Monthly Archives: September 2015

Deuteronomy 12: Expounding on the Law

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

 Deuteronomy 12

1 These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to occupy all the days that you live on the earth.

                2 You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. 3 Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places. 4 You shall not worship the LORD your God in such ways. 5 But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, 6 bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. 7 And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you.

                8 You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires, 9 for you have not yet come into the rest and the possession that the LORD your God is giving you. 10 When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so that you live in safety, 11 then you shall bring everything that I command you to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, and all your choice votive gifts that you vow to the LORD. 12 And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you together with your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levites who reside in your towns (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you).

13 Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. 14 But only at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes– there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command you.

15 Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer. 16 The blood, however, you must not eat; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. 17 Nor may you eat within your towns the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, the firstlings of your herds and your flocks, any of your votive gifts that you vow, your freewill offerings, or your donations; 18 these you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God at the place that the LORD your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God in all your undertakings. 19 Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.

                20 When the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, “I am going to eat some meat,” because you wish to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you have the desire. 21 If the place where the LORD your God will choose to put his name is too far from you, and you slaughter as I have commanded you any of your herd or flock that the LORD has given you, then you may eat within your towns whenever you desire.     22 Indeed, just as gazelle or deer is eaten, so you may eat it; the unclean and the clean alike may eat it. 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat. 24 Do not eat it; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. 25 Do not eat it, so that all may go well with you and your children after you, because you do what is right in the sight of the LORD. 26 But the sacred donations that are due from you, and your votive gifts, you shall bring to the place that the LORD will choose. 27 You shall present your burnt offerings, both the meat and the blood, on the altar of the LORD your God; the blood of your other sacrifices shall be poured out beside the altar of the LORD your God, but the meat you may eat.

                28 Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.

                29 When the LORD your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, 30 take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” 31 You must not do the same for the LORD your God, because every abhorrent thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. 32 You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it.


In the first eleven chapters of Deuteronomy we heard the story of the people of Israel re-narrated, the Ten Commandments re-stated and some of the central practices highlighted for the people to hear and know. Beginning in chapter twelve we begin to see these practices expanded upon and within these commandments the practices that form the people to live out of this command are expressed. The exposition of chapters 12-26 roughly follows the pattern of the Ten Commandments with twelve and thirteen referring back to having no other Gods. As the author of Deuteronomy reflects upon how the people of Israel will live out these commandments in the Promised Land they will impact the everyday life of the community. As Deanna Thompson can state, “These laws concern practical matters of worship, politics, economics, business and judicial practices, sexuality and marriage, family life and relationships.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 113)  The people of Israel were not attempting to create a community that happened to have a few religious practices but rather a community shaped by the covenant with their God and practices deriving from the Ten Commandments and the Shema where their lives are oriented around serving and loving their LORD. This is the beginning of a contextual theology where they try to understand how to form a people around these principles.

Part of covenant loyalty is celebration and feasting. It may seem strange to us that a chapter which is oriented on not worshipping other gods is so heavily concerned with eating together as a community but this is part of where identity is formed. The people are to come together for their offering and the offerings are not just burned up, they are eaten together with the priests and with others around the gathering place. Much like people gather together and tailgate before sporting events and they celebrate their common identity around a sports team, eating has always been a part of the celebrations around worship. One of the struggles of religious communities in a secular world has been the displacement of festival eating to other places, but it is not something that is gone from every religious tradition. My congregation is located next to a Hindu temple and they gather together to eat together frequently, especially on Saturdays. Orthodox Jews have a festival almost every month where they come together as community and part of that celebration is eating. Rather than allowing family and friendships to be the only places where people gather to eat if this is going to be a community that is able to love God and love their neighbor they need to come together to worship and eat together.

Priests for the Hebrew people also served a functional role as butchers in the land. Their job was not isolated from the dirty aspects of life, they may not have had farms and flocks to manage but they were woven into the agricultural system through their cultic role of preparing and offering the sacrifices of the flocks and fields. There will be stories of wandering Levites throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and while a part of their role was probably as story teller, the other part of their role is to make sure that the meat is properly prepared.

