Friday, May 31, 2013

Judges 6:1-7:25


The pattern repeats. After 40 years of peace, the Israelites once again lapse into the worship of other gods and YHWH gives them up to their enemies, in this case the Midianites. Oppressed and impoverished, the Israelites call upon YHWH once again and a new judge is raised up to rescue them, in this case a man  named Gideon.

Judges 6:1-6 describes the plight of the Israelites. Verses 7-10 are an oracle from an unnamed prophet In verses 11-24 describe Gideon's encounter with an angel. Or is it YHWH himself? That the text is unclear indicates that this story was compiled from various sources.

Gideon's name means something like "feller," as in a feller of trees or a feller of foes. The angel addresses Gideon as a "mighty man of valor--" something like that. Gideon protests that really is not so great. He is the least member of a weak clan. Is Gideon just being modest?

The first time we meet Gideon he is threshing grain in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites. Does this seem a little timid? Cowardly?

Gideon comes across as a skeptic. "If YHWH is with us, why are in this predicament?" he asks. Without a sign, he will not trust that the angel is from YHWH. Later (vv. 36 ff.) He will ask for two more signs before he accepts that the Lord wants him to lead Israel against the Midianites. He receives all of the signs he requests.

After the encounter with the angel, and at YHWH's instruction, Gideon tears down his father's altar to Baal and his Asherah pole--instruments of pagan worship. He uses the materials to construct a proper altar to the Lord and offers his father's second best bull as a sacrifice. Second best?

All of this is done under the cover of night, another indicator of Gideon's timidity.In the morning, Gideon's father defends his son's actions to a group of angry neighbors. Gideon is given another name "Jerub-Baal" which means "he contends with Baal." Gideon gathers an army.

But the army is too large. Thirty-two thousand men are just too many. Twenty-two thousand are granted an exemption for cowardice, an echo of Deuteronomy 20:8. Ten thousand soldiers is still too large an army. So, again at YHWH's instruction, Gideon takes the troops down to a river to drink. Those who drink from their cupped hands are retained. Those who get down on their knees to drink are dismissed. I've heard it said that drinking from cupped hands indicates alert readiness for battle. I'm not sure that's the point. The main thing is to reduce the number of soldiers to 300. Finally the army is small enough to go into battle.

And why is it important to have a small army? Because this isn't a story about how mighty Israel's army is. It isn't a story about how powerful Gideon is. (I think his timidity is real. I think he's sincere when he says that he is puny and weak). This story, as we have it, is about how mighty YHWH is.

Three hundred Israelite soldiers, armed with pottery jars, torches, and trumpets, attack the Midianite camp by night. The Midianites are thrown into confusion. They attack one another and make a panicked retreat. Only then are other Israelites (from the tribes of Naphtali, Asher, Mannaseh, and finally Ephraim) called to join the battle.

YHWH gets credit for the victory.

Next: Judges 8-9

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Judges 3:1-5:31


The book of Joshua made it sound as if the conquest of Canaan was pretty seamless. Oh, sure, there were a few Canaanites left in the land, but they were mostly put to forced labor. Judges tells a somewhat different story. In 3:1-5 we learn that quite a few of the land's original occupants are left. They are there "to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the Lord's commands."

Of course, the Israelites do not obey YHWH's commands and so are oppressed by the king of Aram Naharaim. Othniel arises as the first of the judges, liberates the Israelites and the land has peace for 40 years, fulfilling the pattern described in the last chapter.

The story of Ehud is particularly fun. I think that ancient idioms, circumlocutions, and translational modesty obscure some of the details of this tale. Granting that I could have some of the finer points wrong, here's what I make of it. The Israelites again disobey YHWH. YHWH allows Eglon, the corpulent king of Moab, to oppress them. They cry out to YHWH and Ehud arises as the next judge to deliver the people. Did I mention that Eglon was obese? Think Jabba the Hut.

Ehud is a left-handed Benjaminite. We will see that the tribe of Benjamin has more than its share of southpaws. Ehud makes himself  a short sword with an 18 inch double edged blade. This he straps to his right leg, under his robes, for a cross-draw. Whether he has a concealed carry permit is not clear.

By a ruse, Ehud arranges to be alone with Eglon in "the cool chamber" on the roof. "Cool chamber is apparently a euphemism for "privy." Privy is a euphemism for outhouse. Outhouse is a euphemism for toilet.

You get the idea.

I have read that defecation was not considered a private function in the ancient world. I don't know. I rather think that Eglon was being a pig. He was probably showing Ehud just how highly he thought of him by relieving himself in Ehud's presence. So, Ehud pulls his weapon. Eglon, surprised, jumps up from his, uhmm, throne. Ehud stabs him and...Did I mention that Eglon had a weight problem?...the weapon, handle and all, disappears in the king's belly. Dying, the king soils himself.

Now, Ehud must make an escape. Leaving the doors of the cool chamber locked behind him, he has only one way out that I can imagine. This was a two -story outhouse. The lower level was a receptacle that some unfortante slave no doubt had the duty to clean out from time to time. I'm thinking (and I'm not alone in thinking this) that Ehud exited through the first floor.

To heck with Star Wars. Now I'm thinking of Slum Dog Millionaire.

Anyway, it was a dirty job but Ehud was up to it and Israel got 80 years of peace.

My inner 10 year old loves that story.

The next judge, Shamgar, gets scant notice, only one verse. He is said to have struck down 600 Philistines with an oxgoad. He is not the only judge who was handy with improvised weapons.

There are Christians today who insist that women should not hold positions of leadership among God's people...or at least over God's men. The judge Deborah, whose story is told in chapters 4 and 5, is an inconvenience for them. The Old Testament is the product of a patriarchal culture. Yet neither the author of Judges, nor YHWH himself, seems to object to Deborah's leadership. It's a little embarassing for an army commander named Barak, but that's his problem.

Barak, accompanied by Deborah, goes to war against a Canaanite general named Sisera. The Canaanite army is routed, but Sisera himself escapes. He takes refuge in the tent of a Kenite man named Heber. The Kenites, remember, were related to Moses' father-in-law. Heber doesn't seem to be at home, but his wife, Jael takes the exhausted Sisera in, gives him a drink of milk (to help him sleep?), and tucks him in under a blanket. When the general is sleeping soundly, Jael drives a tent peg through his skull with a hammer.

That Jael must have been a strong woman!

Men who don't think women are their equals would be wise to keep that opinion to themselves around Deborah and Jael.

Judges 5 consists of a song of victory sung by Deborah. I think Barak provided backing vocals. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali get praised. The other tribes are derided for not taking part in the war. Jael gets glory. Sisera's mother, pictured as waiting for her son to return from war, is mocked.

And Israel has another 40 years of peace.

