Monday, July 21, 2014

Deuteronomy: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, and then summarize it in my own words.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Bible.

Not much happens in the book of Deuteronomy, plot-wise, until the very end when (spoiler alert!) Moses dies.  The book is basically a re-telling of the adventures of Israel, as was told in Exodus and Numbers.  Most of the book is written in first person, from the perspective of Moses as he re-counts Israel’s history so far—reminding them of their laws, and encouraging them to stay faithful to God.  If they obey God’s laws, they will take possession of the Promised Land.  If they disobey God’s laws, they will suffer and wander in exile and die.  The book continually emphasizes the covenant (or contingent agreement) between Israel and God.  If they obey, they will prosper.  If they disobey, they will suffer.

Deuteronomy also offers a bit of commentary on the events of Exodus and Numbers, and complicates the admittedly scary picture of God we find there.  God is described as both “a jealous God” and “a compassionate God.”  God is described as, astonishingly, a God of love.  The reason Israel has suffered so much is “Because he loved your fathers, therefore he chose their descendants after them.”  The reason he has smited them so much was to discipline them, as a father disciplines a son.  Deuteronomy is very repetitive, almost like a song or poem whose main theme is “Obey: prosper…Disobey: suffer.”

"Moses Receiving the Law and Reading the Law to the Israelites" anonymous, circa 840

God explains why he is about to let Israel wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan: they are wicked, and have worshipped other gods.  When Israel conquers Canaan, they are to kill everyone, and destroy all their idols and altars.  God is not into religious tolerance.

The God of Deuteronomy is a God of both justice and mercy.  God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows his love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.”  Israel is also commanded to be both just and merciful.  Laws concerning poverty are actually quite radical.  Every seven years, all debts are to be forgiven.  Consequently, “there shall be no poor among you,” because “you shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and the poor in your land.”

Moses shares some new laws with Israel, to fit their new circumstances.  If (and when) they have a king, he is not to take multiple wives or hoard wealth, so that “his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen.”  In short, Israel’s kings must be humble, and not too wealthy.  Regarding warfare, Israel is to utterly destroy everyone in Canaan.

There are lots of really weird laws too.  Cross-dressing is forbidden, as is castration.  If two men are fighting, and the wife of one man grabs the other guy’s balls, her hand must be cut off.

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses writes a song, blessing all the tribes of Israel.  Then he ascends a mountain and is allowed to view (but not enter) the Promised Land before he dies, at age 120.  Before his death, Moses names Joshua as his successor.  It is Joshua who will lead Israel on their conquest of Canaan.

"Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar" by James Tissot

Stay tuned for some action-packed warfare in Joshua: a Book Report…

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