Sibble Saturday: Two for the Price of One (Deuteronomy 29:9–31:30)

This week you get twice as much Torah as usual, firstly because I’m behind and I’m ready to be done with Deuteronomy, and second because פָּרָשַׁת נצבים (“Standing” portion) and פָּרָשַׁת וילך (“And he went” portion) are both very short.

The quick snarky summary: You’re entering a covenant now. You might’ve thought you already did that a couple times, but this is the Real Deal. All you have to do to not fuck it up is not worship idols. Really it’s very simple, and I’m writing it down so that you can’t possibly forget it. Look, I’m leaving Joshua in charge. You’ll listen to him, right? Hey, God’s got a message for me. And that message is: y’all are gonna screw this one up. In spite of me, in spite of what I’m writing down, and in spite of Joshua. Seriously, I don’t know why I bother.

Moses’s narrative is winding down here, and one major theme is continuity: how does the Israelite nation continue after him. Much of Chapter 29 is thus taken up with the ramifications of a new covenant with God. It’s not actually that new; like so much of Deuteronomy, this is reiteration, but here Moses is claiming that a new covenant is under way, with penalties for those who break it. And, of course, the big way to break it is idolworship, so there’s again a specific reference to how the Israelites have and will continue to have interactions with non-Israelites, and their outlandish worship practices. These particulars are what the nation of Israel is sharply forbidden from emulating. As with so much in Deuteronomy, this repetition is probably of a contemporary message: this isn’t Moses warning the Israelites about assimilation, it’s the Deuteronomic redactors of the Assyrian exile warning the Israelites about assimilation. Which is a hell of a more credible threat when you’re not the majority culture in your land.

The actual imprecations here are nothing new in their general wrath-and-fury predictions of evil for those who go astray, but there’s some unteresting choice of language and secondary themes. In 29:18, for instance, in speaking of the universality of God’s judgment, there’s a peculiar idiom which translates as “moist and dry alike” to describe all things.

Also, in describing the destruction to be wrought, an analogy in made to four ruins: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim. This is actually pretty interesting to me, since Genesis 18 and 19 only mentions Sodom and Gomorrah by name, and Zoar as untouched. The Wisdom of Solomon, an apocryphal work, names all five cities of the alliance from Genesis 14 (including Zoar). Here we are specifically given the names matching four of the allied cities, so this is the first indication that those cities way back in Genesis 14 were actually all part of the destruction of the cities of the plain.

One interesting other feature of this warning is the peculiar conflation of individual and community sin. The “moist and dry” bit in 29:18 hints towards indiscriminate punishment, and there’s an intimation throughout that the exile is punishment of the whole community for the sins of the few, but on the other hand, several verses try to make punishment seem very individual, speaking of God raging against individuals, and singling them out for misfortune. So thematically I’m seeing some inconsistency. Verse 28 sort of tries to smooth over the gap: anything someone does that the community doesn’t know about will be between them and God and they’ll get their just deserts personally, but if the community countenances public misbehavior, well, then, it’s widespread-smitin’ time.

Chapter 30 begins in a prophetic vein. When (not if!) the people Israel disappoint God and get banished, they’ll eventually return and be brought back in peace and prosperity. The conventional reading of this section, like the conventional reading of most far-future redemption of Israel, is eschatological, but it’s entirely possible that the Deuteronomists just wanted to inject a bit of hope into their grim description of banished reality. But this is definitely a forerunner of aspects of Judaism which would become much more significant in other texts (particularly Isaiah).

The end of Chapter 30 is a pep talk, which would ordinarily be welcome but seems directly at odds with what Moses just said. The gist of this talk is that the Law is really easy to follow: it’s been delivered directly to them, and they don’t have to undergo wild contortions to learn it, so really, it’s in everyone’s best interest to obey it. Yes, that’s very nice, and convincing — and apparently completely pointless, since he just explicitly described the gathering-in after the inevitable dispersal. The Israelites are going to fall into sin, as has been explicitly presented as a certainty, and for the prophet who prophesied that to spend time exhorting them strongly to not sin is either a waste of time, an internal inconsistency, or both.

Chapter 31 leaps directly into a fact which the text has mostly been dancing around: namely, that Moses is really old and is going to die. Incidentally, the timeline here might be a bit tricky to reconstruct in a way that makes the ages make sense: if Moses is 120 years old at the time of his death, wouldn’t that have made him 80 years old at the time of the Exodus? Just how much time passed in the second and third capters of Exodus? And if Moses is old, shouldn’t his father-in-law Jethro, who traipses around with them for a while and then goes his own way, be even older (Unless Tzippora was considerably his junior, which is possible). There are ways to make the timeline work, but it’s odd how many major characters in the Torah have no youth or even middle age. Abraham didn’t do much of anything for the first 80 years of his life either.

But, anyways: Moses is old, and Joshua is going to be the next leader. God’s on his side, and has promised victory. Verses 9–13 take this to its logical conclusion, with Moses writing out the Torah and giving it to the community. In addition to the actual written law, there’s an injunction to actually read the damn thing on every seventh Sukkot. Again, this ties in with Deuteronomic principles we’ve seen: cultural purity and stasis. Fundamentally, Judaism since the Deuterocanonical revision is deeply tradition-obsessed, and this requirement to read the scrolls left in the keeping of the priesthoods is another expression of this centralized, authoritarian impulse. Incidentally, although I’m hard on these guys, Judaism might very well not exist today without the Deuteronomists. The thing about authoritarian worship of the written Law, and a hard line against assimilation? It works. Without these obsessions, Judaism probably would’ve been just another monolatralist Semitic group which happened to worship a specific god (יהוה was almost certainly a variant name of some member of early Semitic pantheons). You’ll notice most of those religions aren’t around any more, because practice tends to mutate. The idea of hard-line codification of practice and active anti-assimilationism was actually a pretty powerful and novel cultural development, and it definitely contributed towards the long-term cohesiveness of Judaism (which turned out to have fairly profound far-reaching effects when Judaism formed the substrate of Christianity, which was not initially deeply concerned with ritual and ideological purity, but adopted the notion pretty quickly).

So, anyways, after this establishment of ritual purity practices, God immediately tells Moses it doesn’t matter anyways. From verse 16 to 21, God is banging the same old drum, about how the Jews will turn from their practices, and be forced into exile. Now, again, the weird dichotomy between the exhortation towards ritual purity in verses 9–13 and the fatalistic view that cultural purity is doomed to fail is easily explained by a Deuteronomic viewpoint. These two things appearing in immediate sequence in an interaction between Moses and God is absurd. But it makes perfect sense as a narrative directed at a post-exilic Jewish community: ritual purity is important because of what transpired when it failed.

Verses 16–30 are also a segue into the next parsha, which is an extended poem (or song, or psalm; basically, it’s a piece of versified text, and whether it is actually sung or not is arguably beside the point). This song is supposed to be a prophecy, so it’s more of the woe-and-dispersal narrative. In introducing this song, the justification given is that the community, already regarded as colossal fuckups who don’t do as they’re told in the presence of a strong leader, can only get worse in the absence of that strong leadership.

So, next week: the prophetic song of Moses. This will be near-indistinguishable from the minor prophets who will rail against the iniquities of Israel.


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

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