September 26, 2007

Final Reflections on Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy, much like the other books we have looked at so far (except, perhaps, Genesis) is a hodge-podge book. Though it is almost entirely recounted in Moses' voice, its contents are many and varied. The book contains a summary of the Israelites' wanderings to date, a preview of their conquest of Canaan, a recap of various important laws, and snippets of poetry.

But, if I had to choose a unifying theme for this book, it would be a warning to the Israelites: you have been rebellious against the Lord before, and you will be again, and you will reap dire consequences for your rebellion. Even the laws seem fixated on how the Israelites are supposed to live together and in good relationship with God. Finally, the book contains a few reminders that even if the Israelites are rebellious, God will forgive them if they repent and relinquish their evil ways.

It seems that the book is torn between these two predictions: first, that the Israelites will rebel against God, and second that they may find repentance afterwards. Let us therefore take a moment to reflect upon these two extremes.

Of course, the history of the Jews (as recounted by the Bible and then by more conventional histories) is one of destruction and Diaspora. Yes, there was certainly a period of prosperity in Canaan after Joshua's conquest. But after that conquest, the Israelites grew decadent, just as Moses predicted. Biblical literalists (and, indeed, many of the Israelites at the time) interpreted the Israelites' defeat by Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome as just punishment for rejecting God's ways. After all, God said many times in the first five books of the Bible that if the Israelites follow his law, they will prosper forever; if they don't, they will be destroyed. The Israelites stopped following the law, so they deserved their punishment... or so goes the theory.

Things become more complicated with the second part of the prophecy, the idea that God will forgive and avenge his people if they return to his ways. When the book of Deuteronomy was written, the Israelites were still in exile. This part of the prophecy was therefore just as hopeful for them as it was for the Israelites just before the conquest. To the Jews in the Diaspora, return to Israel was a dream that they hoped to see fulfilled one day.

In fact, this hope sustained the Jews through nearly two thousand years of Diaspora, through expulsions and inquisitions. The history of the Jews was hard, certainly, but through it all they were able to cling to the passages in Deuteronomy which said that God would forgive them if only they returned to his ways. If only they were truly earnest and repentant, God would forgive them and allow them to regain Israel.

Now, however, we must tie Deuteronomy into modern Mid-Eastern politics. For many Jews, sustained for years in the hope of a return to Canaan, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of this prophecy from Deuteronomy. It was proof that the Jews had finally, after all this time, returned to God's good graces. Though Israel's creation was carried out by human agents, many devout Jews saw the hand of God behind them. "We have repented and returned to God," they thought, "so God is rewarding us and returning us to our ancestral homeland, the land that was promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses."

Looked at in this way, it is easy to see why so many Jews violently defend Israel, even when it seems a less-than-ideal location. It is, as many people have pointed out, the only Middle Eastern country without oil reserves. It is hotly contested by the Arabs who inhabited it before the U.N. declaration. It hardly fits all the people who want to live there. Yet Israel is not simply a piece of land. It is, as many countries are, a symbol. In this case, it is a symbol that the Jews have finally fulfilled the second half of the prophecy and God has forgiven them.

A strange twist on the matter arrives when we consider the question, "were the Jews more pious and repentant in 1948 than any time in the previous two thousand years?" This is, after all, the linchpin of the theory. Through all the ages of the last two millennia, was it really in 1948 that the Jews finally returned to God? Throughout the Diaspora, there have been golden ages of Jewish flowering, such as Spain under Muslim rule (which brought us such famous Jewish thinkers as Maimonides). Surely, if we consider a return to God, we would first need to look at those years.

Many people, facing this question, will provide the obvious answer of the Holocaust. The Jews in 1948 were more religious, they argue, because they had just been through the harrowing experience of near-extermination under the Nazis. This shocked them into returning to God.

This theory is valid in many cases. However, it is invalid in many others. In fact, many Jews lost their faith in God because of the Holocaust: God would never allow such a thing to happen, therefore he must not exist.

The answer to the question, "did the Jews sincerely return to God after the Holocaust, and was God rewarding them by returning them to the land of Israel?" may never be answered. On the other hand, the mere fact that we can ask such a question points to the continued influence of the book of Deuteronomy. If it weren't for the predictions made in this book, the entire idea would be a non-issue.

September 25, 2007

Breadcrumb: No one like him

Deut. 34:10-12 makes a point of saying that there was never again another prophet like Moses, "whom the LORD knew face to face." While earlier generations did seem to see God face to face, by Moses' time this was exceedingly rare. It seems that after his death, it was completely unknown. Later prophets received God's words in visions and dreams, but only Moses spoke face-to-face with God. While Moses may have had many complains, among them his prohibition from entering Canaan, at least he cannot complain about his status among the ranks of prophets.

September 24, 2007

Breadcrumb: Where's Moses?

In the last chapter of Deuteronomy, Deut. 34, Moses dies and is buried in Moab. The only problem: no one today knows where his grave lies, other than "over against Bethpeor." (Deut. 34:6) There is, in fact, a highly practical reason that no one knows the site of Moses' grave: it must not be allowed to become a place of worship. In Christianity, the graves of martyrs for the faith (ie: saints) became pilgrimage sites, where the faithful go in order to pray to the saints as intermediaries between the seeker and God. In Judaism, there is no intermediary: anyone is thought to be able to pray directly to God. Therefore, there is no need, and in fact great danger, in having pilgrims seek Moses' tomb: they may start worshipping him instead of God, which is the last thing he would want.

September 23, 2007

Deuteronomy 32-34: A picture is worth a thousand words

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 32-34 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the Song of Moses, Moses' blessings of the tribes, and Moses' death.

The "Song of Moses," which God commands in Deut. 31 and is actually written out in Deut. 32, is among the most beautiful passages of the Bible to date. The themes in the song are nothing new; in fact, they seem positively worn-out by this point in Deuteronomy. The Song talks about God choosing Israel over the other nations and tending to it, how Israel chose to corrupt itself and rebel against God, about the destruction that will result from this corruption, and about the eventual return to God and revenge against the Israelites' enemies. As I said, we've seen all these themes before, many times. What is different here is the sheer beauty of the imagery and language used to express it.

While I highly encourage all my readers to find a good translation and read the passage themselves, I will highlight a few of my favourite verses, all from the KJV:

Deut. 32:11-12, about God's nurturing the Israelites: "(11) As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: (12) So the LORD alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him."

Deut. 32:22, about God's anger against the corruption of the Israelites: "(22) For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains."

Deut. 32:31-33, about the enemies of Israel: "(31) For their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges. (32) For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: (33) Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps."

Deut. 32:42-43, about God's vengeance against Israel's enemies: "(41) If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgement; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me. (42) I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy."

Okay, it might not be appropriate bedtime stories for the children, but you can't deny the power of some of that imagery: arrows drunk with blood, setting fire to the foundations of the mountains... it stirs the mind to imagination. There is, incidentally, some beautiful, non-warlike imagery from earlier in the chapter as well, for those who think that the entire poem is a litany of destruction.

The imagery is, of course, at least partly the point of the whole thing. Ancient writers knew what modern science is beginning to prove: people remember stories and vivid pictures better than they remember abstract concepts. It's the difference between saying "thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image..." (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8) and reading that the punishment for creating the Golden Calf was that the Israelites needed to drink the ground-up golden powder of their idol, the Levites killed 3000 calf-worshippers, and the entire population was stricken with plague (Ex. 32-34). The latter story is far more memorable than the former command.

As I said, the rest of Deuteronomy has repeated the poem's themes many times. Some of these repetitions (Deut. 28, for example) were, in fact, quite vivid and dramatic. But this chapter brings the whole theme together in one piece of sustained, evocative poetry. It is short enough that it can be recited easily at gatherings, perhaps five or six minutes, but yet it contains all the themes of the 34-chapter book.

Even today, as a modern reader spoiled by some of the most splendid fantasy writing of the last two hundred years and jaded by the modern action-movie monolith, I can see read this chapter and say, "wow." Considering that it was written nearly three thousand years ago, that's no mean feat.

One of the reasons the imagery is so powerful is its grounding in the world. Nature imagery, in particular, pervades this piece: rain and fire, mountains and earth, serpent and eagle. Even as an urban reader who has never seen an eagle (or, for that matter, many serpents) outside of a zoo, and who has only been to capital-M mountains twice in my life, this imagery resonates with me. It is the experience of my ancestors, and indeed the ancestors of every living human being today. Similarly, while no one today wages war with swords and arrows, the thought of "glittering swords" and "arrows drunk with blood" evoke a visceral response in many people, no matter how urbane.

The poem ends with one final "hoorah," leaving the audience on a high note: "Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people." (Deut. 32:43) As a storyteller, the ending is crucial to the story; no matter how good the rest of the piece, the audience will leave dissatisfied if the ending flops. Even when the Israelites are in Diaspora, they can recite this poem and leave feeling bloodlust and energy, knowing that they will be avenged... someday.

In short, if you're only going to read one chapter in Deuteronomy, this one is probably a safe bet: it'll sum up the themes of the latter half of the book, and you'll be able to picture some evocative imagery while you're at it.

September 22, 2007

Breadcrumb: Now hear this

Today, Jews read the first five books of the Torah every year, a few chapters at the time. But if Moses had his way, we'd be reading the whole thing, cover-to-cover, in a one-week sitting every seven years. In Deut. 31:9-13, Moses tells the priests that every seven years, during the Feast of Tabernacles (today known as Sukkot), they were to read the law in its entirety to all the people, so that the children who didn't previously know the law could learn it. In other words, if you think today's Yom Kippur services are long, they've got nothing on the ancient Israelites' marathon Torah-reading sessions.

