The Complete Book of Deuteronomy
Welcome to a special false-prophet edition of Blogging the Bible, featuring nefarious necromancers, sinister soothsayers, demonic diviners, obtuse oracles, spurious sorcerers, and one—count 'em, one—true prophet! Chapter 13 kicks off with Moses warning the Israelites about any self-styled prophet who encourages them to follow another god. The Israelites must resist this snake, even if his predictions come true. (Remember this point—it's important a few chapters later.)
Then, for perhaps the 387th time in Deuteronomy, Moses goes off on the blasphemers and idol-worshippers. It's the usual speech—blessings for the faithful, certain death for the heretics—but then it takes a sharp turn. Moses suddenly starts talking about what to do if "your brother … or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend" urges you to worship a rival god. Moses leaves no ambiguity about how to treat the family infidel: "Show him no pity or compassion … but take his life. Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death."
In the popular imagination, the Bible is the most conservative of all books. But passages like this one are a reminder that the focus on the Good Book's "traditional morality" blinds us to its radical morality. According to Deuteronomy, fidelity to God is so much more important than family that it's better to murder your friend or wife or child than to tolerate their faithlessness. I don't think this is what people mean when they talk about the Bible's "family values." (A friend of mine told me about a similar passage in the New Testament—one that calls on believers to cast aside their own families for Christ. True?)
As a survival strategy, I suppose intolerance made sense for the Israelites. If they'd defected left and right to Baal, I'd probably be a Canaanite today. Today, a few groups still follow the Deuteronomy principles. Various Jewish and Christian sects—and occasional cults—do wall themselves off and demand that adherents break ties to nonbelievers (but not murder them). These groups sometimes survive, and occasionally even thrive, but they're outliers in our freewheeling, tolerant, religious marketplace.
Chapter 14 through Chapter 16
These chapters repeat various rules, rites, and laws outlined in the first four books. All the dietary restrictions, again. That "Sabbath year" every seven years, again. The big holiday celebrations for Passover, Succoth, and Shavuot, etc. There's a lovely line at the end of Chapter 16, in a section describing the appointment of judges. "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you." Like all good writers, the Bible's authors often repeat a word to emphasize it. (For example, when God stops the sacrifice of Isaac by calling "Abraham, Abraham.") That repetition works spectacularly with "justice." I also love the verb "pursue," which captures both the persistence required for doing justice and the possibility of failure—what if you pursue justice but don't catch it?
The Torah's first four books were not terribly interested in secular power. Yes, Moses appointed judges and named Joshua as his successor, but the books ignored the day-to-day workings of government. Deuteronomy is different. It seems to have been intentionally written to reinforce institutional power. Historians believe that Deuteronomy was written later than the other books, after Israel had become an established kingdom. It's easy to see that in the text. Gone are the idiosyncratic decisions of Moses and the unruly appeals to God found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. In their place stand officials, bureaucracies, hierarchies, and rules. Needless to say, this makes Deuteronomy a lot less charming than the other books. It is the Bible as written by the deputy assistant associate attorney general for intergovernmental affairs.
This bureaucrat mind-set dominates Chapter 17. For example, it describes the judicial process for a difficult case, adding a new layer of appeal: If a regular judge can't resolve the dispute, the case is kicked up to a special class of priests who render final judgment—in other words, a Supreme Court. The next section of the chapter enumerates the qualifications for kingship. Until now, the Bible hasn't paid attention to how the Promised Land will be permanently governed (except for the anointing of Joshua as Moses' successor). But this chapter instructs the Israelites to choose a king to govern them. The king's chief qualifications: He shouldn't have too many horses, too much gold and silver, or too many wives.
OK, back to prophets, false and true. Moses promises the Israelites that God will raise up another prophet like himself. The Lord will put His words in this man's mouth, and the Israelites should heed him. How will we know that he's a true prophet? Why, it's easy, Moses says. The proof is in the results. When the genuine prophet says something will happen, it will happen. When the charlatan prophesies that something will happen, it won't happen.
Sounds good, doesn't it? But hold on, Moses! Let's flip back to Chapter 13, when you warned the Israelites not to believe false prophets whose prophecies do come true. This is terribly confusing. According to Chapter 13, you can be a false prophet even if your prophecies come true. But according to Chapter 18, prophecies coming true is how to distinguish the true prophet from the false ones! Ack!
On to a less tendentious, and more ignorant, question: Who is the prophet mentioned here? Is there just one such prophet? Or are there many such prophets? Do Jeremiah and the other various prophets of the Old Testament all count? Also, is this foretold prophet the same as the Messiah? Or is the Messiah someone completely different?
A sublime passage. Before battle, Deuteronomy says, the priests must walk through the army's ranks, asking if any of the soldiers has a house that he has built but not consecrated, a vineyard that he has planted but not harvested, or a woman he has paid a bride-price for but not married. Anyone who does is sent home, so that, in case he is killed in battle, another man won't occupy his house, or harvest his crops, or marry his girl. It's a gorgeous moment, at once sweet and dark. It's lovely in the way it recognizes that young men must get the chance to live, to taste the joy of life, before the state demands that they die for it. Back in Numbers, the census only counted Israelites over 20, because that's the age when men became warriors. When I read that, I noted how high that age seemed, given that we fill our army with 18-year-olds. Perhaps this passage explains why the Israelites didn't take teenagers into the army. At 20, you can be married, the father of a child, the owner of a house. It's much harder to do that at 18. (Even 3,500 years ago, it was much harder.) Forgive this modern reference: I find it heartbreaking to read about soldiers killed in Iraq who leave behind wives and children. But I find it even more heartbreaking to read about soldiers killed in Iraq who don't leave behind wives and children—the soldiers too young to have them, dead before they have consecrated their house, harvested their vineyard, or married their sweetheart.
The remainder of Chapter 20 is pure bitterness. Moses establishes the rules for conquest. A city must be offered the chance to surrender. If it does, all its citizens must serve as forced laborers. If it fights, then all its men will be executed when the battle ends and all the women and children taken as booty. But—and what a but this is!—these forgiving rules don't apply to the cities within the Promised Land. In those cities, "you shall not let a soul remain alive."
But environmentalists, check this out: You should kill all the babies, murder the girls and boys, put the women to the sword—but you can't pull a leaf off a tree. Yup, it's God's direct order: no cutting down any trees in enemy orchards. And this is a moral rather than utilitarian decision. It has nothing to do with preserving the tree for your own future harvest. Rather, chopping down trees is forbidden because the trees can't make the choice to flee. But isn't this a weird sort of morality, which says that trees should be spared because they have no choice about where they're rooted, but every baby and child must be massacred?
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.