Next: Judges 6-7

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Also From My Reading

To understand how the Bible came to be requires that we suspend nearly everything we know about authorship and the business of books today. The Bible is wildly unique, yet it sits on modern bookshelves mum to its extravagant dissimilarity, with its modest spine politely blending in--abook among other books. But it is not like those other books.
Kristen Swenson, Bible Babel

Swenson goes on to list five ways in which the Bible is not like other books. 

1. It was written over a long period of time in a variety of places.

2. It is a compilation of different kinds of literature.

3. The Hebrew Bible was written in a preliterate culture. The Old Testament was shaped by orality. The New Testament by literacy.

4. "Authorship during the period of biblical development seldom meant the creative endeavor of an individual whose words once written remained immutable."

5. The Bible was not written as a piece. Its various parts circulated independently before they were collected.

Judges 1:1-2:23


The book of Judges is full of good stories. It has vivid, memorable characters, exciting situations, plenty of action, a little sex, a little violence, a measure of gore.

I like it.

Judges is not a happy book, however. From the botched conquest of Canaan it spirals downward into a state of degradation, depredation, and inter-tribal warfare that leaves the people crying out for a king. A king, depending on which part of the Bible you are reading, may be a good or a bad thing.

In this book, Israel lives as a loose confederation of tribes with no centralized government. The judges, from whom the book takes its title, are men and women who rise to positions of power as they are needed. They are charismatic leaders, strongmen (and women), tribal chiefs and warlords. Some of them even serve as judges in the legal sense.

The chapters that concern us here tell again of Joshua's death. Twice. There is a reprise of the story of Caleb, his daughter Achsah, and her marriage to Othniel.

Chapter 2 begins with a curious note. A "messenger" of YHWH announces that the people have been unfaithful and therefore will not be entirely successful in driving the Canaanites out of the land. Whether this nameless messenger is an angel or a human prophet is not entirely clear. "Messenger" and "angel" are the same word in Hebrew.

Verses 11-23 are programmatic. They describe a pattern that will repeat itself throughout the book.

A. The people are unfaithful and worship other gods (the Baals, Astartes, and Asherah).

B. YHWH gives his people up to their enemies.

C. The people cry out to YHWH who sends a judge to deliver them.

D. There is a time of peace.

E. The judge dies and the cycle begins again.

Next: Judges 3-5

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Joshua 22:1-24:33


And so we come to the last few chapters of Joshua.

In chapter 22 the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh, having kept their promise to assist in the conquest of Canaan, are given permission to return to their lands east of the Jordan. Once across the river, they build an altar. Their relatives east of the Jordan take this as a sign that the Transjordanian tribes are setting up a place of worship to rival the Tabernacle which is now parked in Shiloh.

The tribes west of the Jordan prepare for war.

The priest Phinehas, who proved his loyalty to YHWH back in Numbers 25 by spearing an Israelite man and his Midianite wife together, leads a delegation to confront the offenders. The transjordanians insist that their altar is not a place of worship, only a statement that "We, too, worship YHWH." Bloodshed is averted.

Chapter 23 is devoted to Joshua's farewell speech. It is reminiscent of Moses' speech in Detueronomy 29-30. Joshua's main points are: Serve YHWH. Avoid idols. Don't intermarry with the Canaanites. Scholars call the author/s of Deuteronomy (and other portions of the Hebrew Bible) the Deuteronomist.These concerns, along with promises of blessing and warnings of doom, are the Deuteronomist's special emphases.

In chapter 24, Joshua speaks the first-person words of YHWH as a prophet. (Verse 7, curiously lapses into the the third person). YWHW reminds the Israelites of their history from Abraham, through the Exodus, to their present state of settlement in the promised land. In his own voice, Joshua calls the Israelites to "Choose this day whom you will serve," YHWH or the pagan gods of the Canaanites. Despite strict warnings that they will not be able to serve YHWH and that they will suffer dire consequences, the people insist "We will serve the Lord."

The book ends with notice of the death of Joshua (v.v 20-31), the disposition of Joseph's bones (v. 32), and the death of Eleazar the priest (v.33).

Next: Judges 1-2

Monday, May 27, 2013

Joshua 19:1-21:45


There isn't much to say here, really. Chapter 19 tells how the remainder of the land is divided among the remaining tribes. Each tribes borders are described and their cities named. Simeon's allotment is taken from Judah's territory because Judah has more land than they need (v. 9).  Finally, Joshua himself is given a town to live in (v. 49).

In chapter 20, the Israelites designate three cities of refuge west of the Jordan.

In chapter 21, the Levites, who have no territory of their own, are apportioned cities in the territories of the other tribes.

Next: Joshua 22-24

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Joshua 16:1-18:28


In chapter 16 Joshua continues to divvy up the land among the Israelites. The tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, descended from Joseph's sons, receive their portions. Ephraim goes first. As with other tribes, the Ephraimites fail to drive out the Canaanites completely. They do, however, use them for forced labor.

Half the tribe of Manasseh settled east of the Jordan river. In chapter 17 the other half-tribe, including the daughters of Zelophehad, receive land west of the Jordan. They too, have trouble getting rid of all the Canaanites, but use them as forced labor.

Together the Ephraimites and Manassites request more land. Joshua grants them some hill country. The land will need to be cleared, and it is full of Canaanites, but Joshua assures the Josephites (as the two tribes are known together) that they are up to the tasks.

In chapter 18 Joshua commands a survey of the land and begins to divide it up by lot. Verses 11-28 describe the land given to the tribe of Benjamin.

Next: Joshua 19-21

Friday, May 24, 2013

From My Reading

The Bible "is a book of faith written, copied, and edited by people of faith who interpreted all their experiences through faith.  Sometimes the Bible narrates things that may very well have happened exactly as told; sometimes it does not. Always, it reflects traditions of faith."  Kristen Swenson, Bible Babel.

Joshua 12:1-15:63


War may be hell, but at least it makes for good stories. Now that the land has "rest from war" (Joshua 11:23) the narrative slows down a little.

Chapter 12 gives a list of the kings defeated by the Israelites. This includes the Transjordanian kings defeated by Moses and the Canaanite kings defeated by Joshua.

In chapter 13, YHWH instructs Joshua, now grown quite old, that there is still land to be conquered. Verses 8-33 describe the territories across the Jordan apportioned to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The Levites, we are reminded, do not receive a territory. They have cities and fields, but no territory of their own.

Chapter 14 begins a description of the division of the territories west of the Jordan among the remaining nine and a half tribes of Israelites.

Caleb, the one spy who, 45 years earlier, counseled the Israelites to invade Canaan immediately, asks Joshua for the land promised to him and receives it. At the age of 85, Caleb has plenty of fight left in him. He seemingly drives out the inhabitants of his land with little effort and the land once more has "rest from war."

