Monday, April 28, 2008

Moses's Swan Song: Final Reflections on Deuteronomy

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

Deuteronomy was a better written book and the Moses portrayed here has clearly learned how to deliver eloquent speeches, something he claimed he didn't know how to do in Exodus. That's understandable - he's had a few decades to practice. He's also angry, and bitter, and disappointed that his life as prophet of Israel - and indeed, so far, the life of the nation of Israel - hasn't turned out the way God originally promised. Moses has none of the gains of the priesthood under the new order, because as prophet he occupies a strange grey zone between man and God. It's fallen to him, time and again, to stand between God and the faithless people, with neither side really supporting him.

Beyond that, there isn't a lot of new material in Deuteronomy so there isn't a lot to say about it. Most of what's said has been said before, though not nearly so clearly, and not in such an organized fashion. The two major new sets of regulations I spoke of were the reform of the Sabbath, which was an interesting shift from a tax empowering the priesthood to a food redistribution system empowering all marginalized people; and the new rules of war, which are equally interesting but significantly less promising and positive.

The rules in Deuteronomy are pessimistic just as they were in Numbers, but when we separate Moses's long rants about Israel's sins, we can see a layer of intriguing pragmatism. Moses expects the Israelites to turn away from God and to emulate other nations - so he institutes a second set of regulations, a sort of divinely authorized fall-back position, intended to salvage what can be saved from an unfortunate situation. The Israelites should have no other king but God - but Moses expects that they will create a monarchy anyways, and so offers ways that this king can remain righteous in God's sight.

There's an interesting shift in the words of Deuteronomy which, among other things, really ought to have been enough to convince the literalists that Moses clearly wasn't part of writing this book. It starts from the perspective of the wandering Israelites, but as the text goes on, gradually shifts to a retrospective from the future - which might suggest that some of the additions, like the regulations for the monarchy, weren't added in until the kings needed some Biblical support to buttress their secular authority. At the end, the author looks back whimsically toward the old nation of Israel, noting sadly that there has never been another prophet like Moses. This shift is particularly interesting because the Israelites were supposed to be looking forward to a happy future in the promised land. The fact that the authors of Deuteronomy are looking back nostalgically to their time in the wilderness is an early hint that God's promised land experiment isn't going to be as successful as he has so far led us to believe.

(Which I guess wouldn't be surprising, because unfortunately, most of God's plans so far don't seem to have turned out well.)