The Complete Book of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy's Gory Finish
What's really in the Good Book.
Sept. 15 2006 6:19 PM

The Complete Book of Deuteronomy

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In my last entry, I cavalierly dismissed Deuteronomy, Chapter 26 as "very boring." All of Chapter 26's relatives, high-school classmates, ex-wives, co-workers, and attorneys have since contacted me to complain that I have slandered the poor, innocent chapter, which they insist is as enthralling as the Golden Calf, as sexy as the Garden of Eden, as profound as the Ten Commandments. Forgive me, 26—I didn't mean to make you feel so bad.

Chapter 29
You can almost smell the end of Deuteronomy. Moses and God are winding up for the big finish. Moses gathers all the Israelites for a final speech, telling them that now is the moment they seal their covenant with God before crossing into the Promised Land. I must admit I'm confused about this covenant business. God made a bunch of binding covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of which He applied to their descendants. He also made covenants with the Israelites when—and forgive me if I forget one or two—they left Egypt, they received the Commandments at Mt. Sinai, He decided not to wipe them out after transgressing in the wilderness, and now here again, when they're about to cross into Canaan. Why does He need so many binding covenants, all of which say virtually the same thing? Isn't the whole point of a binding covenant that it's binding—that it lasts forever and doesn't need to be renegotiated every few chapters?

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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This chapter makes a neat, and unsettling, shift in time. Instead of looking forward from the present day, as the rest of the Torah does, it looks back from the future. It imagines grandchildren coming across the sulfurous, burning, desolate land and wondering what happened. We can change our fate—preventing a divine brimstone barrage—only by sticking to our faith. (It reminds me of the gloomy time-travel scenes in the Terminator movies. I intend that as a very high compliment!)

I love the final sentence of the chapter: "Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching." The Israelites don't believe in thought crime! The community must punish public wrongdoing. But God will take care of private sin and bad thoughts. This is, you could argue, the first right to privacy.

Chapter 30
This chapter has a beautiful and comic moment. For all of Deuteronomy (and most of Leviticus and Numbers before it), Moses has been jabbering on about various nuances in the law—he has battered us with thousands of rules, hundreds of warnings, dozens of anecdotes. But now, frustrated and near death, he boils all of God's teaching down to a single sentence. As he does it, he sounds very much like a high-school football coach giving a halftime pep talk to his underperforming team:  It is "not too baffling for you. … It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'who among us can go up to the heavens that get it for us and impart it to us?'… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart." Look, it's simple, people! It's a choice between "love and prosperity" and "death and adversity." All you need to do to win is this:

To love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you.

That's it! (I can imagine the Israelites muttering: Now he tells us! Why couldn't he have said this before all those rules about lepers?)

Moses' "Love the Lord your God" instruction sounds incredibly familiar to me. Why is that? It has the simple clarity of a lot of Christ's sayings. Did Jesus borrow this line for the New Testament?

And Moses isn't done with the Power Point-style, one-line summaries. A couple verses later, he issues another one: "Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—by loving the Lord." This one is familiar, too. But maybe that's just because I have seen the opening scene of Trainspottingtoo many times.

Chapter 31 and Chapter 32
God summons Moses for one last confab before the prophet passes on. He predicts that His people will stray again and so tells Moses he has one final responsibility: He must teach a poem to the Israelites. Even when they fall away from God and flirt with idols, they will remember the poem. The poem is a lyrical recounting of the ur-Torah story: God loves His people, but they are "dull and witless." He takes care of them, but they grow "fat and gross and coarse." They spurn and vex him, making sacrifices to "demons, no-gods." The Lord dispatches the usual plagues, famine, and pestilence against His people. He could obliterate them ("reduce them to naught"), but He doesn't. Instead, He redeems His people, crushes the enemy—"I will make My arrows drunk with blood, as My sword devours flesh"—and cleanses the Promised Land. There's nothing new in here—we've heard this tale of human frailty and God's redemption 67 times before—but it's gorgeous, even the really gory parts.

Chapter 33
Moses says goodbye to the Israelites and blesses each of the tribes. This is a biblical parallel so obvious that even I get it: This scene mirrors the end of Genesis, when dying Jacob blesses each of his sons. The Mosaic blessings are very similar to the Jacobean ones, from the ripe animal metaphors—Dan is "a lion's whelp" and Joseph "a firstling bull"—to the explanations for the geographical location and economic interests of the tribes (i.e., Asher is said to bathe his foot in olive oil because the land where Asher settled is rich in olives).

I suppose this parallelism is meant to ratify Moses' place in the pantheon with Jacob. I actually think it's a shame that Moses has to struggle to keep even with the Patriarchs. Unlike Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is not the literal, biological father of the Israelites, and Judaism sometimes treats him as a secondary figure. In the most common prayers—the only ones I know—we often invoke Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but rarely Moses. Yet Moses is so much more interesting, powerful, and good than they are. It's Moses who shaped the Israelites into a nation, led them to Israel, and gave them their laws—the three acts that still define us today. It's a pity that the Patriarchs get to overshadow him, for essentially genealogical reasons.

Here's a deathbed scene to remember. After the Ten Commandments, countless episodes of begging for God's mercy, some of the most eloquent appeals for justice and decency the world has ever known, these are Moses' very last words, spoken to his people: "Your enemies shall come cringing before you, and you shall tread on their backs." That's the way to go, Moses—kicking 'em when they're down!

Chapter 34
Moses climbs Mt. Nebo and dies. The Israelites mourn for 30 days. OK, forget what I said two paragraphs ago about Moses' low status compared with the Patriarchs. The final words of the Torah remind us that Moses was the last of his kind. Never again will there be a prophet like him, a man who can talk to God face to face.

So, that's the end of the Torah, the five most important books in Judaism. But the end of the Torah does not mean the end of Blogging the Bible. There is so much more to come—Prophets, Kings, Psalms, etc. I know even less about them than I knew about Genesis-Deuteronomy. (And what about Job? I have never read the book of Job! Can you believe it?) My first problem: What translation to use? The Etz Hayim I've been reading only covers the Torah. What Bible translation should I read now? Suggestions welcome at plotzd@slate.com.