Monday, September 30, 2013

Deuteronomy: Keep Your Eye on the Real Victim


Welcome once more to my Bible blog! We find ourselves today deep in the midst of Deuteronomy, where Moses is spilling out an interminable speech on the laws the Hebrews are supposed to hold when they come to the promised land. In the last post there were some real doozies, and I don’t think today’s installment is going to disappoint on that front either. So let’s jump in, shall we?

So, how does one follow up a legal requirement to stone disobedient children to death? Well, Moses does it with an instruction that, if you put a man to death for a crime and hang him from a tree, you shouldn’t leave him hanging there into the next day. He should be taken down and buried in the same day, because “a hanged man is cursed by God,” and they shouldn’t defile their land by leaving hanged corpses dangling around.

Then we get a random collection of seemingly unrelated laws that include: requirement to return your neighbors lost possessions and livestock if you happen to find them, declaration that cross-dressing (by man or woman) is an abomination to God, a requirement that if you come across a bird tending its young or eggs in a nest you can take the eggs/young but must leave the mother, a requirement to put parapets around the roof of your house so people can’t fall off, prohibitions on sowing your fields with more than one type of seed, using an ox and a donkey together to pull the same plow, or wearing cloth of linen and wool mixed together, and a requirement to hang tassels on the corners of your garments.

From there, Moses moves on to some laws about sex, so you just know there’s some controversy to be mined here. And it starts off immediately with laws about the virginity of brides.

If a man marries a woman, and on their wedding night decides that he doesn’t think she’s really a virgin and accuses her of such, her parents are supposed to provide proof that she was. Apparently (although the Bible dances around the subject and doesn’t really explain clearly) this proof is supposed to consist of showing that the bedsheets have blood on them from her losing her virginity to her husband. If they can provide the proof, then the husband must be whipped and pay a fine of 100 shekels of silver. You know who he pays the fine to? The father of the girl he falsely accused. Oh, and he has to keep the girl as his wife and never divorce her.

If the parents can’t provide proof of their daughter’s virginity (and new flash: not every woman bleeds the first time she has sex), you know what happens to the girl? She gets stoned to death.

Yeah, remember that law earlier about how the accusation of a single witness can’t be enough to convict someone, and that other law that false witnesses are supposed to receive the punishment that the falsely accused person would have received? Apparently those laws don’t apply when it’s a man accusing a woman. But leaving aside the bullshit hypocrisy just within the structure of their own laws, let’s think a moment about what this really means.

If the man is in the wrong, he just committed a crime (bearing false witness) that could get a woman killed. He gets whipped, the victim’s father gets rewarded with silver, and the victim herself is punished by being forced to remain married to the man who tried to kill her. On the other hand, if the woman was in the wrong, she has committed a “crime” that harms no one in any demonstrable way, and she gets killed for it. There is no justice here.

But that’s not the end of it. Let’s move on and see what other gems of compassion and wisdom God’s prophet had to lay down regarding sex and immorality.

If a man has sex with a married woman, both are to be put to death.

If a man rapes a betrothed woman in the city, and she doesn’t scream loudly enough to bring help, they will both be stoned to death. Because I just guess they assume that if nobody heard her scream she must have been willing, and therefore committing adultery, and of course no rapist has ever used force and/or threats to keep his victim silent.

But if a man rapes a betrothed woman in the countryside, then it’s assumed that she cried for help and nobody was there to hear, so only the man will be put to death. Although this raises the question: if no one was there to hear her cry for help, who was able to witness the crime? After all, by law the woman’s word alone (as only a single witness) can’t be good enough to convict the rapist.

And finally, if a man rapes a woman who isn’t married or betrothed, then he has to pay her father fifty shekels of silver, marry her, and never divorce her. Because nothing makes up for victimizing a woman in the most intimate way possible like legally victimizing her for the rest of her life.

But then, it’s pretty clear that in the eyes of Moses and his God, if you rape an unmarried girl, the real victim was her father because of the economic loss in reducing her value to be sold as a bride.

And aside from the highly questionable assertion that it’s even remotely just to put people to death for having sex, think about the implications. Got fifty shekels to spare and a hankerin’ for a girl who won’t give you the time of day? Just rape her, and she’s yours for life! These laws are fucking sick.

Oh, and to end this bit on sexual horrors, we get a low-key prohibition on sleeping with your father’s wife without specifying a penalty.