Chapter 15:1-12 describes the boundaries of the land allotted to the tribe of Judah.  Verses 13-15 narrate, very briefly, Caleb's campaign to conquer Hebron and Debir. Verses 16-19 are a short story about Caleb's daughter, Aksah, her marriage to Othniel (Her first cousin) and her request for some springs of water. Othniel will play a role when we get to the book of Judges.

The rest of chapter 15 is a list of the towns and villages of Judah. The chapter ends with a note that the Judahites could not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem. Therefore the Jebusites live among the Judahites "to this day."

Next: Joshua 16-18

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Joshua 9:1-11:23


 During the Second World War Hollywood produced a slew of war films. These movies were propagandistic by nature. Some of them told exciting stories. They presented a black-and-white morality and an us-versus-them mentality. Good guys and bad guys were clearly distinguishable. Enemies were demonized, Allies apotheosized. The death of an enemy was something to cheer. The death of a hero was always tragic, a martyrdom, sometimes a great self-sacrifice. Only later, and at that, only occasionally, did moral ambiguity creep into combat movies.

The book of Joshua was produced by people who believed that YHWH had chosen the Israelites as his special people. They also believed that YHWH had given them the land of Canaan as their special possession, as long as they kept covenant with their God. The story of Joshua is told with all of the moral certitude and excitement of a WWII combat flick. God is unquestionably on the side of the invading Israelites (provided they follow YHWH's instructions). The inhabitants of Canaan are more obstacles to overcome than human beings.

I don't know how much actual history is in the book of Joshua. I suspect that it isn't much. It is, however, the way that ancient Israel told its story. "God gave us this land," it proclaims, which makes the eventual loss of that land more poignant, and its (partial) restoration more hope-full.

In the ancient world, a nation's god/s were thought to go to war with the nation. Victory in battle was a victory not just for the army, but for their god/s. The book of Joshua is not just about the Israelites conquering the Canaanites. It is also, and perhaps more so, about YHWH defeating  the gods of the pagans.

The authors of the Bible were spiritual giants. Monotheism may have begun in Egypt, but it never caught on there. It is the Hebrews who gave us belief in a single God. I believe that YHWH chose Israel and gave them the land. I don't believe that YHWH desired, or ordered the destruction of entire peoples.

As always, being a Christian, I see Jesus as God's most intimate self-revelation. Jesus taught a path of non-violence, self-giving, and inclusion. Joshua does not have the final word. Jesus does.

(Just as an aside, Joshua and Jesus are different forms of the same name. The form Joshua comes into English from the Hebrew. Jesus is the English form of the Hebrew name through the Greek.)

In chapter 9, the people of Gibeon concoct a ruse by which they save themselves from the destruction that they had seen visited on Jericho and Ai. As a result they become "hewers of wood and drawers of water" for the Isrelites and remain so "to this day."

The repeated use of the phrase "to this day" indicates that the book of Joshua was put into its final form well after the time in which its narrative is set.

Chapter 10 tells of the defeat of five kings  of Southern Canaan and, in rapid succession, the conquest of their cities. This chapter tells the well known story of how Joshua ordered the sun to stand still in the sky which reflects an ancient geocentric cosmology. There is reference here to a long-lost "book of Jashar," also mentioned in 2 Samuel 1:18.

As was done with the body of the king of Ai, the corpses of the five kings are exposed, either hung trees or poles. In keeping with Deuteronomy 21:23, the bodies are removed before sunset.

Chapter 11 tells of the defeat of the remaining kings in Northern Canaan. With that, the conquest is complete and "the land had rest from war."

Next: Joshua 12-15.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Joshua 5:1-8:35


After the Israelites cross the Jordan as on dry ground, the Canaanites are afraid of them.

In Joshua 5:2-12, Israel's new leader commands that the Israelite men be circumcised. Apparently, the ritual was not observed during their travels through the wilderness.

When the first Passover in Canaan is celebrated, the manna that sustained the Israelites in their travels ceases to fall from the sky. Now the land will provide for God's people.

Verses 13-15 prove that my memory is fallible. In this post, where I discussed Moses' encounter with the burning bush, I said that I didn't recall anywhere else in the Bible where someone was commanded to remove their shoes because they were standing on holy ground. Here Joshua has a vision of a man, the commander of YHWH's army who will, presumably fight on Israel's behalf. The man tells Joshua guessed it...take off his shoes because...that's right...he's standing on holy ground.

If the Jordan crossing thing didn't cue you in, this should make it clear: Joshua is a leader like Moses.

In Joshua 6:1-21, Joshua "fit" the battle of Jericho. The city, and every person and thing in it, is devoted to the Lord. The people and animals are to be killed. The goods either destroyed or given to the priests for service in the Tabernacle.

The destruction of Jericho begins when, after considerable ritual, the "walls come a-tumbling down." Presumably the part of the wall which formed a portion of Rahab's house (Joshua 2:15) did not collapse. Rahab and her family are spared, as they were promised. The statement that "she has lived in Israel ever since" is an explanation for the fact that, even after the conquest, there were Canaanites living in Israel.

Verses 26-27 are a curse that will be fulfilled in 1 Kings 16:34. I wonder if it refers to an act of child sacrifice.

In chapter 7 we learn that an Israelite named Achan disobeyed the order to devote everything in Jericho to the Lord. He kept a few things for himself.

We live in an individualistic culture. The Bible was written in a collectivistic culture where a person's identity is defined by the groups to which they belong: family, clan, village, nation. Achan's misdeed affects the whole community.

When the Israelites attack the city of Ai (a small, weak sort of city) they suffer a humiliating defeat. When Achar's theft (for he stole from the Lord) is discovered, he is stoned to death and the purloined goods destroyed.

With that little matter out of the way, the Israelites again attack Ai (Joshua 8:1-29). Reading the description of the battle, I can almost see it in the form of a Civil War documentary, with X's and arrows moving on a map. This time Ai is defeated.

The place name Ai means "ruin." It's an unlikely name for a city. Perhaps this story was told to explain the existence of a ruined city whose previous name was unknown.

In verses 30-35, Joshua leads the Israelites in a covenant renewal ceremony which was commanded to Moses in Deuteronomy 11:29-30 and described in Deuteronomy 27:2-8.

I found the illustration here.
Next: Joshua 9-11

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Joshua 1:1-4:24

If Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy collectively make up the Pentateuch ("the five scrolls"), the addition of Joshua is sometimes called the Hexateuch ("the six scrolls") because it continues the narrative begun in the previous books.

Following the death of Moses, Joshua takes the role of leader over the Israelites. He will be their general in the war of conquest over Canaan. In chapter 1, Joshua is told (3 times) to "be strong and courageous," words that have been applied to him before.

In chapter 2, Joshua sends two spies to scout out the land, "especially Jericho." In that city, they stay in the home of a prostitute named Rahab. She protects them from the king of Jericho and, in exchange, barters for her life, and the lives of her family, when the Israelites attack the city. She is an interesting case.

