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.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 7

In this chapter, Moses warns the Israelites to destroy all the nations of the promised land when they invade.

A lot of this chapter is repeated from earlier portions of the Pentateuch.  In particular, the warning against intermarriage was first stated in Ex 34:11-17, and it included similar language about: clearing away a list of nations, make no covenant with them, do not intermarry (taking daughters for your sons, giving daughters to their sons), and destroying their religious symbols; the altars, sacred stones, Asherah poles and graven images.  This demand that the Israelites separate themselves from the other nations of the promised land is what I call the "principle of separation" in the Pentateuch, which I first mentioned all the way back in Ex 20, when discussing the first commandment, appropriately enough (I discussed it a few times after that, in Ex 32, Lev 11, Lev 18 and Lev 21).

This chapter commands the Israelites to maintain a social and cultural separation from the other nations, refusing to intermarry or relate to the other peoples.  This is related to the first commandment because the social separation is intended to reinforce and support the religious separation demanded by the first commandment.  The command to destroy the sacred stones and Asherah poles is similarly intended to protect the Israelites from worshiping these things.

Verses 9-11 are interesting because they are a modified and expanded form of Deut 5:9-10, which was stated as part of the second commandment.  From this, we can infer that the command to destroy the altars and graven images in v. 5 is a specific stipulation corresponding to the second commandment (you shall not make an idol).  It's a little hard to tell the difference between the first and second commandments because idols are nearly always associated with other gods, but in this case vv. 9-11 gives us a hint that the author has moved on from the first to the second.  That said, the author is unlikely to be "done" with the first commandment, so it is likely that later sections will continue to correspond with the first commandment.

The rest of the chapter is an encouragement of the LORD's blessings if they keep the covenant and a pep talk in case the Israelites get afraid of invading the promised land, which is a very common theme.  The blessings are reminiscent of Lev 26:3-13.  Lev 26 also includes a provision about "not making" idols, images or sacred stones, which is similar to v. 5 in this chapter.

The pep talk is a reminder that the LORD is with you, the LORD will destroy your foes, the LORD your God is in your midst and is a great and awesome God, etc., etc.  This section is very similar to Ex 23:20-33. This section of Exodus, which is part of the covenantal law that Moses shares from Ex 20-23, uses many of the same expressions as Deut 7 as a whole.  It includes a list of nations that the Israelites will destroy, a command to not worship their gods, a command to destroy their sacred stones, a promise of material blessing for the Israelites with emphasis on fertility and removing sickness, blessed bread and water, a terror and confusion sent upon their foes, a statement that the LORD would destroy them "little by little", and a renewed demand that the Israelites make no covenant with the inhabitants of Canaan or else the Israelites risk being ensnared.

One of the key words tying these two chapters together is "tsiraw", which is Hebrew for hornet or wasp.  I had mentioned this briefly in my commentary on Ex 23.  Tsiraw is a word used only three times in the OT; first in Ex 23:28, second in Deut 7:20, and third in Joshua 24:12 (which discusses the same topic, the LORD sending "the hornet" against Israel's foes).  So this word is only ever used in reference to this "hornet" which the LORD sent against the Canaanite nations as a preface to their larger military invasion.  That's why the translation is so strange, because modern translators don't really have anything else they can cross-reference it with.

As with Ex 23:28, it clearly refers to some sort of malevolent force sent to harm their enemies in anticipation (or collaboration) with the Israelite invaders.  The exact nature of the force is indiscernible, but since the word only occurs here and there we can tell that this chapter of Deuteronomy is meant to be largely equivalent to Ex 23.

With all that said, I think the rest of the text is largely self-explanatory given what I have already written about Deuteronomy, so at this point I will move on to chapter 8.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 6

In this chapter, Moses warns the Israelites to always put the LORD first.

This chapter begins the specific stipulations (with the prior chapter listing the general stipulations).  That is, the ten commandments build a framework of sorts, which the rest of Deuteronomy is now filling in.  This chapter in particular corresponds with the first commandment, to have no other gods before the LORD.  The general principle is that the LORD must be foremost in one's life.

