Sunday, October 21, 2012

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.

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