Her name is also the name of a mythical sea monster mentioned in the Psalms, and a figurative name for Egypt. In the New Testament she is mentioned as an example of faith in Hebrews 11:31, and as an example of justification by works in James 2:25. She may be mentioned as an ancestor of Jesus in Matthew's genealogy (Matthew 1:5).

Perhaps the most intriguing question concerning Rahab is: Just why were those Israelite spies spending the night in her house? I think I know.

It is interesting, at the least, to notice that Israelite men consort with prostitutes and no moral judgment is pronounced upon them in the text. When Judah slept with Tamar (Genesis 38) he was not judged for patronizing a sex worker, but for withholding his son Shelah from his widowed daughter-in-law.

Rahab was a traitor to her own people. Fear of YHWH is her stated reason. We can only guess at the circumstances that led her into prostitution. It is pure speculation to say that she may have been resentful toward the men of Jericho who had used her. I think it is clear that she was resourceful and used what little leverage she had over the Israelite spies to ensure her own future and that of her family.

In chapters 3-4, in a scene deliberately (even heavy-handedly) reminiscent of Exodus 14, Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan river. The invasion has begun. A pile of 12 river stones is set up on the Jordan's bank as a monument.

The image of Chagall's lithograph Rahab and the Spies of Jericho was lifted from this website. It is a commercial website. My link should not be considered an  endorsement. The painting Rahab's Window was found at the website of Mat Barber Kennedy. I like his work. 

Next: Joshua 5-8.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sallman's Head of Christ


You've almost certainly seen this painting before.  Warner Sallman's Head of Christ has been reproduced  more than 500 million times if wiki is to be believed.

In some ways it isn't very good. The Jesus portrayed here is too wispy, too northern European, too white. This blue-eyed boy is certainly not a portrait of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. One of my seminary profs referred to this painting as "Beautiful Hair Breck Jesus."

Still, I don't hate it.

A large copy of the painting hangs in the narthex of my church. I was looking at it Sunday morning as I folded bulletins for the morning's service. Bulletin-folding is brainless work and it allows one's thoughts to wander free. So I was thinking  that Jesus didn't look like this painting, but he did look like something. More properly, Jesus looked like someone. Someone specific. His eyes were a particular color; nose a certain shape; his mouth a specific width.

The first commandment (or the second by some numberings) prohibits Israel from making images of God. Unlike earthly creatures, God is ineffable, holy, numinous, and, in large measure unknowable. No earthly image can portray God.

The Christian doctrine of the incarnation says that God dwelt among people in the specific form of Jesus of Nazareth. A skilled artist could have made an accurate portrait of him. Had there been cameras in first century Judea someone could have taken his photograph.

What this means is that God broke the first commandment.

A Pause to Reflect


Call it the Pentateuch (if you like the Greek), or the Torah (if you prefer Hebrew), or the Five Books of Moses (if legendary attribution is your thing). Whatever you call it, the collection of books from Genesis through Deuteronomy is an interesting read.

At the outset, I called the creation stories in Genesis "narrative theology." I think that descriptor can be applied to the entire Pentateuch (and beyond). These books are the way that ancient Israel told the story of its relationship with YHWH, its God.

The one God (whether that means the only God or the greatest of the divine beings) who created the world chose to make a covenant with Israel. He would be their God and they would be his people.

Their forebears were difficult, argumentative, sinful, faithful people. The patriarchs' families were dysfunctional to say the least. They were not chosen because they were holy. They were holy because they were chosen.

Once a nation of slaves, the Israelites were rescued by YHWH from Egyptian bondage through the agency of Moses, another clay-footed hero. Moses led the Israelites through 40 years of wilderness wandering and gave them the laws by which they would be set apart as the Lord's people.  Some of those laws are timeless precepts of justice. Others are practical. Some are bound by the culture that produced them. Some are just weird. Some--like that business with the "water of bitterness"--seem barbaric. Others display uncommon kindness.

Some of the stories in the Pentateuch are beautiful and inspiring. (Jacob and Esau reconcile). Others are disturbing. (The binding of Isaac). Still others are bizarre. (The bridegroom of blood episode).

For thousands of years faithful readers have found inspiration, instruction, hope, and correction in the Torah. For thousands of years people have read these books and encountered God.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Deuteronomy 32:1-34:12


The song of Moses is a review of Israel's history both past and future from the time in which the narrative is set. It spans from YHWH's choosing Israel through the exile and ends with the return of the people to Judah. It refers to Israel by the name of its forebear, "Jacob" and also as "Jeshurun," a Hebrew name meaning "the Upright One."

The song refers to God as the "Rock" and also uses feminine, maternal imagery for YHWH who "gave birth" to Israel.

The question of monotheism remains open. This song refers to other "gods" who are almost certainly lesser divine beings, and may possibly be demons (32:17).

In verses 48-52, YHWH tells Moses to climb Mt. Nebo from which he will see the promised land before he dies.

In Chapter 33, Moses blesses the tribes of Israel with the curious omission of Simeon. Am I missing something? Why is Simeon left out?

The poem is reminiscent of Jacob's deathbed blessing of his sons in Genesis 49.

Chapter 34 narrates the death of Moses. It seems that YHWH himself buries the man of God. There is notice that Joshua has taken charge of the Israelites (v. 9) and a tribute to Moses.

And so we come to the end of the Pentateuch.

The depiction of Moses on Mt. Nebo in stained glass is from Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church in Sewickley, PA. I found the photograph at thiswebsite.

Next: Joshua 1-4

Inappropriate Psalms

In church this morning we celebrated the Festival of Pentecost. The Revised Common Lectionary's appointed psalmody for this day (Pentecost Year C) was Psalm 104:24-34, 35b. It's a fun reading with great imagery: ships going to and fro on the sea, God creating the sea monster Leviathan just for fun. Appropriate to the occasion, the psalm speaks of God's Spirit giving and sustaining life.

But there's that half verse (35a) that gets omitted what's up with that? I don't pretend to know the mond of the lectionary committee but I think I can see what they were up to verse 34a is not appropriate for worship. It says, "Let sinners be consumed from the earth and the wicked be no more."

Asking God to destroy people is antithetical to the purposes of most Christian worship. What's more, many worship services begin with an order for confession, an acknowledgement that we are sinful people. In that context, verse 34a sounds like the expression of a death wish. Best to leave it out, then and skip ahead to 34b: "Bless the Lord, O my soul. Hallelujah!"

Alyhough the Psalms are filled with noble and uplifting sentiments, there are some things in them that are not conducive to worship. I can't imagine worthy liturgical use for Psalm 137:9, "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!"