Of course, we could say that the entire Pentateuch relates to the first commandment, because devotion to the LORD is central to the covenant as a whole.  In fact, when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he quotes Deut 6:5, that you must love the LORD with all your heart and soul and strength (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27 has a slight variation).  Mark also quotes v. 4 in addition to v. 5.  It is therefore a pivotal verse to Christianity, because loving God is what defines the "commandments".

In the context of the covenant, the commandments are an expression of our obligation to the LORD.  The ten commandments are a list of things that the holders of the covenant are expected to do.  The "greatest commandment" therefore embodies that obligation, and what it comes down to is singular, devoted love to the LORD.  What the LORD gives us in return is partially explained by v. 21-23, that the LORD brought the Israelites out of slavery and into the land that had been promised, a rich land "flowing with milk and honey".

Verse 4 is called the "Shema", (which is Hebrew for "hear" or "listen") and it is one of the central prayers of Judaism, recited on many occasions.  The Shema takes the implicit monotheism of the first commandment (to have no other gods besides the LORD) and makes it explicit: there are no other gods besides the LORD.  Translations of the Shema have varied, but the basic Hebrew says something like this: "Listen Israel, LORD God LORD one".  As my readers have probably noticed, the Hebrew is lacking in verbs, so we have to fill in the blanks to figure out exactly how to construct this into a sentence.  Most translations turn this into two phrases, "the LORD is God, the LORD is one" because the repetition of the word LORD suggests that this is a parallel construction (i.e. equating "God" with "one" as descriptors of the LORD).

The Jewish version replaces the divine name with "Adonai", the Hebrew for "lord", out of a desire to observe the third commandment (you shall not bear the name of the LORD "falsely", traditionally "in vain").  I can hardly think of a more appropriate use of the divine name than repeating it in the Shema, so obviously this is a point on which I disagree with the traditional Jewish approach.  I have also used the divine name on numerous occasions within this commentary, which I also think is appropriate because it seems foolish to me to study the bible and refuse to speak of God by name.

The (orthodox) Jewish tradition is to maintain a literal adherence to all of the commandments as conservatively as possible.  One example that really brings this out is v. 7-9:
You shall teach them diligently to your sons and talk of them ... when you lie down and when you rise up.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall as frontals on your forehead.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The way that I understand these verses, Moses is commanding the Israelites to always keep these commandments foremost in their actions (sign on your hand) and thoughts (frontals on your forehead).  The Israelites are to speak of them to others and contemplate upon them continually, both in the outside and within their homes.  To me, these verses appear to be figurative, both because the language seems figurative and because it is in the larger context of Deuteronomy.  Deuteronomy is Moses's last, grand speech.  I think it's safe to say that Moses is trying to put everything in the strongest terms possible.  With all of these factors put together, I think verses 7-9 are supposed to deeply encourage us to consider the commandments of the LORD in all circumstances of life, everywhere and with everyone.

To the orthodox Jewish tradition, however, these verses have been expanded into a literal understanding.  What they did is take small scrolls with the Shema and maybe other verses and put them into small boxes (called tefillin), and then attached those boxes to their clothing near the head and hand.  Then they put similar boxes upon the doorframes of their houses (these boxes are called mezuzah).  Another tradition is to recite the Shema when going to sleep and arising in the morning.  And thus, the Jews have sought (and still seek) to literally fulfill v. 7-9 as if they were intended literally.

There's no better explanation for this behavior than v. 25: "It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God".  The word "righteousness" here is the same word that was used in Gen 15:6, when Abraham "believed in the LORD, and it was counted to him as righteousness".  Abraham was righteous by faith, the Israelites are righteous by observance of the law.  It should come as little surprise that the Israelites and their descendants would make that observance as carefully as possible.

