Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 34

This has been a long time coming, but finally we have reached the last chapter of the Pentateuch, where Moses goes up, sees the land and dies.

This is a very short chapter, so I probably won't have too much to say.  We have known for some time that Moses would die before reaching the promised land, just as his brother Aaron died back in Num 20.  Like Aaron, Moses is taken up to the top of a mountain and dies.  He is shown "all the land", which is supernatural in the sense that all Israel would not be visible from any one location on earth due to the curvature of the surface.  We also see that Moses is in full health, showing supernatural fitness and preservation similar to the preservation of clothing and shoes that we saw in Deut 8:4 and also similar to the extended lives of Caleb and Joshua.

One minor textual note is that Moses didn't write this chapter, as should be obvious.  This does not disprove Mosaic authorship of the rest of the Pentateuch, because this chapter could have easily been a later addition. Either way, it does not interrupt or significantly alter the flow of the text or the storyline.  If it represents a change in authorship, it is nevertheless largely consistent.

Lastly, I think this chapter is mainly a transitional chapter.  It occurs at the end of the Pentateuch (which is called the book of Moses for a reason; so much of it is about or written by Moses).  However, the last four verses are all about validating Joshua and establishing his role, which is developed much more fully in the next book, the book of Joshua.  This isn't the first time Joshua has been validated; there are several places where either the LORD or Moses have blessed or authorized Joshua in some way (examples: Num 27, Deut 1, Deut 3, Deut 31, etc.).

So it's not significant for that reason, but it's significant because of its placement at the very end of the book.  In many ways, the Pentateuch is tied together into a single whole.  The history, writing style and themes of the Pentateuch tie the five books together very closely.  In the Jewish tradition, the Pentateuch is treated essentially as a collection and almost a single work.

From this chapter, we can see that Joshua is very closely tied to the Pentateuch as well.  This chapter emphasizes the transition from Moses to Joshua, but in my introduction to Deuteronomy I pointed out that the entire book of Deuteronomy is occurring on the eve of the invasion of the promised land, which happens in the book of Joshua.  This is the most significant way that Joshua is tied into the Pentateuch, because the story in the Pentateuch is simply not complete without Joshua.  This leads some scholars to coin the term "Hexateuch", to described the joint construction of the Pentateuch plus Joshua.

Whether Joshua was written at the same time as the Pentateuch, everything in the covenant and in the history of Israel are pointing towards their future conquest of the promised land.  It's why they were brought here, and soon it will come to pass.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 33

In this chapter, Moses issues his final prophetic blessing over the tribes of Israel.

I left myself a note like a year ago that when I finally got to this chapter, to remark on the similarity between Moses's oracle and Jacob's oracle from Gen 49.  Crazy as it may sound, it has been over a year since I finished Genesis and I am still (just barely) in the Pentateuch.  Hopefully it's faster for you all to read these things than it takes me to write them.

Anyway, I think it would be instructive to compare the prophecies here and in Gen 49.  In Gen 49, Jacob prefaced his remarks by saying that he will "tell you what will befall you in the days to come", while here Moses simply says that he "blessed the sons of Israel before his death".  While I think these two chapters are structurally similar, I do think they have differences focuses, as highlighted by the prefaces.  The blessing of Jacob really is more of a prophecy about the future and as a result, it is more cryptic and allusive.

One example of this is Naphtali's prophecy in Gen 49:21, which states "Naphtali is a doe let loose, He gives beautiful words."  I mean really, what does THAT mean?  I honestly have no idea.  While it is possible some cultural context has been lost here, it just seems like Jacob is making a lot of these strange allusions to things that his ancient readers may or may not have understood, but modern readers like myself certainly don't understand.

On the other hand, the blessing of Moses seems a lot more straightforward.  Even though it contains a few analogies like calling Dan a "lion's whelp" (v. 22), a lion is a fairly common biblical symbol of strength, while a "doe let loose" is... I don't even know what that's supposed to be.  I guess a "doe let loose" would be a metaphor for freedom and swiftness, but it is not a common biblical trope.  It's also unclear to me why it would apply to Naphtali.  I think a lot of modern commentators can (and do) speculate on what it means, we don't really know.  It's all just... hypotheses.

Both here and Gen 49 contain a fairly extensive blessing for Joseph (the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim) because of Joseph's role in rescuing Jacob and his family from the seven year famine in Canaan.  It is also notable that Moses gives the "ten thousands" to Ephraim, who is the younger, giving him supremacy over his "brother" Manasseh.  If you recall back to Gen 48, Jacob blessed Ephraim over his older brother Manasseh, and Joseph complained about it.  Here, Moses is reaffirming that blessing of the younger over the elder.

Neither here nor Gen 49 listed the tribes in birth order.  Gen 49 listed the first four tribes in birth order, but in this chapter Moses only blesses Reuben first before jumping to Judah, then back to Levi, etc.  Even more strangely, this chapter doesn't list Simeon as a separate tribe at all.  Moses blesses 12 tribes by including both Levi and Ephraim and Manasseh.

Moses's omission of Simeon is another indicator that Simeon is rapidly falling into obscurity after some unrecorded disaster wiped out most of the tribe's population between the first and second censuses of the wilderness (Num 1 and Num 26 respectively).  After plummeting from 60 thousand members to 20 thousand, the tribe is so inconsequential that Moses doesn't even mention them when blessing the tribes of Israel.

A few other minor notes: Moses lists Issachar and Zebulun together in v. 18.  In the future these two tribes are closely related politically and geographically in the region of Galilee.  While Jacob refers to the future kingdom of Judah, Moses does not.  Moses also includes a much longer blessing for Levi.  To an extent this makes sense because Moses is himself a Levite, so it's understandable that he would have a more Levitical influence than Jacob.

Other than that, Moses's blessings for the other tribes seem relatively formulaic and I don't think there's much worth commenting on.  He promises them success and victory in various ways, sometimes also alluding to their future location as a tribe (e.g. v. 23 where Naphtali "take[s] possession of the sea and the south", or v. 22 where Dan "leaps forth from Bashan").

As I said in my introduction to Deuteronomy, this book is very forward-looking because it all occurs on the threshold of the promised land, on the eve of their invasion.  Just as their victories over Sihon and Og provide a military backdrop for their success, and just as the law provides a religious justification for their success, this chapter gives them the patriarchal blessing as they proceed into the unknown and take on the nations greater and mightier than themselves.