But this is something that I love about the Psalms. They encompass a great range of human thought and emotion. They may not all be appropriate for a worship service but they teach us that in our devotions and our prayers anything goes. There is no desire that we cannot express to God. God can take it. God will hear us. 

Of course, that doesn't mean that God is obligated to act on our wishes. Or even approve of them. 

In fact, by expressing our desires we may even learn that some of them are not appropriate. 

The psalms were quoted from the translation found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:1-31:30


As we come near to the end of Deuteronomy, chapter 30 begins with a promise that, after the punishments of conquest and exile, Israel can be restored to the promised land provided they are repentant and faithful. The Apostle Paul quotes verse 11 (for his own purposes, as Paul quotes anything) at Romans 10:6-8. 

Deuteronomy 30:11-20 encourage the Israelites to "choose life." Life and prosperity are equated with keeping the law; death and destruction with disobedience. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been reading Deuteronomy attentively.

In chapter 31:1-8 Joshua is made Moses' successor. Moses tells him to " be strong and courageous." This will be a theme for Joshua. YHWH tells him the same thing in verse 23.

Chapter 31 is a bit of a mess. It seems to interrupt itself several times. Verses9-13 tell that Moses wrote the words of "this book" (presumably Deuteronomy) which, no doubt gave rise to the legend that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch. It is to be read  to the people at the Temple in every Sabbath year. 

Verses 14-18 "predict" God's rejection of Israel. In verses 19-22 YHWH instructs Moses to write "this song" (What song?). Verse 23 focuses on Joshua again. Verses 24-29 hark back to 9-13. Here Moses is instructed to place the book he has written beside the ark of the Covenant. And then in verse 30, we are given an introduction to Moses song which begins in chapter 32 (Oh, that song!). 

Like I said, it's a bit of a mess.

Remember these guys? I'm pretty sure they aren't Moses and Aaron.
Somehow Deuteronomy 30:19 reminds me of them.
I don't think Wake Me Up Before You Go Go was the song YHWH told Moses to write.
I guess we'll find out in Deuteronomy 32.

Next Deuteronomy 32-34

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Deuteronomy 28:1-29:29


Deuteronomy 28 is, I think, the heart of this book and the statement of a central theme in deuteronomistic thought. Verses 1-12 promise blessings upon those who obey the YHWH's laws. Verses 15-68 invoke curses on the people of Israel if they are disobedient. The blessings, wonderful as they are, are overshadowed by the curses which are more numerous, more extravagant, and, honestly, more interesting.

I came across a website some time ago that claimed, falsely, that the ELCA teaches that there is no prophecy in the Bible. I think the proprietor of that site was working with a mistaken idea of what prophecy is. Like a lot of people he thought that prophecy equals prediction. Prophecy may include prediction, and there are some predictions in the Bible. But prophecy is much more than that.

Every week I listen to the Working Preacher podcast. This week I was reminded that prophecy is not just a call for social justice either. Prophecy may include calls to social justice, and there are plenty of calls to social justice in the Bible. But prophecy is much more.

Prophecy is speaking for God.

Deuteronomy 28:47 ff. states, graphically, that among the curses to befall disobedient Israel are siege, conquest, and exile by a foreign nation. I suppose that this might be a prediction, though the evidence suggests that Deuteronomy was written after these "predictions" were supposed to have been made. So, no, I do not think that this is prediction. I do, however, believe it to be prophecy. The Deuteronomistic author, speaking for God, is trying to make sense of Israel's history. God, speaking through the author, is calling God's people to repentance and obedience.

I don't think the simple equation that keeping God's law leads to prosperity while disobeying God's law leads to destruction and curse holds up to the test of lived experience. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and vice versa.When we get to the book of Job we will find an important counterpoint to Deuteronomy, an opposing voice also canonized in Scripture.

In Deuteronomy 29 Moses again reviews some of the history of Israel's travels through the wilderness and calls the people to renew their covenant with YHWH. It ends with a wonderful statement, an editorial comment:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of the law.
God is transcendent and sovereign. God has revealed God's covenant and laws to Israel. I believe that God has revealed God's self to the nations (i.e. Gentiles) in Jesus Christ. 

Next: Deuteronomy 30-31

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Deuteronomy 24:1-27:26


Some of the laws found in chapters 24-25 of Deuteronomy require kindness on the part of the Israelites toward their neighbors, the poor, foreigners, and even animals. Newlyweds are exempt from military service for a year. Millstones (required for a miller's livlihood) cannot be taken as collateral for a loan. Day laborers must receive their wages by sundown. Oxen are not to be muzzled while treading grain. Some of a crop is to be left in the field at harvest so that the poor can eat.

Some of the laws in these chapters are strange and culturally remote. The law of levirate marriage the business of calling someone "unsandaled" are strange to us.

The law found in 25:11-12, in which two men are fighting and one's husband comes to his aid by grabbing the other's genitals is weirdly specific. The punishment (the woman's hand is cut off) seems harsh.

The instruction to destroy the Amelakites is also harsh. YHWH really didn't like the Amelekites. A commandment to commit genocide rightly appalls us.

On the other hand, the law about using honest weights and measures in trade is a good thing.

Deuteronomy represents ancient Israel's best efforts to establish a kind, just society in accordance with God's will. Sometimes they got it gloriously right. Sometimes they blew it. 

For Christians, Jesus is God's most intimate self-revelation. Reading these Scriptures through Jesus goggles I think we can be outraged by the order to commit genocide while celebrating the laws that call for honesty, kindness, care for the poor, and justice.

Chapter 26 begins with instructions for an offering of firstfruits. Verses 1-11 are a common reading at harvest thanksgiving services. The offering is made with a remembrance of what God has done for his people.

Verses 12-15 are instructions for the third year tithe that is set aside for the poor and the Levites. 16-19 say that those who keep these commandments will be blessed.

Chapter 27 instructs that all the commandments should be written on stone markers in Canaan. An altar is to be built on Mt. Ebal. A ceremony is described in which a series of curses are called down on those who break the commandments, or at least some of them. As the curses are pronounced, the people are to reply "Amen" ("Let it be so.")

Next: Deuteronomy 28-29

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Deuteronomy 21:1-23:25


Some of the laws in the book of Deuteronomy seem...What is the right adjective?...Quaint?

Chapter 21:1-9 describes a process to atone for an unsolved murder that occurs in open countryside. Guilt is imputed to the nearest town whose citizens must make up for it.

Some of the laws in the book of Deuteronomy are offensive to our modern sensibilities.

Verses 10-14 describe the situation of a man who marries a woman captured in war. The situation seems cruel, but the regulations actually provide the woman with some small measure of protection. She is allowed to mourn her dead. She is not to be treated like a slave.

Some of the laws in the book of Deuteronomy echo through other books of the Bible.

