Thursday, March 10, 2011

These are the words

There is something exquisitely theatrical about Deuteronomy (I suppose Vanhoozer is right on that one). This is not simply a restatement of the law given to the Israelites. It is Moses' great farewell speech, rounding out the Pentateuch with a glimpse of the future to come. The book flows beautifully from a recounting of Israel's journey through the wilderness to a series of exhortations to remember the commandments diligently, followed by a detailed examination of those commandments, then a dramatic enactment of the covenant, and finishing with Moses' song. The epilogue with a bold summary of Moses' life: "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face."

I wish I could read through this book in one sitting. It isn't necessarily too long to do, but it's just long enough that time doesn't always allow it. One thing I find incredibly amusing about the modern Christian reading of the Old Testament law is how people are overwhelmed by how long it is. What I find remarkable is how much the opposite is true: this law is profoundly concise. Considering a single bill in the U. S. Congress can be more than 2000 pages, it is totally laughable that anyone would balk at the number of commandments in Torah. What I am getting at here is that each book in Torah deserves to be read as a whole, perhaps in a single reading or even narration. (What kind of insight might we gain if we listened to a professional actor read the whole of Deuteronomy as a dramatic monologue?)

There are three themes that seem to stick out at me as I read through Deuteronomy. The first is right there in the first line of the book: "these are the words." This phrase appears at several points throughout the book, and it becomes a theme through Moses' commandments to treasure these words:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (6:6-9, cf. 11:18-21)

On the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and cover them with plaster. You shall write on them all the words of this law when you have corssed over, to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. So when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall cover them with plaster. And you shall build an altar there to the Lord your God, an altar of stones... You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly. (27:2-8)

Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. Moses commanded them: "Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. (31:9-10)

When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, "Take this book of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God; let it remain there as a witness against you." (31:24-26)
The words themselves are sacred. They function as the means by which the Israelites will live in the land which they are about to receive, for "one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes form the mouth of the Lord." (8:3) They signify to Israel the collective experience of having encountered the Lord first-hand, when he spoke to them out of the fire on Mount Sinai (5:22, 10:4; cf. Exodus 20). The written word takes on a special meaning of its own. God's own words were written on stone tablets. The words that Moses spoke were written in a book, and commanded to be written in stone, as well. These written words transcend the particular time and space in which the words were first given, serving as a bridge between future generations and the generation of Israelites led by Moses.

The second theme is best stated in the words of 30:19--"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." (Th emphasis, here and in the following, is mine.) The book is riddled with numerous examples of such exhortations.
So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. (4:1)

Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. (6:3)

This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe, so that you may live and increase, and go in and occupy the land that the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. (8:1)
There are many other examples, I believe. (See, in particular, 28:1-14.) Note that it says, "Choose life." Human agency is an essential part of God's covenant with his people. But the more important word here is life. This is the basis of all ethics; this is the basis of all civilization. The vision Moses presents in Deuteronomy is one of flourishing: "The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you." (28:11) The essence of justice is that it corresponds with flourishing, whereas the essence of evil is that which deprives causes death and decay. This can be seen throughout the whole law.

A third theme that jumps at me in Deuteronomy is, of course, the promised land. But it isn't just the land that is a big deal; it's the purity of the land.
When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, "It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land"; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (9:4-5)
By implication, if Israel pollutes the land, the same fate will befall them (see 28:15-68). It is because the land must be purified that they must utterly wipe out the nations living in it:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you--the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you--and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with the: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (7:1-6)

There is a tremendous sense of longing in these passages--longing for evil to be utterly obliterated. It hearkens back to what I called the "baptism of the world," the Genesis flood account. There is sorrow in God's heart that he even made human beings. So he utterly obliterates them: yet not all of them, since he preserved Noah, whose descendants also became wicked. So it will be with the peoples of Canaan; not all of them will be obliterated, as this passage suggests.

It is easy, I think, to either be overly judgmental or to refuse to acknowledge the difficulty of these words. Because we no longer live in warrior cultures, are we therefore superior? Does not evil have to be dealt with, sometimes with violence? It appears quite foolish to me (and it certainly shows very little consistency with Scripture, if that matters) to insist on pacifism. The simple answer to whether or not killing some humans can actually promote the flourishing of human life is, "Yes."

