail, or the princess, or the whatever. Was God’s test purely for his own curiosity?

Whatever the point of the test, the other purpose was to “humble” the people, “as a man disciplines his son” (v.5). This, too, is rather problematic as we’re also told about the way that God fed the people, and that he  caused their clothing not to wear out and their feet not to swell, though they were on the move for forty years (v.4). (The mystery as to how children got their first shoes/clothes, and how they got new ones as they grew is yet unsolved.)

If the point was to punish them, why were the punitive elements of the punishment so softened? Not that I’m complaining, but this is the god of the plagues and the fiery serpents and the swallowing chasms. Why is his hand stayed in this?

It strikes me that there is a competition in the text between the angry, punitive God and the kind God who takes care of his people’s needs. These two contradictory facets, which might be split among multiple deities in a polytheistic religion, are here awkwardly jammed together in a single character. Not to say that polytheistic gods don’t get to be capricious and nonsensical too, merely that benevolence and “the problem of evil” seem simpler to reconcile in a polytheistic religion.

Parenting digression

Since God himself raises the comparison, I feel that I can’t let this passage go by without a little digression about parenting.

Moses, Aaron, and the Golden Calf, from Leviticus cum glossa ordinaria

Moses, Aaron, and the Golden Calf, from Leviticus cum glossa ordinaria

Here is a father who wants his children’s unconditional love, and who prods and tests them to see if their love is up to his standards. When it isn’t, he punishes them in rather extreme ways. His desire is for his children to “fear” him (v.6), and this is conflated with love.

I don’t think I need to dwell too much on how messed up this relationship is.

On a linguistic point (acknowledging that this is a translation, so my point thrown out into the wind rather than aimed at the authors), I find the use of the term “discipline” in this context disturbing. I think perhaps “punish” would have been more apt.

To discipline means to teach. It’s an unfortunate cultural quirk that the word seems to have been made into a synonym for punishment, usually of the corporal variety. Speaking personally, I discipline my son but I do not punish him. I discipline him by making him my ‘disciple.’ I model the behaviour I want to see from him, and I take every opportunity I can to explain why one behaviour is good and why its alternative is not so good.

Punishment, in my experience, is what we do when we fail to discipline. It’s a terrible way to teach, more likely to turn the teacher into an enemy (one that, depending on the child’s temperament, must be subverted) than it is to actually impart a lesson.

The effectiveness of the punishment is that it creates an external locus of control – a child will avoid a particular behaviour out of fear of the accompanying punishment. But what happens when a child believes that s/he will not be caught? What happens when the teacher leaves the room? The child no longer has a reason to behave. And this is precisely what God experiences over and over again. He rushes in with the punishment, and the people sin again as soon as he isn’t looking.

Nowhere does he sit down with Moses and say “listen, you shouldn’t steal from people because it makes them feel bad. You wouldn’t like it if someone stole your toy. I think that instead of stealing, maybe you should look at the things you have and share them instead, and that way they will be happy and they will want to play with you more.”

The only times we get explanations are for rules about whether or not it’s okay to eat badgers, and then the explanation is that it’s “a sin” or “because I brought you out of Egypt and I can put you right back in, that’s why!” None of this makes much sense, none of this is relatable for the child. It’s really no mystery that such rules would be broken so frequently.

Which brings me to my next parenting tip: Don’t make frivolous rules, and never ever make rules that have no reason other than to enforce love or flatter your own ego.

Fiery serpents and scorpions

The rest of the chapter warns the people not to forget about God once things start going well for them, and threatens punishment if they do. More specifically, God threatens to make them perish, “like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you” (v.20).

According to Duane Smith of Abnormal Interests, there’s one part that stands out. While God is going on about all the stuff he’s done for the Israelites (yeah, he’s one of those parents), he mentions that he “led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water” (v.15).

Smith compares this with other texts from the ancient Mediterranean that also mention snakes and scorpions, in that order.

So how did the set order become snakes before scorpions? I have no idea. One thing I can say with reasonable certainty is that this order was embedded in Akkadian scribal culture which was also the scribal tradition at Ugarit. Whether or not it was embedded in ancient Hebrew scribal cultural and, if so, how that came to be so embedded are different questions. But given the right odds, I’d bet on it being part of Hebrew scribal culture also. Does this also reflect a small element of the larger culture? Who knows?

I think it’s also worth noting that those fiery serpents God so kindly guided the Hebrews through were kinda sent by him in the first place.