Wibble Wednesday: Responsive Readings (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8)

The end is nigh! Well, the end of the Torah, at least. We’ve gotten to פָּרָשַׁת כי תבוא (“When you enter” portion), the part right before the preantepenultimate parsha.

The quick snarky summary: Make sure that you do all the right things with your agricultural products. You might not have gotten the gist the last two times I gave you these rules, so we’ll reiterate them, and demand that you swear you’ve followed them correctly. Also, once I’m dead and y’all go into Israel, write stuff down and proclaim curses just the way I would do. Here, let me show you by proclaiming a few curses right now.


Deuteronomy is basically a law sandwich. From a justification purpose, this sort of makes sense. If you’re trying to convince someone why they should follow a set of rules, it helps to explain why it’s in their best interest to do so, even if the justification is something as unconvincing as “God’ll beat the crap out of you if you don’t.” And for added emphasis, you maybe include this justification both as a preface to the rules and as a conclusion. Follow a structure like that, and you get something sort of like Deuteronomy. It’s explicable, but awfully dull to read through: we start with all sorts of promises and threats about what God does to lawbreakers, and then we got the law. And in this section, alas, we’re rolling back into threats and promises.

But we start with a somewhat expanded discussion of agricultural products which need to be set aside. We’ve kind of already covered these in the last parsha, as well as in other places, but the capsule version: a portion of the yield needs to be set aside for the disenfranchised (strangers, widows, and orphans), and every third year a portion needs to be set aside for the priesthood. In addition, first fruits need to be taken to Jerusalem and consumed these with due ceremony.

The text of Chapter 26 deals with the specific practice to be followed in performing these responsibilities. There are a few places where the text seems to diverge from the established rules (for instance, 26:12 suggests that the charitable portion is every third year for all groups being served, not just the Levites), but mostly what we get here is an illumination in terms of the specific texts to be read when dedicating the first fruits and when affirming performance of the tithes.

The text to be read when sanctifying first fruits, from Deuteronomy 26:5–10, is actually very familiar to all remotely observant Jews because it’s become a standard part of the Passover service. That’s a natural migration of the text, inasmuch as Passover has absorbed a lot of spring fertility-festival character and is thus the only place, in a modern post-Temple devotion, for what would have been a celebration of the reawakening of the earth. The fact that it also includes background on the events of the Exodus, which are the ostensible purpose of Passover, is a nice bonus.

But the text itself has one big mystery in it which has occasionally troubled those who’ve stopped to think about it. Namely, the beginning of the history, which is: “My father was a wandering (or fugitive) Aramean.” Who were the Arameans? They were a Semitic people who lived in the furthest northern reaches of Mesopotamia, in modern-day Syria most of the way to Turkey. This raises more questions than it might possibly answer, because that’s entirely the wrong part of the Near East for any of the patriarchs, whose ethnic and cultural referents were all from the south. Abraham probably would have identified as an Akkadian. But an interesting wrinkle is that the patriarchs did have kin who might have identified as Arameans: Namely, Abraham’s brother, and Isaac’s cousins, settled in Paddan Aram, an Aramite community. We don’t actually know where Paddan Aram is, unlike some Biblical sites (some sources suggest that it’s the same place as Harran al-‘Awamid, near Damascus, but there’s little evidence for that), but the name gives a good indication that it was in fact an Aramean settlement. This all matters because those cousins included Besuel, Laban, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. The latter three in particular are in fact ancestors of the house of Israel, but they’re mothers, not fathers. Jacob could be described as an Aramean on the maternal line, and in addition through his own long sojourn in Paddan Aram, and he’s the patriarch best described by the subsequent verses, but even his own Aramean connection is tenuous at best: Rebecca had long been outside of Aramea and part of Isaac’s Canaanite household, and Jacob himself was a fugitive to Aramea, not from it. So the phrase is a bit curious, because it seems there’d be better descriptors.

The recitation affirming the tithes is much more straightforward, because it eschews the historical background in favor of a list of the precepts followed. So of course the celebrant has to affirm that thee tithes have been given, and in addition that certain things have not been done with produce: consumption in mourning or a state of uncleanliness, or being “given to the dead”. The first two are pretty sensible extrapolations on cleanliness precepts we’ve seen before, where an unclean person or a mourner is restricted in certain ways, but I’m not even sure what specific act the affiant is denying in that third clause, but I don’t think it’s a prohibition we’ve seen before in the text.

Deuteronomy 27 describes the actions Moses wants the Israelites to take immediately upon entering Israel. Since he won’t be with them, it kind of makes sense for him to give marching orders, and presumably we’ll get a recap of some of this in the Book of Joshua. One commandment here is to get huge stones and carve the Law on them (presumably a subsection of the full Torah text), and set up an altar to God on Mount Ebal. This precedes the construction of the Temple, but nonetheless, the Deuternomical view (which may well be at odds with the actual early Israelite practice) is that worship in Israel was centralized from the start, so even before the construction of the Temple proper, there was still a central altar. He also wants the tribes to split into two groups, one standing on Mount Gerizim and the other on Mount Ebal, while the priests recited blessings and curses.