September 21, 2007

Breadcrumb: Death by old age

Deut. 31:2 informs us that Moses is 120 years old as he hands the reins over to Joshua and prepares to be taken up by God. In other words, he was nearly 80 years old when he led the Israelites out of Egypt and began their wanderings in the desert. In that perspective, what Moses did was absolutely remarkable: in his old age, he led a force of 600,000 fighting men, plus women and children, for forty years in the desert, listening to them complain and grumble. It almost makes you think he was ready for death to take him at long last.

September 20, 2007

Deuteronomy 30-31: Choose life

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 30-31 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a promise to return the Israelites to their homeland if they repent; the offer of life or death; preparations for Joshua to succeed Moses; instructions for reading the law; a prediction of Israel's rebellion; and the prologue to the Song of Moses.

In today's readings we have one of the most poetic, moving portions of the Bible we have yet encountered. I am speaking about Deut. 30:11-20, in which Moses exhorts the Israelites to "choose life." It is a fitting culmination of the passage describing the punishments for disobedience and the rewards for obedience.

First, for my readers following along in the text, you will notice that I erred in the last essay. At that time, I noted that God doesn't give any hope after listing the punishments for disobedience. I was correct at the time: the chapter following the punishments did not contain any hope, but the beginning of today's readings (Deut. 30:1-10) does. There, God promises that after all their punishments, the Israelites will return to God and will will forgive them, bring them back to their homeland, bless them, and curse their enemies. All will be well again.

At this juncture, Moses steps back and sounds very much like a pleading parent: "Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach." (Deut. 30:11, NIV) He goes on to say that the law is not in heaven or beyond the sea, but "in your mouth and in your heart." (Deut. 30:12-14, NIV) It is as though Moses wants to remind the people that even though the task may seem monumental at first glance, the law isn't really that difficult to obey. If only the Hebrews listen and learn, they will be able to follow it, and all the punishments he has just described needn't come to pass.

The theme continues in Deut. 30:15-18; Moses notes that he has put two paths before the Israelites: one, the path of obedience, leads to "life and prosperity," while the other, the path of disobedience, leads to "death and destruction." Indeed, most of the book of Deuteronomy has laid out these two paths, going over them again and again in detail. Here, Moses finally sums up the argument to the Hebrews: these are the only two choices available to you: obedience or disobedience. You must choose.

Finally, in Deut. 30:19-20, Moses exhorts the Israelites to "choose life, so that you and your children may live." (NIV)

Moses, graced with divine insight, knows that the Israelites will rebel and choose the path of death. As I mentioned in the last essay, this text was probably written long after the destruction of the tribes of Israel. Despite that, the author still pleads with his ancestors to do the right thing, as though if he pleads earnestly enough he could change the past.

This theme is particularly fitting at this time of the year: the days between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In fact, this is one of the few times over the past year when Daily Breadcrumbs has come close to the same readings as Jews the world over are presently reading in synagogue. This passage was read in every synagogue less than two weeks ago, on September 8, the weekend before Rosh Hashana.

What makes this theme, this exhortation to "choose life" so appropriate for this time of year? For the benefit of my non-Jewish readers, I offer a brief primer in Jewish theology: in Judaism, the most important holiday of the year is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This year, that takes place from the evening of Sept. 21 to the evening of Sept. 22. Ten days before Yom Kippur is Rosh Hashana, literally "the Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year's Day. Between these two days, Jews believe that God opens the Book of Life and Death, in which he writes everyone's fate for the upcoming year. As the title suggests, God writes in the Book whether any given person will live or die. On Yom Kippur, the Book is closed and the decision is final; whatever will be, will be.

However, on the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the book is open and in flux. During these ten days, Jews traditionally ask for forgiveness for any wrongs they have committed, repay debts, make restitution, and generally take care of any unfinished business they may have accumulated over the past year. They are attempting to be written in the Book of Life, to "choose life," as today's readings urge.

Whether this belief system is only so much superstition or whether it contains some kernel of truth is beyond the scope of Daily Breadcrumbs. Speaking personally, I like the idea that there is a time each year when we can sit back and contemplate whether we have wronged anyone over the previous year, whether there is any business left undone, whether we have been "naughty or nice" (to borrow a phrase from another religion's holiday).

To all my readers, I would like to take this moment to wish you a happy new year, and hope that you are written in the Book of Life. Whether you believe in the system or not, it's the sentiment that counts. Or, as the saying goes, "you may not believe in God, but he believes in you."

September 16, 2007

Breadcrumb: God works in mysterious ways?

Deut. 29:29 reads, in the KJV: "The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law." Could this be justification for the saying, "God works in mysterious ways?" After all, if we knew the secret things that only God knows, we might more fully understand his decisions. With secret knowledge comes power, and God's power can be argued to be absolute. At least he has justification for being mysterious -- we just don't know what it is.

Breadcrumb: Not just your daddy's religion

Deut. 29:10-11 reminds us that it is not only the heads of households, but everyone who must follow God's law. The text notes that captains, elders, officers, men, children, women, strangers, and menial labourers must all obey the covenant. Whereas in some other ancient Mediterranean religions, it was only the household heads who performed rituals to the gods, in the Hebrews' religion, everyone was expected to do their part.

September 14, 2007

Deuteronomy 28-29: Curses! revisited

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 28-29 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience, and a renewal of the covenant.

Just when you thought your life was going wrong, you read a chapter like Deut. 28 and realize that things may not be as bad as you thought. The chapter begins with blessings for obedience to the law, about 14 verses of them. The rest of the chapter, 54 verses, are the curses for disobedience. They start nicely poetic, mostly an inversion of the blessings just listed, but get progressively worse as the chapter goes on. The curses are descriptive to the point of being horrific, in fact. Here are a few of the highlights, in my paraphrase:

  • You will be routed by your enemies, and the animals will eat your flesh, because no one will bury you. (Deut. 28:25-26)
  • You will suffer haemorrhoids and other venereal diseases, which will be incurable. You will be mad, blind, and confused all the time. (Deut. 28:27-29)
  • You will take a wife, and another man will sleep with her. You will build a house, and you won't live in it. You will plant a vineyard, and will not gather its grapes. Your enemies will take all your animals from you and never return them. (Deut. 28:30-31)
  • Your children will be sold into slavery before your eyes; you will long for them all day long but won't be able to rescue them. (Deut. 28:32)
  • You will be servants in another land. You will be so afflicted that your name will be a proverb in other nations for destruction and ruin. (Deut. 28:36-37)
  • You will have no food: the locusts will eat your crops in the fields and the fruit in your trees. The olives will fall from the trees and be unusable. (Deut. 28:38-42)
  • A nation from far away lands will fly swift as an eagle, speaking a tongue you don't understand. They will not respect the rights of the old or young, but eat all your food and besiege your cities until you are utterly destroyed. (Deut. 28:49-52)
  • The siege will be so bad, and the famine so severe, that you will cannibalize your own children. The gentlest man will not share the flesh of the children he is eating. The most tender woman will turn an evil eye towards her husband, her son, and her daughter. She will secretly eat the child she has just birthed, because of the famine. (Deut. 28:53-57)
  • You will suffer all the plagues of Egypt, and even the plagues that are not written in the book of the law. (Deut. 28:60-61)
  • You will be sent back to Egypt as slaves. You will try to sell yourselves to your enemies as servants, and no one will buy you. (Deut. 28:68)

Wow. Cannibalizing your own children? Trying to sell yourself as a slave, and not having anyone want you? Having absolutely nothing of your own, and all the works of your hand being taken from you at sword-point? Incurable diseases of the worst sort?

At this juncture, we need to pause and ask ourselves a few questions. First, what kind of a God would do this to his own chosen people? Next, where is the hope for a second chance? Even Lev. 26, which had the last set of horrific predictions for disobedience, allowed that the Hebrews might repent, and if they did, they would be welcomed back into the promised land and God's love. (Lev. 26:40-45) Here, in Deut. 28, there is no hope of redemption; there is only suffering of the worst kind. Finally, who would knowingly agree to God's covenant if the punishment for breaking it was the scenario painted in this chapter?

One explanation comes from going beyond the text to look at the context in which it was written. The book of Deuteronomy was written latter than most of the other four books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers). Though scholars argue on the precise dating, many agree that it was written in the 6th century, after the Assyrian and Babylonian exile. In other words, the author was writing with the benefit of hindsight, not predicting what would happen, but what already did happen in his past, but the text's future. If we accept this interpretation, then the punishments meted out in Deut. 28, while still horrific, are at least more understandable.

But let us assume for a moment that we do not know about this quirk of dating. We must still tackle the issues as they appear. No doubt many sixth-century Hebrews were dealing with these selfsame issues: what sort of God would do this to his chosen people, and what people would agree to a covenant with such severe consequences for disobedience?

To deal with the second question first, perhaps the Israelites believed they would never break the covenant, and so all this fear-mongering in Deut. 28 was merely rhetoric intended for "the other guy." Given the Hebrews' track-record so far, this would be highly optimistic thinking. However, group-thought has been known to infect even the most level-headed of nations, and the Israelites had just conquered several nations and were about to conquer several more. We can only imagine that they were at the peak of confidence, believing God was fully on their side and that none of the terrors of Deut. 28 could possibly apply to them.

In terms of the first issue, we have a larger problem. Unlike the Christian conception of an all-loving God, the God of the Old Testament has often proven himself jealous, angry, and vengeful. He punishes those who betray him, which sadly happens to be most of the Mediterranean nations. While the God of the Christian New Testament might never curse a nation in such a way, Deut. 28 is at least fitting with the behaviour of God up to this point. We might not like it, but many other tribal gods were just as brutal to their followers on occasion.

