Sunday, December 9, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 24

In this chapter, Moses gives us instructions on divorce, the handling of pledges and several other laws.

Like the last chapter, this chapter contains a mixture of laws that cover several topics.  However, the bulk of the material here relates to theft: taking a possession as a loan is lawful; taking a possession by theft is unlawful.  My big theme in Deuteronomy has been analyzing most of the book as "specific stipulations" that correspond with the "general stipulations" listed in the Ten Commandments of Deut 5.  This chapter, therefore, can be viewed as the author delving into a detailed analysis of what constitutes theft and related provisions.

The first part of this chapter is still related to adultery (7th commandment), because adultery generalizes to the subject of marriage.  The first thing I noticed in this passage is that it is the man who is authorized to divorce his wife, and not vice versa.  This likely reflects the power of the husband in Hebrew culture, as the head of his household.  We have seen this male authority reflected in a number of ways, and this is just one more way.  I would be willing to guess that if the woman wished to divorce, in most cases the man would assent.  However, it appears that the man is clearly the authority in this scenario, as the woman requires his permission to divorce.

While this appears to create a scenario of abuse (i.e. the husband abusing the wife without her having any recourse), there were likely paths of recourse for the wives of abusive husbands, either through her birth family or through the town elders.  Spousal abuse is rarely (if ever) addressed in the bible, either in the narrative sections or the legal sections.  Protection against abuse would have been enshrined in traditional or cultural mores that frame the often-confusing backdrop of the Pentateuch.

One instance where spousal abuse is briefly discussed in Gen 31:50 where Leban warns Jacob that if Jacob ever mistreats Laban's daughters then the LORD will see and take vengeance.  Jacob often had a difficult relationship with Leah and to an extent Rachel as well, but there is no evidence he ever intentionally abused them.

Another element I find interesting is that divorce involves a written certificate, since writing is rarely discussed in the Pentateuch.  We know that the king is commanded to write out a copy of the law (Deut 17:18), that Moses (and God) wrote down the law at Sinai (Ex 24:12, 31:18 and others), and that the curses of accused infidelity were written on paper and then washed off (Num 5:23).

Writing things down is not unheard of, but it is somewhat rare.  I think it's important in this case to have written evidence of divorce because having sex with a married woman is punishable by death.

Anyway, the specific law in this passage is that having bee married twice, it is unlawful for the woman to remarry her original husband, and I don't know why.  She is free to marry someone else, however.

Verse 5 reaffirms the laws given in Deut 20, that a newly married man is exempt from military service for one year.

Beginning in verse 6 are a series of laws related to loans and other subjects.  First, I need to explain what a pledge is.  A pledge, in short, is a piece of collateral that is held by the creditor.  If the loan is not repaid, then just like collateral the creditor becomes owner of the pledge.

The reason why it is forbidden to take millstones as a pledge is because these were needed for milling out grain to make bread.  Taking a millstone away from its owner prevents that person from cooking bread, which we can suppose was essential to their diet at the time.

Similarly, in v. 10-13, it is talking about a man who is so poor that the only thing he can give for a pledge is his cloak, a standard garment akin to a shirt.  The law commands the Israelites to return such a pledge to the man before sundown, so that he might sleep in it and not get cold.  This would leave the loan non-collateralized, which is why it's a risk for the creditor to give the pledge back.  Verse 10 is meant as a sign of respect, that the person can bring the pledge out rather than you go in to take it from him.

Verse 7 makes kidnapping illegal, which relates to theft because the Hebrew literally says "if a man is found stealing any of his brothers from the sons of Israel..."

Verse 14-15 commands the Israelites to pay a hired worker before sundown rather than keeping the wages overnight, as this is like "stealing his wages".  Note that this protection extends to both Israelites and foreigners.

Verses 8-9 seem unrelated to theft: it is a reminder to obey the laws governing skin diseases that we read in Leviticus.  This is the only direct reference to the Levitical laws that we have seen, which means that Deuteronomy must have been written with the knowledge of Leviticus.  Since Deuteronomy also references the histories contained in Numbers, Exodus and Genesis, these books must have all been written with common knowledge.  Leviticus has always been the odd-book out, because it contains very little of the historical narrative that we find in the other four books (including Deuteronomy).  Some of the laws in Leviticus are repeated in the other books, but now the Levitical code is directly mentioned.  This passage also contains the unusual phrase "Levitical priests", which did not occur in any of the previous books.

I don't know why this is here; it doesn't relate to any commandment in particular.

Verses 17-18 continues with the theme of not taking excessive pledges from the poor, as well as "not perverting justice".

Verses 19-22 also relate to theft by legalizing the poor to harvest in another man's field after his own harvesters have passed through.  This is different from the command in Deut 23:24-25, which legalizes eating from a man's field.  In that passage, it is legal for anyone to pick from a field they pass through no matter the time of year, but illegal to reap from that field.  In this chapter, it says that a man should harvest his field in one pass, and that anything left behind is left for the poor.  That means that the poor can harvest and reap from a field once its owner has passed through it.  We see this later in the book of Ruth when Ruth (a poor widow) goes to the field of Boaz and follows his harvesters reaping.  That is, Boaz's harvesters were still in the field and Ruth was following behind them reaping whatever they left behind, whether in field, vineyard or olive grove (the three staple crops of Israel).

Verse 16 is also out of place here.  It makes for a peculiar contrast to Ex 34:7 and even Deut 23:2-3.  It's hard to explain how we should not put someone to death for the father's sin, but the LORD "visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children".  I explained Ex 34:7 at the time by saying that it was probably a reference to the implicit effect of sinful fathers, whose sins harm their children whether the LORD wishes it or not.

On the other hand, v. 16 in this chapter is referring to legal punishment, whether the Israelites should kill children for the sins of their fathers.  To that question, the answer is no.  I think the key expression might be "visits the iniquity"; what does it mean for a father's sin to "visit" that man's descendants?  To me, that seems like a broad and vague statement that might not reference specific punishment.  I feel that in my own life, the sins of my own ancestors "visit" me in part by shaping the environment in which I grew up.  Even though I never knew my great grandparents, nor did I know well my grandparents, I do know that their decisions shaped my own parents growing up, who in turn have affected me in a lot of ways.

Both the good and the bad have been passed down and shape me in part.  That is the first message of the bible, and we see it in the sins of Adam and Eve opening the door to death in the world, which has "visited" all of us.  However, we would be remiss to ignore the second message of the bible, which is God's power to redeem sin, to turn darkness into light (Gen 1:3-4) and to take all good things and even bad things and to transform it into a greater good.

Even when God's actions are judgment and destruction (such as Sodom, Egypt or Canaan) we should remember that his forbearance is greater than his judgment, but even in his judgment there is a redemptive purpose.  The fallacy of man is to see judgment and not perceive the redemptive purpose.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 23

In this chapter, Moses gives the Israelites laws covering many topics.

As much as I like trying to find unifying themes in the passages I write about, this one really just seems to be a grab bag of various things that have little correlation.

The last chapter shifted the discourse from the topic of murder (6th commandment) to adultery (7th commandment).  This chapter doesn't seem to relate to either adultery or theft (the 8th commandment).

Since I don't see any overriding theme, I will simply address the laws of this chapter in order.

Verses 1-5: In retribution for the hostility of the Ammonites and Moabites (Num 22).  What's interesting is that we weren't specifically told that the Ammonites ever did anything to Israel.  The Israelites fought against the Amalekites, Amorites, Moabites and Edomites to various extents, but never the Ammonites.  We know that the Ammonites and Moabites would likely have been allies, both descended from Lot.  That is probably why the sons of Ammon are included in this passage.

Secondly, the phrase "assembly of the LORD" does not mean membership in Israel, because men with injured genitals would still have been within the community.  Probably this phrase refers to religious convocations, because we had already been told that priests with injured genitals could not minister before the LORD (Lev 21:20).  However, that same passage in Leviticus tells us that those priests may still eat of the holy food, so the prohibition is not total.  Similarly, what this means is that Ammonites and Moabites are still allowed to convert (Ex 12:48), but would not be allowed into the ceremonies of the tabernacle and the courtyard.

Verses 7-8: The Edomites also resisted the Israelites (Num 20:18), yet here the Israelites are commanded to "not detest" them because they are brothers (Esau, aka Edom, the brother of Jacob), while the Moabites are only cousins (sons of Lot, brother of Abraham).  Meanwhile the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for generations, but are not to be resented because they were a "host" to the Israelites, after a fashion.

(skipping verse 9)

Verses 10-11: This appears to be similar to Lev 15:16.

Verses 12-14: Basic health ordinance, but with religious motivation.  This is also another example of how the Israelites emphasize the concept of "covering" like I discussed in Deut 21.  In the Hebrew, verse 14 talks about keeping the LORD from seeing the "nakedness of anything" in the camp, which shows the continuing allusion between nakedness and sin.  Covering is the opposite of nakedness, whether that means burying bodies or feces.

Verses 15-16: Interestingly, slavery is permitted in Israel (mainly slaves of foreigners), but runaway slaves are not to be returned.  This almost seems like a contradiction, but I cannot explain it.

Verses 17-18: I think this might be the first command directly against prostitution in Israel, but it makes sense given that Israelite women can be killed for having sex before marriage (cf. Deut 22:20-21).  So this law is anticipated by the laws that came before.

Verses 19-20: Restating an earlier law.  Ex 22:25, Lev 25:36-37.

Verses 21-23: Not much for me to add here.  If you don't make a vow (i.e. commitment to the LORD to do something), then you are under no obligation.  But if you say you will do something, then you have to keep your word.

