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Friday Bible Blogging - Deuteronomy 21 to Deuteronomy 34

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 21 through 34 were the final chapters of Deuteronomy, and also the final chapters of the Pentateuch. As with just about all of Deuteronomy, these chapters were largely repetitious of previous books, but with some differences and modifications. It was mostly a combination of rules, promises of blessings if the Israelites followed the rules, and threats of punishment if they didn't. There were a few new rules in addition to the old ones. The book closed with the death of Moses, and the Israelites on the verge of entering the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 21

The opening verses of Chapter 21 included interesting instructions on what to do when a dead body was found "lying in open country", since there was no way to hold the killer accountable, but the blood guilt would still poison the land. After measuring the distance between the body and nearby towns, the elders from the nearest town have to sacrifice a heifer in running water and perform some rituals over the body. It's not the same as a normal offering though, since they have to break the heifer's neck as opposed to slitting its throat. (You know, I've been getting so used to reading the Bible that that last sentence hardly registered with me as to how violent Biblical rituals are until I stopped and thought about it for a second.)

Following that are verses that are a bit of a mixed blessing. They command that when a beautiful woman is among the captives of a conquered enemy, and a soldier wants to take her for a wife, he has to give her a full month to mourn her parents before he "may go in to her and be her husband". And if he isn't happy with her after that, he can't treat her as a slave. He has to let her go free. On the one hand, the verses are allowing soldiers to take captive women for their wives, but at least they provide some protection for the women.

After that were instructions on inheritance for someone with more than one wife. No matter which wife or child the man liked best, he had to honor the right of the first born son by giving him a double portion of the inheritance. So there are polygamy and birthright in the same verses. As an interesting sidenote, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) pointed out that many of the earlier characters from the Bible bypassed this rule, such as Isaac and Ishmael.

Following that was an extended description of the rule that disobedient sons were to be stoned to death.

The closing verse dealt with the corpses of executed criminals - the corpses could be hung up for people to see, but they had to be taken down that same day.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 22

Chapter 22 contained more rules, several of which are repetitious (if somewhat modified) of previous books.

There were rules against 'mixing' - no cross dressing, no eating a bird and its eggs if you find a fallen nest, no plowing with an ox and donkey yoked together, no wool/linen mixes for clothes, etc.

There were also extened rules on sex, rape, and marriage. Some of these concerned when a man married a young woman, and then accused her of not being a virgin. Her parents would present to the elders the sheet from the couple's wedding night. It was believed that a virgin would have bled and left the sheet stained (in fact, that's not always, or even usually, the case). If it was determined that the man was lying, then he was to be fined. If it was determined that the young woman wasn't a virgin, then she was to be stoned to death. So, not only was the punishment very assymetrical, but the judgment was based on incorrect medical knowledge.

The rest of the rules on sex and rape were similar to other books.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 23

The first verses from this chapter were excluding people from the "assembly of the Lord". None of the reasons for exclusion were under the control of the person being excluded. They included crushed testicles, cut off penises, being a bastard, or being the child of peoples God didn't like.

After that were verses on maintaining purity in an encampment during war. Anyone who had a "nocturnal emission" had to leave the camp for the night and couldn't come back until he'd washed himself. There were also explicit instructions to bury excrement outside the camp. "Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you."

There was a good rule that escaped slaves were not to be returned to their owners (a break from other Near Eastern societies from that period).

"Daughters of Israel" couldn't become temple prostitutes, and any money earned from prostitution could be brought into the house of the Lord.

There was a prohibition on charging interest to other Israelites, but not to foreigners.

There were rules to keep people from abusing previous rules that said that food had to be left in the fields for the poor. Only so much food could be taken, and most of it had to be eaten on site. Kind of like a smorgasboard - take all you want, but eat all you take.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 24

This chapter contained even more rules. To keep this review from growing too long, I'm going to quite trying to summarize all the rules, even those unique to Dueteronomy. These rules covered marriage, kidnapping, skin diseases, loans, and more.

