Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Moses Gives his Memoirs: Deuteronomy 1-6

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

In the case of Deuteronomy, I'm actually prepared to (sort of) accept some of the standard authorship claims, at least to the extent that this book really does purport to be in part the words of Moses, unlike the rest of the Torah. Moses's days are drawing to a close and the Israelites are getting ready to invade Canaan, so he knows he doesn't have much time left. He gathers all the Israelites together and delivers a series of speeches recapping the short history of Israel since liberation, the laws given to them by God, and their expectations and obligations in Canaan. It's an interesting approach, which lets the author present a coherent, organized version of history and the law rather than the haphazard jumbles of Exodus, Numbers, and to a lesser extent Leviticus.

Moses has grown bitter and self-absorbed in his old age, or perhaps he's just a little hazy on the details. For example, he takes credit for the creation of the judicial order (the system of judges and arbiters created way back in Exodus), even though the idea actually came from his father-in-law, Jethro/Reuel the priest of Midian (whom the Israelites have since massacred). Moses blames the Israelites for his own death sentence, skipping over his own failure - albeit a seemingly minor one - and saying angrily that "because of you the Lord became angry with me." After a lifetime of struggling with his fickle, reckless charges, Moses is angry and has come to blame them for his own discontent. It's a tragic end to a major Biblical figure. My Man's Bible, it should be noted, is of much help in skipping over the doom and gloom of these verses. In its "devotional" entry on Deuteronomy 1, it reminds me that the Bible proves that in God's eyes every human being has great worth and value, something clearly and blatantly contradicted by Numbers and to some extent Leviticus.

After he's done with the history, Moses moves on to some of the rules. Even through the burden of translation (a burden made heavier by the fact that even the more "readable" translations of the Bible are usually quite stilted), it is clear that whoever's recapping Moses's speeches was a superb writer, and/or Moses himself has indeed learned much since the days in Egypt when he begged God to find another public speaker. Is there any nation, Moses asks, which is greater than Israel? Who has more righteous laws? Is there a more powerful god? (The phrasing is rhetorical but would once again seem to hint at the underlying polytheistic cultural context.) At one point, Moses "call[s] heaven and earth as witnesses" that if the Israelites continue to sin, they will be severely punished. They will be compelled by invaders to "worship man-made gods of nood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell." But even in the worst oppression, God will redeem them: the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath." This speech returns us to a more positive view of the divine which isn't necessarily borne out by the Israelites's experiences in Numbers and parts of Exodus, but at least it sounds nice. In chapter 6 he delivers a much more famous line: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."

Because we're reading a summary thus far, we're missing most of the misogyny and sexism inherent in the other accounts. It's still there, though. And my Man's Bible brings it back to me in chilling fashion with an absolutely appalling entry on Deuteronomy 6, where parents are instructed to teach their children the laws as they themselves have learned them. Normally I don't judge the entries, just mock them, because they're beside the point and most readers presumably aren't holding this ridiculous and lamentable freakchild of holy writ and human stupidity, but this one is disturbing enough to bring up, in part because I suspect they may actually have hit on the sexist subtext of the Torah. And also, a recommendation to readers: please never buy an NIV new. It's owned by Zondervan, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. This means that the NIV is basically the Fox News version of the Bible.

The devotion is by someone named D. Bruce Lockerbie, who is currently a manager at PAIDEIA, a leadership training and consulting firm. At the time he wrote this he was an academic, at Wheaton College.

Lockerbie selects a verse from chapter 6, a strangely non-gender-specific command to "impress [God's commands] on [your children]. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." According to Lockerbie, this rule is given to men, not women. It is the father's duty, Lockerbie proclaims with great confidence, to "train and instruct" within the home. From this it follows with elegant logical certainty that fathers, but not mothers, are "representatives of God." That's a very convenient position to hold. I'll bet it gives a man extra weight in domestic disputes, assuming his pet woman has been suitably indoctrinated.