21:15-17 instruct that the firstborn son of a household is to receive a double share of the inheritance. If the father has more than one wife and prefers another wife over the firstborn's mother, the firstborn still receives the larger inheritance. The stories of Abraham, Jacob, David and Bathsheba, and the Prodigal Son all resonate with this passage.

21:22-23 declare that the body of a hanged (impaled? crucified?) person is a curse that must be removed. Jesus was crucified.

22:22 declares adultery a capital offense, punishable by stoning. John 8 describes the plight of a woman caught in adultery.

23:1-5 exclude (among others) eunuchs and Moabites, from the temple. The Ethiopian eunuch, and Ruth the Moabite woman will both be included among God's people.

23:15-16 say that runaway slaves should not be returned. The apostle Paul will return the runaway Onesimus to his master Philemon.

Some of the laws in the book of Deuteronomy are naive, patriarchal, outdated and even horrifying.

A woman who is raped in a city but does not call for help is to be stoned to death along with her attacker (22:23-24). If she is attacked in the countryside, she will not be punished since no one would hear her scream if she did. Apparently the idea that a rapist might prevent a woman from screaming did not occur to the author(s) of Deuteronomy.

A man who rapes a virgin who is not engaged to another man must pay a bride price and marry the woman. Only in a patriarchal culture could this be seen as a good idea.

Some of the laws in the book of Deuteronomy are strangely tender and kind.

Israelites are to help their neighbors, even the ones they don't like (22:1-4). An Israelite who takes eggs or young birds from a nest must not also take the mother bird (22:6-7).

And then there's the Hebrew Bible's insistence on a kind of purity that involves not mixing things. Cross-dressing is verboten (22:5). Mixing seeds, plow animals, and fabrics is prohibited (22:9-11).

There are other laws in this section, but I'll let these comments suffice.

I'd love to hear your take on these various laws. For instance, is 22:8 an early example of product liability law?

Next: Deuteronomy 24-27.

The remaining laws in these chapters deal with a variety of

Monday, May 13, 2013

Deuteronomy 17:1-20:20


The public men's room of a local park used to have a sign on the wall that said:


It was obvious from that sign that someone had flushed underwear down those toilets. Or tried to. Maybe more than once.

Some laws can be written proactively. "Do not kill." "Do not steal." A little forethought suggests that these are good rules to have on the books.

Other laws are only written after the fact. "Don't flush your BVDs" is just such a rule. No one would think of outlawing the flushing of Y-fronts until someone actually tried to do it.

It is even likely that the first murder and the first theft occurred before these crimes were actually legislated against.

The narrative setting of the book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches given by Moses to the Israelites before they enter Canaan for the purposes of conquest and settlement. Moses gives the people laws by which they are to govern themselves. The laws presuppose a situation that would only arise later. They are written for a time when worship is centralized in Israel and a monarchy established.

There will not be a king in Israel for a long time after the period in which Deuteronomy is set.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20 says that when Israel selects a king, that king must be God's chosen. He must not not have too many horses or too many wives. Foreign wives will lead the king into idolatry. Since these rules seem to address so specifically the cases of King Saul, who was not God's chosen, and King Solomon who had many horses and many foreign wives, I have to suspect that Deuteronomy was written only after Israel's united monarchy had fallen apart.

In fact, I think that Deuteronomy, or a version of it, was probably the scroll discovered in the temple during the reign of king Josiah (2 Kings 22). I'm just skeptical enough to entertain the idea that the scroll may even have been written for the occasion.

Chapter 18 also contains laws requiring the death penalty for idolatry, prohibitions against pagan divination practices, and a promise that, when Moses has died, YHWH will continue to speak to Israel through prophets.

Chapter 19 commands that three cities of refuge be established in Canaan, prohibits tampering with boundary markers, and establishes a rule that no one is to be found guilty at trial on the testimony of a single witness. Two or three witnesses are required. False witnesses will be punished according to the crime for which they accused an innocent person. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, you know the drill.

Chapter 20 is about the conduct of warfare. Exemptions from military service are made for newlyweds, new householders, and cowards.

Before attacking a city, the Israelites are to offer terms of peace. If the offer is rejected, no quarter is to be given. All the men of the city are to be put to the sword. Women, children, livestock, and property can be taken as plunder. The cities of Canaan are an exception. Every living thing in them is to be killed. This is to keep the Israelites from being led into the worship of Canaan's idols.

Ancient cities were surrounded by walls for the protection of the inhabitants. Siege warfare, imprisoning the populace within its own city walls, was a brutal and effective strategy. Trees near a besieged city may be used to build siege ramps. Fruit trees are to be spared.

Next: Deuteronomy 21-23

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Deuteronomy 14:1-16:22


Most of the material in this section is familiar. It's laws are repeated from Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Some of the regulations are adapted to the pending situation of settlement in Canaan and a designated place of worship.

Deuteronomy 16:18 ff. concerns government in Canaan. Judges are to be appointed to administer justice.

Really, that's about it.

Next: Deuteronomy 17-20

Friday, May 10, 2013

Deuteronomy 11:1-13-18


I have never been to the Holy Land, but I have stood on holy ground. I have spent a day at Chartres Cathedral watching light play through the famous stained glass windows. I have laughed at the whimsical stone carvings at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. These places stir in me a sense of reverential awe. But so does the small town, white frame church in which I preach.

I have felt the same wonder at shrines of traditions not my own. I have felt myself standing in holy ground at a medicine wheel in Wyoming.

And then there are places that belong to no tradition but are holy nonetheless. The grandeur of the high Rockies is holy.

Just what makes a place holy I can't say. Is ground holy because it is set aside for God? Or is it holy because it is set aside by God? Is holiness real in some objective sense? Or does it exist only in perception?

I think that I would like to visit the Holy Land to see what makes it sacred to the Abrahamic faiths. I would like to find out if it would be holy for me, too.

If Numbers 28-29 were about the sanctification of time, Deuteronomy 11-12 are about the consecration of space. They are about sacred land, holy space. Canaan is holy because God watches over it. Israel is to keep it holy by keeping God's law. Idolatry is forbidden. Worship is to take place only in a place God chooses. It isn't named here, but we know that it will be Zion.

I believe that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation means, among other things, that God declares even the humblest of places holy. Christ was born in a stable and died on a cross. Stables and crosses are made holy. The Gospel began in Jerusalem and spread to "the ends of the earth." Every place and every people is now sanctified, set apart for God.

Once they are settled in Canaan, the Israelites will be free to slaughter animals for food anywhere. Previously this was done only at the Tabernacle. Sacrificial offerings can only be made at the approved place of worship. The consumption of blood is still forbidden everywhere.

Chapter 13 contains instructions on what to do with anyone, even miracle workers, even your own kin, who entices you to worship idols. In short: kill them.

