Friday, January 05, 2007

On the Verge of a New Life

Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy reviews the whole story so far, and provides an updated formulation of the law.

The story of the forty-year journey in the wilderness is recounted in chapters 1-3 and 31-34. It ends with Moses' death. While it is difficult to track the exact timing of the events, it seems that they first arrived at the land they were to conquer after just two years, but because of their hesitancy and fear, and God's anger at them, they ended up wandering for another 38 years until that first generation had died off (see Deut 2:14)!

Moses' death just before they finally entered the promised land is portrayed as God's punishment, holding Moses responsible for his people's rebellion during that crucial moment 38 years ago. This seems a bit unfair. But the tone of the writing at the very end, describing Moses' climbing the mountain and seeing the promised land just before he died, is quite affectionate: "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel" (Deut 34:10-12).

I cannot help but think that the portrayal of his death as divine punishment was the writer's attempt to explain how he could have died before witnessing the final fulfillment of his mission. This unfortunate occurrence would seem to make no sense unless there was some way to explain that the Lord could have been unhappy with Moses. While I continue to be troubled by the "death as punishment" motif, at least it is consistent in this part of the Bible. But it is good that the story generally gets told in a more positive way now: that Moses gets a triumphant vision of the future from the mountain just before he dies. Now I better understand the Biblical context behind Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "mountaintop" speech.

I will refrain from commenting on the gruesome conquests thus far. (I have a feeling more such tales are to come.)

Despite being troubled by the tale of conquest, I must confess to being moved by much about the narrative. There is something deeply stirring about this kind of a story: a long journey in which God is trying to unite and guide a group of people to a life that can nourish them and a life in which they can build systems to keep them all reminded of what life is really all about, a life that keeps them connected to God. So much of how they structure this life is intended to account for the inevitable presence of human error, and yet correct for it. Structures and rituals are put into place to allow for healing and rectifying what may go wrong, and to keep people reminded of what is important.

It is really impressive to read this narrative that describes how all of this is formulated and put into place.

A huge portion of Deuteronomy recounts the law, but there are some changes from previous passages that describe this. The footnotes in the edition I read suggest that many of the changes soften some of the harsh edges of previous formulations.

This version of the law is preceded by this passage: "You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it" (Deut 4:2). It is no wonder that after the laws have been tested and refined for 40 years in the wilderness, Moses would have anxiety that further changes might destroy the original integrity of his own divine inspiration. It is a tension with any system of law: how much change is tolerable before some of the original ideals become undermined?

And, because I have been tracking formulations of the 10 commandments, here is the Deuteronomy version: Deut 5:7-21.
  • You shall have no other gods before me.
  • You shall not make for yourself an idol...
  • You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God...
  • Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy...
  • Honor your father and mother...
  • You shall not murder.
  • Neither shall you commit adultery.
  • Neither shall you steal.
  • Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife...or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
This list looks familiar! It must be the version that is commonly quoted.

After the rest of the ordinances and statutes are listed, this section ends with a blessing and a curse. The emphasis here is on the people's freedom to choose. Moses tries to persuade the people to choose well, and receive the blessing of God instead of the curse (Deut 11:26-28). The curses and blessings themselves are listed in chapters 27-28. The biggest danger the people face is falling into worshipping the wrong gods.

While I am distressed that this concern is translated by many into intolerance for other religious faiths, it can be read differently. When we make God into our own image, we do run the risk of losing touch with the highest and noblest ideals for guiding our lives, and it is true that when we lose touch in this way, we become most vulnerable to behaving in ways that bring on harm to ourselves and others. The plea to make sure that you are worshipping the "right" God is the plea to be ever vigilant in discerning the difference between our "base" desires and impulses, on the one hand, and noble ideals, on the other hand. By "base" I mean those unexamined desires and impulses that we have not yet reflected on and processed in a way that transmutes them -- that is, that brings them into harmony with those higher ideals that can be said to come from God. It is not, in my humble view, that some religious faiths get this wrong and others get this right. Within any religious faith, different interpretations are possible. And so it is not particular religious faiths that can be wrong or right, but specific interpretations of them that can get this wrong or right.

And so the curses can be read not as punishments for getting it wrong, but as consequences of getting it wrong. The reason it is better to get it right than get it wrong is that "wrong" actions just are those that lead to more unfortunate things happening. That's why it is generally better to avoid them, if we can.

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