September 13, 2007

Breadcrumb: Curses!

Deut. 27:14-26 describes the sort of people who will be cursed. Among those we'd expect, like idol-makers, covert murderers, and assassins (ie: people who kill for money) are some surprising inclusions. We read that people who mislead the blind or pervert justice will be cursed, as will anyone who removes his neighbour's boundary stone. The usual plethora of sexual criminals are also cursed: anyone who sleeps with his father's wife, his sister or half-sister, his mother-in-law, or a beat. To me, there seems a bit of a dissonance in placing people who dishonour their parents on the same level as killers-for-hire, but at least we know they're all doing wrong.

Breadcrumb: Let justice be done

Deut. 25:1-3 discusses justice. While many previous chapters have also spoken about justice, these verses go a bit further. They note that if someone has been found guilty and sentences to receive beatings, then the lashes must be administered in front of the judge, so that he can make sure the right number are given. Furthermore, the limit is capped at forty lashes, anything else "should seem vile unto thee." (KJV) It's good to know that even in matters of corporal punishment, the Israelites tried not to go overboard. Of course, I prefer living today, when corporal punishment isn't an option in sentencing.

September 11, 2007

Deuteronomy 24-27: Israel - The Progressive Ancient Society

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 24-27 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers various laws, including those about divorce, marriage, borrowing, the poor, and justice; the commandment to offer first fruits and tithes in the new land; and the curses that should be offered in the new land.

Though we have spoken before about the Israelites' tendency towards progressive laws and social justice, today's readings offer some concrete examples of laws that seem progressive even today. Deut. 24-25 discuss these laws, and they fall into two general categories: one deals with married couples, and one deals with the poor and downtrodden in society. We shall cover each in turn.

For an ancient society, the Hebrews dealt extremely fairly with the rights of women. True, they are not at today's level of complete equality, but they offer a woman far more rights than many societies, even those hundreds or thousands of years later. For example, Deut. 24:1-4 notes that a man can divorce his wife. Once divorced, the woman is allowed to remarry anyone she pleases, with the exception of her ex-husband. While there are many complaints today about the inequality of this law, because the husband may divorce his wife, but not vice-versa, the idea of divorce at all is a relatively progressive one. One of the reasons for the Protestant Reformation in England was because the Catholic church would not recognize any divorce, even where both parties were willing.

Another benefit to wives is that a newly married husband could not be sent off to war or be given other duties that would take him away from home. (Deut. 24:5) In fact, the text specifically states that he should be free for a full year to "cheer up his wife" (KJV; "bring happiness to his wife," NIV) It was like a full-year honeymoon.

The text also pays attention to a wife's need for her children to inherit. If she should marry a man who lives with his brother, and her husband dies without fathering any children, his brother must then marry her. The first-born child from that union will inherit in the name of her first husband, who is dead, so that his line continues. (Deut. 25:5-6) Now, many of us modern readers might consider this practice barbaric: marry your dead brother's wife? Preposterous! But the law had a purpose: without it, the dead man's line ends with him. This was a way of safeguarding your family name for future generations. And, while we have alternate ways of doing this today, for the time it may have been a backup for men going off to war.

Of course, some ancients may have felt exactly the way we do, that the whole business is somehow wrong. In this case, the wife was supposed to go to the elders, who would speak with her late husband's brother. If he still refused to marry her, she was to take off one of his sandals and spit in his face. From that day forth, his family would be known as "The Family of the Unsandaled." (Deut. 7-9, NIV) I'm sure it sounds more impressive in the original Hebrew. In other words, if the man refuses to continue his brother's line, he would be shunned by the rest of the Israelites.

Moving from wives to other, often-maligned members of society, the law has a number of safeguards for the poor. For one, a man is not allowed to take a pledge (today we would say "collateral") of a millstone, because it is the miller's livelihood. (Deut. 24:6) Though the text does not expand on this point, it seems likely that this would expand to other trades. For example, you would not be able to take the blacksmith's forge, the fisher's nets, or the weaver's loom as collateral, because that is the way they make their living.

Also on the subject of pledges or collateral, there are a few more requirements. First, you are not allowed to enter someone's home to get his collateral. (Deut. 24:10-11) Presumably, this is to prevent you from becoming jealous of his other possessions. Also, if the man is poor, you must return the collateral by evening. The text refers specifically to a cloak: if a poor man does not have his cloak in the evening, he will freeze. (Deut. 24:12-13)

Further on the subject of giving things back by evenings, you must give wages to any hired servants by evening. (Deut. 24:14-15) The text notes that these hired servants are poor and counting on their wages. We could draw a parallel to today: in fact, even today it is illegal to withhold wages from any employee.

Finally, one of my favourite laws in Deuteronomy: if you are cutting your harvest from the field, taking olives from the tree, or grapes from the vine, you are not allowed to pass through it twice. Whatever is left over after the first passing is for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. (Deut. 24:19-22) This does several things at once: first, it allowed the poor to have some food when they might otherwise go hungry. Next, it is one of the more pious forms of charity according to Judaism, since the giver does not know the receiver. (In Judaism, the more anonymous the donation, the more holy it is considered.) Finally, it is not a free handout: the poor person has to work to get the food to which he is entitled. Personally, I like the idea of leaving food for the poor without being patronizing about it: whatever is left in the field after the harvest is for them, no extra effort on my part.

All these laws were advanced for their era. Indeed, many later societies backslid away from the ideas of helping wives or the poor. And it's an interesting thought experiment to wonder whether, if Henry VIII had been Jewish, the Protestants would never have existed.

September 10, 2007

Breadcrumb: Take it outside

Deut. 23:12-14 deals with an unpleasant eventuality: what if you're on campaign and need to pee? Since the camp itself is holy, where are you supposed to do this necessity of nature? Moses commands that you must relieve yourself outside of the camp, and moreover you must take a shovel to cover up any excrement after you. Even in ancient times, the Israelites practised modern camping techniques. Or perhaps we simple inherited those techniques from them.

September 09, 2007

Breadcrumb: Safety First

Deut. 22:8 reminds us that building safety was a consideration, even in ancient Israelite times. This passages tells the Hebrews that if they build a house, they must put a parapet (NIV) or embattlement (KJV) around the roof, so that people won't fall off and die. It's nice to know that even back then, God was watching out to make sure that people didn't suffer unnecessary death. On the other hand, I have yet to find a passage about running with scissors.

September 08, 2007

Deuteronomy 21-23: Ask Moses

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 21-23 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers laws for a variety of situations the Israelites might encounter: unsolved murders, family disputes, marriage disputes, and some other miscellaneous laws.

Because today's readings discuss family and marital disputes in such detail, today I am going to depart from my usual style to present some of the cases in these chapters. Instead of the analytical style I usually try to adopt, today we're going to have a round of every ancient Israelite's favourite advice column, "ask Moses."

Dear Moses,
After our recent raid on a foreign city, after we killed all the men I took one of their women captive, but I've fallen in love with her and want to marry her. What should I do?
Armed and Distressed

Dear Armed,
Clearly, you and this woman were meant to be together. If you really want to go through with the marriage, get her to shave her head, cut her fingernails, and take off her servant's clothing. Then she needs to mourn her parents for a month, because she'll never see them again. After that, go nuts! Just be careful: if you find you don't like her after you've sampled her wares, you can't sell her anymore, but need to let her go free.
(Deut. 21:10-14)

Dear Moses,
I love my husband and he loves me, but I'm his second wife. He hates his first wife, but her son is older than mine. He's supposed to inherit everything, even though my husband hates the brat and loves my little darling better. Is there anything we can do to twist the inheritance laws?
Sugar Momma

Dear Sugar,
Sorry, but you're stuck. The first son gets the double share of inheritance, even if he's an ungrateful brat. Better luck next time.
(Deut. 21:15-17)

Dear Moses,
My son won't listen to me or my wife. He's completely stubborn and is becoming a menace. What should I do?
At My Wit's End

Dear Wits,
If he's as bad as you say he is, take him before the city elders and tell them all about your situation. If they agree that he's uncontrollable, all the men in the city will stone him and save you the trouble of dealing with him.
(Deut. 21:18-21)

Dear Moses,
My daughter's husband is making all sorts of accusations about her. He says that she wasn't a virgin when she married him, but I know for sure she was. No daughter of mine would shame herself by having sex before marriage! How can I make him pay for this slander?
Father Knows Best

Dear Father,
What you do now all depends on whether you've got tokens of your daughter's virginity, by which I mean the bloody sheet from the first time she slept with her husband. If you do, take it before the city elders as proof, and they'll force her vicious husband to pay you 100 shekels of silver. Also, he won't be able to divorce your daughter, ever, saving you the trouble of finding her a new husband. If you don't have the tokens of her virginity, you might want to keep things quiet, because the elders will take your daughter to your house and stone her as a prostitute. Hopefully you're a pack-rat.
(Deut. 22:13-21)

Dear Moses,
My sister was raped; it was horrible! What can I do to bring her attacker to justice?
Searching for Justice

Dear Searching,
It all depends on where your sister was raped. If it happened in the city, you're out of luck: people will assume that she never cried out against the attack, because cities are full of people who would have heard her shouting. She may even have enjoyed it. If this is the case, both your sister and her attacker will be stoned to death. If she was raped in a field, it's better for her case: only her attacker will die, while she will live free. Obviously, even if she cried out in a field, no one would be able to hear her, so it's not her fault she was raped. Just check with her first: if she wasn't betrothed to anyone, and she actually likes the man who slept with her, he can pay your father fifty shekels of silver and marry her, and no one needs to die.
(Deut. 22:23-30)

Dear Moses,
My father was an Egyptian but I converted to the Israelite way. But my priest says that I still can't be part of the Assembly of the Lord! Is he right? This is an outrage!
Raging Like an Egyptian

Dear Raging,
Unfortunately, your priest is right: you can't enter the Assembly of the lord until three generations after the conversions, both for Egyptians and Edomites. But don't worry, at least you're not from Ammonite or Moabite stock; then you'd never be allowed to enter the Assembly!
(Deut. 23:3-8)

Dear Moses,
I was in my neighbour's vineyards yesterday, and I was really hungry because I hadn't eaten breakfast. I picked a few grapes from his vines and ate them, and he caught me doing it. He screamed bloody murder, and I ran. Should I be making for the cities of refuge?
Grapes of Wrath

Dear Grapes,
So long as you didn't try to take any of the grapes away with you, you're safe. You're allowed to eat them as long as you don't fill any container to eat more later. It's the same thing with corn: you can pick a few ears in your neighbour's field, but don't touch a sickle or you'll be in trouble. At least for now, you can go home with a clean conscience.
(Deut. 23:24-25)

And that's it for today. Come back in three days for our usual regime of close textual analysis. For now, be grateful you live in times when talking back to your parents isn't punished by stoning.

