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.

No comments: