Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Deuteronomy: Obey! Whatever that Means

Well now, it’s been quite a time since my last post, but I’m still plugging away at this. Just been working some pretty crazy hours lately, and of course the same content issues from last time are still going on.

When we last left off, Moses was in the middle of another big speech hammering the themes of obey God and commit genocide and be rewarded, or disobey and be punished. He also makes much of all the times that the people had pissed God off, and how it was only because Moses begged and prayed for them that God spared their lives. Meanwhile, he keeps reminding them that the blessings they are to receive are contingent upon them obeying “the commandments I will give you this day,” but it takes forever for him to actually get around to giving any of those commandments.

When he finally does, around Chapter 12, we learn that God will pick a place in the promised land and “make his name to dwell there.” After the Israelites destroy all of the inhabitants’ holy places, they are not to use those places to worship God. Instead, all of their offerings and such are to be done at that one place that God will pick. Also, they’ll finally be able to eat as much meat as they like without God poisoning them for asking. Bonus!

Moses then admonishes the people not to use the religious practices of other peoples as a way to worship God.

Deu 12:31 You shall not worship Yahweh in that way, for every abominable thing that Yahweh hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.”

Now, I find this very interesting. Abraham’s signature act of faith was his complete willingness to sacrifice his own son to his god. But now that same willingness is an “abominable thing,” huh? Consistency is not a strong suit.

Moving along, we have instructions that if a prophet appears who does signs and wonders that actually come true, but tries to use them to convince people to worship another god, well, that’s just God testing you. The correct reaction is to kill said prophet. Basically, a way of dismissing the religious experiences of other religions while promoting religious warfare.

Moving on… if a close friend or relative tries to convert you to another religion, you should be the first to condemn them and lead the congregation in stoning them to death. And then there’s a command that if one of their cities should convert en masse to the worship of another god, then that city and all of its inhabitants even down to the cattle should be destroyed as offerings to Yahweh. And all the valuables should also be gathered together and burnt, and what remains of the city torn down and never rebuilt.

Then we get a reiteration of the rules about what animals you can and cannot eat (including again the erroneous claims that rabbits chew cud and bats are birds). Interestingly, Deuteronomy 14: 20 says that all winged insects are unclean and can’t be eaten, even though Leviticus 11:21-22 provides a list of winged insects that they are allowed to eat. Is this a revision of the law? Was God wrong about how edible those things were back in Leviticus, or did he just change his mind?

Moses also explains that, while the Israelites aren’t allowed to eat any animal that died on its own, they are allowed to sell them as food to foreigners. And he reminds everyone again not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk (was this really a serious problem back then, that it had to be repeated so often?).

Next he starts getting into tithes, and things get a little bit confusing. The people are instructed to take a tithe of everything their fields produce and the firstborn of their livestock, every year, to the place God chooses “for his name to dwell.” There, they are instructed to eat the tithe in the presence of God. Now… in previous books we’d seen a tithe set aside for the maintenance of the Levites and priests. Is this an additional tithe on top of that, or is this a new requirement on what to do with that tithe (eat it instead of giving it to the priests)? Or is it saying that the Levites and priests are to eat their share of the offerings at the place God will choose for his name to dwell, as opposed to the tabernacle where they’ve been eating it while they traveled? Because it seems more than a little impractical to have every Israelite (remember… the Bible claims 600,000 men among them, not counting women and children) gather in one city at the same time every year, and to eat a tenth of all of their food on that one occasion.

They’re also told that if they live too far from the place where God chooses to make his name to dwell (ok, that’s really unwieldy to keep saying – I’m just going to call it the “temple” from now on, since that’s what it will eventually be called anyway) to make carrying all that produce practical, they’re allowed to sell it and just use the money to buy what they want to eat when they get there. It seem like everyone doing that all at once might create some economic havoc, but I suppose if the economy is built around that schedule it would eventually work itself out.

Somehow, this tithing exercise is supposed to make them “learn to fear Yahweh your God always. Now, I suspect that a road trip and a big meal are far less effective in teaching fear than the food poisoning, venomous snakes, plagues, earthquakes and arbitrary mass slayings that God had been using up to this point. But since I’m not personally in the business of using fear to force people to obey my whims, I may not be the best authority on the subject.

Every third year, the tithe is supposed to be stored up in everyone’s home towns, and used to feed orphans, widows, travelers, and Levites. It’s hard to be critical of giving food to widows and orphans (though some people, oddly, have tried), so this one goes in the rather short list of positive Biblical laws. Unfortunately, it’s not the start of a trend.