Verses 24-25: This is the natural corollary of Lev 19:9-10.  Owners are commanded to leave bits of food in their fields, and passersby are permitted to eat from the fields.  However, passersby are not permitted to reap from others' fields.  The point is that you can eat to fulfill your need, but not reap for personal gain out of the generosity of another.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 22

In this chapter, Moses gives us laws on various topics and then a series of laws governing sexual morality.

This chapter begins with a list of largely unrelated laws, which I will address in order.

Verses 1-4: This passage is largely similar to Ex 23:4, except that it now speaks of helping your "brother" (usually rendered "countryman") instead of helping your "enemy".  It also expands the scope so that you must help them with anything that you find lost, like garments or other possessions.

Verse 5: This command is similar to the prohibition of homosexuality, because in both cases the main emphasis is on adherence to gender roles.  With homosexuality, it is a prohibition of having sex with a man the way that you have sex with a woman (paraphrase, Lev 18:22).  In this case, it is a prohibition against a man dressing as a woman, or a woman dressing as a man.  In that sense, we can look at this passage as an implicit confirmation that the bible also prohibits lesbianism, because that is the proper generalization of gender roles as the bible understands them.  I discussed homosexuality in depth here.  Interestingly, in that discussion I state that Lev 18:22 doesn't prohibit lesbianism, which is technically correct, but I think v. 5 of this chapter shows that a black-and-white analysis might not be correct.  We have to deduce 1) the author's original intent and 2) how to translate that intent into the modern societal context.

That's why I cringe whenever I hear various sources suggest that on the basis on v. 5, women should not wear pants, because in our society women wearing pants is generally an acceptable form of "women's clothing".  I do think that certain ways of dressing are inappropriate, but it always depends on the context and the intent.  Namely, dressing for the purpose of confusing gender roles is probably inappropriate.  Again, there are exceptions, but that is how I would interpret this law.

Verses 6-7: This reminds me of the "not boil a young goat in its mother's milk" law (Ex 23:19), because the core issue is respect for animals.  This law does not prohibit the Israelites from taking the young, just as Ex 23:19 doesn't prohibit them from boiling the young goat  it simply asks that they show respect for the animals by not taking the mother with the young (or boiling the young goat in its own mother's milk).

Verse 8: And thus, tort law was born.  You are responsible for accidents that occur due to your own negligence.  If Moses could have seen what tort law would become in our country and in our day, maybe he never would have written this verse.  Oh well, what is done is done, for better or for worse.

Verses 9-11: These commands are largely equivalent to Lev 19:19.  As I briefly addressed in discussing Lev 19, I think these laws are meant as an extension of the principle of separation (I have written about this principle many times before).

Verse 12: This is basically copied from Num 15:38-39.  The tassels are also conceptually similar to the tefillin and mezuzah that remind the Israelites to always remember the commandments of the LORD.

After that is a section discussing sexual morality, which is a series of laws relating to the 7th commandment, you shall not commit adultery.  It begins with a procedure for handling when a husband "charges [his wife] with shameful deeds", that she was not a virgin when he married her.  I've discussed Hebrew marriage practices with reference to Dinah's rape, and this chapter gives us some additional context for understanding that.  It also gives us some context for when Tamar was nearly put to death for committing prostitution (Gen 38).

It seems deeply ironic to me that Tamar could be put to death for prostitution, while Judah faces no punishment for doing the exact same thing.  We see the same imbalance here, where a woman can be killed for having sex before marriage, while the man only faces a monetary fine if he lies about his wife.  This surprises me because we know in other places that the punishment of false testimony is "you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother" (Deut 19:19).  From that, I would have thought the punishment to the husband for his false testimony would be death.  I don't know how to explain the discrepancy.

In general, men in the OT do not face any punishment whatsoever for having sex before marriage.  This imbalance is inherent to the culture of polygamy, because men are allowed to have multiple wives but women cannot have multiple husbands.  Men can still be put to death for having sex with a married woman (i.e. adultery), but not with an unmarried woman.  In that case, the woman more or less becomes an additional wife for that man, as we see in the second half of the sexual laws.

After the "virginity test" is a series of four situational laws that cover different cases that may arise.  It first states a general principle, that a man having sex with a married woman results in the death of both of them.  However, there are two conditions that determine how they should be treated.

First, if the adultery happens in a city versus a field.  If it occurs in a field, the presumption is that the attacked woman cried out but nobody was around to hear her cries, and therefore only the man is guilty.  If it occurs in a town, then the presumption is that the woman did not cry out, because people were around but nobody was alerted to stop the crime.  Therefore the woman must have been complicit and therefore must die.

Second, if the woman is married, engaged or unmarried.  If the woman is married or engaged, then she must not have sex with another man for any reason.  If the woman is unmarried and not engaged, then a man who has sex with her (whether in the field or in the city) must pay a bridal price and marry her for life.  To many people, it seems a cruel fate for a woman to be forced to marry her rapist (if he attacked her in an open field).  At this point, I should remind my readers that if a woman is not a virgin, she might not be able to find another husband.  Certainly it becomes harder.  While the bible isn't entirely clear what happened to Tamar, she is never described as being married after what happened between her and Shechem.  In fact, she is barely mentioned at all, suggesting that while she lived, her life never really recovered.

Being assigned to a husband guarantees her a right to food, clothing and shelter, as well as the possibility of raising children through her husband.  So we should understand that this law is both punitive to the man but also protective of the woman, however awful it may look to modern eyes.  This is why the man is forbidden to divorce the woman, because he is now required to materially support her.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 21

In this chapter, we are given a ritual of atonement for unsolved murder and various laws governing family relationships.

The first part, ritual atonement of unsolved murder, is relatively straightforward.  We know that only blood can atone for spilt blood, and since the murderer cannot be found in this case, it seems that an animal sacrifice is the next option.  Unlike the tabernacle sacrifices, this one requires that the animal's neck be broken, which means that while it kills the animal, no blood is shed into the ground.  Probably the reason for this is that the animal is slain away from the tabernacle and we know that the Israelites are not to "sacrifice in the open fields" (Lev 17:5).  I think breaking the animal's neck is meant as a compromise between the requirement that the animal be slain near where the murder took place, but also to not be a "sacrifice" as prohibited by Lev 17.

The second part is a law on the treatment of captive women who are taken by the Israelites as wives.  This law has two requirements: that the woman leave behind everything from her old life, signified by cutting her hair and nails, removing old clothing and mourning her family.  After that, she begins a new life as an Israelite's wife, and the Israelite is prohibited from mistreating her, though he is permitted to divorce her.

As with the prior chapter, Deut 20, I think this passage is subject to frequent misinterpretation for the simple reason that people try to evaluate it based on modern cultural suppositions.  This is a point that I've had to drive home again and again because it shows up so much in popular discourse, to the point that many well-meaning Christians will even disavow the OT entirely, just because they cannot construct a consistent interpretation between the OT and the NT (this is called a harmonization).  How do we reconcile passages like this with the "love your enemy" of Jesus?

The most important part is understanding the cultural context.  This is a society that largely operates with arranged marriages, so the first thing to understand is that most women have little to no choice in whom they marry (we saw this with Isaac marrying Rebekah and Jacob marrying Leah and Rachel).  So the Israelites picking out women to marry from amongst the captives is little different.

However, slave women would have far less societal protection from abuses, and that's exactly what this law addresses.  The husband maintains the right of divorce, which he also possesses when married to Israelite women.  Another big difference is that slave women are almost certain to worship other gods, which is partly why there is such an emphasis on cutting ties to her old life.  Marrying an Israelite means both a new husband and a new religion, and the woman will be expected to give up everything from her old life.

This is another instance of progressive revelation, where the LORD gives a revelation that is culturally relevant to the people receiving it, even if that revelation does not fully encapsulate the truth, just as we today do not have the full truth, but the LORD interacts with us in ways that we can understand for our good.

Next is a provision that men cannot favor children from the wife they love over the children of the wife they hate.  I think this law is interesting because it shows us the kinds of tensions that can form when a man marries multiple women, how it engenders conflict between those women and the man's obligations to both.  We saw this in Genesis when Jacob loved Rachel and did not love Leah, and how desperate Leah was to bear children so that Jacob would love her.  Rachel, in turn, suffered from infertility and was also desperate to have children.

Here we are told that men cannot give the double portion to the son of their loved wife over their true firstborn from the unloved wife.  Ironically, this is precisely what Jacob did as he gave the double portion to Joseph, son of Rachel.

The fourth command in this chapter is that rebellious sons can be put to death by their parents' testimony.  This is basically just an extension of the 5th commandment (honor your father and mother), so I don't really have anything to add.

Lastly, we are told that a man executed for committing any crime and who is "hanged on a tree" must be removed and buried the same day he is killed.  It's hard to say exactly what is the impetus for this command, but I know that in Israelite culture, prompt burial is considered important.  Later in the bible we will see people get punished by dying outside "in view of the sun, moon and stars".  I think partially it goes back to the idea of covering, that being uncovered exposes that person to the judgment of these celestial bodies (who are perhaps metaphors for God and the angels).  For instance, Noah was shamed by being uncovered, and his sons honored him by covering him (Gen 9).

I think "covering" a person's body through burial is probably analogous and is a sign of respect, just as Noah's two sons respected him by covering the nakedness of his drunkenness.

In addition, we know that dead bodies are a source of ceremonial impurity, so prompt burials is also a means of limiting ceremonial impurity for bystanders and the people who live in that area.  Lastly, rotting bodies are a source of bacterial contamination in groundwater, so there is also a public health aspect to burials.

