Deuteronomy: Closing Thoughts

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Moses by Michelangelo

Moses by Michelangelo

In reading Deuteronomy, I was struck by how different it was, stylistically, than the other books I’ve read so far. Deuteronomy is far more refined, far more poetic. If I had to make a guess, I would say that the other books were written down as an attempt to capture the essence of narratives that were being told orally – short stories that could be embellished by their tellers, and that depended a great deal on performance. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, was composed as a written document first (though, of course, it drew on pre-existing traditions).

As a result, it’s the most cohesive of the Pentateuch books. The narrative doesn’t bounce around nearly as much as, say, Numbers – it doesn’t feel like fragments sewn together.

David Plotz says much the same in his summary of the book:

Deuteronomy seems intentionally written as a CliffsNotes or sourcebook for Judaism. The other four books of the Torah are choppy and episodic. Their moral lessons are haphazard and hard to discern. Even Leviticus, for all its laws, is a jumble. But Deuteronomy is as tightly organized as a Supreme Court brief. There are no sloppy asides, no incoherent stories with talking asses, no inconsistent patriarchs. In fact, there are no people of any kind. It’s all argument—an attempt to knit the chaos of the first four books, that random array of laws and stories, into a single coherent theology.

I also noticed that, while Deuteronomy draws on Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, it does not draw on Genesis. It could simply be because Genesis does not share the same legalistic concerns as the other four books of the Pentateuch, but I find the setting up of Moses as a sort of foundational patriarch interesting. When Abraham, Jacob, and the other patriarchs are mentioned at all in Deuteronomy, it is only to say that the Promised Land was originally promised to them. They are completely stripped of their own narratives, as though their names are little more than just magical/nonsensical words in a litany.

Deuteronomy 34: The Secret Burial

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After reminding all the people of the laws and blessing them, Moses finally goes up to Mount Nebo – and, somehow, also to the top of Pisgah – to look on the Promised Land and die.

Moses's Testament and Death (detail), by Luca Signorelli, 1482

Moses’s Testament and Death (detail), by Luca Signorelli, 1482

If Moses’s simultaneous duo-location doesn’t seem to make sense,my study Bible explains: “Two traditions about the place of Moses’ death are included here: Mount Nebo is in Transjordan east of Jericho; Mount Pisgah is a peak in the same range, slightly west” (p.262).

So while the giant Moses was standing with one foot on each peak, he looked out on the Promised Land. He saw all the different tribal lands, and even as far as the “Western Sea” (which I assume must be the Mediterranean).

After he sees the whole of the Promised Land (no word on his reaction to the sight, which is a real missed narrative opportunity), Moses dies and God gives him a secret burial somewhere in Moab, opposite Bethpeor (Deut. 34:6).

The text specifically tells us that “no man knows the place of his burial to this day” (Deut. 34:6). The possibilities are, of course, that a burial site was known but was lost, that God really did bury Moses personally, or that there was no Moses to begin with. Assuming the second possibility for the sake of narrative, I’d like to think it had to do with the possibility of idolatry.

We are told that Moses was 120 years old when he died, and that he was in perfect health (Deut. 34:7). In Deut. 32:1, Moses said that he is “no longer able to go out and come in,” which could be a reference to the limitations of his health and therefore a contradiction.

The people mourned Moses’s passing for 30 days, then turned to Joshua as their new leader. Prior to this, with Moses as the king-like secular leader and his brother/nephew as the high priest and religious leader, power was concentrated in Levite hands (though Moses’s membership in the tribe of Levi is never emphasized, and it would be easy enough to see him as some kind of Divergent).

Now that the secular leadership has passed to Joshua – who is apparently from Ephraim (Num. 13:8) – the power structure evens out just a little.

Deuteronomy 33: More blessings

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Before he passes, Moses gives his final blessings to each of the twelve tribes. We saw a father on his deathbed giving blessings to his sons back in Genesis 27 when Isaac did it. Then we saw a transitional form in Genesis 49, where Jacob blessed his own sons who also happened to be the patriarchs of each of the twelve tribes. In that chapter, the blessing given to each son was both personal and meant to be understood for the tribe he represented as well. The process is complete here, where Moses offers his blessing directly to the tribal identity.

The Death of Moses, from the Jami al-Tawarikh, 1307

The Death of Muhammad, from the Jami al-Tawarikh, 1307

It’s fairly standard, starting with a with a bit about how awesome God is, then blesses each tribe in turn, and finishes up with how great God is.

But there are some interesting bits. The biggest is, of course, that Simeon is missing. The twelve tribes are: Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph (with both Ephraim and Manasseh mentioned), Zebulun, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, and Asher. So what happened to Simeon?