Verses 7-9 are really just a microcosm of the orthodox approach to the whole OT.  We see another example in what I discussed above concerning the divine name; Jews refuse to mention the divine name, YHWH, or sometimes even the word God, because it's impossible to "bear the name falsely" if one does not "bear the name" at all.  It's unfortunate collateral damage if the divine name is most frequently used in the scriptures and prayer, so the name of God is most thoroughly stripped from the subjects that relate to God.  Similarly, the correct pronunciation of YHWH has been lost because Jewish tradition prohibits speaking the name and also because the biblical text lacks vowel markings.  While this wasn't entirely the intent of the Israelites, it was the effect.

A third example is Ex 23:19, you shall not boil a goat in its mother's milk.  To maintain observance of this commandment in all possible circumstances, the Jewish tradition changed this law to "you shall not eat meat and dairy in the same meal", which is a much broader requirement.  In my commentary on Ex 23, I called this "building a fence around the Torah", meaning that the requirements of the Torah are defensively buffered with additional requirements.  What we see in v. 25 here is the reason why they build a fence around the Torah: it is their righteousness to observe the law, so every ambiguity is interpreted as broadly as possible to avoid offending the law.

The Christian approach is generally a lot closer to the righteousness of Abraham, emphasizing faith in God and loving the LORD (v. 5).  We must wait until the NT before I can discuss the Christian tradition in depth, but I want my readers to understand the context being laid out here and how it relates to both the Jewish and Christian faiths.  Christianity represents a significant deviation from historical Judaism.  This chapter helps us understand historical Judaism, and once we reach the NT I hope to explain the reasons for the significant deviation.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 5

In this chapter, Moses again states the ten commandments and recounts his time on Mount Sinai before the LORD.

This chapter opens the stipulations section of the covenant, listing the commands that the Israelites must follow.  While this chapter forms the core of the new covenant, there are still another 29 chapters in Deuteronomy, so clearly the bulk of the text still lies before us.  Several major parts of Deuteronomy can be viewed as expansions on the ten commandments.  I don't want to dwell on this too much here, because we have not yet reviewed Deuteronomy as a whole, but I'll give one example.  Deut 19, 20 and 21:1-9 are an extended discussion of the prohibition on murder (the sixth commandment), because these passages discuss the cities of refuge (related to murder), rules of warfare (authorizing killing other people) and the atonement process in case someone is murdered but the murderer cannot be found.  I will discuss all of the other correlations as we go through Deuteronomy.

I should also direct my readers to my prior commentary on Ex 20, which is the first declaration of the ten commandments.  The text for nine of the commandments is virtually identical between Deut 5 and Ex 20.  There is only one commandment that is worded differently, which is the command to honor the Sabbath (the fourth commandment).  In Ex 20:8-11, the LORD explained the Sabbath by tying it to the seven days of creation.  Here, there is no mention of the creation of the world, but rather the LORD states that it is because he freed the Israelites from Egypt.  That is when the Sabbath was first given, of course, beginning in Ex 16.  This is a minor variation and probably not significant.  For anything else directly related to the commandments, read my commentary on Ex 20.

The second half of Deut 5 is basically Moses recounting the events of Ex 20:18-21.  This is another place where Deuteronomy expands, rather than omits, from the Exodus storyline.  Overall, the character of the two passages seems very similar to me, but one part I find interesting is how the LORD commends the Israelites for asking Moses to mediate between them and the LORD.  He says "they have done well" because this request demonstrates that they "would fear me", i.e. have a fear of disobeying the LORD and an earnest desire to follow all his commands.  I have heard some commentators suggest that the Israelites sinned by seeking to place a man between them and God, but here it is very clear that the LORD approves their request, because it demonstrates fear.  Of course, it turns out the fear is short-lived, as the people rapidly descend into idolatry even before Moses returns from Mount Sinai.

This part of the chapter also serves as a transition from the "general stipulations" to the "specific stipulations". Verse 31 in particular points out that Moses is to remain so the LORD may "speak to you all the commandments and the statutes and the judgments which you shall teach [the Israelites], that they may observe them in the land which I give them to possess".  What follows, therefore, is Moses recounting these more specific commandments, statutes and judgments, which serve to expand upon the ten commandments.

