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.

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