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.