We can conclude that Moses is recounting what he was told on the mountain, so there should be some parallels between this and Exodus, in particular Ex 21-23, which is the equivalent stipulations section for the Exodus account of the covenant.  Interestingly, Ex 21-23 also expand on the commandments, but only five, mostly concentrated in the "earthly relationships" section.  Ex 21:12-35 discusses murder (6th commandment), Ex 22:1-14 discusses theft (8th commandment, not correctly ordered), Ex 22:16-31 discusses adultery (7th commandment), Ex 23:1-9 discusses false testimony (9th commandment), and Ex 23:10-19 is out of place and discusses the Sabbath (the 4th commandment).

Deuteronomy has 21 chapters (Deut 6-26) where Exodus only has 3, so clearly Deuteronomy is far more expansive.  The "specific stipulations" also include sections from Leviticus, which ties the authorship of that book together with this and Exodus/Numbers (by association).  Although Leviticus is crafted primarily as a priestly reference guide, its partial inclusion here in Deuteronomy should make it clear that it is indeed part of the law given by Moses and meant to be understood and obeyed by the people.

As an aside, my readers should understand that most of Israel is illiterate at this time and probably couldn't read the Pentateuch if they even had a copy.  And it's unlikely they have a copy because this book had to be written and transcribed by hand, an extraordinarily laborious process.  The chief method of transmission then is oral recital, which also possibly explains why there are Sabbaths and new moon festivals: it brings the people together that they might hear a recital of the law.  This also shows why the priesthood is so important, because the priests would generally have authority over the written Torah scrolls.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 4

In this chapter, Moses urges the people to obey God and threatens them with destruction if they do not.

The last chapter concluded the historical account as Moses recounted all the events from when Israel departed Mount Sinai to their arrival in the plains of Moab opposite the promised land.  In the Hittite Suzerainty treaty, this corresponds with the prologue.  The next section of the treaty form is the stipulations, a list of requirements or laws that the vassal must obey, and this corresponds with the ten commandments in the next chapter.

This chapter falls between the two, and seems to have elements of each.  From the prologue, this chapter includes references to many events from Israel's past.  Moses specifically refers to the sin of Baal-Peor (v. 3-4), the giving of the law of Mount Sinai (v. 10-14), and Moses's sin at Meribah (v. 21-22).  From the stipulations, Moses instructs the people to "keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you" (v. 2), "do thus [the statues and judgments of the LORD] in the land where you are entering to possess it" (v. 5), "keep his statutes and his commandments" (v. 40).

The core message of this chapter (and really, a lot of Deuteronomy at large) is that because of the LORD's actions towards the Israelites, the Israelites should respond by obeying his commands and following him alone, and this shows the connection between the prologue (what the LORD did) and the stipulations (how the Israelites should respond).  On an encouraging note, Moses reminds Israel of the LORD's appearance from Ex 19 (in this chapter, v. 10-14), when the covenant was first declared.

In v. 3, the Israelites are given a much more negative reminder, that as in the case of Baal-Peor, the LORD will destroy anyone who follow other gods.  This warning is reiterated and broadly extended in v. 25-28.  The warning in v. 25-28 is also reminiscent of the warning in Lev 26.  In both cases, the LORD promises destruction for Israel if they do not keep his commands and seek after other gods.  What we can see from the "affair of Peor" is that the LORD kept his promise, destroying "the men who followed Baal-Peor" (v. 3).  In the earlier incident of the golden calf, the LORD relented from destroying the whole nation, but even then 3,000 men died (Ex 32:28).  Moses also promises that when the people are "[scattered] among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations" that they would turn fully to idolatry just as they worshiped the gods of Egypt while in slavery.  This is a truly dire fate as the people suffer and depart completely from the LORD.  But what's fascinating is that Moses predicts a revival: "from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search for him with all your heart and all your soul".  This is really groundbreaking because everything we have seen so far is a prediction of destruction and misery if the Israelites turn away from the LORD.