There were a few good rules - you couldn't take a mill or millstone as a pledge, since a person's livelihood depending on those. You couldn't keep someone's cloak as a pledge since they needed it to keep warm. Laborers had to be paid on the same day that they did the work, etc.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 25

More miscellaneous rules. Here are a few highlights. Forty lashes was the limit for a punishment. A woman who tried to break up a fight by grabbing a man's genitals was to have her hand cut off. Weights and measures were to be conducted fairly. The "remembrance of Amalek" must be blotted out.

One section was rather interesting. If a man died, his wife was not to marry outside his family. "Her husband's brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband's brother to her..." The firstborn was to receive the dead husband's name. However, if the brother didn't perform his duties, the woman was to go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off his sandals, and spit in his face. "Throughout Israel his family shall be known as 'the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.' "

Deuteronomy, Chapter 26

This chapter mostly covered the festival of first fruits and giving tithes. It closed with a reminder to follow the Lord's commandments.

Chapter 26 is the end of the core of Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomic Code, but it's still not the end of Moses's second sermon.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 27

Chapter 27 dealt with what the Israelites were to do once they crossed the Jordan. First, they were to erect stones covered with plaster with the "words of this law" written on them. At that location, they were to build an altar and make some sacrifices.

Once in the promised land, half of the tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim to issue a blessing, and the other half were to stand on Mount Ebal to issue a curse.

Next came instructions for the Levites to issue a string of warnings, after which the people were supposed to respond, 'Amen!' As an example, these included such warnings as, "Cursed be anyone who makes an idol or casts an image, anything abhorrent to the Lord, the work of an artisan, and sets it up in secret," "Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road," and "Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law."

Deuteronomy, Chapter 28

The first 14 verses of this chapter were about all the good things the Lord would do if the Israelites obeyed his commands - blessings in the cities, fields, the "fruit of your womb", on the battlefield, etc. But the remaining 54 verses of the chapter were about all the bad things God would do if the Israelites were unfaithful. The list was rather extensive. It began with basically the opposites of the previous blessings, but then moved on to more extreme punishments, such as, "38 You shall carry much seed into the field but shall gather little in, for the locust shall consume it," "53 In the desperate straits to which the enemy siege reduces you, you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters whom the Lord your God has given you," and "68 The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer."

Throughout what I've read so far, the NOAB has commented on how similar some sections of the Bible are to treaties from that era. This chapter seems to be especially similar to one treaty in particular, the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon (VTE). In fact, certain wording in this section of Deuteronomy is taken almost word for word from that treaty. This explains the seemingly somewhat arbitrary curses. It didn't originally come from a belief that Yahweh would punish people willy nilly. It came from calling on a multitude of gods to use their specific powers to punish people who broke the VTE. For example, the blindness in verses 28 and 29 would have originally been due to Shamash, the Mesopotamian sun god. To see just how similar the wording was to that older treaty, just compare verse 23 of Deuteronomy, "The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron" to a section of the VTE which states, "May [the gods] make your ground like iron... Just as rain does not fall from a bronze sky."

There was a verse that a modern reader could interpret metaphorically, but which makes more sense considering the ancient cosmology of the Israelites and their neighbors, thinking that the Earth was flat and that the firmament was an actual dome above their heads, "12 The Lord will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings."

Deuteronomy, Chapter 29

The first verse of this chapter is usually assumed to be the closing of the second sermon. It would have made more sense to include it with the previous chapter, but remember that the chapter divisions weren't added until some time around the 13th century, so this is due to some later scribe or scholar.

The second verse began the third sermon of Moses. It's really just more of the same - remember everything the Lord has done for you including bringing you out of Egypt. Remember this covenant and obey the laws. If you're faithful, you'll be blessed. If you're not faithful, you'll be punished.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 30

God told the Israelites that even if he was to punish them, that he would not forget his promise to them, and that eventually he would restore them. Of course, this was a collective promise to the people, not to individuals. It would be their descendants who would benefit from God restoring them.

This chapter closed with God presenting the Israelites with the choice to either obey or disobey the Law, imploring them to obey, and ending the third sermon of Moses.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 31

The remainder of Deuteronomy is composed of 'appendices'. Chapter 31 was the beginning of the end for Moses. He was reminded that his death was near, and that he wouldn't be entering the promised land. He began the transfer of his authority to Joshua. He wrote down the Law and gave it to the priests to carry in the Ark of the Covenant.

