This chapter is similar in many ways to Leviticus 26, though it adds a little something special. Both chapters list rewards for following all of God’s ordinances, followed by the punishments for failure to do so. In both cases, the punishments (or “curses”) seem strongly prescient – describing events that would, indeed, eventually happen once the Israelites were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians (suggesting to the cynics among us that perhaps these chapters were written, or at least tinkered with, after these events). Where it differs is in the lingering descriptions of anthropophagy, but we’ll get to that.

The chapter is also fairly similar to the curse/blessing we saw in Deuteronomy 27 (albeit with an extant blessings portion). My study bible posits that this chapter is “perhaps part of the old covenant ceremony preserved in fragmentary form in 27.11-26” (p.249-250). It certainly seems plausible that multiple versions of the story should float around, taking on or losing curses and blessings as the tellers tailored them to fit current events, getting written down at different times and in different places.

Collins suggests another possible explanation – that it may just be a standard template floating around that various people used for their own purposes:

In the case of Deuteronomy, much closer parallels are found in the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon (VTE), an Assyrian king who ruled in the seventh century B.C.E. (681-669).

[…]

The series of curses in Deut 28:23-35 is paralleled in VTE §§39-42 [419-30]. Even the order of the curses of leprosy and blindness is the same in both.

Deuteronomy is not structured as a treaty text. Rather, it is an address that is informed by the treaty analogy. It appeals to history as a motivating factor more often than is the case in the Assyrian treaties. (Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.85-86)

Blessings and Curses

In excellent use of mirroring, there are six of each. The blessings are:

  1. You will be blessed in both city and field.
  2. Your kids will be blessed.
  3. Your crops will be blessed.
  4. Your cattle and flocks will be blessed, and will increase.
  5. Your baskets and kneading-troughs (the place where dough is left to rise) will be blessed.
  6. You will be blessed both coming in and going out.

This is followed by an elaboration. Enemies will come and be defeated, the people will be blessed in all their undertakings, the people will abound in prosperity, you’ll have a high GDP and never accrue foreign debt, etc.

The curses are:

  1. You will be cursed in both city and field.
  2. Your basket and kneading-trough will be cursed.
  3. Your kids with be cursed.
  4. Your crops will be cursed.
  5. Your cattle and flocks will be cursed.
  6. You will be cursed both coming in and going out.

The bit about “cursed shall be the fruit of your body” (Deut. 28:18), of course, seems to be in conflict with Deut. 24:16 – “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” Aside from the possibility that these two passages were written by different people with different purposes, the other distinction is that the latter refers to the conducting of earthly justice by judges, while the former refers to divine curses.

1099 Siege of Jerusalem, 13th century

1099 Siege of Jerusalem, 13th century

As usually, the curses are both creative and graphic, and it feels as though much more effort and imagination was poured into them than into the blessings.

There will be “curses, confusion, and frustration” (Deut. 28:20), and the people will perish quickly. There will be sickness (consumption, fever, and inflammation) There will be fiery heat, drought, and mildew.

The plagues of Egypt will be brought to Israel, there will be madness and blindness, and the people will be oppressed and robed. They’ll marry wives who will lie with other men, build houses that they won’t live in, yadda yadda. Then comes the hilarious line: “your ass shall be violently taken away before your face” (Deut. 28:31), and I can’t help but wonder how many little kids snickered during their Bible readings at that one.

The punishments then move on to the imagining of an invasion in which the Israelites will be defeated. “And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth; and there shall be no one to frighten them away” (Deut. 28:26). Gross as that line is, I also find it really powerful and poetic. I think it may be one of my favourites so far. I know I’ve said it before, but I’m really appreciating the writing in Deuteronomy, even when it’s a fevered imagining of curses.

Amongst all of this is the line: “And the heavens over your head shall be brass, and the earth under you shall be iron” (Deut. 28:23), which seems to mirror this line from Leviticus: “And I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like brass” (Lev. 26:19). I’m not sure what the image is supposed to mean, but I find it very interesting that the metals are reversed in these two passages.

The Invasion

The invaders will take their sons and daughters while they look on powerless, and disperse the people to foreign lands (where they will come to worship other gods). “And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword, among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away” (Deut. 28:37).

All of this will happen, the people will be ruled by foreigners, because they failed to be ruled by God (Deut. 28:47-48).

These foreigners will besiege the Israelite towns, causing extreme starvation, so that the people will eat their own children. This is also paralleled in Leviticus 26, where Moses says: “You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters” (Lev. 26:29). It’s interesting to see such close parallels when the language surround them is so different between the two books.

The starvation continues, and we are told that even the most well-bred woman will eat her own after-birth in secret so that she doesn’t have to share it with her husband and children (Deut. 28:56-57).

All of this did, in fact, happen when the Assyrians and Babylonians conquered the area (and the siege scenario may be thinking specifically of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem). Brant Clements uses this to briefly digress on the meaning of “prophecy”:

Deuteronomy 28:47 ff. states, graphically, that among the curses to befall disobedient Israel are siege, conquest, and exile by a foreign nation. I suppose that this might be a prediction, though the evidence suggests that Deuteronomy was written after these “predictions” were supposed to have been made. So, no, I do not think that this is prediction. I do, however, believe it to be prophecy. The Deuteronomistic author, speaking for God, is trying to make sense of Israel’s history. God, speaking through the author, is calling God’s people to repentance and obedience.

Shenanigans

And with that, I want to leave you with the following exchange I had with a friend on Facebook because I have hilarious friends…

I shared Deut. 28:26, because that line really hit me, and my friend, Kermit, responded:

Biblical sky-burial?

The following verse is better, I think:

“The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed.” You try to get through a weekend of botch and emerods after displeasing your Lord; I think you indeed will repent your ways.

To which I replied:

*That’s* what gets you and not the bits about the well-bred ladies secretly stuffing their faces with their afterbirth so that they don’t have to share it with their starving children??

Or, heck, the part about eating your own children?

And he responded:

Look, they’re all bad, but try a couple of days with emerods and Egyptian botch, and no ointment or pills. You couldn’t even manage walking to the table to eat afterbirth or suckling kid, you’d have such tsuris.