Lev 26 also included a conditional revival, that if the Israelites "confess their iniquities... then I will remember my covenant with Jacob..." (Lev 26:40).  In that chapter, all of the blessings and curses are conditional, and the renewal of Lev 26:40-45 is also conditional upon the people returning to the LORD.  Deut 4:25-31, on the other hand, is predictive, stating that the people will act corruptly, be driven from the land, suffer and worship other gods in other lands, and from there they will repent and seek the LORD.  In that place, the LORD will be found by them, because "the LORD your God is a compassionate God; he will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant..." (v 31).

This is all really stunning for two reasons.  One, the LORD allows the Israelites to return even after they break the covenant, so long as they return with wholeheartedness.  Two, the LORD will be found "if you search for him with all your heart and all your soul".  This isn't exactly a general statement, but it's pretty close.  I mean, if you can find the LORD from a place of deepest darkness, you can certainly find him from better places as well.  And I think that's why this passage is so amazing, because even here in the Pentateuch, one of the earliest books in the OT, the LORD is willing to forgive the darkest of sins.  This is what I think a lot of people miss in the OT; they miss the profound forgiveness and mercy that the LORD shows towards Israel in spite of all the wrongs that Israel has done in the past and will do in the future.

Verse 26 also calls heaven and earth as witnesses, another part of the Hittite treaty.  This expression is used three times in the OT, and all three of those references are in Deuteronomy (here, 3:26, also in Deut 30:19 and 31:28).  Normally the witnesses to a Hittite treaty would be the gods of the suzerain and the vassal nations, but since this is a treaty between Israel and their God, the author improvises and calls the natural and spiritual realms of existence as witnesses.

One interesting connection in this chapter is that Moses says the Israelites saw no form when the LORD descended on Mount Sinai, and that's why they are to not make an idol in the form of any creature of the earth.  The LORD did not come with a physical form because he transcends material shapes and boundaries.  To craft an idol, even if you think it's the LORD (e.g. Ex 32:5) is to denigrate and diminish the true power of the LORD by making him into something lesser, weaker than he really is.

This chapter also calls the LORD a "consuming fire, a jealous God".  The term "consuming fire" was used previously in Ex 24:17 to describe the appearance of the mountain top when the LORD's glory dwelt upon it and Moses entered to confirm the covenant.  I think this is another reason why there is a lampstand perpetually burning in the tabernacle, because an eternally burning flame resembles the LORD.  That fire is compared to jealousy, and the LORD was also called a jealous God in Ex 20:5, part of the second commandment against making idols, and later in Ex 34:14, a command to destroy all the idols of the Canaanites when the Israelites enter the promised land, lest they be ensnared by sin.  The jealousy is a demand for wholeheartedness, that the Israelites obey and follow the LORD alone and seek after no other gods.

Another one of my favorite verses from this chapter is v. 39: "Know therefore today, and take it to your heart, that the LORD, he is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other."  But really the entire section from v. 32-40 is fantastic.  I don't think it's needs an explanation or anything, but I just love the language and the progression.  It involves the repeated use of heavens and earth.  To paraphrase,
Man was created on earth, now inquire in the heavens from one end to the other: has anything like this been done?  Out of the heavens he let you hear his voice, and on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words from the midst of the fire.  Know therefore that there is no other god in the heavens above or the earth below.
These are the same heavens and the earth that are called as a witness to the covenant, so the LORD is essentially calling his entire dominion of creation as a witness to his treaty with the people.

Also, this passage has really fantastic poetic structure.  In v. 34, Moses lists all the ways that the LORD brought Israel out of Egypt, first with a triplet of related terms, "trials, signs and wonders" (this triplet is a common literary device), then with a chiasm (ABBA structure), "war, a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, and by great terrors".  Verse 35 states that "the LORD, he is God, there is no other besides him", which is repeated in a stronger fashion in v. 39, "the LORD, he is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other."  Verse 36 contains a CACBAB structure with the word pairs "voice/words", "heaven/earth" and "fire": "out of the heavens he let you hear his voice to discipline you; and on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words from the midst of the fire."  If I remove all the extra text, you can read it like "heavens, voice, earth, fire, words, fire."  Intermixing the voice and fire of the LORD with the repetition of the terms "heavens" and "earth", the overall effect is to emphasize the LORD's dominion over heaven and earth, expressed through the signs, wonders and his might hand, bringing Israel out of Egypt and then speaking to them from the fire.