My study Bible says: “In its present form it probably comes from the early period of the monarchy, though it may reflect slightly earlier tribal circumstances. Simeon, for example, is not mentioned, perhaps because the tribe had already disappeared” (p.259). There may be a hint of this in Jacob’s “blessing” of them, where he says of Simeon and Levi: “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7).

Which brings me to Levi, who are described in the Gen. 49:5-7 blessing as being very aggressive and warlike – clearly different from the scholar/priest/teacher role they are given in Deut. 33:10. So it seems like we had two very war-like tribes who were destroyed, losing all of their land. Simeon simply vanished, while Levi carved out a new place for itself, supported by the other tribes.

If you’re reading along with a King James, you’ll notice a reference to a unicorn. There’s a brief discussion of the matter at Sansblogue that may be of interest.

Deuteronomy 32: God’s chart topper

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At the end of the last chapter, Moses gathered together all the elders and officers of Israel to teach them God’s new song. This, finally, is that song.

It begins in the usual way: With a description of how awesome and totally cool God is, but everything goes wrong and it’s always someone else’s fault. The people didn’t respect him enough, so “they are no longer his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5). While the sentiment is reversed within a couple lines, where Moses rhetorically asks: “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deut. 32:6) – which is it’s own little parental mindfuck – I find it rather horrifying that God would go there. I mean, a god turning away from a people who aren’t worshipping him properly is all well and good, but if he’s to use the parental imagery, he loses the right to keep pulling this “I turn away from you, you are no longer my children” stuff.

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

In his description of how God created the people, Moses sings about the sons of men, and how God “fixed the bounds of the peoples according tot he number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8). According to my study Bible, this line is supposed to mean that God allows other members of the heavenly court to govern the other nations, while God sees to Israel personally. Given that other parts of this very song come off very monotheistic, I really wish we had a more explicit cosmology to look at.

Moses then goes on to talk about how God took care of Jacob, making him “suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13) – a miracle, obviously, but also some very maternal imagery. Given that God is later conflated with a Rock (my study Bible capitalizes the word), it certainly makes it seem like God is playing the part of a Mother Goddess figure, nursing Jacob at the breast of the land. All of this is doubly interesting because I can’t recall anything in Genesis that would give an indication of this sort of relationship – except that it is Jacob’s descendent who are the tribal founders, making Jacob the founder of the whole nation.

Moses then goes on to talk about a Jeshurun, which from the context appears to be a anthropomorphism of Israel, who grows fat and complacent, eventually forsaking God. Ironically, Jeshurun apparently means “the Upright One,” according to my study Bible.

Then, he “stirred him [God] to jealousy with strange gods” (Deut. 32:16). I find all the references to God’s jealousy quite interesting. I have a friend in a poly relationship who once explained to me that jealousy comes from a lack of self-confidence, from feeling insecure in your position in a relationship. In other words, if you feel (consciously or subconsciously) that you are not worthy enough for your partner, you react with jealousy when you see your partner in a situation where they might encounter someone better. So take of that what you will.

With Jeshurun being such a meanie, God decides that he will provoke him back by sending a “foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21) after the Israelites, to heap evils on them and kill them – even “the suckling child” (Deut. 32:25). So there’s that mercy and ‘slow to anger’ stuff he’s been talking about. In fact, it seems that the only thing preventing him from destroying the people entirely is that the nations he sends in to do his dirty work might come to think that they achieved their victories for themselves, rather than crediting God with being so totally awesome.

God will also rub it all in a bit. When the people have been conquered, he will ask them Where are your gods now? “Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!” (Deut. 32:38).

Then God goes on for a bit about what a gross, vindictive jerk he is.

Go up the mountain

With the song finished, God sends Moses up to Abarim, Mount Nebo, to look down on the Promised Land. Once there, he will die, as Aaron died, because they “broke faith with me [God] at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel” (Deut. 32:51).

Meribath-kadesh seems to be yet another name for Massah and Meribah from the stories we saw in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20.

Deuteronomy 31: Passing the baton

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At 120 years old, Moses is told that he will not be going over the Jordan River with the rest of the people, so a replacement must be named. God chooses Joshua son of Nun. So Moses dutifully summons Joshua to him in front of everyone and tells him to be strong and courageous, and to remember that God is with him. That seems to be taking it rather well, considering what Moses has been. If he feels any resentment at having to pass the baton, he doesn’t seem to show it.

Moses Receiving the Law, by William Blake, c.1780

Moses Receiving the Law, by William Blake, c.1780

Moses then “wrote the law” (Deut. 31:9), supposedly the book of Deuteronomy, but that’s an assumption. It could just refer to the ordinances. Once it is written, Moses hands it over to the Levites to carry along with the ark, and also to the elders of Israel – which could mean that he either wrote multiple copies, or that both groups are responsible for the book.

