Blogging The Bible

Why Does Moses Keep Threatening the Israelites?

Chapter 6
I was wrong. I have heard Deuteronomy in the synagogue before. In fact, I’ve heard Deuteronomy every time I’ve ever been to synagogue. That’s because, as I discovered today, the Shema—the most famous of all Jewish prayers—comes from Chapter 6. It begins: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” (Again Deuteronomy is preaching the absolute monotheism the other books of the Torah only hint at.) 

Then, just a few paragraphs after the Shema, here’s another passage I’ve heard many times before—the instructions for what you tell your children when they ask about the Exodus from Egypt. We recite these verses every year during the Passover Seder.

I don’t think it’s any accident that so much of Judaism’s ritual language comes from Deuteronomy. (There are several other examples in today’s reading that I’m not even mentioning.) Deuteronomy seems intentionally written as a CliffsNotes or sourcebook for Judaism. The other four books of the Torah are choppy and episodic. Their moral lessons are haphazard and hard to discern. Even Leviticus, for all its laws, is a jumble. But Deuteronomy is as tightly organized as a Supreme Court brief. There are no sloppy asides, no incoherent stories with talking asses, no inconsistent patriarchs. In fact, there are no people of any kind. It’s all argument—an attempt to knit the chaos of the first four books, that random array of laws and stories, into a single coherent theology. Deuteronomy is called “Second Law” because it’s a second try at the same material—but this time stripped down to the bone, with all the stories and ambiguities and confusion cut out. It pounds home the same points over and over and over again: 1) There is only one God; 2) All idol-worshippers will be destroyed by God; 3) When you prosper in the Promised Land, you’d better not forget God; 4) Teach your children about God, or else; 5) Oh, and did I mention that all idol-worshippers will be destroyed by God? 

Chapter 7
Lots of brutal threats against those who stray from the Lord and worship idols—instant destruction, etc. Moses also offers detailed instructions for wiping out the many nations opposed to Israel: Sign no treaties with those heathens and show them no mercy. Kill them all, smash their altars, and chop down their sacred trees. This uncompromising language about the enemy appears in just about every chapter of Deuteronomy. (I must have read that “smash the altars” line half a dozen times.)

Even more than Numbers, Deuteronomy reminds us that the Torah is not yearning for brotherhood and equality. The jolly ecumenical spirit promoted in every synagogue and church today is nowhere to be found. It’s us against them. Even the Ten Commandments, now claimed as universal laws—only seem to apply to the Israelites. Thou Shalt Not Kill—except that thou shalt kill all those Hittites and Girgashites and Jebusites. It’s a very brutal approach to the world but one that must have made sense to a small tribe always on the verge of being conquered.

Chapter 8
Another Deuteronomy line that everyone knows: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

I know that President Bush is an avid Bible reader. I hope he and his speechwriters have been poring over Deuteronomy. Here’s why: We don’t have the resources to start another war right now, but we still need to force our enemies to behave. If Bush is drafting a speech that will scare the bejesus out of the Iranians (or perhaps, scare the bemuhammad out of them), he should look no further than the Deut. It’s one long threat! A few highlights, chosen practically at random from the thunderous verses of Chapter 7 and 8.

“I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.”orWe “shall obliterate their name from under the heavens.” or”God will also send a plague against them, until those who are left in hiding perish before you.”or”The Lord’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out.”

How do Deuteronomy’s imprecations fit together with the book’s sublime prayers like the Shema? They don’t! And that’s what confuses me. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde of a book. The Shema, which orders us to love God with all our heart and mind, is quickly followed by rip-their-guts-out Saw-like cursing from God and Moses. That’s how the whole book has gone so far: Gorgeous invocations to faith alternate with saber-rattling and lightning bolts. It’s like a biblical good-cop, bad-cop routine. I suppose it’s effective, because it keeps you off balance. In any given moment, it’s not clear if you are supposed to love God or fear Him, so you’d better do both.

Chapter 9 and Chapter 10
Moses is mean. The closer he is to death, the more bitter he gets. His most savage moment comes at the beginning of Chapter 9, as he explains to the Israelites why the Lord is allowing them to conquer Canaan. Listen:

Say not to yourselves, “The Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues”; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations [in Canaan] that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. … Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiffnecked people. Remember, never forget, how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the wilderness; from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have continued defiant toward the Lord, etc. etc.

This is new-stepmother mean. This is vice-principal mean. He goes on and on in this vein for two whole chapters—listing all the Israelites’ mistakes and heresies—that golden calf, again—and how he kept protecting their sorry selves from God. (“Again you provoked the Lord. … As long as I have known you, you have been defiant to the Lord.”) The kindness and humility of Moses have entirely vanished in Deuteronomy, replaced by raging, saliva-spitting resentment.

What’s the reason for Moses’ insults and putdowns? I can think of two. First, they’re a natural human reaction to his situation: He’s dying, he’s disappointed, and he’s jealous of the Israelites who will cross into the Promised Land, so he’s laying into them.

Second: It’s a canny way to keep the Israelites motivated. Think of their position. God has told them they’re going to conquer Canaan with ease. They’re finally leaving the blasted desert for a land flowing with milk and honey, where life will be easy, the figs will be juicy, and the olive oil will be virginal. They’ve got their great laws, their great general Joshua, their ark, their commandments. They’re feeling pretty smug! Of course they think they deservethe Promised Land. Moses is vilifying them in order to dent that complacency. If they get cocky, they’ll lose their edge. They’ll go soft. They’ll fall for other gods. Better they be angry and hungry than fat and happy.

Chapter 11
Moses—the first spokesman for the Israeli tourist board! He gives a heroic sales pitch for the Holy Land. The Torah has already offered up plenty of generic “lands of milk and honey.” But the prophet pours it on in Deuteronomy. In this chapter, he says that the Promised Land “soaks up its water from the rain of heaven.” There will be rain for crops early in the season and late in the season. God will “provide grass in the field for your cattle—thus you shall eat your fill.” Back in Chapter 8 he gave an even riper spiel. “A land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing.” I’ve been to Israel a couple of times, and my wife’s Israeli—it’s a fantastic country. So, please don’t take this the wrong way when I say: This has the stench of Florida real estate salesman about it. Israel is many things, but it is not a country of natural abundance and easy farming. Though compared to the Sinai desert, it must have seemed like paradise!

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