Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 32

In this chapters, Moses sings a song about the infidelity of the Israelite people towards God.

In my introduction to Deuteronomy I joked about a "song and dance routine".  While I was being facetious, this chapter does actually have a song, and Deuteronomy really is a very heterogeneous source.

While I called this the conclusion to Deuteronomy, this part is really more like the Appendix.  In my opinion, Deut 30 with the choice between good and evil is about the best conclusion to the covenantal text as you can get.  The last four chapters (between 31-34) are more like miscellaneous things that the author wished to include at the end.  This song is one of those things.

The song is somewhat related to the last chapter, because the previous chapter emphasized the future idolatry of Israel, and this song is similarly foreboding.  The overall flow of the song goes like this: The LORD is great and he brought Israel out of "a desert land", and by the LORD's provision Israel ate food in the wilderness, "honey from the rock".  In this case, "rock" is being used with dual meaning.  It refers to both the dryness and emptiness of the wasteland that Israel inhabited, and is also a reference to the LORD, who is their rock as a stabilizing force and a source of strength, because it is a firm foundation and a stronghold for them.

This language should also remind us of the two rocks that Moses struck with his staff to bring forth water, though in the song Moses refers metaphorically to honey and oil coming from rocks (which does not occur in the Exodus or Numbers accounts of their journey).

Similarly, I think the wilderness referenced in this song should be understood as an implicit reference to the wilderness of Sin and the Arabian Peninsula, but also a metaphorical reference to the humility of Israel's origin as a nation, beginning with the 70 or 75 people who descended to Egypt from Canaan.  We are to understand that in the immediate term, God was protecting Israel through their literal desert journey.  But metaphorically, we should understand that the LORD watched over Israel when they were in Egypt as well and in the prior history of the patriarchs in Canaan.

Anyway, the song goes on to say that Israel grows fat on the LORD's provision and thus supplied, becomes arrogant and seeks other gods.  We can possibly understand this as a historical reference to the golden calf from Ex 32, but I think it's much more likely that this is predictive of a later idolatry that was also referenced in Deut 31:16.  The LORD responds by "making them jealous" with a hostile nation that the LORD will send to conquer them, breaking their pride with the ignominy of defeat.  Deut 28:49 similarly predicts a hostile nation would invade Israel as part of the curses of disobedience, so this chapter is just poetically rephrasing the curse.

However, the LORD refuses to destroy Israel because of "the provocation by the enemy" who would rejoice over Israel's destruction.  This is very similar to Moses's appeal in Ex 32:12, and just like that passage it shows God is interested in using Israel as an example to other nations, as an appeal for those nations to turn to him.  If God were only interested in Israel, then the opinions of other nations wouldn't matter.  But God intends to use Israel as a beacon to draw other people to himself.

Anyway, Moses continues by saying that the other nations have their own sins to deal with (v. 32-33, their wine is the venom of serpents), and because of the pride of these nations at destroying Israel, they will themselves be subjected to judgment by the LORD, who will bring about "vengeance" and "retribution" upon these nations (v. 35).  In the end, the LORD will have compassion on his people, ridiculing their false gods a bit, but in the end bringing about restoration to Israel and devastation upon their enemies who have previously had victory over them.

This whole narrative is largely consistent with the threatened destruction and promised renewal in Deut 29 and 30 respectively.  What's new about this chapter is that it includes a bit more information about how Israel fell into idolatry (through pride at her success) and also about the fate of the nations who punish Israel (that they too suffer destruction in the end, and for many of the same reasons as Israel).

I think an attentive reader could parse a bit more information out of the song by studying the specific appellations used, but I think my synopsis above captures most of the overall flow.  We see God caring attentively for Israel, but then giving them over to destruction when they turn to other gods.  We see Israel travel in a parabolic arc as they ascend from "the wilderness" into wealth and glory and pride, and thereby securing their own downfall back into famine and slavery, though with a promised restoration at the end.  So I guess it's more sinusoidal than parabolic?  (Ok, I promise no more math.)  We see Israel's foes take a similar path as they rise up above Israel, crush it down, but through their own pride slip into their own destruction as well.

