Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Nine: Numbers 35-Deuteronomy 16
We have reached the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch – and the last of the books of Moses. Numbers closes with the Israelites reaching the promised land and the borders of the new nation being described. There is also a description of how the land will be divided (by lots) and in the differences between city-dwellers and suburbanites. Laws of marriage (intermarriage), inheritance, and the jubilee are reiterated. Deuteronomy picks up where numbers leaves off. I honestly have little to write, this week, because most of what happens in this section is a recounting of all that has happened so far, from the perspective of Moses. He is essentially on his deathbed, reminding the people about where they’ve been, what they have gone through, and what has been promised to them, so long as they remain faithful and obedient to their god and his commandments.
One God: Up until this point, the Israelite god is described as the true or supreme god, but there are quite a few concessions to the beliefs of others. The lingering cultural beliefs in multiple gods, and respect for the many nearby nations who do still hold those beliefs, had been begrudgingly tolerated while the Israelites were encouraged to focus on their own god, learn the new ways of this religion, and establish new laws and customs that would define them in contrast to the nations surrounding them. At this point, however, Moses firmly establishes that there is one god, and that all other beliefs in other gods are wrong, even an abomination worthy of death. The people are charged with teaching their children this most important law and are warned that the worship of other gods or idols, even be it a family member, will be punished severely. If anyone tries to turn your faith, god says, they shall be put to death.
Poor Moses: Listen, Moses (and his brother, Aaron, before he died) has a lot to deal with. He has spent decades leading these poor, tired, sometimes cowed and sometimes rebellious people through the deserts. From land to land, to place to place, Moses must keep control, keep god’s temper in check, and punish his people severely when they go too far. And now, as the people finally reach Canaan and begin preparing to settle themselves in a homeland, Moses finds himself a breath away from death. God certainly has a twisted sense of humor! Instead of spending his last days in a restful retirement, though, Moses “lectures” to his people, restating the important historical events of their time and reminding them about the key laws that he brought down from Sinai. A leader and a servant to the very end.
Deuteronomy: This is the first book in the Old Testament that comes not from the J, E, or P sources, but from a fourth source altogether. Legend has it that the book was found in a Temple sometime around 621 BC (2 Kings 22:8). The book was bound and presented to the young king, Josiah, who was so impressed by it that he treated it as prime law. This reinvigorated Yahvism, which was on the cusp of extinction; instead, this minority sect ascended to become the official religion of the land, named so by King Josiah himself. From thence, Yahvism would become Judaism, and would then disseminate further into Christianity and Islam. Quite the lucky find!
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Lebanon: Since this book and the end of Numbers spends time outlining the borders of what would become the physical land of Israel, it is interesting to consider what this land actually was. It seems Lebanon was the area of Canaan contained within two mountain regions. It remains, to this day, one of two nations (the other being Israel) that is not primarily Muslim. In the description is also the city of Azzah, which scholars believe is now Gaza. It turns out that this area was probably Greek by ethnicity, and its ancestors likely came from either Crete or Cyprus (which became Caphtor). The evidence for this includes a description of its people as uncircumcised as well as “People of the Sea,” which is how the Greeks were described.
God the Father: This part of the text (Deuteronomy 8) suggests explicitly for the first time that followers should think of god as a “father,” and to be reminded that he both fed and watered the people, as well as punished them when they acted wrongly. This is also a lesson for the future, or a promise that those who remain righteous will be rewarded but those who do not will be destroyed.
More Laws: Not really. A number of laws and customs are reiterated, but they have been shared many times and in many places up to this point. Rules for which foods can and cannot be eaten are restated, laws about the 7-year release of debts are given again. Reminders about the body (e.g. do not tattoo yourself or cut your hair), about tithing and sacrifice, and about offerings are given again. The most prominent new message, though, seems to be the one about monotheism and god’s wrath. It is stated many times in this part of Deuteronomy that followers of other religions should be destroyed without pity. This is an important departure from the way rival religions had been treated in the previous books.
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