Reviewing this chapter, it appears that the first part clearly relates to the 6th commandment, that the Israelites not murder.  The next two commands relate to marriage (and perhaps the 7th commandment, to avoid adultery), then a command for children to obey their parents (5th commandment), then lastly a commandment regarding the bodies of men executed for crimes (6th commandment?).  So the author doesn't seem to be following a clear progression that I can see.

Deut 22 is also a bit confusing as it contains a section of various commands that don't clearly relate to a specific commandment.  This chapter is, however, the end of the 6th commandment section.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 20

In this chapter, Moses gives the Israelites laws regarding the conduct of warfare.

This is a continuation on the 6th commandment, that you shall not murder.  What this chapter shows is that the 6th commandment is not absolute and unequivocal.  There are certain conditions where it is lawful to kill another man.  In chapter 19, we saw it was lawful to kill murderers.  In this chapter, we see it is lawful to kill others during warfare, provided the Israelites obey the conditions of this chapter.

This chapter has three sections.  First is the disqualification of soldiers who have various reasons to not be fighting.  Second is the conduct for Israel to maintain when they negotiate or attack other cities.  Third is a small statement to avoid cutting down fruit trees.

In the beginning of the chapter, we are given an introduction to Israelite battle orders.  While it doesn't really say anything about the arrangement or movement of troops, what it says is that "the priest" is supposed to encourage the people in their fight.  This is another peculiar insertion of the priesthood into ordinary affairs.  Originally the priesthood was created as an organization to handle the affairs of the tabernacle, but now we can see they are involved with enforcing many of the various parts of the covenantal law, such as ritual cleanliness (Lev 14) and in this warfare.  The priest is truly a renaissance man; a doctor, priest, lawyer, military chaplain, scribe, accountant, etc.

The encouragement in this chapter is typical of ancient warfare, which I have already briefly discussed in relation to Deut 7 and Num 21.  This chapter is quite similar; the priest is encouraging the men because morale failure is one of the chief causes of lost battles at the time.  Biblical warfare usually involves a lot of shouting and trumpets and various displays primarily intended to encourage oneself and terrify one's foes into a rout.  Think about it: if you have an army of 70,000 men, spaced over a mile long battlefield, you might only have 500 men on the frontline itself, so the proportional casualty rate is usually very low during an actual engagement.  It is typically during a retreat that most casualties happen because the bulk of the army is more likely to get scared and flee than to actually engage in melee combat.

We see this later when officers are instructed to remove anyone who has a trembling heart "so that he might not make his brothers' hearts melt like his heart".  It seems like such a shift from recent American wars like Vietnam where people had to go to great lengths to be disqualified from the draft.  In Deuteronomy you just had to have a quaking heart and you were gladly removed.  But then, as we saw in the division of the spoils (Num 31), the soldiers in a battle stand to benefit quite a bit from their involvement.  Typically this can serve as a strong driver for involvement in the military, above and beyond any nationalistic ideals.

I don't believe the American army is allowed to pillage the countries it goes into for personal gain.  But historically it is far more common for armies to pillage than not.  In fact, in many cases soldiers would not even be paid wages for service; they simply pillaged the reward of their service from the towns and cities they conquered.

This leads to a very common phenomenon in history where large armies engender wars, because without a war to fight the army is essentially going unpaid, and the larger the army, the larger (or more numerous) the wars have to be.  The modern world tends to have more professional, salaried armies so I don't believe this is as much the case today.

Anyway, there are three other conditions for discharge from the Israelite military: new houses, vineyards and wives.  In all three cases the point is that of justice: it is unjust for a person to put effort into building something new and not reaping the rewards of that effort, at least for some time.  Later in Deuteronomy we will see that time is one year.  I think this is really interesting, because it seems to promote social stability for one thing, and for another it promotes building new infrastructure and families because the builder is (at least to the controllable extent) protected while reaping the benefits of what has been built.

The second section lays out the terms of warfare for Israel.  It's very simple: nations within the bounds of the promised land must be destroyed without exception, including men, women, children and animals.  Nations outside of the promised land should be negotiated with, and if they agree to serve Israel as "forced labor" then they may live, otherwise the men must die and everyone else is plunder (i.e. slaves).  "Forced labor" is probably comparable to Israel's service in Egypt.

For many people this is a contentious passage, as it shows Moses (with God's approval) authorizing the Israelites to not only destroy all the Canaanites, but enslave other peoples outside of the promised land.  The essentially criticism is that killing other people who have not threatened you is unjust.  This is too large of an issue for me to respond comprehensively, so I will just list a few major points and move on.

Leaving aside that many nations in the promised land actually did threaten Israel (and in several cases engaged in pre-emptive wars against Israel, Ex 17), there are many answers to this criticism.  First is the issue of progressive revelation, that different parts of the bible are intended to teach us specific aspects of God's character and that if we misread that part (for instance, studying one aspect when the author is trying to teach us a separate aspect), then we are likely to be mislead or deceived by our reading.  In this case, the bible is trying to teach us about justice (retribution upon the Canaanites for their sins, cf. Gen 15:16) and the LORD's governance over warfare, his capability of guiding Israel and his power over nations far stronger than Israel.  If we read this as "how the LORD treats foreigners", then we will be deceived.  There are many places in the Law that emphasize honoring and respecting foreigners who enter the land of Israel, and that is the true and correct understanding.

Second, as I implied just now, Israel's invasion of the promised land is divine retribution for the sins of the Canaanites.  The premise of the essential criticism above is that the people attacked by Israel are innocent victims, but that's simply not the case.  A secondary part of this criticism is, "if Israel is justified in killing sinners, then what stops Christians from running around killing people today?"  Among other things, this gets back to progressive revelation, that the meaning of following God has changed since the day of Moses.  We have a fuller understanding than they did and we live in a different time and culture, largely for the better.  We also have more tools available through our connection with the Holy Spirit, which makes physical warfare largely unnecessary.  But never should we doubt that God has authority over the lives of all men, the authority to give life and the authority to take it.

The third thing to keep in mind is that this area is a hotbed of conflict (just as it is today).  The Israelites have had to destroy two nations even to get to their destination in Canaan, and that's after navigating around several other nations they were not permitted to attack.  At the crossroads between three continents, the Israelites will have to fight many wars in their future and I don't think it's reasonable to blame them for every conflict.  In a sinful world, wars will happen, and this chapter provides guidance for how the Israelites are to handle those situations.  That's all I will say on this topic.

Lastly, the Israelites are given a practical matter of not cutting down fruit trees when they are besieging a town, because sieges frequently drag out into starvation wars, with the (usually smaller) town garrison trying to starve out the (usually larger) army waiting outside, because armies generally cannot sustain themselves by throwing away their weapons and farming.  Most of the time, the invading army is so large that a given area simply cannot grow enough food to sustain all the people in the army.  It is only by moving around and stealing food stores from conquered towns that an army can feed itself.  Maintaining fruit trees during a siege cannot sustain the army indefinitely, but could help sustain them for long enough to outlast the limited food supplies within the besieged town.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 19

In this chapter, Moses gives instructions on the cities of refuge.

This chapter begins the "specific stipulations" that relate to the sixth commandment, to not murder.  Verses 1-13 detail the cities of refuge, which is a subject that we have seen before.  This directly relates to the sixth commandment.  Chapter 20 continues with more laws on murder, but there is a brief interlude in verses 14-21 where Moses discusses false witnesses.

This most directly relates to the 9th commandment, to not bear false testimony against your neighbor, but it also implicitly relates to murder because that's one of the things that witnesses would lie about.  In that sense, bearing false testimony relates to all of the "social commandments" (the last five, relating to murder, adultery, theft and covetousness) because false testimony is a crime related to the prosecution of the other crimes, just like covetousness is the motivation for these crimes.  I would hypothesize that's why this portion is here, but it still doesn't fit into the pattern of specific stipulations mirroring the general stipulations.

The cities of refuge have been discussed at least three times before, and I have written about them on all those occasions.  The earliest mention is in Ex 21:13 (my commentary here) when God says that "I will appoint you a place to which he may flee", referring to people who accidentally kill someone and then need to flee from the avenger of blood.  As with much of the Exodus account, the passage in Ex 21 is light on detail and we have to look to later chapters to get a better idea of what is going on.

The next mention of cities of refuge is Num 35:6-34 (my commentary here).  Num 35 adds substantially more detail and this chapter largely matches the account in Numbers.

Num 35 also says: "If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness".  This is a precursor to verses 15-21 in this chapter, which suggests a parallelism.  In particular, Numbers discusses witnesses specifically related to murder trials, but this chapter talks about "a single witness... on account of any iniquity or any sin", which means the general category of all witnesses in criminal trials.

Regardless of whether the same person authored both Num 35 and Deut 19, it is very reasonable to suggest they were authored in a similar cultural context, so they were probably written with similar designs or paradigms in mind.

One possibility is that Deut 19 was written to follow the pattern of Num 35 (or vice versa).  That is, they are textually correlated.  Another possibility is that they have the same author, so the authorship is correlated.  A third possibility is that they were written independently, but the authors of these two chapters shared a cultural foundation that expects a discussion of malicious witnesses as part of the discussion of murder.  Regardless of which alternative strikes my readers as most plausible, I think that Num 35 as a predecessor of Deut 19 is the best explanation I've seen for why false testimony is discussed here, where it seems out of place.