The next bit is about those “excluded from the assembly of Yahweh.” It’s not really explained precisely what that means, and I haven’t turned up a lot online that seems to really agree about it either (not that I searched all that hard – if the Bible can’t be clear enough to stand on its own, I see little reason to care what anyone else has to say about what it means either). But I’m sure it meant some kind of second-class status for these people. And the excluded people are: eunuchs, anyone born from a forbidden union and any of their descendants (like… all the Israelites, who I remind you are all descended from the son Abraham fathered on his own sister), Ammonites and Moabites (these last two, the Israelites are actually forbidden to make peace with or give aid to forever). Edomites and Egyptians are allowed to enter into the assembly after three generations (three generations of what, I don’t know… intermarriage with Israelites, and/or worshipping Yahweh perhaps?).

The bits about descendants of forbidden unions, as well as Ammonites and Moabites, both include “unto the tenth generation” as a qualifier, but then one tacks on a “forever,” as well, so I’m not certain whether that means the condition follows for literally ten generations, or whether the phrase “unto the tenth generation” is supposed to be a euphemism for a status that follows all descendant generations for all time. Regardless, it’s still just an example of penalizing people for stuff that other people did, which is kinda bullshit.

Next on the legal agenda are some rules of warfare, in which the Israelites are instructed to “keep themselves from any evil thing” when encamped for war. Note that “any evil thing” does not include genocidal wars of aggression, but rather nocturnal emissions and failure to bury your feces outside the camp. Apparently this is done because the war camp is supposed to be a holy place where God walks among them, so they don’t want him to see anything indecent and turn away from them in the face of their enemies. I imagine God’s “turning away” bears a striking resemblance to dysentery, which is the usual result of leaving piles of open sewage inside your camp.

Following the Bible’s usual organizing principle of “whatever floated through the author’s mind at the time,” we then move onto another random collection of seemingly unrelated pronouncements. So there’s a prohibition against returning escaped slaves to their masters (it’s kind of unclear whether they just mean slaves who have escaped foreign masters and fled to Jewish lands, or if this is just a general prohibition against returning any escaped slave to any master even among Jews), followed by a prohibition against Jewish men or women becoming cult prostitutes or using any prostitute’s wages to make payments to God’s temple, then a restriction against charging interest on loans to other Jews (while explicitly allowing interest to be charged to foreigners). Then we get an instruction to fulfill any vows to God quickly because failing to fulfill them is a sin, whereas simply never making any vows is not. And then there’s permission to eat as much food as you like from your neighbor’s fields, so long as you don’t try to carry any extra away (yeah, because there’s no way that law could bite anyone in the ass).

Anyway, I could go on with more of the random brilliance that characterizes God's law, but this post is getting long and random pronouncements get to be boring as all get-out. So we’ll call this a stopping point, and I’ll leave you to get on about your day while I figure out how to approach the next post.

Hope all is, and continues to be, well with you!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Deuteronomy: Scattershot Law

Hello once again, dear reader. I’m guessing by now you know that this is my Bible blog, in which I discuss my impressions of the Bible as I read through it. At present I’m making my way through Deuteronomy, and Moses is giving speeches laying down the “final” versions of the laws that the Israelites are supposed to follow in their promised land. At the end of my last post, he had just gotten through the extremely sketchy section on what kings are supposed to do.

We rejoin our genocidal hero as he returns to the topic of Levitical priests (he seems to like to tell the people a little bit about a subject, then go talk about something wholly unrelated, then come back to the previous subject. He does this quite a bit and imo, it’s a horrible way to organize a treatise on laws). In this spot, he’s just reminding us that the Levitical priests are entitled to eat a portion of the offerings made to God at the temple. Also, any Levite living elsewhere can decide at any time that he wants to go become a priest at the temple, and when he does he will also be entitled to an equal share in the food from the offerings.

After that, he returns for at least the third time to the subject of abominable practices of the people whose land they’re about to take that God will not stand for among his people. Here’s the list:

Deu 18:10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to Yahweh. And because of these abominations, Yahweh your God is driving them out before you.”

OK, so, burning your son or daughter to death is pretty abominable (and it’s been established that God wants his people to be willing to do if he told them to). But in the practical sense, everything else on that list is bullshit and fraud. However, if you look at it from a worldview in which this stuff is literally true and actually happens, a good bit of it is stuff that Yahweh’s followers have done or claimed to do and been rewarded for (e.g. Joseph claimed to be a diviner, and he most certainly interpreted omens and dreams to tell the future).