I think this is worth emphasizing because it is a very common biblical trope in the OT.  It follows the pattern of Israel's history (though from Deuteronomy, it's still their future), and many of the prophetic writings contain texts very similar to what we see in this chapter, rebuking Israel for their wealth and pride and predicting (or  sometimes recounting) the disasters that follow.  Out of their disaster the Israelites sometimes turn back to the LORD and so the LORD brings about a restoration.

And that's Israel's history in a nutshell.  They rise and fall in direct proportion to how much pride they have, which influences how much they seek the LORD.  It is very cyclical.  Through much of their history Israel has Moses-like figures who try to guide it to follow the LORD.  These are the prophets.  And then through much of their history they have kings, who sometimes lead Israel into good and sometimes lead it into evil.  To read more on that, you will have to skip ahead to the "histories", the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.

At the end of the chapter, the LORD tells Moses to go up a mountain and die already, but no, we are not done yet.  The next chapter is Moses's "prophetic oracle", much like Jacob's prophetic oracle in Genesis 49.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 31

In this chapter, Moses commissions Joshua to lead the people into the promised land and the LORD predicts that the people will turn to other gods.

Until we got to this chapter, I almost could have forgotten we were on the bank of the Jordan.  I mean, the last... 30? chapters have been all about murder and adultery and laws of warfare, and so on.  Now I've done what I can to make those chapters interesting and understandable, but they don't really relate to the flow of the story from Numbers at all.  This chapter doesn't really return to the story, but it at least reminds us that they are about to cross over and that Joshua is the new leader.

I think "crossing over to the promised land" is important to the context of this book.  I think Deuteronomy is meant to be understood as guidance and a series of warnings for these people who are going through a transitional period in their history.  Back in Exodus I wrote a lot about how the covenant and law is meant to help establish the national identity of Israel and I think it's a similar idea here.  The covenant of Deuteronomy is meant to be a stabilizing force for Israel as they go through this transition, that in the midst of all this change that they would have something to cling to and to coalesce around.

We know that overcoming their fears was a big deal in the invasion of the promised land.  Moses has given several pep rallies to the Israelites regarding their victory over Sihon and Og, and this chapter offers us another one.  "Be strong and courageous" is a refrain that is repeated several times in Joshua, because as I said before, morale is a critical factor in ancient warfare.  Most battles are won or lost because of panic, not because of directly inflicted casualties in the battle itself (though casualties after a rout are usually substantial).

Intermixed with the commissioning of Joshua is a prediction from the LORD that the Israelites will fall away and worship other gods, bringing upon themselves the curses of the covenant.  I argued that certain prior chapters (like Deut 28) seemed to imply a falling away would occur, but this chapter states it outright.  Many scholars use this passage as evidence of a late date of Deuteronomy by presuming that the prophecy is written after the events it describes, during the post-exilic period (after c. 600 BCE).

I'm not going to rehash the JEDP stuff now.  Rather, I will focus on what this says about Israel, Israel as a metaphor for Adam, and the overall story of redemption.

To begin, remember that Israel already has a long history of rebellion against the LORD, which Moses briefly references in v. 27.  It largely started in Ex 32 when the people created a golden calf, but continued to escalate in severity throughout Numbers.  Moses makes a reasonable point.  If the people are sinning even with his moderating influence, what will they be like without him?  Israel is presented with a choice between life and death, but it seems likely at this point that they will choose death.

Next, I believe that Israel is a metaphor for Adam.  In Deut 30 I said that the choice between life and death was an allegory for the trees of life and the knowledge of good and evil from Gen 2.  Adam was presented with the choice between good and evil and, with the assistance of his wife, chose death.

In this case, Israel is also presented with a choice between life and death and here, the LORD prophesies that Israel will choose rebellion and death.  The covenant that was meant to be a pathway back to God will be rejected; the people (just like their father Adam) will choose death and turn away from the LORD.