We can make additional correlations between here and Num 35 to study the current chapter.  Probably the strangest part of this chapter is that it talks about adding more cities of refuge.  "If the LORD your God enlarges your territory... then you shall add three more cities for yourself, besides these three."  This is really strange because in Num 35:6, we were already told there would be six cities of refuge.

Also in Deut 4:41-43 (the third mention of the cities of refuge), Moses had already assigned three cities of refuge east of the Jordan.  I think what v. 8-9 in this chapter is talking about is adding the last three cities west of the Jordan when the Israelites invade that land and conquer it.  It's just unusual for Moses to use such tentative language, that "if the LORD your God enlarges your territory".  A lot of the discussions in Numbers and Deuteronomy are very forward-looking, establishing principles for when they conquer the promised land.  There are very few places that talk about if they conquer the promised land, suggesting possible failure.

It's also unusual for the Pentateuch to talk about the land east of the Jordan as their "territory" and the land west of the Jordan as the place they are "enlarged" into.  Virtually everything in the Pentateuch focus on the promised land first and Transjordan second, where Transjordan is the place the Israelites are "enlarged" into, and the promised land is their original home.

So I think this chapter is unusual in that regard, but I don't know enough to make this into a bigger point.

I've already written a lot in my prior commentaries about the cities of refuge, so I encourage my readers to review those discussions if they want to learn more.  There's very little that's unique about this chapter compared to Num 35, so the prior commentary is still quite relevant to this chapter.

Lastly, v. 14 in this chapter talks about not moving "your neighbor's boundary stone".  What that's referring to is boundary markers that would be placed to distinguish between neighboring properties.  By moving the marker (presumably in your favor) you are deceptively claiming part of their property as if it were your own. You can buy other properties, but this is essentially talking about theft of land.  This passage is probably here because it's considered another kind of deception, like lying witnesses.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 18

In this chapter, Moses reiterates that the Levites and priests have no inheritance in the land and commands the Israelites to follow the prophet of God rather than witchcraft.

The first section, reiterating the inheritance structure of the Levites and priests, is a point that has been brought up on many occasions.  Earlier references include Num 18 and passing references within Deuteronomy such as Deut 10:9, 12:12, 14:27 and 14:29.  This is the only section of Deuteronomy that expands on the inheritance of the Levites, and it is consistent with prior references.

Numbers 18 discusses the inheritance of the priests and the Levites and this chapter does the same, though with uncharacteristic brevity.  The language between Num 18 and here is also very similar, with Num 18:20 expressing, "You shall have no inheritance in their land... I am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel".  This chapter says, "They shall have no inheritance among their countrymen; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them." (v. 2)

In this chapter, it begins, "The Levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi..."  (v. 1) Note how this merges together the priests (sons of Aaron) and the Levites (the whole tribe) as if they were the same thing.  They are not, but I have stated before that the Levites are like quasi-priests, holding some of the roles and responsibilities of the priesthood but not the whole thing.  Also, the priests are part of the tribe of Levi.  Num 18 addressed both the priests and the Levites, and this chapter does similarly first mentioning the "priests' due from the people" (v. 3-5) and second the Levite's portion (v. 6-8).

All of this we have seen before, so I think the second section is more interesting.  It begins by forbidding  the many types of Spiritism practiced by "those nations" of Canaan.  There's many different words for witchcraft here and they are all describing similar things.  Looking at the Hebrew, I think we can get a clearer idea of what witchcraft really meant to the author and how it was practiced at the time.

You shall not pass your son or daughter through the flame.  This is straightforward; it prohibits child sacrifice, a subject of frequent criticism in the OT (Lev 18:21, Lev 20:2, Deut 12:31; many later references as well).

You shall not "qasam qesem", which approximately means to cast a lot or to divine through some oracle.  This is the sort of language that was used to describe Balaam when he was hired with payment for a "qesem" by Balak (Num 22:7).  On the other hand, we are told that the Israelites cast lots to determine the "goat of Azazel" (Lev 16:8).  In Lev 16:8, the words for casting a lot are "nathan goral", which indicates that this is a different procedure than the idolatrous witchcraft of the Canaanites.  The precise difference is hard to determine, but what's clear is that some kinds of divination are permitted, so long as they operate through the covenant and are focused on the LORD.

In fact, prophecy itself could be regarded as a sort of permitted divination, as the prophet reveals the will of the LORD and sometimes future events (for instance, Gen 49 prophecy regarding the future of Israel).  Secondly, we know that the Urim and Thummim were occasionally used for divination (Num 27:21, 1 Sam 28:6) and this was also permitted by the LORD because the Urim and Thummim were tokens of priestly authority and part of the covenantal agreement.  Both prophecy and the Urim are permitted because they are means of seeking the will of the LORD, and as long as they are pursued for that reason they are lawful.

You shall not "anan", meaning to "cloud over" or "act covertly".  This term emphasizes the secrecy of magical practice, and is translated by the NASB as "one who interprets omens".

You shall not "nachash" or "kashaph", meaning to hiss and whisper.  Both terms refer to whispering or invoking magic spells.

You shall not "chabar cheber", which literally means to "join a company" but in this context refers to enjoining a magic charm.

Lastly, you shall not inquire of spirits, be a "knowing one" (probably referring to forbidden magic and conjuration), or "tread amongst the dead"

I quoted the Hebrew for some of these terms because I enjoy the alliteration.  I also enjoy the imagery that we see when looking at literal translations, since it shapes a picture of people who "covertly whisper and hiss, enjoining magic spells and charms, consulting and seeking the dead and divining the future through lot or animal entrails, knowing forbidden magic".  These words create a picture of what divination was like and what Moses was prohibiting.

The last part of this chapter, after describing all the many forms of prohibited witchcraft, is to tell the Israelites how they may seek guidance through the prophet whom "the LORD your God will raise up for you".

I have talked about prophecy in general on several occasions (Gen 18Deut 13), and I am reluctant to do so here, so instead I will simply talk about what is new in this passage.  This chapter is interesting for a couple reasons.  First, it is predictive of a future "prophet" who will be raised up.  Second, it refers to raising up a prophet in the fashion of Moses.  I had already called Moses a type of Christ, so my first thought on reading this passage is that "the prophet" is a reference to the future Christ, and later on the NT quotes this passage to the same effect (Acts 3:22 and 7:37 in particular).

Third and lastly, this passage quotes from Ex 20:18-21 but everything about raising up a new prophet in the fashion of Moses is new.  If you cross-reference these two passages, you will see that Moses and the LORD are pleased by the people's response in both cases, but only in Deuteronomy does it talk about raising up a new prophet to intermediate between the people and God.  In the case of Exodus, it is clear that Moses is the person who will speak to the people on behalf of God.

I have heard some people use this passage as evidence that modern-day, NT prophecy is not valid, based on the presumption that modern-day prophets will always get at least one prophecy wrong, in which case they have "spoken a word presumptuously" and that they should be put to death or something like that.  I cannot address this topic here because it requires a lot more context from later in the OT and the NT before I can give a proper analysis of modern-day prophecy.

There are two things I would like to say, as it relates to prophecy.  First, keep in mind the theme of progressive revelation as we read through the bible, in this case as it relates to prophecy.  Look at the ways that prophecy-as-a-concept changes as we move deeper into the bible, and this is especially true when we come to the NT.

Second, lets briefly review what we already know about prophets.  Prophets speak on behalf of their gods (Ex 7:1).  That means that as a prophet, you are a representative or ambassador for your god.  We see Moses act in this fashion many times as he mediates between the LORD and the people of Israel to establish the covenant.  Ex 19:7-9 shows Moses taking the words of the LORD to the people, and then taking the people's answer back to the LORD.  Moses also acts as a representative of the LORD's interests to the people, teaching them how to follow the covenant and the LORD.  In turn, Moses also acts as an intercessor before the LORD on behalf of the people (many times, but most notably in Ex 32:11-14).

These two dimensions are the dual mandate of a prophet: interceding for other people before the LORD, and then taking messages from the LORD and giving those messages to other people.  Sometimes the messages involve predicting the future, but in many cases they do not.  The covenant was a prophetic message from the LORD to the nation of Israel, but it involved only minimal predictions of the future.  Most of the bulk of the covenant concerns moral and religious laws that they are to follow, as we have read in considerable detail in the preceding chapters.

Abraham was a prophet (Gen 20:7).  In what way did Abraham act as a prophet?  Abraham did exactly the things I just wrote about, which we see in Gen 18 when Abraham intercedes on behalf of "the righteous" (really just his cousin Lot, but he generalizes and says "the righteous") and as a result God spares Lot and his family.  We never see Abraham give any specific messages from the LORD to other people, but it's hard to deny that Abraham was "inspired" (which is what the Hebrew word "nabiy", prophet, is derived from).

In light of the dual mandates of the prophet, it is surprising that the test of a prophet is "if the thing does not come about or come true" which suggests future-predictive statements that allow for concrete validation.  Probably the best way to look at this is the miracles that Moses performed early in his ministry.  In Ex 4 Moses is given a set of miracles that he could perform to convince the Israelites, and then later Moses performed a set of miracles to convince (and eventually intimidate and punish) the Egyptians into letting the people go (Ex 7-12).  After that, Moses still performed a few miracles (crossing the Red Sea, water out of rocks, etc), but his credentials as a prophet were largely established.

I want to reiterate that prophecy can and does have future-predictive elements, just that it doesn't need to have future-predictive capacity to be prophecy, nor is future-predictive prophecy the entirety of the prophetic ministry.  Half of the job of a prophet is talking to God, not to men, and doesn't involve predicting anything to anyone.