September 07, 2007

Breadcrumb: Your word against mine... and his

Deut. 19:15-21 talks about witnesses. Yes, even in ancient Israel, you could not convict a man (or woman) on the word of only one witness: you needed at least two or three. Even then, people understood that cases of "your word against mine" had no clear solution except favouring one person over another. Therefore the Bible commanded that you needed multiple witnesses to make any conviction. And just before thinking about bearing false witness, think on this: a false witness who was found out would be served the same sentence he wanted to impose on the defendant.

September 06, 2007

Breadcrumb: It's good to be the king?

Deut. 17:14-20 outline the general qualities of the future kings of the Israelites. In brief, the king will be chosen by god and of the Israelites. He must not "multiply horses" nor "multiply wives" for himself, but instead must keep a copy of the book of the law with him and read it diligently. Finally, he must not try to lift himself above his brethren and think of himself as someone important. All these seem to try to mitigate the tendency of kings to glorify themselves at the expense of their people. Though it's no doubt still good to be the king, it would probably still be frustrating looking across the ocean at the later Roman emperors.

September 05, 2007

Deuteronomy 17-20: This means war

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 17-20 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers rules for witnesses and law courts; details about the qualities of future kings of the Israelites; a list of detestable practices, mostly dealing with divination; qualities of a true prophet; more information on the cities of refuge; and instructions for going to war.

Unless you're discussing the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), most modern people picture Jews as a relatively pacifistic people. Jews have been shunted from country to country for centuries, rarely allowed to serve in militaries, the persecuted far more often than persecutor. The archetypal image of a Jew for many people is a black-frocked scholar worrying about some tricky piece of Biblical text. Even today, when Jews are for the most part no longer mandated into ghettos and particular jobs, when we pictures Jews as doctors or bankers, there is a certain cognitive dissonance between the concepts of "Jew" and "warrior."

However, today's readings prove that the modern notion of a pacifistic Israelite was not always the case.

Deut. 20 is wholly devoted to warfare: who should address the soldiers, who should be sent home, how to approach hostile cities, and what to do once the conquests are complete.

The first thing we note is that it is not the king but the priest who gives the rallying pep-talk to the rank-and-file. Partly, this is because the king may not even exist yet. While we learn earlier in today's readings (Deut. 17:14-20) that there will be a king once the Israelites settle in the new land, God makes no promises as to when this will be. But more importantly, having the priest address the men reinforces the idea that the Israelites' war, like their peace, is under God's control. In fact, the priest's message furthers this point. He tells them, and I paraphrase: "Don't be afraid of the enemy, because God is with you, to fight for you against your enemies and to protect you." (Deut. 20:3-4) It is because of God, and not because of the Israelites' own strength, that they will win against their enemies. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that the priest addresses them.

After the priest speaks, it is the officers' turn. Their job seems to be choosing which men shall remain and fight, and which shall be sent home. (Deut. 20:5-9) The general census (Num. 26) notes down all adult males, making no exceptions. It may be that some men are not suitable for warfare, and that is addresses here.

There are two main types of men who are singled out to return to their homes and stay away from the fighting. The first are men who have built a house but not yet dedicated it, who have planted a vineyard but not yet eaten from it, or who have married a woman but not yet consummated the marriage. In each of these cases, the man is told to return home to finish his business, lest another do it for him. Reading between the lines, it seems these three conditions are meant to address the youth who have not yet had time to settle into their new lives. These are men with new houses, new crops, perhaps a new wife, who were called away young to go fight in the Israelites' army. They are being given a small mercy, allowed to grow up a little and maybe father a son, before they are sent out onto the field.

The second type of person who is not allowed to fight in the Israelites' army is the cowardly man. The text gives the reason: "let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart." (Deut. 20:8) In other words, fear is contagious. The high priest has already told the men not to be afraid, because God is on their side. If a man is afraid, it is because he does not trust God, and his attitudes may contaminate his faithful neighbours.

Finally, there is the war itself. We have established in earlier chapters, and here it is reiterated, that when the Israelites conquer the nations of Canaan, there are to leave no person alive. (Deut. 20:16-18) If they do, it is possible the Israelites may begin worshipping the Canaanites' gods, and this would be intolerable.

However, the Israelites are not expected to keep their wars in the relatively small corner of Canaan. God also gives them rules for conquering cities "which are very far off from thee." (Deut. 20:10-15) In these, foreign cities, the Israelites are expected to be more tolerant: they must first offer peace terms to the offending cities. If they agree, all is well: they become the tributaries of the Israelites and serve their conquerers. If, however, they choose to go to war, the conquering Israelites (as, of course, they will be successful in their conquests, with God behind them) must kill all the men, but are allowed to take the women, children, and spoils for themselves.

We are left, then, with the image of a strong, fearless conquering nation. With God behind them and the assurances of their priest, they are undaunted even against superior numbers. Their young and their cowardly have been sent home, so that only hardened, mature men stand in the army. After conquering the nations of Canaan and putting them all to the sword, they have a reputation for ferocity and ruthlessness, even when conquering far-away lands. In other words, you definitely wouldn't want to mess with these bankers.

September 04, 2007

Breadcrumb: Rules for judges

Deut. 16:18-20 reminds judges to be impartial in their rulings. Specifically, judges should not pay attention to the rank of the accuser or accused and they should not take bribes. In short, God is trying to establish a system of fair justice, where even the poor can get an impartial ruling. Whether this system worked in practice, we likely will never know. Most likely, it worked about as well as all other justice systems: despite the words of the text, the rich likely received some preferential treatment and some judges likely did accept bribes. But the idea is the important thing.

September 03, 2007

Breadcrumb: No one left out

In talking about holidays, Deut. 16:11 and 16:14 remind the Israelites that everyone, not just the household leaders, are supposed to celebrate. Even the strangers, orphans, and widows are supposed to join in the celebrations. These holidays were not only for priests, but for the general populace. At least during these holiday festivals, everyone could eat well, celebrate, and take some time off from working in the fields.

September 02, 2007

Deuteronomy 14-16: A nation apart

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 14-16 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a review of several previous topics: dietary laws, tithes, debts, freeing servants, the eating of firstborn animals, Passover, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Tabernacles, and rules for judges.

Looking over the topics just listed, it becomes clear that I have covered all of them before. In fact, there is almost no new content in today's readings at all. It has thus proved particularly difficult to find a topic to occupy a thousand words of analytical prose.

Instead of taking each individual section on its own, it may be useful to look at the collection of these disparate laws as a whole. What is the connection between dietary laws and a year for cancelling debts? What connects the Passover with the commandment to give tithes? The answer is that all these laws helped separate the Israelites from the surrounding nations, setting them apart as holy.

One of the most obvious ways the Israelites set themselves apart was through their strict dietary laws. Though many of the modern laws of Kashrut were developed after the writing of Deuteronomy, nevertheless they all have their basis in this text and in Leviticus. Today, of course, many Jews are non-practicing and do not observe the rules of Kashrut. However, in ancient times, it would be expected that all Jews were observing these particular laws. And, just as modern Jews who observe the laws of Kashrut (kosher eating) often have difficulty eating at the homes of people who do not follow these rules, so too would their ancient counterparts.

Modern, practising Jews often have great difficulty eating in non-Kosher restaurants or in non-Jewish homes. This is simply because the Jewish laws of Kashrut make it difficult to be sure that the restaurant or foreigner's home is observing the same laws. It is often easier to simply eat at home or at the home of another Kosher-keeping Jew. In ancient times, this tendency would ensure that Jews feasted together, and not with foreigners. By commanding them to eat in a specific way, God established that they would eat together, strengthening communal bonds and eschewing foreign ones.

Other commandments, such as the requirement to tithe, to cancel debts every seven years, and to free Hebrew servants every seven years, also set the Israelites apart. Other ancient Mediterranean nations gave food, money, and other donations to their gods, of course. But only the Israelites, it seems, took their donations to the next level, giving directly to the Levites, the strangers, orphans, and widows. (Deut. 14:28-29) In other words, the Israelites were commanded to take care of the downtrodden in their society. This was not the duty of the clergy, as it was in later Christian times, but of every individual person.