What does this say about the human condition?  Is mankind destined to always turn away from the LORD?  And yet we know that Abraham followed the LORD, Noah followed the LORD, Jacob followed the LORD, Moses followed the LORD.  All of these men had their own life issues and struggles, but despite that they did follow the LORD.  But Adam sinned.  Israel (like a second Adam) sinned.  Israel, the very object of the LORD's affection and covenantal promises, turn away from him and descend into idolatry.  Is mankind destined to sin?  There's a question about free will (or lack thereof) in here, but I don't want to address that now.  You can read my thoughts on that here.

What I want to know is this: is there any hope for us?  As people?  To quote Terminator 2,
"John Connor: We're not gonna make it, are we? People, I mean.
The Terminator: It's in your nature to destroy yourselves. "
Is it in our nature to destroy ourselves?  From everything that I have seen, the answer is yes.  But we can overcome that nature, what the new testament calls the "sinful nature" (Galatians 5:17), what the old testament calls a "stubborn heart" or "rebellious heart" (Deut 29:19, Jeremiah 5:23, Psalm 78:8, etc).

What does this say about redemption?  The covenant was God's plan of bringing humanity back into fellowship with himself, but if Israel turns away from the covenant then what is God to do?  Does that mean the covenant, having just barely begun, is destined to fail, that mankind is destined to be separated from the LORD?

Think about it this way.  The covenant with Israel was God's response to the sin of Adam.  The sin of Adam separated man from God, so God created the covenant with Abraham (eventually descending to Israel) in order to restore that broken relationship.  If Israel, who now have a choice between life and death, also choose death, even when they have the covenant, then God will have to do something else to bring them back.  Perhaps what he will do is create a new covenant for them, one that they will obey and through which the restoration of the world may proceed?  Maybe we can infer already, from this very chapter, an anticipation of the new covenant that began with Jesus?  It's an interesting thought.

Of course, Deut 30:1-14 appears to predict a restoration of Israel, but this chapter does not include a restoration promise.  So maybe we can infer a renewal that happens after the "turning away" in v. 16-18.  But still, I feel like there's something being left out.  If the people are only going to sin more when Moses is gone than when he's here, then what is going to change to bring the people back to God?  Without something changing, there is nothing that will make the people repent.

The fact is, if Israel is indeed going to slip into sin and idolatry as this chapter clearly indicates, then they will need their own salvation.  The form of that salvation cannot really be predicted at this point, but it is premature to suppose that God will abandon them.  God is not done with this world.

The text continues by declaring that Moses will sing a song to witness against the people how the LORD has loved them and how they have turned away from him.  This song is contained in the next chapter.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 30

In this chapter, Moses predicts restoration after the disasters of the prior chapter and exhorts the people to choose blessing over curses.

I feel awkward about putting this commentary in a separate section from Deut 29, because this really is just a continuation of the prior chapter.  Deut 29 talks about the desolation of the land and the exile that would follow the people sinning and breaking the covenant, while this chapter talks about the restoration that would happen if the people return to the covenant after all the prior events.

Separating these into two separate topics just doesn't feel right to me, because the restoration is juxtaposed against the destruction, just as faithfulness is juxtaposed against idolatry.

What this passage shows, above all else, is that the covenant is not nullified if the people disobey God and are punished by the curses of Deut 28 and sent into exile.  If the people return to God, even from exile, they will be restored back to God and to the land of the promise and to the covenantal blessings.  In that sense, the covenant is a perpetual invitation.  There is no rebellion too great, no departure too far, no sin too sinful that the LORD will turn his back and never accept that person or nation again.  To those who wish to seek God and turn back to him, the path of "life and good" (v. 15) is always open.

Verses 11-14 are a part of Deuteronomy that is quoted often, because it shows in such powerful language the immediacy of the covenant and God's law, that it is in our mouths and hearts to do it.  This is contrary to many religions and sects that believe in "secret wisdom" to attain salvation.  Everyone is always looking for secrets; that's why "miracle diets" and conspiracy theories are so popular.  So many people want to believe that there is some trick or undiscovered principle that can make them rich, healthy and (in this case) go to heaven when they die.

