The Complete Book of Deuteronomy

Moses Turns Into Jackie Mason
What's really in the Good Book.
Sept. 12 2006 5:05 PM

The Complete Book of Deuteronomy

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Chapter 21
A bunch of laws, some new, some recycled from Leviticus. There's a CSI: Judea moment at the start of the chapter: If you find the body of a murder victim in the countryside and the killer is unknown, the elders of nearby towns must measure the distance from the corpse to their village. Unfortunately, this does not help them solve the crime. It just establishes which town is responsible for the corpse. The elders of the closest town then have to find a heifer—and not just any heifer, but one that has never worked—break its neck, and wash their hands over the dead cow while declaring, "Our hands did not shed this blood." This absolves the town's blood guilt for the unsolved murder. This ritual is at once very Monty Python and oddly appealing. The contamination from a murdered, unclaimed body is so profound that it requires a superconcentrated dose of absolution, the triple cocktail of animal sacrifice and ritual hand-washing and prayer. (Sucks for the heifer, though.)

Whoa, Nelly! Here comes a law that must give biblical literalists conniptions. If you have a disobedient son, then you can take him to the elders of the town and proclaim,

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David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

"This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.

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What are we supposed to make of these son-killing guidelines? Did the Israelites ever actually carry out such child murders? How old did the son have to be? And how wayward did he have to be to qualify? And what about naughty girls?

It's particularly unsettling that Deuteronomy calmly condones the murder of children, given its earlier attacks on the Canaanites. Throughout Deuteronomy, when Moses and God explain why all Canaanites deserve to be driven from the Promised Land and murdered, their No. 1 reason is that the Canaanites practice child sacrifice. Yet here we are, stoning our own bad kids to death. Like the Chapter 13 requirement that we murder idolatrous relatives, the son-killing directive is a reminder that biblical morality is often not conservative at all, but massively, disruptively radical.

This must be obvious by now, but I might as well come right out and say it, rather than keep seething quietly. The more I read of Deuteronomy, the more I hate it. The first four books of the Bible are full of immoral behavior and divine fickleness and savage laws, but all balanced by extraordinary stories of decency and courage, the wisdom of Moses, the underlying love of God, and some of the most beautiful words you will ever read about protecting the poor, weak, and innocent. But Deuteronomy is heartless. It's so cold. All the warmth and humanity has drained away, leaving nothing but icy laws and a vengeful prophet. It's very painful to read.

Chapter 22
Of course, just after I wrote the sentences above, I encounter a passage that refutes them. Chapter 22 requires us to look after lost property—to take care of your neighbor's straying ox, to return his lost garment. It's not merely the nice thing to do—it's an obligation.

But after that brief sweet digression, we're right back to abominations. Cross-dressing—a huge no-no. Women must not wear men's clothing, and men must not wear women's clothing. It's "abhorrent."

This is soon followed by another one of those tribal sex laws that just seems barbaric today. A man marries a woman and then claims she's not a virgin. There are two possible outcomes to this, both ugly. First, her father can prove her virginity by displaying the bloody sheet. "Here is the evidence of my daughter's virginity." The falsely accusing husband is then fined and flogged. Or, second, if the charge can't be refuted, the wife is brought to her father's house and stoned to death, just like the wayward son in Chapter 21.

Chapter 23
A slim new opening for Middle East peace? Deuteronomy orders us to abhor the loathsome Moabites and Ammonites because they refused to give food and water to the wandering Israelites. Moabites and Ammonites can never be admitted as Jews, not even after 10 generations. But we must treat Egyptians respectfully. "You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land." Because they sheltered the Israelites during famine, I guess, Egyptians are almost friends, and they're allowed to join as converts after only three generations. What a change from Exodus, when God couldn't wait to scalp a few more Egyptians!

There is no matter too small for biblical concern: Verse 14 instructs soldiers where and how to bury their excrement when they relieve themselves outside of camp.

Chapter 24
Can we apply Bible stories to modern American politics? Let's try it! Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a staunch Republican and a committed Christian, married his wife, Cheri, in 1978, and they had four daughters. They divorced in 1994. She remarried, but soon divorced her second husband. Then Mitch and Cheri remarried. A heartwarming love story, right? A testament to the power of marriage and family? Not according to Deuteronomy, Chapter 24! If a husband and wife divorce, and she remarries and then divorces again, her first husband may not remarry her, "since she has been defiled—for that would be abhorrent to the Lord." Gov. Daniels, any thoughts?

