Saturday, April 26, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules Again: Deuteronomy 19-30

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

Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge...

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of the Law...

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.

There are, unfortunately, no more references to the rights of trees.

There are, however, more rules. It's mostly a rehash of things that have been said before, and likewise I've said most of what I wanted to say before as well. Along with the rules of war I spoke about in the previous post, Moses touches on the Levite sanctuary cities, witness procedures for murder trials, rituals to atone for unsolved murders (sacrifice a cow, naturally), stoning of rebellious children (Moses thinks this is a grand idea), some more sex rules, cross-dressing (this is an abomination, probably for the same reason that I suggested homosexuality was a social "abomination"), divorce (you can send your woman away if she "displeases" you), and even adequate latrine facilities for military camps.

A few laws make some sense from a social justice perspective. There are more restrictions on exploitative loans and debts. In chapter 23, Moses actually prohibits you from helping a master capture a lost slave. I'm guessing American slaveowners conveniently forgot about this verse during the 19th century. It's also going to be relevant in the future when I eventually get around to Paul's views on slavery in Philemon, where Paul - so much for the grand Pharisee that so many evangelicals think carefully observed the Jewish laws - breaks this very rule by openly sending an escaped slave back to Philemon. You can even wander through someone else's field eating their food, provided you don't put any in a basket and carry it away with you.

Moses repeats and adds in some sex and marriage provisions which are, as usual, problematic. Moses proclaims that you can execute a woman if you can prove that she wasn't a virgin when you married her. (Naturally, whichever man or men are responsible for this condition are not rounded up and stoned.) If you're wrong about her virginity, you have to pay a fine to the girl's father and stay married. If you're right, she gets executed. She would seem to lose either way. (The "proof," incidentally, is that there must be blood when you have sex the first time, which on its own is probably pretty easy to arrange if you're desperate.) Men, of course, do not have to be "pure" before marriage - they can have sex much more freely.

Moses also expands the adultery provisions to ban sleeping with someone's fiancée - as I suggested before, this is because sexual rights to a woman's body are a form of title to property and therefore certain forms of sex are violations of other men's property. Sleeping with unmarried and unengaged women is notably something not discussed, even in the exceptionally common case of prostitution. In a relatively inspired moment, Moses proclaims new rules on rape, as well, though his reasoning leaves a little to be desired. Rape does not require death for the victim, unless it happens in a city, because if it did, you would expect her to "scream for help." (The fact that no one heard any such scream is taken as proof of her consent to the act.) The most telling example for the property issue, though, is the regulation that follows: if you rape an unengaged girl, you have to marry her after paying a fine to the girl's father. This is because you have taken his property without asking for consent first. And you aren't allowed to divorce a woman that you've previously raped!

Moses gets grumpier and crankier as he goes along, so the rules are increasingly interrupted with admonitions to follow the rules strictly or risk incurring God's lethal wrath. Thus chapter 28 veers off into a wild rant on the suffering and evils that await sinners. The suffering at one point becomes so extreme that Moses uses the following stunning example of the lack of charity and social compassion which is to come: a greedy man will refuse to share the flesh of his children with his wife or his brothers, but instead will eat it all himself. Ultimately, Moses plays the ultimate trump card: the defeated Israelites will sail back to Egypt and beg to be returned into slavery. In an unusually lucid moment, Moses pauses for thoughts and the author declares that the Law belongs to the people, being a gift to them from God.