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.

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