The photograph above depicts the gates of a deserted Holy Land theme park near Waterbury, Connecticut. I believe that it, too, is holy. I found the picture here
Next: Deuteronomy 14-16

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Deuteronomy 8:1-10:22


None of us is sui generis. We do not give birth to ourselves.

Neither are we self-sustaining. We may work for our food, but it still comes to us from outside of ourselves. If I eat an apple, I owe it to the greengrocer who sold it to me, to the farmer who grew it, to the tree that produced it, to the earth that sustained the tree, and ultimately, because I believe, I owe it to God in whom all things exist.

You don't have to believe in God, though, to recognize your dependance upon something beyond yourself. That recognition leads me to a sense of humility, and gratitude, and a desire to share my abundance with my neighbors in need.

It only takes a little thought realize that we are neither self-made nor self-sustaining. But how often do any of us give even that little thought? The truth is, with a plate of food before me and a warm, dry place to eat it I get complacent. I feel self-satisfied. My mind doesn't turn naturally to thoughts of God or my neighbor.

That is why I pause before I eat to say grace. It is less that God needs thanks than I need reminded.

Remembering is a great theme of Deuteronomy. In chapter 8 the Israelites are told to remember their exodus. For 40 years in the wilderness God humbled and tested them. God provided for them and sustained them. Verse 4 gives us  new details: their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. Though we haven't heard this before, it will come up again later in Deuteronomy and in Nehemiah.

YHWH is said to discipline Israel like a parent disciplining a child. This puts a positive spin on some of the trials that YHWH inflicted upon Israel, though to our modern sensibilities it may  make YWHW seem to be a child abuser. I'm pretty sure that child-rearing practices were different in biblical times. (Proverbs 13:24 anyone?)

But mostly chapter 8 is a reminder that, when the Israelites move into Canaan, when they have food on their plate and a warm, dry place to eat they shouldn't get complacent. They shouldn't feel self-satisfied. They should remember God's providence.

That theme continues in Chapter 9. YWHW is not driving the Canaanites out of their land because the Israelites are righteous. They're not. They are a stubborn, "stiff-necked" people. The Canaanites are being driven out because of their own unrighteousness. This should give the Israelites pause. Being that Deuteronomy was written at a much later time, the warning against unrighteousness was no doubt timely.

Deuteronomy 9:7 ff. continues the theme of remembering. Remember the incident with the golden calf and other times of disobedience. Don't repeat the mistakes of the past.

Verse 21 tells how Moses ground the golden calf to dust and sprinkled it in the water. It omits the detail that he made the people drink the water. I miss that somehow.

Chapter 10 recounts the story of the second set of tablets for the 10 Commandments and ends with an injunction to love, serve, and obey the Lord. "Circumcise your hearts" (v. 16) is, I think, a poetic way of saying "internalize the covenant."

Next: Deuteronomy 11-13

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Deuteronomy 5:1-7:26


Sixty days into this project we are nearly 1/6 of the way through our reading of the Protestant canon and 1/5 of the way through the Tanakh (the Old Testament). Yet we are still in the Pentateuch (Genesis -Deuteronomy). This is, I think, an indication of the relative importance of the five books of Moses for the entire Bible. 

 For Bible lovers it doesn't get much better than Deuteronomy 5 and 6. Chapter 7 is another matter. 

In chapter 5 Moses reminds the generation of Israelites who are about to settle in Canaan of the 10 Commandments. These laws, he says, were not just for your parents. They are for you and your children.  The renewal of the covenant and the handing on of traditions are themes of Deuteronomy. 

As always in Deuteronomy, the mountain known as Sinai in Exodus is here called Horeb. Why the difference? Different sources. Different traditions.

The 10 Commandments are repeated here with small variations. The Sabbath commandment, tied to creation in Exodus, is here related to the period of slavery in Egypt. In the commandment(s)* concerning coveting your neighbor's wife is listed before his house. Yes, the Commandments are addressed to men. In Exodus, the wife was treated as part of the household property. Here, perhaps, she is seen as a person in her own right. 

Deuteronomy 5:22-33 expands on Exodus 20:18 ff.  The Israelites, afraid of God's voice, insist that Moses be their intermediary. 

Chapter 6 begins with the Shema, the great monotheist creed still used in Synagogue services today: Shema Yisrael. Adoinai Elohenu. Adonai echad. (Hear, O Israel. YHWH your God, YHWH is one).

These words are to be passed on from generation to generation. Each generation is to appropriate them for themselves. They are "for us." Not you. Not them. Us.

Chapter 7 takes an ugly turn. YHWH orders genocide against the inhabitants of Canaan. It might be good to keep in mind that Deuteronomy was written well after the time it portrays. The woes of Israel and Judah were seen as punishments for the people's apostasy. From the Deuteronomist's point of view, had the original inhabitants of Canaan been utterly annihilated (they weren't), The Isaraelites would not have lapsed into the worship of idols. 

Typical of Deuteronomy, blessings are promised in return for faithful obedience. Disobedience will bring punishment.

*Different traditions number the 10 Commandments differently. In some traditions the prohibitions against coveting are considered 2 commandments.. Other traditions treat the same prohibitions as 1 Commandment. 
Next: Deuteronomy 8-10

Monday, May 6, 2013

Deuteronomy 3:1-4:49


In Deuteronomy 3 Moses continues his recap of the Israelites travels from Egypt to the border of Canaan. He recounts the defeat of King Og of Bashan and the apportionment of the Transjordan lands to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manassah.

King Og was apparently a giant. According to verse 11 his huge iron bed was "still in Rabbah" at the time Deuteronomy was written, a perspective some years after the events described. Either Moses didn't write Deuteronomy, or this verse was a later editorial insertion, or both.

Moses again tells how YHWH refuses to allow him to enter Canaan. He will view the land from Mt. Pisgah but he can't go in.

In chapter 4 Moses commands the Israelites to be obedient to YHWH. He reminds them of what happened to those who worshiped Baal at Peor (Numbers 25).  It wasn't pretty.

Moses' statement at verse 7 forces the question of whether the author of Deuteronomy was a monotheist or a henothiest.
 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? (Deuteronomy 4:7 NRSV)

A monotheist believes that there is one God. A henotheist believes that there are many gods but chooses to worship only one. Did the Deuteronomist grant that the gods of other nations had any sort of objective reality?

The biblical record shows that some of its writers were henotheists. Others were monotheists. The worship of foreign gods was an ongoing problem in ancient Israel indicating that the ordinary citizens may even have been polytheistic. In the end, monotheism holds sway in the Bible. I think we'll find that the Deuteronomist was a monotheist. The Deuteronomist's theology and worldview were profoundly influential on the rest of Scripture.

The belief that there is only one God is a great and enduring contribution of the Hebrew people to the world's religious traditions.