Deuteronomy also recognizes the struggle of distance in a larger community prior to the advent of motorized transportation. Most people probably did not make it in to the tabernacle or later temple for more than the occasional festival. People who lived in the rural areas certainly could not worship weekly at the tabernacle once the people were dispersed in the land. Distances made the journey impossible on foot very frequently while managing fields and flocks. So people are allowed to eat meat at times other than celebrations if it is available, and they are given only the restriction that they are not to eat the blood. These practices had less to do with health concerns and were about a recognition of their lives dependence upon the provision of the LORD. These actions have meaning assigned to them: “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat.” (Deuteronomy 12: 23) The blood is to be poured out before the LORD since the LORD is the source of life, but the people are not to consume the life since their life is derivative not of the animals that are killed but on the LORD their God.

The worship of the LORD is contrasted with the worship of other gods in relation to their practices as well. They are to come together, to offer their first fruits, their goodwill offerings and other offerings and to eat together and enjoy they bounty of the LORD in their land. The worship is primarily a gift to the gathered people and a celebration of their unity under the LORD. The worship of other gods may have been attractive in many aspects to the Hebrew people, but ultimately those practices are not to be followed. Especially the practice of child sacrifice is lifted up as something abhorrent to their LORD. In many cases the offering of a child was viewed as offering the very best to the deity which it was offered to, but the LORD is not a God who demands child sacrifices. Even the troubling story of Genesis 22 where the LORD commands Abraham to offer Isaac ends with the angel of the LORD providing the lamb instead of Isaac for the offering.

Often our identity is formed by the things we don’t do and the things we consciously do. As people of the LORD they do:

  • Gather together at a common place of worship and offer sacrifices
  • Gather together to eat and celebrate around this worship and sacrifice
  • Bring their donations to the LORD
  • Eat meat in their communities when they desire

But there are also things they do not do:

  • They do not allow other worship sites to remain in their land
  • They do not eat blood
  • They do not worship other deities
  • They do not sacrifice children.

The Limit of Words

Sometimes in the deep wounds of the world
Those places where the spirit is reduced to groans
Where words only have the power to inflame and incite
And the cry of lament is still unspeakable
Living in the shock of the brutality of reality
Seeing the pain that you cannot stop
Or reeling from the hole that resides in your soul
Where the limit of words are reached
And tears speak a language of their own.
Those places where logic fails and poetry perishes
Where death steals away life too soon
And violence destroys the beauty of the ages
Where trust is overcome in betrayal
The deep wounds of the world that cry out
In sobs that surpass the limit of words

Minding the Flow

Trinity River in Texas

Trinity River in Texas

There was a time when the words flowed from the pen
Like rivers of inky thought rushing toward the paper sea
And the flow revealed the gems and minerals buried
Within the rumbling currents of thought.
One day the waters stopped flowing
Dammed up by the constraints of time and productivity
Caught up behind the logjams of life
Too long untended and they quickly grew stagnant
But I’m learning to mind the flow again
Clearing away the detritus that prevented the flow
Slowly finding the silence to hear the water’s song
To prospect again in the sediment deposited on the shore
Rather than acting as if the waters need to be contained
Shutting them inside as if mindful of a drought
Instead to let the flow down and fill up the vacant pages
Not expecting that every exploration will yield up new surprises
Learning to merely enjoy the rhythm of the river again
Minding the flow, mining the shore, swimming in the shallows
Diving into the depths and sharing in the experience
Letting the words flow again and take their own course
As the paper seas begin once again to be filled with images

Neil White, 2015

Deuteronomy 11: Blessings and Curses

Ivan Aivazovsky, Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891)

Ivan Aivazovsky, Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891)

Deuteronomy 11

1 You shall love the LORD your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always. 2 Remember today that it was not your children (who have not known or seen the discipline of the LORD your God), but it is you who must acknowledge his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, 3 his signs and his deeds that he did in Egypt to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and to all his land; 4 what he did to the Egyptian army, to their horses and chariots, how he made the water of the Red Sea flow over them as they pursued you, so that the LORD has destroyed them to this day; 5 what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place; 6 and what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, how in the midst of all Israel the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households, their tents, and every living being in their company; 7 for it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the LORD did.