During the early church period, there were sects called Gnosticism that proffered "secret knowledge" as a means of salvation, and Gnosticism itself is derived from the Greek word for knowledge.

What this passage tells us in that God has no hidden his commandments or his law that it would take a feat of great strength and perseverance to find it.  He has put it within our reach and within our hearts that we may freely choose to obey.  The purpose of the law isn't to "weed out" the unworthy and make life harder, it's to open the door back to unity with the divine, just as it was in the beginning.  I previously wrote that the covenant is designed to "reverse the curse" of Genesis 3 which originally broke the fellowship of man and God.  God created the covenant to bring man back to God.  The covenant is not a fence to keep people out, it is a gate to let people in.  The LORD makes it accessible because he genuinely wants people to return to him.

From this framework, we can see that the curses of disobedience are really just the curses from Gen 3 in a new form.  The curse that fell upon the land in Gen 3 was due to the disobedience of Adam, and the curse that falls upon the Israelites in Deut 28 would be due to their disobedience as well.

Framed in this way, verses 15-20 are actually a conclusion to the whole Pentateuch as well as Deuteronomy, because the way of life/way of death paradigm reflects the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil that existed in the garden of Eden.  In the garden of Eden, mankind chose the path of disobedience and death, and now Moses is exhorting the Israelites and their descendants to choose the way of life.  As before, this is not just a physical death, it is their death as a people (because the covenant is a national covenant) and it is a spiritual death.  After Adam sinned in the garden, he lived for hundreds of years and had many children before he physically died.  And yet the LORD declared in Gen 3:19 that Adam would return to the dust because of his sin.  There is often a delay between a sin and the consequences of that sin.  Usually that delay is to give people time to repent of their sins, because as we have seen the LORD will accept people who return to him even after they have sinned.  He will "rejoice over you for good" if you do so.

This passage frames possession of the promised land as a metaphor for life and death, which is a common trope in the Pentateuch that I have referred to many times.  Possessing the land is a type of life, exile is a type of death.  Inheritance of the land is symbolic of the nation's restoration to God, because the promised land is called the place where God dwells.  In a broader sense, we can think of the promised land as being like Eden, to which the people return from Egypt.  As a land flowing with milk and honey, it is full of prosperity like the original Eden, and it is also a land of communion with the LORD, as typified by the tent of meeting (i.e. the tabernacle).

As Christians, we stand in the place of Moses when he exhorts the people to "choose life in order that you may live, you and your children, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying his voice and by holding fast to him."

I really think this is what the entire bible is about.  The bible is a long exhortation for the people of the earth to choose life and not death.  The law of God is meant to be immediate and accessible.  Though it might not always feel accessible, the expectation of the bible is for people to simply obey what they already know and to seek out what they don't.  You don't have to already know everything, obey everything and be in perfect obedience to be within the covenant.  The reason why Moses emphasizes the accessibility of the law is because this is the law that the Israelites would have been familiar with, so to them it genuinely was accessible and therefore they are able to obey it.  As readers of this blog, it is accessible to you as well and that's a good thing.  It might feel bad to have an obligation, but remember that obedience comes with blessing as well.  Not just a material blessing, but the presence of the LORD, which is the purpose of life.

To put it as simply as I can, we are only held accountable for obeying what we know, not what we don't.  To seek the path of the LORD means trying to learn more about how to live in accordance with God's will, and that is the second part of obedience: a desire to increase one's obedience in new things.

Moses concludes by calling heaven and earth as witnesses of this new covenant, and the calling of witnesses is another part of the Hittite treaty form.  From what I've read, it is usually stated before the blessings and curses, so that is one deviation from the standard form.

Deuteronomy goes on for another four chapters, but in my opinion this chapter is the most significant part of the conclusion to Deuteronomy, because in my opinion it states the true purpose of the law and the covenant as a whole.  The covenant is the path of life that has been opened up to us.  The way has been opened, it is in our mouths and our hearts that we may obey, Moses urges us to choose life; now it is up to us to choose.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 29

This chapter is a peculiar mixture of historical prologue and renewed threats of destruction for disobedience.

