Wibble Wednesday: A Little Bit Louder and a Little Bit Worse (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25)

I totally meant to write this up last night, and then I sat down to work on removing the carriage of a Nippon HL-21, and before I knew it, it was midnight. Have no idea what I’m talking about? Go on over to Mathematical Cranks to get a look at what I’m doing when I’m not taking the piss out of the Torah.

Slogging on through, to פָּרָשַׁת עקב (“Because” portion). I’m really ready for more actual laws.

The quick snarky summary: You Israelites suck. It’s a good thing for you that the Canaanites suck even more. Get on over there and slaughter those lesser beings. Hey, do you remember that time that you built an idol while I was away and God decided to kill you all and I had to spend upwards of a month talking him out of it? Ha, ha, *sigh*. Yeah, good times.

An awful lot of Deuteronomy’s text can be basically boiled down to carrots (where Moses tells the Israelites how awesome life in Israel can be if everybody does the right things) and sticks (where Moses tells how they’re going to be exiled and impoverished and generally shat upon if they disobey the divine commandments). We’ve already seen a lot of those bits, and more of them becomes rapidly dull. So I’m going to lightly skip over the various carrot-style blessings in verses 7:12–16, and get to the part where things get a bit more interesting, which has to do with comparison between the Israelite nation and other peoples.

First off, verse 7:17 is a bit strange, since it is meant to assuage the Israelite concern about their foes’ superior numbers. Sometimes it seems like the authors forget that they’re supposedly talking about a community with a military draft pool of 600,000. That is a huge number by ancient world standards. I can’t find any actually useful demographics on Canaan, but for a useful comparison, Polybius’s Histories report that the Roman Empire’s military enrollment in 225 BC had a total draft pool size of… 700,000. That’s at least one millennium later, and in the service of what was the primary (and, with the defeat of the Etruscans, rapidly becoming the only) serious military power in the Mediterranean. Translating that back to the time of the Exodus (whenever it was), a military of half a million should be quite enough to overpower a small, sparsely settled nation. So while God’s promises of victory in the following verses is no doubt reassuring, it seems like it should really be unnecessary. Of course, every time Moses tells the Israelites they’re going to be victorious, he has to include a warning that after they take over the property of the conquered, they must destroy the idols. Seriously, idolworship becomes a big deal in Deuteronomy in a way it never became an issue in the previous books.

In Chapter 8 we get an alternative explanation of what the wandering on the wilderness was all about. It was, of course, a chance for God to shower the Israelites with gifts after first making them miserable. So after “afflicting them with hunger”, he sends the manna and good health. I seem to recall somewhere that cycles of occasional generosity are a standard part of abusive relationships, so, y’know, I’ll just leave that idea hanging there. Verses 8:7–10 are more promises of material bounty: there’s a nice long list of agricultural and mining products which Israel presumably possesses. I get the impression that by the local standards Israel is actually pretty poor in natural resources: the arable land is small, the growing season temperamental, and the mineable metals fairly scarce. Also, there’s no oil or gas, although that wouldn’t have mattered much back then. Certainly in terms of agricultural richness the Nile River delta is a lot more productive than most of Israel, so I’m a bit dubious about this promise of plenty.

But verses 8:11–20 bring back the stick, which we haven’t seen for a little while. Discussion of material wealth and comfort is Moses’s cue to segue into how wealth brings complacency, and complacency brings self-sufficiency, and self-sufficiency brings not needing God’s help for every little thing, which brings ingratitude, which invokes the smiting wrath (there is simply no pleasing God. The people are either bad for whining about silly little things like not having any water, or bad for becoming self-sufficient and not relying on God enough).

Chapter 9 returns to the placement of the Israelites in the context of other nations. This is a chance for Moses to castigate them a bit more, because he asserts nakedly that God isn’t dispossessing the current inhabitants of the Land as a favor to them (again, laying aside the question of whether they need God’s favor to overrun people they massively outnumber).No, no, the Israelites are absolutely undeserving of this great honor, but God’s doing it because (a) the natives are even worse, and (b) he promised the patriarchs he’d do it.

From verse 9:8–21, as an exhibit of just how undeserving the Israelites are, we’re treated to a recapitulation of the story of the Golden Calf, which wasn’t one of their finer moments. The story’s pretty much an abbreviated version of the one in Exodus 32, although we leave out the bit where Moses orders his zealots to slaughter the cow-worshippers. It dwells mostly on Moses’s time on the mountain fasting and begging God’s forgiveness instead. Just to top off the illustration of how unworthy Israel is, Moses mentions offhand four other places where their behavior invoked wrath: Taberah, where a bunch got set on fire for no apparent reason (I missed this very incidental mention back in Numbers 11), Kibroth-Hataavah, where the people complained about the manna, Massah, where they complained about dehydration, and Kadesh-Barnea, where they complained about dehydration again (seriously, what’s with those Israelites? It’s not like they need water).

In Chapter 10 the story of the wanderings picks up where it left off, with God assenting to not nuke the Israelites. This is a bit disconcerting chronologically, since most of the complaint locations mentioned above actually occur later in the story. The story then skips over all the interesting bits of Numbers, vaguely implying that Aaron died immediately after the incident of the Golden Calf, which he didn’t. Having brought the narrative to the present, Moses reiterates the command to serve God wholeheartedly. This is mostly dull stuff here, although there’s a notably cringeworthy metaphor in verse 16, where Moses commands the people to consecrate their souls to God, or, literally, to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart”. Um, ouch?

The end of the chapter brings up social justice, which is honestly where the Bible looks the most like an actually humanitarian work. There’s the usual good stuff, like caring for orphans and widows, and giving shelter and kindness to strangers. That last bit would be a lot more convincing if it weren’t on the tail of several chapters of “kill everyone who worships a different god and burn all their stuff”.

Chapter 11 begins with more of the “look at all the awesome stuff God can do” sales pitch, this time talking about the drowning of the Egyptian army. One odd note: verse 11:2 explicitly says, “this is a special reason exclusively for you, who saw this, and not your descendants, who won’t have.” All well and good, except the events he’s describing, in the canonical, in-story timeline, were 40 years ago, and it is explicitly established in Numbers 22 that none of the people alive then would live to reach Canaan. So nobody in his audience actually saw the defeat of the Egyptian army either. It ends with another theme we’ve seen before, the encomiums of Canaan, where you don’t need to water your gardens but can harvest great plenty without working for it. That doesn’t sound like the climate of anywhere in the Near East, but what do I know? Deuteronomy 11:17 kind of explains this, saying that if the people Israel turn their hearts away from God, there’ll be lousy weather. So maybe the idea is that Israel used to be a perfect agricultural microclimate, and the Israelites fucked it up because they’re really good at that sort of thing.

We end on a note which is a very near exact repetition of what has gone before. 11:18–25 says almost the exact same things as Deuteronomy 6:7–10, down to the detail of specifically talking about mezuzot and tefillin.

So, yes, except for a few small notes, this parsha is a continuation of Deuteronomy’s wholly predictable litany of promises and threats. Can we dare to hope that the next parsha will be better. Hmm, let’s take a look at verse 11:26 for a preview…

“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” Ah, shit, I already know this tune.


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

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