Monday, February 08, 2016

Reading in Deuteronomy This Week #3 (Chapters 19-28)

41I8byk6O9L._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_I am continuing reading through the book of Deuteronomy accompanied by the commentary, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary, by Jeffrey H. Tigay. This section, chapters 19-28 completes the section on the obligtions the covenant places on the people of Israel. Earlier discussions are posted here and here.  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…

The subject of chapter 19 turns to how to handle different types of criminal cases. First, it deals with setting up cities of refuge to handle murder cases. The main focus is that fair trials are provided and assured so that the innocent (deaths were accidental) are acquitted and the guilty are punished. Then it forbids the moving of property boundary markers. This was seen by the rabbis to prevent "unfair competition that encroaches on another’s livelihood and other rights." (183) False witnesses were to be dealt with harshly. After investigation establishing their guilt, they were to receive the punishment they wanted the offended person to get. Finally the "eye for an eye" approach to punishment limited the sentence to make the punishment fit the crime.

“An eye for an eye” is not a requirement for exacting vengeance in kind (as it is often popularly misunderstood), but a limitation of such vengeance: it may not exceed the original injury.  Deuteronomy 19.21, 185

Chapter 20 placed limitations on the ways Israel was allowed to make war. The underlying principle of this chapter is that God the king leads them into war and provides the victory. They did not need to fight motivated by fear. Deuteronomy seems to presuppose that Israel will not have a standing army but will be defended by militias that are called to service when the nation is in danger. The chapter provides for deferments in certain cases and for more humane treatment of captives and the trees and fields surrounding defeated cities. The only exceptions were the Canaanite cities which were to be totally destroyed.

Most of the laws about war limit the prerogatives of the military by defining who may be sent to war and what may be done to conquered cities and their populations. Harsh as some of them are in the light of modern ideals (though not modern practice), they limit wanton destruction of life and property and are the oldest known rules of war regulating the treatment of conquered people and territory. Deuteronomy 20.1-20, 185

To Deuteronomy, the Canaanites’ guilt in practicing child sacrifice—that is, ritual murder—underscored the necessity of forestalling their influence and eliminated any doubt that they deserved annihilation. The frequency with which enemy populations were annihilated in the ancient world made this seem an acceptable way of eliminating the danger. The basis of this policy is not ethnic but behavioral; 13:16 requires that Israelite cities that lapse into paganism be treated the same way. Deuteronomy 20.15-18, 189

Chapters 21-22 continue the discussion of laws that would make Israel a better society. First, it dealt with an unsolved murder by proscribing a ritual to deal with the "blood-guilt" of the city. Murder was seen as a very serious offense that morally "polluted" the land and society. Verses 10-14 protect women that were captured in battle from being mistreated. It required the captor to assume the moral obligations of having a sexual relationship even with a slave woman. The rest of the two chapters dealt with laws dealing with other miscellaneous society issues including limitations of punishment for offenders, the obligation to help one another, staying within the boundaries God has placed on creation, protection of marriage and conservation. The goal of many of these laws is uncertain and caution should be maintained in interpretation.

This law requires a soldier who wishes to marry a captive woman to show consideration for her feelings. He must allow her to adjust to all that has happened by bringing her back to his home and waiting a month before marrying her. In case he later becomes dissatisfied with her, he may not reduce her to slavery. A significant aspect of this law is its respect for the personhood of the captive woman and the moral obligations created by initiating a sexual relationship with her. Deuteronomy 21.10-14, 194

This law and that in v. 4 require assisting one’s fellow (your brother) in certain situations where he faces difficulty or possible economic loss...This reminder that the owner of the animal is one’s kinsman counters the temptation to ignore his problem because it would be inconvenient or expensive to return, feed, or lift the animal.  Deuteronomy 22.1-4, 199

Halakhic literature sees it as an example of an obligation to block or remove anything on one’s property that is capable of causing death, such as a pit, a faulty ladder, or a vicious dog; and to personally avoid potentially harmful food and drink and other risky practices. It has recently been argued that the principle underlying this obligation would support a ban against smoking. Deuteronomy 22.8, 201

The phrase ("she did a shameful thing in Israel") expresses the importance of sexual morality as a feature of Israel’s national character. Deuteronomy 22.21, 206

The discussion of miscellaneous laws continues in chapters 23-25. What seems to bind these laws together is the holiness required of a nation in which God is the king and very present in their every day lives. Some of the laws are practical such as how to receive foreigners into Citizenship and the need to build a latrine outside the camp. Others were meant to show respect for the king like keeping vows and the rejection of donations from the profits of immoral activity. Most of the laws deal with protecting the rights and needs of the poor and powerless.

Vowing is a purely voluntary activity, by no means required by God, and there is no penalty for not making vows; but once a vow is made, delay in fulfilling it is hypocritical and disrespectful. Implicit in this verse is a teaching that vows are not necessary for securing God’s aid or remaining in His favor. Deuteronomy, 23.23, 219

Borrowers were usually impoverished and would often have few possessions left apart from clothing and necessary household items. This limited the creditor’s choice of objects to distrain. The aim of the Torah’s laws about distraint is to ensure that in such circumstances, the creditor’s legitimate right to repayment is subordinated to the survival and dignity of the debtor.  Deuteronomy 24.6, 223

The promise and the warning (see also verse 15) rest upon the conviction that God is the ultimate patron of the powerless: although they cannot personally reward those who are kind to them or punish those who mistreat them, they have the recourse of God, who will heed their wishes. Deuteronomy 24.13, 226

Chapters 26-27 focus on covenant ceremonies that the people of Israel must perform when they get to the land to remind them that they are the people of God because they have been loved and chosen by God. Everything they have is a gift from God for which they must show their thankfulness by being generous to those in need as God was to them. These blessings are only received and maintained when, as the people of God, they live their daily lives in accordance with God's instructions. If they do not live under God's law, they will experience the curses of the covenant.

The ceremony consists of two parts, verses 3–4 and 5–10. In the first, the farmer declares that he has entered the land that God promised Israel’s ancestors, and thereby acknowledges that God has fulfilled His promise...In the second part of the ceremony the farmer recalls the landless beginnings of Israel’s ancestors and their settlement in Egypt as aliens. Then, identifying himself with the Israelites who were enslaved, redeemed, and given the promised land, he acknowledges that the produce he has brought is the yield of the fertile land that God gave him. He thereby acknowledges that the same God who has guided his nation’s history is the source of the land’s fertility. Deuteronomy 26.1-11, 238

The present passage sums up Israel’s duty to obey them wholeheartedly and underscores the fact that they are more than details of a legal code. They are the basis of the mutual relationship that God and Israel have established. The relationship is not a purely emotional or spiritual association, but entails mutual obligations with consequences. Deuteronomy 26.16-19, 244

Three ceremonies are to be performed in the land...The purpose of these ceremonies is indicated by verse 1: to inaugurate Israel’s life in the promised land with acts that dramatically express the message that its life must be based on obedience to God’s Instruction. Deuteronomy 27, 246–247

Finally the blessings and curses of the covenant are laid out in chapter 28. Basically the idea is that if the Israelites obey God will protect them from famine, disease and human enemies. He will make them unusually prosperous. However, if they disobey, these protections will be removed and they will be subject to the same curse as the rest of the world. Beyond that God will even incite their enemies against them and disperse Israel in exile. The curses are laid out in long and excruciating detail as a motivation to choose the right way of obedience to God and His covenant.

The theme of the curses and threats is that God will turn nature and foreign nations against Israel, reversing all the blessings and, ultimately, reversing Israel’s own history of deliverance from bondage. These warnings are presented in repeated, seemingly endless detail that aims to impress indelibly the consequences of disobedience on the mind and heart of the audience. Their desired effect is shown by the reaction of King Josiah, who tore his clothes in grief when he heard them, as related in 2 Kings 22:11, 19. Deuteronomy 28, 261

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