Deuteronomy 17-Joshua 4 #2018BibleRBR

‘The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan” (Gustave Dore)

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.


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.     


Numbers 35-Deuteronomy 16 #2018BibleRBR

Gustave Dore, “Moses Descending Mount Sinai”

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!  


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.