This chapter is interesting.  The first 9 verses seem like a repeat of the historical prologue that we read in Deuteronomy chapters 1-3, which recounted the history of Israel as they traveled from Sinai towards the promised land.  The passage in this chapter adds an additional detail, that the clothing and shoes of the Israelites did not wear out on their journey.

This is an interesting point because it reminds us that in the harsh conditions of the desert, they would have had few opportunities to make or repair clothing and shoes, just as they also depended on the manna and water from supernatural sources to sustain their diets.  While this doesn't seem like an overt miracle, it shows that the LORD was acting in a subtle way to maintain their possessions when they would not have been replaceable.  Usually it seems that people are more interested in overt miracles where there is something that obviously happened, but the LORD does not always work in that way.

Verses 10-18, and to a certain extent the rest of the chapter, are reminiscent of Deut 4 which similarly exhorts the reader to follow the laws of the covenant and avoid sin.  A quick note about verse 12: chopping wood and drawing water are two kinds of forced or slave labor in the OT, probably because these were very repetitive and heavily physical tasks.  For another reference to this, see Joshua 9:21.

Verses 19-28 conclude with a stern and verbose description of all the horrors and calamity that will result from ignoring the covenant.  This passage quietly transitions from curses falling upon the individual sinner (v. 19-21) to curses falling upon the entire nation and land (v. 22-28) due to the collective influence of many people sinning against the LORD.

The overall effect, as I see it, is to combine the historical prologue and exhortations of Deut 1-4 with the lengthy curses and blessings of the previous two chapters (Deut 27-28).  In that sense, this chapter and those that follow mirror the introduction.  While the introduction emphasizes Israel's past with the LORD, the conclusion emphasizes their future as Moses repeatedly references the probability of Israel falling away from the LORD and the turmoil that would follow such an event.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 28

In this chapter, Moses lists the blessings of obedience and the curses of disobedience.

As I mentioned in my commentary on the prior chapter, this is another part of the Hittite suzerainty treaty, so its presence here is part of the ritualistic and legal structure of Deuteronomy.

A few things to note.  First, the blessings and curses in this chapter are directed at the nation as a whole, not to specific individuals.  Although the blessings largely "trickle down" to the people in the nation, we can easily see that many of them are corporate blessings, such as the promise of military victory over other nations (v. 7), that do not have a straightforward application as a blessing upon specific individuals.  From this and from other language in the covenant (Ex 19:8 is one of many examples), we can see that the promise is for the nation as a collective entity.  This also explains the common refrain of "purging the evil from your midst" (Deut 13:5, 17:7, 17:12, 19:19, etc).  The idea is that the nation as a whole must remain pure in order for the nation as a whole to maintain the covenant.  If there is any man in Israel who is not following the LORD, to some extent his sin is imputed over the whole nation.  Anyone who sins must be purged so that the nation as a whole may avoid wrath.  We see this very clearly in the book of Joshua with the sin of Achan, and I will discuss that in more depth when we get there.

I'm emphasizing this point because in American culture at least, people can be very individualistic in how they view the world and think of their own covenant, their own sin, their own blessings and curses.  The bible does have some parts where it speaks in very individualistic terms (e.g. Deut 24:16), but the covenant with Israel is not one of those places.  Here it is being very explicitly corporate, and that's probably something my readers may not have frequently internalized.

The second point I'd like to address is that the section with curses is significantly longer than the section with blessings.  I found this asymmetry very peculiar the first time I read this chapter.  It violates my sense of aesthetics.  Generally, the way that I've understood this chapter is that Moses is anticipating rebellion on their part and is elaborating because he thinks it's the more likely outcome.  Also, the curses are also likely meant to foreshadow Israel's future because of the anticipated rebellion.  In particular, Israel is later going to be conquered and exiled from the promised land as a result of their breaking the covenant with the LORD, and Moses is predicting this exile.

At this point, having read through Numbers, we have already seen Israel rebel on many occasions and drifted perilously close to judgment and disaster.  That Israel would continue sinning and rebelling against God is hardly a daring prediction, and in this case it is quite correct.