The fire is a dual expression of the LORD's zeal for Israel and his power over the nations of the earth, which is most clearly expressed when the LORD descends upon Mount Sinai in a raging whirlwind of fire, rendering the whole mountain like a smoking furnace (Ex 19).  Of course, that was when Moses had grown in his appreciation of the LORD and was willing to ascend the mountain (an almost unthinkable act to his compatriots).  When Moses first met the LORD, it was in a much humbler form, a burning bush (Ex 3).  In a few short years, the LORD could now appear to Moses as a burning mountain, which really tells us more about the growth of Moses than any change in the LORD.

The structure in v. 36 binds the words "fire" and "voice" together, which is apt when we recall that it was from the burning bush that the LORD first commissioned Moses to speak to Pharaoh and bring about the freedom of his people.  Interestingly, the burning bush is what commissions Moses to free Israel from Egypt, while the burning mountain is what largely concludes the Exodus story and kicks off the next phase (the desert wandering).  These two events provide a frame around the Exodus story and tie it all together as it was the LORD's divine intervention that brought the nation out of slavery.  Now Moses is encouraging the Israelites to remember how they were freed from Egypt, and on that basis to obey the voice that they heard from the fire.

Moses concludes by establishing the three cities of refuge in Transjordan and there is a concluding paragraph to show us that this ends the first section of Deuteronomy.  The next section begins in chapter 5 with a second oration of the ten commandments.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 3

In this chapter, Israel destroys the nation of Bashan, a second Amorite kingdom.

This chapter, and to a certain extent the prior chapter, is an uncharacteristic expansion on the story of Num 21.  That is, the Num 21 account of Og and Bashan is 3 verses long (Num 21:33-35), while here the same story is 11 verses (Deut 3:1-11).  When I discussed these two battles in my commentary on Num 21, I said that the victories against the Amorites would be used as a morale booster for the Israelites, a "pep rally" moment if you will.  I think that's what we see here: the author is elaborating on these two victories to remind the Israelites and encourage them for the coming invasion of Canaan.

Even though this account is longer, it is substantially similar to Num 21 in content.  There is only one notable difference which is that Og is "of the remnant of the Rephaim", and even further, we are told that his bed is 13 feet long and 6 feet wide.  While we can't expect that Og would be as long and wide as his bed, this does give us some idea how large these giants were thought to be.

Unlike the stories from before the 40 years, the generation to which Moses is speaking was actually present at these events.  As we can see, this makes little difference to the overall didactic structure of Moses's speech.  In Deut 1, I noted that Moses was referencing the current generation in the second person (for instance, Deut 1:30, 34, etc), in spite of them not actually being present at those earlier events.  The reason is that Moses is not addressing a specific group of people, he is addressing the nation at large, both past, present and future.  This also helps to explain why Moses is now recounting events that the current generation would have seen themselves, because Moses is also addressing future generations that would not have seen these things.

Moses also gives us the dimensions of Transjordan; it is an expansive region from the heights of Bashan in the north, near the Sea of Galilee, down to the Dead Sea in the south, with its east border not very easy to parse out, but it's probably some combination of "the slopes of Pisgah", the Arnon river gorge and "the river Jabbok".  I don't know enough ancient geography to figure out exactly where these borders lie, but the general impression that I get from this is that the Transjordan region is nearly as large as the entire promised land in the west.