From then on, Moses charges them to read out the book to the whole congregation every seven years, at the feast of booths, so that they can all hear it and learn it. This includes the men, the women, the children, and even the sojourners.

God then makes another seven days” call, and calls Moses and Joshua to the door of the tent of meeting, appearing to them as a pillar of cloud. There, he tells Moses that the people will betray him, so he’ll turn away from them so that “they will be devoured” (Deut. 31:16-17). To prepare his “I told you so” moment, he asks Moses to write down a song. Moses does so, and then God commissions Joshua, a repetition of the story from Numbers 27.

To close off, Moses gives his own warning to the people, saying: “Behold, while I am yet alive with you, today you have been rebellious against the Lord; how much more after my death!” (Deut. 31:27). A point that might have been better made if Moses himself were not about to die for his own rebelliousness.

The whole chapter bounces all over the place and was rather hard to follow. I think Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic sums it up well:

Verses 14-18 “predict” God’s rejection of Israel. In verses 19-22 YHWH instructs Moses to write “this song” (What song?). Verse 23 focuses on Joshua again. Verses 24-29 hark back to 9-13. Here Moses is instructed to place the book he has written beside the ark of the Covenant. And then in verse 30, we are given an introduction to Moses song which begins in chapter 32 (Oh, that song!).

Deuteronomy 29-30: The sealing of the covenant

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In these two chapters, Moses concludes his treatise. Once again, he summarizes the journey so far and the sorts of awesome works God has used to demonstrate his power, including the fact that they’ve been wandering in the desert for forty years without their clothes or sandals wearing out. Personally, I’d say that might be more indicative of losing a couple calendars, time warps, accidentally entering the Fey lands, or perhaps a testament to the quality of pre-WalMartization clothing.

There’s another mention of conquering lands from King Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, giving their lands to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh.

Coming to the present, the people are gathered at Mount Horeb to swear to the covenant, which will be binding not only on them, but also those who are not present (I assume he means the descendants).

A Poisonous Root

Moses reminds the people to beware of anyone who approaches the covenant without full commitment, “lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deut. 29:18).

The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Further, no one should think that simply agreeing to the covenant is enough, that they’ve done their good deed, and can then continue to “walk in the stubbornness of my heart” (Deut. 29:19).

This is actually quite a good point and something that made me rather cynical when I worked for not-for-profits. Generally, people in my sector (at least in my corner of the sector) earned less than their for-profit or public sector doubles. I noticed that a lot of my co-workers, particularly the higher ups, seemed to think that they were earning their brownie points by working in the sector, so they didn’t have to do other little acts of kindness – like treat the people at the bottom of the totem pole with respect and fairness, or not steal people’s labelled lunches from the common refrigerator (seriously, what is someone making $100K+ doing stealing the lunch of someone who makes under $30K??).

It reminds me a bit of the famous compassion study.

Anyways, point is that I do like that Moses makes clear that simply making a big show of faith is not enough, commitment must be demonstrated by action.

I also find it notable that Moses tells the whole congregation to “beware” of those who are this way (and though I haven’t mentioned it, this includes people who might worship other gods, not just hypocrites). In doing so, it becomes the whole community’s responsibility to be on the lookout for evil or lapsing. Obviously, this isn’t something I like at all. I am all for an individual being held accountable for his stated beliefs, but all the stuff we’ve been getting about worship and the relationship with God being a communal action makes me very nervous – particularly as someone who is of a minority belief in my geographical area.

Then there’s a passage I’m a bit confused about. In Deut. 29:29, Moses says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

According to David Plotz, the distinction being made is between an individual’s private thoughts and his outward actions:

The Israelites don’t believe in thought crime! The community must punish public wrongdoing. But God will take care of private sin and bad thoughts. This is, you could argue, the first right to privacy.

My study Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to see this at all:

The secret things refer to the divine wisdom beyond man’s ken; the revealed things are the teachings set forth in Deuteronomy. (p.254)

Which I take to mean a distinction between the mysteries of spirituality and that which God has revealed to his people. I’m not sure that I understand how this interpretation is supposed to fit in the context, and I’m inclined to take Plotz’s interpretation.

More Carrots, More Sticks

Unable to help himself, it seems, Moses returns with the carrot and the stick. Follow all the commandments and everything will be completely, utterly, stupendously awesome. Interestingly, the description of how awesome it will be in Deut. 30:1-10 seems to presuppose a people in exile, rather than a people coming into awesome for the first time.

