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Friday Bible Blogging - Deuteronomy 11 to Deuteronomy 20

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleChapters 11 through 20 of Deuteronomy continued on with Moses's second sermon. These were still largely repetitious of previous books, but did have a bit of new rules and modifications of old rules. But these still aren't the verses that most people are very familiar with.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 was mostly multiple variations on the theme, 'The Lord is God. Love him and follow his commands, and you will be blessed in the promised land.' It didn't even include that many threats compared to other sections of the Bible I've read so far.

I found one part interesting - stressing the difference between Egypt and the promised land, "10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. 11 But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, 12 a land that the Lord your God looks after." The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) says this was also to stress the Israelites reliance on God.


Deuteronomy, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 continued with instructions on what the Israelites were to do once they entered the promised land, but it now introduced a new concept. Whereas in previous books, Hebrews built altars wherever it seemed appropriate and made their sacrifices there, Deuteronomy dictated that sacrifices could only take place at God's dwelling place. After commanding that the Israelites were to destroy all the altars and other sacred objects of the previous inhabitants Moses said:

4 You shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways. 5 But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, 6 bringing there your burnt-offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill-offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. 7 And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you.

This talk of God's 'habitation' reinforced the idea that he was a distinct entity that could be located in one place. This isn't the modern conception of God being everywhere.

The remainder of the chapter mostly reinforced this idea. However, as the NOAB informs me, any time an animal was killed before this tradition arose, it was sacrificed to God on an altar. Now that a single location was designated for this, and the people would be too dispersed to travel to that location every time they wanted to eat meat, new rules were created to allow for the secular killing of animals.

The chapter closed with commands not to imitate the previous inhabitants of the land, including the claim that 'They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods." There is no evidence to suggest that child sacrifice ever occurred in those regions.


Deuteronomy, Chapter 13

This was one of the most violent chapters of Deuteronomy. It started by warning the Israelites that if prophets came along, even if they were prophesying correctly, and then tried to persuade the Israelites to worship other gods, that the Israelites shouldn't listen to them. Further, the prophets were to be put to death.

This is one of those passages in the Bible shielding believers from critical thinking. Evidence doesn't matter. Even if it appears that a prophet is getting his powers from another god, the Israelites shouldn't listen to him.

The next section dealt with family members trying to secretly convince somebody to follow another god, "even if it is your brother, your father's son or your mother's son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend". And again, the penalty was death, "Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. 9 But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10 Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God..." Interestingly, this supersedes the requirement from other sections that more than one witness is required for the death penalty.

The third section dealt with the inhabitants of a town turning away from God. If an investigation verified the charge, "you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it--even putting its livestock to the sword. 16 All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt-offering to the Lord your God. It shall remain a perpetual ruin, never to be rebuilt."


Deuteronomy, Chapter 14

This chapter including prohibitions against lacerating yourself or shaving 'your forelocks for the dead'. It then moved on to the dietary regulations, which were largely similar to those given already in other books. It closed with commanding the Israelites to provide a tithe to the Lord. Since these rules were in preparation of Israel becoming its own nation and spreading out geographically, it allowed people to sell their offerings in their home towns, and then use the money to purchase new offerings once they arrived in "the place that the Lord your God will choose".


Deuteronomy, Chapter 15

This chapter described the remission of debts that was to occur every seven years. It modified the rules on Hebrew slaves. Whereas Exodus made the timing up to individuals, letting Hebrew slaves go free after seven years of service, Deuteronomy made a common timing for all Hebrew slaves, so that they all went free at the same time every seven years. Moreover, it added rules to give the slaves gifts at the time they gain their freedom. There was still the option for a slave to become a slave for life.

There was an interesting contradiction right within the chapter itself. Verse 4 read, "4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy..." But then verse 7 said, "If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour." Granted, verse 7 is a nice sentiment, but it doesn't exactly fit in with poverty having been eliminated.


Deuteronomy, Chapter 16

The major portion of this chapter was concerned with festivals, such as Passover and the festival of booths. In keeping with the theme of centralization, the sacrifices for these festivals were to take place "at the place that the Lord will choose". Moreover, "Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths."

There was a bit of information on appointing judges, with the worthwhile directive that they weren't to accept bribes or show partiality.