8 Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, 9 and so that you may live long in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. 11 But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, 12 a land that the LORD your God looks after. The eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

13 If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today– loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul–14 then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; 15 and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. 16 Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, 17 for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.

                18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

 22 If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, 23 then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves. 24 Every place on which you set foot shall be yours; your territory shall extend from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the Western Sea. 25 No one will be able to stand against you; the LORD your God will put the fear and dread of you on all the land on which you set foot, as he promised you.

                26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known. 29 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. 30 As you know, they are beyond the Jordan, some distance to the west, in the land of the Canaanites who live in the Arabah, opposite Gilgal, beside the oak of Moreh.

                31 When you cross the Jordan to go in to occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and when you occupy it and live in it, 32 you must diligently observe all the statutes and ordinances that I am setting before you today.

The author of the book of Deuteronomy approaches the same topics multiple times in similar ways over the first eleven chapters, and throughout the rest of the book. Because of this, on a topical level, there is not a lot of new material in this eleventh chapter, yet I also think it is important to consider the implied narrative that the book of Deuteronomy is set within. The book of Deuteronomy opens by telling us, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan.” And the book portrays itself as primarily an oral speech rather than a written text. For most people in a literate or even post-literate context (post literate coming from the assumption that most people now receive information more through digital images rather than written text) our attention span for a spoken text is fairly short, but this is written for an aural culture (aural-information is received through hearing) where the majority of the hearers are not literate. Speech in an aural culture is repetitive so that is can be remembered and just as the words are connected to concrete actions to enhance remembrance (binding the words upon the forehead and on the hands, writing them on doorposts as a visual reminder of the spoken word) the repetition of certain critical words and phrases should continue to enhance the memory of the speech event. Music does this all the time by repeating a chorus or using certain patterns to fit words within. So while Deuteronomy may be an unwieldy written text as an aural presentation its continual re-narrating of the story, emphasis on the commandments, statutes and ordinances laid down for the people to live by serve to enhance its effectiveness.

Figurine of a Semitic Slave, Acient Egyptian figurine, Hecht Museum

Figurine of a Semitic Slave, Acient Egyptian figurine, Hecht Museum

There strong contrast set throughout Deuteronomy, and particularly here in chapter eleven between the people of Israel and the land they are to enter and their former masters and land in Egypt. Part of the story of their people is their being exploited as slave in the nation of Egypt. Egypt is the first major power and they are able to be a successful people because of the waters of the Nile. Yet to provide for food in this hot and arid land it required the irrigation of crops and this is a very labor intensive process. The Israelite people were probably a part of the slave labor force that used foot pumps to pull water out of the Nile to irrigate the fields of the Egyptians and to pull from a hot and unforgiving environment by the exertion of human will a harvest each year. Yet the system in Egypt was dependent upon slave labor and provided great agriculture riches for the owners and the elite on the backs of the enslavement of others. The Israelites are not to have this type of economic relationship where their culture is dependent upon the enslavement of other people. They are also entering a land of milk and honey, a land of abundance. The availability of water is not dependent upon the exertion of human labor but instead is dependent upon the God of Israel who provides the rains in their season and allows the waters of the heavens to provide for the crops of the Promised Land. In this land of abundance they are called to be attentive to the commands of their God, for the eyes of the LORD are always on the land but also always watching them as a people in their obedience.

The obedience to the commandments and to the words spoken here are a matter of blessing and curse for both the people and the land. They do not have a great river like the Nile that they can utilize to irrigate in the drought years, instead they are dependent upon their God granting them rain at the appropriate time. Obedience, as continues to be stressed over and over in Deuteronomy, means blessing for the people and their children and their children’s children. Disobedience means the loss of prosperity and ultimately the loss of the land. The book of Deuteronomy constructs a world of sharp alternatives in a tightly ordered universe. It is a matter of life or death importance that the people of Israel hear again their story, remember who they are and remember their LORD, and then live out of the commandments, statutes and ordinances of their God. They are to be a people who live in justice, not taking advantage of the exploitable to form a new class of slaves. They have this story and these words read to them again and again to reinforce the imperatives that Moses is putting before them in speech. It is speech that is reinforced by not only the emblem on their foreheads or sign on their hands but by the sight of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal where blessing and curse symbolically reside.