Remember, God made the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would bring their descendants to greatness. Never was it assumed that they were great at the time (and with only ~70 people heading down into Egypt and the slavery that followed, they could hardly be considered to be as numerous as the stars!). Then there was slavery, then there was walking in the desert for forty years eating nothing but manna and poisoned quail. There’s no call for all this “return” and “restore” language.

This passage also doesn’t describe a whole people moving from one place to another. The language suggests a scattering – “if your outcasts are in the uttermost part of heaven” – and a calling back – “from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will fetch you” (Deut. 30:4).

And there’s there obligatory “if you don’t follow the commandments” threats. Namely, that Israel will be pulverized so bad that they’ll resemble Soddom and Gomorrah, or Admah and Zeboim.

I had to look up the latter two because I couldn’t recall a destruction of any Admah or Zeboim. If my Google-fu can be trusted, my memory was correct. The cities have come into the narrative twice, but in very different contexts:

  1. Gen. 10:19 – They are used as geographical markers to describe the borders of Canaan.
  2. Gen. 14:2 – They are on Sodom and Gomorrah’s side in the totally contextless and very confusing battle against Chedorlaomer.

But apparently there exists some alternative tradition in which they are also named among the destroyed cities.

Look, I’ve made it easy for you

Closing up, Moses argues that the people now have the Law, it’s been given to them. It isn’t far off in heaven or across the sea, it’s not inaccessible. Therefore, there is only the choice to either follow it or not, with no excuse not to. “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15).

Which makes perfect sense from a Hebrew, “chosen people” perspective, but I wonder how Christians view this passage given how many people have lived and died with the Law literally being across the sea and totally inaccessible. From the perspective of a missionary religion, this passage is much more difficult.

I do know that there’s been some wrangling to make sins “not count” for people who had never been in contact with “the right religion” and therefore had no ability to make an informed choice. I would also include in that lot people who grew up with their own religions – such as some of my Muslim friends – and who would therefore have heard of Christianity in a very different context (when they finally did).

Also, has Moses even read the ordinances? Most of them aren’t too bad, but one thing I hear often from devout Jews is that keeping them is extremely hard, especially if you add in the difficulty of even knowing what they are some of the time (like the extent that the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk should be applied, or how to understand the prohibition against making others work on the Sabbath in a modern context). To reduce it to a simple matter of choice isn’t exactly honest.

There’s also some conflating of Moses and God in this passage. In telling the people to follow the Law, Moses says: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you” (Deut. 30:11). Is Moses merely describing his role as the relater of the laws, or is there really some conflation?

Deuteronomy 28: In which we get graphic

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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.


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.

Deuteronomy 27: A Contradictory Interlude

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This next chapter is quite noticeably different in style from what we’ve seen so far in Deuteronomy. The first big difference greets us right in the first verse, where Moses is referred to in the third person (Deut. 27:1).

Through most of Deuteronomy, the rhetorical set up has been to give the whole as a speech from Moses (his final big speech before he dies and the Israelites move into the Promised Land without him). So breaking with that is a pretty big deal. Not only that, but what parts are speech in this chapter are put into the mouths of “Moses and the elders of Israel” (Deut. 27:1), and then “Moses and the Levitical priests” (Deut. 27:9).

The Altar

Moses and the elders instruct the people to, when they reach the Promised Land, make an altar on Mount Ebal. They are to use natural stones only, without using iron tools during the construction (because apparently God is a fairy).

Photograph of an altar found on Mount Ebal by Dr. Adam Zertal in 1980.

Photograph of an altar found on Mount Ebal by Dr. Adam Zertal in 1980.

The altar should then be covered with plaster, and then “write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly” (Deut. 27:8) – referring perhaps to the book of Deuteronomy, or to the various and varied ordinances we’ve been receiving.

All that done, a peace offering should be made, and the people should eat and rejoice. The meal is part of the peace offering described in Leviticus 3.  My study Bible says that it was “a covenant meal in which the worshipper was sacramentally related to the Lord and to fellow-Israelites” (p.124).

Given that the prohibition on worship anywhere other than Jerusalem has been a running theme through our Deuteronomy reading, having half a chapter be an instruction manual for building a non-Jerusalem based altar is a pretty huge deal.

This is clearly a different, perhaps older, narrative scrap that has somehow found its way into the middle of Deuteronomy.

A blessing and a curse

The people are to be divided into two groups. One group – composed of the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin – are to stand on Mount Gerizim to receive blessings. The blessings themselves are absent. According to my study Bible, these may have originally been part of the narrative, but were “not preserved in this fragmentary record” (p.249).

