Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Deuteronomy: Endless More Weasel Speech

Hello again, and welcome once more to the Bible, where we are moving through the Book of Deuteronomy. My apologies for there being a bit of a delay in making this post; much of this book seems to consist of speeches Moses gives to Israel repeating the events of the previous three books, with a few points of disagreement with those accounts thrown in to muddy the waters. It’s been a touch difficult deciding how to present this section without falling into dull repetition, plus some time is taken up cross-referencing back to the previous accounts to verify the points where the speeches differ from what we’ve already been told.

So when we left of, Moses had just finished the first such speech, which lasted most of the first four chapters of the book. In between that one and the next, he takes the time to designate three cities in the lands that had been claimed by the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites as cities of refuge (the nature of which I discussed in a previous entry).

Then Moses gathers the people up to deliver another speech. It’s interesting that the narration specifically identifies this speech as occurring after the Israelites had taken possession of the lands of Sihon and Og, because that kind of contradicts part of the speech itself. As Moses is just starting to get rolling, we get this line:

Deu 5:2 Yahweh our god made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3 Not with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.”

If you recall, the events at Mount Horeb took place forty years earlier. Also, it’s very specifically pointed out – in fact, it’s pretty important to the story – that the reason for those forty years is to make sure that everybody who was alive and of age at that time (except Joshua and Caleb) would be dead by the time they reached the promised land. There’s even a point made of saying in Numbers that Moses conducted a census and verified that yes, in fact, everyone from that generation was dead. So once again, somebody is full of shit.

Though I suppose it could just be a weird phrasing of the idea that, while the covenant was made with their fathers, it also applies to all of them as well. Whatever.

Moses then goes on to repeat the Ten Commandments (the ones we think of as the Ten Commandments, not the ones the Bible actually calls the Ten Commandments). And he repeats the idea that the reason god talks to him and not to anyone else is that the people had asked not to hear god’s voice for fear that it would kill them. This is followed by a long, repetitive, and rambling statement about keeping God’s commandments, repeating them to yourselves and your children day and night, and writing them on your door frames and gate posts (really thorough indoctrination requires constant reinforcement, after all). Of course there’s the usual stuff about serving and loving only Yahweh and no other gods, because if they stray, God will get pissed and destroy them. Oh, and look, a handy admonition not to put God to any tests (wouldn’t want the inevitable failures to tip them off that it’s a delusion, after all).

As the speech progresses in a more martial and racist direction, Moses instructs the people not to show any mercy to or make any treaties with any of the people they are getting ready to invade. This includes the coded “devoted to destruction” language demanding that they make human sacrifices of all of them. Also, this bit:

Deu 7:3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of Yahweh would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”

There’s a subtle thing in there. Take a moment to reread it and see if you pick it up. I’ll give you a hint: this is supposed to be a quote directly from Moses’ speech, and not a section in which he claims to be conveying to the people a direct quote from God. Notice that he talks about God’s actions in the third person in the last sentence (“…and he would destroy you…”), so there’s no reason to think that earlier portions of the passage are meant to be interpreted as God speaking rather than Moses.

Reread it again. Have you spotted what I’m getting at yet?

OK, let’s check. Notice the phrase “…for they would turn your sons away from following me…” Again, Moses isn’t quoting God here. It kind of reads like a little slip-up in which Moses reveals that it’s him, and not God, that the people have been following all along. I checked online for several different translations, and they all translate that phrase pretty much the same, so it’s not just an artifact of the translation I’m using either.

Meh. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but if people are expected to dedicate their lives to what’s contained in this book, then I think the details matter.

The speech goes on (and on… and on…) from there. Much of it is a harangue, alternating between telling the people that they have to keep God’s commandments, telling them they have to destroy the people they’re invading and all of their idols, and reminding them of the horrors God will inflict on them if they stray from his commands (especially as regards worshipping other gods).

He then spends some time making clear to them that they’re all really awful people, and the only reason God is doing all this stuff for them is because 1) he promised their ancestors, and 2) everybody else is even worse. Part of this takes the form of recounting all the stupid shit the Israelites had done to piss off God on their journey from Egypt, a history lesson that includes Moses taking credit for building the ark of the covenant (according to Exodus 37:1, it was a craftsman named Bezalel).

Really, this theme gets pounded for chapter after chapter after chapter. You’d be amazed how many times Moses can find of restating the same three basic concepts (love and obey God, destroy everyone currently in the promised lands along with their religious sites, and God will punish you if you stray). It’s unbearably tiresome, and I really feel sorry for any poor schmucks who might have had to sit through listening to this speech.

Anyhow, I think I’ve actually written enough today, and I need to take a break while I figure out what else in his speech might actually be worth singling out. And if it ever ends – I’ve read up through Chapter 12 and it’s still going strong, still saying the same things over and over.

So until the next time, you be well and take care!

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