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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"did the Jews sincerely return to God after the Holocaust, and was God rewarding them by returning them to the land of Israel?"