It’s also significant, says my study bible, that the tribe of Joseph is listed instead of being separated into Ephraim and Manasseh (thus leaving Levi to make up the total of twelve tribes). This is, apparently, evidence of this narratives antiquity.

Meanwhile, over on Mount Ebal, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali are gathered to hear the curses. After each curse is said, the people are to say “amen” to show their agreement.

The following people are cursed:

  1. Those who make a graven or molten image, then sets it up in secret.
  2. Those who dishonour their father or mother.
  3. Those who remove their neighbour’s landmark.
  4. Those who mislead a blind man on the road.
  5. Those who perfect the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
  6. Those who lie with their father’s wife (because doing so would be to uncover “her who is his father’s” – Deut. 27:20)
  7. Those who would lie with any kind of beast.
  8. Those who lie with their sister, whether she be the daughter of his father or of his mother (or, presumably, both).
  9. Those who lie with their mother-in-law.
  10. Those who slay their neighbour in secret (doing it openly okay, apparently).
  11. Those who accept payment to kill an innocent person.
  12. Those who do not confirm the words of this law by doing them.

I find the inclusion of the “sojourner, fatherless, and widow” triad here to be interesting. If we accept my study Bible’s assertion that this chapter is from a much older, it seems odd that this specific phrase would be used, given that I can’t recall us ever seeing it prior to Deuteronomy.

Likewise, the prohibition against moving one’s neighbour’s landmark seems to be a Deuteronomy-exclusive ordinance. Yet here they are. I think something really neat is going on, but I’m not entirely sure what that might be.

I’d also be interested in knowing why each tribe was chosen for either the blessings or the curses.

All in all, though, it seems to me that there are actually two separate narratives in this chapter: The first is a sort of origin story for the altar on Mount Ebal, while the second is a story of the people receiving the blessing and the curse (a continuation from the little snippet we got in Deut. 11:29).

Deuteronomy 26: First Fruits

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After the really long posts we’ve been having lately, this should be a nice quickie.

Thank offering unto the Lord, illustration from a Bible card by the Providence Lithograph Company

Thank offering unto the Lord, illustration from a Bible card by the Providence Lithograph Company

Once the people come into the Promised Land, they are reminded (uuuuuhgain) to put some of their first harvest aside for God. When they do this, they have to follow a special script, telling God that they are descended from “a wandering Aramean” who went into Egypt with a few people, and came out “a nation, great, mighty, and populous” (Deut. 26:5). If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time the designation of “Aramean” has appeared, which is rather interesting.

The script continues: The Egyptians treated the Hebrews poorly and made them work hard. When the people cried out to God, God brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The recitation finished, the devotee must place his offering down before God.

That done, the food is to be given to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.

Then a new recitation begins in which the devotee must let God know that he’s shared his tithe with the Levites, the sojourners, the fatherless, and the widows. He must also swear that he hasn’t transgressed any commandments, and didn’t eat any of his tithe while mourning or unclean. He must also promise that he hasn’t shared any of the tithe with the dead, on the subject of which Victor Matthews says:

The burial caves or rock-cut tombs themselves were located outside the village proper. Some personal possessions were buried with the corpse, usually to serve as symbols of who the person was in life. Still, some items may have been designed as comforts in the afterlife or as charms to drive away evil spirits. Archaeological evidence from the Late Bronze tombs found at Ugarit (1400-1200 B.C.) suggests that a strand of popular religion involved communication with the dead and a sense of kinship with past generations. Superstitions about the spirits of the dead and a form of ancestor worship were strictly forbidden in biblical law (Lev 19:31; Deut 26:13-14), but legislation prohibiting its practice suggests it continued to exist. The only narrative that contains evidence of an ancestor cult and the practice of communicating with the dead, or divination, is found in the story of Saul’s drastic purge of mediums and his subsequent visit to the witch of Endor in 1 Sam 28:3-19. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.69-70)

The devotee then asks God to bless the people of Israel.

See? I promised this one would be short!

Deuteronomy 23-25: In which your humble narrator is first much impressed, then much disappointed

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As with last week’s post, I’d like to look at these three chapters thematically (using themes entirely made up by me).

Banking and Economics

The ordinance against lending at interest is repeated, but this time there is an exception – it’s okay to lend at interest to foreigners. If we take that to mean actual foreigners – such as travelling merchants – I suppose it makes sense (since they may be borrowing for business purposes, whereas a local may be more likely to be borrowing out of desperation). But if ‘foreigner’ refers to anyone outside of the faith community, it just becomes yet another in-group/out-group thing.

Still, I find it interesting that while I have heard arguments made that Christians shouldn’t be borrowing on interest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard, say, a Duggar or a Gothard say that banks shouldn’t be allowed to charge interest. It’s a little strange to see such a “live and let live” attitude when both these ministries are so vocal against homosexuality.