God told Moses that he (God) already knew that the Israelites were going to turn aside from the covenant, and that they wold be punished. This 'prophecy' is probably the benefit of hindsight, since portions of Deuteronomy were most likely written after the Babylonian exile.

The final verses were instructions for Moses to teach the Israelites a particular song, so that they would memorize it to remind them of why things had turned bad for them down the road.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 32

Chapter 32 was composed almost entirely of the song that Moses was to teach to the Israelites. I'm sure it sounded better in the original Hebrew, and that much was lost in translation. But it was basically a summary of the previous few chapters put to verse - reminding the Israelites of all that God had done for them, and then berating the Israelites for being so wicked, "5 yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him, a perverse and crooked generation." After detailing the punishments and then promising to restore the Israelites, it closed with praises to the power and glory of God.

I know I'd discussed the polytheistic aspects of Deuteronomy in a previous entry, but this song contained one of the most explicit allusions to other gods.

8 When the Most High apportioned the nations,
   when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
   according to the number of the gods;
9 the Lord's own portion was his people,
   Jacob his allotted share.

Though later in the same song there was a claim that Yahweh was the one true god.

At the end of the chapter, God told Moses to climb Mount Nebo to get a good look at the promised land that he wouldn't be allowed to ender.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 33

Before ascending the mountain, Moses delivered one last speech to the people, giving them a blessing. He gave a separate blessing to each of the 12 tribes, then closed with praise of God and one last reminder that Israel was the chosen people.

One verse from the beginning of this chapter caught my eye.

The Lord came from Sinai,
   and dawned from Seir upon us;
   he shone forth from Mount Paran.
With him were myriads of holy ones;
   at his right, a host of his own.

This is going back to the old anthropomorphic version of God from previous books. He lived on Mt. Sinai, and had to physically travel to other locations. There was also his host of "holy ones", probably originally a council of gods.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 34

Moses took in the view from the summit of the mountain. After God told him one last time that the Israelites would have that land, Moses died. "6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day." Then Joshua took over leading the Israelites.

The final few verses were all in praise of Moses - that there had never been a prophet like him before, and that there would never be another again.


Perhaps it's because I'm reading the Bible straight through in order and I just read the full version of the story of Moses, but Deuteronomy seemed rather boring. So much of it was similar to what I'd just read in previous books, though it was interesting to read through the footnotes in the NOAB to see how much had been changed in Deuteronomy.

I think it's pretty evident that there were multiple sources for the books of the Pentateuch. Throughout, there were 'scars' left over from the blending of different materials, along with contradictions even within the same book. Deuteronomy was so different from the previous three books that it's especially clear that it came from a very different tradition.

God has undergone a gradual transition throughout the Pentateuch, but with most of the change occurring in Genesis. In the earliest chapters, God is very anthropomorphic. He literally walks through the garden with Adam and Eve, and has to travel to cities to see for himself what's occurring there. But God transitions to be less and less human-like. During the Exodus, he made his presence known with a pillar of cloud and fire. By the end of Deuteronomy, God still talks to Moses and Joshua, but his presence is usually not described in detail. And looking forward to the first few chapters of Joshua, God's presence is described even less - often as just the Ark of the Covenant. But keep in mind that this is only a trend. With the different sources that were combined together, more and less anthropomorphic versions of God appeared throughout the books.

As I've written numerous times throughout these reviews, the Bible does not present a very loving god like many modern Christians profess to believe in, but rather a god to worship out of fear.

I can also say that I almost feel a bit embarrassed to admit that I'd read through the entire Bible once before, but that it didn't shake my faith. As I described above, it seems obvious to me now that the Bible isn't a divinely inspired book, and that it doesn't present a particularly praise-worthy god. I wonder just how I could overlook all those problems the first time I read it. Perhaps it's because I was younger, and hadn't really learned to read critically, yet. Perhaps it was the indoctrination and the fear of God, and not wanting to question the reliability of the Bible out of fear that I'd be punished or end up in Hell.

With the Pentateuch behind me, next week is on to the Historical Books.

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.

Updated 2013-04-04: I added the quotes and accompanying commentary to chapters 32 and 33, revised the description in the conclusion of God's transition from more to less anthropomorphic, and fixed a few typos.

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