Similarly, the command to free slaves every seven years would have seemed absurd to other Mediterranean nations, whose infrastructures relied on slave labour. Not only were Israelite slave-owners required to set their Israelite slaves free every seven years, they were required to give them sheet, grain, and wine, so that they would not enter the world empty-handed. (Deut. 15:13-14) Such liberality towards mere servants would have seemed crazy in the eyes of the other slave-owning nations. Nevertheless, it established a standard of behaviour for the Israelites, who themselves descended from slaves in Egypt. Through their generosity and open-handedness towards servants, the Israelites were placing themselves morally above the other nations in the region.

Even today, one of the most distinctive features of any culture is their holidays. The distinguishing feature of Christianity is, of course, that adherents believe that Christ died to save their souls. However, many people recognize Christians not by their creed but by the holidays of Christmas and Easter. One of the five pillars of Islam is the holy month of Ramadan.

So too do the Israelites have their holidays, which set them apart from the other Mediterranean nations. Today's readings remind us of the three pilgrimage holidays, in which the Israelites were expected to bring their offerings to the Temple: Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). Apart from the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), these were and are the three holiest festivals on the Jewish calendar. If religions can be distinguished by their holidays, than these were days of feasting, celebration of the harvest, and memory of communal roots: Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles both involve re-enactments of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt.

More than providing an identifiable set of holy days, these holidays also ensured the Israelites came together and bonded with the rest of their community. As I mentioned in the last essay, the communal Temple allowed Jews from all corners of Canaan to come together and mingle with their counterparts from other tribes. At these festivals, household leaders from all over the Israelite lands would meet and renew friendships and cultural bonds.

Just like the dietary laws set the Israelites apart from their neighbours at meal-times, the holidays set them apart at important times of the year. Since the Israelites did not worship foreign gods, they did not take part in foreign holiday rituals. Instead, they bonded together with other, distant kinsmen.

All these laws, therefore, established the Israelites as a cohesive culture, separate from the nations they settled among. They could not eat with foreigners, as it would contradict their dietary laws. They celebrated holidays together, and not with other nations. And their laws for tithing, freeing of servants, and cancelling debts established preferential treatment towards other Israelites and gave the community and impetus to protect their weaker members. Together, all these laws gave the Israelites a moral high-ground above their neighbours, strengthened their own cultural ties, and kept them separate from the contamination of foreign religions. At least, this was the theory. As we shall see in later readings, reality did not always reflect the laws.

August 20, 2007

Breadcrumb: Don't eat blood

Deut. 12:15-25 describes the sacrifices the Israelites may make at the worship-place or, if they are far from the temple, at their homes. Even those Israelites far away from the temple may slaughter animals and eat their meat. However, the text is very clear that they must not eat the animals' blood. "The blood is the life; and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh." (Deut. 13:23) In other words, and Israelite vampire would be in for a difficult existence.

August 19, 2007

Breadcrumb: What will I get?

Deut. 11:13-25 describes the rewards the Israelites will receive if they keep God's commandments in the new land, and the punishments if they don't. Namely, obedience will glean rain for the harvest, grass for the cattle, and military conquest. Disobedience leads to drought. Though this has been covered before, these passages remind the Israelites that the consequences of their actions will be temporal, immediate, and relevant.

August 18, 2007

Deuteronomy 11-13: Don't do as the Romans do

[Yes, Daily Breadcrumbs is now back from its longer-than-anticipated hiatus. Thank you for your patience.]

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 11-13 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers an entreaty to love and obey God; the results of obeying or disobeying; the commandment to destroy the Canaanites' holy things and construct one place of worship to God, and the sacrifices that must be eaten there; and how to deal with anyone promoting the worship of other gods.

Through most of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, they have tended to revert to their own Egyptian habits. They longed for Egyptian food, Egyptian customs, and at least once, Egyptian gods (the golden calf). However, as they approach the land of Canaan, Moses informs them that they will be held to higher standards, and woe to any Israelite who doesn't obey.

Early in Deut. 12, Moses prepares them for the upcoming invasion. The Canaanite nations are, of course, polytheists, as were most other Mediterranean nations at that time. Like the other nations, the Canaanites worshipped idols at a large variety of altars. In Deut. 12:1-7, Moses informs the Israelites in no uncertain terms that they must get rid of all these foreign gods and places of worship. He tells them they must "utterly destroy" any place of worship, break their altars, burn their groves, smash their idols, and even destroy the names of the gods from those places. In other words, any hint of foreign religion must be completely destroyed.

This is partly a safeguard measure. One of the most repeated commandments throughout the first five books of the Bible is that the Israelites must worship God and only God. Any reminder of foreign gods in the land the inhabit would only be an invitation to break this commandment. Thus, Moses ensures that any trace of foreign worship is completely destroyed, so it cannot tempt the Israelites or their descendants.

Moses goes on to explain that, once this wholesale destruction of foreign religion is complete, God will show the Israelites where he wants them to erect his dwelling-place. (Deut. 12:8-11) Once it is established, it will be the only place the Israelites can bring their sacrifices and make their vows. (Deut. 12:13-14, 12:26-27)

Yet again, this is most likely an attempt to maintain a uniform religion throughout the Israelite nation. If the Israelites were allowed to establish regional shrines to worship God, sooner or later the rituals at those shrines would start diverging. It is even possible that, given enough time, foreign religions would begin to re-emerge amongst the Israelites. By having a single meeting place for worship, the high priest could ensure that all the nation followed proper religious procedure.

More than maintaining a religious centre, the single place of worship would also provide a civic centre to the nation. In the ancient world, and indeed in any era but the most recent, travel was uncommon. It would have been unlikely that many Israelites would travel to neighbouring communities, let alone distant parts of their country. By forcing the Israelites to congregate in one place for their sacrifices, Moses (or, more accurately, God) ensures that they continue to meet, mingle, and maintain a common sense of identity. If the village leaders from Rueben routinely see the village leaders from Asher, it is easier for the two to remember that they are part of a larger community.

The readings provide one more safeguard against a lapse into foreign worship: a commandment to kill anyone who suggests worshipping other gods. Specifically, the text provides three cases which might be ambiguous, and through them establishes the universal nature of the commandment.

First, the text deals with prophets. (Deut. 13:1-5) While it would be easy to berate a prophet who failed to perform any miracles, the text specifically describes a prophet or dreamer whose signs and wonders actually happen. If a prophet accurately predicts the future or successfully works a miracle, many people will flock to him and take him seriously. This is why the text discusses these types of prophets specifically. Specifically, the text says that if such a prophet says to follow other gods, he must be killed. The miracles and signs are only trustworthy, in other words, if the prophet complies with the teachings of the Bible.

The second case involves immediate family members or close friends who advocate worshipping other gods. (Deut. 13:6-11) In this case, the text says that not only must that person be stoned to death, but the family member or close friend they tried to entice must strike the first blow. In this way, the text emphasizes that even friendship or blood-ties are not enough to escape punishment. If someone wants to turn to other forms of worship, his relatives must be the first in line to prove their loyalty to God.

Finally, the text discusses cities. (Deut. 13:12-18) If there is a rumour that urbanites have begun preaching foreign worship, the Israelites must first verify that the rumours are true. If they are, then not only must the preachers be killed, but the whole city must be destroyed. The Israelites must kill every inhabitant, all their livestock, and destroy all their goods. They must burn down the town and leave it as a ruin forever.

This last case might seem far harsher than the other two. After all, there may have been innocent, God-fearing people in those cities. However, it is established that new religions often spread faster in cities, due mainly to the higher concentration of people. It is far easier to spread a new ideology in a city than in the countryside. The text apparently views cities where preachers are advocating foreign religion as infected, and they must be destroyed before the new worship can spread to the countryside.

These three cases are obviously extreme example. However, if God would go to such lengths to kill miracle-workers, family members, and city-dwellers who turn against him, surely any other person who did similarly must receive a similar punishment. The message is clear: anyone who returns to pagan worship will soon find themselves buried beside the pagans.

July 07, 2007


As most of my readers have no doubt noticed, there hasn't been a new Daily Breadcrumbs post in a while. This is because I began a new teaching contract that has been taking up a great deal of my time and metal reserves. Once it finishes, I will be away for two weeks and will not have access to a computer.

Thus, while I had hoped to finish the Pentateuch in July, this will not happen. Instead, Daily Breadcrumbs will resume in mid-August.

June 21, 2007

Breadcrumb: No more smashing!

Deut. 10:1-5 talks about the second set of stone tablets. Moses smashed the first set after seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. That first set, he had carried down the mountain by hand. Perhaps this is the reason that the second set was housed in a wooden ark. Carried this way, it would be impossible, or at least much more difficult, to destroy them again. No doubt God wanted the tablets to remain intact as long as possible, and Moses in fact points them out during his speech. ("... [I] put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they be, as the LORD commanded me." Deut. 10:5, KJV)

June 20, 2007

Breadcrumb: What was it for?

Deut. 8:1-5 talks about the Israelites' wandering in the desert for forty years. No doubt, at some point the Israelites must have asked themselves, "why are we doing this?" The answer comes in Deut. 8: to humble and test them. In other words, the long years of wandering, thirst, and hunger were all an elaborate proving ground, to cull out those who would not keep God's commands. By the time they reached Canaan, theoretically the worst trouble-makers had been killed in the various fires, plagues, and attacks the Israelites faced on their journeys.

June 19, 2007

Deuteronomy 8-10: You think you're so worthy?

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 8-10 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a reminder to remember God and his power; a recap of the incident with the golden calf and the ten commandments; and a reminder of the major commandments God requires the Israelites keep.

