Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Ten: Deuteronomy 17–Joshua 4
Deuteronomy closes with Moses reminding his people of all the good god has done for them and of all the laws that must be kept if the people are to honor god and stay in his favor. Failure to keep god’s laws could result in anything from plagues to banishment to total annihilation, so the last few chapters are, much like the last couple of books, reiterations of all the laws and customs, as well as who is responsible for what (such as the priests acting as leaders, doctors, judges, etc.). At the very end of the book, after Moses has shared his final wisdom with the Israelites and prophecies blessings and curses, god tells him to go up on Mount Nebo, where he can see all the land that will become Israel. Here, Moses dies alone with god, who buries him. God raises up Joshua to replace Moses as leader, and Joshua begins the work of preparing his people to cross the river Jordan and invade Jericho.
One God: As in the previous chapters of Deuteronomy, one of the most prominent messages is that the people of Israel must commit to serving and worshiping only one god. As such, anyone who worships other gods or idols, such as the sun and moon, must be put to death. The priests who are compiling this part of the bible are clearly struggling to deal with some continued interest in polytheism; including strict laws and severe punishments for such dual-beliefs, along with assimilating important traditions into this new faith, is a surer way to gain full compliance with the laws of Yahvism (monotheism – Abrahamic). On the bright side, it takes 3 witnesses to prove someone is guilty of worshiping other gods, so at least a single spiteful neighbor would be somewhat prevented from easily settling a grudge (or stealing his neighbor’s wife/land/cattle/daughter, etc.)
Good Laws, Bad Laws: Deuteronomy reinforces some of the laws pertaining to gender constructs, family obedience, clothing, and sexual encounters. For example, Deuteronomy 21:11-13 tells us that a woman taken captive can be taken as a wife after thirty days, but she cannot be enslaved or made a prostitute. That’s pretty cool. In addition, Deuteronomy 22:25-26 explains that rapists will be put to death. Hoorah! On the other hand, Deuteronomy 21:21 notes that “stubborn” or disobedient children should be stoned to death by the city, and that “cross-dressing” is an abomination (22:5). There are a whole bunch of other new laws outlined in this part of the book, as well as reminders about old standards. Some are logical and some are, well, weird.
Song of Moses: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 is written as a poem, often referred to as “Song of Moses.” Just before Moses is to die, god tells him that he should translate their history and laws into song, which he would then share with his people, who could then teach it to their children and grandchildren, etc. In many ways, this is perhaps the earliest iteration of a didactic “hymn,” a song that praises god while incorporating instructions from god. The Song of Moses relays the entire history of the Israelites, including their escape from Egypt and their 40-years’ wandering in the desert. There are reminders of faithfulness and faithlessness, as well as promises of blessings to the future faithful and curses to those who lapse.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Equal Punishment: Deuteronomy 19:21 gives us the famous passage about punishing people for transgressions. “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” This chapter also outlines some caveats, however, including the difference in punishing someone who accidentally kills another versus the punishment for intentional murder. One interesting element is the punishment for bearing false witness. Essentially, whatever the person bearing false witness hoped to accomplish, so shall be his punishment (e.g. If someone falsely claimed that a neighbor stole his goat in hopes that he himself would get a free goat or the cost of it returned to him, that man would instead have to pay up the same to the person he falsely accused.)
12 Stones: Early in the book of Joshua, 12 priests are called to stand in the river Jordan and hold back the waters while the Israelites cross it (similar to the parting of the Red Sea). These priests then each take a stone and place them in a “circle of stones.” This is a tradition older and more diverse than is represented in the story, here. Like the stones of Stonehenge, the practice was used by many cultures and for thousands of years before Joshua’s time, usually as a way of depicting the calendar (one stone for each month). It is likely that the circle of 12 stones described here was already in place in this location (Jericho was an ancient city, probably established around 5,000BC, well before the Israelites got there) but reframed by the priests to suit this story. Yahvism would have otherwise rejected the practice as repugnant to their monotheism.
Hexateuch: Although many treat Joshua as the beginning of the second division of the Bible, which contains 21 books that make up “The Prophets,” others consider Joshua the sixth book in the “Hexateuch.” It is likely that the source material for Joshua is the same as the material for the first five books, known as the “Pentateuch,” and that it was written/compiled by the priests at the same time; thus, treating Joshua as the end of the first section rather than the beginning of the second section, makes a whole lot of sense.