Yet the idea that one would have to wipe out ever trace of a civilization in order to rid the land of evil--well, we know this never really works, because evil still remains in every human heart. It also appears unjust for many reasons. Do the children suffer for the sins of their parents? (This would contradict 24:16, for instance.) Is it ever right to kill women and children in battle, as demanded by 20:16? (This commandment is followed by an injunction against cutting down fruit-bearing trees, a fact which simply bewilders me.) And ultimately, can Moses really justify going in and wiping out nations which did not attack the Israelites? What is it about that particular land that makes it justifiable to wipe out the nations which are polluting it? Moses gives no answers, because it is not even a question in the text: God promised it to Abraham, and that's that.

This is me wrestling with the text. Doubtless some will wonder why I even bother with this "bronze age mythology," while others will wonder how I can be so blasphemous in criticizing a sacred text. Perhaps at some point I'll be able to respond to both parties, but at this point, this is me wrestling with the text.

I thought I'd end with a few remarks regarding modern Christian ideas about the Old Testament law. Here, I think, it matters very greatly how you choose to read the Bible. If you take for granted that it all fits together as one coherent whole, then I think you face several obstacles in genuinely understanding Deuteronomy. You have to have some amazing theological dexterity to actually make Deuteronomy work with the message that many Christians bring to this text. Here's why I think so.

First, the law, as taught by Moses, was seriously meant to be followed. It is simply not a lens through which we are meant primarily to see our absolute sinfulness. It never says that it is, and in fact it tries to indicate just the opposite.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (30:11-14)
There it is, plain as day. This book was meant to be followed. Not that Moses actually expected the Israelites to follow it: "For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, turning aside from the way that I have commanded you. In time to come trouble will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands." (31:29) Why was Moses so pessimistic about Israel's faithfulness? Was it original sin? Was it total depravity? Moses never appeals to theological categories; his evidence is simply his first-hand experience of his people: "If you already have been so rebellious toward the Lord while I am still alive among you, how much more after my death!" (31:27) There is nothing in the law that requires absolutely perfect obedience--hence the whole sacrificial system, which is meant to atone for even unintentional sins. What Moses was saying about Israel was that they were prone to completely disregard even the basics.

Second, the law, as taught by Moses, was meant to be followed forever. "You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always." (11:1) Over and over again, Moses repeats that the Israelites should keep the entire law, saying, "You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you." (4:2) Now, I simply do not know how to deal with this as a Christian. Jesus rescinded some commandments (e.g. food laws) and added others (e.g. no divorce). If we truly respect this text as it stands, we cannot pretend there is perfect continuity. Does Jesus have the authority to reinterpret the law, or not? If he does, fine! There is no reason why Moses should stand if "something greater than Moses is here." But that means Moses was wrong, and if Moses was not wrong, Jesus was wrong. Not completely wrong, not utterly wrong, just wrong, as in, not right, at least not totally right. As in, I don't see what it would mean to take every single word of this as "authoritative," unless you mean something quite different from the classical orthodox Protestant meaning of "authoritative."

Christians try to make Jesus harmonize with Moses in precisely the wrong way. They suggest Moses was one part of God's plan, and Jesus was another. Finished with phase one, on to phase two. I think this is a tragic misreading of both Moses and Jesus. They are really talking about the same thing: life. Neither Moses nor Jesus ever said, "Do these things so that you will earn merit before God." Neither ever said, "These commandments are really just mirrors to help you see how sinful you are." Neither ever said, "These commandments are open to interpretation." Yet both said, essentially, "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity." (30:15) It is precisely in this powerful agreement that we find what tension there happens to be. It would be wrong to overestimate the tension: there is far more in common than there are differences. Yet we do harm to ourselves by inventing stories to harmonize the two, as if there were not something perhaps to be learned about God from the tension.

Indeed, maybe there is hope in knowing that our understanding of God's law might grow over time. I do not know whether Moses would be disappointed, or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!