When taking collateral for a loan, the lender is not allowed to take a mill or an upper millstone. This makes perfect sense in any society where bread is a staple food. If someone is taking out a loan because they’ve had a bad harvest, taking away their ability to process their food would be absurdly cruel (and forcing them to pay for the use of someone else’s mill could very well cement their desperation). In modern terms, we might talk about repossessing someone’s car when it’s the only way they can get to work, for example.

Later on, a widow’s garment is added as something that’s off limits for collateral. In this case, if a widow is taking a loan out of desperation because her husband did not leave her with the means to provide for herself (and potentially her children, as well) after his death, taking her clothes on top of everything else would just add insult to injury.

When collecting on a loan, the lender may not go into the recipient’s home to take the collateral. Instead, they had to stand outside and have it brought to them by the loan recipient. If the recipient is poor, the collateral can be taken, but must be returned at the end of the day, “that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you” (Deut. 24:13).

When I posted about this to my Facebook page, I had someone ask if this was related to rules against stealing: “because taking something that doesn’t belong to you shouldn’t be okay just because someone else owes you money?” I answered that I think it has more to do with the idea of the home being sacred. Putting something up as collateral is clearly seen to be a legal exchange, so the issue here would have to do with sovereignty in the home.

There’s a bit about paying all labourers (even if they are sojourners) for their labour before the end of the day. The reasons for this are given in the text: “for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it” (Deut. 24:15).

There is a prohibition against owning “two kinds of weights” (Deut. 25:13-14). This goes back to the prohibition against using “dishonest standards” that we saw in Leviticus 19:35-36. The implication here being that the seller might use a heavier weight when displaying quantities, but a lighter when when actually measuring quantities for sale.

Law & Order

According to Deut. 24:17, justice must be blind. A person may not be treated differently in legal matters just because they are a sojourner or have no father (except, I suppose, in those ways that have been specifically allowed).

If someone is found guilty and sentenced to receive a beating, the number of hits (I assume this would be with a cane) must be proportional to his crime, and no greater in number than 40.

Stealing, treating people like slaves, or selling people (“one of his brethren,” so this would not apply to sojourners) are all punishable by death. This is odd given some of the other things that have been said about Hebrew slaves. I found this very interesting, in no small part because of the easy conflation between slavery and theft.

It also seems to sum up the change in how slavery is viewed in Deuteronomy. In Deut. 15, Hebrew slaves are discussed, but there’s no mention of selling them. But the specification regarding “treat[ing] him as a slave” (Deut. 24:7) is new. What does it mean to treat someone like a slave? Except, perhaps, if we look back to Deut. 15 and the stipulation that Hebrew debt slaves must, at the end of their term, be sent away with payment for service. In other words, does “treats him as a slave” refer to withholding payment?

Lastly, there’s a rebuke to the concept of inheritable guilt: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16). Hopefully, this isn’t meant to literally mean that every man shall be put to death!

Regardless, it’s a rather direct answer to, for example, Exodus 20:5-6, or Exodus 34:6-7.

Sex & Marriage

Cultic prostitution is right out. Israelites are not allowed to become temple prostitutes, nor are they allowed to bring one into the temple “in payment for any vow” (Deut. 23:18).

liberationtheologyAlso interesting is the term “dog” used as an insulting term for a male prostitute (yes, this whole bit specifically addresses both male and female prostitutes).

A newly married man shouldn’t go out with the army “or be charged with any business” (Deut. 24:5), which I take to mean business that would require travelling. Rather, he should remain at home for a full year.

I get this. Given the lack of emphasis on dating and getting to know each other as a couple prior to marriage, it strikes me as a very good idea for the married couple to have an opportunity to get to become familiar with each other before kids are added to the mix. Having a kid, I can attest that the amount of time my husband and I have left to recharge our relationship batteries can be very limited (and that can mean even as little as just having a conversation that is not about – and interrupted by – our child). I credit our having a solid foundation and learned mutual understanding with our being able to “recharge” in short-hand.

I mean, I suspect that the justification probably had more to do with giving men a change to conceive a potential heir before they must return to their national duties, but I could certainly see a side benefit.

On divorce, we’re told that a man may divorce his wife if “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1-1). All he has to do is write a bill of divorce and put it in her house (with no mention of alimony or what happens with the children).

If the wife remarries and then is either divorced again or is widowed, her first husband cannot remarry her, because “she has been defiled” (Deut. 24:4).