The other thing I remember when I first read this passage is that I really wanted Israel to obey God and attain the covenantal blessing.  It's like when you're watching a movie and you always want the characters to get happy endings.  I wanted Israel to have a happy ending, to skip past the numerous disasters and misfortunes of the covenantal curse, and I regret to say that this is not what happens.  It's a pretty sad story, to be honest.  Fortunately, everything will change when we get to the New Testament.

As an additional minor note, Moses also refers to the future king again, which is why many scholars (who reject prophecy a priori) use this passage to give a late date to Deuteronomy, because later there will be a king in Israel, and these scholars assume that this passage could only have been written after the events it portends.

Anyway, I don't feel any particular desire to comment on the details of the curses or blessings.  It's a fairly comprehensive list of plague, pestilence, famine, warfare, slavery, exile and so on, ending with despair, humiliation and a return to Egypt, the full and final reversal of the covenantal blessing and the Exodus from slavery.  Everything that the LORD has done to this point is part of the covenant, so if the covenant is rejected then the people will be sent back to Egypt.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 27

In this chapter, Moses orders the people to set up memorial stones and instructs them to pronounce the blessings and curses of the covenant.

First, the people are briefly commanded to set up memorial stones when they cross into the promised land and write down the covenant upon those stones.  This is conceptually similar to the two stone tablets of the covenant that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, except that these memorial stones would be in the public and visible to anyone who passed by, while the two stone tablets were placed in the ark of the covenant in the most holy place in the tabernacle.  If you place them in apposition, you can view the two tablets as being "God's copy" of the covenantal documents, while the memorial stones are "Israel's copy", since the first is placed before the LORD, while the second is placed before the nation (though only in one place and far from a lot of people).  Note that in the book of Joshua we see the Israelites fulfill this commandment when they set up stones just as Moses commanded.

Next, Moses gives the people a framework for pronouncing blessings of obedience and curses of disobedience, which is another element of the Hittite suzerainty treaty.  In this case, we see that 6 tribes are placed on each of two mountains where they would have antiphonally sung the words of the blessings and curses.  The purpose of this ritual is to contrast the outcomes of these two paths, the path of life and the path of death.

What's peculiar is that after the blessings and curses are pronounced, then the Levites are instructed to answer with another set of curses.  This appears to be distinct from the curses of Mount Ebal, which are listed in the next chapter.  I'm not sure why there are two sets of curses, but one thing that I noticed is that the curses of Ebal are curses upon the nation of Israel, while the curses of this chapter are individual upon the people who violate the laws of the covenant.  It certainly makes sense that the curses and blessings are for the nation as a whole, because the LORD is making this covenant with the people of Israel, so it is indeed a corporate treaty and not really individualized.

The curses in this chapter show that there is also a curse upon the individuals who break the laws of the covenant, even if the nation as a whole remains obedient.

With that said, most of the curses listed in verses 15-26 are repeating laws from earlier in the Pentateuch.  Between two and four of them (depending on how you count) are from the ten commandments: You shall not make an idol, you shall honor your mother and father, then arguably v. 20 and 22 relate to adultery, while 24 and 25 could be related to murder and 17 could relate to coveting your neighbor's possessions or theft.

There are laws against having sex with animals and close relatives in Lev 20, and misleading the blind, distorting justice for the defenseless and accepting bribes violate the covenant's laws against injustice (which are vague and numerous, cf. Ex 22:21-23, Ex 23:1-9, Deut 16:18-20, etc).

These curses are therefore primarily restating the laws of the covenant, cursing those who break the commands, and then demanding that the people assent to it with "amen".  "Amen" is a direct transliteration of the Hebrew, and it means "truly" or "truth".

Note that the repetition of Levitical curses and the word "amen" is another antiphonal section, just like the curses and blessings we will read in the next chapter.  Antiphonal singing seems to have dropped off in popularity recently, but it is used heavily in choir music and was also used by the Israelites when these passages were originally written.  I don't want to go into this as depth, but I just think it's interesting how for us, this part of Deuteronomy is a flat text, while for the ancient Israelites it would have been a song.