“Let’s Play The Bible: Deuteronomy 1-34”
Ok, here we go. Deuteronomy, this is the last entry in the fabled “pentateuch” - the sequence of five books authored directly or indirectly by Moses. While I’m reading this as part of the KJV Bible, you’ll find those five books in the jewish Torah. It’s worth mentioning that the shared origins of judaism and Christianity don’t stop there, as the broader OT and the broader Tanakh (writings pertinent to judaism beyond the core Torah) share many more books, with some important distinctions in order, canon (some inclusions in the OT are considered “apocrypha” by jews), translation and even punctuation.
After falling behind variously in completing posts and completing reading of books, my notes are largely taken from one prolonged sitting. While for me this means easier mental movement and exploration within the book, my notes and writing will probably remain as superficial and near-frantic as ever. I wanted to do a straightforward live blogging of reading, stopping to make notes and form sections to investigate as necessary, but the quantity and variation in quality of my notes leads me to proceed as usual, trying to sculpt some discrete sections out of the most interesting notes and avoid simple regurgitation. Pretty sad to renege on the interesting idea, we are going to though.
So what’s basically happening in this book is the tribes of Israel have been through a long journey toward a seizure of the “promised land” of Canaan, and Moses will spend his dwindling years restating and giving a moratorium on various matters with regard to religious law. He’s putting a bow on it. It’s translated original title - “These are the words”, is appearing in mistranslated form - “repetition of the law” - commonly, but this is nevertheless very accurate in meaning.
After these events much of the direct and descriptive teachings from God in antiquity have been conveyed and his covenant is all but officially honoured, and Moses can now pass leadership to Joshua (the proceeding book of “Joshua” is eponymous) so he can begin to conquest the promised land served up to him. We are not covering that next book now of course, but it’s good to contextualize what is otherwise a rather arrhythmic and clinical text. Moses will also leave us with a song. Some poorly arranged summaries of topics covered in the book are as follows:
- Preamble: The pause that this book provides is first hedged in the timeline thus far.
- The Covenant: God will cover the fulfilling of his covenant with the people, and their ancestors (Noah, Abraham etc) before them, where we hear various stipulations in the brokered deal.
- Governance: There’s talk of the pending conquering of Canaan and in that of course is how the territory will be governed. This ranges from the overall tribe leadership to elders for specific regions.
- Review: Interspersed in the book is review of the various curses and blessings on the people of Israel, their purpose and things we can learn from them.
- Death of Moses: Moses performs a song for us and the plan for Joshua to take over leadership is instituted. He then passes away on a mountain.
A History of Violence
The large amount of talk about conquest alone makes this quite a violent volume, but there’s plenty more to be had as it pertains to crime and punishment - avenging murder and stoning make an appearance. I am going to look here first at the important subject of the conquest of Canaan, which is going to be Joshua’s mission in the next book.
2.34-35 - And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain: Only the cattle we took for a prey unto ourselves, and the spoil of the cities which we took.
Early in the book we hear of an initial few victories in battle as Israel endeavours to settle in the Transjordan, promised landscape. Here we see Moses speak candidly about killing not only men, but also the more helpless women and most helpless children. Pretty brutal, but the land they occupy and fail to abscond is that which God promised the Israelites - and ensures their victory in taking. This nondiscriminatory bloodshed doesn’t happen in every conquest though, in some places we see slaves taken. Pretty interesting.
Of interest in this instance of conquest are the subjects of it. The so-called and previously-mentioned giant ruler “Og”, who is illustrated as quite an intimidating foe. Of course he and his land are destroyed and occupied, as God’s word manifests into a spectacular victory. They even make note of a peculiar asset acquired: Mr. Og’s large iron bedstead.
For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man.
Moving into the domestic sphere, we hear of laws regarding the “avenger of the blood”, or revenge-killing by those of blood relation to initial victim. This legal design is exhibited earlier in the canon, and it’s repeated here alongside further, very famous, conceptions and applications of revenge. God advises (or commands) the dispersion of settlements such that the interval between them offers enough sovereignty that the law and its utilization by the short-fused or bad actors, relative to the the federated whole, has some leeway and give. Unless I am reading it wrong, it seems they are aware this could be a touchy law, with drastic consequence even if actions are lawful.
Thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land (…) and divide the coasts of thy land (…) that every slayer may flee thither. And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither. (…) As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live: Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him.
There is an interesting blend of parity with enforcement and judgement against law today, and a disconnect of savage proportions. Later in this book we learn that parents of a “stubborn, rebellious, gluttonous and drunkard” son can complain to elders, and, assuming at least some - as much as can be offered by a vague conglomeration of terms - due process is followed, he will then be publicly stoned to death. However, before this is revealed, there’s a relatively large amount of text offered to the necessity and function of witnesses to crimes, indeed it seems any crime having only one witness/accuser will not be heard by the elder court at all, or worse - the punishment the accuser sought to invoke will be uno-reverse-carded.
If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Last but certainly not least, within the false witness breath, we get a restatement see the iconic word-bundle that summarizes Old-Testament justice immaculately. Isn’t it beautiful and simple? Very cool - I like it.