Recall that the promised land also ranged from a bit north of Galilee to a bit south of the Dead Sea, and Transjordan appears to be similarly situated.  The big difference is that Transjordan is only populated by two and a half tribes, about one fourth of the population moving beyond the Jordan.  In Num 32:1-4 we find out that Reuben and Gad (and later, half the tribe of Manasseh) have a large number of livestock, and that Transjordan is "a place suitable for livestock".  This explains why it will be populated so much less densely, because these two and a half tribes will probably spend a lot of time migrating their herds and essentially maintaining a semi-nomadic lifestyle.

The 9.5 tribes west of the Jordan are much more likely to settle down into static farming, which requires far less land per capita.  In spite of its larger size, the land east of the Jordan is also probably less fertile, so don't think that the 9.5 tribes got a worse deal just because they got less land than their brothers.

This chapter also includes a reference to Moses's exclusion from the promised land, a result of his sin in Num 20:12.  We were further told in Num 27:12 that Moses would climb "this mountain of Abarim" and from there observe the promised land and die.  Here the mountain is called Pisgah.  This is either a more specific name for one of the mountains in Abarim, or a more general term for the region in which Abarim lies.  Jeremiah 22:20 uses Abarim in a general sense, so it is more likely that Pisgah is a specific mountain and Abarim is a region.  Pisgah is also one of the mountains from which Balaam tried to curse Israel.

Anyway, Moses requests permission to cross over just to "see the fair land".  The way I read this is that Moses, having been forbidden to "enter" the land, now just wants to "go and take a quick look around", so to speak.  This shows Moses's interest in the promised land is really quite substantial since he's now trying to negotiate terms whereby he can enter the land, even if only for a short time.  The LORD refuses, however, and as with Num 27 he instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as the next leader.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 2

In this chapter, Moses narrates the Israelites' journey from the wilderness to their victory over king Sihon.

This chapter is more interesting than the last one because while it still recapitulates a large section of Numbers, it also includes some new details that validate a lot of my commentary on those prior chapters.  I could pretend this is because I'm just-so-good at interpreting Numbers, but in reality I just read Deuteronomy in advance and used it to formulate my earlier hypotheses.

For instance, verses 1-3 help us confirm the exact timing of the 40 years in the wilderness, and explain the gap that occurs between Numbers 14 and 15, though it could have also occurred later, e.g. between Numbers 17 and 18.  I pondered this in my commentary on Num 20, and while the content of this chapter confirms my suspicion, it does not help us pin down the timing more precisely.  Just as with the last chapter, this one omits numerous stories from Numbers, such as Korah's rebellion and Aaron's blooming staff.  The rest of the content of Numbers 15-19 is legal stuff that Moses ignores.  Also the events of Num 20 and large parts of 21 are also not listed here.

So this chapter informs us that the Israelites did, in fact, spent 40 years in the desert between the rebellion of Num 14 and the attempt to pass through Edom in Num 20, but it does not tell us more precisely than that.  What it does tell us is that the Israelites spent the 40 years "circling Mount Seir for many days".  While it doesn't say explicitly, it suggests that the Israelites spent the entire 40 years wandering in circles around Mount Seir.

As before, this is written in the same polemical style so perhaps we shouldn't regard this as a factual claim.  Either way, it should give us a clear idea that the Israelites spent the time wandering aimlessly and without purpose in the desert, until such time as the older generation died off (v. 16).

Next, we are given another recounting of the Israelites' passage through (or around) Edom, Moab and Ammon.  I have already discussed the delicate political position between Israel and Edom and Moab in my commentary on Num 20 and Num 22.  I briefly mentioned Ammon in my commentary on Num 21.  I mentioned back then that Israel would refuse to fight these three nations because they shared lineage through Terah (to Lot) and Isaac (to Esau).  In this chapter, we are also told that the LORD warned Israel against attacking these nations because the LORD "gave" their lands to them "as a possession", just like he is giving Canaan to the Israelites.  For now, it appears that this will maintain a peace between these nations, but with the foresight of having read the rest of the OT, I can tell you it won't last forever.