The indecency that might be found is unspecified, but Collins writes:

Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.89:

There is no legislation concerning divorce in the Hebrew Bible. The practice is simply assumed. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 became the focal text for discussions of divorce in later tradition. Verse 1 envisions the case of a man who divorces a woman “because he finds something objectionable about her” – most probably impurity or sexual misconduct. There was a famous debate about the meaning of the phrase between the schools of Shammai and Hillel in the first century B.C.E. The Shammaites attempted to restrict the man’s power of divorce to cases of adultery, but the school of Hillel ruled that divorce was permitted “even if she spoiled a dish for him.” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.89)

Matthews adds a few more possibilities:

Divorce was an option for an Israelite man whose wife had committed some “indecency” (Deut 24:1-2). This was probably adultery, although other ancient Near Eastern law codes also list childlessness (CH 138) and taking a job outside the home (CH 141) as grounds for divorce (ANET, 172). (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.121)

Matthews adds the observation that “there is no law in the biblical text allowing a woman the right to divorce her husband,” even though we have seen some protections against, for example, unsubstantiated accusations.

The other question raised in this passage if about the declaration that the wife “has been defiled” (Deut. 24:4). James Bradford Pate has collected a few thoughts on the term in Why Was the Ex-Wife Defiled? 

Most interesting is that she is defiled only insofar as her first husband is concerned, since there is nothing to prevent any other man from marrying her. This suggests that it is not a description of her state, but rather of the marriage between both of those people. And the fact that another man saw her as worthy of marrying suggests that whatever indecency the first husband saw in her may not have really been an issue.

Another theory James covers is that bracketing of the marriage to the first marriage may make the interim marriage an adulterous action, even if she was legally married to her “lover” at the time.

It could also be to curb frivolous divorces, or to discourage seeing women as property that can be thrown out or reclaimed at will. Or that the second marriage “utterly alienates her from her first husband […] It’s like her second marriage seals the deal that her first marriage is over.”

The last bit relating to marriage has to do with the Levirate Marriage, where the brother of a man who dies without an heir must marry his wife. Her first son is then counted as the deceased brother’s heir, rather than her current husband’s. You may remember an example of this (almost not) in practice from Genesis 38, where Tamar’s husband dies and she subsequently marries his whole family, one after another.

The only real Deuteronomical variation is the specification that this only apply “if brothers dwell together” (Deut. 25:4).

If he refuses to try to impregnate his brother’s wife, she gets to spit in his face and take his sandal, so that his family name should henceforth be known as “The house of him that had his sandal pulled off” (Deut. 25:10). The association between the removal of the sandal and shame is an interesting one, and has some interesting implications for God’s demand that Moses remove his shoes before approaching him in Exodus 3.

Mutilation & Illness

Those afflicted with leprosy must be very scrupulous in doing everything the priests tell them to do.

Those with crushed testicles or with their penises cut off may not enter the assembly of God. Commenter BHitt on The King and I argues that this has to do with the priestly desire for everything to fit into easily-defined categories, as we discussed last week in relation to wearing the clothing of the opposite gender. In this case, a man without testicles or a penis doesn’t fit neatly into the male category, and “things that violate this order are unholy and must not come in contact with designated holy spaces/items.”

Bastards are also forbidden entry in the assembly – “even to the tenth generation” (Deut. 23:2). As are Ammonites and Moabites, also to the tenth generation. The reason for the latter two groups being that they did not offer proper hospitality to the Israelites leaving Egypt, and because they hired Balaam to curse the Israelites.

But because the Edomites are related to the Israelites, their third generation may enter the assembly. As can the Egyptians from the third generation, “because you were a sojourner in his land” (Deut. 23:7), which seems like a rather radical reversion of previously expressed feelings toward Egyptians.

If two men are fighting, and the wife of one tries to rescue her husband by crushing the other man’s “private parts,” her hand should be cut off (Deut. 25:11-12).

I got a kick out of BHitt’s comment on how oddly specific the situation seems:

Yeah, sounds like the author had a very specific incident in mind. “No balls-grabbing, and you know who you are! Even if you do have a ‘history’ with a certain priest and even if said priest called you a certain name when you left him to marry a total douchebag!”

Owen Ball and David Wong of Cracked offered a rather amusing theory as well, taking this passage in light of the prohibition on those who have damaged genitals entering the assembly of God from Deut. 23:

“Emasculated by crushing?” Gah! Everything in the Bible has to be understood in context of the times these people were living in. And, apparently, these people lived in a time when “crushing” the nuts was so common that the crushed-nuts victims were an entire demographic that had to be accounted for in the law. Call these commandments savage if you want, but if you were God, how many nuts would you have to see “crushed” before you overreacted? We’re thinking the answer is two.

