Sibble Saturday: The Magic Words (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11)

Man, I suck at this once-a-week stuff. Maybe it’s being surprisingly busy, or allergic, or just having a hard time slogging through Deuteronomy. Whatever it is, trying to get back on the ball here. We move on with פָּרָשַׁת ואתחנן (“And I begged” portion), which runs full-tilt into what’s known as the “Deuteronomic code” of laws. It also includes some sections of rather special importance to both Judaism and Christianity.

The quick snarky summary: God’s done great things for you, so listen up, y’all, and don’t piss him off.

This one’s a bit of a rough slog in its way, because it repeats itself a lot, and occasionally repeats what’s already been said. The main interest in Deuteronomy is in seeing what became important in the centuries between the original text and this retelling, and this parsha delivers on that front. One notable aspect is the heavy emphasis on faithful transmission of the Law through the ages: diligent teaching of the history and of the rules to children is a pretty constant theme, as is the exhortation not to modify the commandments.

This parsha (and much of the book, incidentally) hammers on much more about the evils of idolatry than the previous books did. Verses 4:15–28 are very long-winded on this point: that the God of Israel has no form, so worshipping physical objects is sinful, and idolatry is the sin which can cause Israel to lose their birthright of the land. That latter part seems kind of prophetic, although if we hold with the theory that the Deuteronomic text was written during the Assyrian exile, it’s totally cheating to be prophetic about something that already happened. In that light, a lot of this can be framed as exilic anti-assimilationist rhetoric. Why were we driven out among strangers? Because we weren’t being culturally cohesive enough! I read a lot of the anti-idolatry rhetoric here as a power play by the Jewish cultural authorities: faced with a diffused society spread among more powerful, wealthier cultures, the authors of Deuteronomy are particularly urgent to present those cultures’ practices as not only sinful but also pointless (note Deuteronomy 4:28, which is one of the first places where idols are specifically presented as not being divine; this is a far cry from Exodus’s exhortation not to serve other gods).

Chapter 4 ends on a point of rather ostentatious boosterism: verses 32–40 are a continuing assertion that the god of the Israelites is special, not just because he’s chosen them, but because he can do things no other god can do, because he’s real and they aren’t. The specific rallying cry that there is only one God is one we’ll hear more of in this book, and indeed in this parsha. The text is rather florid, though, harping on voices and fire and signs and portents. The actual theme of this text is dull and predictably, but it’s delivered in a fairly rich rhetorical style.

Verses 41–49 are a bit weird, because they’re a crudely stapled-in bit of narrative, about the cities of refuge and how Moses was teaching the people. The first part honestly bewilders me: the foundation of the Transjordanian cities of refuge honestly has nothing to do with anything here, while I assume this second omtif is just one dropped in at intervals so that the text can be read in sections with introduction and conclusion for each section (compare, for instance, the occasional intrusions of the frame story into the 1001 Nights and suchlike stories).

Chapter 5 picks back up again, and if my “frame-story” theory is correct, the first verse is just a way of getting back into the flow of the exposition, which now is Moses talking about the giving of the Law. The Law being given here is a near-identical text to Exodus 20:2–14. The variations are really very minor and probably accidental, in spite of what was probably tremendous temptation to fiddle with the language of Deuteronomy 5:6–8 to deny the existence of other Gods.

This text, which appears twice, is what’s commonly known as the Ten Commandments. We’ve of course been through that before here: these aren’t what Moses called the Ten Commandments, because what Moses called the Ten Commandments are a hilariously culture-specific set of rules back in Exodus 34:10–26. Here there’s an assertion that these particular commandments were not only said out of the fire and clouds, but were also written on the tablets, which is a bit at odds with the Exodus story.

Deuteronomy 5:29–30 includes another theme which we keep seeing, namely, the prohibition on editorial revision. Clearly the Deuteronomists want to be the last people to get to muck with the text of the Bible.

Chapter 6 is notable mostly for the presence of several phrases of specific phrases of liturgical significance. The first three verses continue the exhortation to follow the law so as to prosper in Israel (once again, there are shades of the prophetic-but-not-really doom which results from not following the Law). From the fourth verse to the ninth, however, is the liturgically most significant bit of the Torah, because the fourth verse in particular is the text of the Jewish daily prayer, the שמע; the extended version of this prayer includes the next four verses as well (and sometimes bits from elsewhere in the Bible too). The actual text of the prayer is a bit odd, in its way. The first verse makes perfect sense, being a declaration of faith not unlike, say, the shahada, but the other verses are all part of the continuing exhortation to preserve the instructions given. Interestingly, in this context Judaism takes the phrase “instructions” and applies them not to the Torah as a whole, or the Law, but rather to these specific verses. So the interpretation of verses 6–9 is not read as the usual Torah-boosterism, but specific instructions for the invocation of this particular prayer: to teach it to children, to recite it regularly, particularly in the morning and night, to wear its text on the head and hand and place its text on the doorframes of houses (the latter two peculiar injunctions are the origins of tefillin and mezuzot).

Verse 6:10 and 11 are a bit interesting, in that they acknowledge the Israelites as being essentially looters: that in conquering the nation of Canaan they’re steaking all the Canaanites’ stuff. It’s pretty unapologetic about this, and presents the bounty which the Canaanites provide as being theirs by Divine Providence. Fortunately for the Israelite conscience, we veer off this track to the overfamiliar theme of “If you do what God wants, you can stay in this great place forever, but piss him off, and he’ll punish and banish you.”

This really seems like a very cruel tack to be taken by the leaders of a community which (if the usual dating is correct) have already been exiled. Particularly since it keeps showing up; we’ve basically seen nothing but this promise and threat. It seems like a bit much and I’m ready to get back to actual laws.

Before we do that, though, verses 6:20–25 are again something which shows up in the liturgy, this time for Passover. The liturgy mentions four children (the text for three of them is a hodgepodge lifted from Exodus), but the text for “the wise child” is lifted nearly verbatin from these verses.

Chapter 7 gives us a slight hint of something more specific than “do what God says” in terms of instruction. It actually provides specific rules for conquest: to expel or kill all of them, not intermarrying or taking up their ways, and destroying their cultural sites. Unfortunately, here the text mentions the danger they present of worshipping other Gods, which segues right back into the themes we hoped we had just escaped.

See, this is why Deuteronomy is a slog. People claim Leviticus is dull, but, hey, actual ritual practices have some interest to them. In contrast there are only so many ways you can say “Obey God or else”, and I think these chapters have just about exhausted them.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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