One last story I should mention is when the seventy elders of Israel prophesied in Num 11:24-30.  In this case, prophecy is directly linked to the resting presence of the Spirit of God, which is why it is called "inspiration".  It is not something done separately from God, but only through the guidance of the Spirit.  In the case of the elders, we see that they did not give any recorded predictions at all, but simply "prophesied" (Hebrew, "naba", to speak or sing by inspiration; prophesy).  This is a very different modus operandi compared to Moses, who is generally giving specific instructions, prophecies or laws at the behest of the LORD.

These two modes continue well into Israel's future, with later prophets in the line of Moses (such as Isaiah) and companies of prophets who are known to "naba" without giving any specified prophetic guidance.  I think a bifurcation of these two classes is supported by the text based on the behavioral and thematic differences.  I will expand on this further when we reach the great prophetic era of Israel.

In conclusion, Deut 18 is not the definition of a prophet, it is the test of a prophet, and it is a test that we must always hold in parallel to the Deut 13 test, that true prophets will only ever give prophetic messages that lead us to the LORD alone.  A prophet who gives a true sign but teaches apostasy is a false prophet.

The NT, in its turn, expands the scope of the prophetic ministry in considerable ways, but I cannot address that here.  As with so many other topics, I must defer until we have read the NT itself.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 17

In this chapter, Moses explains how to judge crimes and laws governing the future kingdom.

This chapter has three main sections.  The first section, v. 2-7, is a discussion of how to prosecute accusations of idolatry.  This is very similar to prior legal procedures, such as Num 35:30 (requirement for more than one witness), Deut 13:10 (penalty of death for serving other gods), Deut 13:14 (investigate crimes carefully).

Overall, the language is very Deuteronomic.  In particular, the emphasis on careful investigation is reminiscent of Deut 13.  I skimmed through some of the legal sections in Exodus through Numbers and it is very terse and factual, simply stating what is disallowed.  Deuteronomy seems to be more procedural, both stating what is disallowed and also how that act is to be prosecuted.

Some examples. Ex 22:20.  It only states the act (sacrificing to other gods) and the punishment (shall be destroyed).  This chapter, by contrast, also lists the requirement for witnesses and careful investigation and lots of descriptive text.  Ex 23:13 is very similar.  Lev 19.  This chapter lists many laws about many topics, but most of them are stated tersely with no procedure for investigating offenses.  Many of them also do not list a punishment.

The most common punishment before Deuteronomy is being "cut off", which is a great example of what I mean.  It is an enigmatic (to us), short phrase referring to some form of punishment, and it is only used this way in Exodus through Numbers.  In Deuteronomy and afterwards, the phrase is used to refer to other things, but not to the punishment of a specific crime.  Deuteronomy, on the other hand, uses more specific punishment like stoning (v. 5), also with more procedural text ("the hand of the witnesses shall be first", everyone else follows).

The second section, v. 8-13, is another legal section, but it doesn't directly relate to the first section.  The first section was specifically regarding apostasy, while the second section deals with any kind of crime (v. 8).  This section has two principles, that the priest can decide issues "too hard to decide" and that the "man who acts presumptuously  by disobeying the priest must die.  The obvious effect is to empower the priests as the ultimate judges of the nation.  It's interesting that it also states a punishment for those who disobey the priests, as if the text is anticipating some resistance to their authority.  Of course, anyone who disobeys the first law will also disobey the second, so if the people at large disobey then it won't have any effect.

The third section is provisions for the kingship.  I believe this is the first reference to a king in Israel, except for possibly a veiled reference in Ex 19:6, though in that case it was likely referring to Israel as a kingdom under the LORD's rulership.  Here it is clearly referring to a human king, "like all the nations who are around me".  This is slightly negative because the past reference to "the nations around me" was Deut 12:30: "How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?"  It is describing a pressure on the Israelites to conform to the standards of the nations that live around them.  This pressure influences Israel in many ways and they succumb to it in many ways.  This is the corollary of the "principle of separation" I talk about so much because Moses is (unsuccessfully) trying to keep the Israelites away from this pressure.

Anyway, as this chapter implies, the Israelites will later choose a king and Moses does not actually prohibit it, in spite of the similarities between this passage and Deut 12.  So in general, I think this passage is a hesitant permission.  There's a risk that Israel will fall down a "slippery slope" towards idolatry, but the kingship isn't really a factor one way or the other.

However, the LORD is meant to be a king for Israel (cf. Ex 19:6), so whatever king is placed over Israel must not take precedence over their allegiance to the LORD.  In ancient days, it was normal for some kings to serve other kings (cf. Gen 14 where Chedorlaomer is clearly superior to the other kings fighting with him), so it isn't necessarily a problem for Israel to have a king, who in turn serves the LORD.  It's only a problem when that king replaces the LORD and the people look to that king to protect and guide them rather than the LORD.

This section orders the future king to not "multiply" horses, wives or gold, "or else his heart will turn away".  Horses in this case are a critical part of the military force.  The might of Egypt was in their chariots (for instance, Ex 14:7) and interestingly the LORD is commanding the Israelites to not build a powerful military.  It's also surprising that the people would "return to Egypt to multiply horses"; I'm not sure why they would do that.  Maybe it means buying horses from Egypt?  I'm not sure.

Also, the constraints against multiplying wives and gold both are about limiting the power of the king for three reasons.  1) that the king might not "compete" with the LORD like I described above, 2) to maintain a balance of power between the priests and the king, so that the king cannot monopolize power and take over the nation, 3) to prevent the king from becoming prideful at his great power.  A big part of limiting power in Israel is to keep the people dependent on the LORD.  In later Israelite history, we also see the nations that rule Israel takes steps to limit their future power.  In that case, it is done with malice, to keep the Israelites weak and helpless.  In this case, the LORD wishes to keep Israel weak that he might protect them.

The last part of this chapter is the religious requirement on the king.  The first part is a set of constraints on his power, the second part is a requirement that the king write himself a copy of the law "in the presence of the Levitical priests" and read it for the rest of his life, and again the intent is to keep the king away from pride.  I mention the "Levitical priests" because I think this is intended as a restriction on the power of the king, keeping his power under the covenant that is primarily mediated through the priests.  The king is allowed to be a physical power in Israel, but that power is always kept under the authority of the LORD, delegated through the priests.

One last point.  In the broader narrative of Deuteronomy, this chapter most likely corresponds to the fifth commandment, to honor one's father and mother.  It's not an obvious parallel, but there is some relation between parents as authority figures and the authority of the priest (second section) and king (third section).  That's how some commentators tie them together.  I'm a bit skeptical myself, but I wouldn't reject it without further research.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 16

In this chapter, Moses provides instructions for the celebration of the three core festivals, the Passover, Feast of Weeks and Feast of Booths.

We have seen these feasts described over and over and over, and now we read about them again.  Ex 23 was the first declaration of the covenant, Ex 34 was the second declaration (after the sin of the golden calf), and Lev 23 was a consolidated set of instructions for the priests related to the festivals.  Deuteronomy is, in a sense, a third declaration of the covenant.  This chapter's descriptions of the feasts is one part of that covenant.

On previous occasions, I described these feasts as important social and religious events, but by now it should be evident they are also important to the covenant.  Important in what way?  That is a bit harder to explain, and anyway I have written about it a lot before.  There are connections to the agricultural cycle and to their exodus from Egypt.  The Passover is an obvious memorial to the exodus from Egypt and deliverance from slavery.

The latter two feasts are harder to place in the covenantal language, but since they occur during the harvest I think they represent the occupation of the promised land.  In this view, the covenant has two big parts: freedom out of slavery, and passage into the promised land.  The harvest cycle can be viewed as a metaphor for this, as the Passover occurs during the spring planting, while the feasts of Weeks and Booths occur towards the end during the harvest.

In a similar fashion, we can imagine freedom from slavery as being like sowing a crop, because it means nothing to be freed from slavery if you are only sent into a desert to die.  The whole purpose of the Exodus was to free the Israelites in order to bring them in to the land of promise (Ex 3:8), which is likened to reaping a crop.

So if that's how the three feasts fit into the covenantal narrative, why do the Israelites celebrate them?  As an act of memorial, to remember what the LORD has done for them.

Moving on, there are obvious differences between here and the Exodus accounts.  For one, the Exodus accounts are remarkably terse.  This chapter is quite expansive by comparison.  This chapter also contains some uniquely Deuteronomic language, such as "the place which the LORD will choose", a term I have discussed before.  This chapter also emphasizes the "Levite, stranger, orphan, widow" formulation which does not occur anywhere outside of Deuteronomy.

In similar terms, this chapter also lays out one's expanded household as "you, sons, daughters, male servants, female servants" and then an outer tier of dependents, the vulnerable classes (listed above, Levite, stranger, etc).  We can compare this to Ex 20:10 which presents a very similar listing, except instead of the "Levite, stranger, orphan widow" it lists the "sojourner who stays with you."  This is most likely a reference to hired workmen, which is not a vulnerable class but rather a loosely associated part of the extended family.

Nevertheless, the core rhetoric is the same, with an emphasis on appearing before the LORD three times a year and the general description of the feasts is largely similar to before.

The very end of the chapter is about the appointment of judges which does not relate to the feasts at all.  It fits in more closely with the next chapter concerning the administration of justice and the future kingdom.

Lastly, this chapter thematically relates to the fourth commandment, to honor the Sabbath.  The Sabbath and the festivals are similar because they are all a time to cease from labor, to gather together and to reflect upon the LORD.  In Lev 23, the Sabbath is listed together with the feasts as "holy convocations".

