The Complete Book of Deuteronomy
Who needs a dictionary when you have Slatereaders? Thanks to all of you who refused to let me remain ignorant about the meaning of the word "Deuteronomy." It's from Greek: Prefix deutero is second, and nomos is law. "Second Law"—it sounds better in Greek, doesn't it?
The Israelites are obsessed with giants. Back in Numbers, the spies embellished their scouting report from Canaan with made-up stories of terrifying giants. In Chapter 2 of Deuteronomy, Moses mentions that the lands of the Ammonites and Moabites used to be ruled by giants. Here in Chapter 3, Moses gloats over the Israelite conquest of King Og of Bashan, the last remaining giant. Og's iron bed, Moses reports, is 13 feet long! Why were the Israelites so anxious about giants? Had they discovered huge fossil bones that they couldn't explain?
This is one of most powerful chapters in the Bible. But it sneaked up on me. The first time I read it, it sounded like just another Mosaic pep rally for the Lord: "Rah, rah, sis-boom-bah, go God!"But on second reading, I began to see its rhetorical brilliance. The chapter is a prosecutor's final speech to the jury. Moses is having his people examine all the evidence and reach the only possible verdict—in God's favor.
Like any canny lawyer, Moses relies heavily on rhetorical questions. Again and again, he puts his argument for God in the form of a query, obviously intending for the Israelites (and us) to fill in the answer. The rhetorical question is an excellent debater's trick for pulling the audience over to your side, as you can see in these examples from Moses' speech: "For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him?" He talks to them about God's Creation: "Has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known?" He sings praises to God's laws: "What great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?" He talks about Mt. Sinai. "Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?"
Moses reminds them that God has worked miracles for them—the victorious battles, the "outstretched arm and awesome power" that delivered them from the "iron blast furnace" of Egypt.
I see two purposes in Moses' fiery sermon. The first is obvious. He's making such a persuasive case for God's almighty power that the Israelites have no choice but to stick with Him when they make it to the Promised Land. Second, he's creating historical record. Moses recognizes that it's easy for his Israelite followers to heed God because the Lord has literally taken them from Egypt to the Promised Land, with miracles and signs and wonders. They've seen the divine intervention—the manna, the plagues, the snakes, the holes opening in the ground and swallowing blasphemers. And they've been guided by Moses, the prophet himself. But will their descendants, prophetless and distant from the miracles of Egypt and the wilderness, stick with the Lord?
It's no accident that the word children appears over and over in Chapter 4. Moses' great concern is the Israelites' future. He implores his people to never forget what they saw, and to teach it "to your children and your children's children." Much of the Torah reads as the ancient book it is—written to very different people, in a very different time, in a very different place. Moses' plea for remembrance and education feels profoundly urgent, and modern.
But wait, I'm not done with Chapter 4, because I still haven't mentioned my favorite part of it—namely, its spectacular case for monotheism. The Torah is not clear whether the Israelites are monotheists who think all the other gods are shams, or polytheists who think their Lord is top god. Chapter 4 is thrilling because it begins with the possibility of many gods but ends with the certainty of only one. At the start of the chapter, Moses suggests the existence of rival gods, as when he asks if any other people "has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God?" Then he asks if other peoples have ever "heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?" Both questions tacitly accept polytheism but nudge the Israelites toward thinking that their God is special. But as the chapter progresses, the other gods shrivel. Moses mocks idol-worshipping, sneering that such handmade gods "cannot see or hear or eat or smell." By the chapter's conclusion, Moses has ascended to full-on monotheism. (Again, note the prosecutorial language.) "It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God, there is none beside Him. … The Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below, there is no other." This absolutist monotheism is far more emphatic than anything we've read so far.
I know that biblical scholars believe that the author of Deuteronomy didn't write any of the first four books of the Torah. Chapter 4 is evidence that the Deuteronomist is God's most gifted salesman and sharpest lawyer.
The Deuteronomist resolves another Torah muddle in this chapter: the mystery of the Ten Commandments. Regular readers will recall my confusion over the two separate sets of commandments in Exodus. Set one, in Chapter 20, are the familiar "Thou Shalt Nots" we all know and love. But those Chapter 20 laws are not described as the "Ten Commandments," or engraved on tablets, or demarcated in any way as special. Then, in Exodus, Chapter 34, God presents Moses with a very different 10-pack of laws. The Chapter 34 laws are mostly procedural and ritualistic, concerning when to celebrate certain holidays and what offerings to give to the Lord. These dreary Chapter 34 laws, however, are called "the Ten Commandments," and, according to Exodus, Moses does carve them onto two tablets of stone.
This brings us to Deuteronomy, which now undoes the Chapter 34 laws. Here in Chapter 5, Moses reissues the Chapter 20 thou-shalt-not laws, repeating them nearly word-for-word. At the end of these 10 laws, Moses emphasizes that they are the most important commandments. He says that God spoke these Ten Commandments to the Israelites at Sinai, and—contra Chapter 34—that He then inscribed them on two tablets. According to Deuteronomy, there is no ambiguity at all. These are the Ten Commandments.
From a theological and ethical perspective, there's no question that these Ten Commandments are superior to the dull Chapter 34 rules. But I am still puzzled by the ambiguity in Exodus. Exodus is pretty clear that the Chapter 34 laws are the Ten Commandments. Was that just a mistake? Or does the disagreement between Exodus and Deuteronomy reflect a conflict between two competing visions of Judaism? Could it be that there were priests and leaders, including the author of Exodus, who believed that the Chapter 34 laws—which outline essential ritual obligations, after all—were indeed the most important rules? And could it be that Deuteronomy is attempting to refute that interpretation, and to claim that the more grand, elegant, and universal "thou shalt nots" represent the true heart of God's teaching?
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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.