Deuteronomy 11-14

Good morning! Today’s passage (Deuteronomy 11-14) uses both the carrot of promised blessings and the stick of violent retribution to emphasize the importance of obedience to the prescribed ways of God. We also get a sense of later Israel’s concerns in these chapters which purport to address a pre-Israel people.

Chapter 11 starts out by offering a carrot of promised blessings if the people are faithful to God’s practices. Obedience in Canaan will lead to agricultural success, military triumph over enemies, and conquest of abundant, fruitful territory. The writer emphasizes the choice between blessing and curse that is the responsibility of each person and family as well as the whole community. The last verses of this chapter suggest that there were literal written blessings and curses, meant to be placed on opposite mountains in Canaan as a visual reminder to all the Hebrew descendants.

Centralized ritual practices are the focus of Chapter 12. Its opening command to destroy pagan shrines throughout the land yields to emphasis on a centralized place of worship (that is, the Temple). The location of and devotion to authorized shrines becomes part of the religious and political struggle hundreds of years hence (under King David and then debated by later kings). It feels out of place to find an argument for centralized worship here, so this is further evidence that Deuteronomy is speaking to the later concerns of Israel. This chapter gives significant space to the question of where to eat meat. This seems to acknowledge the desire of Jews to eat meat freely (a sign of the prosperity that comes later), without having to bring all meat to the tabernacle/temple for ritual slaughter before consumption. Deuteronomy here allows greater freedom of diet in a bid to gain the loyalty of those who will adhere to the temple for other religious practices (ritual offerings, sacred observances). Successfully centralizing worship was a way of maintaining identity and resisting the practices of other cultures. It also consolidates power in the hands of those who control the temple—a fact not lost on later rulers of Israel.

The stick of punishment comes out fully in chapter 13, deployed to coerce obedience to God alone. Those who hear “Moses” must resist the temptations of false prophets and diviners who would entice them away from God’s law. Even close loved ones are described as possible tempters who might draw one away to follow other gods. For this reason, chapter 13 commands the execution of prophets and loved ones who lead astray. Whole Jewish(!) towns that have drifted to worship other gods must be destroyed—this is how seriously Deuteronomy’s readers are to take the command of adherence only to Israel’s God and no other. Make an example of idolaters, Deuteronomy says, so as to deter anyone else in Israel from attempting to go astray. I find it sobering to see the “total ban” that was prescribed against the “other” (cultures) of Canaan earlier is now deployed against the “other” within Hebrew communities themselves. This foreshadows the terrible civil war that is to come centuries later in Israel, when competing sides use disagreements about proper devotion as a pretext to destroy kin of the same lineage and faith. When religious slaughter is justified against one “enemy”, it’s only too easily adapted to the new “enemies” of a later time.

Deuteronomy 14 describes other ways that “righteous” Hebrews distinguish themselves from other residents of Palestine, principally by what they participate in and what they refrain from. Jews must not cut themselves or shave their heads in response to death because “you are a people holy to the Lord” (unlike those other, unchosen people). The dietary laws about clean and unclean foods expand on laws we read earlier in Exodus. A provision for turning offerings into money for ease of traveling is another example of accommodating those who later live at some distance from an appointed shrine. One new element in Deuteronomy is the command that third-year offerings be stored within each town as provisions for Levites, orphans and widows. This is in keeping with an inclination for social justice in Deuteronomy, though such kindness goes out the proverbial window when idolatry threatens. Happy reading!

Read Deuteronomy 11-14.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Deuteronomy 15-18. Thanks for reading!

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