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

Mourning

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.

Tithing

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.

Poverty

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.

Slaves

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.

Firstlings

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.