This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily radings along with a headline from world news:
Is a savage beheading worse than drones?
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition (NRSVACE)
Events at Horeb Recalled
1 These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan—in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. 2 (By the way of Mount Seir it takes eleven days to reach Kadesh-barnea from Horeb.) 3 In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the Israelites just as the Lord had commanded him to speak to them. 4 This was after he had defeated King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth and[a] in Edrei. 5 Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law as follows:
6 The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7 Resume your journey, and go into the hill country of the Amorites as well as into the neighbouring regions—the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, and the sea coast—the land of the Canaanites and the Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. 8 See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I[b] swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them.’
The book of Deuteronomy (A Greek name meaning “second Law”), was written at least 700 years after the supposed time of Moses. In Scottish terms that’s the distance between King Robert the Bruce and the present day. That comparison offers a clue as to the purpose of the biblical book. Any contemporary writing about Robert the Bruce would almost certainly reflect the issues of present day Scotland as well as those of the 14th century. In the same way the book of Deuteronomy reflects the issues that mattered to its writers, particularly the issue of Israel’s religion, the threat of the loss of their land to foreign powers and maybe even the experience of exile in Babylon. The generation for which the author wrote (living sometime between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE) is asked to see itself as the generation that was about to enter their land for the first time, and to recognise afresh the terms on which the land belongs to them.
PURPOSE OF THIS BOOK
Innocent bible readers often assume that all Israelites believed the story the bible tells about their history. It’s much more likely tha the bible itself is a bold attempt to persuade Israelites to adopt this version of their history as the truth. It’s quite possible that most Israelites no more thought of their land as God-given than modern Scots believe it about their land.
The whole Torah is a a radical story, telling a developed nation that it only holds its territory on sufferance; and that if it pays no heed to the commands of its God, it will be evicted. Just imagine that as a citizen of a secular state you hear some religious sect preaching such a message. How do you react? I think the odds are you’d see tem as a bunch of deluded cranks or possibly as a danger to civil society.
The main thrust of the book of Deuteronomy is to say to much later generations of Israelites that the land was not simply conquered or settled by their clan heroes; it was invaded by a united people of Israel under the effective command of God, issued by Moses. The success of the invasion was therefore more due to the almighty power of Israel’s God than to the valour of its soldiers and the wisdom of its leaders. Possession of the land, a land that once belonged to other peoples, depends on a covenant between God and the people, that they will live as God has commanded, and He will protect their right to the land.
This is a powerful and prophetic claim: that a people only possesses its territory if it resists idolatry and promotes justice. If it fails to do so, it forfeits its right to the land. How would this play in present day UK, USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia? My guess is that those who announced such a message might soon be dead, or at least in jail.
A CHARTER FOR THUGS ?
There’s a serious downside to this prophetic version of history: it makes God responsible for the foundational conquest of the land of Israel and the slaughter of its previous inhabitants. It’s almost certain that this slaughter never really took place, but the Israelites came to believe it had and that God had commanded it. This myth is still used by the State of Israel and by its Christian supporters to justify the Israeli conquest of Palestine in 1948 and its ruthless injustice to its Palestinian citizens ever since.
Used uncritically, this book is dangerous nonsense, although it contains much that is noble. The Christian Church teaches that the scriptures are not the Word of God; Jesus is the Word, and all scripture must be interpreted as witnessing to him. Moreover, this Jesus-Word which can be found in scripture is only available if we treat scripture as a divine word in human form. Just as Jesus is truly human so also is scripture: it only yields its truth to those who treat it like any human witness, subjecting it to all the disciplines of interpretation that we employ with other human writings.
Used in such a way, the ancient book may provide precious insights into the relationship of personal faith and morality to issues of social justice. This blog will follow the Common Lectionary excerpts from Deuteronomy, day by day.