Thursday, August 15, 2013

Deuteronomy: Weasel Speech

Hello hello! Welcome once more to my Bible blog. We’ve slogged our way through the first four books of the Bible, and this is the first installment on the fifth book: Deuteronomy.

Now, Deuteronomy starts out with a long, multi-chapter speech supposedly delivered by Moses himself to Israel as they were on the banks of the Jordan prior to crossing into their promised land. Much of it is recap of their journey so far, though there are some points of disagreement between the speech and the stories recorded in the previous books. And the ways in which they disagree can tell you something about Moses’ character.

For example, when he talks about the time when they were on Mount Horeb and he appointed chiefs to settle all the lesser disputes in the camp because there were too many people for him to handle alone, he completely leaves out the part where it was his father-in-law’s idea. Although, since at this point in the story the Israelites had just finished slaughtering his father-in-law’s entire people (the Midianites) down to the women and children, perhaps it didn’t seem like the time to be giving him credit.

Then a few verses later in the speech, he talks about the time when they sent spies into Canaan, and the bad report the spies brought back caused them to balk at entering the promised land. Here are Moses’ words on the subject:

“Deut 1:22 Then all of you came near me and said ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up and the cities into which we shall come.’ 23 The thing seemed good to me, and I took twelve men from you, one from each tribe. 24 And they turned and went up into the hill country and came to the Valley of Eschol and spied it out.”

Compare that to the account of the same event in Numbers.

“Num 13:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying 2 ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.’”

So in Moses’ account, the people begged him to send spies, and he agreed and picked twelve men on his own initiative. In the Numbers account, God initiates the order to Moses to send the spies, and specifies twelve chiefs. Who’s right? There’s no way to say. But there’s definitely some blame shifting going on here. And it actually kinda matters which is true in evaluating the character of God and of Moses. And no matter which is true, the contradiction means that at least one of the books is now rendered an unreliable narrative.

Moving on, Moses recounts some of the journeys up until the forty years was up and the cursed generation had all died out. Then he skips right past the genocidal mass human sacrifice of the people of Arad to recount the defeat of King Sihon and his people the Amorites. If you recall, Moses had sent messages to Sihon asking to cross his land. Sihon had refused, and sent his army out to attack the Israelites. Israel won, and genocided the Amorites. Moses adds some interesting details in his recounting of events.

Deu 2:31  But Sihon the king off Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for Yahweh your god hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into you hand as he is this day 31 And Yahweh said to me ,’Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to take possession, that you may occupy his land.’”

So now Moses claims that the reason Sihon attacked Israel is because God took away that free will thingy that Christians like to go on about. Also, you may recall that, at the end of Numbers, the Israelites were all set to leave this land behind and cross the Jordan into the promised land. But the Reubenites and Gadites decided they would rather stay since they’d already conquered the people here, and Moses had to negotiate with them to secure the use of their soldiers across the Jordan. So here in this Deuteronomy passage, we basically have Moses taking that negotiated result of intertribal politics and claiming “Oh, that’s totally what God ordered us to do in the first place!”

Either Moses in this speech is full of shit, or the author of Numbers is.

Moses continues on to describe the defeat of King Og, in which he uses the phrase “devoted to destruction” (which you may remember from our discussion of Leviticus 27: 28-29 is the Biblical code phrase for human sacrifice) to describe the genocide of Og’s people, again down to the women and children. From there he claims to have commanded the distribution of the conquered lands to the Reubenites, Gadites, and half tribe of Manasseh, which as we’ve already discussed was a concession they forced from him in negotiation rather than something he could be said to have commanded.

For a further example of weasel speech, Moses continues on to talk of his being forbidden to cross the Jordan into the promised land and his exchange with God on the matter:

Deu 3:25 ‘Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26 But Yahweh was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And Yahweh said to me ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.’”

Moses is claiming that it is the fault of the Israelite people that God is angry with him and won’t let him cross the Jordan, as opposed to God’s supposed own words on the matter:

Num 20:12 And Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’”

Well, shit! Looks like God was pissed at Moses because of something Moses did (or rather, failed to do). In that case, it was failing to give God credit for the water he provided to the people in the wilderness, and claiming the credit for himself. But in his little farewell speech here Moses is sloughing the blame off on the Israelites (and making God look like even more of a dick) by saying God was only mad at him because the people misbehaved. Isn’t that “bearing false witness?” Moses seems to have been kind of a weasely little fuck.

The speech moves on to commanding Israel to obey the laws Moses gave them, and that they can neither add to nor subtract from those laws in the future. There’s a reminder that the only reason that God only speaks to him and not to them is because way back on Sinai the people (remember: the parents and grandparents of the people he’s actually talking to, none of whom are still alive to corroborate) asked to not have to hear God’s voice because it would kill them. He fits in a repetition of the lie that God won’t let him cross the Jordan because of the people’s actions and not his own. And he throws in admonitions not the worship idols, or else God will destroy their nation and scatter them among the other people of the earth.

Finally, Moses wraps up the speech with a long exposition about how wonderful God is and how nothing as awesome as what he’s doing for Israel has ever been done in the history of the world. Which brings us not only to the end of his speech, but also to the end of today’s post. Until the next time, y’all be well!

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