Deuteronomy, Chapter 17

The first two thirds of this chapter were mainly to do with a person who has broken the Lord's covenant by worshiping other gods. The punishment was death. However, this time it was back to requiring at least two witnesses. If the case was too difficult to determine, then it was to be taken to the levitical priests and the top judge who would decide - a kind of Biblical Supreme Court.

The last part of the chapter was about kings. First of all, kings were permitted, "you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose." Just pretending that the Bible actually was the inspired word of God, it would have been nice to have seen instructions to set up a democracy or a republic. Having wording about divinely chosen kings set up a mindset that allowed monarchs to maintain their positions and retard the development of better forms of government. But at least this section put restraints on the king - he wasn't to abuse his position to make himself excessively wealthy. And the king was still bound by God's Law.


Deuteronomy, Chapter 18

Chapter 18 began with rules for Levites and what they were to receive from the people (since Levites had no property of their own). Next came admonitions to not "imitate the abhorrent practices" of the previous inhabitants of the promised land. Those abhorrent practices included anyone "who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practises divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead."

The closing verses of this chapter dealt with prophets. The Lord told the Israelites that he would provide them with future prophets, but that they must take care to only follow true prophets, and not false ones. There was a bit of problem in how this would have played out in practice, since the only way to determine if a prophet was legitimate or not was to wait to see if his prophecies came true (contradicting chapter 13). What were the people to do in the meantime if the prophet gave them instructions supposedly from God - how would the people know they were really following God's wishes, and not a false prophet?


Deuteronomy, Chapter 19

Chapter 19 described the refuge cities*, though in a slightly different manner than Numbers, and without actually calling them 'refuge' cities. The Israelites were to initially set up three refuge cities. If the Israelites remained faithful to God and he enlarged their territory to the full extent of his promise, then they were to add three more refuge cities.


Deuteronomy, Chapter 20

This chapter was about waging war against other nations. First, the Israelites were told that even if their enemies had a larger army, "you shall not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you..." Next came some rules that were actually kind of nice, at least with a charitable reading. Anybody who had a brand new house, or a new vineyard, or fiance, was to go back and leave the battle, so that he wouldn't have to risk dying before he could enjoy those things. Also, anyone who was afraid was to leave the battle, "or he might cause the heart of his comrades to fail like his own." The less charitable interpretation is that the potential soldier was told to leave the battlefield out of fear that he would have divided loyalties, not out of any thought of well being for the soldier.

But after that came rules that weren't so nice. When the Israelites first approached a new town, they were to offer it terms of peace. But the terms were that the town "surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you in forced labour." Any town that had the audacity to defend itself, "you shall besiege it; 13 and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 14 You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil." But that was only for far away towns. "But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive."

The final verses of this chapter prohibited the Israelites from destroying the trees in the vicinity of a besieged town, "Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?" They were only allowed to chop down what was need to build their siege-works, and then only the trees that wouldn't produce food.

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There were a few new rules in these verses to help break up the monotony of merely repeating what had come before. And some of the rules were even pretty good ones, though there were also some pretty bad rules in there, as well.


New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


*In case you're unfamiliar with the concept and haven't been following these entries week by week, a refuge city was where somebody who had killed another person could flee to and be safe from retribution from the victim's family. Once a trial had been completed, if the death was found to be accidental, then the killer could stay in the refuge city for a certain period, and the victim's family wasn't allowed to get vengeance. I wrote a bit more on this concept when reviewing Numbers Chapter 35.

Updated 2013-03-18 Fixed a few typos and added the footnote about refuge cities.

Comments

It's quite scary to read what is written in Deuteronomy, and seems very similar to what we hear these days about some fundamentalist rules of sects of another rather famous religion, and their interpretation of their own holy book. I have a question though. What do modern Jewish people make of this sort of text? I have never heard of them saying we should all be following these rules. Do you have any idea re the official position of the Jewish religion's hierarchy in Israel? I may have said this in the past, but you have a thought provoking site here and I should check it out more often.

It's not just Deuteronomy. Leviticus and Numbers are pretty bad, too. And I had just about the same thought reading them as you pointed out - this is no religion of peace.

I'm not sure of the mainstream Jewish position, but I'd imagine that it's much more mellow than in ancient times. If I have time to research it a bit more, I'll leave another comment.

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