These three chapters, Deut. 8-10, are a reminder that the Israelites were not as amazing as they gave themselves credit for. A brief summary of the main argument: you (the Israelites) are a stubborn, stiff-necked, rebellious people. Despite that, God has done wonderful things for you and brought you to a bountiful land, which you will conquer and possess. He does this not because of your righteousness, but because of the wickedness of the people already living there. Therefore, when you possess the land and live luxuriously, remember God and keep his commandments, lest you be destroyed.

The first thing we notice about this argument is that the Israelites, despite being God's chosen people, were not particularly righteous or holy, at least not according to Moses. He reminds them of their many acts of rebellion, most particularly of the incident with the golden calf. (Ex. 32) Moses reminds them that God wanted to destroy the entire people for this act of rebellion, and it was only through his, Moses', intervention that the people are alive at all.

Nor was the golden calf the only time the Israelites rebelled against God. Deut. 9:22-24 reminds them of other instances: Taberah (Num. 11:1-3), Massah (Ex. 17:1-7), Kibrothhattaavah (Num. 11:4-35), and Kadeshbarnea (Num. 13-14). Moses makes a point of reminding the people that they are "a stiffnecked people." (Deut. 9:6) Over and over during the time of their wanderings, the Israelites constantly challenged God and complained about their conditions. Despite God's miracles and signs, it seems that the Israelites were always comparing their harsh life in the wilderness to the stable life as bondsmen in Egypt.

Because of all this complaining and rebellion, the Israelites would seem unlikely candidates to possess the land of Canaan. And, in fact, the text confirms that this is so. Deut. 9:4-6 tells the Israelites that the reason they are about to possess the land, currently inhabited by nations much stronger than they are, is not because of their own righteousness. Instead, it is because of the wickedness of the nations already living there. The Israelites may be rebellious and stiff-necked, in other words, but the Canaanite nations were more-so.

This reminder of the nations' wickedness provides yet another opportunity for Moses to remind the people to keep to God's commandments and ways. After all, if God decided to wipe out the Canaanite nations, God could equally decide to destroy the Israelites if they don't keep God's commandments.

One would think, with all this emphasis on conquest and destruction, that the Israelites would certainly want to keep God's laws. What possible reason could they have for forgetting the God who brought them out of Egypt and into Canaan. The answer can be summed up in one word: decadence.

Deut. 8:6-20 paints a picture of the Israelites living in Canaan: eating the abundant crops, living in good houses, rich, and prosperous. In this situation, several generations after the conquest, the Israelites might start thinking to themselves that they were the ones who did it all; they built their wealth through their own means. It is in fact very common for people, raised from humble circumstances, to forget their benefactors, or for their children to believe that their family had always lived in luxury. This decadent lifestyle, Moses warns, could cause the Israelites to forget about God entirely, and to believe that they possess their wonderful land and riches because they deserve it.

Moses admonishes the Israelites to remember God and to keep his commandments. Deut. 10:12-22 gives a capsule summary of the things God requires: "to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all they heart and with all they soul, to keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good." (Deut. 10:12-13, KJV) Furthermore, God requires that they continue the tradition of circumcision, love strangers, and worship God alone in completely monotheism. The text reminds them that God is lord of both heavens and earth (Deut. 10:14) and that he chose the Israelites (Deut. 10:15) and did "great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen." (Deut. 10:21) In other words, God has given the Israelites everything they possess, and requires only that the Israelites remember their benefactor and praise him accordingly.

In these three chapters, therefore, Moses traces the progression of the Israelite mindset from rebellion to decadence, and he asks them to shun the latter. If they worship and follow God, they will thrive. If not, they will be destroyed. Through it all, the Israelites seem less like a chosen people than a rebellious rabble, who nevertheless will be given rewards because of promises made to their forefathers and because other nations are even worse than they are.

It hardly seems to be a promising beginning to the conquest of Canaan, but perhaps it's what the Israelites needed to hear.

June 17, 2007

Breadcrumb: Shock and Awe

Deut. 7 tells the Israelites how they must deal with the Canaanite nations when they conquer the land. It can be summed up pretty simply, "utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them." (Deut. 7:2) They must not marry into those nations or serve their gods. In fact, they must destroy the nations' altars and break their idols. A redundant, if particularly effective, line is Deut. 7:23: "But the LORD thy God shall deliver them unto thee, and shall destroy them with a mighty destruction, until they be destroyed." Really, there's not much room for misunderstanding in that.

June 16, 2007

Breadcrumb: It only works once

Deut. 5:1-5 reminds the Israelites that God made his covenant with them, the living people Moses addresses, and not with their forefathers. This is meant to bring immediacy to the laws: they are not archaic and outdated but present and meaningful. Of course, this only applies to the people present during Moses' speech. For the rest of us, three thousand years later, it is archaic and outdated. This is one of the reasons Jews at Passover are supposed to speak about the Exodus as though they themselves went through it, not their forefathers.

June 15, 2007

Deuteronomy 5-7: Hear O Israel

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 5-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a recap of the ten commandments; the commandment to love God; and the commands Israel will use when conquering the nations living in Canaan.

Shema Israel, Adonai elohanu, Adonai ehad. These are the beginning of what many people consider the most important prayer in Judaism, appropriately called the Shema ("hear"). Observant Jews recite this prayer twice daily. The first parts of the Shema are found in today's readings, Deut. 6:4-9. (The rest of the Shema is Deut. 11:13-21 and Num. 15:37-41.) Let us therefore take a moment to consider these verses as well as the ones that come after it in the rest of Deut. 6.

Deut. 6:4 reads, in the KJV, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD," but is more commonly translated (here, for instance) as "Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." This second translation better reflects the parallelism in the Hebrew. Regardless of which translation you use, the meaning is clear: the Israelites are a monotheistic people, worshipping only one God. One of the major difficulties in early Christian theology, in fact, was reconciling this verse with Trinitarianism, the idea of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. For Jews (and later for Muslims), this is a moot point: there is only one God.

Verse 5 reads, "And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." This threefold repetition is both beautiful and useful: it shows that it is not enough to love God with only one part of the body. Intellectual love is useless without emotional love, and both are worthless without action that reflects them. To me, this is the essential meaning of this passage. The text commands the Israelites to love God all three ways: with the mind, the emotions, and with actions.

Verses 6 to 9 give concrete commands for the Israelites, all of them applying to "these words," in the narrow sense meaning these particular verses but in the wider sense meaning the Bible as a whole. Among the commands are to teach them to your children, talk to them at home and outside, morning and evening, to bind them on your hand and between your eyes, and to write them on the doorposts and gates of your home. Even today, Jews do these things, which has led rise to traditions some gentiles consider strange, such as the teffilin (phylacteries) Jewish men wear on their foreheads and around their arms during prayer, and the mezuzah (pl. mezuzot) affixed to the front doorway in many Jewish homes.

More generally, however, these verses together inform the Israelites that they must be thinking about "these words" all the time. Though the letter of the law states, for example, to speak them morning and evening (Deut. 6:7), this does not mean they can forget about them for the rest of the day. Instead, the phrasing of these verses indicate that the Israelites, and their Jewish descendants, must constantly be thinking and reflecting on the Bible as they go about their daily business. Furthermore, they must teach their children to think in a similar way.

The rest of Deut. 6 is not part of the Shema but continues in this theme. Verses 10-12 remind the Israelites that once they enter Canaan and possess the land, they must not forget God. In fact, even the act of possessing the land will be God's work, as the Israelites will have cities they did not build, houses full of goods they did not fill, wells they did not dig, vineyards and olive trees they did not plant, and so on. In other words, God is about to give them the possessions of other nations for their own, and he pre-emptively warns them not to become decadent and forget the source of all their newfound bounty.

Verses 13-16 further this idea, telling the Israelites not to worship other gods, because God is jealous. The text reminds them that they already tempted God once, at Massah (a reference to Ex. 17). In fact, the Israelites had already tempted God quite a bit, as we saw in the closing essay for Numbers. God is therefore admonishing the Israelites to keep the commandments and therefore be able to live well.

The end of the chapter, verses 20-25, deal with the inevitable question, "why?" Why do we have all these commandments? Why do we have to follow them? The answer, an Israelite father should say to his child, is that we were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us out with signs and wonders, and brought us to Canaan. This same God, who did all these great and wonderful things, commanded us to keep these laws, and therefore we're going to keep them. He was not only good to us, but terrible to our enemies, and we don't want to make him mad.

In short, then, this chapter is a reminder for the Israelites about to enter a new land that they must not forget their benefactor. God knew that the Israelites had a short attention span and were liable to lapse into idolatry and foreign religions, which in fact they eventually did. God sets forth this verse to stave off the rebellion and to ensure the Israelites remember who brought them to Canaan in the first place.

June 14, 2007

Breadcrumb: Written in stone

Deut. 4:2 reads as follows in the KJV: "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you." It is this verse that is at the heart of so much controversy between Jews and Christians. In fact, Jesus refers to it in Matt. 5:17, when he says, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." Jews consider that Jesus, and especially his disciple Paul, removed many important commands from Moses' laws; Christians believe that the law has been rendered void by Jesus' sacrifice.

June 13, 2007

Breadcrumb: Gigantic!

In Deut. 3:11, the text tells us that Og, King of Bashan, whom the Israelites killed, was the last remaining giant on earth. In fact, his iron bed was approximately thirteen feet long and six feet wide. The giants had been mentioned before, as far back as Gen. 6 (where they are called nephilim), and were the children of angels and human women. However, the time of legends ends with Moses and the death of Og, the last giant. The only person who might compare in later texts is Goliath. (1 Sam. 17)

June 12, 2007

Deuteronomy 3-4: Rhetorical question

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 3-4 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the defeat of Og, King of Bashan; the division of the lands east of the Jordan river; God's command that Moses will not enter Canaan; a reminder to obey the commandments and shun idol-worship; a review of what will happen if they don't; a recap of the cities of refuge; and an introduction to the law.