The biblical fixation on female purity is always puzzling for modern readers (at least for me), but this is a particularly baffling version of it. If female chastity is what matters, doesn't the "defilement" occur when she marries her second husband? If you're going to condemn her looseness, wouldn't the second marriage be the event that troubled you? Why should the remarriage to the first husband be so offensive?

OK, so Deuteronomy isn't all stoning and abhorring. The chapter also sets forth a few more magnanimous laws. Don't punish a father for his son's sins, or a son for his father's; be generous to poor workers; leave grapes and grain in the field for the needy to scavenge; be kind to widows. And, the most poignant and lovely of these laws, it insists that a newly married man be given a year at home with his wife—"to gladden" her, as Robert Alter's translation sweetly puts it—before he has to join the army.

Chapter 25
Levirate marriage, which you remember from the Onan story, is when a man marries his dead brother's wife. If he fathers kids by her, they count as his dead brother's heirs. In Genesis, the levirate marriage is horror: When Onan refuses to impregnate his brother's widow, God smites him. In Deuteronomy, it's darkly comic rather than scary. According to the Deut, if the man refuses to marry his brother's widow, she "shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house!" The brother's house will be known as "the family of the unsandaled one." The unsandaled one?

Chapter 26
This is a very boring chapter.

Chapter 27
First came the Ten Commandments. Now here are the Twelve Curses. I had never heard of this wonderful dozen—have you? After the tribes cross the Jordan, Moses tells them, they are to array themselves at various mountains while the priests proclaim 12 curses. At the end of each curse, the people should shout "Amen." (Incidentally, this is the first occurrence of the word "Amen" in the Bible. Is it the first occurrence anywhere?) The curses are magnificent: "Cursed be he who insults his father or mother. … Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person. … Cursed be he who lies with his father's wife. … Cursed be he who accepts a bribe in the case of the murder of an innocent person," etc. The curses cover less ground than the commandments—they mostly relate to sex crimes and ethical behavior, with very little about God and obedience—but they're very exciting!

Chapter 28
Ever since the spectacular threat Moses issued at the end of Leviticus about what would happen to the Israelites if they disobeyed God, readers have been telling me: If you thought Leviticus 26 was rough, wait till you get to Deuteronomy 28. They were right! The Leviticus threats were amateur hour compared to the bottle-and-a-half-of-tequila, waving-a-loaded-pistol curses Moses unleashes here in Deuteronomy.

As in Leviticus, Moses begins with the sweetness and light, telling the Israelites the glories that await them if they obey the Lord. He begins with "blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country," and moves on from there to put benediction on children, livestock, the weather, the army, etc. "You will always be at the top and never at the bottom." Speaking as a parent, I know that it's always much more effective to talk about punishments than rewards. So, it's no surprise that Moses quickly drops the happy talk and moves on to threats. They begin calmly enough, as a simple reversal of the blessings—"Cursed shall you be in the city."—but they instantly become oh-so-much-more graphic and histrionic. Imagine being trapped in a stalled elevator with the world's most unpleasant insult comic—not just Jackie Mason, but a divinely inspired Jackie Mason—and you will have some sense of what the next 54 verses are like. Let me just pick out a few lines at random.

"You shall become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky."

"The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids [I did not make that up!] boil scars and itch, from which you shall never recover."

"You shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed."

"If you pay the bride price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her."

"The stranger in your midst shall rise above you higher and higher, while you sink lower and lower. … He shall be the head and you the tail."

"The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, which will swoop down like the eagle … a ruthless nation, that will show the old no regard and the young no mercy … it shall shut you up in all your towns throughout your land until every mighty, towering wall in which you trust has come down … you shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters that the Lord your God has assigned to you, because of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you."

"You shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In the morning you shall say, 'If only it were evening!;' and in the evening you shall say, 'if only it were morning!'—because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see."

"She who is most tender and dainty among you … the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears; she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want."

Holy hemorrhoids! Eating afterbirth! I don't think I've ever read anything as scary. I'm not easily spooked, but I actually started sweating while I was reading this. I had to stop midway through the chapter and take a break. It was a couple of days before I had the courage to finish it.

It's terrifying to contemplate a world without God. But it's almost more terrifying to contemplate a world with a God who issues such threats. If this is what our loving God would do to us, well … God help us. There are only two possible responses to this chapter: 1) Sprint over to the nearest house of worship and start "Amening"; 2) Pour yourself a very stiff drink.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Update, Friday, Sept. 15: I was wrong that Chapter 27 marks the first appearance of the word Amen in the Bible. As several eagle-eyed readers pointed out, it also appears in Numbers, 5:22, as part of the bizarre ritual to determine if a woman is an adulterer.

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