A peculiar note here: we know where both of these mountains are; they’re the northern and southern edges of the Nablus valley, off a ways to the northwest of Jerusalem. They’re a very odd place for the Deuteronomists to establish as the location of the original community center, because they’re not very convenient to either of the obvious places such a consecration could take place. If the consecration was to take place immediately on entry into the land, it’d want to be in the mid-to-south part of the Jordan Valley (we know this is supposed to be the putative entry point into the land, because Jericho is there). If the consecration was supposed to form the center of a newly conquered land, it’d make sense for the Deuteronomists to, using their powers of historical revisionism, place it in, or at least very close to, Jerusalem. Basically, Nablus doesn’t make much sense as the site for this ritual, but maybe the book of Joshua will illuminate that when we get a better feel for the progression of the conquest.

Incidentally, the Samaritan text indicates that the worship site should be build on Gerizim, not on Ebal, and that this site is not supplanted by the temple in Jerusalem, so Gerizim was (and is, I suppose, although there aren’t a lot of Samaritans left) a Samaritan holy site. So perhaps the whole Gerizim/Ebal episode is a vestige of a pre-monarchical place of worship on that location, but it’s odd that the Deuteronomists — who had no love for the proto-Samaritans of the anti-monarchical northern kingdom — would propagate a text legitimizing a northern worship site and practice.

Another peculiarity: we are explicitly told that half the tribes gather on Gerizim to pronounce a blessing, and half on Ebal for the curse, but when we get the explicit text in 27:15–26, there are only curses to be read against those who disobey laws, not blessings for keeping the laws. The Mishnah claims each curse had an associated blessing, which would be a lot more believable if we hadn’t already seen, like, 15 chapters worth of writings saying, basically, “Everything here is written down exactly as it’s supposed to be. Don’t ignore stuff that’s there or add stuff that isn’t.” The sins explicitly presented as curseworthy here are an odd lot: idolworship, of course, and a handful of random sexual immoralities of the incest and bestiality sort, and a few authentic social-justice concerns such as perversion of justice, moving property lines, and abusing the helpless, but there are also a few which are peculiar in their specificity. To wit, the two violent crimes condemned are assassination-for-pay (if I’m reading this right; it might also be acceptance of a bribe in capital cases) and secret manslaughter.

Chapter 28 is one long bastard’s-worth of Moses castigating the people of Israel. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, in terms of content: good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people, and all you have to do to be good is follow God’s very simple laws. This text has a rather dual structure with contrasting repetitions, however. The blessing for the Israelites if they follow the commandments occupies verses 2–14, and the curse if they do not is in verses 15–68. There’s a lot more curse than blessing, but the curse includes several explicit inversions of the blessing text. Verse 15–19 are more or less exact duplicates (in a slightly modified order) of verses 2–6, with “blessed” replaced by “cursed”, verse 7 is inverted in verse 25, verse 8 partially negated in verse 20, and so forth. The duality at least adds an element of poetic interest to what is otherwise merely verbal abuse.

As to that abuse: there’s the usual misfortunes of illness, famine, drought, and conquest, but with some colorful description and detail. For instance, instead of merely predicting drought, there’s reference to “heaven like brass and earth like iron”, referring, presumably to the dry hardness of metal, and “rain of dust” as the ground parches. Loving detail is devoted to the suffering of specific illnesses of fever, of madness, of boils, or blindness; to the conqueror raping your wives and eating your animals and enslaving your children; to famine caused by plant diseases, worms, and locusts. It’s the most animated we’ve seen Moses, and, damn, is he ever taken with this theme.

Verse 49–68 are a cheap trick we’ve seen before in Deuteronomy: prophesying what has already happened and backdating the sources. We’re fairly certain, as I’ve said before, that this text dates from the Assyrian exile, so by the time it was written, the Israelites had been an impoverished subject people for a while. The writing about the sufferings of the conquered, their abject poverty leading them to cannibalism and internal strife, their dispersal and their desperation gets an A for evocativeness but a D– in actual prophetic significance, ’cause they’d already been there by the time this was written. It’s all pretty evocative though, climaxing in the dreaded return to Egypt, capped with the indignity of the Hebrews being so desperate that they attempt to sell themselves as slaves, and don’t find any buyers. Harsh, dude.

The beginning of Chapter 29, which is thrown in with this parsha, is dull recapitulation, describing in the most barebones detail possible the events of Numbers, namely: that the Israelites wandered around the desert for forty years, and then defeated the kings Sichon and Og. The closest it gets to interesting detail is describing the wandering as a time of privation, with “no bread to eat and no wine to drink”. That’s technically true, as they ate manna and not bread, but it’s overstating the case a bit.

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

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: Responsive Readings (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8)

  1. Greg Sanders says:

    Huh, the wandering Aramean line is one i’d oft heard but never really pondered.

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