If, when we reached the end of the book of Numbers, we asked ourselves, "why should we follow all these commandments," we would be forced to answer, "because God says so." Indeed, most of the commandments put forth in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are issued as edicts with little if any explanation. The Israelites and their descendants are forced to accept that because God is wise and just, so too are his commands, and they must place their trust in him.

Once we reach Deuteronomy, however, we are presented with the very explanations we have been lacking previously in the text. In Deut. 4, for example, Moses deals with the prohibition against idol-worship. In fact, this chapter is masterfully written in rhetorical style, flowing from one point to the next in a logical and compelling discourse.

Earlier in the chapter (Deut. 4:1-9), Moses repeated his plea for the Israelites to obey the commandments. He reminded them of the fate of the Baalpeor worshipers (Num. 25), who were utterly destroyed. He further tells them that if the Israelites do uphold the commandments, other nations will marvel at their wisdom, greatness, and justice.

Now, from verse 10 to 14, Moses reminds the Israelites where they got these laws, at Mount Horeb. (Ex. 34) In fact, Moses seems slightly confused on this point, since it appears he is in fact referring to the giving of the ten commandments at Mount Sinai. (Ex. 19-20) At Mount Horeb, Moses saw the countenance of God, but at Mount Sinai, the entire Israelite people heard God speaking from the midst of the fire. Moses paints the picture in detail, reminding them of the burning fire and the thick darkness.

Continuing on his theme, Moses points out, "You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire." (Deut. 4:15, NIV) Because of this fact, the Israelites do not know what God looks like, and thus should not make any idols, which all would have a form. Moses enumerates the various types of idols, all common in the ancient Mediterranean, the Israelites must avoid: idols in the form of men, women, beasts, birds, insects, or fish. He also tells them not to worship the heavens. All these things, Moses reminds the people, God gave to all the nations and thus is would be a perversion for the nations to worship them. (Deut. 4:15-19)

So far, Moses has used highly evocative imagery and compelling logic: even if the Israelites wished to erect and idol of God, they would not know what shape to build it. This is the reason that, to this day, Jewish synagogues do not contain images of any sort, and instead they keep the Torah scrolls as the central focus.

Moses continues in Deut. 4:25-28, telling the Israelites what will happen if, in future generations, they begin worshipping idols. Specifically, they will "utterly perish" (KJV) from Canaan and will be scattered among other nations, a minority amongst a heathen oppressor. Furthermore, the Israelites will be forced to serve heathens' idols, which were constructed by men.

The contrast between the pagans' idols and the Israelites' God is explicit: "There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell." (Deut. 4:28, NIV) The Israelites listening to Moses at this juncture must surely be comparing these man-made idols to the God who revealed himself at Mount Horeb, as Moses just reminded them. They must be thinking of their descendants in the future, urging them across time and space to return to God.

Moses takes this into account. He goes on in verse 29 to 31 to say that if the Israelites at that time, scattered amongst the heathens, honestly seek God and wish to return to him, they will be heard, and God will not forsake them. This is precisely the message to which the Jews in Diaspora turned for two thousand years, and which many say was fulfilled in 1948 with the founding of the state of Israel. Moses' message, so vivid and powerful, was used as a justification for hope for centuries.

Moses concludes by reminding the Israelites that there is no God as powerful as theirs, who spoke to them from the fire and took them out of Egypt from the midst of the Egyptians. (Deut. 4:32-39) It is as if he is allaying the fears of the Israelites, who might be asking how it is possible that, in a future Diaspora, God would be able to save them. God was able to rescue them from a foreign nation once, Moses seems to be saying, and could certainly do it again. God has both the compassion and the means to act upon it.

Moses finishes in Deut. 4:40 by returning to his original point, keep God's commandments. He has come full circle, from the reasons for the injunctions against idol-worship, to the consequences if they are ignored, to God's power to both forgive and rescue the Israelites if they turn away. But wouldn't it be far better, Moses says, if they kept the commandments in the first place and avoided the Diaspora? Moses makes a compelling case, even if he is ignored by later generations, we we will see in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

June 11, 2007

Breadcrumb: Sound familiar?

In Deut. 2:24-37, God tells Moses to fight Sihon the Amorite and his people. This incident was originally recounted in Num. 21:21-35. In both cases, Moses first sends messengers asking for safe passage through Sihon's land. In both cases, Sihon refuses. However, while the Num. version merely says that Sihon would not let the Israelites pass, the Deut. version explains further, "the LORD thy God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into thy hand." (Deut. 2:30, KJV) In other words, God intervened with Sihon exactly the same way he had with Pharaoh. Who knows what might have happened if Sihon had been allowed to say, "sure, go ahead"?

June 10, 2007

Breadcrumb: The better part of valour

Several times in Deut. 2, God informs Moses that he should keep his sword sheathed around certain nations. In Deut. 2:2-7, it's the children of Esau who dwell in Seir. In verses 9-12, it's the Moabites. In verses 16-23, it's the children of Ammon. In each case, God informs Moses that he has not given any of these lands to the Israelites, so they should step lightly past until reaching Canaan. No doubt it was frustrating for 600,000 soldiers to be continually told not to fight, but at least they'd be well-rested for their eminent invasion.

June 09, 2007

Deuteronomy 1-2: Have we been here before?

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 1-2 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the beginning of Moses' narration: of the command to leave Horeb; the appointment of leaders; the sending out of spies and the Israelites' rebellion because of their report; of the wanderings in the desert; and of the defeat of Sihon.

My more attentive readers might remember many of the episodes mentioned in the previous paragraph. In fact, almost all of them take place in the book of Numbers (one or two occur in Exodus). The book of Deuteronomy consists of a narration, given by Moses, just before the Israelites enter the land of Canaan. It is written in first-person and recaps many of the incidents we are already familiar with.

However, in the same way that eye-witness testimony may sometimes differ from forensics reports, so too does Moses' account of the various trials and triumphs differ from the third-person account given in Exodus and Numbers. Let us take a few examples and see how Moses diverges from the previous stories.

One incident that occurs in Deut. 1:9-18 and Ex. 18:13-26 involves the appointment of judges. In both cases, Moses appoints judges in a hierarchy over the people: over thousands, hundreds, and tens, so that he would have a lighter burden. Previously, he had been judging all the cases himself; now he would only judge the most difficult ones. On this matter, the texts are consistent.

However, a discrepancy emerges when we look for the reason why Moses appointed these judges. In Deut., Moses says, "And I spake to you at that time, saying, I am not able to bear you myself alone. The LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for the multitude.... How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?" (Deut. 1:9-12) In this version, it seems like Moses was the sole instigator of the change. Suffering under the burden of a heavy command, he finally gave up and charged the people with picking out their wise men, whom Moses would appoint as leaders.

Unfortunately, this misses a great deal of context. If we return to Ex. 18, we realize that it was not Moses but his father-in-law Jethro who suggested the appointment of judges. Jethro sees Moses working hard all day long judging cases alone, and says, "The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou will surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone." (Ex. 18:17-18) He goes on to suggest, should God be amenable, that Moses appoint the judges and only deal himself with the hard cases. Moses agrees and does as his father-in-law suggests.

There is thus a subtle but important difference between the two versions. In the Exodus version, Moses is fallible but amenable to good suggestions. Though he initially wears himself out judging cases, he understands that Jethro's suggestion is a good one and implements it. He is not alone in his decisions. In the Deuteronomy version, however, there is no mention of Jethro at all. Moses, not Jethro, points out the heavy burden of the court cases and seeks, alone, to correct it. We may never know whether Moses did not want to give credit to another person for what was obviously a successful system of judges, or whether forty years of wandering had dulled his memories and he honestly forgot his father-in-law's involvement. Whichever is the reason, the Deuteronomy text seems far more self-aggrandizing.

The situation continues with Deut. 1:19-25, which discusses the sending out of scouts. When this episode was originally presented in Num. 13, it was God who asked Moses to send the scouts. In the Deut. version, Moses tells the people to possess the land but the people asked for scouts. Moses agrees with them and sends the scouts. There is no mention of God.

One verse, in the aftermath of the scouts' report, deserves special mention. As we remember, the people rebelled because of the scouts' report of giants in Canaan and God punished them by forbidding any of them from entering the land. (This is also presented in Num. 14.) Deut. 1:37, talking about this, reads, "Also the LORD was angry with me for your sakes, saying, Thou also shalt not go in thither."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Moses was indeed forbidden from entering the land of Canaan, but not at this juncture. In Num. 14, God doesn't say anything about whether Moses will lead the people into the promised land. Instead, Moses is forbidden in Num. 20, after he ignores God's command to speak to a rock to get water and instead speaks to the people and strikes the rock. God wasn't angry with Moses for the sake of the Israelites, but for his own sake. Moses disobeyed God, and was punished accordingly. (For a much more detailed analysis of this event, see my previous essay.)

Here we have, not just a minor case of forgetting, but a deliberate shift of blame. In fact, throughout Numbers, God tells Moses he will kill the Israelites and cause him, Moses, to become a mighty nation. He loves Moses in spite of the Israelites' bad behaviour. For Moses now, in Deut., to blame them for his own punishment is unfair to say the least. The Israelites were in enough trouble without Moses blaming them for things they didn't do.