Here we are again. In one of several small escapes into the contemporary within this series of antiquated regulations, we’re getting references to circumcision. Here, things get extra interesting - we are told to circumcise the foreskin of our hearts. Now, I don’t think the heart has a foreskin, so I guess this is some kind of metaphor. Perhaps making a point of the covenant that stipulates it, and the relationship with God that it services.
Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.
It’s mentioned twice in this way. Reading about this, it seems like it is in fact a reference to the “sign of the covenant” that a circumcised penis represents, rather than any kind of removal of tissue or other operation. In this sense, he is saying, there should be a very clear surface and inner mode of covenant-signing - the actions, words, thoughts and feelings should provide a continuing and more readily presentable sign of the covenant with God, via is further teachings. When you consider that circumcision is really the only drastic physical intervention/modification that works as a sign in this way, it makes sense that it is referred to to get this across.
That’s fair enough. That might be like saying that a government should tax the minds of its citizens. While it makes no sense to collect parts of peoples mind for a societal fund pool, it does make sense if the governing body needs the citizens help in thinking about an issue or tackling a problem. You see? I’m only typing so much about this because it’s easier than the coming onslaught of notes. We all know what a metaphor is, I am convinced.
In this ultimate book, where the story of Moses and the initial covenant is brought to a (rough) conclusion, we naturally hear of who will herald the far yet coming new age down the line. Not Joshua, who becomes leader after Moses, but a Prophet, the messiah, the man who we know as Jesus. This wouldn’t happen immediately, and many hundreds of years did pass before his coming.
I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him.
Then the Israelites are told to be wary of false prophets, the primary test of divinity being whether or not predictions they speak, in the name of the Lord, come to pass. If that doesn’t happen? Forget about him, don’t worry about it. Toward the end of the book there’s further reference to future-prophets, which will be mentioned in due time.
High Density Analysis
There’s many numerous small notes that I wish to remember or take a vanishingly brief look at before we see Moses move on - they are very scattered so I’m just going to bounce from point to point at will without the categorical heading usage.
Leavened Bread: I am pretty sure this is mentioned a lot, but for some reason I never investigated it. It means bread that has not risen, not containing yeast for instance. It’s worth noting that before looking it up I guessed the meaning correctly, I am not tooting my own horn here - I can’t explain or summon why, but it really sounds like its meaning. Maybe “lift” is the catalyst here?
Environmentalism: God says that even in besieging a city you should not cut down trees that are in a range providing their tree-meat yield. Not even to make use of them for weapons. He says “the tree of the field is man’s life” - but if they’re “not trees for meat” (I assume fruit) they are fair game. Interesting.
Transvestigation: God makes it clear: “the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the lord thy god”. Whatever kind of treatment you give the text (does it regard clothing, or more abstract “roles”), the distinction between the sexes is declared fundamental.
Fixed Fashion: One of the more specific and easily interpreted-as-strange regulations pertains to clothing material: “Thou shalt not wear a garment of diverse sorts, as of woollen and linen together.” - this seems to be about impersonating priests, who wore the two thread types together.
Free Samples: Apparently, in pursuit of a communal and giving society, citizens should be permitted to eat their neighbours grapes and corn that they grow, as long as you don’t utilize tools of business/scale to cull and steal away en masse. This seems like it could prove overwhelmingly difficult to police - and imagine having a neighbour with an extremely high metabolism.
Sins of the Fathers: The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
Hemorrhoids: Referred to as “emerods”, which is apparently an archaic term for this ailment, God promises to smite those who do not hearken unto him by following the statutes he has laid out with this awful itchy disease. Very cool.
Lost: There’s punishment alluded to as an effective plucking from the land and scattering to lands which worship other Gods, lands where you will find no ease and foot will find no rest. Sorrow of mind.
The main-man who the story has been channeled through thus far, Moses, will now pass away in a very cinematic fashion atop Mount Nebo in Jordan. Citing his 120 years, though in spite of ongoing vigor, he first passes the mantle onto Joshua. He can see all of Jordan, across which his people have prospered, from on top of this big hill.
Prior to passing we receive a poetic and emphatic song and blessing from the big man himself. Deuteronomy 33, which is the “blessing of moses” stood out to me especially, very large cascades of references and exposition, the big finale. Yes I have gotten out of breath just by reading it, it is quite dizzying. This effect probably comes from its lack of benediction in favour of clerical documentary and inventory, as has happened often already.
He’s then buried in a valley in the land of Moab, specifically “over against Beth-Peor”, although, presumably noted in retrospect, no man knows the whereabouts of his sepulchre as of the time of writing. Very interestingly for Jesus likers, there’s also comment that “a prophet like him has not arisen since”, and while joshua shall be the leader in Moses’ stead - he being the namesake of the following book - he is not the next great person.
Closing the Book
That’s it, that is the pentateuch over and done with, for the first time at least. What a journey it has been. It’s great to enjoy these books across many vectors. While most obviously there are spiritual learnings to be made and inspected, it has brought recall to many memories from times first learning about these critical and famous stories in school. I have to wonder what’s up with the rest of the old testament given most of my memory in this old-testamental regard feels near fully recovered.
Specifically to this post and in a grander scheming, I kind of enjoyed pulling and listing oddities in the “high density analysis”, almost in a junk watchmojo style. Maybe I will do it again, on a continuing basis, however we must be careful not to veer to far into superficiality. Who am I kidding? I’m not kidding anyone - I am taking this seriously, now.