I have no idea what I'm going find in Deuteronomy. Before I started blogging the Bible, I had at least a vague sense of the first four books of the Torah. I knew Genesis was the Garden of Eden, Tower of Babel, Abraham, etc. Exodus was 10 plagues, 10 commandments, and so forth. Leviticus was laws. Numbers, I figured, was about numbers. But Deuteronomy was vague and obscure—the Millard Fillmore of the Bible, the Torah's fifth Beatle. As far as I can remember, I've never read a word of Deuteronomy, never heard anyone recite Deuteronomy at the synagogue, never seen Deuteronomy: The Movie; never been to a Deuteronomy-themed costume party. Even its name is a riddle—what's a "Deuter," anyway?
So, I'm diving blind into the Torah's last book.
Deuteronomy is Moses' farewell tour. The book takes the form of several rambling, exceedingly long—think Fidel Castro—speeches by the prophet to his people. Here in the opening chapter, Moses recaps the Wilderness years—recalling the various stops on the schlep, mentioning a few of the bigger laws, and then rebuking the Israelites for the myriad complaints and betrayals that got them banned from the Promised Land for four decades.
I'm most struck by one of Moses' asides. While describing how he chose tribal chiefs, he mentions the Lord's promise (originally in Genesis) to make the Israelites as "numerous as the stars in the sky. May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold." Mission Not Accomplished! This survey, which tracks with other estimates I've seen, finds a worldwide Jewish population of about 13 million. According to the censuses in Numbers, there were approximately 600,000 adult male Israelites in biblical times, which implies a total Israelite population of about 2 million. In other words, Jewish population has multiplied only sevenfold—not a thousandfold—in the last 3,500 years. Total global population, by contrast, has increased 150-fold during the same time! Even assuming that the Torah exaggerated the number of Israelites by a factor of 10, Jewish population has still increased only 70-fold—less than half as much as the world's population.
What to make of our relative population failure? On the one hand, you could argue that the Israelites are a smashing success: How many Baal worshippers remain today, or Amorites or Hittites or Canaanites? The Israelites survived, which is more than their rivals did. And it's also true that, measured by power, accomplishment, and wealth, Jews are phenomenally successful—their global influence has certainly grown thousandfold. But that's not what the Torah was counting. By the biblical standard, we're failing. Jews are a demographic down arrow, an ever-smaller part of the global community. (Current Jewish population growth is close to zero.) Have we failed God, or has He failed us? Or, to ask it differently—given that it had such a head start on Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (and an equal start with Hinduism), why is Judaism such a tiny stream?
Much can be explained by the fact that Jews—unlike our Christian and Muslim cousins—don't proselytize. (Please indulge me by reading my favorite quote about our reluctance to welcome converts.) Another part of the explanation is education: Jews were early to literacy and urbanization, both factors that cut birthrates. And, of course, we've suffered catastrophic population declines because of anti-Semitism—notably the Spanish Inquisition/Diaspora and the Holocaust. Given that we were on the run—without an army or a state—from the sacking of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. until the founding of Israel in 1947, you could argue that even 13 million is a pretty impressive showing. Has any other landless group done as well? Still, we're way, way short of "thousandfold." Hmm. Maybe my wife and I should have a third kid.
In my last Numbers entry, I wondered why Moses suddenly seemed so rageful. (See: the Midianite bloodbath and his anger at Gad and Reuben.) Deuteronomy offers a clue. In Chapter 1, as he's explaining why the Lord barred the Exodus generation from the Promised Land, he discusses God's decision to keep him out as well. He tells the Israelites: "Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: 'You shall not enter it either.' " In Chapter 3, Moses repeats the same point. ("The Lord was wrathful to me on your account.") And then againin Chapter 4: "The Lord was angry at me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan." [My italics in all cases.]
Moses' blame game seems patently unfair. If you remember, back in Numbers, Chapter 20, God barred him from the Promised Land because Moses struck a rock to make it release water, rather than speaking to it as the Lord ordered. Now you can certainly object to God's punishment, since this was a pretty minor slip-up and Moses' only real mistake in 40 years, but it was unquestionably the prophet's own fault. Sure, the parched Israelites had begged for water, but they didn't prod Moses to strike the rock. He did it all by himself. Moses is so upset about missing out on the land of milk and honey that he's lashing out at the most convenient target. He can't blame God for his banishment—he's too devoted a prophet for that—and he's too proud to blame himself, so he throws the fault on the Israelites. His rage is understandable and tragic, but it tarnishes his last days with his people.
Moses' account of various conquests in the Wilderness. This chapter helps explain why the Lord took savage vengeance on the Midianites but left the whoring Moabites unpunished. During their desert crossing, apparently, God instructed the Israelites to pass peacefully through Moabite territory rather than conquer it, because the Moabites were descendants of Lot and thus occupied land given to them by God. Similarly, the Israelites didn't bother the Edomites because they're Esau's kin. King Sihon of the Amorites doesn't get off so easy: When he refuses to grant safe passage to the Israelites, they conquer his kingdom. A word Moses says here really sticks with me. "We doomed every town—men, women, and children—leaving no survivor." What a scary, freaky use of "doomed"! In modern English, "doomed" is usually a passive verb, as in: "I was doomed." See how powerful it is as an active verb—a dreadful combination of menace, violence, and inevitability.
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)