Next, Moses tells the people how God has promised to raise up a new prophet (the Hebrews may not have sorcerers, charmers, and fortune tellers, but they have prophets, who appear to do much the same stuff, they just claim to do it in Yahweh’s name rather than some other god or from their own abilities) once Moses dies. Like he did with Moses, God will speak directly to this prophet and have him convey God’s wishes to the people. False prophets can be identified by the fact that they will give predictions in God’s name that won’t come true, and such people are condemned to death (hear that, Robertson?).

Then, just like that, we’re of that topic and onto cities of refuge. I’ve covered them in another post, and nothing seems to have really changed, so I won’t bother repeating it here.

Randomly: you’re not allowed to move your neighbor’s property markers.

And then we’re back to legal disputes and judges. Dammit, Moses, finish a topic before spraying twelve more out onto the page!

In this part about legal disputes, we get it repeated that that one witness alone isn’t enough to convict someone of a crime. Also, if someone bears false witness at a trial, their penalty is the same as what the falsely accused man would have received (actually, I think that’s a pretty cool idea).

Next topic: warfare. The Hebrews are instructed not to fear armies greater than their own, because God will help them fight. Before battle, a priest is supposed to give an inspirational speech. Then the officers are supposed to send home anyone who has a new vineyard they haven’t eaten from yet, those who have new homes that haven’t been consecrated yet, those who have fianc├ęs they haven’t bedded yet, and people who are just plain scared (so that their panic doesn’t spread). Then they choose a commander and commence with the ass whuppin’.

When they attack a city, they’re to offer “terms of peace,” (i.e. surrender). If the city surrenders, everyone in it becomes slaves. If they fight back, then every male in the city is to be killed, and just the women and children enslaved. But these rules don’t apply to the cities in the promised land: every living thing in all of those cities are to be “devoted to destruction.” They are explicitly ordered to commit genocide against the Hitites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Interesting how these days we can abhor someone for committing a single genocide, while for some reason we’re expected to admire Moses and his successor Joshua for committing five (not counting the ones they’ve already committed before this point in the story).

Oh, but at least they’re instructed not to cut down the fruit trees to make siege weapons. So there’s that.

But as barbaric as the warfare rules are, at least they make a sort of sense - unlike the batshit crazy stuff in the next section on unsolved murders. See, if a man is found murdered and no one can figure out who did it, then the elders of the nearest city have to take responsibility for dealing with it. And “dealing with it” consists of murdering a cow to make up for the man’s murder. I shit you not. The elders are required to take a heifer that has never worked a plow, take her to a valley with running water in it, break the poor thing’s neck, wash their hands over its dead carcass while a priest gives his blessing, and declare that since they spilled no blood in killing the animal, God should accept it as atonement for the dead man’s blood and not hold the people guilty for it. What kind of madman comes up with this shit? Did the priests make a drunken bet amongst themselves to see who could get the people to do the craziest damn things in the name of God?

Then on to marital matters. We start with the rules about war brides. Women captives can be forced to marry their captors, but only after shaving their heads, cutting their nails, and being allowed to mourn their murdered relatives for a month. If you decide after bedding her that you don’t want her after all, you have to let her go rather than simply selling her as a slave.

A man with multiple wives still has to give the firstborn’s share of his inheritance to his actual firstborn son, rather than to the son of the wife he likes best.

And speaking of sons…

Deu 21:18 ‘If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city , “This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.’”

“The fuck?!” you say?

How fucking sick does a society need to get before this law makes it onto the books? Though really, I almost have to read this as something thrown in there just so parents can hold it over their kids’ head as a threat and not because they expect anyone to actually do it. “Eat your peas, or I could totally kill your ass and nobody would say ‘boo’ about it!”

But then… something else occurs to me. If this is the parenting model these people were operating on, is it really any wonder they came up with such a douchebag concept of God? After all, the religion casts God as the father figure, and humans as his children. And if mortal fathers are expected to kill their disobedient children, then it only stands to reason that a godlike version of a father would kill disobedient children on a far more grandiose scale.

This law is actually kind of a microcosm of the character of God as presented so far in the Bible.

And as an aside… if death is deemed an appropriate punishment for a stubbornly rebellious child, that kind of implies that anything and everything short of death could legitimately be considered discipline. Put the right combination of rebellious son and pious father together, and you could easily have a household transformed into a legally sanctioned house of horrors. Just a thought.

This seems like a good place to call it a day. The laws are coming fast and furious, scattershot all over the place in terms of theme and ranging in value from “not horrible” through “utter nonsense,” and deeply into “screamingly psychopathic.” It sure makes for plenty to talk about! Hope you’ll come back next time to see more of the moral brilliance that will descend from God’s law. In the meantime, you keep yourselves well!

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!

 

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!