Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Deuteronomy: Yadda Yadda Laws… Yadda Yadda Kill the Heretic

Hello hello, and welcome back. Glad to have you as my guest for the continuing odyssey through the Bible. We’re currently in the midst of Deuteronomy, where Moses is giving his farewell series of lectures to the Israelites before he dies and they cross the Jordan to invade the promised land.

We’d just gotten through a section on the treatment of poor brothers. From there, Moses goes on to discuss what to do with fellow Jews who are sold to you as slaves. As has been covered before, they serve six years, and then you’re supposed to let them go (unless they choose to stay with your household, in which case you mark them with an awl through the ear as your slave forever). It kinda strikes me as odd that the slaves’ only choice is leave after six years or be a slave forever – conditions change in life, and the situation that made you not want to leave after six years could easily be altered later on, but too bad you’re fucked?

Also of note here is that Moses says the six year tenure applies to women as well as men. Again, this is a change in the law, as Exodus 21:7 says that women don’t get to leave unless the owner decides he doesn’t like her (in which case she may be bought back only by her father – so even that isn’t so much about setting her free as restricting who he’s allowed to transfer ownership to). Now, in my opinion, this is a direct result of the issue with women now being allowed to inherit property if their father dies without any male heirs (see my post titled Numbers: Screw Interfaith Marriage, We Prefer Murder!). This fact kind of forced the acknowledgment that it’s possible for an unmarried woman to exist in a state where she isn’t just the property of some man, and so they needed to be able to do something with female slaves that they couldn’t just sell back to dad. They probably decided that the easiest solution was just to make the same rule apply to female slaves that already applied to male ones.

Of course, one might expect that an omniscient God would have foreseen that issue when writing the original version of the law, so it would have been accounted for right from the beginning. Just sayin’….

Anyway, the law also includes an instruction not to let these slaves go empty-handed, but to provide them with some livestock and produce with which to start their lives over. That’s not too shabby an instruction, really – but remember, this whole release and payment scheme is limited to fellow Jews only. Nothing here changes the old rules about keeping foreign slaves as property forever.

Moses gets off the slavery issue next to remind everyone that the firstborn males of their herds and flocks are to be dedicated to God, and no work can be done with them. And once the temple gets built, that’s the only place they can be eaten. Then he gives reminders to celebrate Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths, all of which will also have to be celebrated at the temple. Every male Jew must appear at the temple on those three feast days every year, and all must bring an offering with them.

Next, he gives instructions to appoint judges in all the towns, who are required to be impartial and not to accept bribes.

He moves on to forbidding people to plant trees as Asherah (once again not explained – a bit of research turns up that these as sacred trees dedicated to Asher, a goddess commonly worshipped in the area at the time) beside God’s altar, or to give God offerings of any animals with blemishes or defects. He also forbids the setting up of pillars, and seriously the reason given for this is that God hates pillars. Maybe they remind him too much of penises, and we know how he hates seeing those from his threats to kill his high priests if they don’t wear special underwear under their robes to hide those things from accidental viewing whenever they enter God’s sanctum.

Then we get the obligatory instruction to kill any fellow Hebrews who convert to the worship of any other gods. Now you might think that Moses (or God, if we’re to take these laws as Moses passing on Yahweh’s instructions) earns a little credit here for the follow-up instruction that nobody can be put to death on the strength of only a single witness. But then you realize that we’re talking about how many witnesses are required to have you killed for the equivalent of saying that Frodo Baggins is cooler than Luke Skywalker (or, given the character thus far displayed by this god, saying that Sauron is cooler than Darth Vader). No points awarded.

After that pronouncement, Moses goes back to talking about judges. Specifically, he instructs that any case that is too difficult for the local judge should be kicked up the ladder to the judge and Levitical priests at God’s temple. And that once they decide the case, failure to abide by their ruling is to be punished by (what else?) death.

It strikes me that it’s gotta be kind of a pain for anyone trying to actually follow these laws to sort through them in any coherent way, since there doesn’t seem to be any kid of organizing principle to them. Take the previous section as an example. Moses talks about appointing judges, then goes off on a completely different tangent about forbidden worship practices and the death penalty for apostasy before coming back to describe the actual extent of the judges’ authority. Although, given the number of times this section alone talks about killing people for worshipping other gods, maybe that is the organizing principle: the order to kill apostates must be repeated every so many verses even if that means interrupting whatever other discussion is happening at the time. Killing people for their religious beliefs is just that important!

Moving on from judges, the people are told that once they have their land they can set a king over them if they wish. This is kind of amusingly phrased, though.

Deu 17:15 You may indeed set a king over you whom Yahweh your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.”

Now, if God is supposed to choose the king, why even bother putting additional restrictions on who it can be? It’s not like the people have a choice in the matter. What’s this supposed to be about? Is Moses saying “Hey, if you guys want a king, God will pick him. But, y’know… if you decide to ignore God’s decision in the matter, at least pick a Jew, ok?” Or is it kind of a tacit admission that, yeah, it’ll actually be people picking the king and Moses is just trying to guide the choice a bit?

Anyway, the king is supposed to refrain from gathering too much personal wealth or too many wives, nor is he allowed to pack all the Jews off to Egypt again in exchange for horses (…the fuck? Just horses specifically? Can he send them back to Egypt for other stuff, or are the horses just supposed to represent any exchange in general?). He’s also required to create a personal copy of the laws, and read from them daily to keep them fresh in his mind. And that’s… pretty much all Moses has to say on the subject of kings.

Think I’m going to cut it off here for today. We’re still in the middle of the same speech, and not even at some dramatic shift in theme within the speech. The thing kinda jumps around so much that it isn’t easily divisible into sections. I just feel like I’ve written enough for one go. We’ll jump back into the middle of it when I come back for my next post. In the meantime, you be well!


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