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".