Next Moses gets into the Sabbatical Year, which occurs every seven years and in which the Israelites are instructed to forgive the debts of their brothers. This seems like sort of a nice sentiment, except that Moses is pretty explicit that this applies to Israelites only, and so they don’t forgive the debts of “foreigners.” So it’s really just a rule about treating their own people better than they treat others.

From here Moses segues into some bits about the poor, and this section is going to merit some quotes.

Deu 15:4  But there will be no poor among you; for Yahweh will bless you in the land that Yahweh your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess – 5 if only you will strictly obey the voice of Yahweh your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.”


Deu 15:7 If among you, one of your brother should become poor, in any of the towns within your land that Yahweh your God is giving you, you shall not harden you heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.”

Deu 15: 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”

OK, first, kudos for ordering people to be generous to the poor. It would be even more laudable if it weren’t pretty clear that Moses is only talking about Jewish poor, but I guess you gotta start somewhere. But the amusing part is how, over the course of a mere eight verses we move from “there will be no poor among you…” to “if one of your brothers becomes poor…” to “there will never cease to be poor…” It’s kinda like Moses is totally talking out of his ass.

Now, astute observers might note that the first quote about there being no poor included the caveat “if only you will strictly obey…” And you could interpret these passages together to mean “If you obey God there will be no poor, but since you will never obey him there will always be poor. So treat them well in any case.” But that is not an interpretation entirely without problems of its own.

Firstly, it’s not explicitly stated that this is the case. Which leaves it up to inference, and therefore pretty much guarantees that some people will get it wrong through honest misinterpretation.

Also (and this is something that’s been kind of nagging at me for a bit), who exactly is the “you,” in the admonition “if you will strictly obey…?” You see, Moses is speaking to the Israelites as a people and some of the punishments he talks about are collective toward the whole people, but almost all of the laws he’s laying out have to do with individual behavior. So just how many Israelites have to disobey God before “the people” are considered to have disobeyed? Will poor exist among them if even one person disobeys? A quarter of the people? Half? Will the poor be only those people who disobey, or does God make obedient people become poor because somebody else disobeyed? If the former, this suggests that poverty is a punishment for being immoral and wealth is a reward for being moral (go ahead… pull the other one). If the latter… well that’s kind of unjust, don’t ya think?

But none of this is spelled out with any clarity whatsoever. And it might be a little nitpicky to bring it up in regards to the issue of poor people, but it’s kind of an issue that’s been nagging at me for a while in relation to a whole lot of pronouncements. There’s all this stuff about punishing the collective Jewish people if they disobey God, and the Bible seems to treat the collective as a single character. But c’mon… we know better than that. Individuals within a large group of people simply do not think and act identically. As such, there will be some people who obey God religiously (har har… see what I did there?), some who do so half-assedly, some who don’t obey, and some who think God is just Moses’ imaginary friend to whom obedience isn’t even something to be considered seriously.

So at what point is “the Jewish people” being disobedient? Or at what point are they being obedient, for that matter? None of it is explained, so are we to assume that God has no real standards for deciding? Or that he has standards that he chooses not to divulge?

Or maybe, it’s kept intentionally vague with the implied threat of collective punishment used as a mechanism to encourage them to police each other and enforce obedience. But here’s the thing… you only need that kind of policing when the authorities aren’t able to police everyone themselves. In this case, we’re supposed to believe that the authority in question is omniscient and omnipotent. It is literally impossible to escape detection and punishment of infractions under such an authority. Every single infraction could be punished in the instant that it happened. But what we see is that authority relying on the necessarily inferior mechanism of using collective punishment to encourage self-policing by the members of the group.

Yeah, yeah, free will. Except that there has been no mention of that concept at all up to this point. The only times freedom to choose has come up even incidentally so far has been when God is specifically taking it away in order to force people to act in particular ways. And the vast majority of those episodes have then been used as justification to inflict some horrific retribution on the poor schmucks (i.e. Schmuck does not want to do A, God forces schmuck to do A anyway, God punishes schmuck for doing A).

Whew! That was kind of a long aside! But since it’d been on my mind, I figured I’d finally try to put it in words. Not sure I got it across particularly well, but that’s for you to decide.

Anyway, gonna take a break here and get back to reading so I can push on through Moses’ interminable speech in the next installment. Until then, take care!

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