Verses 15-31 repeat the prohibition against making idols. No images are to be made either of foreign gods or of YHWH. Verses 32-40 proclaim that YHWH is God. In verses 41-43 Moses designates the three Cities of Refuge in the Transjordan.

Verses 44-49 set the stage for Moses' discourse which begins in chapter 5.

Next: Deuteronomy 5-7

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Deuteronomy 1:1-2:37

Esau was Jacob's older brother. (Genesis 25:25-26) Both brothers had multiple names. Jacob was also called Israel (Genesis 32:38). He was the progenitor of the Israelites.

Esau was also called Edom.(Genesis 25:30) He settled in the land of Seir. (Genesis 36:8)  His descendants were the Edomites.

Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright (Genesis 25:29 ff.) and his father's blessing (Genesis 27:1 ff.). The two eventually reconciled (Genesis 33:4).

All that is ancient history.

As the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, they came to the border of Edom (Numbers 20:14 ff). They requested passage through the territory promising to stay to the main road and to pay for whatever they ate or drank (Numbers 20:17). The Edomites refused and the Israelites went by another route (Numbers 20:21).

That is the more immediate background.

The Book of Deuteronomy purports to be a series of speeches made by Moses, just before his death, to the Israelites, just before their invasion of Canaan. Deuteronomy means "Second Law" and much of the book is taken up with the laws by which the Israelites should live once they occupy the land. The book of Leviticus was, I suppose, the "first law."

Moses begins his first address to the Israelites with a recitation of the events of their wilderness sojourn. There are some variations in the way the story is told. For instance, in Numbers 13:1, it is YHWH who advises Moses to send spies into Canaan. In Deuteronomy 1:22 it is "all" the Israelites who ask Moses to send spies.

In Numbers  20:12, it says that Moses will not enter the land of promise because he did not give YHWH the glory when he brought water from a rock at Meribah. In Deuteronomy 1:37, the stated reason that Moses will not enter Canaan is YHWH's anger over the Israelites refusal to invade.

In Deuteronomy 2:1-8, we read of the Israelites travels around Edom. As it is told here, the Israelites are not refused passage, but skirt Edom so as not to alarm the Edomites.

What's up with these discrepencies?

The Pentateuch is not the work of a single author. There are several sources behind the five books attributed to Moses. Accounts of the same events vary in their details. Multiple theological views come into play.

I think that Deuteronomy itself, though probably made up of several layers of tradition, has a cohesive theology. As we read along, let's try to dope that theology out.

Next: Deuteronomy 3-4.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Numbers 35:1-36:13


These two short chapters bring us to the end of the Book of Numbers.

In chapter 35, the Israelites are instructed to provide towns for the Levites who will have no territory of their own. Six of their towns (3 in the Transjordan and 3 in Canaan) are to be designated Cities of Refuge.

"Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life" is the rule of the land. In cases of murder an avenger, probably a close relative of the deceased, is to exact the death penalty on the killer. But what about manslaughter?

A person who has killed another can find sanctuary in a city of refuge. If a trial shows that they are not murderers (and Numbers 35 is oddly specific about what constitutes murder) then they are to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. Just how a High Priest's death atones for manslaughter is not entirely clear. If someone guilty of manslaughter leaves the city of refuge before the death of the High Priest, they are liable to be killed by the avenger.

The cities of refuge are, I think, a tangible mercy from YHWH.

Chapter 36 completes the book with a sequel to the story of Zelophehad's daughters from chapter 27. The daughters were apportioned an inheritance along with the other clans of the Israelites. The problem is that if these women marry outside of their tribe, their land will become the property of another tribe. To rectify the situation, the daughters of Zelophehad are married off to their cousins. And that resolves the problem of women owning land!*

*Yes, I am being sarcastic.

Next: Deuteronomy 1-2

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Numbers 33:1-34:29


After 40 years of nomadic travels through the wilderness, the Israelites have arrived at the borders of Canaan. Camped on the banks of the Jordan river, they are poised to enter the land of Promise. But before the invasion (for that is what it is) and conquest begin, there is a long pause in the action. Most of that pause is filled with Moses' farewell speeches in the book of Deuteronomy.

Here in Numbers 33 we have a recounting of the Israelites' travels told in stages.

Chapter 34 gives describes the boundaries of the territory the Israelites are to possess and a list of the tribal leaders appointed to assist Joshua and Eleazer in the work of divvying up the land.

Next: Numbers 35-36

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Numbers 31:1-32:42


Wars are fought for power, wealth, and territory, or some combination thereof. Maybe revenge, too. Self-defense and political alliances may draw nations into wars. Ideological factors such as religion, nationalism, and race may exacerbate warfare and inspire combatants. But when the violence ends and the smoke clears from the battlefield, the spoils of war are power, wealth, and territory. Maybe the satisfaction of revenge.

Numbers 31 tells of a war between the Israelites and the Midianites. Midian was a son of Abraham by his second wife, Keturah. That would make him a half-brother to Isaac and Ishamael, and an uncle, I guess, to Jacob. The point is that the Midianites and the Israelites are fairly close relatives.

We are told that this is a war of revenge, ordered by YHWH, apparently for the events of chapter 25 where Midianite women seduced Israelite men into the worship of other gods.

Phinehas, next in line to be high priest, is chosen to lead the troops against the Midianites. He has already shown just how he feels about Midianites (Numbers 25:6 ff.).

When the violence ends and the smoke clears, the Israelites have won a decisive victory and suffer no casualties. Their spoils: wealth and women. The men can keep the wealth. The women are another matter. These are, after all, the same women who were seducing the men to worship idols.  Moses orders the women killed. Except for the virgins. They can keep the virgins.

War is ugly. Although parts of the Scriptures condone war and all of its ugliness I keep in mind that Jesus, who is the final authority for Christians, said "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

I have a friend whose pickup truck sports a bumper sticker:


We could probably add, "Don't kill their women or treat their virgin daughters as spoils of war."

The prophet Balaam, he of the talking donkey, is a casualty of this war. Balaam was a prophet of YHWH. Balaam was not a Midianite. Here he is said to have advised the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men. The record concerning Balaam is mixed at best. It would appear, once more, that multiple traditions have been combined into a single, not always coherent, account.

The soldiers and their captured spoils are subjected to purification rites to cleanse themselves of the ritual impurity contracted in warfare.

In chapter 32 we read that the tribes of Gad, and Reuben, along with the half-tribe of Manassah, settle in the Trans-Jordan. The land here is good for cattle, they say. Moses balks at the request. Unwillingness to cross the Jordan is what led to the last 40 years of nomadism in the wilderness. When the Gadites, Reubenites, and Manassites offer to help the other Israelites conquer and settle Canaan, Moses gives his permission.

Towns are rebuilt. Others are conquered. The wives and children of the 2-1/2 tribes are settled. And we are ready to enter Canaan. But first....

Next: Numbers 33-34