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 15

In this chapter, Moses restates the requirements of the Sabbath year.

This chapter is an expansion of Ex 21:2-11, which had previously established the terms of Hebrew slavery, freedom in the seventh year, and the provision for slaves who wish to remain with their master permanently (piercing the ear with an awl).  The "year of remission" is structured very similarly to the Sabbath year, when the land rests and is not worked (Ex 23:10-11).  We have not been specifically told that these two years (the Sabbath year and year of remission) were meant to coincide.  We can reasonably infer that they coincide from the description of the Jubilee in Lev 25, however.  In that chapter, the year of Jubilee occurs at the end of seven Sabbaths of years.  The Sabbath year is when the land rests, but upon the Jubilee all land reverts to its historical ownership, essentially reverting the debt of those who have sold their land.  This is very similar to the year of remission when slaves are "reverted" to their freedom and debts are released (v. 2).

I also think it's interesting to compare this to the seven years of service that Jacob offered for Leah and then Rachel.  Jacob was freed in the seventh year, just like slaves are freed in the seventh year.  I'm not sure if we're meant to connect these two things, but it's interesting to think about.

Anyway, the discussion here is far longer and more detailed than Ex 21.  This chapter teaches that not only are Hebrew slaves to be freed, but other debts are also released and anything loaned to a neighbor is given to that neighbor without repayment.  Furthermore, upon freeing a slave the owner is expected to give that person gifts.  All of these are related points, and the general idea is to give the poor a renewed opportunity and to prevent the formation of a perpetual underclass.  While people in Israel might drift down into poverty for whatever reason, their fellow countrymen are prohibited from exploiting the poor and drawing them into a perpetual slavery.  Because the LORD freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he prohibits the Israelites from permanently enslaving one another.

I think there's an amusing interplay between the expectation that "the poor will never cease to be in the land" (v. 11) and "the LORD will surely bless you".  In fact, v. 4 says "there will be no poor among you", while later in the same chapter we are told there would always be poor people in the land.  The covenant is full of aspirational language related to the blessings of the LORD, but the practical reality is that ancient Israelite did have poor people.  One important factor is that the Israelites never really followed the covenant and later in the OT they will be frequently rebuked for (among other things) not freeing slaves in the Sabbath year.  It is peculiar that the covenant contains provisions (like how to treat poor people) that seem to assume the nation will not follow the covenant.  I'm not really sure how to explain this discrepancy, and in such a short range of text.

I would also like to point out that the Sabbath year corresponds with the fourth commandment, to honor the Sabbath day.  This chapter can be viewed as an expansion of the Sabbath day principle, which is about honoring the LORD, taking a day of rest and focusing upon the LORD.  The idea of "rest" is apparently expanded to include freedom and remission of debt, probably by equating debt with burdens.  So the Sabbath year is meant to give the Israelites "rest" from their debt.

The chapter concludes by reminding us that the Israelites are to slaughter their firstborn animals every year before the temple, but only if those animals have no defects.  Ex 13 didn't tell us this, but there are many passages that say offerings to the LORD must have no defects (Lev 1:3, 3:6, 4:3, 9:2, 14:10, 22:19, and many more), so I am not surprised.  Defective animals are to be eaten "within your gates", so they are not allowed to live, but must not be brought before the LORD.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 14

In this chapter, Moses repeats the commands about clean and unclean animals and establishes two new tithes (or is it just one?).

"You are the children of the LORD your God" (v. 1).  Although it hasn't been mentioned much, the LORD will increasingly be expressed as a father figure to the nation of Israel.  I don't remember if this is the first verse to state it in such explicit terms, but I know that earlier in the Pentateuch the LORD has been primarily depicted as a lord or suzerain.  These should not be considered mutually exclusive positions.  Father/son terminology generally indicates a friendly relationship (source).  The earlier language depicts the LORD as powerful and beneficent to Israel, but father/son language also conveys an emotional connection because it is generally assumed in the bible that fathers love their sons.

We also see the LORD expressing love for Israel more and more (e.g. Deut 4:37, 7:7-8, 7:13, etc.).  Sonship is probably more important because it also implies love, but also inheritance and everything that goes with it.  The LORD will never die, but it is nevertheless implied that the sons of God would inherit, in whole or in part, the dominion of God.  This began in Gen 1:28-29 with the assignment of the earth to man.  When the LORD calls Israel his son, we can infer that the process was not ruined by sin, though certainly it was delayed.

In the future, we will see father/son language appear with much greater frequency.

Verses 2-21 are largely copied from earlier chapters.  Verse 2 is taken from Lev 19:27.  The section on unclean animals is taken from Lev 11.  The command against boiling a goat in its mother's milk is repeated in Ex 23:19 and Ex 34:26.  I don't feel any need to discuss these parts because they are nearly identical to the prior passages on the same topics.

The last part of the chapter (verse 22 to the end) is far more interesting because it creates a new tithe or two.    First, recall that there was a tithe established earlier in Num 18 for the provision of the Levites and priests.  That tithe was " reckoned ... as the product of the threshing floor, and as the product of the wine vat", which implies it is only taken from agricultural produce.  It is not stated if this tithe should also include animals or other kinds of produce, though I do think the language is meant to be expansive and not restricting (i.e. probably meant to include other kinds of produce and maybe also animals).

Here, the tithe is established not to sustain the religious orders or the temple, but rather was to be brought to the LORD's dwelling place and eaten there by the people offering it.  More specifically, we see that the tithe was only taken from grain, wine and oil (i.e. agricultural produce).  The animals are not tithed, but the Israelites must offer the firstborn, which has been previously stipulated (among other places, Ex 13).  Because the animals are not tithed, I think we can reasonably question whether the tithe in Num 18 included animals.  Also remember that the Levites are given a pastureland around their cities, which suggests they would raise their own animals, though it could be those animals were tithed.

As in Deut 12:21, there is an obvious expectation that some Israelites will settle far away from "the place which the LORD your God chooses", and in this case Moses creates a provision for the Israelites exchanging their goods for money to bring to the new temple and celebrate there.

In verse 28, we have a reference to another tithe being given in the third year for the sustenance of the Levite, foreigner, orphan and widow.  Based on the way this tithe is phrased, I think it is not meant to be a separate tithe on top of the tithe from v. 22.  I think it is more likely that this means every three years the Israelites take their tithe and give it away, rather than bring it to the temple and celebrate there.  That is, in the third year would the people pay a single* tithe towards the poor or two tithes, one given to the poor and a second taken to the temple to celebrate?  I contend that there is only a single tithe in this year.  Keil and Delitzsch agree with this interpretation, but there is understandably confusion around this point.

The reasons why I think v. 28-29 describe an additional condition to the prior tithe: 1) it is part of the same chapter and same discourse, 2) it doesn't have the same boilerplate language about what must be given in the tithe (in v. 22-23), 3) v. 28 seems to reference the prior tithe, calling it "the tithe of your produce in that year".

Overall, there is a larger question of tithing in the modern church, and while I'm tempted to write a long discourse on that subject, I think it would be more appropriate to reflect upon it later, in the context of the NT.  Certainly this chapter and Num 18 give us much-needed context on this modern question.

*"Single" only in the context of this chapter.  In practice, there are at least two tithes (the aforementioned tithe to the Levites from Num 18), but probably even more since in later Israelite history the kings would also demand tithes (for instance, see 1 Sam 8:15-17).  So we can expect there were at least three separate tithes, possibly four.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 13

In this chapter, Moses commands the people to slay anyone who turns away from following the LORD.

There are three categories in this chapter, which I will address in order.  The first category is false prophets, the second category is fellow Israelites who turn away from the LORD (but without any prophetic statements), and the third category is entire cities that turn away from the LORD.  Just as with the last chapter, I don't really know which commandment this chapter is associated with.  Some commentators suggest this chapter relates to the third commandment (honoring the name of the LORD) and I really don't see how that's more appropriate than the first commandment (no other gods before the LORD).  I can't say more without looking into the matter more carefully.

The first group is probably the most interesting.  We have seen prophets on many occasions (cf. Gen 20:7, Ex 7:1, Ex 15:20, Num 12:6), and all of those instances are indicative of what is a prophet.  Num 12:6 in particular reveals that prophets are those to whom the LORD makes himself "known to him in a vision.  I shall speak to him in a dream."  We have seen the LORD speak to numerous people through dreams (such as Jacob's dream in Gen 28) and visions (for instance, Abraham's vision in Gen 15:12-17.  Abraham is separately called a prophet in Gen 20:7).  We also learned that prophets were responsible for speaking on behalf of their respective gods in Ex 7:1.

What this chapter teaches us is that false prophets are not known by giving false signs; they are capable of giving true signs and wonders.  Rather, they are false by virtue of "counseling rebellion against the LORD".  This is really just another expression of the first commandment, refusing to follow any gods besides the LORD no matter who is talking to you, even if it is a prophet who "gives you a sign or a wonder" and it comes true.  I think this is interesting because in modern culture, we largely discount the possibility of miracles at all.  However, the author of Deuteronomy accepts both the possibility of miracles from the LORD (many of which are documented in the Pentateuch) and also miracles performed by prophets or "dreamers of dreams" who speak on behalf of other gods.

