Friday, April 25, 2008

God Wants a State After All: Deuteronomy 16-18

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

God has tried to cut off a permanent goverment structure aside from the priests in the past, but Moses goes back on that in Deuteronomy. He calls for the reappointment of judges and officials, who will "judge the people fairly"; and law courts to resolve those issues that puzzle the judges. The judges are given authority to interpret the law of Moses; "you must act according to the decisions they give you at the place the Lord will choose. Be careful to do everything they direct you to do. Act according to the law they teach you and the decisions they give you." God is creating a permanent common law court system, supposedly.

More dubiously, Moses calls for the appointment of a king. He predicts that the Israelites will eventually grumble that they should have "a king over us like all the nations around us," after which the Israelites must appoint a fair and competent king who is not a foreigner. He must not "acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the return to Egypt to get more of them." He must not "take many wives." He must not "accumulate large amounts of silver and gold." He must write a personal copy of all of the laws, and read it every day.

The Deuteronomy passages here are both a lot less pessimistic about human nature, and a lot more pragmatic about Israelite society, than the preceding books. This king is not God's first choice - specifically it is someone who will be appointed only if and when the Israelites decide they want to emulate their pagan neighbours. But the Israelites shouldn't want to emulate their pagan neighbours - so the kingly government is something that will only be established as a concession once they have fallen too far into sin.

Moses continues in this vein by instituting some critical reforms to the priesthood. Recall that Numbers created a careful hierarchy in which the Levites weren't full priests - only the descendants of Aaron's line were. Now, Moses specifies, every Levite may be a priest. "The priests, who are Levites - indeed the whole tribe of Levi" will take charge of the sacrifices and, of course, take their commission from each in turn. All Levites have been chosen "to stand and minister in the Lord's name always."

Moses also proclaims that another prophet will eventually be raised up by God. Unsurprisingly Christians take this to mean that Moses is prophecying the coming of Christ, which I suppose is plausible, although Moses is fairly vague. He just says the new prophet will be "like me," which Christ isn't really.

There will also be lesser prophets coming, Moses says, and he proposes a test to ensure that they're honestly the mouthpieces of the Lord: if what they predict comes true, then they speak for God. This is a curious statement; a few chapters ago, Moses warned that some prophets would make correct predictions but still speak against God. I guess prophecy was as complex an affair then as it is now.