Some commentators raise the question of whether the Israelites went around Edom or through it.  This chapter seems to imply that Israel travels through the land of Edom in v. 4 and v. 8.  However, Num 20 makes it pretty clear that Moab resisted Israel, and Israel "turned away" as a result.  Between the two accounts, I am much more inclined to take Num 20 as a historical narrative.  We have only read two chapters in Deuteronomy and already I have pointed out numerous stories from Numbers that are omitted here.  It is very reasonable to suspect that Deuteronomy is simply omitting the story of Edom's resistance because it's not cogent to the author's purpose.

Also, verse 4 is only a command to go through Edom, not a statement that's what Israel did.  While v. 8 does suggest that Israel "passed beyond" Edom, I think there's room to suggest that Israel merely passed around Edom rather than through it.  Verse 29 also suggests that Israel passed through Edom and Moab, but I'm hesitant to read too much into it given the context.  In this verse, Moses is speaking through a messenger to Sihon, so it's possible he's just summarizing a much longer story and we are misinterpreting the summary as if that were the whole story (from Numbers we know that it is not).  That is the general trend of Deuteronomy so far.

The next interesting thing we see from this chapter is that the Rephaim controlled a lot of territory in this region until the various descendants of Terah started to wipe them out.  Rephaim is an umbrella term that seems to include the Anakites (who we have seen before) as well as the "Emim" and "Zamzummin" (who we have not).  All of these groups are described as being "great, numerous and tall", or as I like to call them, abnormally large man-giants.  More specifically, this chapter suggests that Emim and Zamzummin are simply two other names for the same group, so we can possibly regard them all as Anakites with the same national identity.  I'm not sure I understand the distinction between the Rephaim and the Anakites.  For our purposes, it is probably not a big deal, but it's possible that the Rephaim are a larger collection of tribes similar to how Israel is a collection of twelve tribes.  Or it's possible that "Rephaim" is a general term for "large man-giant".  I don't think the biblical text makes it clear, though it's possible a linguistic analysis would provide more insight (since I don't speak ancient Hebrew, I cannot comment further on this point).

What we can also see from this chapter is that in spite of their large size and numbers, the Rephaim are being slowly wiped out.  The Emim "formerly lived" in the land of Moab, but have since been exterminated or driven off.  The Zamzummin were similarly "destroyed before [the Ammonites]".  Now the Israelites are traveling to the promised land with a command from the LORD to wipe out the inhabitants (including Anakites).  Many of the enemies of the Israelites as they pass into the land are Anakites, so we will see this term show up several more times.  As time passes, the Rephaim will become more and more rare, and combined with their freaky physical appearance, this gives them a mythical quality.

Since Num 13:33 associates the  Anakites with the Nephilim (from Gen 6:4), this stirs up quite a bit of controversy and conspiracy theories: More conspiracy theories than are appropriate, I think, but if it makes people more interested in the bible I guess it's not such a bad thing.  There's not enough hard biblical evidence for me to say much about the  Anakites, which is probably why conspiracy theorists are happy to "fill in the gap" with their own ideas.  All I can say is that I am skeptical of any strongly-worded statement regarding the Nephilim precisely because they are so sparsely mentioned in the OT (and never mentioned at all in the NT, apart from one possible reference in Jude 1:6).

It's worth mentioning that the Edomites also wiped out a nation called the Horites (probably named after Mount Hor), but there is no indication here that the Horites were Rephaim.  It does give us another hint that the Edomites only took their land by displacing prior inhabitants, just as the Israelites intend to do.

After this we are given the account of Israel's war against Sihon.  Even before sending a messenger to Sihon, the LORD tells Moses that he will defeat Sihon in battle "to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under the heavens" (v. 24-25).  Contrary to the warnings against provoking the Edomites, Moabites or Ammonites, Moses is encouraged to destroy the Amorites.  This makes his peaceful message to  Sihon look pretty strange, since by then Moses had a full expectation of going to war against Sihon (v. 26-29).  Moses is possibly just maintaining the decor of politeness that we find in much of the Pentateuch.  The Israelites destroy all of Sihon's kingdom, having slain "the men, women and children of every city".  Just as the later war against Moab, the Amorites are granted no mercy.