As a minor note, I love the phrase "dreamer of dreams".  In Hebrew, it is "chalam chalom", which is amusingly redundant for such an otherwise-terse language.  That is, Hebrew is usually ambiguous, omitting many words. This is not one of those cases.  :)

The second group is individuals who turn away from the LORD and try to persuade others to also worship other gods.  Just as with the false prophet, anyone who tries to convince you to abandon the LORD must be put to death for breaking the covenant and the first commandment.  The key to understanding this section is verse 6, which emphasizes closeness.  Be it "son, or daughter, or wife who is close to you, or the companion of your soul" (v. 6), they all must die if they turn away from the LORD and try to "secretly entice" you to do likewise.

This is in a society that deeply values family and community, so committing a family member to death is incredibly serious.  That's what the covenant demands; it is a commitment above every other.  Love for the LORD must supersede love for every human in your life.  Verses 8-9 show the severity of this commitment, because it's not enough to follow the LORD and conceal this friend's treachery.  It's not enough to "just" denounce that person to the community; your hand must be the "first against him to put him to death".  The purpose is to extinguish any empathy for the crime of serving other gods by directly acting against this person whom you love.

The third group is entire cities that serve other gods.  In this case, similar to the other cases, one must investigate to discover if the city truly turned away from the LORD, and if so, put everyone in the city to death and burn it.  It must be blotted out like Sodom and Gomorrah, with everything burned in fire.  This is similar to the repeated expression "cut off" that we saw through Exodus and Leviticus, that people who break laws in the covenant "shall be cut off from among his people", which either means permanent exile or more likely, death.

This chapter uses a uniquely Deuteronomy expression, "you shall purge the evil from among you".  This expression is only used in Deuteronomy and a related form appears once in Judges 20:13 ("...we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel").  This is one of the several linguistic differences between Deuteronomy and the rest of the Pentateuch, but conceptually it speaks of the same thing; cutting off or destroying sinful activity from the midst of Israel to protect the people from the corrupting influence.

In the case of the third group, it is more than just a sinful individual: sinful cities must also be wholly destroyed.  This is similar to the destruction of the native Canaanite tribes who commit abominations such as child sacrifice (Deut 12:31).  As the LORD threatens on many occasions, if the Israelites adopt the customs of the other nations and serve other gods, they must be destroyed.  If the Israelites do not destroy a sinful town, the rest of the nation is subjected to the LORD's "burning anger", like the many plagues they suffered in the wilderness.

What the LORD is looking for is zeal, like the zeal of the Levites (Ex 32:25-29) or the zeal of Phinehas (Num 25:7).  The LORD is looking for zeal amongst Israel to destroy everyone who turns from the LORD, no matter how powerful or precious or many.  There should be no compromise, no negotiation, no mercy for all those who break the covenant and turn away.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 12

In this chapter, Moses commands the people to offer their sacrifices at the LORD's dwelling place.

The first part of this chapter is similar to Deut 7:5, which also instructs the Israelites to destroy the religious symbols of the Canaanites.  I have nothing to add other than pointing out the similarity.

The rest of the chapter is basically guidance for the Israelites regarding their sacrifices.  There are two classes of food: holy and common (I am inventing these terms, but I think the text supports this delineation).  The holy food consists of burnt offerings, tithes, vows, sacrifices, the firstborn of the herd and flock, and so on (v. 6).  These are all the various classes of religious offerings that we have read about in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers in various places.

Common food is when the people "desire to eat meat", and they are authorized to slaughter animals "within any of your gates", which means that it must be done within a city.

The holy food (primarily animal sacrifice, but also include the tithes of grain, oil and wine) must be brought before the "place the LORD chooses", the first occurrence of this phrase in Deuteronomy.

I discussed the term "the place which the LORD your God will choose" in my introduction to Deuteronomy, so I won't talk about it here.  In summary, it is meant to be the future permanent residence of the LORD's presence, just as the tabernacle now holds the LORD's presence in their wandering.

This chapter is similar in spirit to Lev 17.  In that chapter, the LORD commanded the people to bring all their sacrifices to the tabernacle without exception.  I remarked at the time that this has a scalability problem: when the Israelites settle into the promised land, some of them will live a considerable distance from the tabernacle and would not be able to bring their sacrifices to it.  This chapter directly mentions the distance problem in v. 21.  Because when Israel is wandering in the desert, they travel in a relatively compact camp, so distance isn't as much of a problem.  It is only when "the LORD your God extends your border as he has promised you" (v. 20) that this becomes a problem.

This chapter addresses the scalability problem by creating a second class of animal slaughter which may be done in any city of Israel, eaten by the clean and unclean alike.  It is only the religious offerings that must be taken to the tabernacle.  In addition, the Israelites are still prohibited from offering sacrifices in "the open fields" or the high places, because those would be outside of the city gates.

Lev 17 also includes numerous prohibitions against eating the blood of sacrifices (Lev 17:10, 12-14), and this chapter repeats that prohibition several times as well (v. 16, 23-25, 27).  My guess is that these two topics (prohibition of blood, the location of sacrifices) are tied together because both of them have to do with the laws of offerings.  In addition, the blood is considered sacred and is used for many of the sacrifice rituals (see Lev 1, 3-5 for more on this).

In addition, the Levite "who is within your gates" is also listed as a prescribed beneficiary of the sacrifices made before the LORD.  "The Levite" is mentioned three times (v. 12, 18-19) and always in the context of sharing in sacrifices made at "the place which the LORD your God will choose", which means that this only includes the holy food and not the common food that I discussed above.

There's two things that are notable about this passage regarding the Levite.

First, it means that the Levites will travel with the offerer to the "place".  Since it is only the "Levite within your gates" and the offerer must travel to the new temple, the Levite is also traveling to the temple to share in the offerings.  We already know that the priests are responsible for the offerings, so it's unclear what, if anything, the Levite will do.  Also, note how v. 12 and 18 list parts of a man's extended household.  First it mentions "sons and daughters", and then servants, who are not family, but part of the shared household.  It includes Levites last, suggesting that they are to be supported as part of the household, as the next tier down from servants.

Second, it has the implication that the Levites will be living spread out amongst the cities of Israel.  This is strange when you consider that the Levites already have 6 dedicated cities in Israel.  At this point, I am genuinely wondering what these Levites will be doing since they are supposed to be in service of the priests and the priests will all be with the tabernacle (or the temple, as the case may be).  This chapter is essentially creating more provision for the Levites without explaining what they will be doing.

This chapter doesn't directly relate to any of the ten commandments, so opinion seems to differ on how it can be related back to the general stipulations.  Some commentators suggest that it relates to the second commandment by destroying idols, while other commentators claim it relates to the first commandment because it emphasizes the exclusive worship of the LORD at his temple over the polygamy of sacrificing wherever one pleases.  I don't have any particular opinion, because as I've said before, the first and second commandments are heavily related.  The first commandment (to have no other god before the LORD) is implicit in everything about the covenant and there is nothing that will be entirely unrelated to it.

Moses concludes by warning the Israelites to not adopt the practices of the nations they are going to destroy.  Good to know.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 11

In this chapter, Moses again warns the people to obey the LORD and sets before them the blessings of obedience and the curses of rebellion.

At this point, Moses is largely just repeating himself.  We have already read so many warnings, so many commands to obey the LORD, so many threats and promises, and this chapter is just more of the same.

This chapter shows a lot of parallels to Deut 6 (for instance, compare vv. 18-20 here with Deut 6:7-9), which I think is intentional.  I think Deut 6 and 11 are meant to open and conclude a subsection of Deuteronomy.  Deut 6 is not the first "warnings" chapter (Deut 4 also contains many warnings), but Deut 6 is the first full chapter after the ten commandments, so the five chapters from Deut 6-11 probably have some sort of pattern or significance.  The parallels between Deut 6 and 11 suggest some kind of chiasmus.  After a brief review I can't find any suggested parallels within Deut 7-10, but I suspect that closer examination would reveal more interesting results.  Certainly there appears to be a shift that happens between chapters 8 and 9, as Moses begins to specifically accuse the Israelites of betraying their obligations to the LORD.

Overall, there isn't much I want to comment on for this chapter.  I think a lot of my remarks about Deut 6 are applicable here, including the discussion of tefillin and mezuzah.  This chapter also includes a threat of drought, which shows that the various famines during the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob remain a substantial problem in the days of Moses.  Protection from famine is one of the biggest promised blessings that we have seen.

The second thing I want to discuss is the "blessings and curses" that we read about in verses 26-32.  This is just a formalization of the blessings and curses that have been enumerated in the past 5 chapters, but it's also another part of the Hittite suzerainty treaty.  The vassal agrees to punishment if it disobeys its suzerain, while the suzerain agrees to bless the vassal if the vassal obeys and keeps the covenant.  In the case of Deuteronomy, the blessings and curses of the treaty are pronounced from Gerizim and Ebal, and we will read about this later when this part of the treaty is formally announced.  This chapter is really more of a prelude to the "official" blessings and curses.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 10

In this chapter, Moses recounts the creation of the new tablets and reminds Israel to obey the LORD.

This is a continuance of the last chapter, which recounted the story of the golden calf.  The conclusion to that story was the destruction of the first pair of tablets and the creation of a second pair of tablets, which happened in Ex 34.  Ex 34 also included a second description of the covenant.  This description is much more compact than the first version, which spans from Ex 20-23.  The repetition of the same legal language (for instance the command to not boil a young goat in its mother's milk) suggests that Ex 34 is really the initiation of a second covenant, with the first covenant having been destroyed when Moses broke the two tablets.

The covenant of Ex 34 is virtually identical to the covenant of Ex 19-23.  Here Moses is repeating the same story, which indicates that Deuteronomy is also a renewal of the same covenant, but we should have known that by now.

