Exploring Deuteronomy: What’s it all about?
Today we come to the 5th Book of the Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy, which means 22nd law”, because in it we find a repeat of the 10 commandments and many other laws in the earlier books.
In the story so far, book of Numbers left us with the second generation of Israelite's poised to enter the Promised Land.
But before they do so, Moses gives his final speech to them, which is what the Book of Deuteronomy is all about.
In the first 3 chapters of the book, Moses gives a blow by blow summary of the events of the book of Numbers, reminding the people of Israel of their rebellions, but also of God’s ultimate protection of them. This includes protection from giants like the Anakim and King Og of Bashan who is described as having a bed post of iron over 13 feet long.
From Chapter 4 to chapter 11, Moses calls the new generation of Israelite's to be more faithful to God than their parents had been. He reminds them of the 10 Commandments and gives them the words of the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength.”
It is a passage quoted by Jesus as the centre of his own teachings when asked by a scribe what he regarded as the greatest commandment. He joins it with the passage from Leviticus “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.
The middle section of the book is a restatement of many of the laws of Moses from earlier as well as a few new laws thrown in for good measure.
Some scholars suggest that some of the laws contained within it are of a much later time than the time of Moses and represents a reinterpretation of the Laws of Moses in light of the new challenges and changing circumstances of the people of Israel.
There are laws about worship, and also laws about leaders in Israel who are to be subject to the laws of God. This is in contrast to many of their surrounding neighbours whose Kings and Leaders were regarded as being Divine and therefore not subject to any law. But this was not to be so with Israel. There are also a variety of other laws governing various aspects of their lives.
Tim Mackie from the Bible Project suggests that these Laws should not primarily be compared to our own modern laws and culture, but should rather first be compared to the laws of the surrounding nations. I think this is a helpful suggestion, for when we do so we will have a better sense of the stirrings of God’s Spirit, light and grace among the people of Israel. But again, I do not believe that it means that these laws were dictated to Moses by God, but rather that in the midst of their religious wrestling a dawning consciousness of God’s wisdom, justice and love were slowly beginning to emerge, mixed in with many other laws that are really quite primitive and barbaric.
Again from a modern Western perspective, some laws in Deuteronomy are extremely disturbing, like forcing a man to marry a young women whom he has raped and never being able to divorce her. On the one hand it does represent the man being forced to take responsibility for his actions, but it completely ignores how the woman might have felt about being forced into a marriage with a rapist that she can never get out of. Again as with Leviticus and Numbers there are laws commanding the stoning of transgressors, laws that are just too brutal for us to imagine being acted out.
There is also law instructing the Levites and Priests to make use of Urim and the Thummim and to keep them in their breastplates. These were two stones used for divining yes and no answers to help in solving disputes and making judgements between people. If you had to use them today, most evangelical Christians would probably regard you as engaging in some kind of voodoo or witch-craft, but there they are in Deuteronomy 33.
There is also a law that sounds a bit like it has been taken from the Islamic State instructing the cutting off a woman’s hand if she should try and intervene in a fight between her husband an another man and if in the process she “...putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets”. The instruction is: “Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her." (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).
And also on a similar theme and using euphemistic language we read: "He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 23:1) Now for an ancient people who practiced circumcision, without the tools and help of modern medicine, I imagine that quite a number of men could have found themselves in this unfortunate position of being excluded from the congregation from the Lord.
And yet despite some strange and sometimes terrible laws by our standards, there is also again, as with the book of Leviticus, wonderful light that begins to shine through as well as we see an ancient people beginning to wrestle with questions of fairness and justice and care for one’s neighbor as well as the poor, the widow and the orphan and even at times a care and a concern for foreigners based on the fact that they themselves once lived as foreigners in Egypt. And so we find:
Laws commanding the Israelites to show care and responsibility towards their neighbors and family members: “You shall not see your brother's ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother.“ 22:1
Laws about not looking down upon or despising foreigners: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land. 23:7
Laws about caring for runaway slaves: If a slave has taken refuge with you do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose, Do not oppress them. (23:15ff)
Laws against not giving false witness and making sure there are at least two witnesses in a legal process. (19:1ff)
Laws about the Sabbath year, where every seven years, someone who had come upon hard times would have debts erased, property restored to give them a fresh chance at life, as well as laws about not being hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward a poor relative.
In the final section of Moses’s speech, he says to them that if the people listen to and obey all the laws he has outlined to them (both the strange ones and the not so strange), it would go well with them in the land they are about to enter. But if they failed to listen and disobeyed these laws, it would go badly with them, and they would even find themselves exiled from the land. He puts this in the language of blessings and curses and in the language of life and death.
Deuteronomy 30:19-20 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice.”
If one ignores some of the strange and dodgy laws in Deuteronomy, one has to admit that there is a basic wisdom expressed in these words, that generally, a life lived responsibly, according to basic ethical values will on the whole bring a life of stability and blessing. But Moses’ words are also a simplification of a much greater complexity, because it doesn’t take living in this world too long to discover that sometimes good people suffer the most terrible fortunes and at other times crooked people prosper seemingly without consequence.
For the most part, much of the Old Testament operates with this simplistic theology of suffering. Obey and it will go well. Disobey and you will reap disaster.
Later Biblical writers, like the writer of the book of Job wrestles with these complexities and come to the conclusion that the question of suffering is much more complex.
The same is true in Jesus day. Most operated from this very simplistic notion that those who are suffering are being punished by God for doing something wrong. But Jesus challenges this notion on a few occasions, and in the end, he challenges this notion most especially through his own suffering and crucifixion.
The Book of Deuteronomy ends with Moses passing the mantle of leadership on to Joshua. He climbs a mountain so that he can see the Promised Land at a distance, and then he dies. And we are left with the questions ringing in our ears: Will the Israelite's choose life or will they choose death? But ultimately those questions are directed at you and me, the reader: In my life, in my living, am I making wholesome choices that are life-giving and life enhancing to myself and others? Am I choosing life or death in the choices I am making. And the same could be asked collectively, Are we making choices that are life-giving and life enhancing for our collective life on the planet? Or are we making collective short-term choices that in the long run will undermine our common life on this planet. And we hear the words of Moses exhorting us: “Choose life, that you and your offspring may live!”
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