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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting exegesis but where you read of prohibitions against fashioning idols, I read prohibitions against making any 'graven-image' (to use one English translation.)

Thus it would seem that a Jew is forbidden from making any image for any purpose, even photography would be out of the question not to mention the visual arts in any form, even sketching or doodling in a notebook for amusement.

See this fairly modern translation, much more recent than the King James with its use of 'likeness' being forbidden.


From where do you make the jump to 'idols?' Obviously graven images or likenesses made for the purpose of worship are being forbidden as you say. But the text seems to be saying more than that.