As an aside, Moses also says that the Israelites traveled to Moserah and Gudgodah.  Neither of these places are mentioned anywhere else in the OT, but Jotbathah is one of the camps listed in Num 33.  All of these locations are of low importance.

The first half of this chapter, from verses 1-11, follows the narrative style of the prologue and of chapter 10, which preceded this chapter.  The second half of this chapter, from verses 12-22, follows the didactic style of other parts in Deuteronomy (such as Deut 4, 6, 7 and so on) when Moses instructs the Israelites to follow the LORD at all times.

There are three things I want to point out about this passage.  First, the expression "circumcise your heart and stiffen your neck no longer".  Not stiffening their necks is a reference to animals resisting their human keepers.  For instance, a donkey or ox could "stiffen its neck" to resist being guided somewhere, with an Israelite leading it and the animal resisting.  Therefore Moses is using a shepherding analogy to the Israelites rebellion against the LORD.  Circumcision of the heart is a bit more subtle, and the first time that circumcision has been referred to metaphorically.  In the past, circumcision has been used as a physical sign of the covenant, that those circumcised are in an agreement with God (see Gen 17).  Here, Moses speaks of circumcising one's heart to mean entering the spirit of the covenant, which is obedience and fealty to the LORD.  It is insufficient for the Israelites to only be circumcised of their flesh, they must also follow the LORD with their willpower and desires.

As a secondary note, since Moses is symbolically interpreting circumcision, we can reasonably understand that the entire covenantal system is meant to be understood symbolically.  That is, a metaphorical understanding of the covenant is not a "modern gloss", because the author of Deuteronomy himself interprets certain elements of the covenant in a metaphorical fashion.  I think this is significant because I am going to apply alternative interpretations of many elements from the Pentateuch, and this passage teaches us that metaphorical interpretations are within the expectations of the original text itself.  Later portions of the bible also apply metaphorical interpretations to the Pentateuch, but in this passage the Pentateuch metaphorically interprets itself.  The details of the interpretation may change over time, but that's perfectly in line with the principle of progressive revelation, as I previously explained.

Second, God protects a triumvirate of vulnerability: the orphan, widow and foreigner.  This is the same set of vulnerable groups that were protected in Ex 22:21-24, which I briefly discussed then.  It's amazing to think of God as this great king, the possessor of the highest heavens, yet he "executes justice" on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society.  It is contrary to the pattern of the world where the strong use their power to exploit the weak; the LORD uses his strength to protect the weak and subvert the proud.

Third, as a minor note, v. 22 speaks of Israel being "as numerous as the stars of heaven", which is a reference to God's promise to Abraham in Gen 15.  That is, Moses is using this expression to imply that God fulfilled his promise to Abraham.

Overall, it's a very beautiful passage, and I like all of it.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 9

In this chapter, Moses reminds the Israelites of their many past failings.

This chapter is written in the same style as the historical prologue from chapters 1-3, so its placement here is a bit peculiar.  The way I understand this chapter is that it is another warning against pride.  In the last chapter, Moses warned the people against pride when they come into the land and possess its riches.  In this chapter, Moses warns the people to avoid pride when they dispossess the nations that already exist there, as the people might think "because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land".

Then Moses recounts their various failings in the past, from the golden calf of Ex 32 to the sin of Massah when the people quarreled with the LORD (Ex 17), to the sins of Taberah and Kibroth-hattavah in Num 11.  Finally, Moses reminds the people of their rebellion against taking the promised land in Num 14.

I have discussed all of these events when they first occurred and more than once I have pointed out the Israelites' pattern of continued rebellion against the LORD.  It's amazing that we can read of all these rebellions and it is all in the context of Israel "crossing over the Jordan today to go in [to the promised land]", and that the LORD would overthrow all of the fierce opposition that Israel can expect.  But I guess that's the point of this chapter, to show the LORD's mercy in light of Israel's rebellion.  Moses also paints himself very positively, as he intercedes for the people on several occasions.

I'm not sure what else I can say.  These are all stories we have read before, and this chapter doesn't add anything new, except to put them all in the same place.  Unlike the historical prologue in chapters 1-3, this chapter does not add any new material, so I have nothing else to add.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 8

In this chapter, Moses reiterates the blessings of the LORD and obedience that is demanded of the Israelites.

In broad terms, this chapter is about humility and pride.  In verses 1-6 Moses explains that the journey through the wilderness was a test to establish the humility of the Israelites.  Verses 7-10 establish the goodness of the promised land with a result that "you shall bless the LORD your God".  Verses 11-14 show that if the people forget God, then they will think all these things are the work of their own strength and rise up in pride.  Verses 15-20 show the results of these two attitudes.  On one hand, the people might say "my power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth", and on the other hand they would know that "[God] is giving you power to make wealth".

The general framework of this chapter is to show a few things.  It shows that the Israelites will soon pass into a land of extreme wealth.  We have already seen this principle a few times, such as Num 13 and more recently in Deut 6:10-12, but this chapter is even more lustrously detailed.

As a result of this new wealth, Moses warns of two possible outcomes.  The Israelites can either recognize that the LORD is the source of their wealth, or think that they created it themselves.  As a result, they will either "bless the LORD" in humility, or become prideful in their hearts and be swept away in destruction.

Another part of the framework is the repeated emphasis on the humbling process in the wilderness (which is stated first in v. 2-3 and second in v. 16).

Put together, we can see that there is an intended testing process in poverty, and there is a distinctly different test that occurs when obtaining wealth.

Beginning with the wilderness journey, Moses emphasizes the Israelites' dependence on the LORD through the consumption of manna.  Manna was the bread that the LORD provided to feed the Israelites throughout their years in the wilderness.  As such, it is a symbol of the Israelites' helplessness and dependence upon God.  Without manna, they would have died, and manna was completely beyond their power or ability to influence or create.  That's why Moses says God gave the manna to humble them, because it put them in a position of total dependence.

It tested them, whether they would depend on the LORD and accept that humility.  Having read through both Exodus and Numbers, I think we can agree this is a test they broadly failed over and over.  Yet here we are, the Israelites are still alive and about to enter the promised land.  I think their repeated failures are a concerning sign for their future in light of this chapter.

In emphasizing the humility of the desert journey, Moses says one of my favorite lines from the entire bible, verse 3: "He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD."

This is really a great verse for a couple reasons.  First, it captures the humility and dependence aspect I was just talking about.  Second, it draws a parallel between the Israelites' dependence on manna an our dependence upon every word that comes from the LORD.  Narrowly constructed, this refers to the Pentateuch.  Broadly constructed, it refers to everything that the LORD says in the scriptures and even beyond the scriptures.  The word of the LORD is even equated with food, something without which man cannot survive.  It's not just the Israelites who depend on it, everyone depends on it.

Third, this verse also gives us an interesting new perspective on bread.  Since bread is equated with the word of the LORD, we can read other passages that include the usage of bread and see if a metaphorical rendering provides any more insights.  One place that comes to mind is the "table of showbread" which is first described in Ex 25:23-30 (my commentary here) and elaborated further in Lev 24:5-9 (commentary here).  It is a table within the holy place of the tabernacle, on which the Israelites were commanded to place bread every Sabbath, so that it would continually hold fresh bread.  It is one of the three "continual" symbols in the tabernacle, with the other two being the continual incense and the continual burning lampstand.

Verse 3 gives us some insight into the continually offered bread.  It is probably meant as a reminder of the Israelites' perpetual dependence on the LORD, both for physical and spiritual needs, as man requires the manna, material provision, as the words of the LORD, spiritual provision.

So that's one way to look at the desert journey, as an example of man's dependence on God.  The other way to look at it is an example of God's faithfulness to man.  Unless God provided manna every day, the Israelites would have died.  But God was with them and fed them every day for 40 years.

And those are the two sides of the covenant; man's need and God's faithfulness.

So that's the testing process that comes with adversity.  It is a test of humility, whether people can accept their dependence on God and trust in his faithfulness.

The second test is a test of wealth.  In this case, the Israelites are challenged not with adversity, but with prosperity.  This isn't something that is normally considered a challenge, but the author makes it clear in this chapter that he does.  The challenge is that, in prosperity, the Israelites might forget their dependence on God and think that the wealth they possess is the result of their own power.  This leads to another fabulous passage, v. 17-18: "... you may say in your heart, 'My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.'  But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who is giving you power to make wealth..."  Every blessing that the Israelites possess is a result of divine providence through the covenant.  The test of wealth is a challenge to remember the LORD even when we don't think we need him.

In the wilderness, all the Israelites knew they needed the LORD because of the manna.  In the promised land, they are able to live by their own hands, and so they risk thinking that it is their hands which provide for their needs.  They are challenged to remember that the power to create wealth is being given to them by the LORD, so the appearance of depending on the LORD is gone, but they still depend on the LORD just as much as in the desert.

Lastly, from a literary perspective I really enjoy verses 15-16 as a description of the Sinaitic desert.  While this is certainly a poetic description and probably a bit hyperbolic, I think it really gives us a good idea of how harsh and dry the wilderness really is.  I especially like the imagery of drawing water "out of the rock of flint", which contrasts the life-giving nature of water with the harsh, unforgiving hardness of a rock.  The "rock of flint" is symbolic of the larger wilderness (which would have consisted of many rocks), while the water drawn forth is symbolic of the LORD's provision for the Israelites in their time of need.  In some ways drawing water from a rock is a metaphor for drawing life out of death.  I have written at other times about this miracle, so I won't go into more depth here.