Sunday, April 27, 2008

Moses Departs the Field: Deuteronomy 31-34

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

Moses's swan song is coming to a close and in these final lectures he tries to set up Israel to function after he's gone. He is, as he notes at the beginning of chapter 31, now 120 years old, "and I am no longer able to lead you." He appoints Joshua to lead the Israelites forces into Canaan, and appoints the Levite priesthood to handle the religious duties, formally transferring all of the written manuscripts of the law into the priests' hands. God summons Moses to one last conference at the porta-temple, where he promises to give Moses some peace, although he adds that the people will soon begin to worship other gods. In what has become a familiar refrain, God promises to turn his face from the sinful Israelites.

Spurred on by this disappointing meeting, Moses delivers a particularly vicious "song" to the Israelites in chapter 32, prefaced by yet another prophecy that "after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt."

The poetry that my translations calls "The Song of Moses" is a most depressing affair. Moses proclaims the word of God, then laments that the people are shamelessly corrupt, "warped and crooked." God blessed the early sons of Israel immensely, giving them "the heights of the land," the "fruit of the fields," and "doney from the rock." They grew fat, and then wicked; God was angry and rejected them. Israel remains "a nation without sense." But eventually God will have compassion on the downtrodden Israelites; he will proclaim to them that "there is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand." A very cool conclusion, after a very pessimistic speech.

After Moses is speaking, God summons him again, this time to Mount Nebo, where he is to die. Before going, Moses blesses the tribes, a very positive affair compared to the speech and one which doubtless contains many inspirational quotes. Finally he climbs the mountain, alone this time. God shows him the promised land one last time, and then he dies. Despite this, the ending to Deuteronomy is well written. Moses dies; Joshua takes his place but, the author laments nostalgically, no one could take the place of Moses at the head of Israel. "For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel."