Deuteronomy 9: For you are a stiff-necked people

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With the Hebrew army poisoned to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses moves on to talk about the dangers they will face therein. Specifically, the Anakites, the giants we met back in Numbers 13.  But though they are a people “strong and tall” (v.2) and live in large cities with “walls up to the sky” (v.1), God will be on the side of the Hebrews. With his help, the Hebrews will “annihilate them [the Anakites] quickly” (v.3).

As is proving to be something of a theme in Deuteronomy, Moses then reminds the people that they must never think that they are receiving the Promised Land because of any personal qualities.

If God is driving out the people of Canaan, it’s only because of their wickedness, “not because of your righteousness or your integrity” (v.5). That and his promise to the patriarchs, of course.

Return of the Bride of the Golden Calf

Never one to let a complaint drop, Moses starts listing all those times the people totally forced God to kill bunches of them by making him angry. Specifically, he goes back to that time the people made an idol in God’s honour.

In the beginning of the story, Moses says that he spent forty days (and the accompanying nights) on the mountain, during each he “ate no bread and drank no water” (v.9). The water thing is pretty impressive, but the starvation thing is within the realm of non-miraculous possibilities. Peter Janiszewski has an article up on the Obesity Panacea blog: “Generally, it appears as though humans can survive without any food for 30-40 days, as long as they are properly hydrated.” Without either, Janiszewski writes, death is likely within 10-14 days. Of course, this assumes that forty is the actual number of days and not a little hyperbolising fudging, as we’ve seen so much (doubly likely given the mystical significance of the number given).

Bible story about the dance around the golden calf, woodcut from Hartmann Schedel's Weltchronik (Nuremberg 1493)

Bible story about the dance around the golden calf, woodcut from Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik (Nuremberg 1493)

What I find interesting here is that Moses says that the tablets contained “all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly” (v.10). Unless I’m way off, this seems to imply that the tablets contain all the ordinances, not just the Decalogue.

Moses tells the people that God wanted to kill them all and to start the chosen people over again with his line, as he had done before with Noah. Seems a bit conceited, honestly. Perhaps a detail I would have left out in Moses’s place. There’s enough guilt-tripping in the “he wanted to kill you all” without following it up with “but he really really likes me!”

In his story, Moses heads down the mountain and finds the golden calf. He chides the people, saying that they had “turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you” (v.16). So Moses throws a little tantrum and smashes the tablets.

Moses returns to God and goes another forty days without food or water (hopefully having a wee nibbly first). It worked, and God decided not to desert the people (though, not mentioned here, he did kill a load of them). In this account, God was also mad at Aaron, but relented after Moses prayed for him as well. This is a bit different from the account in Exodus 32, where Aaron simply lies about his involvement and is believed.

Moses then recalls how he burned the golden calf and then ground it into dust. But where in the original story he forced the people to drink it, killing them, this time he “threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain” (v.21). So it’s only, only the people downstream will be poisoned.

Then Moses reminds the people that they were so mean to God at Taberah (by complaining within God’s hearing), Massah (where it was Moses himself, and not the people, who angered God), and Kibroth Hattaavah (where they asked for something other than manna to eat).

Completing the crescendo of insults, Moses finishes by telling the people that they “have been rebellious against the Lord ever since I have known you” (v.24).

Exodus 17: Drawing water from a stone

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The Hebrews continue on their way and make camp in Rephidim. Unfortunately, there’s no water and, in customary fashion, the Hebrews start to whine. Moses the Middle Manager takes their complaints to God. God tells Moses to march in front of the Israelites smugly, making sure all the elders are watching, and strike a rock with his magic rod.

This causes the rock to split open and water to come out, satisfying the Hebrews for the time being. My study bible points out that “water lies below the limestone surface in the region of Sinai.” So we see another attempt to find a naturalistic explanation for a literal reading.

Battle with the Amalekites

The Jews defeating Amalek's army by Adolf Fedyes, 1915

The Jews defeating Amalek’s army by Adolf Fedyes, 1915

There are Amalekites in them thar hills and Moses has a mind to exterminate. He sends Joshua in to fight them while he works his magic. The last time we saw the Amalekites, they were being conquered by the warring factions in Genesis 14.

While Joshua is on the ground fighting, Moses climbs a hill with Aaron and some guy named Hur. As long as he keeps his arms in the air, the Israelites are winning the battle; but if he lowers them, the Amalekites start to win. Predictably, he starts to get tired, so he takes a seat and Aaron and Hur hold his arms up for him until the Amalekites are defeated.

There’s no indication why Moses has to do this. If it was a test of his dedication, why should it continue to work if his friends are holding his hands up for him? Isn’t that cheating? It seems like God just decided to make Moses do a funny chicken dance for his own amusement.

Finally, “Joshua mowed down Am’alek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exod. 17:13). Not that despite this violent imagery, the authors neglected to record the reasons for the battle.

Well, regardless, God tells Moses that he will “utterly blot out the remembrance of Am’alek from under heaven” (Exod. 17:14), which evidently hasn’t happened yet since, well, you’re reading all about them right now. Moses even anticipates this failure when he says that “the Lord will have war with Am’alek from generation to generation” (Exod. 17:16).

Not that I’m complaining. Genocide is a rather ugly thing and I’d really rather it not happen. But I do still think that follow-through is a desirable character trait in a deity.