June 08, 2007

Final Reflections on Numbers

The book of Numbers is a study in contrasts. On the one hand are routine records of travel, such as the censuses (Num. 1-2 and 26) and the itinerary (Num. 33). On the other are episodes of high drama, such as Miriam and Aaron's opposition to Moses (Num. 12) or the wars of conquest (Num. 21, 31) On one hand are laws, such as the test for a faithful wife (Num. 5), rules for sacrifices (Num. 15, 28-29), or the water of cleansing (Num. 19). On the other, there is rebellion against those laws (Num. 25, for example). In the end, the text charts in broad brushstrokes the journey of the Israelites for forty years, from the time they left Mount Sinai to their arrival on the borders of Canaan, poised for conquest.

One recurring theme, found again and again, is that the Israelites rebel against God, and God punishes them. To give a very brief summary of the highlights:

- Num. 11:1-3, the people complain, and God sends a fire to consume the outskirts of the camp. Moses intercedes on their behalf and stops the fire.
- Num. 11:4-34, the people complain that they have no meat. Moses and God are both mad, but God eventually sends enough quail to pile three feet high, for a day's walk all around the camp. As the Israelites eat it for the first time, God sends a "very great" plague against them.
- Num. 12:1-15, Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses' Ethiopian wife. God tells them that Moses is no ordinary prophet and they should not doubt him. God then afflicts Miriam with leprosy, which only ends when Aaron intercedes with Moses, who intercedes with God.
- Num. 14:1-45, upon the scouts' report that there are giants in Canaan, the people rebel and don't want to enter. God wants to kill the entire congregation, but Moses intercedes on their behalf and God agrees to pardon them. Instead, he forbids the people from entering the land and charges them with wandering in the desert for 40 years. The people try to enter anyway, and die in the ensuing battle. The scouts who brought the negative report die by plague.
- Num. 16:1-40, Korah the Levite, Dathan and Abiram the Reubenites, and 250 men claim that Moses and Aaron are setting themselves apart as holier than the rest of the community. God threatens to kill the entire community of Israel, but Moses intercedes on their behalf. God instead sends an earthquake to kill Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and fire to kill their 250 followers.
- Num. 16:41-50, in response to the incident just mentioned, the congregation complains and God threatens to destroy them all. Moses tells Aaron to make atonement for the congregation, which he does, stopping God's plague, which had so far killed 14,700 people.
- Num. 20:1-13, the people complain that there is no water. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock. They instead put on airs and strike the rock. For their insubordination, God tells Moses and Aaron that they will never enter Canaan.
- Num. 21:5-9, the people complain that there is no bread or water. God sends serpents to kill many people. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and God tells him how to cure those who have been wounded.
- Num. 25:1-5, the people have been practising adultery with Moabite women and worshipping their gods. God is angry at them and commands Moses to kill the ring-leaders, which he does.
- Num. 25:6-18, an Israelite man brings his Midianite girlfriend before the tabernacle. Phineas, son of the high priest, runs them both through with a javelin, thus ending the plague that had already killed 24,000 Israelites. God commands the Israelites to kill the Midianites.

For those who are counting, that's ten instances of rebellion in fifteen chapters. Looking at the list, we would almost be forced to ask, "did the Israelites do anything but complain?"

However, this is a glib assessment. Looked at another way, these fifteen chapters cover the course of forty years, which makes the average one rebellion every four years. True, this is still not a stellar track record for a holy people of God, but it is far from a perpetual state of rebellion. In fact, it's probably on-par with most societies.

We must ask ourselves, then, why the text choses to focus on these relatively uncommon occurrences. Why focus on the times of trouble, when the Israelites seem to have been fairly loyal for the majority of the time? The answer is likely, "rebellion makes more interesting reading." While there are certainly people who would be interested in reading long lists of, "things went well; nothing to report," these are not the sorts of records that usually endure.

To put it another way, if you read any history textbook, about any era, you are likely to think the entirety of a nation's history involves wars and conflicts. This is naturally what people tend to write about when writing history. Similarly with the redactors of the Bible: they chose to focus on the times of conflict, because these are both the most interesting and the most edifying. If you want to teach your people how to act, it is far easier to show them what not to do and the consequences if they do it.

In short, then, Numbers might be misleading. Reading it through, the Israelites seem to be constantly complaining and unhappy. God seems to be constantly threatening to destroy them or sending all manner of natural disasters to thin the populace. On the other hand, if we look at the testimony of the Moabite prophet Balaam (Num. 22-24), we remember that the Israelites were blessed and God's chosen people. No matter the occasional uprisings, they persevered and arrived at the entrance to Canaan.

And now, in Deuteronomy, Moses is about to give us a book-long recap of everything we've done to date.

June 07, 2007

Breadcrumb: You can have it, but...

Some of my readers might remember the case of Zelophehad's daughters. (Num. 26-27) In brief, Zelophehad died without male heirs, and his daughters asked to inherit his land instead. After consulting with God, Moses agreed. Now the tables are turned again, as the leaders of Manasseh (Zelophehad's tribe) asked Moses what would happen if the daughters married into other tribes and thus their property would be lost to Manasseh. This time, Moses takes the side of the tribal chiefs and rules that any woman who owns property must marry within her own tribe. In the end, we are reminded that it all comes down to the movement of property.

June 06, 2007

Breadcrumb: He said, she said

According to Num. 35:30, murderers must be put to death. Given the somewhat primitive forensic techniques available to the ancient Israelites, this was usually done based on witness testimony. However, the Israelites realized that animosity between two people could lead to false accusations and false testimony. Thus, the text requires that to convict and execute a murderer, there must be at least two witnesses; one isn't enough. Given that the penalty for murder is death, this is actually a fairly practical safeguard to prevent false convictions.

June 05, 2007

Numbers 35-36: Nowhere to run to?

Today's reading is Numbers 35-36 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the commandment to give Canaanite towns to the Levites; the laws regarding cities of refuge; and the continuation of the case of Zelophehad's daughters' inheritance.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. You're up on your ladder one day, adding some stones to your silo, when you accidentally drop one. Bad luck! Someone wasn't paying attention to the old proverb about not walking under ladders and thump! The rock landed right on his head and killed him. You had no ill will for this man; maybe you never even met him before. But he's dead all the same, and his family is going to send their avenger of blood after you. What do you do?

If you're an ancient Israelite living after the conquest of Canaan, you decide that discretion is the better part of valour and run away. Specifically, you run away to one of the six cities of refuge, which provide specifically for cases like yours.

Perhaps some backtracking is in order.

In Num. 35, God commands the Israelites to set aside forty-eight cities and their suburbs for Levite use. (Num. 35:1-8) These cities are to be scattered throughout the Israelite lands. Among them, God specifically says to appoint six of these forty-eight cities to act as "cities of refuge," where people guilty of manslaughter may hide from "avengers of blood" while awaiting trial. (Num. 35:9-15) These six cities will be split, three on the main, Western side of the Jordan river, and three on the trans-Jordan, Eastern side.

The procedure, according to the text (Num. 35:16-28), worked as follows: if a man was guilty of manslaughter, he had permission to flee to one of the six cities of refuge. There, he would await trial by "the congregation," who would judge between him and the avenger of blood. If he is found guilty of murder, he must be killed. If, however, he is only found guilty of manslaughter, he is allowed to stay in the city of refuge, safe from the avenger of blood. In fact, he must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. After that, he is allowed to return to his own property. If he leaves before the high priest dies, his can be killed by the avenger of blood without penalty to the latter.

Some people might point out a few flaws in this system. First, how to we know who is guilty of manslaughter, as opposed to murder? Thankfully, at least in this case, the text helps us. Num. 35:16-23 provides the distinction. Murder is when someone kills another by striking him with an iron object, a stone, a wooden object, or with malice aforethought or hostility. Manslaughter occurs when the strike (barehanded or with a stone) is accidental, unintentional, and without hostility. Obviously, the lines between these two categories can become blurred, especially when it comes to intent and motivation. Hence the necessity to have a trial to hear both sides of the case, the killer's and the avenger's.

The next problem is the time limit involved. The position of high priest was at least somewhat hereditary, given over to Aaron's descendants. Unlike the modern system of papal election, which almost by necessity elects an elderly person to the office of pope, an Israelite high priest might be relatively young. Assuming the office was passed from father to son, a son might have twenty, thirty, or more years of service as high priest before passing it along to his son. This is, understandably, quite a long time for someone to wait in a city of refuge, far from his lands and his family. This might be the reason for the clause saying that anyone who leaves the city of refuge early is at the mercy of the avenger of blood. (Num. 35:26-28) Not everyone would have the mental stamina to remain in a city of refuge if the high priest was relatively young and showed no signs of premature death.

Finally, we must point to the avenger of blood himself. Ancient Israelite culture is far from the only one to contain this concept. The idea is that one of the victim's family members is allowed to avenge his slain kinsman, generally by killing the murderer. The obvious pitfall to this method is one of escalation. I kill your brother; you kill me; my brother kills you; and so forth. In some cultures, such as the medieval Saxons and Franks, this could escalate into full-scale feud. Many cultures included some built-in method to stem the tide of blood before it became a river. The Franks, for example, allowed the murderer to pay the victim's family in compensation. The ancient Israelites, on the other hand, set clear boundaries for when and where an avenger of death was allowed to engage in vendetta: cases of murder as judged by the congregation, or cases of manslaughter when the perpetrator left the city of refuge before the death of the high priest.

In short, this seems at least in theory to be a workable system. To return to our original example, of our poor stone-mason who accidentally finds himself with blood on his hands, we could offer him this advice: run to the nearest city of refuge, hope that the congregation judges that this was a case of manslaughter, and stay there. And don't worry about your next harvest; if you go go home to finish your silo, you might find yourself dead before you get there.