On a slightly more serious note, Claude Mariottini has a very interesting discussion of the law in three parts on his blog.

He first discusses the possibility that this could be an application of the lex talionis, or the legal principle of “an eye for an eye.” But this is difficult to call because there is no actual reference to injury, only that she “puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts” (Deut. 25:11). Without injury, the punishment of amputation would not fit with the talionic principle.

If, however, it is assumed that there is injury and the man becomes unable to sire children, it is still difficult to fit into the lex talioniz because “it is difficult to understand how the cutting of the woman’s hand would be comparable to the man’s loss of his testicles, since the talionic law requires the punishment to be comparable to the injury inflicted. The punishment inflicted upon the woman, the amputation of her hand, is not equal to the man’s injury, the loss of his testicles.”

Mariottini then explores the possibility that the issue could have to do with values rather than injury. Specifically, that it could be “a rejection of the woman’s sexual aggression and the offensive nature of the attack as a violation of social sexual mores present in the Israelite society.”

The sexual norms in Israelite society declared that sexual contact between a married woman and a man other than her husband was absolutely forbidden. Thus, the punishment required by the violation of these sexual norms emphasizes the gravity of the offense of a married woman initiating sexual contact with another man.

Another interpretation is that the action could be construed as an attack on both literal and metaphorical manhood:

If the Deuteronomic law deals with the issue of shame, then this law is addressing an act that brings shame on the man who was attacked by a woman. […] To be the loser in a fight was shameful in itself, but to lose a fight because a woman interfered by grabbing his genitals was a shame that a man could not bear. Such an act would bring intense shame for that man in a patriarchal community.

The woman’s act would bring shame on the husband because he won the fight because his wife grabbed his opponent’s genitals. The action would bring shame on the woman because she violated the sexual norms of her society by touching the genitals of a man who was not her husband.

Humanitarian Rules

The laws in this category are seriously awesome. Like, really really awesome. Starting us off with a bang, “you shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you” (Deut. 23:15). I would have liked it better if it just unequivocally came out against slavery, but this is huge!

The runaway slave should, instead, be allowed to dwell “in the place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best; you shall not oppress him” (Deut. 23:16).

According to Collins, this rule is made even more awesome in light of local cultural context:

In contrast, the laws of Hammurabi declared that sheltering a runaway slave was punishable by death. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.90)

Some theft is made permissible. It is allowed to go into someone’s vineyard or standing grain and eat “as many as you wish” (Deut. 23:24), so long as you do not put any in a vessel or use a sickle. I take this to mean that that theft is okay so long as the thief does not take more than they need to satisfy immediate needs. The rule is intended, I imagine, as a sort of implicit charitable system, a kind of welfare safety net by which community resources are used to ensure that people aren’t starving to death.

Once crops are harvested, farmers must not go back for any forgotten sheaf or remaining gleanings. Rather, these are to be left for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. This is a repetition of the rule we saw in Leviticus 19:9-10 and Leviticus 23:22 and, again, seems to be essentially a welfare system.

Farmers are prohibited from muzzling their oxen while treading out grain. I’m assuming that this is so that the oxen can graze while they work, which is why I included it in the humanitarian category.


When preparing for war, soldiers must be careful to mind their ritual purity. Anyone who is “not clean by reason of what changes to him by night” (Deut. 23:10), he must go outside the camp for the whole day, then bathe before he can return. I assume this refers to nocturnal emissions?

There’s a lot of concern for the ritual cleanliness of the camp, which sometimes translates to literal cleanliness. Soldiers must leave camp with a stick whenever they want to use the bathroom, and use the stick to dig a hole to poop into. Once they have defecated, they must bury their excrement. This must be done “because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp” (Deut. 23:14), and no one likes shit on their shoes.

(While a hilarious image, I don’t think I buy the explanation I’ve seen from several bloggers that presumes a corporeal god who can, actually, step in poop. Rather, I think that it’s more likely that the camp is essentially turned into a sacred space as a way of inviting God’s protection and aid in achieving victory.)

That being said, it’s rather disappointing that the reason given for not crapping where you eat and sleep is cast in purely ritualistic terms, rather than hygienic ones. Though the result may be the same. After all, an army decimated by cholera probably won’t be winning any wars.

When making a vow to God, don’t dawdle in fulfilling it. If your heart wasn’t in it, you shouldn’t have made the vow in the first place. After all, “if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you” (Deut. 23:22).

And then, after a few groaners and a whole lot of awesome, we get: “when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19).

Because the Bible can’t just tell people to feed the hungry, or protect the poor from exploitation through usury, or help runaway slaves without also adding it a bit about ethnic cleansing.


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