Saturday, February 06, 2016

Reading in Deuteronomy This Week #2 (Chapters 12-18)

41I8byk6O9L._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_We continue reading through the book of Deuteronomy with chapters 12-18 accompanied by the commentary, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary, by Jeffrey H. Tigay. This section follows the introduction of the basic principles of the covenant between God and Israel (posted here) with a discussion of various laws that govern Israel’s society. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there. As usual, quotes from the commentary are in blue below…

Chapter 12 begins Moses' exposition of the laws he received on Sinai. This chapter focuses on how worship will change once the Israelites become secure in the promised land. The main concern is that they not adopt the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites. They must destroy the Canaanite religious sites and restrict sacrifices, festivals and other communal religous events to the one central sanctuary. Chapter 13 forbids Israel to worship other gods and adopt the religious practices of the Canaanites. The penalty for advocating or doing this was death by stoning. "Israel may worship God only in the ways He commands, no less and no more."(128)

The most distinctive feature of Moses’ presentation of the laws is the way he frequently devotes as much—or more—attention to exhorting the people to obey the laws as to presenting the laws themselves. He recognizes that people must be persuaded to obey the laws. Deuteronomy 12, 117

Keeping in mind that a prophet is God’s envoy..., if there is a discrepancy between the written text of a message and the oral version given by his envoy, the written message is authoritative and the envoy is not to be believed. Here in Deuteronomy the discrepancy is between the written text of the Decalogue and the oral claims of the false prophets. Deuteronomy 13.2-6, 129

The first part of chapter 14 deals with the maintaining of holiness in mourning practices and diet. Probably, the main point of these laws was to keep Israel separate and distinct from the surrounding nations. If they did not participate in Canaanite funerals or share table fellowship they were less likely to adopt their idolatrous and immoral practices. The second part of the chapter regulated the collecting of tithes. There were probably several tithes taken including one for supporting the Levites and priests and one providing for a great festival at the Tabernacle to celebrate God's goodness. Tithes distributed to the poor were also taken. Chapter 15 commanded provisions to be taken for the poor including cancellation of debts and limitations on indentured servitude. The chapter ends with a restatement of the requirement to offer the firstborn of their cattle to God in sacrifice, a reminder that, ultimately, everything belongs to God.

The Torah regards limitations on man’s appetite as fundamental to a proper way of life. Deuteronomy 14.3-21, 137

Servitude was an accepted fact of life in Israel as it was everywhere in the ancient world. Biblical law and ethical teachings aimed at securing humane treatment for servants. These aims are based on the Bible’s recognition of the shared humanity of master and servant and on the special empathy the Bible expects of Israelites because their ancestors were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, unique among ancient law codes, insists that servants be given rest on the Sabbath, be included in the festivities of holidays, and be protected from physical abuse and harm by their masters. Deuteronomy 15.12-18, 147–148

Chapters 16-17 mainly deal with how Israel was to be governed in the land. The most important official was God Himself, the King. The point stressed in listing the 3 festivals, Passover/Unleavened Bread, Weeks and Booths, was that the people were to come to the central place of worship (the temple) and appear before the king to recognize his authority and celebrate his bounty. The rest of 16-17 establishes a system of human authorities including judges, kings, priests and prophets. The main point was that their authority was limited to what God delegated to them, yet within that, they were to be obeyed as God was obeyed. "The pursuit of justice is an indispensable condition for God’s enabling Israel to endure and thrive in the promised land." (161) Kings, especially, were limited as the chapter focuses on the limits to king's authorty and gives them no responsibility except to cary, read and obey the torah. This proved to be wise as even the best of Israel's kings (David and Solomon) disobeyed every limitation in this chapter and began the process that led to the exile and destruction of Israel.

God is Israel’s king, and His subjects must appear before Him regularly to acknowledge His sovereignty, just as subjects of a human suzerain were required to acknowledge his sovereignty by appearing before him regularly at his residence. Deuteronomy 16, 159

Prominence is given to the limits established by God on the rights of each authority. By dispersing authority and prestige among various officials and limiting their powers, Deuteronomy seeks to prevent the development of a single, strong focus of prestige and power. Deuteronomy 16.18-17.13, 159

The only positive responsibility that Deuteronomy assigns the king is copying and studying God’s Teaching. The aim of this law is to limit the king’s power and to characterize him as essentially an optional figurehead who is as much subject to God’s law as are the people as a whole. These aspects of the law were very influential in the development of western constitutional monarchy.  Deuteronomy 17.14-20, 166

Chapter 18 focuses on the most important human authorities: the Levitical priests and prophets. The chapter focuses on the support of the priests (1-8) and the institution of prophecy (9-22). The duties of the priests are more extensively covered in Leviticus. The prophet was to be the most authoritative human office in the OT. Moses promises that God will raise up the institution of prophecy to function as the messenger of their real king, God. They spoke to the mundane, such as finding lost sheep, to the foundational, such as national religious and government policy. They were to avoid the manipulative magic of the surrounding nations and submit themselves to waiting to hear from God on the issues they addressed. The people were to be discerning and test the veracity of the prophet but then were to obey the words of a true prophet as those of God.

Israel is to turn to prophets for the services that pagans seek from diviners and magicians. Since prophets are raised up by God, who will put His word in their mouths, they are His agents, and by turning to them one turns to God. Deuteronomy 18.15, 175

The prophet’s role is not limited to mantic and quasi-magical activities, responding to pleas for information and assistance. His primary role is as God’s messenger and spokesman (see Comment to 13:2), communicating God’s will in all matters of national life, including religion and domestic and foreign affairs. He is, in essence, the envoy through whom God, the divine king, governs Israel. Deuteronomy 18.18, 176

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